The Book Of Acts by William R. Cannon
Before his election to the episcopacy in 1968 United Methodist Bishop William R. Cannon served as Professor of Church History and then Dean of Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta. Other books by Bishop Cannon include The Gospel Of John, Jesus The Servant, and The Book Of Acts. The Book Of Acts, Copyright 1989 by W.R. Cannon, published by Upper Room Books. This material prepared for Religion Online by Paul Mobley.
Chapter 1: The Risen Christ and His Disciples
The Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, though distinct from each other both in the time of their composition and in their theme and literary design, are nonetheless two volumes of a single work. They were written by the same person whose purpose was to describe the origin and development of Christianity. Therefore, in this first chapter of Acts the author makes the transition from his Gospel of the person and work of Jesus Christ during his ministry in the flesh to the effects of that ministry in the organization of the church.
The connecting link between the two accounts is the risen Christ himself and his postresurrection associations with his disciples. These eventuate in the disciples' first gathering after his ascension and what they do without him to perpetuate his work.
Luke opens the Acts by addressing it to Theophilus, the same person to whom he had addressed his Gospel (Luke l:l-4), indicating that he had written both books especially for him. Thus, Theophilus had more of the sacred writings of the New Testament written for and sent to him than any other person or even collection of persons, including the people and churches to whom Paul addressed his Epistles. This is because Luke and Acts, taken together, form a larger literary collection than either the Pauline or the Johannine writings. Luke wrote more of the New Testament than any other author.
However, we know almost nothing about Theophilus. We do not know what he did or where he lived. We are not even sure that he was a baptized Christian. It is reasonable to assume that he was and that the writings were sent to him for his edification. Or he may have been seriously considering becoming a Christian and what Luke sent him was for his instruction before making his decision. He had to have more than a casual interest in the subject to be willing to read so much.
No doubt he was some prominent person who was (or could be) immeasurably influential in the spread of the gospel, and Luke wanted his commendation of his book. Literary works in all periods of history have been dedicated to such persons in order to use their names to promote the dissemination of the writings and more frequently than not to solicit their financial backing as well. The latter was hardly Luke's concern, but the former may have been foremost in his thinking.
Theophilus's name would indicate that he was Greek rather than Latin, but that would not have precluded Roman citizenship and wealth and influence in the empire. The word theophilus means "dear to God." Could it be that it was a nickname, indicating the recognition by those who knew him of his devotion to God? It was not unusual in antiquity for this to happen. In the Old Testament, for example, God changed the name of Abram to Abraham to indicate that he was to be the father of many nations (Gen. 17:5) and Jacob to Israel, for he was to rule over a nation in the process of formation even as God rules (Gen. 32:28). In the New Testament, Jesus changed the name of Simon, son of Jonah, to Peter, indicating that he and his faith were the rock on which the church would be built (Matt. 16:17-18). Saul of Tarsus, after he was converted, changed his Jewish name to its Latin equivalent, Paul, to signify that his mission was to the gentiles.
That is why some scholars have felt that Luke's Theophilus was not an historical personage at all. They assume the name in Acts is a pseudonym for a collective personality, a community of many people, perhaps even the entire Christian church of the first century. Though this explanation of Luke's inscription and greeting is dubious and Theophilus was probably a real person, this is a poignant idea. As a matter of fact, the Acts of the Apostles has come to belong to all persons in all ages who think of themselves as dear to God and who have been blessed by this book.
Christ's Departing Charge to His Disciples (1:2-8)
Luke refers to his Gospel when he mentions that the risen Christ had demonstrated that he was alive after his crucifixion by many indisputable signs. He does not identify these signs because Theophilus and those who had read his Gospel already knew what they were.
Luke uses the word passion in referring to the death of Jesus (1:3). By doing that, he emphasizes, without describing the horror of our Lord's execution, the shame and mistreatment to which he was subjected during the course of his trial: the crown of thorns pressed on his head and the scourging, the pain of which was so excruciating that many did not survive it. This is the only time the word passion in this sense appears in the entire Bible.
Today, we generally use the word as a synonym for lust or sexual desire to mean "intense emotion, excitement, strong feeling, and ardent affection." But by his limiting the word to convey intense suffering, Luke introduces the term into the Christian vocabulary. Occasionally in Christian history it describes the suffering and death of martyrs, but almost always passion refers to the sufferings of Christ between the Last Supper and his death on the cross.
From the Acts, we learn the length of time Christ spent on earth between his resurrection and ascension. In reading Luke's Gospel, one gets the impression that all the post-resurrection appearances took place on Easter Day, that Christ arose from the dead in the early morning and ascended into heaven in the late afternoon. But Luke in Acts states that Christ was seen by his disciples over a period of forty days (1:3), during which time he taught them about the kingdom of God. Christ was concerned not with the church as we know it in the form of a temporal organization, but with the reign of God both in heaven and on earth. That reign can and does express itself in and through the church when the church is obedient to the will of God as Christ himself has defined it.
