June 10: Acts 1:15-26

Acts 1:15-26

In the previous note, we looked at Jesus’ words in Acts 1:7-8, referring to the coming of the Spirit, in light of the wider theme of the “restoration of Israel”. The author of Luke-Acts clearly portrays the coming of the Spirit and the early Christian mission to the Gentiles as the true realization of Israel’s restoration (as the people of God) at the end-time. The eschatological aspect is clear enough from vv. 6-8, with the allusions to the establishment of a Messianic Kingdom, reflecting the Messianic expectations of many Israelites and Jews at the time (including Jesus’ disciples). We can see this even more clearly by considering vv. 6-8 as part of the Ascension narrative (1:6-11), which one may break down chiastically:

    • Question regarding the Kingdom of God with Jesus’ reply, including a reiteration of the promise of the Holy Spirit (vv. 6-8)
      • The Ascension of Jesus (v. 9)
        —At their seeing/looking
        —      He was raised up(on)
        —      A cloud took him under
        —Away from their eyes
    • Angelic appearance and eschatological announcement about Christ’s return (vv. 10-11)

Thus there is delineated a certain period of time, however brief (or long), during which the Spirit-inspired believers will establish God’s Kingdom through the proclamation of the Gospel. In this regard, the theme of the “restoration of Israel” comes more clearly into view in vv. 12-14 that follow.

    • The disciples “return (or turn back) into Jerusalem”, v. 12. On the surface this is a simple description; however, consider the language in light of the implied motif of the “restoration” of Israel:
      a) The dispersed Israelites will return to the land, and to Jerusalem
      b) The restoration of Israel is often tied to repentance (turning back)
    • The Twelve disciples are gathered together in one place (upper room), v. 13. If the Twelve represent Israel (see below), then here we also have an image of the twelve tribes gathered together again.
    • The initial words of v. 14 contain a number of related, seminal motifs:
      • ou!toi (“these”—the twelve, along with the other disciples)
      • pa/nte$ (“all”—that is, all of them, together)
      • h@san proskarterou=nte$ (“were being strong” [sense of “endurance”, “patience”] “toward” their purpose/goal)
      • o(moqumado\n (“with one impulse”—a key phrase that occurs throughout Acts, cf. 2:46; 4:24, et al. qumo/$ is often translated as “soul”, “mind” [“with one mind”], but also as “passion”, “desire”; the primal sense of the word was something like a “[violent] stirring”)
      • th=| proseuxh=| (“in prayer”)
The Reconstitution of the Twelve

Here it is important to emphasize the key motif of the Twelve in the book of Acts. On purely objective grounds, the Twelve represent one of the earliest Christian traditions (cf. my articles in the series “Jesus and the Gospel Tradition”)—a fixed tradition and symbol, separate, it would seem, from much of the actual historical detail. This appears clearly enough from passages such as 1 Cor. 15:5 and Matthew 19:28, where “the Twelve” are mentioned, even though only eleven disciples could be involved (Judas being dead or disqualified). Also, note the variant lists of the Twelve (Matt. 10:1-14; Mark 3:14-19; and Luke 6:13-16 / Acts 1:13). Most likely the Twelve were chosen (by Jesus) in part to represent the tribes of Israel. This is not stated directly, but note Matthew 19:28 (and the Lukan parallel 22:30) and the sending out of the Twelve in Matthew 10:5f. It is possible too, at least in early Christian tradition, that the twelve baskets in the miraculous feeding came to be thought of as symbolic of Israel re-gathered, as well as an image of Church unity (see Didache 9:4 on the Eucharist). In the book of Revelation 21:12-14, the twelve apostles are also identified in terms of the twelve tribes.

So here, in Acts, the choosing of a twelfth apostle, to take the place of Judas Iscariot, takes on great significance. According to the logic of the narrative, Israel (the Twelve tribes) cannot be restored until the Twelve are reconstituted. This may seem strange to modern thinking, but the symbolism was powerful indeed to early Christians, for whom Israel and “the Church” were closely connected. It may also be worth noting the possible (even likely) symbolism in the parenthetical notice in Acts 1:15, where the number of disciples gathered together in the house is (about) 120—that is, 12 x 10. The symbolic association of these 120 disciples with a unified/restored Israel could perhaps also be inferred by the use in v. 15 of two other items which appear elsewhere at significant points in the narrative: use of the comparative particle w(sei (cf. Acts 2:3), and the expression e)pi\ to\ au)to/ (Acts 2:1, and elsewhere).

A particular point that is emphasized throughout the first half of the book of Acts is the role that the Twelve play in communicating the Spirit to the new believers. While the coming of the Spirit is tied to baptism (1:4-5), it is not dependent on it. Several examples are given where believers are baptized but do not immediately receive the Spirit (8:12-17; 19:2-6), as well as those who receive the Spirit even prior to baptism (10:44-48). It is specifically through the laying on of hands, by an Apostle, that the Spirit comes to fill the person. In the initial Jerusalem Community, this may have been reserved for the circle of the Twelve (8:17ff), but with the geographic expansion of the mission, by necessity, the laying on of hands was performed by others as well (such as Ananias and Paul, 9:17; 19:6). The Twelve represent the entire body of believers, a symbolism far outweighing any special sacredness attached to specific individuals.

If there were any doubt regarding the Twelve (reconstituted) functioning as a symbol for the restoration of Israel (i.e. the twelve tribes), one need only consider  the parallel thematic structure of the narrative here in the book of Acts:

    • The disciples, representing the twelve tribes of Israel—the Twelve (reconstituted, Acts 1:15-26) and the wider group of around 120 (12 x 10) disciples—are united, coming together in one place (Acts 2:1)
      • where they experience the manifestation (power and presence) of the Spirit of God (parallel to the Sinai theophany)—esp. the tongues of fire, Acts 2:2-4
    • Jews from the surrounding nations, representing the dispersed twelve tribes of Israel, also come together in one place (Acts 2:5-6), eventually speaking together with a united voice (vv. 7-11)
      • where they too experience the manifestation of the Spirit (the “voice”, v. 6), as at Sinai, with the word (of God) heard being spoken in other tongues (i.e. their own languages), Acts 2:6-7ff

At the heart of this narrative, of course, is the description of the coming of the Spirit upon the disciples as they gather together at the time of Pentecost (2:1-4ff). As a key reference to the Holy Spirit in the New Testament it hardly requires comment, though any number of critical and interpretive questions still surround the passage; for a discussion of these, cf. my earlier articles on “The Sending of the Spirit” and the 4-part series of notes on Acts 2:1-13. These verses will be discussed further in the next daily note.

 

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