The Orthodox Pages
TALK ON THE ACTS OF
After our very long and hot summer break I'd like to welcome you back to our weekly talks. For the most of last year we did a study of the Old Testament, which we broke off towards the end of the season with the hope of returning to it at a later date. Originally I thought of beginning this new season by taking up where we left off with our Old Testament study, but to be truthful, the Old Testament is heavy reading, often hard to understand and can at times be quite boring. So we will leave the Old Testament for some future date and begin this season with the New Testament. In the past we have covered much of the Gospels, especially the miracles and parables, although there is still much in Christ's teachings that we have never mentioned before. We will look at this when we begin a new look at the Gospels which I hope to begin around Christmas with the Gospel of Matthew and the birth of Jesus. Until then I want us to begin a study on the first book after the Gospels, the book known as the Acts of the Apostles.
The book itself does not give us the name of the author, but ancient tradition, the apostolic fathers, Clement of Rome, St. Justin, St. Ignatius and many more of the early Christian writers and all the church's tradition until the present day testify that the author of the Acts of the Apostles was the Evangelist Luke. This tradition is not without valid testimony from within the text itself. The author begins the book by speaking of a previous writing he had sent to a certain Theophilus saying "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach." Thus the Acts of the Apostles is a second book by the same author sent to this Theophilos. The first book was the Gospel according to St. Luke which begins "It seemed good to me also, having had perfect understanding of all things from the very first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus." Apart from the name, we don't know anything about who this Theophilus was. His title "most excellent" suggests that he was someone of great importance and was especially a title used for important Roman officials so he could have been a Roman official. There are in fact many theories about who Theophilus was. There are some that believe that he is not a particular person at all because the name "Theophilus" literally means "loved by God," or "friend of God." which could be a general title which applies to all Christians. However, from the context of Luke's Gospel and Acts, it seems clear that Luke is writing to a specific individual, even though his message is also intended for all Christians in all centuries.
Another theory is that Theophilus was a wealthy and influential man in the city of Luke's hometown of Antioch. There are second century references to a man named Theophilus who was “a great lord” and a leader in the city of Antioch during the time of Luke. Such a man would fit the description, as many scholars believe that Theophilus could have been a wealthy benefactor who supported Paul and Luke on their missionary journeys. That would account for Luke wanting to provide an orderly and detailed account of what had happened.
Yet another theory is that Theophilus was neither a Roman official nor a great lord from Antioch but a Jewish high priest. This theory is based on the fact that Luke writes about many Jewish matters without giving an explanation. Luke’s object in writing to Theophilus was to clarify matters about Jesus, but how can Luke clarify anything for someone who is a Roman or gentile and completely unfamiliar with Jewish traditions, especially when Luke offers no explanation when mentioning Jewish matters? Luke expects his reader to know what he is talking about. There are too many things left unsaid, too many Jewish matters written without explanation. With this argument, it has been suggested that Luke’s addressee must be Jewish. If Theophilus is a Jew and Luke addresses him as "most excellent" then this is an indication that he is a high official and some historians have suggested that Luke's Theophilus is none other than Theophilus the son of Annas the high priest who himself became high priest between 36 to 41 AD. But if this is correct then Luke must have written his Gospel during this time which is about 25 years earlier than thought and in fact earlier than all the other gospels.
Another thing against this theory is why would Luke address his gospel to a Jewish high priest who was an antagonistic unbeliever and persecuted the early Christians Jews. One answer is that Luke was following in the footsteps of the Old Testament prophets who often addressed the king or sent letters to the king in the name of the Lord to testify against them in order for them to consider what they are doing and repent. The more probable answer is that Theophilus was an important person among the Christian Gentiles and Luke sent him the Gospel, not for his own personal use, but with the understanding that he would make it available to other Christian gentiles to strengthen their faith.
