August 9 – Acts 1:1-11
In verse 1 Luke starts with, “In the first book, O Theophilus…” which helps remind us that Acts is actually the second section of Luke’s writing. In the beginning of his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4), Luke introduces this two-volume work and addresses it to this same Theophilus, whose name means “friend of God” and was perhaps a benefactor or wealthy Roman Christian who sponsored Luke’s work. So Acts picks up right where the Gospel of Luke leaves off—check out Luke 24:36-53 for more context on this week’s passage, especially what Jesus was teaching when he spoke about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3).
In discussion we’ll narrow in on this final conversation between Jesus and his disciples, one in which the disciples ask a question you figure they would’ve known the answer to by now. In fact, Jesus had been answering this time and again; for example, in Luke 19 he told a parable “because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”(19:11) At many stages of his ministry Jesus had to say, “No not yet,” to the disciples insistent questions about if the Kingdom would be established right now, and even after his resurrection and 40 days of seeing the disciples and even “[opening] their mind to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:45) they still asked this same question.
That’s because the Messianic hopes of Jesus’ Jewish disciples had been shaped throughout their life to expect a certain outcome out of the coming Messiah: that God would send a Savior and that Savior would liberate Israel from bondage by setting up a new Kingdom in Israel, one in which God’s rule would extend to the ends of the earth. And at every stage of Jesus’ ministry he was correcting these expectations in his disciples (see his rebuke of Peter in Matt. 16:23 or of James and John in Matt. 20:23). Jesus explained over and over that his Kingdom was a spiritual one, that it was already here but still on it’s way, that it would spread not by governmental rule and might but by repentance and the movement of the Spirit. Nevertheless his disciples kept expecting Jesus to give Rome the boot, set up his throne in Jerusalem, and rule as a literal king. This explains much of their behavior, especially their utter dismay over Jesus’ death.
And now we’re here in Acts 1, on the other side of Jesus’ death, and they’re still asking. But Jesus patiently explains more of his message, that the Kingdom of God is already being established on earth and will spread through them not by governance but by witness. And notice how he answers their question; he starts off with, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the father has fixed by his own authority.” He points out the real question they were asking, like he often does, and says that not only is the fulfillment of the Kingdom far off but it’s not our place to know when that will be. He then directs them to what they are supposed to know, which is that the Holy Spirit would come upon them to help them do their work and that their work was to be Jesus’ witnesses to the end of the earth.
Specifically Jesus says they would witness “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” That would’ve been their immediate context, Jerusalem, the surrounding regions of Judea and Samaria, and then the rest of the planet. So Jesus means everywhere, but he also means right here. Jesus also specifically mentioned Samaria, a region Jews despised since they considered Samaritans to be religious and racial mongrels. Jesus specifically says, “Them too.” These commands most certainly extend to us as well; we’re called to be Jesus’ witnesses right here, right next door, and everywhere else. And note that Jesus specifically has in mind a verbal testimony of the gospel to non-believers, that they might believe in Jesus and have life. “Thus it is written…that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are the witnesses of these things. and behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you.”(Luke 24:46-49) This is what it means to be Jesus’ witnesses.
Now, in a time of pandemic this might be the last thing on your mind, especially if you’re fighting for employment, trying to figure out what school will look like for your kids, or just exhausted from quarantine life. But I think even now Jesus is calling his people to be his witnesses on earth. I think we tend to imagine evangelism like an extracurricular activity for Christians, like heavenly extra credit, but reading this passage and the end of Luke you get the sense that proclaiming Jesus’ name is what it means to follow him. Thankfully this passage serves as a helpful reminder of our role as witness and the role of the Spirit in that witness, since he empowers this work of ours even when we feel like every other thing in our life is asking too much of us.
Questions for Discussion
• Would someone read Acts 1:1-11 for us?
• We’re going to focus on verses 6-11. What stands out to you from that section?
• Why do you think the disciples asked about the Kingdom of Israel?
• What do you think all this felt like for the disciples?
• What do you feel about this command to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth”?
• How does being Jesus’ “witness” apply to your life right now, particularly in the time of a pandemic?