In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (1:1-3).
Most medicines issued from chemist stores come with clearly printed labels carrying important warnings and instructions 'to be read before opening'. Luke's 'Book of Acts' is no different. The first two paragraphs (1:1-11) are his label.
1:1. He begins by referring us to his former book (Luke's Gospel), in which he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven. In the ancient world it was common for a writer to 'organize a work into several shorter sections and to furnish each with its own brief introduction'. In this opening phrase, however, Luke is very likely establishing a profounder linkage between his two works (Luke and Acts) than simply their order of publication.
The Greek word he uses (translated in the NIV as 'book') is logos, which is usually translatable as 'narrative' or 'account'. He does not use biblos, the usual word for 'book'. This strongly suggests that Luke 'composed Acts as a single storyline extending from his Gospel'. The connectedness is made explicit by his choice of verb (erxato) in verse one: 'all that Jesus began to do and teach...' The overlap of the two parts is further signalled by the repetition of the ascension account in Luke 24:50-51 and Acts 1:10-11. Luke's literary contribution to the New Testament is arguably therefore a single book in two parts, which we can fairly entitle 'Luke-Acts', accounting for approximately a quarter of the New Testament.
This simple fact concerning Luke's authorial intention carries significant implications for interpreting Acts. For example, it means that viewing the Gospel as 'about Jesus', and the Acts as 'about the church' is a major misunderstanding. Both parts are about the ministry of Jesus; His ministry on earth, personally and publicly exercised (the Gospel), and his subsequent ministry from heaven, exercised on earth through the Holy Spirit (Acts). Once we are alerted to this perspective, we discover that Acts contains a whole series of references to Jesus as the active agent, or the inspiring influence, in the 'doing and teaching' of the apostles. It is Christ who sends the Holy Spirit (2:33), who energizes the witnesses, and who directs them in their mission; it is Christ who provides the supernatural power to perform miracles which by their nature express a continuity with those performed in His own ministry. Christ is the content and focus of the message which the apostles proclaim, and the one in whose name, and into union with whom, baptism is performed.
Stott aptly draws attention to the uniqueness of this ministry perspective as far as teachers, prophets, and religious leaders in general are concerned. All of these luminaries and their ministries, from whatever age, in whatever place, and for whatever duration, have at some point been brought to a conclusion by the subject's death. Of Jesus alone may it be joyfully affirmed that His ministry actively continues beyond His death, and will do so 'until the end of the age' (Matt. 28:20), 'thus setting Christianity apart from all other religions. These regard their founder as having completed his ministry during his lifetime; Luke says Jesus only began his.'
I vividly recall, during a visit to Pyongyang in North Korea a few years ago, being taken to the mausoleum to Kim Il Sung, 'the Great Leader' of the North Korean Marxist struggle, who died in 1994, setting in motion a three-year outpouring of national mourning. Despite all the trumpeting of his greatness, and the elaborate charade surrounding his resplendent, medal-bestrewn, mummified corpse, with its weeping bystanders, the whole effect was a pathetic demonstration of human weakness and transience; here indeed was death's sting, and here its most evident victory. By contrast no ageing effigies commemorate the life and ministry of Jesus. No visit to His tomb with its crumbling remains is incumbent upon those who would honour His earthly conquests. No sobbing ranks of mourners commemorate His final passing. Jesus lives! His ministry continues, all around the globe, fresh and vibrant in each new day; and will do so until the day of His glorious appearing, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Him Lord of all.
Luke's sustained focus on Christ also impinges on the question of the title of the book. 'Acts' is the original title, leaving unanswered the question of whose 'acts' are in view. The early editors saw them as the acts performed by the apostles, hence the traditional title. Some other interpreters have proposed 'the acts of the Holy Spirit'. Stott proposes a comprehensive, and as he admits, somewhat cumbersome, alternative: 'the Continuing Words and Deeds of Jesus by his Spirit through the Apostles.' If one wished to be even more comprehensive we might expand it to '...the continuing Words and Deeds of the Risen and Exalted Jesus by his Spirit through the Apostles...'
We should note additionally the uniqueness of this connection between the Gospel and Acts. It stands apart in the New Testament. In this sense Luke's Gospel is different from those of Matthew, Mark and John. In Luke's perspective, the life of the incarnate Lord stands behind, and is inseparable from, His works of salvation and power which flow from its Easter climax. What the church has to offer the world is in the end nothing other than the life of Jesus, the ongoing of that unique ministry which is spelled out unforgettably in the records of the four Gospels. The gospel finds its heart in Jesus' death and resurrection, those unrepeatable events in which the 'tyrants' of sin, death, the devil and hell, were finally and eternally subjected; but the 'good news' is also the fact that His Easter triumph continues today in and through the life of His community in the power of His Spirit.
