The Acts (Banner)

I.  The Church in Jerusalem

In this first broad section, Luke describes the Church, by means of a thematic narrative, in its formative stage. By and large, he does this in broad strokes. Clearly, he is dependent on second and third-hand accounts here, for his style is less vivid than in later portions of his work. This is by no means to say, however, that he treats his subject loosely here. He raises several important issues that were crucial for the earliest Christian community and shows how they became the foundation for the later growth and development of the Church.


1.1-11: The Lord’s Commission.

The Church’s beginning is associated with the resurrection and final acts of Jesus of Nazareth.

Orthodox Convent of the Ascension“until the day he was taken up” - refers to what we call the Ascension. (The photo at left is of the Orthodox Convent of the Ascension, on the Mt. of Olives.)

“he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit” -- the exact mode of Jesus’ presence to the community is not spelled out; neither, of course, is the mode of his discourse. The risen Lord is with the community through the Holy Spirit, and their understanding of that presence is interpreted as “commandment”, a directive presence. “Holy Spirit” indicates that the risen Lord’s presence and directives are grounded in God’s will and purpose.

“he showed himself alive ... by many proofs” -- an inexact reference to the presence of the risen One, which nevertheless stresses its reality (no hallucinations).

“and speaking of the kingdom of God” -- the presence of the risen One is continuous with his former earthly existence: his theme is still the kingdom (rule) of God as it had been during his previous work.

“you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” -- that is, you shall enter dramatically upon the new life of the resurrection. As the risen Lord is already joined to God through the Holy Spirit, so the community itself will know the very power of God in a similar way.

The first Christian community, then, does not simply become what it is because the disciples “stuck together” despite the trauma of Jesus’ death, nor for that matter the wonder of his appearances. Luke is saying that the community continued because the presence of the Risen Lord DEMANDED it -- the Resurrection implies the Church and sustains it.

What kind of community is the Christian community to be? This is the basic question which confronted the first Christians, and which is narratively portrayed in vss. 6-11.

“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” - The question implies that the community still thought in terms of an earthly kingdom. Should the community see itself as some sort of revolutionaries?

“It is not for you to know times or seasons” - The Risen Lord reveals to the community that it is not part of an earthly power, the vanguard of a new political system.

“You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” - The power of the Christian community is a Godly power, i.e., rooted in and governed by God’s will and purpose.

“You shall be my witnesses"   - Specifically, the power which the community enjoys is related to their mission to bear witness to the ministry and the death and resurrection of Jesus himself.

The first Christian community, then, had to struggle with its identity. Although the narrative indicates that all this took place in a very short period of time (indeed, in a single event), only a wooden literalist would suppose the narrative to be a description of EXACTLY what happened. Instead, Luke is presenting what is TYPICAL of the earliest experiences of the Church – the kinds of questions which would arise, and the kinds of guidance it received from the Risen Lord.

The importance of the story is to be found in what it MEANT: the Church was grounded in Christ’s Risen Existence, and was vested with the singular responsibility to be WITNESSES of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. Somehow -- we shall see some of the ways later -- this was understood as directly related to the salvation (spiritual health) of every human being.

A nice touch is added with the Ascension of Jesus and the appearance of angels:

“he was lifted up” - The Risen Lord was no longer present in a specific way in the community, but instead was gone from their sight. There is a touch of mystery to this going. (Does Luke think that “he was lifted up” meant a literal rising into the clouds? Not likely. Jesus used the term “lifted up” in the sense of “exalted” to God’s right hand -- Jesus was now in complete unity with God).

“while they were gazing into heaven” - All this business of the Risen Presence and the being “lifted up” would be enough to make anyone “gaze into heaven.” The proper business of the community, however, was not to gaze into heaven, but to get to work on earth. The Church still spends too much time “heaven gazing” and too little time carrying out its earth-ward obligations.

Luke is saying that the Church is not intended to be a speculative community, but a community of witness and blessing. Only as carries Out its testimony to Jesus of Nazareth can it become the instrument of GOD for the salvation of humankind.

