LUKE-ACTS: THE CONTEXT
Luke was the author of two books—the Gospel of Luke (which tells the story of the life of Jesus) and the Acts of the Apostles (which tells the story of the early church). There is some overlap between the end of the Gospel and the beginning of Acts. For instance, both Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:9-11 tell the story of Jesus’ ascension. Also, in Acts 1:8, Jesus tells the apostles that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Luke 24:53 the apostles return to Jerusalem and the temple.
Chrysostom noted, “The Gospels…are a history of what Christ did and said; but the Acts, of what that ‘other Comforter’ [John 14:16 AV] said and did” (Homilies on Acts, quoted in Pelikan, 37).
We know that Luke was a physician (Colossians 4:14) and a traveling companion of Paul (2 Timothy 4:11; see also Acts 16:10-17; 20:5-21:18; 27:1-28:16, where the use of the word “we” appears to place Luke in the midst of Paul’s missionary journeys). We can deduce from Colossians 4:11, 14 that Luke is not one of the circumcision—that he is a Gentile.
ACTS 1:1-3. I WROTE ABOUT ALL THAT JESUS BEGAN TO DO AND TEACH
1The first book I wrote, Theophilus, concerned all that Jesus began both to do and to teach (Greek: poiein te kai didaskein—both did and taught), 2until the day in which he was received up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs (Greek: tekmerion), appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God’s Kingdom.
“The first book I wrote, Theophilus” (v. 1a). When Luke mentions “the first book,” he means the Gospel of Luke. That book is also dedicated to Theophilus, so that Theophilus “might know the certainty concerning the things in which you were instructed” (Luke 1:3-4). This suggests that Theophilus was a disciple, but we know almost nothing about him. His name means “God’s friend” or “God’s beloved” (theos means God and philos means friend or beloved). Luke called him “most excellent Theophilus” in Luke 1:3. “Most excellent” could refer to Theophilus’ station in life (as we would call a member of congress “The Honorable Jane Doe”)—or it might just reflect Luke’s opinion of Theophilus. We don’t know why Luke dedicated these books to Theophilus. Perhaps Theophilus supported Luke’s ministry financially.
“concerned all that Jesus began to do and to teach” (poiein te kai didaskein—both did and taught) (v. 1b). The combination of the Greek words te (both) and kai (and) places a strong emphasis on the twofold nature of Jesus’ ministry—binds Jesus’ doing and teaching with a “holy knot” (Calvin, quoted in Bock, 52). Luke wrote “all that Jesus did and taught in “the first book”—the Gospel of Luke.
The Greek says that Luke wrote about everything that Jesus began (erxato) to do and to teach. Jesus began the work, and it is the church’s job to continue it. The words “do and teach” summarize the two primary aspects of Jesus’ work.
“until the day in which he was received up” (v. 2a). Luke gave a detailed report of Jesus’ life, to include his death and resurrection. He concluded his Gospel with a brief account of the ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:51) and the apostles worshiping Jesus and returning to Jerusalem (Luke 24:52-53). He told the story of the Alpha and Omega Jesus (Revelation 1:8; 22:13) from beginning to end.
“after he had given commandment” (v. 2b). Jesus didn’t leave the apostles to figure it out on their own. He provided considerable instruction during his ministry with them—much of which remained somewhat a mystery to them until after the resurrection. However, once they had seen the risen Christ, much of what he had said came into focus for them.
“through the Holy Spirit” (v. 2b). The Holy Spirit is important to Luke. He uses that phrase 13 times in his Gospel and 40 times in the book of Acts. The Holy Spirit is the spirit of God—the empowering force that makes all things possible.
There is some ambiguity here. It would be possible to translate this verse in such a way that the Holy Spirit is connected to the process of choosing apostles rather than the process of instructing them.
But most translations connect the Holy Spirit to the teaching process rather than the choosing process. This would mean that Jesus’ teaching was empowered by the Holy Spirit, which descended on him during his baptism (Luke 3:22; see also Acts 10:38). It seems likely that this is Luke’s intention.
“to the apostles whom he had chosen” (v. 2d). The word apostle comes from the Greek word apostolos. It means “sent one” or “the one who is sent.” Jesus was sent by the Father (Mark 9:37), and he chose the apostles to be sent out to continue his work.
