[1:1]. «In my former book, Theophilus…».
At the beginning of his Gospel, Luke declares that he proposed to tell Theophilus «an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us», but the Gospel alone would have to say very little about the Church and we would not know where the risen Jesus ended up, while the unity made by the Gospel of Luke and Acts constitutes a sufficient basis for understanding the essential parts of the whole New Testament.
[1:2]. «Through the Holy Spirit».
Luke is particularly attentive to the Holy Spirit. He describes him as the main character at the beginning of the Gospel, naming him a dozen times in the first four chapters, but then it is as if the Spirit was hiding when Jesus begins his public work «in the power of the Spirit» (Luke 4:14), thus leaving the entire scene to Jesus himself. Acts begin with the reverse process, that is, with Jesus leaving the scene to the Holy Spirit, as we shall see.
[1:3]. «Appearing to them [the apostles] over a period of 40 days».
As the twelve sons of Jacob had been the forefathers of God’s people, so the twelve apostles shall constitute the central nucleus of the renewed people that is being prepared.
As Moses spent 40 days on Sinai in the presence of God (Exodus 24:18) to receive the Law, so the apostles spend 40 days with the risen Jesus on the Mount of Olives (v. 12), before beginning to teach the renewed Law: we say renewed and not new, but we’ll see the reasons for this later. Without this information from Luke, those “appearances” of the risen Jesus would remain undoubtedly demonstrative, but very fleeting; whereas the fact that the apostles and other disciples remained on the side-lines at the school of the Risen-One for 40 days, makes us better understand the inimitable uniqueness of the Twelve Apostles and their indisputable standing.
[1:4-5]. «He ordered them to wait for the baptism of «the Holy Spirit».
For Thomas it was a turning point to touch the risen Jesus (Jn 20:26-28) and certainly it would be for us as well. Yet the true turning point for the apostles occurred after the coming of the Holy Spirit upon them, and Jesus himself had commanded them not to begin public ministry before they had received «power» (1:8) with the Holy Spirit.
The apostles were not satisfied with the teachings given by Jesus in the three years they lived together, nor with those given in the 40 days of cohabitation after being resurrected. There is not a particular formula to receive the Holy Spirit, but only the expectation of those who recognise their own powerlessness.
[1:6]. «Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?».
Someone might comment: «After being with the Risen One for 40 days, the apostles were still so unspiritual that they kept on believing in a political kingdom of Israel!». As we have seen in Link No. 2, however, the apostles’ question is not as out of place as it might seem to us “modern” Christians. Jesus does not rebuke the apostles that they are waiting for such a kingdom; on the contrary, he confirms and validates that expectation (see below).
[1:7]. «It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority».
Jesus confirms that it is right to wait for the restoration of the kingdom of Israel and rebukes the apostles simply for their haste. This teaching of Acts was understood by most only after the effective re-establishment of a State of Israel in Jerusalem and in the Promised Land in 1948.
Others, to justify and perpetuate the error, stress how far the present state of Israel is from the Kingdom of God. It is true that the “glass” is almost empty, but this teaching of Acts convinces us that this glass will be increasingly filled, that is, it convinces us that there is an ongoing work of God in that State. We, therefore, trust that a believer should recognise it, also because it seems to us that there is an unequivocal sign: the great increase, within the State of Israel, of churches composed mainly of Jews who recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah.
[1:8]. «But you will receive power … and you will be my witnesses … to the ends of the earth».
After saying a “not” to the apostles, Jesus continues with a “but”: between the two parts, there seems to be, therefore, an evident relationship. The new reign of the “Son of David” was to resemble that of the ancient son of David, Solomon, whose reign had certain political boundaries, but an unlimited cultural and religious influence (1 Kings 4:34; 10:24; Acts 15:16-18). God’s power, however, would not be immediately manifested in a new political kingdom, but in extending the influence of God’s people throughout the world: only after preparing that universal foundation, would God have made the new kingdom of Israel re-emerge into the Promised Land, as the fulfilment of His blessings announced to Abraham (Gen 12:3) concerning both the people of Israel and the other nations.
The formation of a multitude of nations who worship the God of Israel, in short, seems to follow that of the people of Israel. Between Abraham and Joshua, and thus between the promise of the Land and its actual possession, nearly five centuries had elapsed; the great promises of God need a great amount of time to be fulfilled. A large nation first grew in Egypt, but without that political freedom that it obtained only after a long time. Thus God is preparing in every nation faithful people who have no political autonomy (the various nations’ Churches) in order to then make them reign politically when Jesus returns to sit on his glorious throne; then it will finally happen that the meek (not the wicked) will possess the Earth (Mt 5:5; 25:31-34; Rev 2:26-28; 21:1-3).
