From the Mar 2000 Issue of Lay Witness Magazine
Stephen Pimentel is pursuing graduate studies in theology at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. He is currently working on a series of Bible study materials integrating Sacred Tradition and Scripture. “Witnesses of the Messiah” is a ten-part Bible study of the Acts of the Apostles. This is the second installment.
Luke begins Acts with the statement that, in his Gospel, he “dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1), implying that in Acts he will deal with what Jesus continues to do and teach. Accordingly, we find that Acts concerns Jesus’ sending of the Holy Spirit to continue His ministry through the apostles. However, before Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, He further prepares the apostles by appearing to them in His risen body for 40
days and teaching them about the kingdom of God (cf. Acts 1:3). The period of 40 days recalls the similar interval that Moses spent in the cloud of glory upon Mt. Sinai:
“Then Moses went up on the mountain, and the cloud covered the mountain. The glory of the LORD settled on Mount Sinai . . . And Moses entered the cloud, and went up on the mountain. And Moses was on the mountain forty days and forty nights” (Ex. 24:15-18).
While on Sinai for those 40 days, Moses received detailed instruction from God on the administration of the covenant (cf. Ex. 25-31). For the same period of time, the apostles now received instruction from Christ on the reality at the heart of the New Covenant: the kingdom of God.
Thy Kingdom Come
Jesus chose to spend His last days on earth prior to the Ascension instructing the apostles on the kingdom of God. Indeed, Acts recounts the beginning of the reign of Christ, first in heaven and then on earth, as Christ extends His rule through the apostles’ proclamation of the Gospel. The power to proclaim the Gospel and advance the kingdom does not come from the apostles themselves, but from the Holy Spirit, on whom they must wait (cf. Acts 1:4-5). The Holy Spirit, acting in and through men, brings about the reign of Christ on earth.
Jesus told the apostles that they would receive the Holy Spirit “before many days” had passed (Acts 1:5). Hence, they realized that the outpouring of the Spirit foretold by the prophets as accompanying the restoration of Israel was about to commence. The apostles therefore ask Jesus a very natural question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
The New Israel
The import of the apostles’ question turns on the meaning of “Israel.” From the time she had entered the Promised Land, Israel had been constituted by the Deuteronomic covenant. Central to Jesus’ ministry, however, was the reconstitution of Israel around Himself and the twelve apostles. Thus, at the Last Supper, He had told the apostles:
“[A]s my Father appointed a kingdom for me, so do I appoint for you that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:29-30).
The “Israel” about whom the apostles now ask is therefore Israel as reconstituted around Jesus and themselves. Their question no more reflects a misunderstanding of the kingdom than does Jesus’ own statement above.
From the apostles’ perspective, the key phrase in their question is “at this time.” They are specifically asking when the restoration will be manifested. Jesus answers that they should not seek “to know times or seasons” within the Father’s plan (Acts 1:7), but as for the restoration of the kingdom, they will “receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon” them (Acts 1:8). The power given to them by the Holy Spirit will enable them to
proclaim the Gospel as Christ’s witnesses and thereby advance the kingdom “in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (Acts
1:8). This geographic sequence maps out the plot of Luke’s narrative, as the apostles spread the Gospel in an ever-widening circle: first to the inhabitants of Jerusalem, then to the Jews in the surrounding province of Judea, then to the mixed remnant of the northern tribes in Samaria, and finally to the nations of the world.
Calling All Nations
Jesus’ reference to “the end of the earth” calls to mind the many Old Testament passages that link this phrase with God’s fulfillment of His promise to Abraham of blessing for all the nations. One such passage is found in Isaiah 49 and relates to the restoration of Israel by the “servant” of the Lord:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the preserved of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Is. 49:6).
In Isaiah’s vision, the blessing of the nations and the restoration of Israel do not merely occur at the same time; rather, the blessing of the nations is the very means by which Israel is restored:
“Thus says the Lord GOD: ‘Behold, I will lift up my hand to the nations, and raise my signal to the peoples; and they shall bring your sons in their bosom, and your daughters shall be carried on their shoulders’” (Is. 49:22).
