Acts 2:42-46

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Some of the words used in this passage deliberately remind us of the first disciples gathering together in 1:14. Luke is showing how the group is growing but staying true to essential principles: teaching, prayer, and fellowship, including eating together, both in private home settings and publicly in the temple. But added here is the idea of sharing all things in common, even selling their possessions to give the money to anyone who has a need.

We have personal experience of this kind of commonality, something which constantly amazes my non-believing family. As cross-cultural workers who return to our sending country every few years, we are often given cars to drive and homes for accommodation at no cost. I don’t think anyone has sold their possessions in order to share with us the proceeds, but we are certainly the beneficiaries of people’s sacrificial giving. In return, we try to be generous with our own things – car, house, time, meals – in the country where we usually live, but it is rarely a reciprocal style of giving because of our geographical dislocation. Nevertheless, I believe we could all do more, share more, support one another more, eat together more. The net effect of this lifestyle, apart from the obvious benefits, is favour with the people and ongoing growth of the fellowship.

The other factor in this growth is the wonders and signs performed by the apostles. We will hear more details about this in the following chapters. I have not seen supernatural miracles in my ministry, or the ministry of those around me, although I don’t believe that they are no longer possible. What I have seen is the dedicated work of my team-mates and others in bringing education, healing, and social transformation to the societies and individuals with whom they work. It may not be a miracle, but it is a sign and a wonder when a family is reunited, when a drug addict is set free, when an under-privileged child receives teaching that can lift their eyes beyond their circumstances.

Let us not neglect the significant activities listed in this short passage: (1) devotion to the apostles’ teaching (now enshrined in the New Testament); (2) the fellowship of believers, including eating together; (3) prayer and praise; (4) sharing possessions and supporting one another in times of need. These were the building blocks of the early church and they will also increase the church today.

Prayer: Lord, I confess that sometimes I grow tired, bored, and even overwhelmed with these essentials. It sometimes feels like more than I can do, and I want to keep to myself and for myself. Forgive me for my selfishness. Empower me with your Holy Spirit to be one who gives, one who prays and praises. Help me reach out to my brothers and sisters for gathering together, and teach us through your word. I ask this so that my own faith will be enriched, but also so that your church may grow. 

Acts 2:37-41

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The effect of Peter’s sermon was like a stab in the heart. Have you felt that before? The hearers asked Peter and the apostles what they should do in response to God’s word, and Peter is swift in urging them to repent. That is, they must change their minds, encompassing both thinking and attitude. They must also be baptized in the name of Jesus the anointed King (‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ is a short-hand way of saying this). Their sins will be forgiven and they will receive the Spirit, just as Peter and the other disciples had done only moments before. What incredible grace for men who had just been accused of crucifying the very Lord who was willing to forgive and gift them!

Peter asserts that this promise stands for all whom God calls. Go back to Joel 2:28-32, from which Peter has just quoted in Acts 2:17-21, and you will see there that Peter is continuing to preach from these verses. God calls a remnant to survive Judgment Day, described consistently in the Old Testament as ‘The Day of the LORD’. “In Jerusalem there will be those who escape.” Those escapees are listening now, and seed the remnant of the old Israel and the beginning of the new, in the context of a crooked generation who would put to death their own life-giver. Thus did the church blossom that day.

What do we learn from this? Primarily, that God is gracious. He extends mercy, he calls, and he saves, both those who are near and those who are far away. Secondly, we learn that the right response to God is to repent and to be baptised. Let’s unpack that. 

Repentance is a turning of the mind away from my own mental world and towards God and his kingdom. Instead of going down the road of self-aggrandisement and self-protection, we turn around and go down the road of God-glorification. 

Talking about baptism seems to be like entering a theological minefield, especially in a tiny space like this one. Let it suffice to say that baptism is a public acknowledgement or sign of being a follower of Jesus, of being identified with him. It is not a kind of magical charm. It is not a necessity for entering Jesus’ kingdom. There may be followers of Jesus who choose not to be baptised for a particular reason for a length of time. Anyone who has been called by God, and calls back to him, will be forgiven and saved.

Prayer: Thank you, God, for your grace and mercy. I am amazed that you call me. I call back to you, Lord, asking for your forgiveness and the gift of your Holy Spirit to guide and counsel me. Help me to keep shifting my mind back to you and your glory; every time I begin to turn away, help me to turn back. I identify with you Jesus, I am your follower and a part of your family.

Acts 2:14-36

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Today, instead of looking at the minute details of the passage, we will have an overview of a larger section. This is the first record of an apostle preaching. To start with, Peter asks for attention, and then he notes the present context (sobriety at 9am). 