There were twelve apostles originally—corresponding to the twelve tribes of Israel—but Judas’ treachery and death required a replacement. The apostles will soon get together to choose a successor to Judas—to bring the number back to twelve. Peter will outline the qualifications. The new apostle must be someone who was with Jesus from the beginning—and must be a witness to the resurrection—meaning that the new apostle must have seen the risen Christ (Acts 1:21-22). The apostles will have two good candidates for the office of apostle, and God will help them to chose Matthias (Acts 1:26).
There will be additional apostles: Paul (Acts 9:1-9)—Barnabas (Acts 14:14)—James (Galatians 1:19)—and possibly Epaphroditus, whom Paul called an apostolon (Philippians 2:25).
“To these he also showed himself alive after he suffered, by many proofs (tekmerion), appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking about God’s Kingdom“ (v. 3). Luke records several resurrection appearances. Jesus appeared to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-32)—and to Peter (Luke 24:34)—and to the disciples (Luke 24:36-43). Jesus even ate a piece of broiled fish in the presence of the disciples (Luke 24:42-43). Other resurrection appearances are related in Matthew 28:18-20; John 20:21-22; 21:15-17; 1 Corinthians 15:5. It was important that the apostles be eyewitnesses to the resurrection so that they could bear witness to other people concerning the resurrection.
Kistemaker compiled a list of ten resurrection appearances (Kistemaker, 48):
1. The women at the tomb (Matt. 28:9-10)
2. Mary Magdalene (Mark 16:9-11; John 20:11-18)
3. Two men of Emmaus (Mark 16:12; Luke 24:13-32)
4. Peter in Jerusalem (Luke 24:34; I Cor. 15:5)
5. Ten disciples (Luke 24:36-43; John 20:19-23)
6. Eleven disciples (John 20:24-29; I Cor. 15:5)
7. Seven disciples fishing in Galilee (John 21:1-23)
8. Eleven disciples in Galilee (Matt. 28:16-20; Mark 16:14-18)
9. Five hundred persons (presumably in Galilee; I Cor. 15:6)
10. James, the brother of the Lord (I Cor. 15:7)
“by many proofs” (tekmerion) (v. 3b). This is the only place in the New Testament where we find this word tekmerion. In other Greek writings, it is used for the kind of clear-cut evidence that has the power to persuade people of a particular truth.
“appearing to them over a period of forty days” (v. 3c). This is the only place where a forty day period is specified for Jesus’ appearances to the apostles. The verb suggests that Jesus pays the apostles visits during a forty day period rather than that he spends forty unbroken days in their presence. We have no idea how frequent these visits were.
Forty, of course, is a number that appears frequently in both Old and New Testaments. The great flood lasted forty days and forty nights (Genesis 7:4). Israel wandered in the wilderness for forty years (Exodus 16:35). Moses remained on Mount Sinai for forty days while receiving the law (Exodus 24:18). Jesus was tempted in the wilderness for forty days (Luke 4:2).
The Day of Pentecost is fifty days after the Passover, so there are ten additional days to account for here. Three of those were the days that Jesus’ body lay in the tomb. The remainder would be the days that the disciples devoted themselves to prayer in the upper room following the ascension (Acts 1:12-14).
“and speaking about God’s Kingdom” (v. 3d). The idea of the Kingdom of God has its roots in the Old Testament, where God’s kingdom was considered to be the domain over which God ruled. God clearly ruled over the heavens—the spiritual domain—but faced demonic opposition on earth.
Israel understood Yahweh as having dominion over all (2 Chronicles 13:8; Psalm 103:19; 145:11-13; Isaiah 40:18-26; Jeremiah 10:7-16; Daniel 4:17; 5:21; 6:26-27), but saw that most nations worshiped other gods and failed to acknowledge Yahweh’s dominion. Therefore, Israel saw itself as Yahweh’s people and Yahweh’s kingdom on earth—and looked forward to the messiah, who would usher in a more perfect world in which Yahweh would truly reign over all.