Jesus’ allusion implies that, through the ministry of the apostles, Isaiah’s prophecy will soon be fulfilled. For those who have ears to hear, Jesus has answered the apostles’ question. He who taught them to pray “Thy kingdom come” (Mt. 6:10) has now given them the blueprint.
Rising to Glory
Any lingering doubts about Jesus that the apostles may still have felt were dispelled when, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The Ascension itself was the definitive guarantee of the promise of power that Jesus had given the apostles, for He not only departed from earth, but also entered the divine glory. Jesus was taken up not into the clouds of the sky, but into the cloud of glory that manifests the presence of God. This was the cloud that descended upon Mt. Sinai, accompanied Israel in the wilderness, and filled Solomon’s Temple. This was the
cloud that overshadowed Jesus during the Transfiguration and from which the Father spoke. Thus, St. Paul describes Jesus as having been “taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). Within the cloud of glory there is found the throne of God, and from the Ascension onward Jesus is seated on this throne at the right hand of the Father (cf. Catechism, no. 659).
The Ascension fulfills Jesus’ declaration at His trial that “from now on the Son of man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God” (Lk. 22:69). Both Matthew and Mark report the additional words, “and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt. 26:64; Mk. 14:62), making it clear that Jesus was alluding to the vision of Daniel 7. In this vision, the “son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven” from earth to the throne of God, signifying heavenly exaltation: “with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (Dan. 7:13). Jesus, the true
“son of man,” has ascended to the throne of God in His humanity.
The Victory of the Gospel
The Ascension marks the beginning of Christ’s rule over His kingdom and demonstrates His victory over the powers of darkness (cf. Eph. 1:20-21). Just before his martyrdom, St. Stephen “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, ‘Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God’” (Acts 7:55-56). Not only does Christ reign in glory from heaven, but His kingdom continually breaks into the earthly realm, where it is advanced through the witness of His disciples. Daniel’s vision is thus progressively fulfilled (cf.
Catechism, no. 664). The apostles therefore undertake their mission with a sure faith in the forthcoming victory of the Gospel. Although Jesus will no longer be with them physically, they accept His absence without regret, trusting in His promise of the Holy Spirit. This is why they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Lk. 24:52) rather than sadness.
The College of the Twelve
After noting their return to Jerusalem, Luke lists the names of the eleven remaining apostles, emphasizing their ongoing collective identity as a college (cf. Acts 1:13). Peter is listed first, just as he is in the Gospels. At some point during the 10 days between the Ascension and Pentecost, “Peter stood up among the brethren” to address them concerning the replacement of Judas (Acts 1:15). To “stand up among the brethren” refers to a formal speech delivered in a synagogue. By describing Peter’s speech in this manner, Luke highlights the leadership that Peter exercises at this juncture immediately following the Ascension. It is Peter who explains the necessity of replacing Judas and sets forth the criterion that candidates must satisfy.
The background for Peter’s speech lies in Jesus’ teaching that, in the kingdom, the apostles will “sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (Lk. 22:30). Jesus’ choice of exactly twelve apostles was not random. Rather, the number symbolizes the apostles’ role as covenant representatives around whom the twelve tribes of Israel would be reconstituted. Hence, the apostolic college needed to be restored to its full complement of twelve members for the restoration of Israel to proceed. Ezekiel had prophesied that the restoration of Israel would accompany the outpouring of the Spirit, which Jesus
had said was imminent. Therefore, it was urgent that Judas be replaced immediately.
Peter begins his speech by describing the vacancy created by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus (cf. Acts 1:16-19). This vacancy is the result not of Judas’ death but of his apostasy, thereby disqualifying him as one of the twelve. In contrast, when James the Elder is martyred by Herod Agrippa in Acts 12:1-2, he is not similarly replaced: Far from having disqualified himself, James had witnessed to his office with his blood.