His first main point is to underline that what has been happening is a fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy: Joel predicted this outpouring of the Spirit on all people – male and female, young and old, even servants. It was the prophet who announced that familiar saying, “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (cf Acts 4:12); this was not a novel teaching of the New Testament preachers, although the identification of ‘the Lord’ with Jesus of Nazareth would have been mind-bending for the Jews of the day. 

The next main section outlines the important historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth: a miracle-worker who was killed by men and then raised from death by God. He again shows how this was predicted in Scripture, and asserts that he, Peter, and the eleven were eye-witnesses of the resurrected Jesus. Verse 33, towards the climax, is a wonderful tie-in of the Father, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and humanity. Peter’s conclusion is that the crucified Jesus has been made Lord – that is, ruler – and Christ – that is, anointed King and Saviour.

It is crucial to understand the background of how Peter and the other New Testament writers interpreted Jesus as Lord. If you look at the Old Testament passages quoted in Peter’s speech, you will see that ‘Lord’ is capitalized (Joel 2:31-32; Ps 16:8; Ps 110:1 [first occurrence]), meaning that the Hebrew text has God’s name, sometimes written as Yahweh or Jehovah. We don’t see this in Peter’s speech because in Greek the divine name is simply translated as ‘Lord’, or kyrios. However, the Old Testament texts Peter uses make clear that he is not simply saying that Jesus is Lord in the sense that he is the ruler; he is actually saying that Jesus is God, the LORD, Yahweh, Jehovah, and perhaps claiming that every Old Testament reference to the divine name reflects the person of Jesus. He is not alone in the New Testament in doing this; but we don’t have space here to look at every verse where this is the case.

For a period in my life I tried to read the Old Testament deliberately thinking of every mention of LORD as referring to Jesus, the second person of the Trinity. It did my head in to think of Elohim (God) as the Father and LORD (Yahweh) as the Son, as it was impossible for my finite mind to separate their persons and their actions in this way – so I don’t recommend the practice! (Also, doesn’t Ps 110:1 indicate that Yahweh God puts the Lord Jesus at his right hand?) But it is instructive to realize and remember that the Son doesn’t just suddenly show up in the Gospels; he has been part of the story from the beginning (from Gen 2:4), as the creator, sustainer, ruler, and saviour of the world, on whose name all may call for salvation.

Prayer: Dear God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, you are my Lord and my King. I submit myself to your rule. I acknowledge that you are supreme over all things, even death. Thank you that you also promise to save me if I call on your name. I call out to you, Lord: save me by your grace.

Acts 2:5-12

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As a language-learner, I love this story. I wish we could be so ‘lucky’, telling the great things of God and having everyone around understand regardless of their own dialect. 

There are many Jews of the diaspora, near and far, gathered in Jerusalem when the Spirit fills the believers. The setting is somewhat unclear; were the disciples in an ordinary house, perhaps the upper room (2:2; cf 1:13), or were they in the temple, where all the pilgrims were gathered to worship at the feast? Did it happen in a moment, or over hours and days? In the end it doesn’t matter; what happens is that thousands (cf 2:41) of international people, from Iraq to Northern Africa to Europe, hear the simple Galilean disciples speak in their own many native languages. We might ask, as they did, “What does this mean?”

What it means is that the curse of Babel has been reversed. Back in Genesis 11:1-9, in the last of the mythological[1] style stories at the beginning of the Bible, God confused human language so that humanity could not together build a tower to reach heaven and so make a name for themselves. God’s reasoning was that “they all have one language … and nothing they propose to do will now be impossible for them” (Gen 11:6). By reversing the curse here in Acts 2, God through his Holy Spirit is now making it possible for this renewed humanity to do the impossible, just as Jesus had promised (Lk 18:27). It was possible for Jesus to be raised from the dead, and it is possible to preach this message to the whole world. It is even possible for human beings to love one another, and to be one, across cultural and ethnic divides (cf Eph 2:14-18).

Notice also that in this story the world (or at least diaspora Jews) has come to Jerusalem (cf Is 2:2-3). This is the beginning of the spread of the gospel which Jesus envisaged in Acts 1:8. 

Unfortunately, we will not all be gifted with the ability to speak in other languages that all people can understand – we wish! But the Spirit working in us does enable us to proclaim God’s marvellous acts, and to reach out to others of different nations and cultures. 

Prayer: God, please fill me with your Spirit! Enable me and give me boldness to speak about you in a way that everyone will understand. Grant me a heart that loves people of other cultures, as you do.

[1] ‘mythological’ in the sense that the text is explaining the origins of phenomena found in present reality.