When Jesus began his ministry, Israel was subservient to Rome, the dominant world power. Israel looked forward to the coming of the messiah, and expected him to deliver Israel from Roman rule and to establish Israel once again as a great nation and the Kingdom of God on earth. Jesus focused much of his teaching on a new understanding of the Kingdom of God as something that is near—is within us—and is yet to come.
The Gospel of Luke uses the phrase “Kingdom of God” 31 times (4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1, 10; 9:2, 11, 27, 60, 62; 10:9, 11; 11:20; 13:18, 20, 28-29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20-21; 18:16-17, 24-25, 29: 19:11; 21:31; 22:16, 18; 23:51). In most cases, they are Jesus’ words. In most of the other instances, Luke is reporting Jesus as “bringing the good news of the Kingdom of God” (Luke 8:1) or sending the disciples to proclaim the Kingdom of God (Luke 9:2).
In the book of Acts, the phrase “Kingdom of God” is used only six times—one of them being in this verse. In four of the other five instances, the disciples are proclaiming the Kingdom of God (8:12; 19:8; 28:23, 31). In the one remaining instance, Paul and Barnabas are encouraging the disciples to remain strong in the faith, saying, “through many afflictions we must enter into the Kingdom of God ” (14:22).
The Kingdom of God is obviously a major emphasis of Jesus’ teaching and of Luke’s account of the life of Jesus and the early church.
ACTS 1:4-5. WAIT FOR THE PROMISE OF THE FATHER
4Being assembled (Greek: sunalizomenos—gathering together or eating together)together with them, he commanded them, “Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which you heard from me. 5For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
“Being assembled (sunalizomenos—gathering together or eating together) together with them, he commanded them, ‘Don’t depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father'” (v. 4a). In verse 12, Luke will tell us that they have been at the mount called Olivet, near Jerusalem. In that verse, Luke reports them returning to Jerusalem.
Jesus orders them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for“the promise of the Father.” In Luke’s Gospel Jesus said,“Behold, I send forth the promise of my Father on you. But wait in the city of Jerusalem until you are clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). Luke now begins to reveal the nature of that promise. It is to “baptized in the Holy Spirit” (1:5) and to “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (1:8). The Holy Spirit will empower the witness of the apostles to Jesus.
Their waiting will not be idle. They will devote themselves to prayer (1:14) and will choose Matthias to take Judas’ place as an apostle (1:15-26).
“which you heard from me” (v. 4b). What they have heard from Jesus is that “the Holy Spirit will teach you…what you must say” (Luke 12:12; see also 24:49). They have also heard that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (v. 5).
“For John indeed baptized in water, but you will be baptized in the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (v. 5). John was a great prophet, but he announced that his role was to prepare for the one who was greater than he (Luke 3:4, 16). John’s baptism was important—so important that Jesus submitted to John’s baptism (Luke 3:21-22)—but John baptized only with water. These disciples will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. That, of course, will happen on the Day of Pentecost in Jerusalem when the disciples will be filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to preach in many languages (Acts 2:4).
ACTS 1:6-8. YOU WILL RECEIVE POWER
6Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority. 8But you will receive power (Greek: dunamin – the word from which we get our word dynamite) when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. You will be witnesses(Greek: martures) to me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.”
“Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, are you now restoring the kingdom to Israel?'” (v. 6). Jesus raised the issue of the Kingdom of God in verse 3, so it is natural that the apostles would ask about the kingdom of Israel, which they equate with the Kingdom of God. When Jesus appeared to Cleopas and the other disciple on the road to Emmaus (and before they recognized him), Cleopas said, “But we were hoping that it was he who would redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21). The redemption of Israel is a major concern of Jesus’ disciples.
The apostles’ understanding of the Kingdom of God was inextricably linked with the nation Israel. They believed that God would restore Israel to its earlier position of power and prestige, and they equated that restoration with the Kingdom of God about which Jesus was teaching. Jesus’ promise that the apostles would receive the gift of the Holy Spirit (v. 5) sounded to them like the beginning of that restoration—the open door through which the kingdom would come. While misguided, the apostles’ question is quite natural.
