Text: Acts 1:12-26
We left the disciples last time standing on the Mount of Olives near Bethany having just watched the Lord ascend out of their view into the heavens and having been told by the angels that the Lord would return to the earth in the same way in due time.
v.12 The “Sabbath Day’s journey” doesn’t mean the ascension occurred on the Sabbath; it was rather a distance of 3,000 feet, a piece of rabbinical casuistry reached by the combination of two OT texts: Ex. 16:29 (which ordered that no one was to go out on the Sabbath Day to gather manna) and Num. 35:5 (which stipulated that the first 3,000 feet outside a town was pastureland considered to belong to the town). The idea was that if you only traveled 3,000 feet, you hadn’t really “gone out.”
v.13 The “upper room” is very likely the same room of the last supper, of the Easter evening appearance of the Lord, and perhaps, as Acts 12:12 may indicate, the upper room of the house belonging to John Mark’s mother, Mary.
v.14 We can’t say for sure who is included in the phrase, “the women,” but we can probably safely conclude that it includes Mary Magdalene, Joanna (whose husband managed Herod Antipas’ household), and Susanna, three women mentioned among the helpers of the Lord in the Gospel of Luke (8:2-3). Luke tells us there that these three women “were helping to support the Lord and his disciples out of their own means.”
The Lord’s siblings, who had not believed in him during the days of his public ministry, are now found among the believers – perhaps in large part because of the Lord’s post-resurrection appearance to one of them, his brother James, of which we learn in 1 Cor. 15:7. Two of his brothers, James and Jude, would write books of the New Testament. By the way, this is the last mention of the Lord’s mother Mary in the New Testament.
v.15 The significance of the number 120 has been debated. My dissertation supervisor, Howard Marshall, argues in his commentary on Acts that “in Jewish law a minimum of 120 Jewish men was required to establish a community with its own council…” So, in Jewish terms, and all these people were Jews, the disciples already formed a number sufficient to establish a new community. [Marshall, TNTC, 64] On the other hand, the paltry number prepares us to appreciate the 3,000 that came to Christ on Pentecost Sunday. That is the numerical difference the Holy Spirit would make! [Peterson, 122]
v.17 This statement hardly means that Judas may be excused for his betrayal of the Lord because that betrayal had been prophesied beforehand in Holy Scripture. Let no one think that he can sin his way outside of God’s control. God rules over all things; even our sins! Nothing can prevent the will of God from coming to pass, even the worst betrayal of the church’s insiders!
v.19 You’ll notice that vv. 18 and 19 are placed in parentheses by the translators of the ESV. These two verses are clearly not part of Peter’s speech as the phrase “in their own language” proves. Luke is adding an explanation for his Gentile readers.
Adding the two accounts of the purchase of the Field of Blood we are given in the New Testament, this one and the one in Matthew (27:3-10), Judas may be said to have bought the field because it was purchased with the money he took to betray the Lord, even though it was the decision of the priests to use the money for that purpose when Judas returned it to them in a paroxysm of remorse. It was Judas’ blood money that purchased the field.
v.20 The two verses cited are from the Psalms, the first from Psalm 69 which is five times in the New Testament applied to Jesus. The verse concerns the judgment of the enemies of the king. The second is from Psalm 109 and likewise describes the judgment of the wicked, especially the traitor among the king’s friends. Peter analogizes from that statement to the present set of circumstances. They must now do what God said he would do to the enemies of God who betrayed him from within his church. It is hard to resist the conclusion that Judas had to be replaced because otherwise the group of disciples did not add up to 12, the number of the tribes of Israel and so a symbol of the restoration of Israel in and by the Christian Church. [Peterson, 118] In any case and for whatever reason, a few years later, when James was executed it was apparently no longer thought necessary to replace him. [Stott, 57]
v.22 Since an apostle was a man charged with laying the foundation of the church in the new epoch, he must have had an intimate knowledge of the history upon which the church was to be built and be able to safeguard the truth concerning Jesus. He must, therefore, have known Jesus from the beginning and must have been an eyewitness of his resurrection; that is, he must have seen the Lord Jesus alive after his crucifixion. Paul, of course, would be made an apostle later though he lacked the first of these qualifications. But the Lord himself changed the rules in that case.
v.23 Joseph’s Aramaic name was Barsabbas, his Latin name was Justus.
v.26 The disciples reached the proper conclusion by consulting Scripture, which taught them that Judas ought to be replaced, by common sense – if there were to be a new apostle he needed to have the same qualifications the eleven had –, and finally by prayer. By those means, they were able to get as far as two equally qualified candidates, but since there was only room for one, they left the decision to the Lord. He had chosen the first group of twelve; he would choose the replacement to make up twelve again. We are not taught to get our guidance any longer by casting lots, which are never mentioned again in the NT – they were still in that formative time when special communications of the mind of God could be expected – but consulting Scripture, employing common sense, and committing the decision to prayer is still today very much the proper method of making decisions.