Acts 2:1-4

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The Day of Pentecost: this day marked fifty days from the first Sunday after Passover. It is recorded in the Old Testament as the Feast of Weeks (Ex 34:22; Dt 16:10) or the Feast of the Firstfruits (Nu 28:26), a celebration of the beginning of the harvest. If that is not powerfully significant enough, it also came to be recognised during rabbinic times as the day the Law was given at Sinai. In Christian terms, this is fifty days from the day Jesus rose from the dead, and therefore probably about ten days after his ascension (cf Ac 1:3). It is interesting that in describing this day, Luke doesn’t simply say that it ‘was’ Pentecost or that Pentecost ‘arrived’ or ‘came’ (as most of our translations have it); he uses a special word which implies fulfilment, a grand introduction to the ensuing narrative.

The Christian Jews were gathered together – whether because of the festival or because they were already devoted to meeting together – and had a corporate supernatural experience. They heard wind and saw fire. The wind is symbolic of the Spirit in Ezekiel, especially in Chapter 37. The same Hebrew word is used for ‘spirit’, ‘breath’, and ‘wind’, so it is ambiguous; the translator has to choose one of these English words to render the Hebrew. John the Baptist had prophesied a baptism of fire along with the Holy Spirit (Lk 3:16). Thus wind and fire are physical experiences of the spiritual reality which the disciples experienced on the Day of Pentecost.

The third sign was the speaking of “other tongues” as granted by the Spirit. In the following verses we will discover that these “other tongues” were heard as actual living languages. I have heard of one friend who was suddenly able to speak in German without having studied it (although I never witnessed her doing it myself). But usually the Christian understanding of ‘speaking in tongues’ means a heavenly language that is understood only by God (cf 1 Cor 14:2-19). In fact, some other religions have a similar phenomenon, and it seems to have happened in the Old Testament too (eg Num 11:26; 1 Sam 10:10).

What does this all mean for us? First of all, we understand that this day was a fulfilment of something promised; not only had Jesus promised that this day would come (Acts 1:5), it was also promised by John the Baptist and the Prophet Joel (as Peter will go on to say in the coming verses), and foreshadowed by the Old Testament practice of the first fruits festival. God keeps his promises. He keeps on keeping promises. Even we as disciples of the 21st century have been baptised in the Holy Spirit.

We may not have experienced the mighty wind, tongues of fire, and gift of languages (very few of those of us on ‘the field’ would claim to have that gift!). But the rest of the New Testament makes it clear that every believer in Jesus has been baptized by the Spirit (eg 1 Co 12:13) and can be repeatedly filled with the Spirit, thus empowered for mighty works and witness. If you want to know more about this, I recommend this interview with John Piper. A lot has been written on the topic which will help you to think further about it biblically.

Prayer: God, thank you that you keep your promises. Thank you especially for keeping your promise to give me your Spirit. Help me experience the filling of your Spirit to help me serve and bear witness to you in the power that only you can give.

Acts 1:12-26

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The disciples – numbering about 120, probably including both men and women – gathered together in the upper room in Jerusalem. There they continued persistently to pray. There were only eleven apostles remaining of the twelve that Jesus had originally called, since Judas had died after betraying Jesus. Peter therefore proposed to add another, selected from among the men who had been traveling with them from the baptism of Jesus through to his death and resurrection. By a process of casting lots, Matthias was chosen.

There are a number of things to notice in this passage which have relevance for our own lives.

Firstly, the disciples continued to gather together as a large group and devote themselves to prayer. They could once more have been scattered and afraid, their leader Jesus having been taken from them again. But they were now confident about his enduring presence with them despite his physical absence, and they were committed to the group. We can learn from this the importance of gathering together for prayer, particularly in these days of declining numbers gathering together physically because of Coronavirus or simply because Christians think they can get what they need online, by listening to famous preachers and singing along to videoed worship.

Secondly, there is a wealth to learn from the story of Judas. Probably the most significant thing is that the ugly behaviour of Judas was predicted by Scripture. It is not as if God was tricked by what Judas did, nor were his plans upset; rather, Judas’ sinfulness and betrayal actually brought God’s plans to fulfilment. Often our lives are upended by evil and/or foolishness, either our own or someone else’s. In that moment we feel things are off-track from what should be, and it is only with hindsight that we can see how God’s plan unfolded through the horror of what happened. Instead of saying, “If only”, or “I should have”, let us ask, “What is God doing through this? Where is he moving me onto?” We will be able to navigate the trials of life better with an attitude that God is in control rather than fretting that everything is out of control.