Hence Luke is also reminding us at the outset of Acts, that evangelism is always more than the communication of a message. It is never less than that of course, and Luke will make a major contribution in the succeeding chapters to the contents of the preached gospel (or kerygma as it is technically known). But evangelism is also the ever-repeated release of that unique Life through the lives, corporately and personally, of those who know Him. 'We would see Jesus' is the cry that echoes from the heart of the world in this twenty-first century as urgently, poignantly and persistently as in the first. The wonder and glory of Christianity is precisely that, by grace, it can!
Luke's perspective has two other profound implications which can be noted. Firstly, this continuity between the Gospel and the Acts means that our understanding of Jesus cannot be confined to the thirty-plus years of His earthly life and ministry; it needs also to encompass this continuing ministry of the Risen Lord across the ages of history, and not least in our own day, when as never before in human history He is seen, known and passionately followed in every corner of the earth. It also needs to embrace, by implication, the entire mission of the church until the parousia. Putting the same point more technically, Christology needs to include ecclesiology.
Secondly, this means that the church cannot be understood in purely sociological terms. The church is the community of the disciples of Jesus, the people of God who seek to represent Him in the world. But it is also the body of Christ, and no matter how far it may wander from its biblical roots, in both faith and life, it remains by His grace the place where He is to be encountered. Accordingly we must never in despair give up on the church, nor pursue a Christian vocation in entire isolation from it. 'Inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to me.'
Theophilus is Luke's esteemed literary sponsor, met earlier in the introduction to Luke's Gospel. Dedications of this sort were common in the first century. We know nothing of Theophilus apart from these references. Bruce comments, 'It is quite probable that Theophilus was a representative of the intelligent middle-class public at Rome whom Luke wished to win over to a more favourable opinion of Christianity than that which was current among them.' The name clearly implies a Gentile audience, and an audience moreover drawn from among the educated and culturally sensitive class. Luke has the world of Theophilus in his sights, the Gentile, Graeco-Roman world beyond the geographical boundaries of Palestine, and beyond the mental frontiers of Judaism and Christianity. His will be a 'Gentile-relevant' story, relating the words and deeds of Jesus to an urbane, global readership. In other words, 'by writing in this fashion Luke was claiming a place for Christianity on the stage of world history.'
1.2. until the day he was taken up. Verses 1b-2 are a summary of Luke 24:46-49, which Bosch views as 'in a nutshell, Luke's entire understanding of the Christian mission', and this phrase in verse 2 as a summary of Luke 24:50-52, his first account of the ascension which concludes Jesus' earthly ministry. The Greek text actually does not have the words 'to heaven'. We will offer fuller comments on the ascension at 1:10-11; however we anticipate them somewhat by reminding ourselves of Paul's observation that in so ascending Christ 'filled all things.'
A further issue of interpretation in verse 2 is to which clause the phrase 'through the Holy Spirit' is to be related. The NIV links it to Jesus' 'giving instructions to the apostles' (so also ESV, REB, NLT). The positioning of the phrase in the text however allows for a possibility Marshall argues for, a link to 'whom he had chosen' (cf. Luke 6:12-16), and hence an affirmation of the unique and significant status of the apostles, a meaning which would certainly accord well with the following contents.
1:3. Note 'after his suffering'; there is a continual danger of so theologizing the cross that we eliminate its human cost. 'He suffered under Pontius Pilate....' This and similar phrases were of great importance in the church's struggle with Gnosticism and docetism, early heterodox views which denied the full humanity of Christ.
But these sub-Christian notions are not dead. Only too often Christian piety and pastoral ministry is robbed of a major ingredient through Christ's full humanity failing to be confessed. For many believers, Christ is in many respects a kind of 'superman' who hovers somewhere between earth and heaven and in the process never really identifies with our human struggles, temptations and sufferings. But 'we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way just as we are' (Heb. 4:15).
'In every pang that rends the heart,
The Man of Sorrows had a part;
He sympathizes with our grief,
And to the sufferer sends relief.'
As a result we can miss out on some of the deeper and richer dimensions of our life 'in Christ'. Rutherford expressed it well: 'There is no fellowship with Christ like bringing our pains and griefs to him.'
...he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days. These phrases introduce us to the apologetic instinct in Luke's writing which is struck in both dedications to Theophilus. In his Gospel, Luke sets out his historical method involving 'careful investigation', relating to 'eyewitnesses', and an 'orderly' accounting, so that Theophilus might 'know the certainty' (1:4) of what he had previously been taught, concerning the beginnings of the Christian story (1:1-3). In Acts, having spoken of Jesus' post-resurrection encounters with the apostles, he refers, not dissimilarly, to Jesus having therein afforded them 'many convincing proofs (1:3) that he was alive.'
