Acts of the Apostles
NT Reading: Acts 1:12-26
Jesus had just ascended to heaven. His apostles had watched him go from the Mount of Olives and even after he had disappeared from their sight they had carried on looking upwards to the clouds which had hidden him from their eyes.
We can perhaps sympathise with them even though their behaviour was inappropriate. After all life for them would be very different for them from now on but, and it’s an important but, life for them had not come to an end. They stood on the cusp of a new and exciting era. God’s plan of salvation was moving into a whole new phase. Redemption had been accomplished and the next stage of the plan was the application of that redemption with the world-wide preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jesus had already told his apostles of the role they would have in this plan. They were going to be his witnesses as that world-wide preaching got underway. Yet, before they could launch out on their mission, they would have to wait in Jerusalem for the gift of the Promised Holy Spirit. It was the Spirit who would enable them to be effective as his witnesses.
And so they returned to Jerusalem. It was only a short walk back and they went straight back to the place where they were staying – it was a large upstairs room which soon proved to be an ideal meeting place.
We don’t know much about this room – it may well have been the same room where Jesus had celebrated the Lord’s Supper with them before he was arrested but we can’t be sure. But it doesn’t really matter that much, it was the place where they staying and they were going to use it well.
Luke wants us to know about some of those who gathered there in that upper room and so he gives us a fresh list of Jesus’ apostles. There are a couple of things for us to notice:
Firstly, each of these named apostles had failed the Lord Jesus is the most dismal fashion only just a few weeks before. Yes, Peter, who is named first, as he always is in the lists of apostles recorded in the NT, was the one who had denied that he even knew the Lord but all the others on this new list had fled in fear and left Jesus on his own as the soldiers arrested him in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yes, John was at Calvary near the cross but where were the others?
But now these 11 named men were gathered for action in that upper room. Their failures were temporary in nature – they had been weak but they were not faithless – they had not turned definitively against Jesus in the same way that Judas had done. Their names are listed for the Lord knows who are his own and he keeps them. Judas is the only one of the 12 whose name was not on this list for he had turned right away from the Lord and with no repentance there was, and is, no hope.
There are times when you, even though you might be a Christian, will fail and your failures may at times be as spectacular as those of these early disciples. At such times you may be tempted to think that it’s over for you, that you can no longer expect anything from Jesus. Well, should such a time come, just take another look at this list. Why? Because in it we find that these eleven apostles had been restored and they most definitely had a part to play for Jesus in his service. If there was hope for men like them there is hope for you too. But don’t go the way of unrepentant Judas!
There were however more than these eleven men meeting together in that upper room. As we read through the gospels it is clear that these apostles occupied a special place. They had been selected and appointed to their ministry by Jesus’ deliberate choice. But they weren’t the only ones who followed Jesus, not a bit of it. Throughout the gospels we come across numbers of faithful women who followed him and who ministered to his needs and the needs of the apostolic band. And there was a wider group of people who followed Jesus too – don’t you remember how Jesus not only sent out his apostles on ministry trips but he could also send out a group of 70 disciples?
Well now we’re told that the 11 apostles met together with others in the upper room where they gave themselves to serious prayer. The group included those women; Mary Jesus’ mother was there with them; and so were Jesus’ own brothers. That was pretty remarkable because only a matter of weeks earlier these brothers had no faith at all in Jesus, they hadn’t believed in him, but how that had all changed! After the resurrection Jesus appeared in a private meeting with his brother James and now, just a few weeks on, we find these blood brothers are gathering together with the others for prayer. How encouraging we should find that to be! You see, people do change – family members can be converted, even if it can seem to take a long time coming!
What a Prayer Meeting!
A prayer meeting is a simple affair. There is nothing magical about it. It is just a meeting where those who attend pray together, that is to call upon the name of the Lord together. It is so helpful to pray with others to the same Lord, to hear them pray with similar cares and concerns. It encourages us to pray ourselves. Don’t you often need that sort of help and encouragement? I know I do because prayer is far from easy. If you find prayer easy then come to the prayer meeting so that you can help the others who are there and in need of your help and encouragement.
Well Luke tells us that this particular prayer meeting was characterised by two things:
1. It was not a flash-in-the-pan prayer meeting but it was ongoing. Those who attended and participated devoted themselves to prayer. I take this to mean that this was not a one-off prayer meeting but for a certain period of time it was a regular occurrence. This regularity sets a pattern for the prayer life of our church – for many years the church has held its own regular weekly prayer meeting. We don’t always see the answers to our prayers at the first time of asking and so we go on and on praying.
2. This was a united prayer meeting – those who attended did so “with one accord”, they had similar desires and a similar commitment. That means that each would be able to give a hearty “amen” to the voiced prayer of another. And knowing others felt the same way further prayer would be inspired.
Do you know, some folk worry about praying in a prayer meeting. They hear others praying and then find that what they thought they might pray about someone else has beaten them to it. So they don’t pray! How foolish!! If someone else has just prayed for what is on your heart and mind it might just be because the Spirit is at work inspiring prayer for that particular topic. Don’t be put off when someone else has just prayed for the subject you’ve been thinking about rather reinforce their request with that of your own.
At this particular prayer meeting I think that the most likely subject of prayer would have been for God to keep his promise and pour out the Spirit. I bet they didn’t think either that because God has promised then there was no need to pray. When God makes promises those very promises ought to encourage our prayers and infuse them with a confident expectation. He has given us his promises to help us not to stifle and silence our prayers. What is more encouraging in our prayer lives than answered prayer? And what answers are more likely to be granted than the promised ones?
