You will be my witnesses (Acts 1; Easter 7A)

During the season of Easter, we have been hearing stories from the book of Acts, with highlights this year with Peter in Jerusalem (Acts 2), Stephen in Jerusalem (Acts 7), and then Paul in Athens (Acts 17). This coming Sunday, the lectionary takes us back to the opening chapter of Acts (1:6-14), most likely in order to prepare for the reading that we will have the following week, on Pentecost Sunday (2:1-21). Here we encounter the words of Jesus that charge this faithful group to be “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:8).

This Sunday, the Seventh Sunday in Easter, for the First Reading the lectionary offers us a passage from Acts (1:6–14) which includes the story of the ascension of Jesus (1:6–11) and an insight into that early community, gathered in Jerusalem (1:12–14). This sets the scene for recounting various scenes from the life of the community in Jerusalem, where the earliest followers of Jesus establish a pattern of faithful living through their common life, their public witness, and their persistent adherence to their Jewish traditions. The whole section is located entirely within Jerusalem (1:4,8,12; 2:5; 4:5; 5:16; 6:7; 8:1).

The narrative of Acts has begun with a recapitulatory preface (1:1-5) which summarises the Gospel and begins to prepare for the ensuing narrative about the community in Jerusalem. First, Luke explicitly acknowledges that what follows is a sequel to an earlier volume, addressed to the same recipient, Theophilus (1:1). We know this as the Gospel of Luke; here, however, the content of this Gospel is epitomised as simply “the things which Jesus began to do and to teach” up until his ascension (1:1-2). This recapitulation makes valid the claim that the preface to Luke’s Gospel also applies to his second volume, Acts.

Then follows a summation of the various manifestations of Jesus throughout the ensuing forty days (1:3), during which he speaks of “things concerning the sovereignty of God” (basileia tou theou, 1:3), a theme which had been the focus of Jesus’ message throughout Luke’s Gospel (Luke 4:43; 6:20; 7:20; 8:1,10; 11:2,20; 13:18,20,28,29; 14:15; 16:16; 17:20,21; 18:16; 19:12; 21:31; 22:16,18).

This preface continues with a bridging section (1:4-5) which foreshadows the events of the next chapter of the narrative. Jesus instructs the apostles not to depart from Jerusalem (1:4). This instruction keeps Luke’s geographic focus on Jerusalem, in contrast to other traditions concerning the post-resurrection departure of the apostles to Galilee which are inferred (Mark 14:28; 16:7; Matt 26:32) or explicitly told (Matt 28:7,10; John 21). Remaining in Jerusalem is required so that the apos­tles might receive the promise (1:4), which is immediately explained as being the holy spirit spoken of by John (1:5; evoking Luke 3:16). The fulfilment of this promise is narrated in detail in Acts 2.

Our reading for this Sunday follows, with an expanded retelling of the ascension (1:6–11), an event already reported in brief at Luke 24:50–53. The ascension forms the pivotal moment in Luke’s narrative; it is the hinge between volume 1 (Luke) and volume 2 (Acts), 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 issue of sovereignty. 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 a sequence of three c­lauses which stand as his last words before he ascends into heaven.

The first clause of Jesus’s words 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 next clause, “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 clause 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]”.

The precise referrent of “the end of the earth” is debated. Although 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.

The description of two men in white robes (1:10) evokes the epiphanic occurrences of 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 portentous manner as his departure (1:11), although no detailed description is provided (cf. 1 Thess 4:16; Mark 13:27; Matt 24:31).

As Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9–11), the story pivots from the earthly period of Jesus into the time when the movement of those who followed Jesus in that time will begin to form the customs and practices that led to the creation of the church. Luke presents the whole sequence of the death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus as both the climax to his earthly life and the foundation for the time of the church.

This is the issue in focus here: the departure of Jesus by means of his ascension into heaven is actually the moment when Jesus charges his followers to be engaged in mission. The departure of Jesus heralds the start of the church. The (physical) absence of the Saviour brings in the impetus for engaging wholeheartedly with the world which he has (physically) left.