1.12-14: The Core Community Gathers and Prays

Within the larger community was a core group which saw its fundamental work as that of gathering and praying for guidance, so that they might be faithful to their Lord’s commission. The Eleven, together with the women, Mary and the brothers of Jesus, formed this core. The exact size of the first community is not given.

1.15-26: Continuity - The Twelve is Reconstituted

One of the first problems to emerge for the community, once it got clear that its task was to work and witness in an earth-ward direction, was to organize for its “ministry” (vs. 17: DIAKONIA=service, ministry). At the very least, that meant filling out the number of the Twelve.

“In those days” Not a very precise designation! It means, while living under those conditions, i.e., praying for the further guidance of the Spirit.

“Peter stood up” Remarkable, since in view of his previous record of unreliability, Peter might have been the last one to emerge as president of the community. The traditions associated with the Lord’s appearances, and his giving authority to Peter, are the only logical ground for Peter’s leadership in the community.

“scripture had to be fulfilled” This presupposes that the core group and perhaps the whole community were engaged in study of the of the Old Testament (Actually, it is clear that the first Christians did a lot of study in the OT: witness their use of certain texts in preaching and teaching, and in ordering their common life).

“the company was in all about a hundred and twenty” Is this number an exact tally of the “members” of the community? Probably not. The term, “the 120”, was a legislative assembly in the Qumran community (and the Essene community at Damascus). We may assume that it is so used here. The earliest community was already quite large. [NOTE: The passage is literally translated “And in those days, Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren. There were persons of name with him, about a hundred and twenty.” J. Munck translates, “there was a gathering of about a hundred and twenty, persons known by name.” [Acts, p. 9] Conzelmann points out that 120 is the number required to constitute a local Sanhedrin (Sanhedrin 1.6), but doubts that this is what Luke has in mind. He translates “the company of persons was in all 120.” But this would include the women, whereas Peter addresses the men: ANDROS= man/ADELPHOI= brothers.

“his office let another take” This reveals a concern, even at this early date, for structure and organization. Being a member of the Twelve was an “office” in an organizational sense.

“one who has accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us.” Peter lays down the chief qualification for a member of the Twelve: One acquainted with the life and work of Jesus from his baptism to his exaltation (Ascension). Did Peter invent this criterion? No. It is clear that, if the task of the Church is to witness to the ministry of Jesus, then the core leadership group should be composed of persons who were well acquainted with that ministry.

“They put forward two” These were Joseph Justus, also known as Barsabbas; and Matthias. Were there only two who qualified? We can’t be certain, but probably not. Two men had gained the respect of others in the community and were accounted worthy to serve. (By the way, these two must have met the qualification, which means that the original twelve were not necessarily the original followers of Jesus!)

“They cast lots for them” Could mean that lots were drawn, or something like dice were used. But the same term at Qumran is used for an election by ballot. After prayer, the members of the assembly (the 120) cast ballots for the election of a new leader. Matthias was elected.

More than passing interest attaches to this first official action. One the one hand, there are many scholars who assume that the criterion for the election, stated by Peter, constitutes the definition of an APOSTLE. Although we must consider this argument more closely below, it must be said, here, that such a view cannot be based on this passage. It is clear from the context that the issue is the qualifications for holding a position on the Twelve, the core leadership group, not the apostles.

On the other hand, there are numbers of commentators who see this passage as important to the “succession” question: that is, whether this action of the first community was intended as a model, a precedent for future use in forming the leadership of the community. Often, the debate runs along “party lines”: persons from so-called “free churches” saying that it does not constitute a precedent for their notion of succession; those of “episcopal” traditions saying that is does.

One Protestant scholar has even made the suggestion that Peter’s action was an attempt to run “ahead of God’s purpose in seeking this appointment.” (Blaiklock, p. 53). He points to the fact that the election before Pentecost (a fact which Chrysostom also noted), and that the coming of “the Spirit of truth” made such actions obsolete. Since this action, furthermore, appears to the writer to be based on some conception of “law,” he believes it is “immature,” reflecting a not fully formed Christian approach.

Let us remember that Luke was not recording any and every event at random, but those which were typical, and which were typically significant for the foundation of the Christian Church.