This claim still stands. The fact that Jesus 'appeared' to His disciples after his undoubted death on the cross, is extraordinarily difficult to dismiss. We can cite one recent apologist, N.T. Wright. After an exhaustive investigation of all the possible alternative routes by which the first disciples might have arrived at their conviction about Jesus' resurrection, and in particular his post-Calvary meetings with them which formed the core of that conviction, he comments: 'I conclude that the historian, of whatever persuasion, has no option but to affirm both the empty tomb and the "meetings" with Jesus as "historical events"... they took place as real events; they were significant events; they are, in the normal sense required by historians, provable events; historians can and should write about them. We cannot account for early Christianity without them.' Hence we can detect a consistent concern on Luke's part to present his material in both Gospel and Acts as a responsible, trustworthy account of events which actually happened, and hence one which will undergird the Christian commitment and convictions of his sponsor, and other readers.
While this apologetic concern is not the entire purpose of Acts it may reasonably be seen as a not insignificant subordinate purpose, and one, moreover, which is highly relevant in a generation when the most fundamental claims of historic Christianity are regularly subjected to uncritical dismissal on the grounds that they are inherently incredible, or that the post-modern critique has established that objective truth no longer exists, and that reliable historical reconstruction is in principle not available to us. Luke's sturdy adherence to objective historical facticity is a salutary corrective.
...and spoke about the kingdom of God. During this unique period Jesus appeared and reappeared among the disciples. There were at least three purposes to this unprecedented series of encounters; the only finally significant 'Jesus Seminar'.
Firstly, our Lord brings the disciples to absolute conviction concerning his resurrection. That such conviction resulted is patent from the subsequent months and years of their witness-bearing. There is never the merest hint at any point, or on the part of any individual, of any diminution in their commonly held, absolute persuasion of Jesus' conquest of death. This is a fact which no historian can deny. The entire Christian movement, an indubitable reality at the heart of modern history, is predicated on the astonishing claim that Jesus Christ was raised from the dead 'on the third day', and on the disciples' undeviating commitment to it, even in face of violent state-sponsored persecution, and the consequent, agonizing suffering to the death in the case of virtually every one of the men so persuaded. The 'Easter faith' is a fact. It is explicable only as being the fruit of a repeated exposure to the Risen Christ.
Secondly, Jesus completed his instruction of them. He spoke about the kingdom of God. He had tried to help them grasp the meaning of the kingdom of God during the previous three years of his itinerant ministry in Palestine; however such was the novelty and unexpectedness of the events at its climax, events critical to its meaning, that it was only 'after the fact' that a true comprehension was possible.
What did he teach them? What do we mean by 'the kingdom of God'? (cf. Acts 8:12; 20:24f; 28:23). The key lies in grasping three realities of Old Testament revelation. First, God is King. 'The Lord (Yahweh) reigns' (Ps. 99:1) has rightly been referred to as 'the creed of Israel'. Nothing is more basic to its faith than the existence of the sovereign, creator Lord of all things, who had chosen Israel as His special possession and the initial vehicle of His historic purpose of global salvation. Second, God's rule is opposed. Astonishingly, tragically, His creatures rise up in rebellion against His rule—and even Israel, the covenant partner of God, falls into disobedience and idolatry. Third, as a growing crescendo in the great Old Testament prophetic writings, this condition of rejection of God and His rule will not be indefinitely prolonged. There is a coming, future day in which God will reign, evidently and universally over the entire created order, including humanity; a reign exercised through the instrumentality of the 'anointed One', the Messiah. That day of the Messiah's undisputed, universal reign is 'the Kingdom of God' which Jesus claimed became a present, historical reality in His ministry (Luke 4:32, 43; 6:20; 7:21-23; 8:9; 9:2; 9:20; 10:23; 11:20; 12:32; 12:50f; 13:28f; 16:16; 17:24; 18:16; 18:24f; 19:28-40; 20:17, 44; 22:16-20; 24:23f, 46-49).
Thirdly, Jesus commissioned the apostles.
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: 'Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.' So when they met together they asked him, 'Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' He said to them: 'It is not for you to know the times or dates which the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.' After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 'Men of Galilee,' they said, 'why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven' (1:4-11).
1:4. The verb translated 'eating with' (sunalizomai) is commonly translated 'staying with', but sharing meals is implied. Marshall notes, 'the instruction probably took place during the meals held by Jesus with the disciples after the resurrection.'
Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised... Why this location? One suggestion is that 'the place where Jesus was rejected was to be the place where fresh witness to Him would begin.' Another commentator notes the fulfilment which a Jerusalem location offered of the prophecy in Isaiah 2:3: 'for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.'
While there may well be truth in these suggestions, the location was surely primarily in anticipation of the Pentecost feast with its cross-cultural, multi-linguistic spread of the nations. They are to remain in the place where the world can be given a foretaste of the glory of the multi-national, multicultural, multi-linguistic, multi-generational community of the reign of God (cf. Luke 13:29; Dan. 7:14; Rev. 7:14).
