A series of meditations covering the events in Acts, starting with chapter 1, a period of uncertainty between the Ascension of Christ and the coming of the Spirit to launch the Church. In chapter 2 we will see the launching of the Church and the first Christian sermon. Thereafter we follow the life of the early church
Meditations in Acts : 1 : Continuation
PART ONE: “What Next?”
Acts 1:1-3 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Moving from the Gospels to the Acts, I always think, comes with a lightly strange feeling. There is a measure of continuation of the works of Jesus, but the person of Jesus is missing. The link between this book and the Gospel of Luke is quite clear in the first five words of chapter 1. This is clearly a follow on book from a previous writing and the object or receiver of it, Theophilus, has to be beyond coincidence: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4).
The continuation is also quite clear from the reference to Jesus being taken up into heaven, for in the closing verses of Luke’s Gospel we read, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:50,51).
In this new series in the early chapters of Acts, we are calling this first part, “What Next?” because, after the amazing accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry in the Gospels, when we come to Acts there is this sense of continuation but at the same time there must have been a wondering in the minds of the disciples, what was coming next. In this first chapter of Acts, I think if we are able to step right inside it, there is a feeling of uncertainty. When we get to chapter 2 we’ll see the launching of the Church but for the moment, there are big questions over everything that is happening.
In the first few verses of Acts, Luke almost seems to rush into recapping what had happened. Having done the link with Jesus ascending into heaven, he backtracks to the fact that Jesus had, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and taught them: “after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” In his Gospel Luke had told about how Jesus had appeared to the twelve (Lk 24:36-43) convincing them that he was who he said he was. In the Gospel he simply records that Jesus then taught them the background of what had happened from the Scriptures (Lk 24:44-49). It was Matthew who recorded in his Gospel the message from the angels and then from Jesus himself, that Jesus would be going up to Galilee and they were to meet him there (Mt 28:7,10). Mark also confirmed this (Mk 16:7). It is left to John in his Gospel, written many years later, to provide us with the details of how they had gone back up to Galilee and had the encounter with Jesus by the lake (Jn 21). Luke now makes good the omission from his Gospel: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God,” (v.3) and ties the Gospel accounts together.
It is perhaps worth a little comment about the matter of the differing accounts. There those antagonistic souls who make noises about discrepancies or, as they wrongly call the differences, contradictions. Several things can be said about this.
First, just what constitutes a contradiction? When four different people witness the same thing they will report it in different ways and with different emphases. It is only a contradiction when one person says “X did this” and another person says “X never did that.” If one person says “John wore brown trousers” and another person says “John wore a green tie,” that is not a contradiction but simply two pieces of presumably accurate information that do not conflict.
A second thing to note is that writers of that day did not seek to fill in all the details like a reporter today might. We are concerned with accuracy of details; they tended to often speak in generalities. From our perspective there often seems a gap between the two but that was not what bothered them.
A third thing that might be worth observing is that the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were possibly the most confusing and emotionally upsetting, at least as viewed by the disciples, that have ever occurred in history. It is no wonder that different writers pick up on different bits because without doubt they would all have been traumatized by what went on in a measure that is almost beyond understanding by us who have not been through what they went through.
A fourth point to be born in mind is that the Gospels probably didn’t start being written down until at least twenty years had passed. Neither this nor the previous point are made to suggest inaccuracies, merely that it is not surprising that different writers picked up on different parts of the story to tell, or expressed it in different ways.
We can never be sure that what we have is an absolutely accurate set of accounts, but then neither can we be sure that they aren’t! Ultimately it is a matter of faith that says, “I believe that we have a credible record of what took place because it all fits, it all makes sense and Luke especially has given us prior grounds to trust his account when we find in his Gospel these words: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4) The words I have put in bold suggest strongly that this man is a careful reporter. We can believe what we read. Let’s read it carefully.