If there is any attitude in Luke which regards the action of Peter and the community in making this election, there is not the slightest indication that it is one of “running ahead of the Holy Spirit,” that it is mistaken or immature.

Indeed, quite the opposite: Luke portrays this as one of the first official actions of a solemn assembly convened for a very weighty purpose.

Furthermore, the action of making an election is specifically related to the dominical command that the community be witnesses, and is seen as an act of readiness to fulfill that command.

Far from being an act without reference to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Peter and the community seek through prayer for the Holy Spirit to direct the action; the scriptural warrant is used, not as a proof-text, but as a present indication of the will of the Spirit.

The significance of this action is shown by Luke in that it, together with prayer and study of the scripture, is the necessary groundwork for the great events of Pentecost, which are directly related in the following episode.

It has been pointed out by more than one scholar that no subsequent election is reported, although it is known that others of the Twelve were slain (e.g., James, the son of Zebedee). Again, it is not Luke’s task to report EVERY event which we might think important. It is sufficient for him to report the TYPICAL: events which show the pattern of early church life. (It is quite possible, indeed probable that James, the Lord’s brother, was elected to fill the other James’ position even though this was not reported. At least, this appears to be a logical, perhaps the most logical, explanation for James’ sudden and otherwise unexplained rise to prominence.)

The point of the story appears to be this: the early community sensed a method for achieving continuity in its earthly mission, and acted upon it with confidence and determination.

2.1-42: The Day of Pentecost: The Church Finds Its Identity

Pentecost iconThe day of Pentecost, a Jewish festival, arrived. The community of Christians were assembled in an unknown place. Suddenly, they experienced a sense of power and presence - the Holy Spirit as they identified it - and began to speak. Their speech was a bold proclamation of Jesus and his work. Inexplicably, the “Galileans” were able to make their proclamation in languages of many peoples --which attracted some and became a cause for mocking by others.

Peter with boldness interprets this event to the outsiders as a fulfillment of OT prophecy, and goes on to proclaim in unmistakable terms the resurrection of Jesus as a sign of God’s offer of reconciliation.

Many of the crowd are struck by the message and inquire what they are to do in(response(.to this act of God. A large number (3000) take up Peter’s challenge to “repent and be baptized” taking upon themselves the name of Jesus the Christ.

After the baptisms, these new converts are added to the Christian community and “devote themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to the prayers.”

The last verse (2.42) sets out the marks of the Church which are still valid today (they make up our central baptismal promise - see the Book of Common Prayer, p. 304).

Keeping the Word, Unity, Eucharist and Prayers are the signs of the unique Christian community, the Church.

The relationship between these “marks” of the Church should be noted carefully: The Apostles’ teaching is the ground of and for the community (KOINONIA= fellowship), which in turn is the basis for sound worship (breaking of bread=eucharist, and “the prayers”). KOINONIA means far more than “getting together” – it means (and is translated) “participation,” in 1 Cor 10.16: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ?” The collection for the poor is also called “KOINONIA” in Rom 15.26. The idea has significance both for practical engagement of persons with persons (in meeting needs, for example), and for sacramental participation (thus the use of the word “communion”). The ability and efficacy of Christian community in its worship is based upon its fidelity to the Apostles’ teaching.

NOTE OF INTEREST: Some of the bystanders think that the “speakers in tongues” are drunk. Peter arises to say, first, “These men are not drunk as you suppose.” The word for “drunk” is METHUSIA. The gemstone for bishops is the amethyst, which literally means “not drunk.” It was thought by the ancient Greeks that the stone conferred a degree of immunity to the effects of alcohol. Bishops wear the amethyst as a sign of remembrance of this Pentecost event: recalling that the task of Christian leadership is proclaim the Gospel no matter what other people think — with sober intent and joyful passion.

2.43-47: The Life of the Community

Luke gives a general impression of the life of the earliest community in the afterglow of the events of Pentecost:

“fear came upon every soul” - A sense of reverence and awe filled the community --life seemed new, fresh, wondrous; and this sense extended beyond the immediate congregation to outsiders (“every soul” is a term which refers non-exclusively: note vs. 47a, the Christians had “favor” with all the people).