Finally (although there are many points that could be raised!), we consider the selection of Matthias. First of all, note that there were people to choose from; there were others beyond the twelve who were with Jesus from the beginning. Of these, two were nominated, and of those two the lot fell to Matthias. How do you think he felt? How did Joseph feel? How do you feel when you are chosen, or when you are passed over? Notice how they prayed in v24: “Lord, you know everyone’s heart.” God is able to make the right choice because he can see beyond what we can see. He knows best. Let us trust him to make those wise decisions.

Prayer: Lord God, thank you that you are in control. Sometimes I feel like things are out of control and it scares and upsets me. Help me to trust you with those decisions that I am struggling with. Help me to trust you when things go, or have gone, badly in my life and I can’t see the purpose behind it. Thank you for the fellowship of believers that I can pray with in tough times like these, and thank you that you are always there even when it seems you are not.

Acts 1:9-11

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The words we read about yesterday were the very last thing Jesus said on earth, according to Luke. As the disciples listened, before their very eyes, Jesus was lifted up and a cloud obscured him from their sight. While still looking upwards towards the direction Jesus had gone, two angels appeared, much as they had at the empty tomb, and asked them a ‘why’ question about what they were doing (cf Lk 24:4).

For me, this is one of the weirdest parts of the story of Jesus. Somehow I can wrap my brain around the virgin birth and the resurrection, but the idea of him floating upward into the cloud just seems so nonsensical. Perhaps it is because it is a visible sign with absolutely no ‘hiddenness’ to it. After all, we don’t actually witness the conception, or the moment when Jesus awakes from death. We see only a birth and a living man. But in this scene we see Jesus literally going up into the sky. Only Luke records an event like this (cf Lk 24:51). Is it a metaphor? Did it really happen in this way? The only other time in the Bible that someone was ‘taken up to heaven’ was Elijah, who with “chariots of fire and horses … went up by a whirlwind into heaven” (2 Kgs 2:11). 

To understand this story, it is helpful to ponder the significance of the cloud imagery. The cloud is a resounding symbol of God’s presence which echoes through the Scripture. It was the cloud that led and protected the Israelites after they escaped from the Pharoah in Egypt (Ex 13:21-22; 14:21-24; Numbers passim). The glory of the Lord appeared in the cloud in the desert and at Sinai (Ex 16:10; 19:9,16; 24:15-18). The cloud filled the tabernacle (Ex 40:34-38) and the temple (1 Kgs 8:10-11). The cloud appears again at the mount of transfiguration, when Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus “in glory and spoke of his departure” (Lk 9:29-36). And lastly, we hear of the cloud in which the Son of Man will come “with power and great glory” (Lk 21:27). Thus the cloud in which Jesus disappears in Acts 1:9 is an echo of his continuing presence with the disciples and a precursor of the glory in which he will return.

Throughout Jesus’ appearances over forty days since his resurrection, it is clear that though he is in bodily form, he is not restricted by earthly physics, appearing and disappearing (Lk 24:31,36) despite locked doors (Jn 20:19). It is in this context we should understand the ascension. The giving of the Spirit (Acts 1:8) was precisely Jesus’ promise for the time that he left the earth (Jn 14-16). Thus his disciples can be confident that in Jesus’ physical absence, his Spirit is with us, and also that he will return.

Whatever you feel about the historical facts of this story, its truth for us as readers today is that Jesus still lives, watching over and interceding for us, and that he will return in glory.

Prayer: Lord, please help me to believe the truth of your word. Thank you that Jesus ever lives, in power and in glory, and that he will return. Thank you for the gift of your Spirit to dwell in me until that time.

Acts 1:8

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Finally we come to the key verse of the chapter. Jesus begins with the word ‘But’ because he is contrasting this positive statement with the previous negative statement. So the saying reads, “not for you … but you will …”, meaning that they will not have knowledge (of the times) but they will have power. This power will come from the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus promised the disciples that they would be baptized with/by the Holy Spirit just a few verses ago (v5), and this was an echo from the Gospel (Lk 3:16). This is the first mention in Acts that the Spirit gives power, but the idea has already been presented in the gospel. It was after being filled with (and baptized in) the Spirit that Jesus goes into the desert for forty days and overcomes the devil (Lk 4:1-13); afterwards it is in the power of the Spirit that Jesus returns to Galilee for his ministry of teaching, healing, and deliverance (Lk 4:14ff).

In Acts, the Holy Spirit’s coming upon the disciples gives them the power to be witnesses of Jesus. Earlier, in the Gospel, Jesus had promised that the Spirit would give them the words they needed when they were brought before rulers and authorities (Lk 12:11-12). Clearly these two promises in Acts and the Gospel are related. The disciples are called upon to be witnesses of Jesus, and it is the power of the Holy Spirit that enables them to do this. 