We note also the need to await the Holy Spirit's enabling for the forthcoming mission. The command is clear and specific—'wait for the Spirit.' Four things are to be deduced from Jesus' words.
First, we are confronted here by our real and continual dependence upon the ministry of God the Holy Spirit. This is the force of the command wait! The initiative and direction and, by implication, the enablement of the mission, does not lie with us. All ministry and all witness is dependent on His enabling. Calvin sees this utter dependence on the Spirit's ministry as a salutary reminder of the danger in Christian service of 'robbing Christ' by giving undue place to men. We only carry through the outward, the Lord imparts the inward: to Him alone be the glory!
Second, the Holy Spirit's enabling agency is a gift, not a reward. Thus while we may correctly note preconditions, such as waiting in prayer and personal repentance and cleanness of heart (2 Chron. 7:14f; Ps. 2:8; Acts 1:14; 4:24f; Eph. 6:18), the Spirit's ministry is never earned by us. He is always a gift of the Father and the Son.
Third, He is promised, as in Old Testament passages (such as Joel 2:28f; Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27f; Jer. 31:31ff); and also promised by Jesus Himself: which you have heard me speak about (Luke 11:13; John 14:15-18; 14:26-27; 15:26; 16:5-15; 20:22); and probably also by implication, promised by John Baptist (Luke 3:16-17). This gives a welcome encouragement to our faith as we pray for His coming upon our lives in God's service, and upon the church, local and global. The Holy Spirit's ministry is integral to the whole redemptive plan of God; what He does in and through His people in the course of their mission is the fulfilment of the eternal counsel and purpose of the Living God.
1:5. Fourth, He is a highly significant and effusive gift. Jesus uses the image of baptism, you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. Baptized with its direct link to John the Baptist's rite which needed 'plenty of water' (John 3:23), and the obvious connection to the current proselyte baptism rite which called for initiates to be immersed in water, cannot but have conveyed to the disciples an image of an overwhelming experience of the Spirit's enablement. John the Baptist had by this time paid the price of his faithfulness to God's Word and been executed. His voice had been silenced, so it seemed, by the folly and cruelty of a worldly tyrant (Matt. 14:1-12). But John's words, because they were God's Word through him, did not pass away. They were to be fulfilled beyond his death. In the terms of John's enviable epitaph: 'Though he never performed a miraculous sign, all that John said about Jesus was true' (John 10:41).
A searching challenge and awesome possibility lies here for every proclaimer of the gospel, that our words, like those of John, may go on finding fulfilments and confirmations after our earthly course is concluded; and even, by His grace, become a word or sentence, in that Word 'which will never pass away' (Luke 21:33).
God's Word, for all their craft and force,
One moment will not linger,
But, spite of hell, will have its course;
'Tis written by His finger.
1:6-8. This is a critically important sub-paragraph for the whole book of Acts. Indeed the entire book may be said to be an exposition of these verses. We note that the foil is the disciples' misunderstanding. So when they met together, they asked him, 'Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?' While such obtuseness is not out of keeping with the disciples' limited levels of awareness during Jesus' ministry (cf. 9.41; Mark 8:14-21; John 14:9), there is some surprise that such misunderstanding should apparently linger on in their minds after all these days of divine instruction, and not least when one of its principal themes was 'the kingdom of God' (3). However it is likely that we should not read these verses, from verse 3 to verse 8, as though Luke's account here is in strict time sequence. 'On one occasion' (4), and 'when they were met together' (6), and 'after he said this' (9) are all, in fact, quite vague and general in their reference. Luke was not present himself during these days, and so it is very likely that what he gives us in these verses are the main themes of the conversation over the entire forty-day period as they were conveyed to him subsequently by his apostolic source, or sources. When we recognize this, our surprise at the disciples' misunderstanding is lessened. Their dim-wittedness about the meaning of the kingdom, as reflected here, may simply have been where they were when this Easter seminar commenced. And dim-wittedness there certainly was—the verb, noun, and adverb all betray doctrinal confusion about God's purpose and kingdom. 'The verb, "restore", shows they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun "Israel" that they were expecting a national kingdom, and the adverbial clause "at this time" that they were expecting its immediate establishment.' Calvin notes that 'There are as many errors in this question as words.'
Jesus' rejoinder, It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority, if taken in isolation, can be read as not eliminating entirely a restoration of the Israelite kingdom at some undefined future point; however to take this saying in isolation is precisely what we must not do. The link to the immediately preceding reference in verse 3 to the kingdom of God is critical in this regard. This earlier reference is necessarily inclusive of all that Jesus taught about the kingdom as recorded in the Gospels, an understanding of the kingdom which, as the immense literature on this subject in the recent period clearly concludes, certainly does not culminate in a narrowly Israelite political and territorial fulfilment. Further, Jesus' response in verse 7 clearly directs their minds away from such notions to the cardinal task of global witness to the good news, and the universal implications of His death and rising.