“many signs and wonders were done through the apostles” - The life of the community was typified by “miracles” of all kinds.

“all who believed were together” - The community had a unity of mind and purpose.

“and had all things in common” - “Things” means “property.” The Christian community did not simply give up its property and pursue a life of poverty, but its resources were shared by all.

“and they sold ... and distributed ... as any had need” - Again, not poverty, but sharing on the basis of need.

“and day by day, attending the temple together” - The Christians did not deny their Jewish heritage, but -- as did Jesus -- assumed that life must be lived in reference to the historic worship of God.

“and breaking bread in their homes” - Their religious life was not merely formal, however. They gathered for Eucharist (according to the Lord’s request) frequently with themselves, moving from home to home (there were as yet no “church” buildings).

“they partook of food with glad and generous hearts” - The Eucharist was associated with full meals (TROPHES) at this time. “Generous” can also be translated “simple” (lit.: simplicity of heart). Joy was the mark of the Christian community.

“praising God” - The community saw its life as a gift from God to be joyously and thankfully received.

“and having favor with all the people” - The community was not yet generally regarded with suspicion or with envy (though undoubtedly there were many who remained unimpressed, untouched).

The impression given is that the community was active.

The community had a clear sense of its identity and purpose.

The community was remarkable in the literal sense of that word: the quality of its life was attractive because it was new, positive, marked by integrity.

3.1-4.31: Witness and Opposition

Luke describes what he understands as a typical mark of the community: an instance of the “signs and wonders” that characterized the work of the apostles. A man is healed of his paralysis. Peter and John claim no power in themselves, but interpret the healing as a sign of God’s power in and through Jesus. Peter seizes the opportunity to proclaim the Name and the new life of the resurrection (4.2). In response, the first signs of opposition from the “established” religion emerges.

The preaching of Peter and John brings still more converts, but also results in their arrest. The rulers of the people -- i.e., the religious authorities -- seek some way to punish Peter and John, yet are unable to do so because of fear of alienating “the people”, who as yet still held the Christians in high esteem.

Peter and John are released and return to the community where prayers are offered in thanksgiving, and for courage to carry out their mission.

The “sermons” in this section are characterized by simple, straightforward words and concepts.

The protagonists are completely self-effacing, claiming that their work is the work of God; they are confident and tenacious.

The leaders recognize that these men are simple, uneducated; by contrast, they in all their sophistication are at a loss as to how to deal with these simpletons.

The Christians are convinced that they must carry out the work God has called them to do, regardless of the outcome: “we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.” (4.20)

The point of the episode is to show that the Christian mission raised, and would continue to raise (increasingly) opposition. Despite this EXTERNAL pressure, the Christians pursued their mission relying upon the help of God in carry out their work. (The prayer is more than a nice touch: it reveals the self-understanding of the community that it was wholly dependent on God.)

4.32-5.11: The Community Experiences Internal Strains and Stresses

The picture given above may seem a bit rosy. Luke gives a corrective to this impression, however, in relating the present episode.

In vss. 32-37, Luke repeats the general truth that the Christians held things in common and took care of each other’s needs. One case, an important one, is cited: Joseph Barnabas sold a field and gave the proceeds to the community for the care of its needy. (Barnabas was a surname, or really rather a nickname given to Joseph by the apostles; it means, literally, Son of Encouragement)

But, true as the general picture may be, people will be people. A certain Ananias and his wife, Sapphire, conspired to impress the community with their generosity (perhaps thereby hoping to win for themselves an accolade like that given to Joseph), while really hanging on to their property.

Ananias is struck dead, after a confrontation with Peter; so, too, is Sapphire. The episode bears the marks of legend. There may, however, have been some incident LIKE this behind the story which bore its way into the minds of the community and grew through years of being related into its present dimensions.

For all that, Peter’s words are remarkable: he stresses the freedom which members of the community have. Their communal life was not achieved by ordinance, but by grace. Ananias, certainly, did not grasp that point.

The point of the episode is to show that, while the community had its strengths (and (they were many), it was not a utopia.

5.12-16: The Impact of the Community

Luke gives what appears to be another summary. But here he makes a couple of significant points:

The “signs and wonders” continued to take place.

