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Bible Commentaries

Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers
Acts 1

 

 

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Verse 1

The Acts of the Apostles.—See Introduction as to the title thus given to the Book.

(1) The former treatise.—Literally, word, or discourse; but the English of the text is, perhaps, a happier equivalent than either. The Greek term had been used by Xenophon (Anab. ii. 1; Cyrop. viii. 1, 2) as St. Luke uses it, of what we should call the several “Books” or portions of his Histories. The adjective is strictly “first” rather than “former,” and the tense of the verb, “I made,” rather than “I have made.”

O Theophilus.—See Note on Luke 1:3. It has been thought that the absence of the words “most excellent” implies that the writer’s friendship with Theophilus was now of a more intimate and familiar nature. It is possible, just as a like change of relation has been traced in Shakespeare’s dedication of his two poems to the Earl of Southampton, but the inference is, in each case, somewhat precarious.

That Jesus began both to do and teach.—The verb “begin” is specially characteristic of St. Luke’s Gospel, in which it occurs not less than thirty-one times. Its occurrence at the beginning of the Acts is, accordingly, as far as it goes, an indication of identity of authorship. He sought his materials from those who had been “from the beginning” eye-witnesses and ministers of the word (Luke 1:2).


Verse 2

(2) Until the day in which he was taken up.—We notice, as a matter of style, the same periodic structure that we found in the opening of the Gospel, made more conspicuous in the Greek by an arrangement of the words which places “he was taken up” at the close of the sentence. On the word “taken up,” see Note on Luke 9:51.

That he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments.—The words admit of two possible meanings—(1) that he work of “commanding” was left to the Holy Spirit, guiding the spirits of the disciples into all the truth; (2) that in His human nature the Lord Jesus, after, as before, His passion, spoke as one who was “filled with the Holy Ghost” (Luke 4:1), to whom the Father had given the Spirit not by measure (John 3:34). As the Apostles were still waiting for the promised gift, the latter aspect of the words is, we can scarcely doubt, that which was intended by the writer.


Verse 3

(3) After his passion.—Literally, after He had suffered. The English somewhat anticipates the later special sense of “passion.”

By many infallible proofs.—There is no adjective in the Greek answering to “infallible,” but the noun is one which was used by writers on rhetoric (e.g., Aristotle, Rhet. i. 2) for proofs that carried certainty of conviction with them, as contrasted with those that were only probable or circumstantial. No other New Testament writer uses it.

Being seen of them forty days.—St. Luke uses a peculiar and unusual word (it occurs twice in the LXX.: 1 Kings 8:8, and Tobit 12:19) for “being seen,” perhaps with the wish to imply that the presence was not continuous, and that our Lord was seen only at intervals. This may be noted as the only passage which gives the time between the Resurrection and the Ascension. It had its counterpart in the forty days of the Temptation in the wilderness (Luke 4:2), as that had had in the earlier histories of Moses (Exodus 24:18; Deuteronomy 9:9; Deuteronomy 9:18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19:8). There was a certain symbolic fitness in the time of triumph on earth coinciding with that of special conflict. If we ask what was the character, if one may so speak, of our Lord’s risen life between His manifestation to the disciples, the history of the earlier forty days in part suggests the answer. Then, as before, the life was, we may believe, one of solitude and communion with His Father, no longer tried and tempted, as it had then been, by contact with the power of evil—a life of intercession, such as that which uttered itself in the great prayer of John 17. Where the days and nights were spent we can only reverently conjecture. Analogy suggests the desert places and mountain heights or Galilee (Luke 4:42; Luke 6:12). The mention of Bethany in Luke 24:50, and of the Mount of Olives in Acts 1:12, makes it probable that Gethsemane may have been one of the scenes that witnessed the joy of the victory, as it had witnessed before the agony of the conflict.

The things pertaining to the kingdom of God.—This implies, it is obvious, much unrecorded teaching. What is recorded points (1) to the true interpretation of the prophecies of the Messiah (Luke 24:27; Luke 24:44-45); (2) to the extension of the mission of the disciples to the whole Gentile world, and their admission to the Kingdom by baptism (Matthew 28:19); (3) to the promises of supernatural powers and divine protection (Mark 16:15-18); (4) to that of His own perpetual presence with His Church (Matthew 28:20).


