1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach,
2 until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen.
3 To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.
4 And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me;
5 for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”
7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority;
8 but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them;
11 and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” [NASB ‘77]
Luke introduces Acts with the story of Jesus commissioning His disciples and ascending to the Father. The first eleven verses of Chapter 1 mark the end of Jesus’ physical ministry on earth and the beginning of His spiritual ministry that He will conduct through His followers. He gives eleven men the most important message mankind will ever hear and tasks them with taking it to the ends of the earth. He promises them, however, that they will not do it alone.
Luke begins his account addressing it to the same man he wrote his gospel to – Theophilus. No one really knows who Theophilus is but he apparently is a man of some standing – most excellent Theophilus (Lk 1:3) – and a believer who Luke wants to reassure by giving him the facts of Jesus’ ministry. Luke tells him in Lk 1:4 that he writes so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Luke says in verse 1 that his gospel recorded all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up. Note the word began. Luke wrote his gospel to record the beginning of Jesus’ ministry – not its completion. That means the book of Acts is a record of the continuation of that ministry in a different form. The gospel recorded what Jesus did and taught until the day He was taken up. Acts is a record of his continuing ministry after He was taken up.
Luke’s gospel ends with an account of Jesus appearing to the disciples, showing them His wounds and eating with them. His final charge is, “…stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk 24:39-49). This seems to be what Luke refers to in verse 2 when he says his first account ended with Jesus giving the disciples orders by the Holy Spirit.
Thus verses 1 and 2 both refer to the Holy Spirit. The only way it makes sense to say the gospel recorded the beginning of Jesus’ ministry is if He will continue it by His Spirit through the apostles. And verse 2 says that it is through the Holy Spirit that Jesus will commission them. The following verses will make this clearer but our working title for Acts is accurate – The Acts of Jesus by His Spirit through His Apostles.
In verses 3 through 11 Luke gives more detail to the story he lays out briefly at the end of the gospel. In Luke 24:36-53 he tells of the last days of Jesus on earth but presents it in broad brush form. In these verses in Acts he fills in the details.
He begins with a summary of Jesus’ actions during the forty days after His resurrection. Jesus spends this time making sure His followers fully realize He is alive. He presents Himself to them and gives them many convincing proofs. The proofs include showing them His wounds, allowing them to physically touch Him (“See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” – Lk 24:39), and eating with them (something else a spirit cannot do).
Paul says in I Cor 15:5-8 that Jesus appears not only to the disciples but also to many others and even to a group of 500 people at once. It is interesting that He apparently does not try to appear to any of His executioners or accusers – He does not look up anyone on the Sanhedrin. This shows that His many appearances are not for the sake of revenge or judgment but to give concrete evidence to His messengers. It is ultimately for the gospel that He appears so many times.
In this way His appearances are vital to the witness of the apostles and their ongoing testimony. They have NO DOUBT that Jesus rose again and is alive. He does not appear to them once in a vision or in a circumstance that could be questioned later. He eats with them multiple times, they actually touch Him, they talk with Him and listen to Him. He shows Himself to them with many convincing proofs so they can fulfill the mission with confidence.
He also spends these days teaching the disciples. He speaks to them of the things concerning the kingdom of God. He wants to make sure they understand the message and fully understand why He came, why He died and what it means that He rose from the dead. He ensures they realize that the Messianic age is here and the kingdom of God – while not fully realized – has now come and the world has entrance into it through Him. He effectively makes sure they understand the gospel message they will soon spread.
Jesus has spoken of the kingdom of God throughout His time with them but He now speaks of it on the other side of His death and resurrection where He can discuss it plainly. Up to this point they have never understood His words about His ultimate mission on earth and have misinterpreted His explanations many times (Lk 9:45, 18:34). Now, however, they begin to understand and in his gospel Luke gives an important explanation as to why (beyond the fact that they have witnessed His death and resurrection). In Lk 24:45-47 Luke writes – Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and rise again from the dead the third day; and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” Jesus opens their minds and makes them understand the OT scriptures that refer to Him and ensures they finally get what the gospel message actually is. The blindness that did not allow them to understand before is supernaturally removed such that they can fully see and comprehend for the first time.
On one of the last occasions they are together (vs 4) Jesus commands them to wait in Jerusalem for what the Father has promised them. He tells them that John (the Baptist) baptized with water – which he did so people could repent and prepare their hearts for the coming Messiah – but they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now (this echoes John’s words in Lk 3:16). What John prophesied and looked toward has happened. The Messiah has come and provided for salvation for the world. John’s baptism is no longer necessary because the Holy Spirit will come upon all who believe. John baptized for repentance – Jesus baptizes through His Spirit for salvation. The Holy Spirit cleanses from sin and provides power to Christ’s followers to fulfill His will and proclaim the gospel.
Luke does not directly record the promise of the Holy Spirit in his gospel (in 24:49 he effectively writes the same story of Jesus instructing the disciples to wait in Jerusalem for the Spirit’s power but does not write an earlier instance of the actual promise). John (the apostle) records it in John 16:5-15. Thus the reference to the promise in verse 4 is either back to what Jesus had told the disciples earlier that Luke did not record (although referred to indirectly in 12:12 & 21:10-15) – or – it is a reference to the prophecy of Joel 2:28-32 (also Ezekiel 36:25-27) that Peter will discuss when he preaches at Pentecost. Both are a promise of the Father.
The disciples ask Jesus a question that at first sounds as if they are as clueless as ever. They hear Him discussing the kingdom of God and the Holy Spirit and think that perhaps the kingdom He refers to will be in physical form on earth. They ask, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” It is hard to read this without having to stifle a groan at their continued obtuse reading of His words.
