In verses 1-11 of Acts 1, Luke reviews where he left off in his Gospel. Luke reminds Theophilus, his likely Roman sponsor (or patron), that Jesus appeared to the disciples, after his resurrection, for a period of forty days. During these forty days, the disciples saw proof (physical evidence) that Jesus indeed rose bodily from the dead. Jesus also continued to speak to them about the kingdom of God, which was the focus of his three-year public ministry.
Near the end of the forty-day period, Jesus commands the disciples to stay put in Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit is given to them, as the Father had promised. John the Baptist had baptized with water, but they would soon be baptized by the Spirit of God.
The disciples, upon hearing of the imminent gift of the Holy Spirit, assume that the messianic kingdom will be inaugurated shortly thereafter. They ask Jesus when this will occur. Craig Keener, in The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, writes, “This question was the most natural one for the disciples to ask Jesus. He had been talking about the kingdom (1:3), and the references to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament were all in the context of Israel’s restoration (Is 32:15; 44:3; Ezek 36:25–28; 37:14; 39:29; Joel 2:28–3:1).”
Jesus tells them that only God the Father knows when the messianic kingdom will begin, and that they are not to focus on the date. Instead, they are to use the power of the Holy Spirit to be “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
The disciples are to take the message of Jesus first to the people of Jerusalem, and then the surrounding lands of Judea and Samaria, and then ultimately to Rome and the rest of the world. The Book of Acts, itself, will begin in Jerusalem (chapters 1-7), and then move to Judea and Samaria (chapters 8-11), and then move through Asia Minor, Greece, and ultimately to Rome (chapters 12-28).
Luke likely has in mind Isaiah 49:6. Speaking of the future Suffering Servant (the Messiah), God says, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”
Even though Acts ends in Rome, it seems clear from Old Testament prophecies that God’s goal is the evangelization of all nations and all ethnicities. Darrell Bock, in Acts, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, writes that
this commission describes the church’s key assignment of what to do until the Lord returns. The priority for the church until Jesus returns, a mission of which the community must never lose sight, is to witness to Jesus to the end of the earth. The church exists, in major part, to extend the apostolic witness to Jesus everywhere. In fact, the church does not have a mission; it is to be missional and is a mission.
To what exactly are the disciples of Jesus supposed to witness? John Polhill, in vol. 26, Acts, The New American Commentary, explains, “In Acts the apostles’ main role is depicted as witnessing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, above all to his resurrection (cf. 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41). As eyewitnesses only they were in the position to be guarantors of the resurrection.” The resurrection, therefore, is a fundamental component of the church’s witness to the world.
While standing on the Mount of Olives overlooking Jerusalem to the west, a bright cloud then surrounds Jesus and carries him up into the sky. Jesus ascends back to his Father in heaven and his earthly ministry officially comes to an end. While the disciples are still looking into the sky, two angels appear and inform them that Jesus will one day return to earth to the very same place, on the Mount of Olives, carried by clouds.
John Polhill recalls how the ascension reflects earlier biblical events:
The ascension narrative evokes rich biblical reminiscences—the translations of Enoch and Elijah, the cloud that enveloped Mt. Sinai. Indeed, clouds are often associated with theophanies. One particularly thinks of the transfiguration narrative of Luke 9:28–36. The picture in Acts 1:9 is that of a cloud enveloping Jesus as he disappeared from sight, just as in Luke 9:34–36 the appearance of the cloud led to the disappearance of Moses and Elijah. The vivid pictorial depiction of Jesus’ ascension into heaven serves to give tangible form to the apostles’ testimony to the exaltation of Christ. Indeed, Luke stressed this by referring to their seeing and looking intently no fewer than five times in vv. 9–11, and he returned to the importance of their eyewitness in v. 22.
Stanley Toussaint, in The Bible Knowledge Commentary, remarks that
the Ascension meant that the continuing work of Christ on earth was now placed in the hands of His disciples (Acts 1:1–2, 8). It was imperative that the Ascension occur so that the promised Comforter could come (cf. John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7; Acts 2:33–36). The Holy Spirit would empower the disciples as they ministered the gospel and waited for the kingdom.
In the remainder of chapter one, the disciples remain in Jerusalem, praying and waiting for the appearance of the Holy Spirit. During this time, they pick a disciple named Matthias to replace the traitor Judas Iscariot.
As chapter two begins, the disciples are in a house together on the day of Pentecost. According to Clinton Arnold, in John, Acts: Volume Two (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary),
The term ‘Pentecost’ is a transliteration of the Greek word pentēkostē, which means ‘fiftieth.’ It referred to the fiftieth day after the Passover festival when the Jews celebrated the Feast of Weeks—the annual harvest festival (see Lev. 23:15-21 and Deut. 16:9-12). This was the second of three festivals (the others being Passover and Tabernacles) that all Jewish males were required to attend in Jerusalem (Deut. 16:16). It occurred in early summer after the conclusion of the grain harvest. This was a joyous occasion when the Israelites expressed their thanks to God for his provisions through the year and renewed their commitment to him.
The Holy Spirit’s arrival is described in terms of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire that settle on all of the disciples in the house. The immediate effect of the Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples is that they are each able to speak the local languages of the Jews who are spread out all over the world of that time.
Wind and fire are both commonly used in the Old Testament to describe the presence of God. With regard to wind, John Polhill writes:
Wind phenomena often accompany an appearance by God in the Old Testament (cf. 1 Kgs 19:11; Isa 66:15). In Greek pneuma has the double connotation of both wind and Spirit, and that connection is to be seen here. As in Ezekiel the wind, the breath of Yahweh, is God’s Spirit, which brings life in the vision of the dry bones (Ezek 37:9–14).
With regard to fire, Darrell Bock writes, “God’s presence comes with fire in the burning bush of Exod. 3:2 (Acts 7:30), the pillar of the fire in Exod. 13:21 (Deut. 4:33; 5:24–26; 18:16), before Elijah (1 Kings 18:38), and in association with Ezekiel’s call (Ezek. 1:13–14, 27). God is described as a consuming fire in Deut. 4:24 and 9:3 as an image of judgment.”
The disciples most likely pour out of the house and rush over to the crowded temple precincts. When they arrive, they loudly and ecstatically praise God in at least a dozen languages. The disciples attract a large crowd. Jews who are visiting Jerusalem for Pentecost, and possibly Jews who have moved to Jerusalem, but who were born in other parts of the world, are able to understand the words of these Galilean men in their own native languages. Galileans would not naturally know these languages, and so the crowd is amazed at what is happening.
There are two reactions to the disciples: 1) amazement and curiosity and 2) ridicule and accusations of drunkenness. In our next lesson, the apostle Peter will stand before the crowd and deliver his first-ever sermon about the resurrected Jesus.