The story doesn’t end with Jesus’ return to heaven.
Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Acts 1:1-11
The book of Acts is the history of the early church. But before we focus on what they did, we have to know what God told them to do! This lesson is about the church’s mission, which is still our mission today: to be Christ’s witnesses.
"Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.” Acts 1:11
[Throughout the years, I have produced a newsletter for teachers to help with that week's Bible study. I'm going through the very slow process of online-ifying old lessons in order to easily reference past ideas and topics.]
This Week's Big Idea: Introducing the Book of the Acts of the Apostles
What Do We Know about Acts?
The author remains anonymous, and that’s because he wants the emphasis to be on the Holy Spirit and the men used to build the early church. Both Luke and Acts are addressed to someone named Theophilus, and Acts specifically refers to an “earlier work,” which is why we believe both Luke and Acts were written by the same person. It is possible that “Theophilus” was a title or identifier for a group, but that doesn’t really affect the purpose or author of the works. The early church believed that Luke was this author. A physician by this name (see below) apparently accompanied Paul off and on for 15 years of Paul’s journeys. A physician would have been well-educated and would have had much credibility with early Christians, which would easily explain how he was able to do so much research so quickly. Based on the timeline of Acts, he could have had 2 years in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas for his interviews, and he would also have had a number of years with Paul while Paul was under house arrest in Rome, spending that entire time writing and asking questions. (The early church believed that Paul was the apostolic authority behind Luke and Acts, which is why those works were accepted into canon.)
Clearly, all of the events of Acts had to have taken place before Luke could have written this book (as a historical account), but it’s impossible to know for sure what Luke chose not to include at the end of the account. For example, one would think that an event as catastrophic as the destruction of Jerusalem (AD 70) would have been included had it already happened. But that’s an argument from silence and not absolute. If we just go with what’s written, Paul had been imprisoned for 2 years. That timeline is as follows: Paul went to Jerusalem in 57, was arrested and eventually appealed to Rome in 59, which means that “2 years” would put this at 61. (We know those dates because we know that Agrippa died in 44 and Festus became governor in 60.) And we really don’t know what happened to Paul after that. Early tradition says he was acquitted in 63, then re-arrested and executed in 67. I would think that would be included in Luke’s account. This means that I tend to believe that Luke completed Acts somewhere around 61-62 (and Paul was likely still imprisoned at that time). There are plenty of people who think that Luke ended where he did simply because that was all he needed to write; he had accomplished his purpose. Therefore, they believe he could have written much later.
We’ll get into the more obvious purpose, but there’s no question Luke had evangelism in mind. He made sure to include the great early sermons, the theological details of how the gospel connects with the history of God’s people, and a whole lot about how the gospel is universal and powered by the Spirit. Along those lines, Luke had apologetics in mind. He included a number of important early discussions about the validity of this “new” faith as well as the rationale behind many important early decisions. Both of those go beyond simple history to instructional history. But above all, Luke wanted Christians to know the story of their faith and trust its sources. He knew that there would be doubts and arguments about who said what and why, so he wanted to get in front of that with an authoritative and unbiased look at the early history.
All about Luke
Luke is one of my favorite people in the Bible—yet we really don’t know a lot about him. Here’s what we think we do know. A “Luke” is mentioned 3 times in the Bible. 2 Tim 4:11, “Only Luke is with me.” Philemon 24 lists Luke as Paul’s coworker. Col 4:14, after Paul has listed his Jewish coworkers, mentions “Luke, the dearly beloved physician.” Now—if we work under the assumption that Luke wrote Luke and Acts (which I do), we have a few other clues, but at the very least this tells us that Luke (1) was with Paul when Paul wrote a number of his letters, (2) was a coworker of Paul’s, and (3) was a physician of some kind. We don’t know where he was from, how he got his training, or how he became a follower of Christ. He does not mention any family. No personal information.
So then we try to deduce things. Luke and Acts are top-notch literary works indicating a very high level of education and knowledge. He mentions Antioch of Syria a number of times in nice terms. He joined Paul while Paul stopped in Troas on his way to Philippi (Acts 16:10). We’re not sure how to connect those dots; they could mean anything.
Famously, there are three “we” sections in Acts—16:10-17, 20:5-21:18, 27:1-28:16—where the narrative goes from 3rd person to 1st person. Rather than take the cynical approach and say that Acts was a compilation of a bunch of different stories, the appropriate thing to say is that Luke was present with Paul on those occasions. It would make sense that Luke did not stay with Paul permanently because his skill set would have been incredibly valuable to a young, persecuted church. He probably traveled a lot on his own.
The first “we” section goes from Troas to Philippi. Then, there is a gap of 8 years before the next “we” section goes from Philippi to Jerusalem. Philippi was a large and important city in Macedonia, so it’s possible that Luke stayed there that whole time as a pastor and physician. The trip to Jerusalem was Paul’s last, as he would be arrested there and shipped off to Rome. Luke drops out of sight again for 2 years while Paul is in prison in Caesarea. Many scholars believe that was the time Luke did his research for his Gospel and the beginning of Acts. (I believe that he did his research much earlier.) Luke then joined Paul for his escort to Rome to await trial. And clearly, Luke stayed with Paul while Paul wrote various letters, likely serving as Paul’s physician. A common theory is that Luke actually wrote Luke and Acts during this time; the early church believed that Paul had a significant influence over both writings.