Whoever Theophilus was has been lost in history and even though it would have been an important historical fact, it would not help our study on the Acts of the Apostles. For us the important issue is to verify that Luke is the author of this book. The "Theophilus factor" certainly proves that the author of the Gospel according to St. Luke and the Acts is the same person. Another testimony from the text is the continuation from the first book to the second. The gospel of St. Luke ends with a mention of the Ascension and the Acts of the Apostles begins exactly from this point and giving a few more details of this event. In fact it is said that originally the two books were one literary work referred to as Luke-Acts. Another important fact in determining that Luke is the author is that both the Gospel of Luke and Acts were written in a refined Koine Greek, different to the other three Gospels, with similar words and phrases and having the same style and language making it clear that the author is the same in both books.
There are many more indications that prove that Luke is the author of the Acts of the Apostles, but what of the author himself; who was he? From Paul's epistle to the Colossians we are given the information that by trade Luke was a physician: Paul writes: "Luke, the beloved physician, and Demas, greet you." (4:14) Tradition also has Luke as the first icon painter and is said to have painted an Icon of Christ, many Icons of the Mother of God and Icons of the Apostles Peter and Paul.
By tradition Luke was a Syrian from Antioch or according to some a Greek from Philippi of Macedonia. In all probability Luke was a Greek living in Antioch which was at that time the third most important city of the Roman Empire and a major centre of Hellenistic Greece. Whether he was a Jew or gentile is not certain. In Paul's epistle to the Colossians, Paul speaks of those friends who were with him. He first mentions all those "of the circumcision", in other words, Jews, and he does not include Luke in this group. After these he mentions others and Luke is mentions as Luke the physician. This comment has caused some commentators to conclude that Luke was a Gentile. If this were true, it would make Luke the only writer of the New Testament who can clearly be identified as not being Jewish. But if Luke was a gentile how was he included as one of the seventy Apostles? It's very unlikely that a non Jew would have been in the company of the Apostles especially as up until that time Christ had not taught them that salvation also belonged to the gentiles. Jews and gentiles did not mix and even the Samaritans who had Jewish roots were considered as unclean and Jews were not to have any dealings with them. More probable then is that Luke was a Hellenic Jew from Antioch who had come to Jerusalem during Christ's ministry, became a follower and disciple and was sent out as one of the seventy to preach the kingdom of God. In his account of the Gospel, Luke mentions the story after the Resurrection where Christ appeared and talked with two apostles on their way to Emmaus. He names the one as Cleopas, but doesn’t mention the name of the other because the other was himself.
After this we have to go to Acts to follow the trail of Luke's Christian ministry. As already seen the Acts of the Apostles is addressed to a certain Theophilus. It is written in the third person recording facts in the same way a historian would record certain events. This format is used until the sixteenth chapter. Paul and his company are at Troas. Then from using the third person saying they did this and they did that, Luke suddenly switches to the first person saying we did this and we did that. This suggests that Luke first joined Paul's company at Troas in about the year 51 and accompanied him into Macedonia where they travelled first to Samothrace, Neapolis, and finally Philippi. Here Paul and Silas are imprisoned and Luke switches back to the third person indicating that he was not thrown into prison with them and when Paul left Philippi Luke continues using the third person again suggesting that he did not go with Paul but stayed behind to encourage the Church there. After seven years Paul returns to Troas where Luke had first met up with him and again Luke switched to the first person which suggests that he left Philippi to rejoin Paul in Troas. From here they travel together through Miletus, Tyre, Caesarea and Jerusalem. Luke remains with Paul and travels with him on his final journey to Rome where he is to be imprisoned and await trial. Towards the end we are told in Paul's second epistle to Timothy that all of Paul's co-workers had left him and only Luke remained with him until the end and probably also offered his services as a doctor to Paul who had become his teacher and spiritual enlightener.
It was probably during this time between Paul's imprisonment in 61AD until just before his martyrdom in 64AD that Luke wrote his Gospel and the Acts of the Apostles. Certainly it was before the destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD and also before the death of his teacher Paul in 64AD, because neither of these two very important events are mentioned.