However, while sympathizing in general with Calvin and Stott's strictures, we can at least note that the disciples are deserving of some degree of defence here, despite their misunderstandings. They did grasp that God's purposes have reached a climactic stage; that Jesus has power to revolutionize events; that God's kingdom is about to enter a glorious new phrase; that Jesus as the Risen One is Lord of all; and that in bringing the kingdom God will also fulfil his promise to Israel; not certainly in the nationalistic and political terms of the disciples' question, but in the deeper, profounder sense of a future universal reign of the one true Israelite, Jesus Messiah (John 15:1), a kingdom in which a believing remnant of Israel would find an honoured place (Rom. 11:1-12; Rev. 21:12) within a worshipping community which would embrace all the world's nations (Isa. 56:7; Mark 11:17). God's old covenant promise will inevitably be fulfilled in His new covenant reign. The disciples' primary error lies in their ethno-centrism, perhaps not entirely surprising in view of the ideas they had been reared with, and the depth of loyalty which is commanded by ethnic nationalism, then as now. Further, theirs was in some degree a 'fruitful' error, in that it provoked the hugely important clarification of verses 7-8, which teach at least two critical truths:
(1) The inevitable element of mystery in God's purposes: It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. The 'mystery' is particularly so with respect to the final fulfilment of his plans (cf. Mark 10:35ff; 13:32; Luke 22:24ff.). Would that this text had been clearly heard and heeded over the Christian centuries. True the expectation of the glorious return of Christ (11) is ever to be a bright and shining light of hope across the pathway of Christian pilgrimage; the King is coming and we are travelling to meet him; there is truth to be proclaimed from the housetops! However the speculative, even obsessive, concentration on earthly theocracies, and on detailed blueprints of the 'last times', is not given any encouragement here. Such addictive 'futurology' always carries the danger that Christian resources and energies are thereby distracted from the solemn call of Christ to the far harder, more demanding task of being the light of the world and the salt of the earth, pouring our lives into seeing God's will being done on earth as it is done in heaven. A divine rebuke of this mistaken focus is possibly also indicated in the angels' question (11), Why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus... will come back, and therefore you can trust the plans and purposes of God to him. Your task is to get on with what He has supremely asked you to do—Be my witnesses... to the ends of the earth.
Jesus' words were apparently heeded, as Bruce notes: 'The question in v. 6 appears to have been the last flicker of the apostles' former burning expectation of an immanent political theocracy with themselves as its chief executives. From this time forth they devoted themselves to the proclamation and service of God's spiritual kingdom, which people enter by repentance and faith and in which the chief honour belongs to those who most faithfully follow the King himself in the path of obedience and suffering.'
(2) The calling of God to His people: but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (8). Here we meet the Great Commission. Each of the Gospels, including Luke's, has a version of it (Matt. 28:18-20; Mark 16:15, see note below; Luke 24:46-49; John 20:21-22). The diversity of wording no doubt reflects the variety of occasions on which Jesus expressed His command.
Mission to the ends of the earth is accordingly fundamental to the church's existence and function. It is of profound regret accordingly that this evidently primary biblical function was largely omitted during the following centuries in discussions of the essential components of the church. Referred to as 'the Marks of the Church', they were endlessly debated in the controversies of the sixteenth century and subsequent periods as the Reformers attempted to redefine the church in the light of its perceived de-formation during the medieval Catholic centuries. Thus the four traditional Catholic marks of unity, holiness, catholicity, and apostolicity were opposed by the Reformed advocacy of the faithful proclamation of the Word of God, the proper administration of the sacraments, and, on occasion, additionally, the proper exercise of church discipline.
While during the ages of the Reformation mission was arguably, in an attenuated sense, included under the category of the preaching of the Word of God, mission as the expression of a universal obligation to take initiatives to bring the gospel message to the non-Christian nations of the earth, and indeed as the obligation to have the gospel shared meaningfully across local cultures and communities, was simply not on the radar in that period. It was not until the end of the eighteenth century under the influence of visionary leaders like William Carey, that Christian mission, both in terms of its primary importance as well as its form and content, can be said to have begun to recover its proper biblical proportions. In this sense it has taken the church nearly two millennia to get back to the book of Acts! For there can be little doubt that 1:8 is intended by Luke as a table of contents for Acts. It tells the story of the progressively expanding witness to Jesus Christ following the three-stage order of this text: 'in Jerusalem' (chs. 2-7), 'in Judea and Samaria' (chs. 8-12), and 'to the ends of the earth' (chs. 13-28). We can note also the repeated surfacing of the theme of witness-bearing through these chapters: 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 22:15; etc. Acts has a number of secondary themes no doubt. History is never as simple as a single idea, and Luke is a faithful and sensitive historian. But whatever else Acts may contain, or teach, if we fail to identify its missional heart and expose ourselves to its missional challenge—to the church generally, to each local church specifically, and to our lives personally—then we have not really met God in its pages or truly heard His Word. The only history of the church that the Holy Spirit has been pleased to give us in the Holy Scriptures is a history of the Christian mission, its solemn obligations, its diverse forms, and its often desperate costliness. Hence, woe betide us if we neglect or marginalize it. Our enemy in this regard was well focused by J. H. Bavinck in his landmark study of the theology of mission of over a half century ago. 'The church loves to be occupied with itself and its own problems.... People wish to remain quiet, in the peaceful little church under the high Gothic arches; they would brood about God and be preoccupied about the needs of their own souls. They do not want to be shocked by the bewildering idea that there are still many hundreds of millions of people who have never heard the gospel.'
