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The preparation of the apostles and the Ascent of the Lord (1.1-26)
The preparation of the apostles and the Ascent of the Lord (1.1-26)
While the Gospels record the beginning of the Lord Jesus’ great work of salvation on earth (Heb 2.3), Acts records its continuation from heaven, through His apostles, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Redemption was gloriously accomplished when Christ cried ‘finished’ (Jn 19.30), but the risen Lord is presently engaged in the ongoing work of applying that redemption: sinners are still being saved, and saints sustained (Heb 7.25).
Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts to reinforce his friend, Theophilus, in essential Christian doctrine. Theophilus was probably an official in the Roman empire because, like Felix (23.26) and Festus (26.25), he is introduced as ’most excellent’ (Lk 1.3). The gospel is needed by, offered to, and sufficient for all levels in society (1 Tim 2.1-4). Theophilus’ name means, ’friend of God’, a relationship the Lord encouraged: ’ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you’ (Jn 15.14).
The apostles entered the 40-day period between the resurrection and the ascension sad that their hopes for a national deliverer had been dashed (Lk 24.27,21), and sceptical of the initial resurrection reports (Lk 24.11). Peter was surprised to find the empty tomb, and the two whom the Lord spoke to on the road to Emmaus were slow to believe the scriptures which foretold Messiah’s suffering (Lk 24.25). But not long into that 40-day period they became convinced He had risen. To accomplish this vital transformation the risen Lord used ’many sure proofs’ (1.3, Weymouth), consisting of showing Himself alive, not to one person alone - leaving no possible corroboration - but to twelve official witnesses (a number frequently associated with the size of a jury), and to many unofficial witnesses (1 Cor 15.6).
On these occasions a wide range of spoken interactions occurred between the risen Lord and the twelve. There was exposition, for the Lord spoke (legō, to lay together, i.e., to collect[i]) ’of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God’ (1.3). This included laying out the scriptural expectation of the resurrection (Lk 24.25-27), which put it on a ’more sure’ footing than eyewitness testimony (2 Pet 1.19)! Further, there was the opportunity for a question: ’Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?’ (1.6). Significantly, the Lord did not seek to correct their expectation of a restored Israel at the centre of the kingdom of God - He simply affirmed the sovereignty of the Father as to the timing of its inauguration. Jerusalem will yet be the centre around which affairs on earth will revolve during Christ’s millennial kingdom, as anticipated by prophets such as Isaiah (Is 2.1-5). The Lord’s response, with familiar grace (cf. His reply to Zebedee’s mother, Mt 20.20-23), moved them on from something not for them to an instruction that was for them: ’but…ye shall be witnesses unto me’ (1.8). These were His final words prior to leaving this earth and, as such, clearly signal the priority of witnessing. The Holy Spirit unmistakably supplies the essential power for witnessing: ‘ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you’ (1.8). This was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost (ch. 2) when the Holy Spirit descended to indwell believers, and to form the body of Christ. By contrast, today the Spirit indwells the believer and adds them to the body of Christ at the moment of faith (Eph 1.13; 1 Cor 12.13). The Lord’s plan for witnessing provides a table of contents for the book of Acts (1.8). The witness began in Jerusalem (ch. 1-7), spread to Judea and Samaria (ch. 8-12), and then to the uttermost part of the earth (ch. 13-28). A biblical approach to witnessing is therefore to start where we are and radiate outwards. Paul said to the Thessalonians: ’from you sounded out the word of the Lord’ (1 Thess 1.8). Pause now to mark the change the Lord brought about in the twelve - the reality of the resurrection is no longer a question to them!
The climax of the 40-day period was the witnessed ascension of the Lord into heaven. This provided a vindication of Christ’s words, for John records at least seven occasions when the Lord alluded to leaving the world to return to the Father (Jn 14.12, 28; 16.5, 10, 16, 28; 17.11). At the tomb the angel’s message was, ’He is not here, but is risen: remember how He spake unto you when He was yet in Galilee?’ (Lk 24.6). When Christ says something will happen, we may depend on it!
The ascension was a gracious provision for the disciples. For the short period of time He dwelt among them, they had the unique experience of hearing, seeing, and handling the Son of God (1 Jn 1.1). But He did not leave them abruptly or without explanation. Instead, His gradual ascent into heaven, in their full view, gently moved them on from walking by sight to walking by faith (2 Cor 5.7).
The ascension was a step in Christ’s glorious exaltation. He was ‘taken up’ (1.2, 11, 22; 1 Tim 3.16), indicating it was an honour done to Him by another. The direction He moved signalled His destination, as the repetition of the word ’heaven’ four times in vv10, 11 emphasises. Long before the events of chapter 1, Isaiah wrote of the suffering servant of Jehovah using three terms expressing promotion: ’He shall be exalted and be lifted up, and be very high’ (Isa 52.13, JND). The resurrection, ascension, and seating in glory of Christ answer well to Isaiah’s prophecy, with each step, as it were, a further expression of the Father’s delight in the work of His Son (2.33; Phil 2.8-9 ).