By the way, the form of prayer you find in vv. 24 and 25 came to be known as the collect (pronounced Caw-lect). Many of the prayers we print in our order of service have this collect form: invocation (You, Lord), relative clause (who know the hearts of all), petition (show which one of these two you have chosen), statement of purpose (to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside…), and conclusion or doxology, which this prayer would have had as well, but after the Jewish manner was assumed, not printed, as, for example, in the Lord’s Prayer. (“For thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory,” as you know, is the way we conclude the Lord’s Prayer, but it is not found in any of the better manuscripts of the Lord’s Prayer in Luke or in Matthew. But it is very likely how the prayer would have been ended nevertheless.) You have often seen or heard in our worship:
“Almighty God, unto whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you, and worthily magnify your holy name; though Christ our Lord.” That is a collect.
I want this morning for us to consider together both what these verses tell us about the life of the earliest church, the things that were said and done in those few days that separated the Ascension from Pentecost, and what they tell us about the choices Luke made in crafting his narrative.
Luke is going to give us a history of the early years of the Christian church and the gospel mission in the world. But it is perfectly obvious that he has told us only the smallest portion of the history he might have written. We already noticed that while his second volume is traditionally known as the Acts of the Apostles, actually it gives significant information about the ministry of only two of the apostles, Peter and Paul. Indeed, we learn here that Matthias replaced Judas among the Twelve, but we never learn another thing about Matthias or what he did as one of the twelve apostles. He is never so much as mentioned again in the New Testament.
In a history in which brevity was no object, we would expect, I suppose, to be given some information about both Joseph or Barabbas and Matthias. We know nothing about either man from the Gospels and we’re naturally curious. How did these men figure in the Lord’s public ministry? They were there from the baptism of the Lord by John the Baptist to the end, but that raises a host of questions. Just how much of the time were they present with the Twelve, which of the Lord’s miracles did they witness themselves, when did they see him after his resurrection, and, for that matter, how many others were there like them of whom we know nothing?
We’d also love to know something – at least I would – about Joseph. How did he take being passed over for a spot among the Twelve? What did he do with the rest of his life?
Or think about the situation that prevailed when the group met in the upper room to pray and to elect Judas’ successor. We know that rumors of the Lord’s resurrection were swirling throughout Jerusalem and Judea in those heady days. The Lord had appeared to his disciples a number of times, once, in Galilee to more than 500 of them at once. News like that travels! What was the response of the Jewish leadership? Was there some ongoing attempt to get at the Lord’s followers or was the Sanhedrin lying low in hopes that the brewing excitement would come to nothing?
Or what of Mary? Wouldn’t you love to know what she was thinking and doing in the days following the resurrection of her Son, who everyone now understood was no one less than the Savior of the world? Was she often giving her testimony in meetings of Christians, telling the whole story from her point of view? Was there perhaps a little Q&A at the end about her conversation with the angels, what they looked like, and so on? And what of the Lord’s brothers? What a story they had to tell: of growing up at home with Jesus, of their skepticism, and of their sudden and dramatic realization that their brother, whom they had known all their lives, was the Son of God! How did they relate to the Twelve? Was there a twinge of jealousy that their brother had chosen those men instead of his own flesh and blood? Human nature being what it is, it’s hard to imagine there was never anything of that. But Luke says nothing about any of this.
There is so much fascinating, intriguing, and even important history that we would love to know and that Luke might have written down in his narrative. But what he has done, very obviously, is to give us what we need to know, not what we want to know. Under the direction of the Holy Spirit he selected the material to include based on its usefulness in imparting to his readers the nature of the Christian faith and life, in illustrating for all succeeding generations of Christian believers what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ in the age of the Holy Spirit.
So, for example, when we read at the end of chapter two and again at the end of chapter 4 that the believers held all things in common and were exceedingly generous to those in need, we are not to read that as if it were simply a historical curiosity, some factoid that Luke thought might be of interest to later readers. We are being taught that a lack of interest in the accumulation of possessions and generosity are the spirit of the Christian life and that Christians who are not generous with what the Lord has given them are living a defective Christian life.
Or when we read in chapters four and five of the persecution suffered by the apostles because they were boldly preaching the good news of Jesus Christ and of their refusal to cease preaching no matter the risk to their freedom and even their lives, this is more than simply an inspiring story. This is instruction in how Christians are always to obey God rather than men.