We should note, in respect of this commission:
(1) The activity at its heart. The call is to be witnesses to me. We registered above the prevalence of 'witness-bearing' in Acts. Of its thirty-five appearances in the New Testament fifteen occur here. The idea has Old Testament roots in the role of witnesses in judicial proceedings (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6-7). Of particular importance for the Acts usage is Isaiah 43:10-12; and 44:8-9. Here Yahweh calls on His people to vindicate Him before the nations and their gods. Israel can bear a witness, arising from its relationship with Yahweh, that He is the true and living God, the faithful God who foretells the future, who acts in history, who saves and delivers His own. Thus witness (Gk. martus) has an original legal connotation, as also reflected in Jesus' use of the notion in Matthew 18:16 referring to issues of contention in a church, 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' (cf. 2 Cor. 13:1; 1 Tim. 5:19). 'A witness in this sense is someone who helps establish facts objectively through verifiable observation.' This is reflected also in the concern in 1:22 that Judas' successor be a witness of the resurrection (cf. also 2:32; 3:15; 4:18, 33; 5:32; 10:41; 13:31). However there is a broader sense attached to other New Testament references where a witness is simply someone who saw or experienced something (cf. 1 Tim. 6:12; 2 Tim 2:2; Heb. 12:1; Rev. 11:3; Luke 11:48; 21:13). There is also in Revelation a developed meaning of 'witnesses' as those who seal their testimony in death, hence the root of the English 'martyr' (cf. Rev. 2:13; 17:6).
The foundational witness-bearing is incumbent on the apostles (1:8; 2:23; 3:15; 4:33; 10:39), but as the apostles begin to die (12:2), and as the witness increasingly passes beyond the geographical boundaries of Israel, 'witness-bearing' comes to be understood, both historically and theologically, as the responsibility of the entire community. Thus non-apostolic persons (in the narrower sense) like Stephen in Jerusalem, Philip in his ministry to Samaria and Ethiopia (8:4 and 35), and Stephen's disciples in Antioch (11:20), all appear as 'witnesses' in the fully authentic sense of their being heralds of the salvation-imparting message of Jesus. 'There is already in the Lukan writings an extension of the concept of witness to people other than the apostles.' Thus the foundational witness-bearing of the apostles passes to the entire church and its succeeding generations.
The fact that the legal sense of 'giving evidence' attached to the earliest meaning, indicates that the apostolic witness, which today finds permanent form in the New Testament writings, remains fundamental to the church's witness. It is a reminder that the heart of the witness we are called to bear before all nations is not so much pointing to ourselves and our experience, as pointing to Christ who can only be accounted for in terms of God's presence in Him, and who alone can account for our experience of God through Him. We note the intimate link to the Spirit's coming (cf. v. 8 and below), which underlines that witnessing is always understood as a divine-human activity: 'We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit' (5:32; cf. Mark 13:11).
(2) The power for its pursuance, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you shall be witnesses to me... As we noted for witness-bearing, so for the entire pursuance of the mission, God is at the centre. Mission operates at the matrix of the divine with the human. It is a ministry and movement in and through which God acts. This will be normatively demonstrated in the launching of the mission by the powerful 'coming on them' of God the Holy Spirit. Jesus had spoken of this using the metaphor of baptism (v. 5) after the model of John's immersion rite. Accordingly the enablement will be, at least in its inception, an overwhelming experience of God; a being immersed and overpowered. Jesus had already spoken at some length in the Upper Room of the Spirit's unique enablement of the apostles (John 14:26f, etc), and indeed had given them, immediately following the resurrection, a memorable image of the essential nature of this Spirit-impartation by breathing upon them: the Spirit who will come upon them will be none other than the life-breath of the Risen Lord (John 20:22). But what He now promises further enriches that perspective, for the happening of Acts 2 is destined to be not just a special experience of the Spirit, but also a model for the entire mission of the church.
