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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Acts 1

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-26

POWER TO GO ON (Acts 1:1-5)

1:1-5 My Dear Theophilus, I have already given you an account of all the things that Jesus began to do and to teach, right up to the day when he was taken up to heaven, after he had, through the Holy Spirit, given his instructions to the apostles whom he had chosen. In the days that followed his sufferings he also showed himself living to them by many proofs, for he was seen by them on various occasions throughout a period of forty days; and he spoke to them about the kingdom of God. While he was staying with them he told them not to go away from Jerusalem but to wait for the Father's promise, "which," he said, "I told you about; for I told you that John baptized with water but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit before many days have passed."

In two senses Acts is the second chapter of a continued story. First, it is the second volume which Luke had sent to Theophilus. In the first volume, his Gospel, Luke had told the story of the life of Jesus upon earth. Now he goes on to tell the story of the Christian Church. Second, Acts is the second volume of a story which has no end. The Gospel was only the story of what Jesus began to do and to teach.

There are different kinds of immortality. There is an immortality of fame. In Henry the Fifth Shakespeare puts into the king's mouth a speech which promises an immortal memory if the Battle of Agincourt is won.

This story shall the good man tell his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered.

Beyond a doubt Jesus did win such an immortality, for his name will never be forgotten.

There is an immortality of influence. Some men leave an effect in the world which cannot die. Sir Francis Drake was the greatest of English sailors and to this day the Royal Naval Barracks at Plymouth is called H.M.S. Drake so that there may always be sailors armed with "that crested and prevailing name." Beyond a doubt Jesus won an immortality of influence for his effect upon the world and the life of men cannot die.

Above all, there is an immortality of presence and of power. Jesus not only left an immortal name and influence; he is still alive and still active. He is not the one who was; he is the one who is.

In one sense it is the whole lesson of Acts that the life of Jesus goes on in his Church. Dr. John Foster tells how an inquirer from Hinduism came to an Indian bishop. All unaided he had read the New Testament. The story had fascinated him and Christ had laid his spell upon him. "Then he read on...and felt he had entered into a new world. In the gospels it was Jesus, his works and his suffering. In the Acts ... what the disciples did and thought and taught had taken the place that Christ had occupied. The Church continued where Jesus had left off at his death. 'Therefore,' said this man to me, 'I must belong to the Church that carries on the life of Christ.'" The book of Acts tells of the Church that carries on the life of Christ.

This passage tells us how the Church was empowered to do that by the work of the Holy Spirit. We often call the Holy Spirit the Comforter. That word goes back to Wycliff; but in Wycliff's day it had a different meaning. It comes from the Latin fortes, which means brave; the Comforter is the one who fills men with courage and with strength. In the book of Acts, indeed all through the New Testament, it is very difficult to draw a line between the work of the Spirit and the work of the Risen Christ; and we do not need to do so, for the coming of the Spirit is the fulfillment of the promise of Jesus, "Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age." (Matthew 28:20.)

Let us note one other thing. The apostles were enjoined to wait on the coming of the Spirit. We would gain more power and courage and peace if we learned to wait. In the business of life we need to learn to be still. "They who wait for the Lord shall renew their strength." (Isaiah 40:31). Amidst life's surging activity there must be time to receive.

THE KINGDOM AND ITS WITNESSES (Acts 1:6-8)

1:6-8 So when they had met together they asked him, "Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom of Israel at this time?" But he said to them, "It is not yours to know the times and the seasons which the Father has appointed by his own authority. But when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, you will receive power; and you will be my witnesses both in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and in Samaria and to the farthest bounds of the earth."

Throughout his ministry Jesus laboured under one great disadvantage. The centre of his message was the kingdom of God. (Mark 1:14); but he meant one thing by the kingdom and those who listened to him meant another.

The Jews were always vividly conscious of being God's chosen people. They took that to mean that they were destined for special privilege and for world-wide dominion. The whole course of their history proved that humanly speaking that could never be. Palestine was a little country not more than 120 miles long by 40 miles wide. It had its days of independence but it had become subject in turn to the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans. So the Jews began to look forward to a day when God would break directly into human history and establish that world sovereignty of which they dreamed. They conceived of the kingdom in political terms.

How did Jesus conceive of it? Let us look at the Lord's Prayer. In it there are two petitions side by side. "Thy kingdom come; thy will be done in earth as it is in heaven." It is characteristic of Hebrew style, as any verse of the Psalms will show, to say things in two parallel forms, the second of which repeats or amplifies the first. That is what these two petitions do. The second is a definition of the first. Therefore, we see that by the kingdom Jesus meant a society upon earth where God's will would be as perfectly done as it is in heaven. Because of that it would be a kingdom founded on love and not on power.