What does it mean to be a ‘witness’? Interestingly, the Greek word here is martures, from which we derive the English word ‘martyr’. It is a choice of translators whether to use ‘witness’ or ‘martyr’. Both make sense in this context. A witness is someone who has seen an event and is therefore able to testify to what happened. The judicial sense of the word is there in Greek as well as in English. Jesus wants the disciples to testify to what they have seen. 

The places he names are concentric circles, expanding from the central Jerusalem, to the regions of Judea and Samaria, and beyond to the whole world. Note that Jesus is clear that he wants this message to go beyond the Jewish world (on focus in Acts 1:6), to the Samaritans who were thought of as half-breed Jews, and even to the Gentiles. This outward movement will be seen as the Book of Acts develops, and scholars call this a ‘programmatic verse’, in the sense that it sets the program for the whole book.

Reflecting on what all this means for us as we read in the 21st century, we can be encouraged that we have received power from the Holy Spirit to be witnesses of Jesus throughout the world. But are we really witnesses when we weren’t there in the first place? Yes, because we are witnesses to what Jesus has done in and through our own lives. He continues to live and act. It may even be that we consider ourselves martyrs; although we have not (yet) been killed for our faith, he calls us to daily lay our lives down for Jesus’ sake.

Prayer: Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of the Holy Spirit to empower me to serve you as a witness. May I faithfully bear testimony to you wherever you send me.

Acts 1:6-7

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The disciples came together and asked the Lord (verse 6). This itself is instructive for me, even without hearing the question yet. Often when we are seeking knowledge, wisdom, and direction, we sit alone in prayer. Perhaps we need to invest more energy in coming together to ask of Jesus. In the days of coronavirus this is even more difficult, but still we can meet together using technology. 

The disciples’ question shows misunderstanding on at least two levels. Jesus only responds to their first question, about timing. He doesn’t even respond to the second part of the question: whether Jesus will restore the kingdom to Israel. Their question demonstrates that their profound misunderstanding of Jesus’ identity and role, as shown in the Gospel, has still not been resolved. On one hand they understand perfectly: Jesus is the King of Israel and he came to rescue his people. The disciples were of that Jewish nation successively oppressed by Rome, Greece, Persia, and Babylon, and they were waiting to have their kingdom restored to the glory of Solomon, as had been prophesied. They wanted their land back, and here, it seemed to them, was the King, Judge, and Saviour who would stand in the line of Samuel, Saul and David. 

How often we too want God to act to fulfil our own desires and plans! Just like the original disciples, we think we have understood how history is supposed to work and what God is supposed to do to make things happen according to our small perspectives. Note once more that Jesus doesn’t even respond to this question from the disciples. Restoring the physical kingdom of Israel is far from his mind or purposes. Similarly, the things that we think are the most important issues in our world or our personal lives may also be of little importance within God’s thinking.

Jesus’ actual response is to the question of timing. Even this, he says, is not for the disciples to know. As I write, we are waiting to know when life can return to normal after Coronavirus shut-downs. Will it be six months, twelve, eighteen, will life ever return to normal or will there be a new world order? We feel quite desperate to know the timing, how long we will have to endure this period of being locked down and unable to travel or meet with friends and family. If we could know the end point, it feels, we could deal with the present. But, the Lord Jesus says here, it is not for his disciples to know the times or seasons. What we can know is that they are fixed by the authority of the Father. This is a comfort, to know that God is actually in control even of this crazy time.

Prayer: Father God, you have all authority and all wisdom. Forgive me for my foolish myopia. Open my eyes to the vision of the world which is yours. Help me to trust in you, even as I wait for salvation from my present circumstances. Thank you for the community I can share with fellow-disciples as we walk in this land of the unknown together.

Acts 1:4-5

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While Jesus was with the apostles, his chosen ones, in Jerusalem, he commanded them not to leave the city. This was so that they could receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. John the Baptist had prophesied that the Coming One, Jesus, would baptize people in the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16). We will hear much more about this as the book continues, not least in the following chapter. 

We might reflect on the times in our own lives when God has required us to wait before we were sent out for the next phase of ministry. It is usually a difficult period, and we don’t know why we are being forced to wait. But patience always has a reward. It is not Jesus who has commanded us to wait in our homes while the Coronavirus passes, but perhaps God will use this time to empower us with a new skill or gifting. Let’s be open to what the Spirit wants to give us during times of waiting.

Prayer: God, waiting is hard. Please help me to be patient. Open my eyes to what you want to give me. I want to be your servant and I need to be equipped for the tasks for which you have created me. My hands are open and I wait in hope to receive from you.