At the beginning of Luke and Acts, Luke indicates that he wrote both works for a patron named Theophilus after extensive research into the facts. His main themes include Jesus as Lord and Savior, the gospel for all peoples, the importance of the local church, prayer, and the Holy Spirit, and the role of the “outcasts” of society, including the infirm, the poor, non-Jews, and also women. Each of those groups play a major role in his narrative.
His language is impeccable. Many scholars have called the Gospel of Luke “the most beautiful book ever written” from its poetry and songs, sweeping themes of hope and joy, uplifting vocabulary, and careful structure. Whoever Luke was, God chose him very carefully.
Getting Started: Things to Think About
A History Book
This might be the easiest place to start. Doris wrote a history of our church. Why? What’s the point? Well, it reminds us of the people who came before us, what their priorities were and how they went about making decisions. It’s an encouraging reminder of great things that have happened in the past, and a helpful warning of things that went wrong and why. Used correctly, a history is a helpful foundation for the future, as long as we can remember that when things change around us, sometimes we have to change with them. That’s what we have in the book of Acts—their foundation, their early questions and struggles, they changes they made and why. However, they always stayed true to their mission and leader (Jesus). They may have made changed to their methods and target audience, but never in a way that compromised Jesus. What history do you know that helps you face the future?
A Scary Decision
This might be another good starting point. My guess is that we have all had to make a huge decision (either in our family or perhaps in a business) at some point. We need to change our business model. We need to move across country. We need to change product lines. We need to change schools. Massive decisions like that are scary because in many ways they are fundamental to who we are and will affect every part of our life. How do we make those decisions? That’s certainly what the disciples were going through! And Jesus gave them some clear guidance. What tough decisions have you faced and how have you made them? Would you like some guidance in a decision you’re facing right now?
Part 1: The Remembered Promise (Acts 1:1-5)
I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up, after He had given orders through the Holy Spirit to the apostles He had chosen. After He had suffered, He also presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during 40 days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While He was together with them, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the Father’s promise. “This,” He said, “is what you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
This is obviously your time to introduce the book of Acts. David preached through it last summer and fall, so hopefully it will be somewhat fresh. Say what you think most helpful about Luke and about the purpose of Acts. This opening passage is designed to connect us with the Gospel of Luke (or the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus) - it is a continuation of the same story. The first chapter of Acts is about “the aftermath.” The disciples are still a bit stupefied. They all kind of huddle together, waiting (they don’t know exactly what they’re waiting for—that’s next week’s passage). There are about 120 of them, including Jesus’ family. One thing they decide to do is select a disciple to replace Judas; Peter explains the criteria and the lot falls on a man named Matthias.
The biggest obstacle for the early believers was the fact that people did not believe the resurrection (it is pretty incredible). Luke, as far as we know, was not a part of the group at this time, but he heard enough stories from those original followers to believe that Jesus gave some very convincing proofs that He was indeed resurrected. And He did so over a long period of time, 40 days, too long for it to be a trick or wishful thinking. Pentecost (next week’s passage) happened 50 days after Easter, so this means that Jesus didn’t leave them alone for too terribly long (I’m sure it seemed like an eternity).
During this time, He gave them some final teachings, specifically about the Kingdom of God. You might remember that Jesus’ parables were also mostly about the Kingdom of God, specifically that it did not operate the way people expected it to. I wouldn’t be surprised if Jesus simply explained His parables! (Wouldn’t that be nice!) The long and short of it is this: God’s kingdom is coming, and we are messengers of that fact. But even though it’s not fully here yet, we are still responsible for living according to its rules, even if the rest of the world does not.
And then there’s the great command to wait. Don’t do anything until you’ve been cleared and you’re ready. Jesus told the disciples in John 14 that God had promised to send the Holy Spirit to them after He had returned to heaven, and the Holy Spirit would be His “replacement.” It would do no good to act until God had empowered you to do so (again, that lesson is next week). And there is value in that lesson today! Sometimes we act before we’re ready. And sometimes we use “not being ready” as an excuse not to act at all. Both choices are poor, and both can only be corrected by prayer and Christian counsel.
I’m going to ask you to use the line about baptism with the Holy Spirit as a tease for next week. You’ve likely spent your extra time in this lesson introducing everyone to the book of Acts, and that’s a very big, important topic. Tell everyone to come back next week with all of their hardest questions ready! :)
Anyway, the idea behind the whole book is that God’s kingdom is coming; Jesus taught His disciples about it and made its coming possible, and then the Holy Spirit would come and help the disciples be a part of its spread. And that’s still going on today! Do we realize that we’re part of the same mission Jesus talked about in these words 2000 years ago?
Part 2: The Resurrection Proclaimed (Acts 1:6-8)
So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, are You restoring the kingdom to Israel at this time?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
And just when you think the disciples might finally have figured it out, they go and do this.
