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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on Acts

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Prelude ( 1:1–26 )

Before the main action can begin, a narrative prelude smooths the transition from the first volume ( 1:1–5 ) by repeating the scene of the ascension in greater detail ( 1:6–11 ), and making up the numbers of the apostolic group ( 1:12–26 ).

( 1:1 ) Authorial Introduction

Luke begins his second volume with a conventional opening sentence in which he repeats the name of his addressee, Theophilus, and reminds his readers briefly of the contents of the first volume. Here the author slips out of the role of narrator and speaks in his own voice directly to the reader, as if to remind Theophilus (and all other readers) of the existence of the person who collected all the information behind the two books, the one who ‘investigated everything carefully from the very first’ and ‘wrote it all up in an orderly fashion’ (Lk 1:3 ) so as to reassure Theophilus of the reliability of the instruction he had received (Lk 1:4 ). This brief summary is a valuable indication of the way ancient readers would have seen the genre of Luke's first volume. The gospel was about ‘all that Jesus did and taught’: that is, it was a book focused on an individual (biography), and that individual was a teacher. Outside the world of the Bible, the most obvious niche to fit this kind of story into is philosophical biography, in which anecdotes of great teachers of the past were collected to provide images and examples for successive disciples to follow.

( 1:2–5 ) The Story So Far

The detached, academic tone of the preface does not last very long. Luke forgets to tell his readers what the second volume is going to contain. Instead, he takes us back to the closing scenes of the first volume, spinning rapidly back from the ascension to Jesus' final command (v. 2 ) to the forty-day period of resurrection appearances (v. 3 ). By the time we reach v. 5 (still within the opening sentence in the original), we have slipped a further notch into direct speech (the ‘he said’ of v. 4 is not in the Gk.), as if we were standing beside the apostles being addressed directly by Jesus himself. Jesus' words in this section recall the opening scenes of the gospel: the gift of the Spirit, which has marked out Jesus' special status during the period of his earthly ministry (Lk 3:16, 22 ) is about to be extended to his followers, and Luke's second volume is going to spell out what this promise means. This summary recapitulates the final scenes of the gospel (Lk 24 ), but with certain small differences. Earlier commentators have speculated that the differences might result from clumsy editing when Luke's work was split into two volumes: but each volume as we have it fits the standard length of a papyrus roll, and it is more likely that the bridge is original. Elsewhere, when he retells a story he has already told, Luke shows that he is not averse to varying the details of the story, perhaps because ancient educational practice placed high value on the ability to introduce variety into the retelling of well-known stories.

( 1:6–12 ) Ascension

The narrative of Acts proper begins with the apostles ‘gathered together’ (v. 6 ) to question Jesus for the last time. The question about the kingdom takes us back to the gospel (cf. Lk 4:43 ). Although Luke lacks the eschatological immediacy of Mark, the preaching of the kingdom remains an essential element of the gospel in Luke's two volumes. Jesus' answer redefines the future horizon: the eschatological future of apocalyptic expectation is not ruled out, but the apostles' attention is redirected to a closer and more immediate future. The imminent coming of the Spirit (v. 5 ) will mean their own empowerment for the task of acting as ‘witnesses’ to Jesus (v. 8 ). The primary semantic location for the activity of ‘witnessing’ is forensic, and indeed much of the action within Acts will take place (as Jesus had foretold, Lk 12:11–12 ) in a variety of trial situations. v. 8 can be read as a geographical programme for the whole book, with the first 7 chapters set in Jerusalem, 8–11 charting the spread of the gospel to the surrounding areas within Syria-Palestine (‘Judea and Samaria’), and v. 13 onwards following Paul's mission ever further afield.

Luke alone of the evangelists closes the story of Jesus with a definite point of departure marking the end of the resurrection appearances. But the ascension is no afterthought: narrative clues to this denouement are laid as early as Lk 9:51 , and the story is prefigured in the narrative of the transfiguration (Lk 9:28–36 : parallels include the mountain, the cloud, and the two ‘men’). Luke's description of the Mount of Olives as ‘a sabbath day's journey from Jerusalem’ (v. 12 ) highlights the scene of the ascension as a distinct location, the only narrative setting dignified as a ‘mountain’ in Acts. This is a story that moves not only outwards from Jerusalem but also downwards from the mountain. The story of Acts starts in a place where Jesus is visible, angels speak clearly, and the cloud between earth and heaven is momentarily thinned. From this point onwards, discerning and understanding God's purpose will become progressively harder.

( 1:13–26 ) Election of Matthias

There is one more task to be completed before the action proper begins. The disciples wait obediently in Jerusalem for the promised coming of the Spirit (for the ‘upper room’ cf. Lk 22:12 ). ‘Devoted themselves…to prayer’ (v. 14 ) suggests the virtue of dogged perseverance (cf. Rom 12:12; Col 4:2 ). ‘With one accord’ (v. 14 ) underlines the unity of the group, which here includes women and Jesus' mother and brothers, a surprising (cf. Lk 8:19–21 ) though unemphasized detail. Luke's list of the names of the apostles acts as a bridge with the first volume (cf. Lk 6:14–16 ). But it also highlights the fact that there is now a gap: Judas, the last in the list in Lk 6:16 , is no longer one of the group. The story of Judas' treachery (which Luke assumes his readers will know) was described in Lk 22:3–6, 47–53 , but Luke has not yet (unlike Matthew, who appears to know a different story: Mt 27:3–10 ) told his readers anything about the traitor's fate, and this episode gives him an excuse to do so. But the defection of Judas also creates a theological problem, not only because of the symbolic significance of the number 12 (Lk 22:30 ), but also because of the high value Luke places on the apostolic office. He has already stressed that the apostles were ‘chosen’ by Jesus and taught by him ‘through the Holy Spirit’ (v. 2 ). Judas' treachery shows that neither fact constitutes an automatic guarantee of fidelity. For Luke, acts of treachery against the Spirit (especially if there is a financial motive) are punished by God: cf. Acts 5:1–11 .

Peter's call for a replacement for Judas, based (as so often in Acts) on an appeal to Scripture (v. 20 ), reinforces the identity of the group at this crisis point in its existence, and also constitutes a de facto recognition of his own authority in the group. In this interim period between the departure of Jesus and the arrival of the Spirit, the only resource is to ask God to indicate his ‘choice’ of a replacement (v. 24, cf. 1:2 ) by means of casting lots (v. 26 ), a means of ascertaining the divine purpose familiar both in the Graeco-Roman world and in the Bible.

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