Bible Study: Acts 1-2

The question: in Acts 1-2, what are the apostles feeling and fearing now that Jesus is gone? How do they react?  This is a long one, so I’ve hidden some of it behind a “more” tag.

The initial reaction to Christ’s resurrection seems to be that the political victory they have desired has now come (1:6) but instead they are told that the political power was not yet coming (1:7) – instead, they would receive the Holy Spirit and become the witnesses of Christ to the world (1:8).   We can see that m any of Christ’s followers, while seeing him as a teacher, also saw him as their (potential) political and military leader as well, expecting him to restore Israel to its former power and glory, expelling Rome and its armies, and freeing the nation.

For many then, this must have come as a huge disappointment, perhaps disillusioning them to the other teachings of Christ. And so the initial fallout starts – first with the political zealots who saw Christ as a purely political leader. Those who remained at this point had to shift their focus away from all of that onto the spiritual implications of what they were told. They were to receive power, this Holy Spirit, and they would use this power to bear witness of his deeds and words to the world. Of note is that Christ immediately covers all ground here – he starts with Jerusalem and Judea, the provinces near where he was, where many of his followers had been or came from. He starts by saying in your own houses and neighborhoods, then goes to Samaria – geographically close, but culturally very different – and then adds “and to the end of the earth.”

He has just taken these people out of their comfort zones. He’s said that the power they now have will take them to places they’ve never been, to places they don’t want to go, but would still be there and working even in their own homes.  This would have different effects on different people, and thus I suspect that the apostles and his other followers all reacted differently to the news. Someone like Thomas was probably trying to process what it meant, what he would have to do, while Peter was thinking of where he would go. But what’s interesting here is that the first thing they do after hearing this news is not to talk about it, or immediately go act on it – instead, they return to the place where they have been staying, about a mile away, near Jerusalem, and the remaining apostles (along with about a hundred other Christ followers) meet in an upper room and elect a new apostle.

Peter lays out the qualifications of an apostle quite simply – He must have accompanied the other apostles during Christ’s ministry (1:21), the entire time from John’s baptism until the ascension (1:22). There are only two names put forth, however, presumably out of the 120 people there. Whether this means they were the only ones who met the qualifications present or whether they were just the only ones willing to shoulder the responsibility remains unclear. The apostles pray, cast lots, and Matthias is chosen to step into the spot Judas left open. With this administrative duty out of the way, the apostles are now free to address the previous challenge given them by Christ.

I wonder why this was what they did immediately after Christ’s ascension. Bear in mind that it’s been 40 days since Christ’s death, and so the position has been open for a while. Perhaps they waited because they didn’t want to miss out on any of Christ’s teachings while he was still here and thought that this task would distract them. Perhaps they thought that if it was that urgent to fill the spot, Christ would just do it himself, and now that he’s gone it was something they were responsible for. It doesn’t seem to take much of their time – Peter lays out the qualification, two men step forward, they pray and roll. There’s no grandstanding from Matthias about why he should be chosen over Joseph, in fact, it sounds like the whole process took maybe fifteen minutes. But it was important to them to get it done, and it was the first thing they did upon Christ’s resurrection. It’s also the only thing we know they did between the ascension and Pentecost.

Nine days pass (and how I wonder what they were up to). It’s the first day of Shavuot, the feast of Pentecost. There is much symbolism here.  In Jewish tradition, starting with the second day of Passover, the Counting of the Omer begins, counting down the 49 days until Shavuot. The counting is done verbally and represents spiritual anticipation of the giving of the Torah (the Law), which was given by God to Moses at Mt Sinai on the 50th day – Shavuot. Thus, Passover is the day the Jews were freed from slavery at the hands of Pharaoh, and Shavuot is the day they received the Law and became a nation that was devoted to serving God.  Because of this, the people crowding Jerusalem for the feast have spent the last seven weeks preparing themselves, making ready to receive the word of God. And it is now that God decides to pour forth the Holy Spirit on his followers.

As the apostles begin to speak in the tongues of those listening, Peter steps up and explains what is happening, the latest in what will be a long string of leadership roles filled by Peter. I want to take a moment and focus on Peter here. Peter is a man of many strengths and flaws that have been shown up until this point. We saw him pledge to never betray Christ, and then betray him. We saw him cut off the ear of the Roman back in the Garden of Gethsemane. He is a man of great passion and spirit, but one with a weak hold on his goal, and swayed by the winds of trouble. But something happened to Peter, that I briefly talked about in a previous post – in John 21:15-17, Peter is asked by Christ, “Do you [agapeo] me?” He replies, “Lord, you know I [phileo] you.” Christ replies, “Feed my sheep.” They repeat this exchange, and then Christ asks, “Do you [phileo] me?” Peter hears this and becomes distraught, because he hears the difference in what Christ is asking. He is no longer asking if Peter has the will and the determination, he’s just asking, “Peter, do you love me? Do you care about me?” Peter cries out, “Lord! You know everything! You know I do!” and Christ, without missing a beat, tells him the same thing he said before: feed my sheep.

Now consider what has happened up until this point. Peter has stated, “I will never [stumble],” “I will not [fall away].”  And now, after all that, his will is broken and he has betrayed his master. He has killed Christ. Peter knows it. He knows what he’s done and he’s all but given up. And then the one he has betrayed comes back, and he asks, “Do you love me with your will?” Peter is force to reply, “I love you with my heart.” He still has that deep-felt emotional bond but he knows he has proven himself unable to [agape] Christ when the going gets tough. Imagine what this scene looks like. Peter is with his Lord, having just eaten out on the shore, being asked these questions, until Christ finally stops asking about his will. He simply asks Peter for his heart. Tears begin to fall from Peter’s eyes as he answers his Lord. And rather than rebuke him for his betrayal, for his lack of will, Christ takes his passion and his emotion and says “then feed my sheep!” Christ says “use what you have!” I envision that as a sort of epiphany for Peter, a moment of self-realization, where he has been stripped of his pride and his illusions of grandeur and piety, and Christ is still able to use him, to take him and say “go feed my sheep!”

And so here in Acts 2, having been through that,  he steps up in front of these people and gives a passionate, intelligent testimony of what has happened. He quotes the prophet Joel and begs for the people to realize what has happened here. And when the people realize what they have done and want to know what they must do to be saved, Peter gladly gives the good news – “Repent and be baptized… and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.” And three thousand people heard those words and repented on that very day.

Quite a turn around for the gutsy fisherman, don’t you think?

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