“It isn’t for you to know times or seasons which the Father has set within his own authority” (v. 7). Earlier, Jesus had said of the coming of the kingdom,“But of that day or that hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). The Gospel of Luke said: “So be careful, or your hearts will be loaded down with carousing, drunkenness, and cares of this life, and that day will come on you suddenly. For it will come like a snare on all those who dwell on the surface of all the earth. Therefore be watchful all the time, praying that you may be counted worthy to escape all these things that will happen, and to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36). It is no wonder that the apostles are concerned that the day is imminent.
Jesus does not tell them that Israel will not be restored. Instead, he tells them that the “times or seasons” are God’s business—not theirs. As the keepers of classified documents would say today, “You have no need to know.” Jesus doesn’t want the apostles to be distracted by “times or seasons” when they have more urgent business to take care of. He wants to redirect their attention from things that they don’t need to know to things that they do need to do.
But Peter seems to have understood more than we would have expected. Very shortly, he will talk about Jesus remaining in heaven “until the times of restoration of all things, which God spoke long ago by the mouth of his holy prophets” (3:21).
“But you will receive power (dunamin – the word from which we get our word dynamite) when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (v. 8a). The apostles had asked about the restoration of Israel’s political power (v. 6). Jesus tells them that they will receive a different kind of power—God’s power—conveyed to them by the agency of the Holy Spirit—God’s spirit at work in the world and in their lives. It was this same Holy Spirit that Jesus received at his baptism (Luke 3:21-22)—and it was this same Holy Spirit that empowered his earthly ministry. Now this Holy Spirit will empower his apostles at Pentecost (and billions of believers after Pentecost) to accomplish what Jesus wants them to do—to bear witness to him (v. 8b).
“You will be witnesses” (Greek: martures—the word from which we get our word martyr) (v. 8b). This theme of witness will be continued throughout the book of Acts (1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 22:15, 20; 23:11). The requirement for the person who will replace Judas as an apostle will be that he be a witness to the resurrection—that he has seen the risen Christ (1:22). How else could he bear witness to others concerning the resurrected Christ?
In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter will make the point that all of the apostles are witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (2:32). When confronted by the high priest, who complained that the apostles “intend to bring this man’s blood on us,” (5:28), Peter will recount the death and resurrection of Jesus, saying, “We are His witnesses of these things; and so also is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him” (5:32).
When Peter preaches to the centurion Cornelius, he will say, “We are witnesses of everything he (Jesus) did both in the country of the Jews, and in Jerusalem; whom they also killed, hanging him on a tree. God raised him up the third day, and gave him to be revealed, not to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen before by God, to us, who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead” (10:39-41).
“in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth” (v. 8c). The witness of the apostles (and later disciples) will not be limited to Jerusalem or Israel, but will spread “to the uttermost parts of the earth”.
• Jerusalem, of course, is the Holy City—the home of the temple—the center of Jewish religious life.
• Judea is the territory or region in which Jerusalem is located.
• Samaria is the territory just to the north of Judea. Hearing that they will be witnesses to Samaria would be a surprise. The people of Judea and Galilee consider themselves to be the people of God, but they regard the Samaritans as apostates.
• “the uttermost parts of the earth” is the next surprise. While many Jewish people are living in dispersion in various nations, the Jewish people think of other nations and the Gentiles who inhabit those nations as a lower form of life. They know that God has chosen Israel to be his people, but they tend to forget that God has also made provision for Gentiles:
• In the covenant that he established with Abram, God promised, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you. All of the families of the earth will be blessed in you” (Genesis 12:3).
• The prophet Isaiah promised that “Yahweh of Armies will make all peoples a feast of fat things, a feast of choice wines, of fat things full of marrow, of well refined choice wines” (Isaiah 25:6), and “will wipe away tears from off all faces” (Isaiah 25:8).
• He says that God’s servant “will bring justice to the nations” (Isaiah 42:1) and will be “a light for the nations” (Isaiah 42:6).
• He says that God’s holy mountain “shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Now the apostles will begin the work that will lead to the spread of the Gospel to all nations.
Scholars have noted that this verse serves as an outline for the rest of the book of Acts. The disciples will minister to Jerusalem in chapters 1-7—and then in Judea and Samaria in chapters 8-12—and finally to the ends of the earth (insofar as they understood the earth) in chapters 13-28.