Have you ever given a long presentation or taught a long lesson, and you thought that people were understanding it, and you were getting encouraged, and then at the very end someone asked you a very basic question that meant they didn’t really understand anything you had said? That’s what happens here. They just can’t get past their expectation that Jesus would conquer the world (which He will, but not yet). And Jesus responds with a very important commission: “No, you have a job to do before I come back.”
Some people have taken this to mean that we control the timing of Christ’s return—that He can’t come back until we’ve evangelized the entire world—and that’s not true. That’s not what He said. “Until I return, you are to spread My message everywhere.” He hasn’t returned yet, so that’s still our job. David talked about this in his sermon series on Acts, and it would be helpful to remind everyone about it: this commission calls us to focus equally on people near us, far from us, like us, very much unlike us. Our mission is to everyone. Your leader guide also points out that the word for “witness” and for “martyr” are essentially the same. We don’t go into this worried about what will happen to us. We trust God with the outcome; we simply obey. Spend some time talking about your “mission field” and what you’re doing to be witnesses.
Aside: "The Promise of the Father"
“The Promise of the Father” was the title of a book by one of my favorite obscure people in Christian history, a Methodist named Phoebe Palmer. She took this passage and said it should be true of all Christians, and extrapolated that during this time the disciples were ridding themselves of every obstacle to the work of the Spirit (this is where we get the songs about laying it all on the altar and surrendering all). (I’m saying that she’s one of my favorites, not that she was right.) That idea became the basis for the Holiness Movement. Anyway, the book she wrote by this title focused on the fact that the promise was made to men and women alike and became a seminal defense of women in ministry. Palmer believed that men and women had different roles, but at that time women were given no place at all in ministry.
Part 3: The Return Portrayed (Acts 1:9-11)
After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.”
Hopefully you leave a little bit of time for this last point! As someone who (1) studies quite a bit about the end times and (2) deals with a lot of skeptics, this passage is very important to me. A lot of people have questions about heaven. They have doubts about the whole resurrection thing. And they really don’t know what to do with the idea of Jesus riding through the clouds on a white horse. It seems all too crazy. And I get it—we’re dealing with things that are beyond our comprehension. But here’s what the Bible says: Jesus, who had physically been raised from the dead, was physically lifted into the clouds where He seemed to disappear into heaven, and then angels told the disciples that Jesus would return the same way He left. Like it or not, that’s what the Bible says. There are some people who say that these verses were made up and added later. We’ve talked about that before—if you say that about any verse, you can say that about every verse. And I’m not going to do that. If I can believe that God raised Jesus from the dead, why should I have a hard time believing that God then lifted Jesus physically into heaven? Jesus is physically present in heaven. I don’t know how that works, but that sure seems to be what this passage is saying. And one day Jesus will physically return to the earth as the conquering king. And that’s good news. Just as the disciples did, we will get to enjoy the physical presence of Jesus in our resurrected (and incorruptible) bodies. Now, was Jesus “transformed” in some way as He ascended? Absolutely possible, but I don't think so because He was already transformed in His resurrection. But we do know that Jesus will come down out of the clouds just as He went up into the clouds. That doesn’t mean we understand the book of Revelation, but we do know that Jesus is coming back.
Next week, we will go into detail about the “power of the Holy Spirit.” Today is more about introducing the book of Acts. Jesus gives His followers a mission; He is going to give them the power to complete that mission. And the rest of the book is a record of what happens. We’re going to learn what the early church did and why and how, but for now ask your group what they currently believe their “mission” is on earth. And ask them how they are going about fulfilling that mission. Most importantly, ask them if they are willing to reevaluate based on what we learn . . .
Closing Thoughts: Controversies Related to Acts
I put this at the end so you wouldn’t have to lose any sleep over it. Skeptics and liberals are always trying to tear apart the Bible, and I think it’s helpful to know how they argue. A very popular theory among skeptics is that the early church was being pulled between Peter and Paul, two guys who didn’t like each other and had very different beliefs (in order to argue this, those people have to invent a lot of action, particularly by inflating the conflict that appears in Galatians). So the theory goes, eventually Paul won out and became the true shaper of Christianity, but in order to pay homage to such an important apostle as Peter, the church wrote the Book of Acts much later in order to smooth things over between the two groups. (Not too many people really believe that any more.)
The other big “controversy” is what to do with the portrayal of Paul in Acts vs. what he seems to say about himself in his letters. They argue that the differences “obviously” mean that the author of Acts didn’t know Paul at all, had no awareness of the events, and made up just about everything (for the purpose of cajoling the Christians who were worried that Jesus hadn’t come back yet). In other words, Acts was basic religious propaganda. Here’s my take on that. Yes, Luke speaks more highly of Paul than Paul does himself. Is that really a surprise? And yes, the nature of events is portrayed slightly differently in Luke than parts of Paul’s letters. But not greatly! Every historian has a purpose for what he does and does not include in his work. Luke had a clear set of themes, and he made sure to emphasize them. In a way not uncommon to that time, the truths proclaimed were more important than the events that happened around them. Luke absolutely would have shaped his narrative differently that Paul would have. Again, is that a surprise? There may be differences, but there are not discrepancies (and that’s a big deal!).