Despite the first signs of opposition from the religious establishment, the Christians continued to go to the temple.

Vs. 13 is difficult to grasp at first sight (it is easier in Greek). Though held in high honor among the people generally, many did not dare to get involved out of a sense of reverence for this special group. There were apparently persons (as there still are) who misunderstand the nature of the church and who felt themselves unworthy to be counted among them. There is no indication that the community wanted to give this impression.

Nevertheless, God continued to bring new persons into the community. In fact, it was growing at an accelerated pace. (By the way, notice that the community did not engage in “selling themselves” -- they simply did what God had called on them to do, and they grew.)

Of great significance is Luke’s note that men AND women were equally received into the community.

So great is the impact of the community on its environment that non-Christians are brought to the community for healing -- and not only from Jerusalem, but from surrounding communities as well.

5.17-42: More opposition

In this episode, the leaders of the religious establishment -- out of jealousy (for their own power and prestige)  rise up against the apostles for their failure to take a hint from the previous encounter. The Christians had continued to proclaim their message about Jesus.

In the council, Peter and some others of the apostles make their defense: they must do what God commands, whatever the rulings of these earthly leaders. The council is enraged, but is brought to its senses by a certain Gamaliel, “a teacher of the law” (a prominent Rabbi).

Gamaliel’s counsel is very pragmatic: if the work these men do is of God, it will last no matter what you do. If not, it will collapse on its own. In any case, as religious leaders you must remain open: you must not run the risk of opposing God!

The apostles leave, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to share in the suffering of Christ -- but they did not give up their work.

The Christian faith is simply referred to as “the Life” - 5.20.

The authorities are limited in what kind of action they can take against the community: the people still hold them in honor - 5.26.

Jesus -- previously called the “servant of God” -- is now also called “leader and savior” - 5.31. These are christological titles. Leader is the English translation for ARCHEGOS (= author: see 3.15).

Gamaliel is associated by Luke with the Pharisee party, and as the teacher of Paul. He was a famous teacher both among Jews and among Christians for some time. In his speech, Gamaliel shows no real sympathy with the Christian movement -- indeed, he seems to lump it together with other, failed movements and assumes that the Christians will go the same way.

The episode gives a sense of the increasingly opposition to the Christian community from official circles which lays the ground for the next events.

6.1-7: The Office of Deacon: a Division of Labor

This episode relates further developments of the organization of the early community.

“Now in these days” - Luke makes clear that “these days” refers to the time of rapid increase in size, with all the stresses and strains internal and external which that increase entailed.

“the Hellenists” - Luke uses this term to refer to a subgroup within the community made up of Greek speaking, thoroughly Hellenized Jews. These would have been born outside of Palestine and many were probably older persons who had come to Jerusalem in order to die and find a proper burial -- thus the number of widows. As a group, the Hellenists would have been a despised minority among Jews. Some of these old tensions no doubt persisted even in the “joyous, loving” community of Christians.

“The Hebrews” - Luke uses this term to describe another subgroup -- though exactly who is a mystery. He may mean the majority group -- Palestinian Jews (those who spoke Aramaic). Others have suggested even Samaritans. The exact identity of this group may never be known.

“murmured” - The issue was the daily distribution (DIAKONIA=service, ministry). The Hellenistic widows were not getting their fair share of necessities. Such a situation is easily conceived, particularly as the community is growing and its inner life becoming more complicated.

The term for murmur is GOGGUSMOS “a secret debate; displeasure not openly avowed.” As a verb, it was a powerful word. As a noun, however, it refers to a mere dissatisfaction. It certainly would not indicate a general schism within the community. One can easily imagine the existence of hurt feelings and irritations at perceived “injustices” and indiscretions in the matter of the distribution.

“the Twelve summoned the disciples” - The Twelve convened an assembly to deal with the issue. They set the issue in a larger context -that of overall ministry -- thus taking from it the possibility of becoming a cause for deep division (it is likely that the larger community did not even take note of the murmuring).

