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By Donald Guthrie
ZondervanCopyright © 1981 Zondervan
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1. Prologue to the Age of the Apostles (Acts 1:1-5)
The passion of Jesus was now over. What had appeared at first to the disciples to be a disaster had become the prelude of greater things to come. It was like the sudden bursting of dawn after a series of nightmares. The disciples now knew that Jesus was risen from the dead. That was the turning point in their spiritual experience. It opened up vistas of opportunities of which they had never dreamed. Their limited horizons were suddenly enlarged in a way which developed into a world mission. The account of how this happened is of abiding interest. It was this that led men to write down something of the events which had significance (the Book of Acts) and something of the Christian approach to the developing situation within the Church (the epistles).
We are indebted to Luke for giving us an insight into early Christianity. We must not suppose that he intended to write an exhaustive account. He has clearly been selective. But his introduction is worth pondering for its sets the scene for the whole book. It is addressed to Theophilus, which at once links it to Luke's gospel. It is of small importance who this Theophilus was, for the books which were addressed to him were clearly intended for a wider audience. No doubt Luke himself never thought that his book would become the only narrative of early Church history.
He reminds us that Jesus showed Himself alive to His disciples over a period of forty days. He had no doubt about the reality of the resurrection. He speaks of proofs, which rules out the view that the disciples were suffering from hallucinations. They did not convince themselves of the resurrection, because they needed to find some way of explaining the disaster of the crucifixion. The account which Luke gives us is solidly based on an unshakeable conviction that Jesus was alive and had continued His communication with men. The subsequent account of the activity of the apostles is unintelligible apart from this assumption. It is worth noting that the subject of the risen Lord's communication was the kingdom of God, a theme much spoken about by Jesus during His ministry, as Luke shows in his gospel (in common with Matthew and Mark). As the apostles preached the Gospel this kingdom theme did not find so much prominence, but there is no doubt that Luke recognized that the preaching of the apostles had as its basis the teaching of Jesus.
It was not an easy matter for men who had accompanied Jesus during His ministry to adjust themselves to the entirely new situation now that He had died and then had risen from death. Indeed it was impossible for them to adjust themselves. They were wholly unequipped to do so. The risen Lord had, however, anticipated this and had commanded them to wait for spiritual power. They needed the baptism of the Holy Spirit before the Christian Church could get off the ground. As Luke's narrative proceeds one is impressed by the number of times that he mentions the Spirit as the dynamic force behind the development of the Church. It is not without strong grounds that it has been suggested that a good name for his book would be the Acts of the Holy Spirit.
It is worth noting that Luke attaches importance to the command to the disciples to stay in Jerusalem. He can, of course, see the relevance of this as he looks back to the beginnings. But in his gospel he also shows special interest in Jesus' connection with Jerusalem. More than half the gospel describes Jesus moving toward Jerusalem, while all the resurrection appearances which Luke mentions are set in Jerusalem. It was the city which had rejected its Messiah. It was also the city which would witness the beginning of a movement which was to spread beyond the borders of Judaism to the whole world.
2. The Ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6-11)
None of the evangelists except Luke mentions the ascension. In his gospel the mention is very brief but he comes back to a fuller description of it here. Before he began the account of the development of the Church, it was essential for his readers to know that the missionary activity of the Church was the parting command of the risen Lord. He needed to show that the forty days of appearances were temporary and unrepeatable. The Church did not begin until after the final departure of Jesus, but He was still to be with His people in His Spirit.
It is understandable that the disciples had not as yet grasped the spiritual nature of the kingdom of God. Their minds were conditioned to thinking in material terms. They all came from a Jewish background, which means that they expected that when the Messiah came he would establish the kingdom of Israel. It is against this background that the disciples' question ("Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"), put to the risen Lord just before His ascension, must be understood. The restoration of Israel was not, however, the mission of Jesus, not at any rate in the sense in which it was currently understood. The minds of the disciples were moving on the wrong plane. They were in fact asking the wrong question. They were prying into the future, into an area which God the Father had reserved for His own authority. The disciples' responsibility was in the present, not the future. Luke's story would never have been written had they continued to be preoccupied with future events. Although the teaching of Jesus about the future was important, He had warned His disciples against being obsessed with times and seasons.
The risen Lord's positive injunction has been the charter of the missionary Church ever since. All that was needed was a general directive. Matthew records the words of the great commission to go and make disciples of all nations, but Luke here shows a more specific approach. He shows that the development - Jerusalem, Judaea, Samaria, the end of the earth - had the sanction of the Lord Himself. This may be taken as the key to His plan. The subsequent course of events shows the spread of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Rome, from the center of the Jewish world to the center of the Gentile world. It is a reminder that Christian testimony must begin at home and spread outward.
Excerpted from The Apostles by Donald Guthrie Copyright © 1981 by Zondervan. Excerpted by permission.
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