To attain to that men needed the Holy Spirit. Twice already Luke has talked about waiting for the coming of the Spirit. We are not to think that the Spirit came into existence now for the first time. It is quite possible for a power always to exist but for men to experience or take it at some given moment. For instance, men did not invent atomic power. It always existed; but only in our time have men tapped it. So God is eternally Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but there came to men a special time when they experienced to the full that power which had always been present.

The power of the Spirit was going to make them Christ's witnesses. That witness was to operate in an ever-extending series of concentric circles, first in Jerusalem, then throughout Judaea; then Samaria, the semi-Jewish state, would be a kind of bridge leading out into the heathen world; and finally this witness was to go out to the ends of the earth.

Let us note certain things about this Christian witness. First, a witness is a man who says I know this is true. In a court of law a man cannot give in evidence a carried story; it must be his own personal experience. There was a time when John Bunyan was not quite sure. What worried him was that the Jews thought their religion the best; the Mohammedans thought theirs the best; what if Christianity were but a think-so too? A witness does not say, "I think so"; he says "I know."

Second, the real witness is not of words but of deeds. When Stanley had discovered Livingstone in Central Africa and had spent some time with him, he said, "If I had been with him any longer I would have been compelled to be a Christian and he never spoke to me about it at all." The witness of the man's life was irresistible.

Third, in Greek the word for witness and the word for martyr is the same (martus, Greek #3144). A witness had to be ready to become a martyr. To be a witness means to be loyal no matter the cost.

THE GLORY OF DEPARTURE AND THE GLORY OF RETURN (Acts 1:9-11)

1:9-11 When he had said these things, while they were watching, he was taken up and a cloud received him and he passed from their sight. While they were gazing into heaven, as he went upon his way, behold, two men in white garments stood beside them; and they said to them, "Men of Galilee, why are you standing looking up into heaven? This Jesus who has been taken up into heaven from you will come again in the same way as you have seen him go to heaven."

This short passage leaves us face to face with two of the most difficult conceptions in the New Testament.

First, it tells of the Ascension. Only Luke tells this story and he has already related it in his gospel. (Luke 24:50-53.) For two reasons the Ascension was an absolute necessity. One was that there had to be a final moment when Jesus went back to the glory which was his. The forty days of the resurrection appearances had passed. Clearly that was a time which was unique and could not go on forever. Equally clearly the end to that period had to be definite. There would have been something quite wrong if the resurrection appearances had just simply petered out.

For the second reason we must transport ourselves in imagination back to the time when this happened. Nowadays we do not regard heaven as some local place beyond the sky; we regard it as a state of blessedness when we will be forever with God. But every man, even the wisest, in those days thought of the earth as flat and of heaven as a place above the sky. Therefore, if Jesus was to give his followers unanswerable proof that he had returned to his glory, the Ascension was absolutely necessary. But we must note this. When Luke tells of this in his gospel he says, "They returned to Jerusalem with great joy." (Luke 24:52.) In spite of the Ascension, or maybe because of it, the disciples were quite sure that Jesus was not gone from them but that he was with them forever.

Second, this passage brings us face to face with the Second Coming. About the Second Coming we must remember two things. First, to speculate when and how it will happen is both foolish and useless, Jesus said that not even he knew the day and the hour when the Son of Man would come. (Mark 13:32.) There is something almost blasphemous in speculating about that which was hidden from even Christ himself. Second, the essential teaching of Christianity is that God has a plan for man and the world. We are bound to believe that history is not a haphazard conglomeration of chance events which are going nowhere. We are bound to believe that there is some divine far off event to which the whole creation moves and that when that consummation comes Jesus Christ will be Judge and Lord of all. The Second Coming is not a matter for speculation and for illegitimate curiosity; it is a summons to make ourselves ready for that day when it comes.

THE FATE OF THE TRAITOR (Acts 1:12-20)

1:12-20 Then they made their way back to Jerusalem from the hill which is called the Mount of Olives, which is near Jerusalem, about half a mile away. When they came in. they went up to the upper room where they were staving; Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James were there. All of them with one united heart persevered in prayer, together with certain women and with Mary, Jesus' mother and with his brothers,

And in these days Peter stood up amongst the brethren and said--the number of people who were together was about one hundred and twenty "Brethren, the scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold through the mouth of David about Judas who was guide to those who arrested Jesus, because he was one of our number and had received his allotted part in our service. (This man bought a piece of ground with the proceeds of his wicked deed; and he fell headlong and burst asunder and his bowels gushed out. This became a well-known fact to all those who lived in Jerusalem so that the piece of ground was called in their language Akeldama, which means the place of blood.) For it stands written in the book of Psalms, 'Let the place where he lodged be desolate and let no one stay in it.' And, 'Let another receive his office."'

Before we come to the fate of the traitor Judas there are certain things we may notice in this passage. For the Jew, the Sabbath was entirely a day of rest when all work was forbidden. A journey was limited to 2,000 cubits and that distance was called a Sabbath day's journey. A cubit was eighteen inches; so a Sabbath day's journey was rather more than half a mile.