And, similarly, when we read in chapter 12 that Peter, released miraculously from prison, found his fellow Christians at a prayer meeting, that detail is not simply narrative coloring, some detail meant to impart verisimilitude or authenticity to the story. We are being taught in that way that apostolic Christianity, which is to say true Christianity, is a praying faith and one form of its prayer is believers meeting for that very purpose.
As before in the historical narratives of the Old Testament and in the four Gospels, biblical history is more than simply a narrative of events. With that narrative the biblical authors teach us both theology and ethics. We are taught that same doctrine and those same ethics in other ways in the Bible, of course, but they are taught powerfully and beautifully in the Bible’s narratives. There and here in Acts we see our faith and our life in flesh and blood, in the lives of ordinary men and women, and in the push and pull of human life in an often hostile and confusing world.
So, thinking of Luke’s history in this way – as a carefully selected narrative meant to teach the Christian faith and the Christian life from the facts of its earliest history – what are we taught about our faith and our life in the verses we read this morning? Well, a great deal actually! We find out here what Christians, real Christians, Christians conscious of their calling as the followers of the risen Christ are and what they do.
Take, for example, the first half of verse 14. “All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…” That is more than a factual reminiscence; it is a prescription for the Christian life. Calvin says that in those few words we find two essentials of true and effective prayer to God: unity (they prayed with one accord) and perseverance (they devoted themselves to prayer). The form of the Greek verb used here and translated “they were devoting themselves” emphasizes the continuous nature of this activity. They were praying at length and did so as a fellowship of like-minded believers. [Peterson, 117n, 118] When the Christian church has been healthy, as it was at that moment, it has always been characterized by like-minded believers joining together in prayer to God, not once but regularly and eagerly. What does that teach us about our lives as Christians, brothers and sisters?
More than that, these believers were obedient to the Word of God. They turned to the Bible to learn what they needed to know and to do. Holy Scripture was their authority for life and faith. Peter was an apostle. He was, it seems, the natural leader of that band of twelve men. But when he rose to speak to the entire group he didn’t begin by saying, “This is what I think we ought to do.” Nor did he say, as we might have thought he would have said, “Before he left the world, the Lord Jesus told me to have us do this.” Apparently Jesus had given no such commandment. What Peter did was to apply the statements of the Word of God to the circumstance they faced. The company of the Twelve was a man short because of Judas’ treachery. Everybody understood why there were twelve disciples. What was to be done? The Scripture spoke clearly both of the judgment of such wicked men, which judgment had already been executed upon Judas, and of the importance of replacing them with faithful men. And so that was what they did. These were people who lived their lives and made their decisions with Holy Scripture in hand. As the whole Bible teaches us and in so many different ways, we are to be like that ourselves. We are to learn the Word of God and practice it in our lives. That too wise and godly Christians have always done. Are you and I doing that today? Such is the challenge of our text.
But we’re just getting started. In a way that would have been striking in the Jewish world of that day – you don’t find statements like these in the Jewish materials of the time –, this early Christian community was a community of both men and women, both sexes sharing equally in both the joy and the hardship of following Christ and both sexes undertaking the obligation of serving him in the world. Characteristic of the New Testament is the use of “brothers” in vv. 15 and 16. The term is obviously masculine, but just as obviously it includes both the men and the women who were just mentioned in the previous verses. It was a time and a place in which women were not treated with the same respect as were men, were not trusted in the same way as men – a woman, for example, could not testify in a Jewish court – but the Christian community rejected those prejudices and formed a community in which men and women worked together for the progress of the kingdom of God. Indeed, in that culture to address women as brothers was a high compliment, an honor paid to their dignity. It was ascribing to them the same respect that the culture regularly paid to men.
In some ways then as now, it was and would remain a man’s world, but never had women been given so large a share in that world, never had their contributions been so valued, never had they been placed on the same footing as men as was the case in the Christian church. It was one of its revolutionary features and one of the reasons why the Christian church eventually conquered the Greco-Roman world: it made full use of all of its people, men and women alike. This is one reason I think we may safely predict the final defeat of Islam; it makes almost no use of half of its people.
Years ago we had a young woman visit the church, a modern young woman who had obviously been influenced by modern feminism. She wanted to see for herself what sort of position women occupied in our evangelical Christian world. Her suspicion was that our women would have been suppressed: silenced, marginalized, their gifts and graces belittled. But she did not find that, as she should not have found it. The Bible, as the history of the church, is the story of godly women as well as godly men advancing the kingdom of God. Is that our community here: men and women working together, praying together, bearing witness together? It was then; it should be now. I’m grateful that it is here.
