representation in stained glass of apostles Peter and Paul

Studying Acts 1 1-11

We’re studying Acts 1:1-11 this week, the opening verses of the book of Acts. It’s the first in a series of five lessons from the book of Acts, that will take us through some of the earliest events in the life of the church. Here are a few notes [and some questions, here] on this week’s text:

BACKGROUND AND CONTEXT: We’ve studied texts in the book of Acts before. We’ll maybe recall that Acts is the sequel, if we can say that, to the gospel of Luke. It’s addressed to the same reader, someone named Theophilus (English translation, “lover of God”), by the same author. So we’ll often see it referred to in scholarly literature as a single work, Luke-Acts.

The Holy Spirit is a main character throughout Luke-Acts. That will show up in our text.

“Rulers” show up a lot in Luke-Acts. [For example: the “rich young man” of Mark and Matthew is a “ruler” in Luke.] Bureaucracy – the technical apparatus of governance – is also a prominent theme. Maybe this has something to do with the identity of Theophilus. [Jennifer Creamer et al., in “Who Was Theophilus? Discovering the Original Reader in Luke-Acts,” argue for Theophilus being a real person, obviously a Gentile, presumably a person of note since he’s addressed as “most excellent,” and perhaps associated with the Roman government. If they’re right, that would help explain all that Lukan political consciousness.]

Luke is the only evangelist who records the event of the ascension, which is the subject of this week’s text – and also the narrative hinge of Luke-Acts. The gospel of Luke ends with the event; the book of Acts begins with it. Everything in the gospel leads up to it; everything in the book of Acts follows from it. From the perspective of Luke-Acts, the ascension of the Risen Lord is the decisive turning point of world history.

No surprise, then, this text and Luke 24:44-53 are lectionary readings for the Feast of the Ascension every year.

CLOSER READING: Verses 1-4 address Theophilus, and reprise the ending of the gospel. If this were television, we’d be seeing the words “earlier, on The World Turned Upside Down …” crawl across the bottom of the screen.

V2 is perplexing – to me, at least – because it reads like Jesus has given orders or commands or instructions to the apostles “by the Holy Spirit” – everyone translates it that way. But he’s right there, speaking to them, so how does that make sense? Metaphysical question? Has Jesus been giving instructions by the Holy Spirit this whole time, and Luke has only just now pointed it out?

[I would love to ask someone who knows Greek better than I do whether that prepositional phrase couldn’t modify “whom he had chosen” – the apostles – instead of that verb “having given orders.” Despite the fact that yes, we know, Jesus had already chosen them.]

Chosen, what Jesus has done with the apostles, is the root of that “church” word – ekklesia. Maybe Luke is emphasizing the apostles’ chosenness here for a reason. Since he’s going to be talking about the church for the whole rest of the narrative. It’s also a [Greek] political term. Maybe worth noticing, in line with Luke’s emphasis on things political.

We might notice that there’s a shift from indirect to direct discourse at the end of v5, as the report about Jesus’ instructions to the apostles becomes Jesus’ exact words to the apostles. [So, again, if this were television, there’d be a dissolve to a scene in present time …]

Verses 5-11 expand a bit on the account of the ascension given in Luke 24:44-53 – there’s the apostles’ question about “the kingdom” in v6, which lets us know how limited their national perspective still is; Jesus’ response to that (“none of your business”); and  more specificity about the geographic unfolding of the apostles’ evangelical work in v8 (“Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – famously, the outline for the narrative in the remainder of the book of Acts).

It might be interesting that in v7 Jesus uses both Greek words for time – clock time, and “readiness” or “right time” time – when he tells the group it’s not for them to know God’s “times or periods” (NRSV). So much for premillennialism, postmillennialism, and all the millenialisms in between.

The cloud in v9 might remind us of the cloud at the transfiguration event (see Luke 9:28-36). So – a familiar mode of divine communication, transport, manifestation … ?

In v10, two men in white garments are suddenly standing next to the apostles, and rude as ever (in Luke), ask them why they’re doing what they’re doing. “He’s coming back. The same way.” [You can just hear them in the angel break room: “Humans are idiots.” “I know, right?”]

Possibly noteworthy, they repeat the word heaven here three times, after the narrator has mentioned already once that the group is looking intently into heaven. So, “heaven,” four times in two verses. Are we supposed to get that Jesus is in heaven?

Which is not where our business is. At least not for now.

… for God is in heaven and you upon earth; therefore let your words be few.

Ecclesiastes 5:2
Image Christi Himmelfart
I love this picture so much.

Images: “Stained Glass St Blaise Church Dubrovnik” (cropped), Tony Hisgett, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons; “Ascension,” Hans von Kulmbach [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

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