Luke was now an inseparable companion and co-worker of Paul and wrote down in a diary every movement, action and suffering that Paul encountered. The rich material found in Luke’s Gospel comes mainly from Paul’s preaching. Paul preached and Luke wrote and St. John Chrysostom who interpreted the Epistles of St. Paul says that when St. Paul said in the Letter to the Corinthians “the gospel which I preached unto you, which also ye have received,”(1 Cor. 15:1) he was referring to the Gospel written by St. Luke. But Luke didn’t only write what he heard from Paul. He carefully investigated all the facts concerning Christ and came into contact with other disciples and relatives of St. John the Baptist and of Christ, especially the Mother of God. He is the only Evangelist who writes about the birth of St. John, the Annunciation, the angels and shepherds at the Nativity of Christ, the details of Christ Circumcision, his Presentation at the temple 40 days after his birth, and the appearance of the 12 year old Christ in the temple and is the only Evangelist, apart from Mark, who writes about the Ascension. Most of this information he must have received directly from the Mother of God.
Paul's influence on Luke comes across very clear in his writings. Paul is the Apostle to the gentiles; he was the first to preach the Gospel beyond the bounds of Jerusalem and the first to fully understand that Christ's salvation was not only for the Jews but for all the peoples of the earth. This understanding is reflected in Luke's Gospel where he shows special sensitivity to evangelizing Gentiles. Where the other Evangelists use Hebrew words, Luke uses Greek e.g instead of Golgotha he says "Place of a skull" instead of Rabbi he says "Master" instead of Amen he says "Truly". He sparingly quotes from the Prophets and doesn’t use expressions that might offend the Gentiles. He keeps silent on the words of the Saviour used by the other Evangelist where he said "don’t go into the Gentiles" and "Do not even the Gentiles do the same" Instead of writing "Ye shall be hated by all the Nations" he writes "Ye shall be hated by all." He doesn’t end Christ’s genealogy with Abraham as did Matthew who wanted to show that Jesus Christ was the expected Messiah who descended from their Hebrew race, but goes back as far as Adam to show that Christ is not only for the glory of Israel but for all nations. He writes about the Good Samaritan and the conduct of the grateful Samaritan leper and in general does not confine the Messiah within the tight boundaries of the Jews. He writes of a Saviour for everyone as Paul the Apostle of the Gentiles taught him.
Luke also shows a special sensitivity to the poor, social justice and God's mercy to sinners. He is the only evangelist who writes of the story of the beggar man Lazarus and the Rich man who ignored him. In the beatitudes the other evangelists use "Blessed are the poor in spirit" but Luke uses "Blessed are the poor". Only Luke writes the story of the Prodigal Son stressing God's boundless forgiveness and mercy.
Throughout Luke's gospel, Jesus takes the side of the sinner who wants to return to God's mercy. Reading Luke's gospel gives a good idea of his character as one who loved the poor, who wanted the door to God's kingdom opened to all, who respected women, and who saw hope in God's mercy for everyone.
After his teacher's death tradition says that Luke then preached the Gospel in France, Dalmatian, Italy, Macedonia, Achaia and then in Alexandria and Africa. There is also the source that says he went the Thebes where he received a martyr’s death hanging from an olive tree.
So with that as an introduction to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, let's begin the actual study of the Book.
1:1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, 1:2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:
As already seen, the book is addressed to a certain Theophilus. Here he informs Theophilus that the former treatise, in other words the previous book, the Gospel, he had sent to him was an account of all the things that Jesus did and taught until the Ascension which occurred after Jesus had given certain commandments to his apostles. This is how the Gospel of Luke ended and he is telling Theophilus that this new treatise continues from where the last ended.
1:3 To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God:
Luke confirms that after the Resurrection Christ showed himself alive by many infallible proofs these being that Christ ate and was touched by the Apostles showing that he was not just a ghost, but was actually resurrected in body. He was seen of the Apostles for forty days and spoke to them of things pertaining to the kingdom of God. This was not a one time thing neither was it continuous, but on different occasions for forty days.
1:4 And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me.
On this occasion before his Ascension he commanded them to not depart from Jerusalem but to wait for the promise of the Father of which he had already told them off. When he actually told them is not recorded by Luke, but by John. It was part of his farewell speech on Great and Holy Thursday when he said to his disciples "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you." (John: 16:7) Jesus then tells them the difference between the baptism of John the Baptist and the baptism they will receive from the Holy Spirit.
