You Shall Be My Witnesses

There is no difference or competition between the work of Jesus and the leading of the Spirit

Christus ascendit hodie!
"Christus ascendit hodie!" Image by Lawrence OP via Flickr licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

April 7, 2024

View Bible Text

Commentary on Acts 1:1-14

The book of Acts begins by looking backward to Luke’s account of the life, teachings, death and resurrection of Jesus. Although there are a host of literary indications that Acts is the continuation, or perhaps volume 2, of Luke’s gospel, there is little evidence that early Christians read Acts in connection with Luke.

Nevertheless, there is significant overlap between the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts. Luke 24 provides three richly detailed accounts of Jesus’ resurrection. There is the first story of the resurrection revealed to the women who come to prepare Jesus’ body (24:1–12). That is followed by Jesus’ appearance to the two disciples walking to Emmaus (24:13–35). Finally, Jesus appears to the gathered disciples (24:36–49). In contrast to these rich accounts, Luke concludes with a very brief account of Jesus’ ascension (24:50–53). Acts picks up where Luke ends, providing a summary account of Jesus’ resurrection appearances and focusing instead on the ascension. 

Acts 1:1–14 also sets the stage for the sending of the Spirit at Pentecost. As important as this moment is, the Spirit has already played a significant role in the story of Jesus. Luke, in ways that are often unique to Luke, makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry is soaked in the Holy Spirit. 

The Spirit comes upon Mary in the story of Jesus’ conception. The Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism; Luke tells us that after his baptism, Jesus was full of the Holy Spirit. That same Spirit leads him into the wilderness where he experiences both temptation and sharp engagement with Satan. He returns from the wilderness, “in the power of the Spirit.” When Luke records Jesus preaching in Nazareth, the first text Jesus reads says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, anointing me to preach good news to the poor.” All of this and we are still only in Luke 4! 

Whatever else we want to say about Jesus’ ministry, Luke reminds us repeatedly that it is soaked in the Spirit. There is no gap between what Jesus is doing and saying and what the Spirit of God wants.

At this point in Acts, the resurrected Jesus also begins to prepare his followers for his departure. He assures them that although he will not be with them, the Father has promised to send the Spirit, inviting them into their own Spirit-soaked ministries. One way of thinking about the ascension is that it removes Jesus from the scene, allowing the Spirit to take center stage. While the ascension may accomplish something like this in literary terms, it is important to remember that rather than introducing the Spirit, Acts picks up where Luke left off, reaffirming that Jesus taught his followers what the Spirit commanded him to teach. 

There is neither difference nor competition between the work of Jesus and the activity of the Spirit. This promise begins to take form at Pentecost in the next chapter of Acts. Thus, Luke’s Gospel presents Jesus’ Spirit-soaked ministry; Acts begins both by affirming this claim about Jesus’ ministry and by beginning to describe how this ministry will continue in the lives of his followers.

Over the 40 days after the resurrection, Christ appears to his followers, preparing them to receive the promised Spirit and “speaking to them about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). In response to this, the disciples ask if Jesus is about to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (1:6). In all the Gospels we see that Jesus’ teaching about the reign of God has always been open to nationalist interpretations, longing for the restoration of Israel’s golden age (whenever one thinks that was). Moreover, both at the end of Luke and here in Acts 1:8, the promise of the Spirit is tied to receiving “power.” It is understandable that the disciples would equate this with political power, the power to compel others. 

But rather than preparing the disciples for political power, the Holy Spirit will turn them into “witnesses” (see also Luke 24:47–49). This witness includes but is not limited to the boundaries of Israel. Instead, it “extends to the ends of the earth.” Here, as in Luke 24, the redemption of Israel that is accomplished through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is ultimately directed toward the blessing of the nations, toward drawing all the world to God. Israel’s redemption opens the world’s salvation. Such a message requires witnesses, not rulers. 

If the disciples seem reluctant to give up their nationalist dreams, they are also slow to take up their role as witnesses to the ends of the earth. Perhaps these are connected. Going to the ends of the earth means giving up a particular vision of what the restoration and reconstitution of Israel might entail. Rather than securing and protecting the boundaries of Israel, under the Spirit’s guidance the renewal of Israel leads to its expansion, drawing the nations to God. 

Within Jerusalem, the disciples are bold proclaimers of the good news, powerful prophetic critics of the religious leadership, and leaders of a dramatic movement within the city. They show little interest, however, in expanding this mission beyond Jerusalem. In addition, Luke narrates the native Hebrew-speaking disciples’ neglect of the Greek-speaking widows in 6:1–7. The disciples only leave Jerusalem on pain of persecution after the death of Stephen at the end of Acts 7. Further, as the next chapters indicate, expanding their witness to Gentiles is a fraught matter.  The centrifugal work of the Spirit overcomes the centripetal inclinations of the disciples.  

Both Luke and Acts indicate that there is no difference or competition between the work of Jesus and the leading of the Spirit. That is not as clear when it comes to the disciples. Their embodiment of the Spirit’s promptings is more hesitant. Their aims and hopes are less fully aligned with the Spirit’s. The story of Acts reflects this ongoing work of the Spirit to reform and shape the wills and actions of the followers of Jesus, conforming them ever closer to the desires of God.


Lord Jesus, after your death and resurrection you sent your followers into the world to proclaim your resurrection to the entire world. Send us into the world to bear witness to all you have done in our lives. Amen.


Alleluia, sing to Jesus   ELW 392, GG 260, H82 460/461, NCH 257
Hail thee, festival day   ELW 394, H82 175, UMH 324


Anthem of Dedication, Warren Martin

Pittsburgh skyline

Festival of Homiletics 2024

May 13-16 | Pittsburgh (or digitally from anywhere)

The 2024 Festival of Homiletics is an invitation to lean into a little self-love. Hear from some of the voices of our time, including Grace Ji-Sun Kim, Pádraig Ó Tuama, Neichelle Guidry, Brian McLaren, and Angela Dienhart Hancock, and more! Experience inspiring worship along with time for reflection, renewal, and remembering – to recall once again the why for what we do.