The Testimony of the Scriptures
Peter then shows that Scripture has provided for the replacement of a disqualified apostle. He first paraphrases Psalm 69:25: “Let his habitation become desolate, and let there be no one to live in it” (Acts 1:20). The relevance of Peter’s reference lies in the fact that Psalm 69 is a “testimony,” an Old Testament passage that the apostles interpreted as directly pertaining to the life of Jesus. As a result, various portions of this psalm are cited in
reference to Jesus at least 11 times in the New Testament. In addition, Psalm 69 is one of the “psalms of the righteous sufferer,” in which the speaker is a suffering figure who is persecuted by the wicked for his faithfulness to God. The apostles interpreted these psalms as messianic. Psalm 69 was specifically interpreted as pertaining to Jesus’ final ministry in Jerusalem and especially His Passion. The section Peter paraphrases describes the enemies of the sufferer and the curses that befall them. Peter applies this section to Judas, interpreting Psalm 69:25 as describing the terrible end that Judas met after his betrayal (Acts 1:18-19).
Peter’s quotation of Psalm 109:8 (“His office let another take”) in Acts 1:20 is similar. Like Psalm 69, Psalm 109 is a psalm of the righteous sufferer and was applied by the apostles to Jesus’ Passion (cf. Mt. 27:39). The significance of the quotation lies in its reference to an “office.” Peter evidently considers the role of an apostle to be an office within the kingdom of Israel, one that should be filled in the event of a vacancy.
Why did Peter and the apostles take the psalms of the righteous sufferer to be directly applicable to the life of Jesus? From the distribution in the New Testament of references to these Old Testament passages, it can be shown that their interpretation as messianic predates the composition of even the earliest portions of the New Testament. For his part, Luke leaves no doubt that the framework of the apostles’ exegesis came from Jesus Himself, for He taught them how to find “everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms” (Lk. 24:44).
Officers of the New Temple
Peter concludes his speech by stating the fundamental requirement that any candidate to replace Judas must meet: he must have been a disciple “during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us” (Acts 1:21-22).
Such a candidate would not only have heard Jesus’ teaching firsthand during His ministry, but would also have witnessed Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, enabling him to “become with us a witness to his resurrection” (Acts 1:22). This requirement establishes an essential distinction between the apostles and the bishops (overseers) who will be appointed later in Acts (cf. Acts 20:28): The apostles are eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and Resurrection, whereas the bishops, in general, are not.
The apostles then nominated two men, Joseph and Matthias, who met the above requirement. However, rather than choosing between the two candidates on their
own authority, the apostles ask God to “show which one of these two thou hast chosen to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside” (Acts 1:24-25). The method used by the apostles to ascertain God’s will in the selection was to cast lots. The casting of lots was a traditional Israelite means for determining God’s will and, from the time of David down to the first century A.D., was used to select Aaronites to serve in the Temple. 1 Chronicles 24 describes how David organized the families descended from Aaron into divisions of roughly equal size. On a periodic basis, lots
would be cast to choose which division would perform the offices of their ministry in the Temple . The Aaronites thus chosen to serve in the Temple are described as “officers of the sanctuary and officers of God” (1 Chron 24:5). Likewise, the apostles see their role as that of officers serving in the new Temple of God, the Mystical Body of Christ.
 For further discussion, see Timothy Gray, “Replacing Judas: A Lot MOre Than Meets the Eye?” Lay Witness (Sept. 1997), 4-5.
Questions for Discussion
1. Pope John Paul II has proclaimed the necessity of a new evangelization of the West. How should the reign of Christ from heaven and the unfolding victory of the Gospel govern our attitude and approach toward evangelization?
2. Jesus promised the apostles a kingdom in which they would “eat and drink at my table” (Lk. 22:30). How is the Eucharist at the center of the kingdom of God? How does our participation in the Eucharist relate to the advancement of the kingdom?
3. In the Our Father, we pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” Is the kingdom entirely the work of God, or must we work in conjunction with the Holy Spirit for its advance? How does the apostolate relate to the life of prayer?
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