We should note also the corporate terms of this enablement. All the verbs in these verses are plural. It is a 'coming on' the church, the disciple community. The instrument of the mission is the disciples together. The referring of the mission's enablement, and hence its essential realization, to the Holy Spirit through the community, is also a salutary corrective to the erroneous material, political, territorial and ethnically limited view of the kingdom reflected in the disciples' question of verse 6. The kingdom's coming is essentially linked to the Spirit's coming and presence. As Paul would affirm later, 'The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking (external, material practices and performances), but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit' (Rom. 14:17). We can note the parallel with Jesus' ministry and His empowerment by the same Holy Spirit (1:1; Luke 1:35; 3:21ff; 4:1; 4:14; 4:17f).
(3) The scope of its reach: in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. The mission begins locally. It is to be launched where they are, in Jerusalem. Their witness will be borne first in the heart of the nation, in the city of God, the site of the Temple, the place of sacred association for Israel's entire relationship with God. It will begin therefore in a place where the culture is familiar and the language of communication is common to both the witnesses and those witnessed to. But it will not be confined there. It is to move beyond Jerusalem to the whole nation of Israel in its homeland, and then to the morally and spiritually compromised Samaritans with their inadequate theology and separate history and culture. But even that will be no stopping place, for beyond that their concern must carry them on to a witness to the Gentile world, to Israel's scattered diaspora, and to the Gentile nations themselves with all their cultural, linguistic, historical and spiritual foreignness.
There is discussion of the precise meaning of 'to the ends of the earth'. Is this diaspora Jews, wherever they might be found? or the entire populations of Spain at the limits of the western Mediterranean, or of the Gentile nations generally, or the furthest geographical limits of the world? It is difficult not to miss the Old Testament background here (Isa. 48:20; 49:6; Jer. 10:13). It is perhaps possible to see both an immediate and a more ultimate reference. From the literary standpoint of the book of Acts the goal, in an evident sense, is reached with Paul freely preaching the gospel from his 'prison' in Rome (28:31). Thus the mission culminates as the message is proclaimed in 'the centre of the world', from where it can radiate outwards in every direction. However the occurrence of the phrase in Isaiah (48:20; 49:6) points finally to the global dimensions of the mission, in terms of the redemptive purpose of God through His Servant. The God of Israel, who is witnessed to in Genesis 1 as the creator of the entire earth, now embraces the entire earth in His work of redemption. The disciple community is thus called to share the universal vision of the God who creates all peoples and nations, who holds them all accountable to Him, and who embraces them all in the scope of His salvation achieved through the infinitely costly ministry of His Servant. The church is thus defined at its birth as a global people who will 'go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation', and whose communal life will reflect the diversity and richness of all the world's peoples; a global church of a global God.
Marshall observes the implications: 'These verses spell out God's purpose and the place of the church in it. They postulate that the period of witness and mission must precede the return of Jesus. They were thus in effect warning the disciples not to expect a speedy winding up of history. For Luke's readers some forty years or more later (as to ourselves today) they were a reminder of the ongoing task: the gospel must still be taken to the ends of the earth. At the same time the words contain a note of promise in that the departure of Jesus is compensated for by the coming of the Spirit, given by Jesus himself (2:33).'
The historical reality of the ascension: The period of forty days is drawn to a conclusion by a unique action, the ascension of Jesus. As the disciples look on, He is taken up into a cloud (Matt. 28:16ff; Luke 24:50f). The ascension has been regularly dismissed as a hangover from primitive belief in a three-decker world, with God's home 'above the sky'. But its general historicity is perfectly defensible provided we allow for the Bible's regular use of symbolism in conveying its message.
The disciples' experience of seeing Jesus physically gathered up into a cloud—a memory which would have impressed itself on their minds for the remainder of their lives—taught them three important, highly relevant truths. First, its climactic nature at the end of the forty days would have indicated the conclusion of that period. They were not to anticipate further physical appearances of Jesus. Second, for men immersed in the Old Testament, the cloud was a revered symbol of the awesome presence of God, as for example at Sinai, or in the wilderness (Exod. 40:34, 13:21), at the dedication of Solomon's temple (1 Kings 8:10f), or more immediately of the glory of Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration (Luke 9:34f); Jesus is 'going' into the very heart and centre of Godhead. Third, the movement of Jesus upwards into the cloud (he was taken up...) would have conveyed what such elevation does in every age (cf. 'the king ascended to the throne...'; 'she went up in my estimation...'), viz. his exaltation to a place of supreme dignity, respect, and authority.
Taken together these three implications coalesce in an ascension-mediated conviction that Jesus, though now and hereafter to be hidden from physical sight and tangible contact, is in the very presence of God, and exalted as Lord over all things.