These words in Acts 1:8 are the last ones that Jesus uses to address the apostles and echo the so-called “Great Commission” to preach the Gospel to all nations (Mt 28:19). This new formulation, however, is no longer a command, but a certainty of what will happen: it is, therefore, the most evident mark of Luke’s story.
[1:9]. «he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight» (1:9).
Poor Peter! When he was on the Mount of Transfiguration, he wished to remain there forever (Mt 17:4). It was so nice with the risen Jesus that he remained fixed with his nose up, in the hope that the one who should not have had to leave would reappear. It seems almost a cruelty, but we must consider that Jesus asked the apostles the total sacrifice of themselves; it was then necessary for them to experience what they would find at the end of the journey, when they would have lived as RISEN WITH THE RISEN-ONE: it is with such certainty that they plunged into evangelism and struggle, with that determination and effectiveness that we will see.
[1:11]. «This Jesus … will come back in the same way».
Often one imagines a generic return of Jesus “to the earth”, but if he comes back «in the same way» and announced to those in Jerusalem that sooner or later they would see him again («you will not see me again until», Luke 13:35), then Jesus will not return generically “to the earth” but he has already chosen a specific place, and it is not surprising that it is Jerusalem, the city over which he wept (Luke 19:41).
Jesus had already hinted at his departure and subsequent return as a king in the “parable of the mines” (Luke 19:12-27), where “a noble man” went far “to receive the investiture of a kingdom”: circumstances well understood by the audience of that land, since, when someone was appointed king, he would go to Rome to receive the investiture from the emperor. The parable goes on to say that “his fellow citizens hated him” and then they tried to prevent him becoming king, but they couldn’t. “The noble man”, thus, having returned to the place he had left possessing king’s authority, began to evaluate the work of his servants, while his enemies were eliminated.
The “going up to heaven” of the Messiah in order to receive the royal investiture had already been announced by Daniel (7:13-14), in a prophecy which Jesus himself recalls (Mt 24:30; 26:64). Daniel had called him the “son of man”, not surprisingly a way much loved by Jesus to refer to himself (for example, Mt 8:20: 12:8,32,40).
This return «in the same way» contrasts with the idea that in returning Jesus stops mid-air calling the Church to himself and then bringing her to heaven, as some infer from 1 Thessalonians 4:17. It is instead in agreement with the idea that Jesus, after calling the Church to himself in the air, will be accompanied by his faithful to sit on his glorious throne and thus take possession of the kingdom (Mt 25:31).
For some, “in the same way” refers to the way in which Jesus will return, not to where he will return; even if the expression does not impose a return of Jesus on the Mount of Olives, it does not exclude it either; precisely, we believe it because Jerusalem remains central even in Revelation (11:1-13; 21:10-27). Significantly, it is how Zechariah announced an advent of the kingdom of God that will begin with the feet of the Lord standing right on the Mount of Olives, with all the nations going to Jerusalem for the feast of Tabernacles (Zech 14:4,9,16).
[1:12-15]. «Upstairs in the room …They all joined together…a group numbering about a hundred and twenty».
Luke places the Holy Spirit at the centre of Church’s history, but he also shows great attention to numerical data. He does it to the point that the Book of Acts can be considered a series of “verses” interspersed with the repetition of a “chorus” on the growth of the Church: we start with these first 120 disciples, which then become 3,000 (2:41), then 5,000 (4:4), then add others «in large numbers» (5:14), with sequential increase including «a large number of priests» (6:7), followed by a constant growth (9:31); even the new church made up of Gentiles, in Antioch, to which «a large number of people» had joined themselves (11:26), as the number of Greek-speaking churches founded by Paul «grew daily in numbers» (16:5); in Corinth the joining of «a large people» (18:10) is foretold by God; at the same time, the growth of churches made up of Jews who had adhered to the faith by «tens of thousands», continued (21:20): the translation “thousands” is imprecise, because the Greek has “myriads”, as the New Revised Version indicates in the footnote, the meaning of which is “tens of thousands”.
In the beginning 120, the presence of Mary is also reported, but then in the New Testament she will no longer be spoken of and this shows how her public role ends here: her task was to give a body to Jesus to then give it to the world. Having finished her task, she withdraws from the scene, as those who truly love the work of God more than their own appearance.