Verse 4

(4) And, being assembled together with them.—The MSS. present two forms of the participle: one with the meaning given in the English version, the other, but inferior reading, with the sense of “dwelling together with” the disciples. The Vulgate, convescens, “eating with,” probably rests on a mistaken etymology of the Greek term. The whole verse is in substance a repetition of Luke 24:49, where see Notes.


Verse 5

(5) John truly baptized with water.—See Note on Matthew 3:11. The words threw the disciples back upon their recollection of their first admission to the Kingdom. Some of them, at least, must have remembered also the teaching which had told them of the new birth of water and of the Spirit (John 3:3-5). Now they were told that their spirits were to be as fully baptised, i.e., plunged, into the power of the Divine Spirit, as their bodies had then been plunged in the waters of the Jordan. And this was to be “not many days hence.” The time was left undefined, as a discipline to their faith and patience. They were told that it would not be long, lest faith and patience should fail.


Verse 6

(6) Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom?—More literally, art Thou restoring . . . Before the Passion the disciples had thought that “the kingdom of God should immediately appear” (Luke 19:11). Then had come the seeming failure of those hopes (Luke 24:21). Now they were revived by the Resurrection, but were still predominantly national. Even the Twelve were thinking, not of a kingdom of God, embracing all mankind, but of a sovereignty restored to Israel.


Verse 7

(7) It is not for you to know the times or the seasons.—The combination of the two words is characteristic of St. Luke and St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:1). The answer to the eager question touches the season rather than the nature of the fulfilment of their hopes. They are left to the teaching of the Spirit and of Time to remould and purify their expectations of the restoration of Israel. What was needed now was the patience that waits for and accepts that teaching.

Which the Father hath put in his own power.—Better, as free from the ambiguity which attaches to the present version, which the Father appointed by His own authority.


Verse 8

(8) But ye shall receive power.—The use of the same English noun for two different Greek words is misleading, but if “authority” be used in Acts 1:7 then “power” is an adequate rendering here. The consciousness of a new faculty of thought and speech would be to them a proof that the promise of the Kingdom had not failed.

Ye shall be witnesses unto me.—The words, which are apparently identical with those of Luke 24:48, strike the key-note of the whole book. Those which follow correspond to the great divisions of the Acts—Jerusalem, Acts 1, 7; Judæa, 9:32, 12:19; Samaria, 8; and the rest of the book as opening the wider record of the witness borne “to the uttermost parts of the earth.” And this witness was two-fold: (1) of the works, the teachings, and, above all, of the Resurrection of Jesus; (2) of the purpose of the Father as revealed in the Son. The witness was to be, in language which, though technical, is yet the truest expression of the fact, at once historical and dogmatic.


Verse 9

(9) He was taken up; and a cloud received him . . .—It is remarkable how little stress is laid in the Gospels on the fact which has always been so prominent in the creeds of Christendom. Neither St. John nor St. Matthew record it. It is barely mentioned with utmost brevity in the verses which close the Gospel of St. Mark, and in which many critics see, indeed, a fragment of apostolic teaching, but not part of the original Gospel. The reasons of this silence are, however, not far to seek. It was because the Ascension was from the first part of the creed of Christendom that the Evangelists said so little. The fact had been taught to every catechumen. They would not embellish it—as, for example, the Assumption of the Virgin was embellished in later legends—by fantastic details. That it was so received is clear. It is implied in our Lord’s language, as recorded by St. John, “What and if ye shall see the Son of Man ascend up where He was before?” (John 6:62), and such words would hardly have been brought before believers at the close of the apostolic age if they had received no fulfilment. It is assumed in the earliest form of the Church’s creed, “He was received up into glory,” the verb being identical with that which St. Luke employs in St. Peter’s speeches (Acts 2:33; Acts 3:21), and in St. Paul’s epistles (Ephesians 1:20; 1 Timothy 3:16). We may add that there was something like a moral necessity, assuming the Resurrection as a fact, for such a conclusion to our Lord’s work on earth. Two other alternatives may, perhaps, be just imagined as possible: He might, like Lazarus, have lived out His restored life to its appointed term, and then died the common death of all men; but in that case where would have been the victory over death, and the witness that He was the Son of Man? He might have lived on an endless life on earth; but in this case, being such as He was, conflict, persecution, and suffering would have come again and again at every stage, and in each instance a miracle would have been needed to save the suffering from passing on to death, or many deaths must have been followed by many resurrections. When we seek, however, to realise the process of the Ascension, we find ourselves in a region of thought in which it is not easy to move freely. With our thoughts of the relations of the earth to space and the surrounding orbs, we find it hard to follow that upward motion, and to ask what was its direction and where it terminated. We cannot get beyond the cloud; but that cloud was the token of the glory of the Eternal Presence, as the Shechinah that of old filled the Temple (1 Kings 8:10-11; Isaiah 6:1-4), and it is enough for us to know that where God is there also is Christ, in the glory of the Father, retaining still, though under new conditions and laws, the human nature which made Him like unto His brethren.