The prayer meeting described in Acts 1 was not reserved for just a select few either, as we move on it would seem that Peter was able to speak to 120 people who attended! In the original Greek Luke doesn’t so much talk about 120 persons as 120 names – those who attended were real individuals with real identities and their personalities were all known to God. In other words the prayer meeting is for every Christian from the youngest to the oldest. Let me ask you a question then: What good reason do you have for regularly absenting yourself from the prayer meeting?
Questions of Leadership
It would also seem that these Christians didn’t restrict themselves to praying as they waited for the gift of the Spirit. Peter at least was thinking about the life of the church and how some of the leadership issues ought to be resolved. It wasn’t that Peter wanted to exercise a heavy-handed authority over the others but as he reflected upon the gap left among the original group of apostles when Judas abandoned his allotted share in the ministry and as he read Scripture he was convinced that something needed to be done.
Jesus had chosen 12 apostles to be with him and in this he had followed the OT pattern established with the 12 tribes of Israel. The number twelve denotes perfection and appears a number of times in the NT. When Judas betrayed the Lord he created a gap in the group of apostles. Peter was obviously concerned by this state of affairs and his concerns were further informed by certain passages of Scripture. He came to understand that Judas’ place should not remain unfilled – a replacement should be found.
The Scriptures that directed Peter’s thinking were both in the Book of Psalms and because it was Scripture Peter knew that they had to be fulfilled – God does not lie.
The first Psalm Peter referred to was a psalm that the disciples had already understood to speak about Jesus. Do you remember the occasion when Jesus cleansed the Temple? As the disciples looked on they remembered that it was written “Zeal for your house will consume me.” Well that was a quote from Psalm 69:9 and the early Christians came to understand many psalms in a similar messianic light.
Psalm 69 is actually alluded to in the NT around a dozen times. It speaks both about the Messiah and the Messiah’s enemies. The verse that Peter quoted in this context was one which referred to the enemies of the Messiah and he applied it directly to Judas who suffered such loss as family, name and earthly possessions were all cursed. Peter’s words in v.20a “May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it” are an adapted quotation of Ps.69:25. Judas faithless betrayal was known a thousand years before it happened because God knows all there is to know!
If Judas had to abandon the group of apostles for Scripture to be fulfilled, so he argued Scripture called for another to be appointed to take his place:
v.20b “Let another take his office.”
This time the words are quoted from Ps.109:8.
Here we have a great example of just how church life ought to be directed: in a climate of united and persistent prayer the Word of God is heard and applied.
May this always be true of our little congregation here too!
The Criteria for A New Apostle
Peter saw an issue and addressed it. The church needed a 12th apostle to be appointed – but who should that be?
Peter continued to indicate the conditions that needed to be met. As the apostles would be the ones whose task it was to lay the foundations of the church it was vital that they knew what they were doing. They would of course build firmly upon Jesus and in order to do so they would certainly have to know all about him. For any new man to be appointed to the apostleship it would have to be very clear to all that he was properly appointed, having an experience of Jesus would have to cover the whole of the gospel ministry of our Lord.
It is worth noting that this group of apostles occupied a unique position in the church, one which was both foundational and unrepeatable. When the apostle James met his death in Acts 12:2 the church was already well-established and no attempt was made to replace him. The body of apostles would die out and disappear for their work was done.
Peter insisted that those to be considered for this apostleship would have had to have been with them from the time of Jesus’ baptism all the way through to his ascension with a particular emphasis upon being a witness to the resurrection. Not all of the existing apostles actually met those criteria – Matthew, for example, was not appointed until well after Jesus’ baptism had taken place. However Matthew’s appointment by Christ was clear and well-known there could be no doubting his position. But for Judas’ replacement it was perhaps all the more important that his credentials were as sure as could be. (Again it is interesting to note that Paul did not fulfil the conditions of apostleship outlined by Peter. That is not to question either the wisdom of Peter or the apostleship of Paul for Paul’s apostleship to the Gentiles was of a different nature which he himself recognised by declaring himself as one who was “untimely born”.(1Cor.15:8))
When Peter spoke in this way the others then put forward the names of two men for consideration: Joseph Barsabbas (also know as Justus) and Matthias. But it was important that the one chosen should be the Lord’s choice and no-one else. The man to be appointed had to be chosen by the Lord himself, just as he had chosen the other apostles. And so as soon as the names were put forward prayer was made to the One who alone knows the hearts of men to indicate his choice.
The choice was revealed through the casting of lots though Luke does not explain quite the process that was used. But the Lord’s hand was recognised as appointing Matthias. After all Scripture affirms that even what might look like chance is determined by the Lord:
Prov.16:33 “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD.”
Once so appointed Matthias disappears from the scene and we hear no more about him in Scripture. And with the coming of the Spirit we hear no more of the church taking its decisions by means of the casting of lots.
And all this took place during that waiting period. Waiting periods do not have to be, and maybe should never be, periods of inactivity – there is always work to be done; there is always prayer to be offered; serious thinking does not need to be suspended; and there are always studies to be made of the Word of God.
But the waiting would soon be over. Jesus would keep his promise, as he always does, and send the Holy Spirit from the Father. The age of the Spirit, the age in which we live, was about to begin. The apostles and the others would be ready because they had followed their Lord’s instructions and they had done so prayerfully, respecting the Word of God. But we will have to wait another week before we turn to Acts 2. May our week of waiting be filled with a similar prayerfulness and keen interest in following the guidance of God’s Word.