Today, the calendar of the church year marks the Feast of the Ascension. It’s a day that is celebrated within Roman Catholic and Anglican churches, but not so much in Protestant churches.
Of course, the story of the ascension of Jesus is premised on the ancient worldview, which saw heaven “in there” and earth “down here”; as Jesus leaves his earthly followers to return to his Heavenly Father, then of course, he was ascending, rising upwards!
The ascension is an event in the story of Jesus that is referred to only in one Gospel—that of Luke. This Gospel reports the ascension of Jesus into heaven (24:50–53) as the climax of the whole Gospel. This brings the whole Jesus saga to a head. Yet it’s not narrated in John’s Gospel (although there appears to be a hint of it in the words of Jesus in John 20:17).
Nor is it told in Matthew’s Gospel where the ending explicitly affirms “I am with you always” (Matt 28:20). And no sign, of course, in Mark, whose account ends at the empty tomb, even before the resurrection (Mark 16:8). And Paul (who barely refers to any of the key moments in the life of Jesus) may well be alluding to it in his letter to the Romans (Rom 10:5–13), but not in a direct and unequivocal way.
For Luke, it is also an important pivotal event, for it is repeated at the start of the second volume (Acts 1:6–11). This second version provides more details; it fills out the story in narrative form, and appears to incorporate details that have significance for the author of the work.
Also crucial is to note Luke’s version of the commission which the risen Jesus gives as a parting word to his disciples: in the Gospel, he declares that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, “beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47).
Another version of this commission introduces the second volume (Acts 1:8): “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This verse sets out the programme for the rest of this volume.
Immediately after this, Jesus ascends into heaven (Acts 1:9-11). This is the pivot 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.
That final point is what we really ought to take from this doubly-offered story: 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.
The Acts readings in the lectionary during Easter give us glimpses into the life of the early messianic community in Jerusalem. The passage set for next Sunday gives us a different glimpse into the life of the early church. It recounts the beginning of the first trial of Peter and John (4:5-22).
Acts, as a whole, reports a number of arrests and trials, involving Peter and John (here, and 5:17–18), Stephen (6:11–14), assorted unnamed believers (8:3; 22:4; 26:10), Peter alone (12:3–6), Paul and Silas (16:19–24), and then Paul alone (21:30–33). Paul also refers to his numerous arrests and trials, along with other hardships, in his own letters (2 Cor 11:23–27; see also 2 Cor 4:8–12; Rom 5:3; Phil 4:11-13)
The speech of Peter
In this first arrest narrated in Acts, Luke has the authorities return to the issue posed by Peter in his earlier speech in the Temple precincts (3:12). The move from “by power or piety” (3:12) to “by what power or by what name” (4:7) depicts the authorities as oblivious of the explicit claims which Peter had made, regarding the name of Jesus, in this earlier speech (3:6,16). Their question continues the focus on the source of the healing, provoking yet another speech in reply.
Peter presents a set speech for the fourth time (4:8-12; see his previous speeches at 1:16-22; 2:14-36; 3:12-26). These speeches are all Lukan creations. The author of this work was not present when any of the speeches in Acts were delivered. The speeches in Acts contain both standard material common to many of the speeches in Acts, and also elements which contextualise the speech for the immediate occasion.
This, we must recognise, is the work of the author of this orderly account, constructing and creating speeches both faithful to the received traditions about what the apostles proclaimed, and also appropriate for each occasion.
Luke indicates that Peter’s speech is delivered once he is “filled with the holy spirit” (4:8), a state which reproduces that of the messianic community at Pentecost (2:4). Peter is the first individual who is so filled; after him will come Stephen (6:3,5; 7:55), Saul (9:17; 13:9) and Barnabas (11:24).
Peter stands in continuity with individuals in the Gospel who are spirit-filled: John the baptiser (1:15), Zachariah (1:67), Simeon (2:25-26) and Jesus himself (4:1,14). This spirit-filled state has the effect of reinforcing the validity of the interpretation which Peter here provides, as a spirit-filled prophet. It also reinforces his membership of the messianic Jewish community, since members of this community are typically “filled with the spirit”.
Peter answers the question posed at 4:7 by repeating his assertion of 3:6, that the name by which the healing took place was that of “the Messiah, Jesus the Nazarene” (4:10). Immediately he presents Jesus in the now familiar way, as the one whom “God raised from the dead” (4:10; see 3:15; 2:24) and as the one who (implicitly) fulfils the scriptural description of “the stone” (4:11, alluding to Ps 118:22).
The name of Jesus
This brief speech ends with an assertion of the necessity of this name, the name of Jesus, for salvation (4:12). Only if it is taken out of context can this verse be seen to prescribe that a relationship with Jesus alone is the single necessary element of salvation.