The ascension informs our blessed expectation, for the angelic affirmation was, ’this same Jesus…shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go’ (1.11). Christ’s second coming to earth will be personal; He will not send a deputy, but descend Himself, first to the air for the church (1 Thess 4.16), then, after the events of the tribulation, to the earth. It will be physical, for He left from the mount of Olives in a body (1.12), and at His return, ’His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives’ – with earth-splitting consequences (Zech 14.4)! His return will be visible; not to a small gathering as at His ascension, but by ’all tribes of the earth’ (Mt 24.30), and by ’every eye’ (Rev 1.7). May we live soberly, righteously, godly, in this present world; looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ (Tit 2.12,13).
Supplication (vv13, 14)
The apostles spent the waiting time in Jerusalem in prayer, illustrating how best to ‘wait on the Lord’ (Is 40.31). Their prayer meeting had full participation, for ’they all continued in prayer’ (1.14). Significantly, Mary the mother of Jesus was there (1.14). Despite her privileged role in the incarnation, her way of access to God was the same as every other believer. The Lord’s brethren were there (1.14), indicating that they had been converted between the feast of tabernacles (Jn 7.5) and the resurrection. In addition to the male apostles, the women were there (1.14). Audible prayer in the gatherings of the church is specifically committed to the males (1 Tim 2.8), but if our prayer meetings are like this one and all pray, then the women’s inaudible contributions have an intrinsically precious quality, for God alone can measure them. Given the current agenda to confuse the divinely assigned distinction between male and female (Gen 1.27, Mt 19.4), may we appreciate afresh the simple opportunities God has given us in His house, ’the pillar and ground of the truth’ (1 Tim 3.15), to mark His glory as the Creator of all things, including the two genders, each distinct in function but equal in value.
Their prayer meeting had united participation, for they prayed ‘with one accord’ (1.14). It is possible to have a wicked unity of purpose, such as the mob who came together to stone Stephen (7.57), but godly harmony is good and pleasant (Ps 133.1), and worth prayerfully cultivating (Rom 15.5-6).
Their prayer meeting had purposeful participation, for at it they made ’supplication’ (1.14). It is good before prayer to consider Ahasuerus’ question to Esther: ’what is thy request’ (Esther 5.3). James gives at least three mistakes to avoid in prayer: swithering as to the goodness of God – ’ask in faith, nothing wavering’ (Jas 1.5-8); silence - ’ye have not because ye ask not’ (Jas 4.2); and selfishness – ’ye ask, and receive not, because ye ask amiss, that ye may consume it upon your lusts’ (Jas 4.3). May our prayer meetings be characterised by full, united, and purposeful participation, and by prayers that are expressed with confidence in God’s goodness, and submission to His will.
Judas was one of Christ’s twelve disciples, a missionary who preached to Israel, a miracle worker, the money handler for the twelve – yet he was not a genuine believer. Little wonder Paul urged the Corinthians, ‘Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith’ (2 Cor 13.5). Far better to recheck the foundations now than to discover that we don’t know Christ as Saviour when it is forever too late. God used Peter, a restored backslider, to oversee the choice of Judas’ replacement. Recovery to useful service is possible for the believer who stumbles, but those who decisively reject the Lord, like Judas, can only be removed.
The selection was approached prayerfully for it was out of the atmosphere of prayer that Peter received clarity on how to deal with the situation created by Judas’ betrayal (v12-14). As the proverb advises, ’commit thy works unto the LORD, and thy thoughts shall be established’ (Pr 16.3). The Lord prayed before He chose the 12 (Lk 6.12), and the apostles prayed before they chose a replacement for Judas (v24). Let us pray, then, before making significant decisions.
The selection was approached scripturally, for Peter realised Psalm 69.25 applied to the situation, which goes beyond its author David, and anticipates the demise of all those who set themselves against the Messiah. He also quoted from Psalm 109.8, which references the swift removal and replacement of Messiah’s treacherous enemy. Peter’s total confidence in the infallibility of the word of God is demonstrated by his statement, ’this scripture must needs have been fulfilled’ (1.16). What scripture says will happen must happen; and the reason is their inspiration: ’the Holy Spirit by the mouth of David spake’ (1.16). God has made Himself known by putting His words in men’s mouths (or pens), under the direction of His Spirit. The Holy Spirit selected the very words, not simply the ideas. Accordingly, Paul established a doctrine on the distinction between a singular and a plural (Gal 3.16), and the Lord stated that the smallest letter of the law, or even part of a letter, would not go unfulfilled (Mt 5.18). Let us have confidence, therefore, in ’every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God’ (Mt 4.4).
Finally, the selection was approached submissively. Joseph and Matthias had been identified as the two most qualified candidates, each having the correct length of acquaintance with Christ, and each having witnessed the resurrection (v21,22, Jn 15.27). When the apostles had no further revelation to inform a decision between the two, they used the method of casting lots to finally select Matthias. This method was undertaken prayerfully, and in consciousness of the sovereignty of God over even the smallest event on earth (Pr 16.33). A guiding principle emerges: proceed as far as possible based on what God has revealed in His word; when we reach a crossroad between equally valid options, make a reverent decision, confident in the Lord’s sovereign overruling.
[i] Zodhiates S. The Complete Word Study Dictionary (AMG International, Inc., 1992), accessed via e-Sword.