A Bible Study

In The Beginning

"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers."—Acts 2:42

A verse by verse study in Acts 1

THERE are many beginnings in the Bible. First, there is God who has no beginning. Then there is the beginning of his creative work in the forming of the Logos (Rev. 3:14; John 1:1). There is also the beginning of his work with planet earth in Genesis 1:1. But in the book of Acts we find another beginning, the beginning of the Christian church.

Those were confusing days. Memories were varied. There was elation at Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Then there was perplexity when at the Last Supper he told them again of his imminent death. Finally there was the despair with his arrest, trial, and crucifixion.

Despondency gave way to joy with news of his resurrection; but joy was mixed with bewilderment, for their Master was not the same. He now appeared in locked rooms, seemingly coming right through the wall. He disappeared just as mysteriously. Those were confusing days.

The Book of Acts
Verses 1 and 2

The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Spirit had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:

Theophilus is mentioned only here and in the opening verse of the Gospel of Luke, which indicates that Luke is also the author of Acts. While Theophilus was undoubtedly a real person, the meaning of his name, lover of God, is an appropriate title for all for whom the book was written.

The title, Acts of the Apostles, is somewhat vague and misleading, for it details the acts of very few of the apostles—Peter and Paul being the main characters in the book. Some authorities have named it, The Acts of the Holy Spirit or, relating it to the Gospel of Luke, The Acts of Jesus Christ after his Resurrection.

Post-Resurrection Appearances
Verse 3 to 5

To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.

It is sad to note that in three and a half years of intense ministry Jesus, a perfect man with the most wonderful message of all time, had garnered a following of only about 500 interested people (1 Cor. 15:6). Though these felt deserted at his death, they were not, for he appeared miraculously to them eleven times.

The object of these appearances and the mysterious ways in which they occurred was, as Luke rightly puts it, to give them many infallible proofs that he had indeed risen from the dead. While the gospel records give few details of any conversations, we are here informed that Jesus’ message remained constant: speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.

Now, as with Moses of old when he ascended Mt. Sinai, they were to be given a lesson in patience. They were not to leave Jerusalem but wait for the next event: the promise of the Father. As his first advent was marked with the baptism of John, so his new presence with them always . . . to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20) would be marked with the baptism of the holy Spirit. This was the baptism of which John the Baptist prophesied: "I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire" (Matt. 3:11 NIV).

When Will the Kingdom Come?
Verses 6 to 8

When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Spirit is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.

It was only natural that the disciples should ask the uppermost question in their minds—When? When would the kingdom of which Jesus had taught them so much be established? Not having yet been enlightened by the holy Spirit, they still had visions of grandeur and the establishment of an earthly kingdom to replace Rome and put Israel back into power.

The answer Jesus gave differed somewhat from an earlier statement recorded in Mark 13:32: "But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father."

This time Jesus omits the words neither the Son, possibly because as a spirit being he now possessed knowledge he had not been given earlier. In any event it is obvious that the statement in Mark did not mean that the Son was never to know, for he would obviously know at the time of his return.

He further dispels their misconceptions by stating that instead of reigning they would merely be his witnesses throughout all the earth. The word order he here uses is no coincidence: (1) in Jerusalem and (2) in all Judea and (3) in Samaria and (4) unto the uttermost parts of the earth.

The first public witness message of the new church was indeed in Jerusalem, on the day of Pentecost. From there their message spread naturally to the environs of the city—Judea. Ensuing persecutions of the new religion forced the followers to flee to the neighboring area of Samaria (see Acts 8:1-5), where Philip was sent to preach to them. Then, in an unusual sidelight, Philip is called away to Gaza where he meets and converts the Ethiopian eunuch (Acts 8:27-39). Ethiopia (Sheba of the Old Testament) is called by Jesus the uttermost parts of the earth (see Matt. 12:42; Luke 11:31).

The Ascension
Veres 9 to 11

And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven..

One last time their Master was in their midst. Now, just as they were finally becoming accustomed to his unusual comings and goings, there is yet another surprise. Instead of disappearing into thin air, he visibly ascends into the heavens; and they are confronted by angels appearing in the guise of two men.

The angels inform them that this is yet a new development. Their Lord would return, but they are given no clue as to how long or where it would be. At first they undoubtedly surmised that it would be in a few days as it had been during the past few weeks. Then time lengthened and he still did not reappear. Some sixty years later the finishing touches are put on the Bible by the Apostle John with these concluding words, "Even so, come, Lord Jesus."

In like manner—few words in the Bible have been open to a wider range of interpretation than these. Many theologians are of the opinion this means that as Jesus disappeared in a visible form, so he would return visibly. This, however, stretches the meaning of the Greek word tropos, here translated manner.

Translated in a variety of ways, the word comes from a root meaning a turning or revolution. The word is used as an adverb modifying the method of coming and not as an adjective modifying the form in which he would return. Therefore the like manner of his return apparently refers to the quiet manner of his departure—unnoticed by the world at large, but seen only by his most intimate followers who were watching for it. Just as a cloud hid him from the disciples, so his return in or on a cloud indicates that his second advent is also invisible.

