Notes on Prayer: Acts 1:24

Acts 1:24

In the previous study, we looked at the place of prayer in the depiction of the earliest Christian community in Jerusalem. The unity of these first believers was manifest and expressed through prayer (1:14). The setting of this episode—marking the real beginning of the Acts narrative—was the “upper room” in Jerusalem, where the believers were gathered together following Jesus’ departure (ascension) into heaven.

This first community was comprised of Jesus’ closest male disciples (the Twelve), along with a group of his close female followers (cf. Lk 8:1-3), as well as members of Jesus’ family (his mother and brothers, cp. Lk 8:19-21). These believers were united in location (in one room, in Jerusalem), in purpose (o(moqumado/n, “with one impulse”), and in their activity (prayer). The same narrative setting continues in the next episode (vv. 15-26). The community is still gathered together in one place (presumably the same “upper room”), now numbered at around 120 people (v. 15). This number has a vital symbolic importance for the Acts narrative, since 120 = 12 x 10, and so is tied to the concept of the twelve.

We may ask why the author chooses to include the episode in vv. 15-26, devoting attention to the selection of an apostle to take Judas’ place, introducing a person (Matthias) who is never mentioned again in the book of Acts. There are two reasons why the episode is important for the author, and they relate to the symbolism of the Twelve. First is the theme of the unity of believers. This sense of unity requires that the Community be made whole, and this cannot happen until the circle of the Twelve is restored.

The second reason involves the key eschatological theme of the restoration of Israel. There is a clear and unquestionable parallel between the twelve apostles and the twelve tribes of Israel. It is quite possible that Twelve were chosen (by Jesus himself) to represent, at least in part, 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.

Based on this symbolism, the restoration of the Twelve represents the idea of the restoration of Israel (the Twelve Tribes). From the standpoint of the book of Acts, the restoration of Israel is realized through the early Christian mission—the proclamation of the Gospel and the manifestation/work of the Spirit among believers. This is made abundantly clear in the answer given by Jesus to the disciples’ (eschatological) question regarding the establishment of the Kingdom (vv. 6-8). Consider also this theme of restoration in light of the Pentecost narrative that follows in chapter 2:

    • The disciples have returned (turned back) to Jerusalem
      • The Twelve have been reconstituted and are gathered together (in Jerusalem) in one place
        • Jews from all nations (the Dispersion) also are gathered together in Jerusalem
      • They again hear the voice (word of God) in the languages of the nations, spoken by the Twelve and other disciples (echo of the Sinai theophany)
    • The disciples go out from Jerusalem into the nations (even to the Gentiles)

Let us now consider the episode in vv. 15-26 and the place of prayer in it. Here is an outline of the episode:

    • Narrative introduction (v. 15)
    • Speech by Peter (vv. 16-22), which the central Scripture citation of Psalm 69:25 (and 109:8)
    • Selection of Matthias to restore the Twelve (vv. 23-26):
      • Presentation of the two candidates (v. 23)
      • Prayer regarding the selection (v. 24-25)
      • Selection of Matthias [by lot] (v. 26)

The importance (and symbolic significance) of the selection of this apostle, to complete/restore the Twelve, made it an occasion for praying to God. In this regard, the mention of prayer in v. 24 continues the thematic association between prayer and the unity of the early Community of believers. They are specifically praying for Divine guidance in establishing (and confirming) this unity. Here is how this is expressed in verse 24:

“And, speaking out toward (God), they said: ‘You Lord, (the) heart-knower of all, may you show (clearly for us) which one you (have) gathered [i.e. chosen] out of these two'”

This is the first occurrence in Acts of the verb proseu/xomai (“speak [out] toward [God],” i.e., pray); the related noun proseuxh/ was used in v. 14. The prayer acknowledges that the actual choice belongs to God, and that essentially He has already made the choice. As the One who ‘knows the heart’ of all people (and all things), God knows who is best suited to fill the apostolic role. The statement is also an acknowledgement that God is already aware of the needs and concerns of the Community, and of the reason why they are praying to him—a point Jesus makes in his teaching on prayer (Matt 6:8). The title kardiognw/sth$ (lit. “heart-knower”) may have been coined by Christians; in any case, it is only found in early Christian writings (Acts 15:8; Hermas Commandments 4.3.4; Clementine Homilies 10:13; Acts of Paul and Thecla 24; cf. Fitzmyer, p. 227), though the underlying idea is expressed in the Old Testament (Deut 8:2; 1 Sam 16:7; 1 Kings 8:39; Psalm 44:22, etc).

Verse 25 emphasizes again the importance of filling the place vacated by Judas, as thus restoring the Twelve and creating a fully unified Community:

“… ‘to take the place of this service [diakoni/a] and being sent forth [a)postolh/], from which Yehudah stepped alongside to travel into his own place’.”

English translations do not always capture the point that is being stressed here: Judas stepped away from his place among the Twelve, going instead to his own place (the adjective i&dio$, “[his] own”, being in emphatic position). This has a double-meaning: (a) it refers simply to the betrayal of Jesus by Judas, by which he departed from his place among Jesus’ circle of disciples, and (b) it also alludes to Judas’ ultimate fate—viz., his death and condemnation (see the parenthetical statement by the author in vv. 18-19).

I have translated the noun a)postolh/ according to its basic meaning of “being sent away” (or sent forth) by someone. It is, of course, related to the noun a)posto/lo$, which is typically transliterated in English as “apostle”. Thus the place that Judas abandoned (and will be filled by Matthias), and the service (diakoni/a) he had performed, was that of an apostle—one sent forth by Jesus to act as his representative and to proclaim the Gospel.

Prayer, as it is depicted in this episode, has special significance, not simply in relation to deciding on leadership roles within the Community (though that is of genuine importance); rather, the specific context of restoring the circle of the Twelve apostles means that it ultimately is tied to the central themes of Christian unity and the mission of believers (to proclaim the Gospel and act as Jesus’ representatives). These two themes remain fundamental to our identity as believers even today, and ought to be, also for us, the focus of our prayers.

References marked “Fitzmyer” are to Joseph A. Fitzmyer, The Acts of the Apostles, Anchor Bible [AB] vol. 31 (Doubleday/Yale: 1998).

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