It is interesting to note that Jesus' brothers are here with the company of the disciples. During Jesus' lifetime they had been among his opponents (Mark 3:21). It may well be that for them, as for so many others, the death of Jesus opened their eyes and stabbed their hearts as even his life could not do.

We are told that the number of the disciples was about 120. That is one of the most uplifting things in the New Testament. There were only 120 pledged to Christ and it is very unlikely that any of them had ever been outside the narrow confines of Palestine in his life. Since there were about 4,000,000 Jews in Palestine, this means that fewer than I in 30,000 were Christians. On the same basis it would mean that it was like there being only 300 Christians in the whole of Glasgow or 12 in Edinburgh; and these 120 simple folk were told to go out and evangelize the whole world. If ever anything began from small beginnings the Christian Church did. We may well be the only Christians in our shop, our factory, our office, in our circle. These men gallantly faced their task and so must we; and it may be that we too will be the small beginning from which the kingdom in our sphere will spread.

The great interest of this passage is the fate of Judas. What exactly the Greek here means is uncertain, but in Matthew's account (Matthew 27:5) we are left in no doubt that Judas committed suicide. It must always be a matter of wonder why Judas betrayed Jesus. Various suggestions have been put forward.

  1. It has been suggested that Iscariot means man of Kerioth. If it does. Judas was the only non-Galilaean in the apostolic band. It may be that he felt himself the odd man out and grew so embittered that he did this terrible thing.

  2. It may be that Judas turned king's evidence to save his own skin and then saw the enormity of what he had done.

  3. It may be that he did it simply out of greed for money. If he did. it was the most dreadful bargain in history, for he sold his Lord for thirty pieces of silver which was less than £4 (About $7 USD).

  4. It may be that Judas came to hate Jesus. From others he could disguise his black heart; but the eyes of Jesus could penetrate to the inmost recesses of his being. It may be that in the end he was driven to destroy the one who knew him for what he was.

  5. It may be that Iscariot is a form of a Greek word which means a dagger-bearer. The "dagger-bearers" were a band of violent nationalists who were prepared to undertake assassination and murder in a campaign to set Palestine free, Perhaps Judas saw in Jesus the very person who could lead the nationalists to triumph; and when he saw that Jesus refused that way he turned against him and in his bitter disappointment betrayed him.

  6. It is likeliest of all that Judas never meant Jesus to die but betrayed him with the intention of forcing his hand. If that be so, Judas had the tragic experience of seeing his plan go desperately wrong; and in his bitter remorse he committed suicide.

However it may be, Judas goes down to history as the blackest name among men. There can never be any peace for the man who betrays Christ.

THE QUALIFICATIONS OF AN APOSTLE (Acts 1:21-26)

1:21-26 "So then, of the men who were with us during all the time our Lord went in and out amongst us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day on which he was taken up from us--of these we must choose one to be a witness of the resurrection along with us." So they selected two, Joseph, who was called Barsabbas, whose surname was Justus, and Matthias. Then they prayed and said, "O Lord. who knowest the hearts of all, do thou show us which of these two thou hast chosen to take his place in this service and in the apostleship. from which Judas fell away and went to his own place." So they made them draw lots and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was elected to be along with the eleven apostles.

We look briefly at the method of choosing someone to take Judas' place in the number of the apostles. It may seem strange to us that the method was that of casting lots. But amongst the Jews it was the natural thing to do because all the offices and duties in the Temple were settled that way. The names of the candidates were written on stones'. the stones were put into a vessel and the vessel was shaken until one stone fell out; and he whose name was on that stone was elected to office.

The great fact about this passage is that it gives us two supremely important truths.

First, it tells us that the function of an apostle was to be a witness to the resurrection. The real mark of a Christian is not that he knows about Jesus but that he knows Jesus. The basic mistake in Christianity is to regard Jesus as someone who lived and died and whose life we study and whose story we read. Jesus is not a figure in a book, he is a living presence; and the Christian is a man whose whole life is a witness to the fact that he knows and has met the Risen Lord.

Second, it tells us that the qualification of an apostle was that he had companied with Jesus. The real Christian is the man who lives day by day with Jesus. It was said of John Brown of Haddington, the great preacher, that often when he preached he paused as if listening for a voice. Jerome K. Jerome tells of an old cobbler who, on the coldest day, left the door of his shop open, and on being asked why, replied, "So that Jesus can come in if he is passing by." We often speak about what would happen if Jesus were here and how differently we would live if he were in our homes and at our work. Lady Acland tells how once her little daughter had a spasm of temper. After the storm she and the daughter were sitting on the stairs making things up again and the little girl said, "I wish Jesus would come and stay in our house all the time." But the fact is that Jesus is here; and the real Christian is the man who lives all his life with Christ.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Text Courtesy of BibleSupport.com. Used by Permission.

Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Acts 1:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/acts-1.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, October 16th, 2019
the Week of Proper 23 / Ordinary 28
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