1:5 For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.
John's baptism by water was external and symbolic, but the baptism of the Holy Spirit will be internal and a renewal of the soul and they will receive this baptism in just a few days. But the apostles didn't fully understand what this actually meant. The Prophet Joel prophesied on the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, but for the Jews this was connected with the restoration of Israel as a powerful and glorious nation. The apostles therefore asked Jesus: "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" (1:6) In other words: "Lord, will you at this time deliver the Jewish nation from the yoke of the Romans?" With this question we see that not only the people in general but also the closest companions of Jesus, even after all Jesus had taught and done, did not understand his mission on earth and still hoped that he was the Messiah and political deliverer who would fulfil the Jewish hopes and dreams of liberation from Rome.
Christ replied: "It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power." (1:7) He makes it clear to them that they should not be concerned about the times and seasons, these are things that the common people are concerned with, but they had been chosen for a very special ministry.
1:8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
The apostles spoke of the restoration of Israel in other words their thoughts were confined within the boundaries of Judah, but Christ tells them that they will bear witness to him not only in Jerusalem and Judaea but also in hostile Samaria and beyond to all the parts of the then known world. The apostles must have been bewildered because they were curious to know the times and what would become of the Jewish nation and Christ bluntly put a stop to their curiosity and broadened their horizons to think beyond the restrictions of what was acceptable to the Jews.
Luke then tells us that when he had finished saying these things: 1:9 while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 1:10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 1:11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
The Ascension of our Lord is a very important event for mankind. I don't want us to look at the doctrinal explanation of this feast because we saw this at our last talk of the previous season before we broke up for the summer holidays. But as a quick recap I will remind you that Christ came into the world to sanctify mankind and to unite him with God. The ascension of Jesus Christ is the final act of this work. The Son of God came “down from heaven” and became a man. Now having accomplished all things, he returns to the Father bearing for all eternity the wounded and glorified humanity which he had assumed. (John 17). For the first time man is received into the heavens, not just as a man, but as God-man, participating in the divinity of the Father.
As the Lord was rising to heaven and disappearing out of sight the apostles remained looking up at the heavens and suddenly two men or rather angels appeared among them in white clothing. They call the apostles men of Galilee because all the apostles, except for Judas, were from Galilee. Why do you stand gazing up to heaven? Do you think that the Lord will return again to be with you? The angels then give them words of comfort: This same Jesus who was taken from you will came again in a similar manner as you saw him go. This is a direct referral and a prophecy concerning the Second Coming of Christ. Christ was seen ascending into heaven on a cloud and Christ when questioned by the high priest if he was the Christ the Son of God, replied “I AM” and foretold that “Hereafter shall ye see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power, and coming in the clouds of heaven with great power and glory.” Thus the Feast of the Ascension is the event where Christ physically departed from this world, but he left us with two promises – the first that he will send another Comforter to be with us and the second that he will come again at the end of time as we confess in the Creed “to judge both the quick and the dead whose kingdom shall have no end”.
After that Christ ascended and the angels had given their message, the apostles returned from the Mount of Olives where all this took place to Jerusalem which was close by. They took up their abode in the upper room of Mark's house where they had the Last Supper. Luke gives us the names of the apostles: Peter, James, John, Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, Simon Zelotes and Judas the brother of James. Here they continued in prayer together with the women that followed Jesus, his mother and his brethren. These brethren are the sons of Joseph from his first wife. He had four sons named James, Joses, Simon, and Judas. In the beginning only James believed that his stepbrother was the Messiah but in time the other brothers also believed on him.
During the ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost, where the descent of the Holy Spirit would establish the Church, the apostles remained in Jerusalem. On one of these days Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples, (there were about 120 people present) and spoke to them of a prophecy by King David mentioned in the Psalms concerning the betrayal of Judas Iscariot. Peter tells them that Judas was one of them and had received part of their ministry. He then says that Judas purchased a field with the reward of iniquity and having fallen headlong his gut burst open and his bowels gushed out. The field that he bought was known to everyone in Jerusalem and was called the "Field of blood".