We will see that other people, after having played a very important role, will then be asked to take a step back (Peter, Barnabas), because at the centre of God’s work it is necessary that there is and remains God, not his instruments.
[1:16]. «The Scripture… which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through David».
The Holy Spirit, whom Luke clearly indicates as the Church’s guide, is therefore the same who inspired the prophets of the Old Testament (cf. 2 Peter 1:21) and who will then be poured out upon believers (2:17).
[1:17-23]. Twelve «witnesses of the resurrection of Jesus».
Matthias replaces Judas so that twelve witnesses of the public life of Jesus remain, particularly of his resurrection. The task of the Twelve is therefore delimited, as the subsequent unfolding of events will show and as we already see in this episode, in which the apostles direct the operations, but the choice is first made by the assembly and then, following the presentation of two candidates, the designation is assigned to lots (26).
If one reads the context of the Old Testament passages cited here, it is evident that the choice to replace Judas was not due to a precise prophecy contained there and to be put into practice, but once the opportunity to replace Judas was evaluated, a similar situation was sought in the Bible to be applied. It was a shared way of acting at that time and even today, usual readers of the Bible, often take a few verses that can indirectly guide them in their choices.
We preachers must, therefore, be careful not to deceive the less experienced, posing as “prophecies announced by the Old Testament” those that are simply applications. There are other similar cases in Acts, but we cannot delve into such a complex subject, so we will only mention them in Link No. 3 just below.
[1:24-26]. «You, Lord … show us which of these two you have chosen».
Since «the Lord Jesus» (21) was mentioned earlier, the following prayer to the “Lord” is to be considered addressed to Jesus. This is even clearer in Stephen’s subsequent prayer (7:59-60), which begins with «Lord Jesus, receive my spirit», and then continue with «Lord, do not hold this sin against them».
Link No. 3
THE MISUNDERSTANDING OF THE PROPHECIES ABOUT CHRIST
In the more traditional sense, “prophecy” signifies an event clearly announced beforehand and whose fulfilment can then be checked objectively. In this context, it can be said that the Old Testament contains no prophecy about Jesus the Messiah. In Judaism, however, the concept of prophecy is much broader and one can come to see that in a story there is the fulfilment of a prophecy simply because they have in common a word!
Since the Gospels tell about stories lived within Judaism, we then find written (specially in Matthew) that in Jesus many Old Testament prophecies have been fulfilled. However, when we go to evaluate those prophecies with our criterion of “rational objectivity”, then none of those prophecies can be considered as such.
Jesus did not like to cheat, hence he sought to be recognised as the Messiah not so much on the vague ground of prophecies, but on that of objectively observable facts. In fact, he said, « If I had not done among them the works no one else did, they would not be guilty of sin» (Jn 15:24; 10:37-38). To be brief, let us apply the above to two prophecies considered unequivocal: the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem and Isaiah 53.
It was clear to all that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem (Mt 2:3-6), but the prophecy did not indicate the day of his birth, nor the precise address; we find then the paradox of the prophecy analysers who had well understood the signals of the Word of God and hoped to see its fulfilment, but did not realise that the Messiah was born, while two people categories, which we could deem unsuitable, but who were open to receiving a particular revelation from God, noticed so: that is, the magi (or three-wise-men), who were priests-astrologers of the Persian religion, and shepherds, forced by their profession to a sort of social isolation and a lack of familiarity with Scripture reading (Mt 2:1-12; Luke 2:8-18). Herod himself believed in the prophecy’s fulfilment, but he could not benefit from it because he did not love it (Mt 2:3,16). As Jesus went to live far away from Bethlehem, that is in Nazareth (Mt 2:23), those who were against him argued that he could not be the Messiah, because «from Galilee there is no prophet» (Jn 7:41-52). In short, even when the interpretation of a prophecy is clear, it is not necessarily easy to apply it.
Reading chapter 53 of Isaiah makes a right impression: «one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised […] however […] he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities […] He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth;
he was led like a lamb to the slaughter […] though the Lord makes his life an offering for sin,
he will see his offspring and prolong his days […] After he has suffered, he will see the light of life and be satisfied». For US NOW the text is very clear, but before Christ it was not at all manifest that the “suffering servant” of Isaiah 53 was the same person as the “glorious king” announced in many other parts (e.g. in Psalm 2). Indeed, it was so difficult to think that it was the same person that even the apostles could not understand it, despite the fact that Jesus himself explained it to them three times (Luke 9:22; 9:44-45; 18:31-34).
The prophecies about Jesus became comprehensible to his disciples particularly after his resurrection (Luke 24:25-32).