“It is not right” - The Twelve address the assembly in terms of policy. They are raising a question for discussion along the following lines: “Something is not working here. We are spending our time on details when we should be giving our attention to the Lord’s mission.” In essence, they offer the problem to the assembly for a joint resolution. By dealing with the policy issue, they will be taking care of the relatively minor presenting issue (although, of course, to the Hellenistic widows, it isn’t minor!). [NOTE: cf Exodus 18.13 ff.— here Moses is advised to look for “able men” to help in the administration of the People. Perhaps Luke, or even Peter knew this story?]

“And what they said pleased the whole multitude” - Raising the issue in a public forum won a cohesive response. The assembly had real influence over the mission of the whole, and their decision was to elect a group of seven men to take on the duties of “serving tables” (DIAKONEIN= service, attention to details).

The Names: All are Greek, confirming that these are men who are leaders of the Hellenistic subgroup. (The squeaking wheel gets the grease?!)

Table 1 - The Seven - Who they are and what we know

Name: What we know
Stephen A man "of the Holy Spirit," a gifted speaker and organizer. The first to be martyred for the faith.
Philip NOT Philip, a member of the Twelve. About him we know the most among the Seven: After Stephen's martyrdom, he works as a missionary in Samaria, encountering Simon Magus; he converts a non-Jew (The Ethiopian Eunuch) and baptizes him; he preached for some time along the coast; finally he establishes a church in Caesarea; there, along with four daughters who were preachers too, he carried on his work. By tradition, he became the Bishop of Tralles.
Prochorus By tradition he became the scribe to John, the Evangelist, taking down the dictation that would form the Fourth Gospel.
Nicanor A Syrian name - likely a Syrian Jew.
Timon A Jew by birth who grew up in the Greek speaking diaspora.
Parmenas A Jew by birth.
Nicolas A "proselyte" - i.e., a Gentile who converted to Judaism. He came from Antioch, a Syrian by birth. Thought by some Church Fathers (Irenaeus) to be the founder of the Nicolaitan heresy, characterized by lust and luxury: see Rev 2.6.

“These they set before the apostles, and they prayed and laid hands upon them” – Ordination,  a sign of the authority conferred on an individual, and the seal of God’s blessing on his/her ministry.

These men were important to the growth of the Church. They were not merely “table waiters” or detail men. We know that they were also good preachers and teachers and were undoubtedly very helpful in the further growth of the Church which Luke relates in 6.7.

We call them the first “deacons.” Luke does not so designate them, but probably understands them to be such. In any case, they were not just “junior clergy”: they bore a real dignity and an important office. It is significant that the first “office” created in the early community was the office of Deacon, a servant of Christ, as Christ had been the servant of God. Stephen: Deacon and Martyr

Now Luke singles out one of the Seven for special mention. And he does this for two reasons:

St. Stephen iconFirst, Stephen was a remarkable minister. He was “full of grace and power,”  that is, of the fullness of God’s presence. Through him, many “signs and wonders” occurred. But Stephen was also a thinker. His understanding of the scriptural tradition (the OT) and his way of proclaiming the meaning of Jesus’ life was both perceptive and cogent. Curiously, his fellow countrymen (at any rate, fellow Hellenistic Jews) rose in opposition to him. The why can only be conjectured. It may well be that they feared his prominence and exposure, lest he be the cause for repressive actions by the Jerusalem hierarchy. Despite their attempts to silence him, Stephen was the better equipped -- intellectually and spiritually. The Hellenists (non-Christians!) trumped up charges to get Stephen put away. In the bulk of this report, we have the essence of the kind of preaching Stephen did. And what he tries to do is connect the saving event of Jesus and his ministry to the whole history of God’s dealings with the people of Israel, such was the scope of his thought and his vision. This is the first reason Luke pays attention to him.

The second is this: the death of Stephen, acted out as an attempt deal with him in particular and to “scare” the rest of the community into compliance with official directives, becomes the reason for a rather “up-scale” persecution of Christians and the dispersal of large numbers of them (particularly the Hellenistic-Jewish, Christians) to places far and wide.

Of course, there is one more interest which Luke has: in his characteristically dramatic fashion, he brings in a young man named Saul as a witness and consented to the death of Stephen. It is this young man who will later become the greatest exponent and writer of the new faith!