The speech as a whole has made it clear that, whilst the name of Jesus is the necessary means by which salvation comes, God is the source of that salvation. Indeed, such salvation has been offered prior to Jesus, as other speeches indicate (2:21; 7:25,35-36; 13:17-19). And God is sovereign, to enact salvation by means that God chooses, not limited to the narrow confession of “the name of Jesus”.
Luke’s view of salvation is broad: for a start, it has occurred already in the story of Israel (Luke 1:69, 77). It then occurs through events occurring early in the life of Jesus (2:30; 3:6), through preaching and enacting the ways that the blind have their eyes open and the poor hear the good news (4:18-21). Salvation occurs when honour is accorded to Jesus (7:50), when possessions are surrendered and poverty is embraced (18:24-27), through table fellowship with Jesus (19:9), and when the lost are found (19:10).
We might note that all of this takes place before any atoning sacrificial death has occurred. Salvation is not explicitly linked with the death of Jesus, in the Lukan writings, in contrast to a conclusion that is often deduced from the letters of Paul. It need not be tightly bound with a narrow definition of “faith in Jesus”, such as we hear proclaimed in some quarters today. It has a broad, encompassing sweep.
Luke’s narrative commentary on the speech notes that Peter speaks with “frankness” (4:13; the NRSV translates the Greek word, parrhesia, as “boldness”). This characteristic, already evident at Pentecost (2:29), will become a recurrent quality, evident in the prayer of the Jerusalem community (4:29,31), the teaching of Apollos (18:26) and the proclamation of Paul (9:27-28; 19:8; 28:31; with Barnabas, 13:46 and 14:3).
The early followers of Jesus, at least in Luke’s eyes, were thoroughly emboldened by their experiences with Jesus. This might be contrasted with the divisive nature of witness that Paul perceived in Corinth (1 Cor 1:13; 3:1–9, 21–23), or the lukewarm testimony that John experienced from the church in Laodicea (Rev 3:15).
Frankness of speech was a quality which philosophers held to be most desirable in the wise man (see, for instance, Dio Chrysostom, Oration 32.11 and 77/78.37; Diogenes Laertius, Lives 2.122-123 [on Simon the cobbler] and 6.69 [on Diogenes the Cynic]]; Julian, Oration 6), so the juxtaposition with the assertion that Peter and John were “unlettered and uneducated” (4:13) is striking. Luke is intending to portray them as holding their own in the marketplace of ideas, alongside the rhetorically sophisticated philosophers of the day. The apostles speak powerfully, convincingly.
The mighty works of God
The authorities ponder what action to take; Luke depicts them as being cowed by the power demonstrated by Peter and John, both in their speech (4:13) and in their deed of healing (4:14,16). Peter has clearly identified this power as divine in origin (3:12-16), and the authorities even describe what has taken place as “a notable sign” (4:16), ironically using the term which has already been identified as describing divine activity (2:19).
Yet they remain oblivious to the divine dimension of the event; they can see only the consequences amongst the general populace should they take no action. Thus, they make a pronouncement banning Peter and John from speaking in the name of Jesus (4:18). Clearly, it is unlikely that they will comply with this demand, given that Peter has already indicated that the name of Jesus is the centrepoint of their claims (2:38) and was instrumental in their healing the lame man (3:6,16; 4:10,12).
Accordingly, Peter and John reply (4:19-20) in a way which underlines the futility of this command in the face of God’s sovereignty. To refrain from speaking out would mean that they ceased being “right before God”, that they preferred “to listen to you [the authorities] rather than to God” (4:19).
The climax to the apostolic speeches in this section comes when Peter and John assert the necessity of bearing witness to “what we have seen and heard” (4:20, prefiguring the way that Paul describes his commissioning at 22:15). This sign must be declared and interpreted!
The narrative conclusion, in noting that the apostles were released (4:21), appears to align the people with the messianic community, for as they glorified God they adopt the interpretive stance of those who praise God for events they experience: the healed man (3:8,9) and the whole community (2:47). The influence of the community thus appears to be spreading amongst the people, but not amongst the authorities. It cannot be regarded as having broken from Jewish faith; yet it is set on a collision course with the Jewish authorities.
Luke’s final comment repeats the description of the healing as a sign (4:22), thereby reinforcing his view that it was God who enabled this healing, as with the other signs (2:19). The whole scene contributes to the unfolding saga of what God was doing amongst the earliest believers. These events are an integral part of the plan of God, stretching across the years. The book, in the end, is not so much the book of the Acts of the Apostles (as tradition has labelled it), as it is the book of the Deeds of God—“the mighty works of God” (2:11).
This blog is based on a section of my commentary on Acts in the Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, ed. Dunn and Rogerson (Eerdmans, 2003). I have also explored the theme of the plan of God at greater depth in my doctoral research, which was published in 1993 by Cambridge University Press as The plan of God in Luke-Acts (SNTSM 76).