Their question, however, may not be as discouraging as it seems. Perhaps the disciples ask Jesus about restoring the kingdom because they assume the full day of the Lord has come, as promised in Joel when he prophesied about the Holy Spirit. If the Holy Spirit is about to come, does that mean that all the prophecies about the end times are about to happen? In Joel 3:1 – the passage that continues the thought of 2:28-32 about the Holy Spirit – it says that God will in that day restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem and judge the nations. This being the case – maybe the disciples’ question is not as shallow as it first appears.
Jesus answers them as He almost always answers them – patiently. He does not condemn them for the question – He just changes their focus. He tells them first that it is not for them to know the times or epochs but only for the Father to know. No one will know when the end of the age is coming – and the Holy Spirit’s appearance does not mean the end times are here.
In verse 8 He then answers the question they should have asked rather than the one they did. He says they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. They will have a role in the kingdom of God but the kingdom is not earthly or physical. They will spread the good news that entrance to the kingdom is now available to everyone and the kingdom will grow to the remotest part of the earth. But it is a spiritual kingdom, not one concerned with political or military power.
The power of the Holy Spirit that will soon come upon them is theirs so they can spread the gospel. The Holy Spirit will enable them to be Jesus’ witnesses in an ever-widening circle spreading out from Jerusalem. Jesus leaves them with an awesome mission but He does not leave them alone. It is the power of the Holy Spirit – His Spirit – that will work through them to carry His gospel to the ends of the earth. Jesus will go with them just as He has been with them over the last three years.
In that way the promise of the Holy Spirit is really a promise to continue the ministry of Jesus on earth in a different form. The Holy Spirit replaces the visible, physical Jesus but is really Jesus in spiritual form working through His followers to continue the ministry He started in Bethlehem. That means the promise at the end of Matthew and the promise in 1:8 are really the same – “…and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”
As soon as Jesus finishes talking He is lifted up while they watch and disappears into a cloud. Apparently, somewhere around verse 6 the scene shifts to the Mount of Olives (vs 12) and Jesus addresses the disciples with His last words there. He gives them the Great Commission – although Luke’s account sounds almost more like a prophecy than a commission – and then immediately ascends and disappears. Luke gives the most detail about this scene of any of the gospel writers, but even his description is short of details. It is hard to fully picture what this looked like to the disciples.
He leaves them by ascension so they realize that His departure is permanent (or long-term). This is not just another absence where they will see Him again shortly (He has disappeared from them before over the last 40 days). He leaves them and they will not see Him again until He comes back to rule for all eternity.
The disciples continue to gaze into the sky because perhaps they are not sure what they have just seen. They do not know if He is coming right back or what has just happened. They also probably hope that He IS coming back – they may feel very unprepared for the mission He just gave them. What does it mean that they will be baptized by the Holy Spirit and how will they spread the message of the kingdom of God to the remotest part of the earth? These unspoken questions may be in their minds as they continue to hopefully gaze upward.
While they are looking up – and it may have been a comical scene to see eleven men gazing up at nothing – two angels appear beside them. The text does not explicitly say they are angels but their sudden appearance and their white clothing leave little doubt as to what Luke’s description intends.
The angels somewhat rebuke the disciples. They ask them what they are doing – “…why do you stand looking into the sky?” Why do you look in the sky when you know you have a job to do? Will you complete the mission Jesus just gave you by standing here? The angels assure the disciples that Jesus WILL return in just the same way (in the clouds – Lk 21:27, Titus 2:12-13 – think how much better the disciples understand the second coming by having witnessed the ascension). Thus they can turn their attention to fulfilling the mission they have been given confident that Jesus will come back to claim those who are His.
So the disciples have in their arsenal of gospel weapons confidence from two sides. They know Jesus is alive because of all the appearances and proofs. And they know Jesus will someday return because both He and the angels said He will and the disciples have now witnessed the method of His return. Jesus died and rose again and Jesus will someday return. This is the gospel in broad strokes – and they KNOW it to be true.
Luke says nothing about the disciples being in fear when they see the angels. It is notable that throughout Acts believers typically do not react in fear to angelic appearances and visions. Perhaps this signifies a change in relationship between God and His redeemed?
Think about what Jesus tells the eleven disciples in this passage. “You are witnesses to the most important event that has ever happened or will ever happen in world history. From creation until now and from now until the end of the age nothing will be more momentous than My death and resurrection. And unlike any who will come after you, you are eyewitnesses to it. As well, the gospel is the most amazing and vital message ever communicated to man. Every soul on this planet – either alive now or in the future – must hear it as his eternity depends on it. That means that the message must go out from where we are to every part of the world – every part, no matter how remote. This is the responsibility I leave with the eleven of you.”
The eleven men He commissions are not formally educated, have very little influence in society, have very limited resources, and likely have never traveled to a country outside of Israel except for Samaria – a country filled with people they hate. Not only that, but they have been raised in a culture that teaches that fellowship with anyone outside of the culture is sin. These are the eleven men tasked with spreading the gospel throughout the world.
It is this description of the apostles that makes the promised gift of the Holy Spirit so vital and also what makes His actions in the rest of the book – and the rest of time – so incredible. He takes those eleven men and changes the world. And He continues to do it through oftentimes unexceptional people today. Giving the gospel to the apostles to spread probably does not look wise to the casual observer who knows their history – but it will work because of the power of the Holy Spirit. And by leaving it to eleven simple men who become the apostles we study today, God ensures that He gets all the glory. And that, ultimately, is the point. The gospel glorifies God, the mission glorifies God, and the success of the mission against all odds glorifies God.