Verse 10

(10) Two men stood by them in white apparel.—Better, were standing, the appearance being sudden, and their approach unnoticed. The forms were such as those as had been seen at the portals of the empty sepulchre, bright and fair to look upon, and clad in white garments, like the young priests in the Temple. (See Note on Luke 1:12.)


Verse 11

(11) Shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.—So our Lord, following the great prophecy of Daniel 7:13, had spoken of Himself as “coming in the clouds of heaven” (see Note on Matthew 26:64), in visible ‘majesty and glory. Here, again, men have asked questions which they cannot answer; not only, when shall the end be, but where shall the Judge thus appear? what place shall be the chosen scene of His second Advent? So far as we dare to localise what is left undefined, the words of the angels suggest the same scene, as well as the same manner. Those who do not shrink from taking the words of prophecy in their most literal sense, have seen in Zechariah 14:4, an intimation that the Valley of Jehosophat (= Jehovah judges)—the “valley of decision”—shall witness the great Assize, and that the feet of the Judge shall stand upon the Mount of Olives, from which He had ascended into heaven. This was the current mediæval view, and seems, if we are to localise at all, to be more probable than any other.


Verse 12

(12) From the mount called Olivet.—As to the name, see Note on Luke 19:29. The mention of the distance, and the measure of distance employed are, both of them, remarkable, and suggest the thought that St. Luke’s reckoning was a different one from that which Christendom has commonly received, and that the “forty days” expired before the last renewal of our Lord’s intercourse with His disciples, and that this ended on the following sabbath—i.e., eight days before the day of Pentecost. On this supposition we get a reason, otherwise wanting, for this manner of stating the distance. Symbolically, too, there seems a fitness in our Lord’s entering into His rest, on the great day of rest, which is wanting in our common way of reckoning. On the other hand, it may be noted that it is after St. Luke’s manner as in the case of Emmaus (Luke 24:13) to give distances. The “Sabbath day’s journey” was reckoned at 2,000 paces, or about six furlongs.


Verse 13

(13) They went up into an upper room, where abode . . .—Better, into the upper room, where they were abiding. The Greek noun has the article. The room may have been the same as that in which the Paschal Supper had been eaten (Mark 14:15). On the other hand, that room seems to have been different from that in which the disciples had lodged during the Paschal week, and to have been chosen specially for the occasion (Luke 22:8). The word used is also different in form. So far as we are able to distinguish between the two words, the room of the Paschal Supper was on the first floor, the guest-chamber, used for meals; that in which the disciples now met, on the second floor, or loft, which was used for retirement and prayer. It would seem from Luke 24:53, that they spent the greater part of each day in the Temple, and met together in the evening. The better MSS. give “prayer” only, without “supplication.” The prayer thus offered may be thought of as specially directed to the “promise of the Father.” Whether it was spoken or silent, unpremeditated or in some set form of words, like the Lord’s Prayer, we have no data to determine.

Peter, and James.—On the lists of the Twelve Apostles see Notes on Matthew 10:2-4. The points to be noticed are—(1) that Andrew stands last in the group of the first four, divided from his brother, thus agreeing with the list in St. Mark (Mark 3:17); (2) that Philip is in like manner divided from Bartholomew, and Thomas from Matthew; (3) that Zelotes appears here, as in Luke 6:15, instead of the Cananæan.


