It is commonly understood that the writer of the Gospel of Luke also authored the book of Acts. As Luke begins this second volume, he sets the stage for God’s people to take on an outward and inclusive mission.
Luke is the only Gospel writer to tell the story of Jesus’ ascension to heaven. In fact, because Acts overlaps chronologically with the end of Luke’s Gospel, Luke narrates the ascension twice. From the perspective of Luke-Acts, the ascension is the center of the story, and, indeed, the focus of history as well.
Jesus’ ascension takes place on the Mount of Olives, the place where Jesus struggled in prayer before his suffering and death, also known as the passion (see Luke 22:39–46). Jesus’ ascension to heaven signifies his triumph and vindication, and underscores his position as universal Lord. Salvation in all its fullness may now be proclaimed to all peoples in his name.
The preparatory nature of Acts 1 points to the role and significance of the 12 apostles in Luke’s two volumes. Like the 12 tribes of Israel, the 12 apostles are representatives of a new people of God. Although individual apostles, such as Peter, do come into their own in Acts, the 12 as a whole do not play a prominent role. Still, their symbolic function helps us to understand God’s purpose as the story progresses. When Peter speaks, he speaks as a representative of the new leaders of God’s people and, like Jesus, he will encounter opposition from the Jewish leadership.
Because of the symbolic significance of the 12 apostles, the death of Judas means that he must be replaced. In verses 15–26, Peter states that the replacement must be one of those who accompanied Jesus and the apostles from the time of Jesus’ baptism to his ascension. Two qualified candidates are selected, and Matthias is chosen by lot. Matthias is never again mentioned in Acts, but his selection completes this symbolic number and reconstitutes the 12, which must happen before the new era arrives at Pentecost.
Some have suggested that this book, the “Acts of the Apostles” be called “Acts of the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit plays a significant role in the opening of Acts. In chapter 1, this role is emphasized in the past, present, and future as David, Jesus, and Peter are all characterized as having spoken by the Spirit. In verse 8, Jesus tells the disciples that they will receive the Spirit and move out from Jerusalem. The Spirit will also play the key role in affirming and expanding the Christian mission.
To experience the Spirit is to be immersed in and empowered by God’s very presence. Unlike the exclusive holiness symbolized by the Jerusalem temple, where certain people were kept from direct access to God, God’s presence through the Spirit is inclusive. The work of the Spirit begins in Jerusalem and moves outward. As Luke’s second volume unfolds, we shall see that the mention of going out “to the ends of the earth” in Acts 1:8 does not merely speak of journeying across physical distance. It speaks more broadly of crossing cultural and social boundaries for God’s saving purpose.
- How can we encourage one another to wait upon the Spirit?
- How can you help children and youth create spaces for reflection and prayer?
- Where do you see the Spirit moving in new places and crossing boundaries today?
Holy Spirit, come and work through me as I teach. Help me to watch for your movement in new ways and in new places. Amen.
This Bible study comes from Shine: Living in God’s Light, the Sunday school curriculum published by Brethren Press and MennoMedia. The illustration, by David Huth, comes from All of Us: God’s Story for You and Me.