This Sunday (the seventh Sunday in the season of Easter) we return to an early section of the second volume of the orderly account that, by tradition, is attributed to Luke. The narrative offers an expanded version of the ascension of Jesus (Acts 1:6-11), an event already reported in brief in the first volume (Luke 24:50-53) but here repeated with additional details.
The ascension forms the pivotal moment in Luke’s narrative; it is the hinge between the two volumes, and attention is drawn to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus at a number of points elsewhere (Luke 9:51; 22:69; Acts 2:33; 3:21; 5:31; 7:56). Luke expands this second narrative account of the ascension through the explicit recording of words spoken on that occasion: the last words of Jesus to his followers, and the words of the two angel-like men to the followers of Jesus after his ascension.
The dialogue between Jesus and his disciples raises the central theological issue of sovereignty (the kingdom of God). The disciples ask “Lord, (may we ask) if you will at this time restore sovereignty to Israel?” (1:6) — quite rightly, for the issue of sovereignty was central to Jesus’ preaching (1:3). Here, however, the orientation of the question is concerned with the sovereignty of Israel. Jesus replies with three clear affirmations, which stand as his last words before he ascends into heaven.
The first affirmation of Jesus in 1:8 turns the question away from Israel, back to the primary theme of God’s sovereignty, with the clear declaration that the times and seasons are under the sovereignty of God who has “set them by his own authority” (1:7). Rather than the political independence of Israel, it is God’s unfettered freedom to act in history which is crucial to his enterprise.
The second affirmation, “you will receive power when the holy spirit has come upon you” (1:8), is a promise which reinforces the key role of the spirit, as divine agent, throughout this volume (beginning with the events of 2:1-4).
The third affirmation introduces the important motif of witness (1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 4:33; 5:32; 10:39,41,43; 13:31; 22:15,18,20; 23:11; 26:11,22) and provides a condensed geographical summation of the course of the ensuing events: “in Jerusalem [1:12-8:3] and in all Judaea and Samaria [8:4-12:25] and to the end of the earth [13:1 onwards]”.
What does “the end of the earth” refer to? A contemporary Jewish work, the Psalms of Solomon 8:15, may suggest that it refers to Rome, it is preferable to see the reference as drawn from Isa 49:6, a verse cited at Luke 2:32 and Acts 13:47. It is thus a poetic statement about the extensive scope of the ensuing events. These departing words of the Lukan Jesus neatly conjoin the geographical pattern and theological foundation of Acts: from Jerusalem outwards, the divine spirit will enable followers of Jesus to bear witness to the sovereignty of God.
Two men in white robes then appear (1:10), evokes similar appearances in earlier chapters: the two men in the tomb (Luke 24:4), the transfigured Jesus in the company of two scriptural figures (Luke 9:29-31). The prominence they have at this point establishes the important role of such epiphanies throughout Acts. The words spoken to the followers of Jesus who witness his ascension stress that his return will be in the same manner as his departure (1:11), although no detailed description is provided (cf. 1 Thess 4:16; Mark 13:27; Matt 24:31).
Ten days separate the ascension (forty days after Passover, 1:3) from the day of Pentecost (2:1, fifty days after Passover). Only two things are told of these ten days; already the process of selectivity which shaped Luke’s Gospel can be seen in his second volume. Thus, we learn only that the community had gathered on the day of ascension (1:12-14) and that at some stage in these days a replacement was found for Judas Iscariot (1:15-26).
Luke’s report of the regathering of the community (1:12-14) establishes key features of this community. Firstly, since they returned to Jerusalem immediately after the ascension (1:12), the focus remains on Jerusalem, which retains its pre-eminent position as the birthplace of the movement. Any gathering of believers elsewhere is incidental to the single-minded picture painted by Luke, of the Jerusalem community as the movement’s place of origin. This is the only community which matters for Luke at this moment.
Secondly, the description reveals that this was a community that met continuously during these ten days (“these [the eleven] all were unanimously attending constantly to prayer with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus and his siblings”, 1:14). The constant and communal nature of their meetings will later become important in Luke’s narrative; for the moment, the emphasis rests on the line of continuity between Jesus and this group.
Those present here in Jerusalem relate to those who journeyed with Jesus, in Galilee: the women (Luke 8:2-3), the family of Jesus (Luke 8:19), and the inner group of named male followers who are identified as apostles (Luke 6:14-16; ‘the twelve’ of Luke 8:1).
The specific reference to the inclusion of women within the community continues a particular interest already unveiled in Luke’s Gospel (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42; 23:49,55-56); it is subsequently explicitly noted throughout the second volume (Acts 5:14; 8:3,12; 9:2; 17:4,12).
This blog is based on a section of my commentaryn on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003).