In the introductory post of this series on The Story of Acts I tried to explain how plots work, that is, that they move from expectation to fulfillment or from tension to resolution. In the second post I used Gen 2:18-25 as an example of How to Read a Story.
In this post we’re back in the book of Acts and my goal is to show how I think Acts 1:1-11 sets up the expectation for the rest of the book. I also want to start to explain why identifying this initial expectation is important for reading the rest of the book.
Getting into the Text
At the very beginning of the book of Acts (which is the second part of Luke-Acts) the disciples are in the company of the resurrected Jesus just before his ascension into heaven. Luke is construing this text as Jesus’ last words to the disciples–his final farewell. The text says that Jesus is talking to them “about the kingdom of God” and that Jesus instructs them saying,
Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.
(All quotes here are from the NIV.)
Given this background, Luke now informs us that the disciples posed a question to Jesus,
Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?
To which Jesus gives the apparently cryptic reply,
It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Now to us, it seems like Jesus rebuffs the disciple’s question and changes the topic altogether, putting their focus on what he thinks (and now we all know) is really important–evangelism of the lost. But I don’t think that’s what he’s doing.
Instead, I think he’s pointing them toward a different vision of the kingdom than they are used to and giving them indication as to how that new kingdom vision will come about. As we progress through this series, I hope it will become more clear why I think this to be the case. For now suffice it to say that we will be much helped if we have a better idea what they are thinking about when they are talking about “the kingdom.”
How do we know what they were expecting from the kingdom?
This is where my disclaimer comes in. I’m not a New Testament scholar and I have done next to nothing in the area of kingdom expectations during the time of Jesus. Of course first century Jewish expectations had their roots in the Old Testament but to really know how that OT teaching was developed and taught in the time of Jesus, you have to read the literature leading up to that period. (I have to give that disclaimer because my brother-in-law, my neighbor, and a good friend from Australia have done research in Acts and know a lot more than I do about this stuff.) Nonetheless, I think I can say a few things without being too far off the mark. (All corrections are welcome.)
First of all, Israel would not be under the authority of a foreign government. A king from the line of David (the Messiah) would be ruling unhindered from Jerusalem. Of course for that to happen, Israel’s foes would have to be vanquished and Israel would return to being a sovereign state. In fact, they would have expected Jerusalem to be the most glorious capital ruling over all the earth.
God would be present with his people to bless them. In Israel, the temple was the place where God’s presence was made manifest, so the temple and the whole sacrificial system would be fully functioning, unhindered and undefiled.
Along with the sacrificial system, all of the law would be properly applied and obeyed. Which brings us back to the sovereign kingdom where God’s law would be the highest law. As it was, their law was subordinate to the Roman law. Not only that but there were different perceptions among the Jews as to how God’s law was to be followed (think of the Pharisees, the Sadducees, or the Essenes). Nothing of the sort would be the case in the kingdom, all would be made clear in terms of how the law was to be followed and all people would follow the law in the same way. In other words, the unity of Israel would be restored. All Israel would serve the Lord together.
There’s one more thing. How would Israel relate to the nations? There were different views on this topic. Some thought the Gentiles would be forever vanquished. Others thought that they would be streaming in to serve God in the temple and become a part of his kingdom. Some thought both.
At the risk of inserting a spoiler here (remember, we’re reading this as a story), I want to quickly compare these kingdom expectations to the church at the time that Luke is writing Luke-Acts. By the time he writes this book there are already a significant number of Gentiles that have joined the ranks of the church. Just a short time later the number of Gentiles would practically overwhelm the Jews and now the church has lost almost any trace of being a Jewish phenomenon. If you were to gather those early disciples together just after Jesus ascended into heaven, and if you were to tell those Jewish believers (they were all Jewish) that in a very short time there would be more Gentiles among them than Jews and that not long after that “Christianity” would be considered a separate religion from Judaism, they would certainly not have believed you. Unthinkable. Nigh unto blasphemy.
It’s a good thing Jesus didn’t tell them that. However, what he did say pointed them in that direction. Luke is now using this statement of Jesus to set the direction for the rest of the book and open the door for a shift in their expectation as to just how God was going to bring about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel:
But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Some commentaries refer to this as the programmatic statement for the book of Acts. This sentence sets out the agenda for the rest of the book and more than that, it shapes our expectations for the rest of the book. This is the expectation that must be fulfilled in order for the plot to come to a successful conclusion. The Holy Spirit must come on the disciples (a sign of God’s kingdom coming) and they must then be witnesses of Jesus in
- Judea and Samaria
- to the ends of the earth
Whatever is happening in these statements, it’s more than just geography. Jerusalem is a city. But it’s also the center of Judaism and the place from where the Messiah will reign over all the earth. Judea and Samaria are regions. But they’re also historically the northern and southern kingdoms. The Samaritans are half-Jews. Is this a hint at the reunification of Israel? Perhaps most importantly, for a Jewish person “the ends of the earth” signifies more than just all corners of the globe. To say “the ends of the earth” is to say the same thing as “the Gentiles” (see Psalm 2:8, for example, remembering that the nations is the same as the Gentiles). In other words, the Gentiles are going to be the recipients of the witness of Jesus. Just how that would look and what it would mean for God’s people has yet to unfold.
I wonder if we could even think about this verse as not just setting the agenda for the rest of the book but maybe also setting a trajectory. From Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. From the Jews to the Gentiles. We’ll talk about that more as we get further into the book.
For now, it’s important to point out that as we read we are going to keep this statement in mind. This statement does more than just let us know how the program of the book will progress (first A, then B, and then C); it lets us know how the parts of the book are connected into a single whole. This is absolutely crucial to reading for plot because when we read for plot we read to understand how the beginning leads to the middle and how the middle leads to the end.
We must always keep our expectation in mind and constantly ask ourselves the question as we read: Where are we in fulfilling the expectation set up for us at the beginning of the book?
Other posts in the series: The Story of Acts
- The Story of Acts
- How to Read a Story
- The Beginning of Acts
- The Middle of Acts: Continuing the Ministry of Jesus
- Mount Sinai and the Pentecost: Recreating the People of God
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Jerusalem
- You Will be My Witnesses: In Judea and Samaria
- You Will be My Witnesses: To the Ends of the Earth
- We’ve Only Just Begun: The Emergence of Paul
- A Work that You Will Not Beleive
- I Must See Rome!