Days of Waiting
Verses 12 to 14

Then returned they unto Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day’s journey. And when they were come in, they went up into an upper room, where abode both Peter, and James, and John, and Andrew, Philip, and Thomas, Bartholomew, and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon Zelotes, and Judas the brother of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brethren.

Now they were to have their test of patience. True to their Lord’s command, they abode in Jerusalem, waiting for the fulfillment of the promised gift of the spirit. Since Jesus was resurrected on a Sunday morning and was in their midst for the 40 days prior to his ascension (Acts 1:3), that event must have taken place on a Friday. We may assume that his ascension was late in the day, for the journey back to Jerusalem is given as a sabbath day’s journey.

One of the sabbath prohibitions dealt with travel. Originally the devout Jew was to stay near enough to the Tabernacle so that he could worship on that day." See, for that the LORD hath given you the sabbath, therefore he giveth you on the sixth day the bread of two days; abide ye every man in his place, let no man go out of his place on the seventh day" (Exod. 16:29).

Orthodox Jewry reckoned this distance as being the space between the Tabernacle and the camp of Israel—2,000 cubits, about 1,000 yards—based on Joshua 3:4: "Yet there shall be a space between you and it, about two thousand cubits by measure: come not near unto it, that ye may know the way by which ye must go: for ye have not passed this way heretofore" (Josh. 3:4)..

The occupation of the disciples (the eleven apostles plus some 109 others) during those anxious days was prayer and supplication. How they must have identified with Daniel of old who, while waiting, spent his days and nights in earnest prayer (Dan. 9:3-19).

The Death of Judas Iscariot
Verses 15 to 19

And in those days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, and said, (the number of names together were about an hundred and twenty) Men and brethren, this scripture must needs have been fulfilled, which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake before concerning Judas, which was guide to them that took Jesus. For he was numbered with us, and had obtained part of this ministry. Now this man purchased a field with the reward of iniquity; and falling headlong, he burst asunder in the midst, and all his bowels gushed out. And it was known unto all the dwellers at Jerusalem; insomuch as that field is called in their proper tongue, Aceldama, that is to say, The field of blood.

Ever impetuous, it was Peter whose impatience brought him to the well-meaning but incorrect act of suggesting that perhaps the Lord was waiting for them to fill the vacancy in the apostolic body caused by the suicide of Judas.

Peter suggested choosing a replacement for Judas based, first of all, on the fact that he had been numbered with them in their ministry.

Anatomy of a Mistake
Verse 20

For it is written in the book of Psalms, Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take.

Credit must be given to the small group for their studiousness in seeking the Lord’s will in those days of uncertainty. As they meditated and studied they noted the following words: "Set thou a wicked man over him: and let Satan stand at his right hand. When he shall be judged, let him be condemned: and let his prayer become sin. Let his days be few; and let another take his office" (Psa. 109:6-8). Applying this wicked man to Judas Iscariot, Peter saw sound direction in his replacement—let another take his office.

Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection (vs. 21, 22).

Guidelines for the selection of this new apostle were set up. He must be one who had both witnessed Jesus’ death and resurrection and been a disciple all the time that Jesus went in and out among them. Establishing these criteria they proceeded with the selection process.

And they appointed two, Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias (vs. 23).

The Lord was not to be left out of the selection process. In a procedure reminiscent of that by which the Lord’s goat was selected on their Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:8), they would narrow the choice down to two and leave the final decision to the Lord by the casting of lots.

This method of seeking the divine will may have had its origin in the ancient Hebrew custom of seeking the Lord through the Urim and Thummim (Exod. 28:30), which were supposedly two gems, one for yes and one for no, one of which would glow when exposed before the Shekinah light, giving direction from Jehovah.

Little is known of either Matthias or Joseph Barsabas. The latter may be one of the disciples sent to accompany Paul and Barnabas with the edict of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15:22).

In any case their error was not in omitting the Lord from the selection process but in narrowing the Lord’s choices down to two of their own choosing and in rushing the timing of the Lord’s decision. Eventually, as time has shown, God did make his choice known—and it was neither Matthias nor Barsabas but Saul of Tarsus, whom we know so well as Paul.

And they prayed, and said, Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men, shew whether of these two thou hast chosen, That he may take part of this ministry and apostleship, from which Judas by transgression fell, that he might go to his own place. And they gave forth their lots; and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles (vs. 24-26).

The rest is history. The lots were taken. Incorrectly assuming them to indicate the Lord’s will, they chose Matthias as the replacement for Judas. No great harm came, for both Matthias and Barsabas evidently acquitted themselves well in the Christian ministry. Being well intentioned, the Lord apparently accepted their desire to please him in the place of their wrong conclusions. How blessed we are that he does the same in our often bumbling efforts to discern his will in our lives: "For if there be first a willing mind, it is accepted according to that a man hath, and not according to that he hath not" (2 Cor. 8:12).