Acts 1:15-7, 21-26
LUKE-ACTS. THE CONTEXT
Judas has plotted against Jesus with the chief priests and the scribes (Luke 22:1-6) and has betrayed Jesus (Luke 22:47-53). Jesus has been crucified (by the Romans at the instigation of the chief priests and scribes) and has been resurrected (by God). Jesus has ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:6-11). He has commanded the apostles “Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father” (1:4), and the apostles have complied (1:12). They have gone to an upstairs room (1:13), where they have constantly devoted themselves to prayer (1:14). “The women,” including Jesus’ mother, have gathered with them.
ACTS 1:15-17. IT WAS NECESSARY
15In these days, Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples (Greek: adelphon—brothers) (and the number of names was about one hundred twenty), and said, 16Brothers, it was necessary that this Scripture should be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was guide to those who took Jesus. 17For he was numbered with us, and received his portion in this ministry.“
“In these days, Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples” (adelphon—brothers) (v. 15a). Peter has been the spokesman for the apostles throughout the Gospel of Luke and he continues that role now. He will serve in that leadership role through his report to the church in Jerusalem (11:1-18). Thereafter, we will hear of him again only in the story of his imprisonment and miraculous release in 12:6-18 and his report to the church council in 15:7-11. After the commissioning of Barnabas and Saul (Paul) in 13:1-3, Paul will move to the forefront and will remain there throughout the rest of the book.
“and the number of names was about one hundred twenty” (v. 15b). In verses 13-14, Luke listed the eleven apostles by name and said that certain women (including Jesus’ mother) and Jesus’ brothers “continued steadfastly in prayer and supplication”.
Now the group numbers 120. The apostles and women are almost certainly part of this group. We don’t know the identity of the others, but the number tells us that the band of believers is growing. Paul says that Jesus “appeared to over five hundred brothers at once” (1 Corinthians 15:6). We don’t know the identity of those people either—nor when that resurrection appearance took place. It seems likely that some of those 500 are among the 120 gathered here now.
“Brothers, it was necessary that this Scripture should be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who was guide to those who took Jesus” (v. 16). Peter’s purpose in addressing the disciples is to explain Judas’ treachery and death and to encourage the disciples to choose a replacement for Judas.
When Peter mentions “the Holy Spirit spoke before by the mouth of David,” he is pointing to the Psalms, which were considered to have been written by David. In verse 20, Peter will quote verses that say, “Let their habitation be desolate” (Psalm 69:25) and “Let another take his office” (Psalm 109:8).
Fulfillment of scripture was important in that Jewish context:
• Matthew 27:9-10 says, “Then that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled.” This is really based on Zechariah 11:13 rather than Jeremiah, “but (Jeremiah) is probably suggested by Jeremiah’s purchase of land (Jer 32:6-15) and visit to the potter (Jer 18:1-3; 19:1-13)” (Attridge, 1717).
• In John 13:18, Jesus quotes Psalm 41:9 in speaking of the betrayal, “But that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats bread with me has lifted up his heel against me.'”
• In John 17:12, Jesus said, “None of them is lost, except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled”.
This raises an issue. When the scriptures say that Judas’ betrayal was the fulfillment of scripture, does that mean that the scriptures were predicting in advance an event that would take place at a later time, or does it mean that Judas was being controlled by a script that God had determined in advance for his life? In other words, did Judas have the option of not betraying Jesus? In my view, if Judas was being controlled by a script over which he had no control, then he was not guilty for his actions. However, the New Testament makes it clear that he was guilty. Therefore, he could not have been simply following a script over which he had no control, but was instead acting in accord with his own free will. But some might disagree.
“For he was numbered with us, and received his portion in this ministry” (v. 17). It was Judas who was numbered among the apostles. It was Judas who was privileged to share in the apostolic ministry.
ACTS 1:18-20. JUDAS’ DEATH
These verses are not included in the lectionary reading. They give a graphic description of Judas’ gruesome death. The quotation in verse 20 combines material from Psalm 69:25 and 109:8, which Luke interprets as a judgment on Judas.
Matthew presents a somewhat different picture of Judas’ last moments (Matthew 27:3-10). He tells of Judas repenting and trying to return his ill-gotten pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders. When they declined the money, Judas threw it on the ground and went out and hanged himself. The chief priests and elders then used this “blood money” to purchase a potter’s field to use as a burial ground for foreigners (which Matthew interprets as a fulfillment of a prophecy by Jeremiah).
ACTS 1:21-26. A WITNESS WITH US OF HIS RESURRECTION
21“Of the men therefore who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us, of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” 23They put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24They prayed, and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen 25to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place.” 26They drew lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
“Of the men therefore who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, to the day that he was received up from us” (v. 21-22a). Peter establishes the essential criteria for the person who will replace Judas as an apostle. He must have been an active disciple from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry (his baptism) to the end (his ascension).
Later, there will be additional apostles who appear not meet both of these criteria:
• Paul did not accompany Jesus during Jesus’ life on earth, but he did see the risen Christ in a vision on the road to Damascus (9:1-9).
• Luke will later refer to “the apostles, Barnabas and Paul” (14:14), so apparently Barnabas later becomes an apostle. We first met Barnabas on the pages of Acts rather than the Gospel of Luke. Luke does not tell us whether Barnabas accompanied Jesus from Jesus’ baptism onward—or whether he saw the risen Christ.