We have difficulty comprehending this distinction, however. In our thought and activity we tend to concentrate on the organization we call the church, and we constantly substitute it for the kingdom of God. Our actions show that we think it is the kingdom of God on earth.
We come by this impression honestly, for that was precisely what the disciples thought, too. Since Jesus was alive and had conquered death, they fully expected him to restore the kingdom of Israel, and they asked him when he planned to do it (1:6). "Can we expect it right now?" they asked. "Only God the Father has the answer to that question," Jesus replied.
His plans for them were of an entirely different order. Their sole mission on this earth was to witness to him (1:8). But they would have to wait to accomplish the assignment until God endowed them with the power, which would come through the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus reminded them that John the Baptist had baptized only with water. To understand the full import of baptism by the Holy Spirit, they should think of it in terms of the method John used in baptizing his followers. He either immersed them or poured water over them so that they were totally covered with water. In the same way the Holy Spirit would engulf them. They would be deluged in the Spirit's grace. His power would be infused throughout their whole personality. That, Jesus reminded them, was the promise God had given them through him.
He told them that their empowering would take place shortly in Jerusalem. Because Jerusalem was the place of his humiliation and death, it is only appropriate that it should have been the place of his vindication as the Holy Spirit began to work through his disciples.
In that mood, and in that setting, Jesus issued his final commandment to his disciples; that commandment is known as their commission. After they received the Holy Spirit, they were to witness to Christ, first in Jerusalem and Judea, then in Samaria, and finally "unto the uttermost part of the earth" (1:8). That meant their proclamation of the gospel must begin at home. Then, they must carry it to their enemies. Finally, they must extend their work of evangelization all over the world.
The Ascension (1:9-11)
While the disciples watched him, Jesus was taken from them and passed through a thick cloud into heaven. They were still gazing up into the sky when two angels reminded them that they had work to do on earth. The angels assured them that the way Jesus went up into heaven would be the same way he would come back again from heaven. He had promised that if he went away from them, he would come again to them (John 14:18; 16:16).
Luke devotes only three verses to the ascension. We are not to conclude, however, that the event was unimportant to him. After he said what happened and how it happened, there was nothing more to add to his account. The ascension proved to be most significant to the early church. The oldest creed, the Apostles' Creed, carries it as one of the articles of faith, the belief in which is essential to becoming a Christian.
The ascension is the basis of our understanding of the parousia. In his first advent, Jesus was born, like everyone else, of a woman. Though his preexistent life had been in heaven, he emptied himself of his heavenly glory, gave up his divine status, and became a human being, just another man (Phil. 2:6-8). But when he comes the second time, he will descend from the clouds of heaven in majesty and glory to judge the living and the dead. Every knee shall bow before him, and every tongue shall confess him as Lord (Phil. 2:10-11).
There is nothing we can do or fail to do to prevent this from happening. Even if we destroy all life on this earth through nuclear explosions, we cannot interfere with our Lord's second coming. Nothing can possibly separate Christ from his own, "neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature" (Rom. 8:38-39). The second coming of Christ will not be a gradual process but will be a cataclysmic event. According to Acts, it will be the exact reversal of his ascension.
The Apostolate (1:12-26)
A disciple was any follower of Jesus. The Twelve were disciples, but of a special class. They were Jesus' intimates, his closest and dearest friends. After his ascension, the disciples who remained loyal to Jesus would become apostles, the nucleus of the church, its supreme pastors and shepherds, its constituted leadership. Their names are listed in this passage of Acts (1:13), the same list, with the exception of Judas, that Luke gives in his Gospel (Luke 6:14-16).
Other followers (disciples) gathered with them at a designated place in Jerusalem. According to tradition, it was where the Last Supper had been held, the house of the mother of John Mark and the sister of Barnabas. Among those present were the mother of Jesus and his brothers and also some women, probably Mary Magdalene and the others who had helped prepare Jesus' body for burial. This means that women participated along with the men in the very first conclave of Christendom. There were approximately 120 persons, perhaps that many men. According to Jewish law, 120 men was the minimum number necessary to organize a new community with its own governing council.
Peter took charge of the group. He addressed the little assembly and said that a successor to Judas had to be designated. Judas was the guide of the high priest's soldiers when they arrested Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Peter affirmed that Jesus' betrayal by Judas was prophesied by David in the Psalms when he wrote, "Yea, mine own familiar friend, in whom I trusted, which did eat of my bread, hath lifted up his heel against me" (Psalm 41:9). The field Judas bought with the reward the chief priests gave him for betraying Jesus was uninhabitable, and David foresaw this as well (Psalm 69:25). David by prophecy instructs us, said Peter, to fill Judas's vacant office (Psalm 109:8).