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). The material relating to Judas is omitted from the lectionary offering this year (it appears in Year B); you can read my take on this passage at

The list of those meeting in the upper room of the house in Jerusalem includes both eleven of the twelve already identified (Luke 6:14–16) as well as “certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers” (Acts 1:14). That is consistent with the notes of women who followed Jesus in Galilee (Luke 8:1–3; 23:27, 49) as well as the presence of his brothers (Luke 8:19–21). The community which met together “constantly devoting themselves to prayer” was a gender-inclusive group.

Luke uses a hugely significant Greek word here; the word homothumadon. This is a word used only 12 times in the New Testament, with most of those occurrences in the Book of Acts, and one in Romans. Luke uses it to help us understand the uniqueness of the Christian community. It is most often translated as “all together”.

Luke initially tells of how “they were all together in the upper room” (1:12), forty days after the resurrection of Jesus—the day when Jesus ascended into heaven. Ten days later, they were all together once again, in the precincts of the Temple (2:1), along with devout Jews from all the nations surrounding Israel (2:9–11).

Then in the days following, as “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (2:42), they continued to be all together; “they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God” (2:46).

And still later, the community of believers came together to welcome Peter and John, after their hearing before the authorities, and “they raised their voice to God all together in prayer” (4:24). And then again, some days later, “they were all together in Solomon’s porch” in the Temple precinct (5:12). Gathering together, meeting in unity, was a key characteristic of the early community of Jesus followers.

As the story continues, Phillip travelled north out of Judea into the region of Samaria, where he was preaching to the Samaritans. Here, Luke comments: “the people were all together listening to those things which Philip spoke” (8:6).

Then, some time later, after Saul had his Damascus Road experience and Peter had his vision of all foods being declared clean, after Paul and Silas and Barnabas had been travelling amongst the Gentiles sharing the good news, we read that there was a gathering of church leaders in Jerusalem, who conferred together, “the apostles and the elders, with the consent of the whole church, being assembled together as one, decided to choose … representatives and send them to you, along with our beloved Barnabas and Paul” (15:22,25).

So the point is, with each step along the way, this little community of assorted disciples, was all together … or, of one accord, in another translation.

In the early chapters of Acts, as we have noted, we are at a very significant point of transition. Luke is clearly marking the end of one phase and the beginning of another. The Jesus part of Luke’s story has come to an end. But it is the beginning of another story—the story of the church.

Homothumadon is a compound of two words, homo meaning “in unison” and thumos meaning “temperament, emotion of the mind, the principle of life, feeling and thought.” One scholar writes that there is a musical sense to this word, where it suggests notes being brought into harmony together, under the masterful hand of the conductor. The role of the conductor is to ensure that flutes and cellos, drums and violas, trumpets and clarinets, are all making their distinctive contribution to the end result—the piece of music being performed for the audience to enjoy.

Perhaps another appropriate image, today, might be of the way that the artist sets out a palette of colours to be used in painting, and as the creative activity gets underway, those various shades and hues and colours are mixed together in such a way as to produce an intricate, complex, and aesthetically pleasing end result: a work of art.

That is how Christian community is to function. That is what we are to be, as the people of God in the place where we gather. Homothumadon denotes the unity of a group who have the same passion, who share the one persuasion, who are of the same mind, of one accord, with one purpose.

Homothumadon suggests both a harmony of feelings as well as singleness of purpose. However, while homothumadon refers to a group acting as one, it does not mean lack of diversity. It means cooperation in the midst of diversity.

The word first appears in Greek literature from 500 years before the time of Jesus (in the plays of the dramatist Aristophanes, the treatises of the philosopher Plato, the oratory of the general Demosthenes) and was used in the political sphere to describe the visible, inner unity of a group which drew together when facing a common duty or danger. The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology emphasises that “the unanimity is not based on common personal feelings but on a cause greater than the individual”.

In a sermon I gave on this passage, I noted that believers today stand with Peter and the disciples and the women and the brothers of Jesus in a liminal place, a place on the edge. We are leaving behind the old, reaching out to the new. The dramatic events of Pentecost, that we will recall in a week’s time, invite us to move to the future, and to change ourselves in a renewed commitment to our faith and our mission.

These words from the book of Acts challenge us not to simply continue our present practices and beliefs unchanged, but to hear a new message and a new way of being. We are being asked to change ourselves, to let go of what we find reassuring, and step out in faith into the chaos represented by the Spirit of God. We are being asked to be all together, to ‘act of one spirit’, to unite for the common good. May we be up to the challenge!


See also