So the apostles will start where they are (Jerusalem) and will gradually spread the Gospel in wider and wider circles until the whole world is encompassed. That is an excellent model for the church to follow today.
ACTS 1:9-11. AS THEY WERE LOOKING, JESUS WAS TAKEN UP
9When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white clothing, 11who also said, “You men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky.”
“When he had said these things, as they were looking, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight” (v. 9). In his Gospel, Luke gave a brief account of the ascension (Luke 24:51). In that account, the ascension appears to have taken place on Easter Day at Bethany. Now we have a somewhat expanded account, which includes the witness of the angels (vv. 10-11). This account takes place forty days after Easter, and the location is the Mount of Olives (1:12).
None of the other Gospels include an explicit account of the ascension—although Jesus alludes to it in the Gospel of John (John 6:62; 20:17)—and the appendix to Mark’s Gospel, which most scholars consider to have been added later, says, “So then the Lord, after he had spoken to them, was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).
Jesus’ ascension returns him to the heavenly throne at the right hand of God from whence he came to earth (John 1:14; Philippians 2:5-8). He will remain there until he comes again in glory (Acts 1:11)—a cataclysmic event that will come suddenly and without warning (2 Peter 3:10). In heaven, he intercedes for us with the Father (Romans 8:34). When he comes again, he will “appear a second time, without sin, to those who are eagerly waiting for him for salvation” (Hebrews 9:28).
Jesus’ ascension, of course, brings to an end the resurrection appearances.
The church today celebrates Ascension forty days after Easter (the forty days include both Easter Sunday and Ascension Thursday).
“While they were looking steadfastly into the sky as he went” (v. 10a). The next part of the story begins while the ascension is still in progress.
“behold, two men stood by them in white clothing” (v. 10b). In Luke’s account of the resurrection, “two men stood by them in dazzling clothing” appeared to the women who had come on Easter Sunday to anoint Jesus’ body (Luke 24:4). In Mark’s account, it was “a young man” (Mark 16:5), but both of the other Gospels identify the beings at the resurrection as angels (Matthew 28:2; John 20:12). In any event, it is obvious that Luke intends us to understand these “two men” to be angelic messengers.
Two is the minimum number required for witnesses by Jewish law (Deuteronomy 19:15), so that might be the significance of two men/angels instead of one.
“You men of Galilee” (v. 11a). Judea, the home of Jerusalem and the temple, was the center of Jewish religious life. Galilee was the “sticks”—the hinterland—a distant territory debased by the presence of many Gentiles. Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, but was raised in Nazareth of Galilee. As a man, he made his home in Capernaum of Galilee (Matthew 4:13). It was in Galilee that he called his disciples, and it was in Galilee that he conducted most of his ministry. It was in Judea that he encountered his most significant opposition, and it was in Judea that he was crucified. Of course, it was also in Judea where he was resurrected, and it will be in Judea where the apostles will begin their ministry on the Day of Pentecost.
It was “the women who followed with him (Jesus) from Galilee” who witnessed the crucifixion (Luke 23:49), and it was “the women who followed with him from Galilee” who “saw the tomb, and how his (Jesus’) body was laid” (Luke 23:55). It was these same women of Galilee who went to the tomb to anoint Jesus on Easter Sunday and thereby became the first to know of Jesus’ resurrection (Luke 24:1-12). Now it is the “men of Galilee” who witness the ascension and who will carry on Jesus’ ministry.
“why do you stand looking into the sky?” (v. 11b). This is the third time in verses 9-11 where Luke tells us that these apostles were looking toward heaven. His repetition reinforces the fact that these apostles are witnesses, not only to the resurrected Christ, but also to his ascension.
“This Jesus, who was received up from you into the sky will come back in the same way as you saw him going into the sky” (v. 11c). These angelic messengers bring the promise that the Jesus whom they witnessed ascending into the heavens will return to earth “in the same way as you saw him going into the sky.” They don’t indicate when this will happen, but these apostles have a job to do in the meantime. Jesus has already given them their marching orders (1:8)—and they will soon begin the process of carrying out those orders (Acts 2).
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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Copyright 2008, 2010, Richard Niell Donovan