Another characteristic of the Christian community beautifully on display in Luke’s history here is that it was composed of mature disciples and new converts. Mary, the Lord’s mother, had known Jesus and of the work he had come into the world to do since his birth was first announced to her by Gabriel many years before. Peter and the others who made up the Twelve had walked with the Lord Jesus for some three years, had witnessed his miracles, had heard his teaching, and had spoken with him at some length after his resurrection. But the brothers of the Lord were brand new to the faith. They had a lot of catching up to do. Can’t you imagine James and Jude sitting down with Peter or John and pestering them with questions about those three years of the Lord’s ministry which they had largely missed because of their unbelief?
Still another facet of Christian life revealed already here at the headwaters of the church’s history is that the saints are also sinners. Judas betrayed the Lord and was judged severely for it. He was no longer in the picture, having hung himself. We have here a revolting description of what happened to his body afterwards. But, as any reader of the Gospels knows, Peter also betrayed the Lord. He denied him three times at the worst possible moment, when the Lord was on trial for his life and being betrayed by a corrupt leadership. Peter, his closest friend, turned against him. But here Peter is running the show! Here is Peter expounding Scripture and persuading the believers to replace Judas with another.
What gives? One betrayer of the Lord is rejected as the worst sort of Quisling and another is forgiven and put back in charge. Well, the fact is there are only traitors in the Christian church. We have all betrayed the Lord, we all continue to betray him. There are no saints that were not first sinners; there are no saints in this world that are not still sinners. What makes a saint is not perfect behavior, but repentance and faith leading to a longing for and striving for perfect behavior as an act of love. Peter’s remorse for his cowardly betrayal of Jesus was repentance and the Lord restored him, appearing to him privately on Easter Sunday. Peter confessed his sin, repudiated it, turned again to the life of faith, and pledged to do better. Judas’ remorse was self-loathing, but unaccompanied by faith in Jesus Christ. We must never miss the importance of the fact that Acts begins with Peter already leading the group, the same man who is presented to us late in the Gospel of Luke with all his warts. There is the gospel of God’s grace and mercy in flesh and blood! That is the good news in a form we can see; that is what Jesus does for people: he gives them a new beginning, a fresh start – in life and then every day.
Don’t you suppose there were people who wondered why Peter’s position of leadership had not been forfeited, given what he had done? Surely there were; but this was the lesson they had to learn and what better way to teach it: the worst of sinners can be the best of saints if only they humble themselves and ask Christ to make them so.
We are only getting started at noticing the various details of this snapshot of a gathering of Christians a few days before Pentecost. There are other things to notice. For example, in that community were leaders and followers, those who would become famous and those whose names would remain forever unknown to history. That too has been the case in the Christian church ever since. In many ways, as you yourselves know, the story of the church has been the story of her great men. We study the early church through her leaders in the book of Acts and then through her leaders in the centuries that followed. We learn a great deal about Peter and Paul but comparatively little about others and not even the names of the host of people whose lives intersect with the history Luke records. We know that many people became Christians through the ministries of Peter and Paul, but we know precious little about them; not even their names except in a few cases. The great and the small: hard as that can sometimes be to come to terms with, it is a fact of life and a fact of the church’s life. Always has been, always will be. Joseph or Barsabbas is at least named in this account, but he was not chosen to fill the vacancy and, in all probability, lived a somewhat smaller life as a result. Such is God’s calling for a great many of us, if not the vast majority of us, as it has always been. Some get more, some get less, but what does it matter, if all of us get Christ and heaven!
Or we could notice how the group that gathered there in the upper room, that microcosm of the Christian Church, contained believers who had enjoyed extraordinary experiences that others had not. Mary had been visited by angels long years before. The Twelve had just witnessed the ascension of the Lord and talked with angels themselves. But the Lord’s brothers hadn’t. James at least had seen his brother after his resurrection, but, so far as we know, Jude hadn’t. Some of us in this sanctuary have been Christians all our lives, others have experienced a dramatic conversion to Christ in the middle of our lives. Very different experiences indeed! We are not the same and our lives are not the same. It is Jesus Christ who is the same, yesterday, today, and forever, and it is our faith in him that makes us one. So it was and so it is today.
The challenge of our text this morning, and of text after text through the book of Acts will be this: to find ourselves in the picture, to see our lives in those lives, our obedience in theirs, our life of prayer, our life of the Word, our faith in Christ as identifiably the same faith with the same effects as we see in these brothers and sisters long ago. Can you see your own face in the picture of those some hundred and twenty gathered in the upper room? Acts is not information for information’s sake; it is a summons to trust in Jesus Christ and to live for him as these first Christians show us how to do.