Verse 14

(14) With the women.—Looking to what we have seen in the Gospels, it is a natural inference that here, too, the “devout women” of Luke 8:2-3, were among St. Luke’s chief informants. This may, perhaps, account for the variations in the list just noticed. The women were less likely than the disciples to lay stress on what we may call the accurate coupling of the Twelve. The mention of “the women” as a definite body is characteristic of St. Luke as the only Evangelist who names them. (See Notes on Luke 8:1-3; Luke 23:49.) We may reasonably think of the company as including Mary Magdalene, Salome, Susanna, Joanna, Mary and Martha of Bethany, possibly also the woman that had been a sinner, of Luke 7:37. Here we lose sight of them, and all that follows is conjectural. It is probable that they continued to share the work and the sufferings of the growing Church at Jerusalem, living together, perhaps at Bethany, in a kind of sisterhood. The persecution headed by Saul was likely to disperse them for a time, and some may well have been among the “women” who suffered in it (Acts 8:3); but they may have returned when it ceased. St. Luke, when he came to Palestine, would seem to have met with one or more of them.

Mary the mother of Jesus.—Brief as the record is, it has the interest of giving the last known fact, as distinct from legend or tradition, in the life of the mother of our Lord. St. John, we know, had taken her to his own home, probably to a private dwelling in Jerusalem (see Note on John 19:27), and she had now come with him to the first meeting of the Ecclesia. Here also we trace the influence of the women as St. Luke’s informants. They could not have left unnoticed the presence of her who was the centre of their group. The legends of some apocryphal books represent her as staying at Jerusalem with St. John till her death, twenty-two years after the Ascension; while others represent her as going with him to Ephesus and dying there; the Apostles gather around her death-bed; she is buried, and the next day the grave is found emptied, and sweet flowers have grown around it; Mary also had been taken up into heaven. The festival of the Assumption, which owes its origin to this legend, dates from the sixth or seventh century.

With his brethren.—The last mention of the “brethren” had shown them as still unbelieving (John 7:5). Various explanations of their change may be given. (1) They may have been drawn to believe before the Crucifixion by the great miracle of the resurrection of Lazarus. (2) The risen Lord had appeared to James as well as to the Apostles (1 Corinthians 15:7), and that may have fixed him and the other brothers in steadfast faith. (3) If the mother of Jesus was with John, the brethren also were likely to come, in greater or less measure, under the influence of their cousin. It may be noted that the brethren are here emphatically distinguished from the Apostles, and therefore that James the son of Aiphæus cannot rightly be identified with James the Lord’s brother. (See Note on Matthew 12:46.)


Verse 15

(15) The number of names together were about an hundred and twenty.—The number probably included the Seventy of Luke 10:1, perhaps also Joseph of Arimathæa and Nicodemus, and some of the “five hundred” who had seen their risen Lord in Galilee or elsewhere (1 Corinthians 15:6). The use of “names” may be merely as a synonym for “persons,” but It suggests the idea of there having been a list from which St. Luke extracted those that seemed most conspicuous.


Verse 16

(16) Men and brethren.—Better, brethren only, the word being used as in the LXX. of Genesis 13:8. The tone of St. Peter’s speech is that of one who felt that his offence had been fully forgiven, and that he was now restored by the charge given him, as in John 21:15-17, to his former position as guide and leader of the other disciples. To do that work faithfully was a worthier fruit of repentance than any public confession of his guilt would have been. This, of course, does not exclude—what is in itself probable—that he had previously confessed his fault, either to his special friend St. John, or to the whole company of Apostles and other disciples.

Which the Holy Ghost by the mouth of David spake . . .—We have here, obviously, the firstfruits of the new method of interpretation in which the Apostles had been instructed (Luke 24:27; Luke 24:45). They had already been taught that the Holy Spirit which their Lord had promised to them had before spoken by the prophets. The recurrence of the same mode of speech in the “holy men of God who spake as they were moved (literally, borne along) by the Holy Ghost,” in 2 Peter 1:21, is, as far as it goes, evidence in favour of the genuineness of that Epistle.