Now because of this text in Acts there are those that say the Bible contradicts itself because in Matthew we read that Judas threw the pieces of silver in the temple and then went and hanged himself. So they say "Either he didn't keep the silver or he kept the silver; either he hanged himself or he didn't hang himself and died by being disembowelled. So let's see about the money first. Judas threw the money in the temple, but if we carry on reading we will see that that the priests didn't accept it back because it was unlawful for them to accept blood money. What the priests did was to take the money that still belonged to Judas and purchased a field to be used as a cemetery to bury strangers in. Now if it was a sin to take blood money as a donation it was still a sin to take ownership of anything bought with that money so the priests didn't accept ownership of the money neither the field: ownership of the field went to Judas because it was his money.
Some may argue that Judas gave up his ownership of that money by throwing it down in the temple, but not physically holding something does not relinquish ownership, and not wanting something does not relinquish ownership either. Ownership is only transferred when first, someone gives up ownership, and second, someone else claims ownership of the object, and in this case no one accepted the money, so it still belonged to Judas.
As for how Judas died, indeed he hanged himself, but something happened after this which we are not told about in detail. It is possible that someone tried to cut him down and as he was holding his feet he toppled over head first and hit a large rock beneath which cut his stomach open. More probably the branch broke and his feet hit a log or rock underneath and forced his body to fall headlong causing his body to hit something that burst his belly open. So in fact there is no contradiction, but a case of not being given all the details.
Peter continues quoting from the Psalms saying: "Let his habitation be desolate, and let no man dwell therein: and his bishoprick let another take."
What he is saying is that the prophecy must be fulfilled and because Judas lost his place among the 12 apostles, they must choose someone to take his place. He tells them that the person to take the place of Judas must be someone who was with them from the very beginning from when Christ was baptized by John and began his public ministry, who was an eye witness to Christ's miracles and teachings until the day that Christ was taken from them.
From among the many followers of Christ they chose two as candidates for the position: Joseph called Barsabas, who was surnamed Justus, and Matthias.
Then after praying that the Lord would guide them they cast lots and the lot fell upon Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles. This is how the first chapter of Acts ends and chapter two begins with the day of Pentecost: ten days after the Ascension.
As with the feast of the Ascension, we covered the feast of Pentecost at our last meeting before the summer break so I won't cover it again in detail. On the day of the Jewish Pentecost the Apostles and other disciples were all gathered together in that upper room when suddenly there came a sound from heaven which sounded like a violent wind and filled all the house where they were sitting. At the same time the apostles saw descending what appeared as tongues of fire which sat upon each of them.
The house full of the breath of the Holy Spirit becomes a baptismal font and the Apostles are baptized in the Spirit as they were promised by the Lord when he said: “For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” (Acts 1:5) Being baptized with the Holy Spirit they began to speak with other tongues: tongues other than their mother tongue which were strange and unknown to them. The promise the Lord made to them before his Ascension that one of the signs of those that believe will be that “they shall speak with new tongues” (Mark 16:17) has now been fulfilled.
Now since the Jewish Feast of Pentecost was a great pilgrimage feast, many people from throughout the Roman Empire were gathered in Jerusalem on this day. When they heard of what had happened they gathered outside the house and were very confused because they heard the apostles speaking to them each in his own language.
The initial confusion of the crowd is soon transformed to amazement and wonder. The miraculous event left strong impressions in the people’s hearts and quite naturally they began to wonder and enquire among themselves what had happened and to give some kind of explanation to this strange event to which they had become witnesses. They knew that Jesus’ Disciples came from Galilee; it was therefore a great surprise that these few men who were born and raised in the Palestinian countryside as was Galilee, and who had no special education, to suddenly be able to speak foreign and strange languages from far away countries. Most were amazed and praised God for this wonderful sign but there were some who believed that the apostles were drunk with wine. Peter responds to their accusation by speaking to them directly to show them through the Old Testament prophecies that they are not drunk but rather that the prophecies have been realized. Peter's speech is considered as the first Christian sermon which we shall see next week.