At this time the disciples hoped to convert their fellow countrymen to faith in Jesus. They remembered Jesus' promise to them that they would sit on thrones and judge the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:30). They no doubt had this in mind when they asked Jesus if he was about to restore the kingdom to Israel. Whenever the promise was fulfilled, there must be twelve persons among them to rule; Judas had to be replaced.
In his speech Peter recounts the manner of Judas's death. He says Judas fell headlong on the ground in the field he had purchased with his reward and ruptured himself so that his bowels spilled out of his body. Matthew gives a different account in his Gospel; he states that Judas in shame returned the money to the chief priests and went out and hanged himself (Matt. 27:3-5).
Although these two accounts seem to contradict each other, both could be correct. Judas may well have hanged himself, and his body could have hung on the tree undiscovered until it began to rot. Then as it was cut down in such a decayed condition, it could have fallen apart on impact with the ground. The priests could have used Judas's money to buy the potter's field in which to bury strangers (Matt. 27:7), and by their doing so, Judas in effect purchased the field by proxy.
Peter addresses the group with the words, "Men and brethren" (1:16). This is the first time in scripture "brethren" (brothers) is used to designate Christians.
The conditions imposed on any person selected to take the place of Judas were that he had been a disciple and had kept company with Jesus and the eleven from the baptism by John until the ascension. He had to be a witness with them of all that Jesus had said and done during his earthly ministry. The company selected two persons who met those qualifications: Joseph called Barsabas, whose Latin name was Justus, and Matthias. They turned the men over to the Lord, who alone knows the hearts of all people, and asked the Lord to make the final choice. They expected God to do this through their casting of lots. So after they had prayed, they cast lots, and the lot favored Matthias, who then took his place with the eleven.
On the basis of this procedure, scholars have contended that the supreme leadership of the first church was not elected but was divinely selected and appointed. This is certainly true of the eleven, for Jesus himself chose all of them, but that claim is questionable in regard to Matthias. Maybe God did make the final choice-if we can bring ourselves to consider the casting of lots a legitimate way of ascertaining the divine mind. But the company gave God only two possibilities from which to make a choice. This procedure hardly commends itself as proof of the establishment of a divinely called ministry. The brethren made sure that God would not put someone over them that they did not want. We do not hear any more about Matthias. Maybe God did not make a choice at that time after all. Perhaps God decided to postpone making a choice until a later time when Saul of Tarsus could be appointed.
The eleven disciples and Matthias became apostles during this assembly. The apostles were to witness to the resurrection of Jesus and, in so doing, win others to the Christian cause by enabling them to confess their faith in Jesus Christ.
Questions For Reflection And Study
1. Luke addresses the Acts of the Apostles to Theophilus, a name that means "dear to God." Whom do you consider to be dear to God? In what ways do you feel that you are dear to God?
2. In what ways are the meanings of passion in Acts and passion in contemporary usage different? In what ways are they similar? What is your understanding of the passion of Christ?
3. During the forty days that Christ appeared to his disciples following his resurrection, he taught them about the kingdom of God. However, he did not equate the kingdom of God with the church as we know it-as a temporal organization. Instead, Christ was concerned with the reign of God, both in heaven and on earth. What is your understanding of the kingdom of God? What roles does the church play in it? Does the church ever conflict with the reign of God? When might that be true?
4. In what ways are we justified in considering the church to be the kingdom of God on earth? In what ways is that understanding in error?
5. Following Christ's resurrection, his disciples believed that the restoration of the kingdom of Israel was imminent. What difference might it have made in the development of the church if the disciples had known precisely when the kingdom was to be restored? What difference might it make in your own life if you knew when Christ would return? What difference might it make in the life of the church? Are these differences important?
6. Jesus told his followers that their sole mission on this earth was to witness to him. They were to begin proclamation at home, then to their enemies, and then all over the world. Is that mandate still valid for his followers today'? Who would be included if you proclaimed the risen Christ at home? Who are your enemies? Is it possible for you to proclaim Christ all over the world? In what ways?
7. Consider Christ's mandate from the point of view of the church. Who are those at home? her enemies? the whole world? Does the church fulfill this mandate today? Why or why not?
8. When the disciples witnessed Christ's ascension, angels had to remind them to quit gazing at the sky when they had work to do on earth. Are contemporary Christians ever guilty of simply sky-gazing when there is work to be done'? In what ways might this be true in your life? What "angels" call you back to the task at hand?
9. Do you believe in a literal interpretation of Christ ascending into heaven? Why or why not? Why do you think Christ's ascension was so important to the early church that it became an article of faith?
10. What are your personal beliefs about the second coming of Christ? Do you expect it to be a cataclysmic event?
11. The disciples believed that it was important to replace Judas. Do you agree or disagree? Does the method used in the selection of a replacement bother you? Do you believe that God was at work in choosing Matthias? Why or why not'?