Which was guide to them that took Jesus.—The actual word “guide” is not found in the Gospel narrative, but it appears as a fact in all four, notably in that of St. John (John 18:2-3).


Verse 17

(17) For he was numbered with us.—Literally, he had been numbered.

Had obtained part of this ministry.—Better, the portion, or inheritance. The Greek has the article, and the noun (cleros) is one which afterwards acquired a special half-technical sense in the words, clerus, clericus, “clerk,” “clergy.” In 1 Peter 5:3, as being “lords over the heritage,” we find it in a transition sense. (See Note on Acts 1:25.)


Verse 18-19

(18, 19) Now this man purchased a field.—Better, acquired, got possession of, a field, the Greek not necessarily including the idea of buying. On the difficulties presented by a comparison of this account with that in Matthew 27:5-8, see Note on that passage. Here the field bought with Judas’s money is spoken of as that which he gained as the reward of his treachery. The details that follow are additions to the briefer statement of St. Matthew, but are obviously not incompatible with it. Nor is there any necessity for assuming, as some have done, that there were two fields known as Aceldama, one that which the priests had bought, and the other that which was the scene of Judas’s death. The whole passage must be regarded as a note of the historian, not as part of the speech of St. Peter. It was not likely that he, speaking to disciples, all of whom knew the Aramaic, or popular Hebrew of Palestine, should stop to explain that Aceldama meant “in their proper tongue, The field of blood.”


Verse 19

(19) In their proper tongue.—Literally, in their own dialect. The word is used frequently in the Acts (Acts 2:6; Acts 2:8; Acts 21:40), but not elsewhere in the New Testament.


Verse 20

(20) For it is written in the book of Psalms—St. Peter’s speech is continued after the parenthetical note. His purpose in making the quotation is to show that the disciples should not be staggered by the treachery of Judas, and the seeming failure of their hopes. The Psalms had represented the righteous sufferer as the victim of treachery. They had also spoken of the traitor as receiving a righteous punishment such as had now fallen upon Judas. No strange thing had happened. What had been of old was typical of what they had heard or known. We need not in this place discuss either the historical occasions of the Psalms cited, or the ethical difficulties presented by their imprecations of evil. Neither comes, so to speak, within the horizon of St. Peter’s thoughts. It was enough for him to note the striking parallelism which they presented to what was fresh in his memory, and to believe that it was not accidental.

His bishoprick let another take.—Better, as in Psalms 109:8, let another take his office. The Greek word is episcopè, which, as meaning an office like that of the episcopos, is, of course, in one sense, rightly translated by “bishoprick.” The latter term is, however, so surrounded by associations foreign to the apostolic age that it is better to use the more general, and, therefore, neutral, term of the English version of the Psalm. The use of “bishoprick” may be noted as an instance of the tendency of the revisers of 1611 to maintain the use of “bishop” and the like where the office seemed to be placed on a high level (as here and in 1 Peter 2:25), while they use “overseer” and “oversight” (as in Acts 20:28, and 1 Peter 5:2) where it is identified with the functions of the elders or presbyters of the Church. “Bishoprick” had, however, been used in all previous versions except the Geneva, which gives “charge.”


Verse 21

(21) Wherefore of these men which have companied with us.—From the retrospective glance at the guilt and punishment of the traitor, Peter passes, as with a practical sagacity, to the one thing that was now needful for the work of the infant Church. They, the Apostles, must present themselves to the people in their symbolic completeness, as sent to the twelve tribes of Israel, and the gap left by the traitor must be filled by one qualified, as they were, to bear witness of what had been said or done by their Lord during His ministry, and, above all, of His resurrection from the dead. That would seem, even in St. Paul’s estimate, to have been a condition of apostleship (1 Corinthians 9:1).

Went in and out . . .—The phrase was a familiar Hebrew phrase for the whole of a man’s life and conduct. (Comp. Acts 9:28.)


Verse 23

(23) They appointed.—It is uncertain whether this was the act of the Apostles, presenting the two men to the choice of the whole body of disciples, or of the community choosing them for ultimate decision by lot.

Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus.—Some MSS. give the various-reading of “Joses,” which was, perhaps, only another form of the same name. Nothing further is known of him. The conditions of the case make it certain that he must have been a disciple almost from the beginning of our Lord’s ministry, and that he must have become more or less prominent, and probable therefore, as stated by Eusebius (Hist. i. 12), that he was one of the Seventy. The name Barsabas (= son of the oath, or of wisdom) may have been a patronymic, like Barjona, or may have been given, like Barnabas, as denoting character. It appears again in Judas Barsabas of Acts 15:22, and on the former assumption, the two disciples may have been brothers. The epithet Justus, the just one, is significant, as possibly indicating, as in the case of James the Just, a specially high standard of ascetic holiness. Another with the same surname—Jesus surnamed Justus—meets us as being with St. Paul at Rome as one of “the circumcision” (Colossians 4:11), and another, or possibly the same, at Corinth (Acts 18:7). In both cases the use of the Latin instead of the Greek word is noticeable, as indicating some point of contact with the Romans in Judæa or elsewhere.

Matthias.—Here, too, probably, the same conditions were fulfilled. The name, like Matthew (see Note on Matthew 9:9), signified “given by Jehovah,” and had become, in various forms, popular, from the fame of Mattathias, the great head of the Maccabean family.


Verse 24

(24) Thou, Lord, which knowest the hearts of all men.—Literally, heart-knower of all men. The compound word is not found in any Greek version of the Old Testament, but meets us again in Acts 15:8. The question meets us whether the prayer is addressed to the Lord Jesus, as with a recollection of His insight into the hearts of men (John 2:24; John 6:64), or to the Father. The prayer of Stephen (Acts 7:59-60) shows, on the one hand, that direct prayer to the Son was not foreign to the minds of the disciples; and in John 6:70, He claims the act of choosing as His own. On the other hand, the analogy of Acts 4:29, where the Father is entreated to work signs and wonders “through his holy servant Jesus,” is in favour of the latter view.

“Whether,” as used in the sense of “which of two,” may be noted as one of the archaisms of the English version.


Verse 25

(25) That he may take part of this ministry.—Better, the portion, or the lot, so as to give the word (cleros, as in Acts 1:17) the same prominence in English as it has in the Greek.

From which Judas by transgression fell.—The last three words are as a paraphrase of the one Greek verb. Better, fell away.

That he might go to his own place.—Literally, as the verb is in the infinitive, to go to his own place. The construction is not free from ambiguity, and some interpreters have referred the words to the disciple about to be chosen, “to go to his own place” in the company of the Twelve. If we connect them, as seems most natural, with Judas, we find in them the kind of reserve natural in one that could neither bring himself to cherish hope nor venture to pronounce the condemnation which belonged to the Searcher of hearts. All that had been revealed to him was, that “it had been good for that man if he had not been born” (Mark 14:21).


Verse 26

(26) And they gave forth their lots.—As interpreted by the prayer of Acts 1:24, and by the word “fell” here, there can be no doubt that the passage speaks of “lots” and not “votes.” The two men were chosen by the disciples as standing, as far as they could see, on the same level. It was left for the Searcher of hearts to show, by the exclusion of human will, which of the two He had chosen. The most usual way of casting lots in such cases was to write each name on a tablet, place them in an urn, and then shake the urn till one came out. A like custom prevailed among the Greeks, as in the well-known story of the stratagem of Cresphontes in the division of territory after the Doriar invasion (Sophocles, Aias. 1285; comp. Proverbs 16:33). The practice was recognised, it may be noted, in the Law (Leviticus 16:8).

He was numbered with the eleven apostles.—The Greek word is not the same as in Acts 1:17, and implies that Matthias was “voted in,” the suffrage of the Church unanimously confirming the indication of the divine will which had been given by the lot. It may be that the new Apostle took the place which Judas had left vacant, and was the last of the Twelve.

 


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Bibliography Information
Ellicott, Charles John. "Commentary on Acts 1:4". "Ellicott's Commentary for English Readers". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/ebc/acts-1.html. 1905.

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Saturday, August 17th, 2019
the Week of Proper 14 / Ordinary 19
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