• Paul will refer to “James, the Lord’s brother,” as an apostle (Galatians 1:19), but Jesus’ brothers seem not to have believed in him until after the resurrection (see John 7:5).
• Later, Paul will refer to Epaphroditus as an apostolon (Philippians 2:25)—many Bibles translate that as “messenger.” Was Epaphroditus an apostle? If so, did he accompany Jesus from his baptism to the ascension? Did he see the risen Christ?
“of these one must become a witness with us of his resurrection” (v. 22b). The new apostle must serve with the other apostles as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection which, rather than Jesus’ ministry or crucifixion, will be the focus of the church’s ministry (Gaventa, 72).
If the new apostle was with Jesus from his baptism through his ascension, then he would have seen the risen Lord—an implied second criterion for this selection process. As someone who has seen the risen Lord, he will be equipped to serve as a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. A witness, after all, must be someone who has personally experienced the thing about which he or she bears witness.
“They put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias” (v. 23). It is not clear who proposes two candidates. Is it the eleven apostles or the assembly of 120 disciples? Whichever, they agree that there are two good candidates for consideration. The first is Joseph, also known as Barsabbas (which means “son of the Sabbath”)—also known as Justus. The second is Matthias. We have not heard of either of these men prior to this, and we will hear nothing further about them in scripture. Tradition says that Joseph was later required to drink poison, but it didn’t harm him. Tradition says that Matthias served as a missionary to Ethiopia. However, we cannot verify either of these traditions.
“They prayed” (v. 24a). In verse 26, they will cast lots, but only after doing their best to choose worthy candidates and praying for God’s help. William Booth said, “Work as if everything depended upon your work and pray as if everything depended upon your prayer.” Good advice! That is what these Christians are doing here.
“You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two you have chosen to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place” (v. 24b-25). This is their prayer. First, they acknowledge that they do not know everyone’s heart. Then they ask the one who does know everyone’s heart to show them “which one of these two you have chosen”. They are not asking God to help them make the decision. They are asking God to make the decision and to reveal his choice to them.
“to take part in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas fell away, that he might go to his own place” (v. 25). Judas vacated his apostleship before his death—when he “fell away, that he might go to his own place”. Luke has told us about that place—the Field of Blood where Judas fell headlong and burst open so that all his bowels gushed out (1:18-19). But “his own place” also suggests hell.
“They drew lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias” (v. 26a). Casting lots was a common practice throughout the ancient world, including Israel (Leviticus 16:8; Numbers 33:54; Joshua 14:2; 1 Samuel 10:20-21; 1 Chronicles 24:5-19; Esther 3:7; Psalm 22:18; Proverbs 16:33; Ezekiel 21:21). Casting lots was a process of divination by which participants sought God’s guidance with regard to important decisions or problems. Participants would throw pebbles or other small objects and interpret the results to learn God’s will. While the process might look something like the modern practice of throwing dice, it was quite different in that it looked to God rather than chance for help.
In this case, the lot falls on Matthias. This means that God has chosen Mathias to fill the position of apostle which was vacated by Judas.
“and he was numbered with the eleven apostles” (v. 26b). Bruner says, “The number ‘eleven’ limps” (Bruner, 1090). I like that. We expect to see “twelve apostles,” and we find ourselves stumbling momentarily when we see “eleven apostles.” Eleven in this instance trumpets incompleteness—like a musical piece that is cut short one bar before the end. When that happens with a musical piece, we rush to complete it, either in our own minds or, perhaps, even by humming or whistling the last measure. We can’t bear to allow the incompleteness to stand.
And so it is here. The first Christians couldn’t tolerate the number eleven for long. Jesus had said, “Most certainly I tell you that you who have followed me, in the regeneration when the Son of Man will sit on the throne of his glory, you also will sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matthew 19:28; Luke 22:30). There was an obvious parallel between the twelve tribes of Israel and the twelve apostles, who formed the leadership for the new people of God. The number twelve had to be restored. The addition of Matthias to the apostleship accomplished that. We don’t know what else Matthias did, but he at least restored the apostolate to its correct number.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Barclay, William, Daily Study Bible: Acts, (Edinburgh: The Saint Andrew Press, 1976)
Bock, Darrell L., Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007)
Bruce, F. F., The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The Book of Acts (Revised)(Grand Rapids: William B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1988)
Brueggemann, Walter; Cousar, Charles B.; Gaventa, Beverly R.; and Newsome, James D., Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV—Year A (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995)
Bruner, Frederick Dale, Matthew: Volume 2, The Churchbook, Matthew 13-28 (Dallas: Word, 1990)
Chance, J. Bradley, The Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary: Acts (Macon, Georgia: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, Inc., 2007)
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Gaventa, Beverly Roberts, Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: The Acts of the Apostles (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003)
Henrich, Sarah, in Van Harn, Roger (ed.), The Lectionary Commentary: Theological Exegesis for Sunday’s Text. The First Readings: The Old Testament and Acts (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2001)
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Polhill, John B., New American Commentary: Acts, Vol. 26 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1992)
Wall, Robert W., The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts, Romans, I Corinthians, Vol. X (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Walaskay, Paul W., Westminster Bible Companion: Acts (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1998)
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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan