The Formation of the Church & the Apostles’ Preaching to Israel
Acts 1 – 7
Acts 1 – 7
Acts 1 – 7. The first seven chapters of Acts are of an especially transitional character. It can be hard for us in the twenty-first century to understand the position of the believers in the first century. These were Jews who believed that Jesus was the Messiah, and that He had died and risen from among the dead. They were expecting the restoration of Israel, and knew nothing of the church, or the interposed heavenly calling, except a few of the Lord’s words on the subject (Matt. 16 & 18). The church was formed by the descent of the Holy Spirit to indwell believers in Acts 2, but the truth of what the church is was not explained at that time. There was another matter that would come first; the preaching of Christ to the nation of Israel, accompanied by signs and wonders through the Spirit of God.
A Provisional Offer to Israel. The sending of the Messiah, God’s Son, was the final test God had for the nation of Israel. We see this in the parable of the husbandmen in Matthew 21, and Mark 12. “Having yet therefore one beloved son, he sent also him to them the last, saying, They will have respect for my son. But those husbandmen said to one another, This is the heir: come, let us kill him and the inheritance will be ours.” The nation of Israel is guilty of the death of Christ, inasmuch as they called for His crucifixion, uttering the solemn vow, “His blood be on us and on our children” (Matt. 27:25). Note that this guilt is in a national sense, not individually. In the law we find that a woman’s vow could be annulled by her father or husband if he heard it on the day she said it (Num.30:5, 8, 12). The Lord Jesus did just that for Israel! In grace, after being lifted up on the cross, Jesus “made intercession for the transgressors” (Isa. 53:12) when He cried “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”. He sealed the sin of the crucifixion as a sin of ignorance (the ignorance of unbelief), and on that basis God could give an extension of grace to Israel after the cross, which we read of in Acts 1-7.
For example, Peter preached, “And now, brethren, I know that ye did it in ignorance… Repent therefore and be converted, for the blotting out of your sins, so that times of refreshing may come , etc.” (Acts 3:17-21). God had opened an offer of forgiveness to Israel, provisional on their receiving the witness of the Spirit (Hebrews 2:4). If Israel would receive this witness, and repent of their sin, God would bring in the times of refreshing; the Millennial reign of Christ. Some did receive that witness, and fled to Christ for refuge (Heb. 6:18), Himself becoming a city of refuge for the “manslayer”. However, the nation at large rejected that provisional offer, and Stephen speaks to those who rejected it according to their responsibility as murderers, as we see in Acts 7:52; “the Just One; of whom ye have been now the betrayers and murderers”. Stephen was raised up to bear witness to Israel’s rejection, both of Christ, but also of the Spirit; “O stiffnecked and uncircumcised in heart and ears, ye do always resist the Holy Spirit; as your fathers, ye also” (Acts 7:51). This is why Saul of Tarsus was not raised up to unfold the truth of the Church until the provisional offer to Israel was rejected, and Stephen was stoned. Thus we see that in the early chapters of Acts, forgiveness was held out to the guilty nation of Israel, if they would receive the witness of the Spirit sent down at Pentecost.
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The Ascension of Christ & the Twelfth Apostle
Acts 1. The first chapter of Acts is anticipatory of the great act that followed on the Day of Pentecost, and it covers several foundational things that had to be established before Christianity could properly begin. The resurrection and ascension of Christ are established by Luke in the first eleven verses. First, Christ is risen from among the dead. Second, He is ascended to heaven where He sits, as a man, at God’s right hand. These facts, separated in time by forty days, are prerequisites for what follows in ch.2; i.e. the Holy Spirit sent down, about ten days later. We also have instructions for the disciples, and the Lord’s answer to there question about the time of restoring the kingdom to Israel. In the latter half of the chapter, we have the details concerning the hundred and twenty believers gathered together in an upper room, and the matter of replacing Judas, so that the number of apostles might be restored to twelve. The chapter gives us a composite view of the disciples’ position before the descent of the Holy Spirit. They were a small faithful remnant, gathered around their Messiah on earth. The work begin in Jerusalem, the earthly center of Judaism. But a great transition was about to take place!
The Resurrection and Ascension of Christ (1:1-11)
1 I composed the first discourse, O Theophilus [‘friend of god’], concerning all things which Jesus began both to do and to teach, 2 until that day in which, having by the Holy Spirit charged the apostles whom he had chosen, he was taken up; vv.1-2 Luke’s Gospel. The book of Acts was written by the same writer as the gospel of Luke, to the same recipient, a man named Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4). Theophilus was most likely a Roman governor or someone of importance in Roman society, the expression “most excellent” being a parallel to “your excellency”, the same title Paul used in addressing Felix (Acts 23:26; 24:3) and Festus (Acts 26:25). He was a believer but needed more teaching about “the way”, and some additional assurances about the things he had been taught and believed, and hence Luke wrote his gospel for that purpose. Now he follows up “the first discourse” with another. It is interesting that the title “Most Excellent” is dropped by Luke in Acts. We are not told why, but perhaps as Theophilus was growing in his soul the earlier formality between himself and Luke was no longer appropriate. Also, it is possible that Theophilus lost his position because of his faith. Luke gives a summary of his gospel; “concerning all things which Jesus began both to do and to teach, until that day in which… he was taken up”. This is where the gospel of Luke winds up, with the Lord addressing the apostle, and then ascending to heaven. Notice that it says He “by the Holy Spirit charged the apostles”. This is characteristic of the Acts, that all is done by the power of the Spirit. Notice the order: first to do, and then to teach. Jesus was no hypocrite!
3 to whom also he presented himself living, after he had suffered, with many proofs; being seen by them during forty days, and speaking of the things which concern the kingdom of God; v.3 The Forty Days. Luke comments on the post-resurrection appearances of Christ to His apostles during the “forty days” between the resurrection and ascension. Forty days speak of a time of trial or testing (Gen. 7:4; Exo. 24:18; Num. 13:25; 1 Sam. 17:16; Jonah 3:4; Matt. 4:2). It was a significant period of time, enough to abundantly demonstrate the physical reality of the Lord’s bodily resurrection from the dead. The Lord Jesus showed Himself to the eleven apostles after his suffering on numerous occasions, such as those recorded in Luke 24, 1 Corinthians 15, and John 20 – 21. The Lord “presented himself living” to the disciples “with many proofs” such that there could be no doubt that it was really Him, risen bodily from the dead. This is the one singular fact above all others whose historical reliability the Spirit of God labors to establish. This is because the resurrection of Christ is a cornerstone of Christianity (1 Cor. 15:1-23).1 But also, the risen Lord Jesus continued “speaking of the things which concern the kingdom of God”, which has to do with the proper moral conduct of believers (Rom. 14:17). Notice that Jesus did not teach the disciples church doctrine. He waited until the Holy Spirit was sent down to give that truth as Divine revelation through His apostles and prophets.
Christ's Resurrection. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is vital to Christianity because it is the proof that our sins are gone, and that God is satisfied with the work of Calvary. The Lord rose bodily from the dead, not merely in spirit, as some have taught through the ages. When Paul summed up the gospel that he preached, he said that he preached Christ who died, was buried, and had risen from the dead; 1 Corinthians 15:3-4; 17, Romans 10:9. When comparing Christianity to other religions we should ask ourselves: where is Confucius? Where is Buddha? Where is Muhammad? They are all dead. We have a Savior who was raised from among the dead - His tomb is empty. Christ's suffering and death was the payment of our debt, but His resurrection is the receipt that proves our debt was paid; “raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25). Not only is the resurrection critical to justification, but Paul shows that it is also critical to the resurrection of believers, because Christ is "risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept" (1 Cor. 15:20). It is really a cornerstone of the Christian faith; "but if Christ be not raised, your faith is vain; ye are yet in your sins" (1 Cor. 15:17). What would we have for our faith if the gospels said nothing of Christ's resurrection?
4 and, being assembled with them, commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to await the promise of the Father, which said he ye have heard of me. 5 For John indeed baptised with water, but “ye” shall be baptised with the Holy Spirit after now not many days. vv.4-5 The Promise of the Spirit. Luke recounts the charge that Jesus gave the apostles before He returned to the Father (see Luke 24:49). They were not to leave Jerusalem until “the promise of the Father” was fulfilled, referring to the sending of the Spirit, which they had heard from the Lord Himself (John 14:26). The Lord then referred to John’s baptism, which was a baptism with water, and then foretold the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John Himself had spoken of this; “I indeed baptise you with water, but the mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not fit to unloose; he shall baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Luke 3:16). The Lord was now telling the disciples that the baptism of the Spirit was only days away. The baptism with fire is still future. The baptism of the Spirit took place in Acts 2, on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Ghost filled all the house where they were sitting, and it is what formed, or incorporated, the “one body” of Christ (1 Cor. 12:13). Read more… The Lord would have the disciples understand that the sending of the Spirit as the promise of the Father was distinct from the restoration of the kingdom. The prophets spoke of an outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon all flesh, in connection with the Millennial kingdom (Joel 2). However, the Lord was here showing that the Spirit would be sent upon the disciples in a different way, as a baptism, which was different from the restoration of the kingdom.
6 They therefore, being come together, asked him saying, Lord, is it at this time that thou restorest the kingdom to Israel? 7 And he said to them, It is not yours to know times or seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority; 8 but ye will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you, and ye shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. vv.6-8 The Question of the Kingdom. The disciples asked the Lord if this was the time when He would restore the kingdom to Israel. It was a logical question to ask. Jesus was their Messiah, and He had risen from the dead. It was natural for these Jewish disciples to be looking for the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom, with Israel at the head of the nations. Notice the Lord’s response. He does not say that the kingdom would never be restored to Israel, but only that the timing of it was not for them to know; “It is not yours to know times or seasons, which the Father has placed in his own authority”. This is because the kingdom will certainly be established, in complete fulfillment of prophecy, but the establishment was being postponed. Instead something very important would interposed at this time; “but ye will receive power, the Holy Spirit having come upon you”. The sending of the Holy Spirit to earth, in conjunction with the ascension of Christ to heaven, is the defining moment of Christianity as it marked an entirely new development in God’s ways. The disciples were not to return to Galilee, but to remain in Jerusalem, where the Lord had been crucified. There, among the political and religious elite, this new testimony would begin. Under the power of the Spirit, the apostles would be Christ’s witnesses first in Jerusalem (Acts 1-7), then spreading out to Judea and Samaria (Acts 8 – 12), then “to the end of the earth” (Acts 13 – 28).
9 And having said these things he was taken up, they beholding him, and a cloud received him out of their sight. v.9 The Ascension of Christ. In Luke we find that at the moment of Christ’s ascension, He was blessing His own. Here we find that their eyes were fastened on their Lord, “beholding him”, as “a cloud received him out of their sight”. This stupendous event is impossible to over emphasize. The risen Lord bodily ascended to heaven! The fact that Christ is there today, in heaven, as a glorified man, is another cornerstone of Christian doctrine (see Eph 1:19-23; Heb. 1:3; 8:1). Since He is there, we are persuaded that we will one day be there too! It is significant that “a cloud received him out of their sight”. The cloud is “the special token of the divine presence”.2 When the Lord comes to receive His saints they will meet in the clouds (1 Thess. 4:17), and when He appears before the world He will come with clouds (Rev. 1:7).
10 And as they were gazing into heaven, as he was going, behold, also two men stood by them in white clothing, 11 who also said, Men of Galilee, why do ye stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven, shall thus come in the manner in which ye have beheld him going into heaven. vv.10-11 The Second Coming. The apostles’ eyes were left gazing up into heaven where their Lord had gone. Two angels, in the form of men in white clothing, administer a gentle admonition. No, you have not lost your Lord; He will come again! No doubt the very appearance of these angels was something of a comfort to the disciples, who might have otherwise questioned their own memory. They now had the additional witness of two angels testifying that Jesus had been taken up into heaven. But the angels also confirmed what is the proper hope and personal object of the disciples during the time of the Holy Spirit on earth; to wait for the return of Christ. The particular aspect of the second coming is the appearing of Christ, rather than the rapture.34 It will actually be to that very place, to the Mount of Olives (v.12), where the Lord will return to earth (Zech. 14:4). The Lord’s ascension was physicals and literal, and in like manner His return will also be physical and literal, not merely spiritual or allegorical.
The Twelfth Apostle (1:12-26)
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called the mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath-day’s journey off. 13 And when they were come into the city, they went up to the upper chamber, where were staying both Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the zealot, and Jude the brother of James. 14 These gave themselves all with one accord to continual prayer, with several women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren. vv.12-14 The Disciples in Jerusalem. The eleven returned from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem, which we are told was “near”, and only “a sabbath-day’s journey off”. This expression refers to the limits that were placed on the Jews by their traditions on the Sabbath day, that a distance of 2000 cubits or 3/4 of a mile was the maximum allowed on a Sabbath day. This and the practice of casting lots are two things that show the state of the disciples at this time; still under Judaism. In the city they resided in an upper chamber. The eleven disciples were there, along with “several women”, who are not named, but we might think of the sisters of Bethany, Mary Magdalene, Salome, etc. Additionally, “Mary the mother of Jesus” was there, and also the Lord’s “brethren”. We know the Lord had at least four brothers: James, Joses (a form of Joseph), Simon, and Jude (a form of Judas), as well as unnamed sisters (Mark 6:3 and Matt. 13:55). We know that the Lord’s half-brothers were hesitant to believe on Him (John 7:5), but now they clearly had. We find that there were others too, bringing the total to about a hundred and twenty (v.15). For ten days, these disciples “gave themselves all with one accord to continual prayer”. How often tremendous blessing has been a result of continual prayer and dependence!
Lists of the Apostles’ Names. There are four places where the twelve apostles’ names are listed; Matt. 10:2-4; Mark 3:16-19; Luke 6:14-16; Acts 1:13. The lists are different, if you look carefully at the punctuation and the context of each. In Matthew and Luke the disciples are mentioned in pairs; e.g. “Peter and Andrew, James and John, etc.”. In Mark the names are listed individually. Then in Acts, the apostles are listed in groups: a group of four, of two, of two again, and then a group of three. We might apply this to the way the Lord would have us to serve. Sometimes the the Lord has a work for two people, and other times a work just by ourselves, and still other times a work in teams. Take for example Peter and Andrew. They were accustomed to working with each other, but as in Acts the Lord had them work with their old fishing companions, the Sons of Zebedee. It is a blessed thing to be willing to be used of the Lord in the way that He decides.
15 And in those days Peter, standing up in the midst of the brethren, said, (the crowd of names who were together was about a hundred and twenty,) 16 Brethren, it was necessary that the scripture should have been fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke before, by the mouth of David, concerning Judas, who became guide to those who took Jesus; 17 for he was numbered amongst us, and had received a part in this service. 18 (This man then indeed got a field with the reward of iniquity, and, having fallen down headlong, burst in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it was known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that that field was called in their own dialect Aceldama; that is, field of blood.) 20 For it is written in the book of Psalms, “Let his homestead become desolate, and let there be no dweller in it;” [Psalm 69:25] and, “Let another take his overseership.” [Psalm 109:8] 21 It is necessary therefore, that of the men who have assembled with us all the time in which the Lord Jesus came in and went out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day in which he was taken up from us, one of these should be a witness with us of his resurrection. vv.15-22 The Need for a Replacement. Peter took the lead in bringing up the issue of replacing Judas, the disciple who “became guide to those who took Jesus”. The two parentheses in this section are added details provided by Luke. First, that the number of brethren in the upper room was “about a hundred and twenty”. Second, the history of Judas after he betrayed the Lord Jesus.
The Apostasy and Death of Judas. We get the whole picture by comparing vv.18-19 with Matt. 27:3-10. When Judas realized what he had done, that Jesus had not escaped but was rather condemned to death, he was “filled with remorse”. Remorse is not the same thing as repentance (2 Cor. 7:10). The irony of the situation was solemn. Judas would have liked to return the blood money if he could. He turned to man rather than God. Alas, the heartless chief priests and leaders – who cared nothing for Judas’ soul – would not take the money. “But they said, What is that to us? see thou to that”. In utter horror, Judas cast the pieces of silver down. He went out and committed suicide by hanging. But Judas couldn’t even do that properly; “the way of transgressors is hard” (Prov. 13:15). Evidently the hanging was botched, and “having fallen down headlong, burst in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out”. Then the sanctimonious hypocrisy of the Jews came forth. They would follow the letter of the law scrupulously in the issue of the offering (the gift, or “corban”), but would commit the murder of their own Messiah without a twinge of conscience. Instead of taking the blood money into the treasury, they used it to buy “the potter’s field”, for a place to bury strangers. The field pictures the state of the Jews as cast out of their land through the government of God; they are strangers in this world, without a home, unto this day. It is evident that, after Judas’ suicide, the priests buried him there, and in that ironic way; “this man then indeed got a field with the reward of iniquity”. But the field that was purchased with blood-money became a perpetual witness of the sin of the Jews, witnessed by the fact that all the locals knew it, and therefore; “that field was called in their own dialect Aceldama; that is, field of blood”.
Judas’ Office Filled. Peter rightly judged that Judas’ place needed to be filled. After all, Judas “was numbered amongst us, and had received a part in this service”; i.e. of being an apostle. He gathered that several passages in the Psalms spoke prophetically of Judas. Psalm 69:25 foretold his judgment, and Psalm 109:8 foretold that his vacated office should be filled. Peter concluded that a replacement should be made of one of the men who met the qualifications; they had to have been with the twelve during the Lord’s three and a half years, all the way to the time when He ascended. This would qualify the person to “be a witness with us of his resurrection”.
23 And they appointed two, Joseph, who was called Barsabas, who had been surnamed Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, Thou Lord, knower of the hearts of all, shew which one of these two thou hast chosen, 25 to receive the lot of this service and apostleship, from which Judas transgressing fell to go to his own place. 26 And they gave lots on them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. vv.23-26 Matthias Chosen. The scope of their mission limited the choice of candidates to a very small circle; Justus and Matthias. The disciples wanted the Lord to choose the replacement for Judas, but they knew that only these two were qualified. They prayed to the Lord that He would make known which of the two He had chosen; “and they gave lots on them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles”. This shows us the place of the disciples before the Holy Spirit was sent down. They wanted the Lord to make the choice, but they did not yet have the Comforter among them to guide and direct. We never read of casting lots after Pentecost. Here, the disciples acted according to the scriptures they had (see Joshua 18:6-10 and Proverbs 16:33), when a choice was required between two, as in the case of the two goats on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:9). We have no reason to believe that the disciples acted hastily, or that somehow this was not the Lord’s mind. In fact, it was perfectly in order, even though strange to us in some respects. It was important that Matthias be the twelfth apostle, not Paul, who remains in a special place. We know almost nothing about the person of this twelfth apostle. Matthias is not to be confused with Matthew the tax collector (v.13), called Levi in Mark 2:14; Luke 5:27, 29, who was chosen by our Lord during His public ministry, and who wrote the gospel of Matthew. Matthias means “gift of God”.
The Character of Office in the Present Dispensation. When we consider the transition that is described in the book of Acts, the subject of office is very important. In the Old Testament office was a matter of succession, or derivative authority. A king would die, and his son would reign in his stead, etc. When the true King of Israel came, He chose twelve Jewish apostles with the promise that they should “sit upon twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Matt. 19:28). This is office after a very Jewish character. The second half of Acts 1 is enlightening too, because there one of the twelve was gone. “His bishoprick let another take”, says Peter, quoting from Psalm 109. There must be twelve apostles; the office had to be filled, and thus Matthias was chosen. This was apostolic authority exercised before the Holy Spirit was sent down. After the Holy Spirit was sent down, office took a different character. It became a heavenly gift, rather than a matter of succession; “When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men … And he gave some, apostles” (Eph. 4:8, 11). Now, an apostle is a gift as well as an office, and gift and office need to be distinguished. When I say office is a gift, I mean it is something the Holy Ghost chooses, not man. After Pentecost, all is done according to the mind of the Spirit; “the Holy Spirit said, Separate me now Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them” (Acts 13:2). Overseers were appointed by apostles or their delegates, yet Paul could say to the elders at Ephesus, “Take heed therefore to yourselves, and to all the flock, wherein the Holy Spirit has set you as overseers, to shepherd the assembly of God, which he has purchased with the blood of his own” (Acts 20:28). This clearly shows that the overseers in an assembly were not successors to those who went before. Nevertheless, authority is still present in office after Pentecost, even to deliver ones to Satan for the destruction of the flesh. As the early church fell into the error of clericalism, they adopted the Jewish model of derivative authority. The popes, they said, were Peter’s successors. We read nothing of this apostolic succession in scripture after Pentecost! Office in the present dispensation takes an entirely different character. Understanding this will keep us from ecclesiastical error.
- W. Kelly remarked, in Christianity, of the life the believer has: “its source the grace of God, its righteous foundation the cross of Christ, its character of life His resurrection; its formative object His heavenly glory; and its power the Holy Ghost sent from above.” – Kelly, W. Exposition of Acts.
- Kelly, W. Lectures Introductory to the Bible: 6. The Acts, the Catholic Epistles and the Revelation.
- His manifestation in this lower world, beneath the heavens, is therefore here intended. He will return to earth to be seen of the world. We have not the rapture of the assembly, nor the assembly’s association with Him while absent. – J.N. Darby. Synopsis of the Books of the Bible.
- Doubtless it is His return for the kingdom to be established over all nations and tongues, for the times of the restitution of all things, and not specially to receive His own to Himself and present them in the Father’s house. It is the more general aspect of His coming, and not the heavenly side. – W. Kelly. An Exposition of the Acts of the Apostles.