(1) For Jesus Himself. Ascension means reign, as we noted above. Paul explores this implication memorably in Philippians 2:9f, 'God has highly exalted Jesus and given him the name which is above every other name', viz. the name 'Lord', with all its Old Testament overtones of deity. Thus the risen one can claim, 'All authority in heaven and earth is given to me' (Matt. 28:18). Jesus is therefore the 'Lord Jesus' (cf. Acts 2:34), the one addressed as 'Lord' in the messianic Psalm 110:1 (cf. Rom. 8:34; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:13; 1 Pet. 3:22; Acts 10:36).
(2) For the mission of the church: We recall that Luke has already given an account of the ascension at the end of his Gospel (Luke 24:50f). There it acts as a fitting conclusion to the story of Jesus' earthly ministry. He who was rejected and exposed to the horrors of crucifixion is not only raised again, the conqueror of death; but is vindicated in His claims, and in His divinely intended self-sacrifice, by being exalted to the right hand of God. So the Gospel ends with the disciples offering Him worship, and being filled with great joy (Luke 24:52).
However Luke repeats the ascension in some detail here in Acts 1, because the ascension is not only the fitting conclusion to the gospel story, it is also the supremely important presupposition and basis of the entire ongoing life of the disciple-community, the church. It is in the light shed by the ascension that we are to view the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the whole course of the Christian centuries, and the entire mission of the gospel in the world. 'Christ is ascended, but his abiding presence and energy fill the whole book of Acts, and the whole succeeding story of his people on earth..." He ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things".'
It is on the basis of the ascension that the church goes forth to the world with the gospel. It is His ascended presence which authenticates its testimony, and which again and again renews its life, inspires its servants, establishes its authority, directs its progress, and will culminate its work. 'There is all the difference in the world between going out on mission with the motive of helping Christ to become King, and going out because the King has sent you... The command "go into all the world" has behind it the urge and power of that stupendous affirmation "All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me." The dynamic of the church's unaccomplished task is the accomplished deed of God. Underneath the urgent imperative there rests, firm as a rock, the eternal indicative.'
Calvin notes a further lesson of the ascension: 'He ascended to heaven to remain there until such time as he should come a second time to judge the world. Let us therefore learn... that Christ is not to be sought either in heaven or upon earth other than by faith; and also that we must not desire to have Him present with us bodily in the world. For the man who clings to either of these ambitions often moves further away from Him.'
(3) For our personal service of the mission of Christ. More generally, the ascension clarifies the conditions under which Christ is present for us in our personal lives. It is a relationship with Him that is real and living, for He is risen and alive forever. It a relationship which does not depend on sight but rather on faith, listening to His voice rather than straining for His physical presence; 'this is my Son... listen to him' (Luke 9:35). It is a relationship of confidence for He reigns in the world. It is a relationship of sympathy, 'for he is not unable to sympathize with our weaknesses', and 'he ever lives to make intercession for us'. It is a relationship of hope because 'he will come again' (11). It is a relationship experienced in the context of mission, the command to be witnesses 'until he comes'. But He who comes will be 'this same Jesus', and hence it is a relationship of love as we rest in the revelation of the Gospels and nurture a relationship with Him which is daily enlightened by their witness. Accordingly the ascension is no 'tearful farewell' as at some parting at a deathbed, or before a long journey with the prospect of a yawning separation and no certainty of ever renewing the contact of sight and touch. Hence Luke 24:52... 'they returned to Jerusalem with great joy'. The implications of the ascension for Christian living as well as witness, have rarely been more defiantly, or thrillingly expressed, than in a passage in Calvin's fourth sermon on the ascension:
'Since he has gone up there, and is in heaven for us, let us note that we need not fear to be in this world. It is true that we are subject to so much misery that our condition is pitiable, but at that we need neither be astonished nor confine our attention to ourselves. Thus, we look to our Head Who is already in heaven, and say, "Although I am weak, there is Jesus Christ Who is powerful enough to make me stand upright. Although I am feeble, there is Jesus Christ Who is my strength. Although I am full of miseries, Jesus Christ is in immortal glory and what he has will some time be given to me and I shall partake of all his benefits. Yes, the devil is called the prince of this world. But what of it? Jesus Christ holds him in check; for he is King of heaven and earth. There are devils above us in the air who make war against us. But what of it? Jesus Christ rules above, having entire control of the battle. Thus we need not doubt that he gives us the victory. I am here subject to many changes, which may cause me to lose courage. But what of it? The Son of God is my Head, who is exempt from all change. I must, then, take confidence in Him." This is how we must look to his ascension, applying the benefits to ourselves.'
(4) For the form of our Christian hope: A final point from these verses is to consider the intrinsic relationship established here between the ascension and the return of Christ.
The incarnation of the Son of God was not a temporary phase of His being. His uniting to Himself a full human nature is a continuing reality, and hence, although His physical form remains hidden from us during the age of the church, it is realized in the present through His High Priestly intercession and sympathy (Heb. 4:14-5:10; 7:23-25; Rom. 8:34), and it is destined to reappear for us at His return. 'We shall see him as he is!' (1 John 3:2).