Commentary on Acts 1:1-11
The book of Acts begins by reminding its reader, Theophilus, of an earlier book — the Gospel of Luke (Luke 1:1-4), placing the reader in the midst of an extended story with Jesus at the center.
The first book portrays Jesus — the crucified, risen, and ascended redeemer — in the context of a drastic condensation of world history. It begins with a story of miraculous events, births, and prophecies that interrupt the lives of a young Joseph and Mary and an older, related Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1-2) who live under the rule of the dominant empire of the first century. From these couples come John the Baptist, who proclaims that the reign of God is near, and Jesus, who brings that reign to fulfillment (Luke 3-4). The rest of the book illustrates how Jesus’ story reinterprets all other stories, tracing the roots of his ministry through the history of Israel, the Temple, prophets, the Law, patriarchs and matriarchs, all the way back to Adam, and to God (Luke 3:23-38).
The second book, Acts, retains its links to this primal history and describes a new, equally primal history. The book also begins with a small family, brothers and sisters in Christ, living under the rule of that same empire. As the Holy Spirit empowers them, they will become Christ’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The reader is welcomed into this narrative with its own miraculous events, rebirths, and prophecies that will interrupt and transform individuals and communities. From the start, these people overcome severe opposition and find the joy of life God intended from the beginning, enduring into the future.
Through the opening interchange between Jesus and the apostles, Acts reminds its readers of their grounding in a central element of history — God created us for life and preserves us. “After [Jesus’] suffering he presented himself alive to them” (Acts 1:3). Because he has life, we have life. No matter how relentlessly the world seeks to lead us astray or frighten us with the threat of death, or even if Jesus physically departs from the earth, the Holy Spirit keeps alive God’s purposes and brings God’s life-giving power.
If those purposes seem empty or that power seems absent, at times we serve best by waiting (Acts 1:4-5). In our current American culture, “waiting” is generally held as something to be avoided. Fast food, next day deliveries, nonstop flights, Google searches that take milliseconds, on-demand movies, text messaging, and so on all create a culture of impatience. Not that these are all bad, but Acts reminds us that the God of all time acts on God’s own time, and sometimes we just need to wait, sit, and be.
While we wait, Acts reminds us not to assume we already know what we’re waiting for. When Jesus returns to the disciples as promised, they essentially ask, “We already know what you’re going to do. When will you do it?” The people of God have a long tradition, continuing today, of believing we can predict God’s next steps. Acts is a story of surprises, best exemplified when Peter reminds a crowd of God’s admonition, first delivered by Habakkuk, “in your days I am doing a work, a work that you will never believe, even if someone tells you” (Acts 13:41, Habakkuk 1:5). Although we benefit from certainty in our faith, it helps to remember that God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s thoughts are higher than our thoughts (Isaiah 55:9).
Along those lines, it is not clear that the disciples were expecting Jesus to be lifted up and taken out of sight. From the first book until now — first surprise, Jesus is crucified; second, he is risen; third, he’s back eating and talking; fourth, he is gone again. The exact nature of what “ascension” was or how it fits with a scientific worldview — these get no more explanation in Acts than resurrection does in the rest of the New Testament. Whatever it was, it aligns with a slender thread through scripture, found in Elijah’s chariot of fire disappearing into a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11) or possibly in Paul’s talk of someone caught up to the third heaven (2 Corinthians 12:1-4). Luke and Acts both describe the ascension (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9), along with other boundary-crossing glimpses into divine realities: transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), the wind and fire of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-13), Stephen’s pre-martyrdom vision of Christ (Acts 7:55), the complementary visions of Saul on the road to Damascus and Ananias, who welcomed him after he arrived (Acts 9:1-19), Peter’s visionary conversation with God over new dietary laws (Acts 10:9-16), and so on.
Skepticism about such experiences did not begin with the scientific revolution, nor is it without its merits. Both Old and New Testaments warn about false prophets and advise caution in the face of claims of revelation, even in Luke and Acts (Luke 21:8, Acts 13:6-11). At the same time, similar stories permeate both scripture and the lives of believers today. When God does something radical against expectations or out of sync with cherished traditions and practices, God uses every means available to get a new point across. Throughout Acts, along with boundary-crossing experiences, God also acts through the basic stuff of spiritual life — praying (33 times from 1:4-28:8), worshipping (13:2, 16:14, 18:7, etc.), reading scripture (1:16, 8:32-35, 17:1-15, etc.), teaching (18:24-8, etc.), and so on. Acts is not simply a book of surprises; it is also an account of how communities discern truth in light of difficult and unusual experiences as they seek to stay open to God’s higher ways.
Though, as mentioned above, Acts has moments where the people are advised to wait, it is foremost a record of people and God in motion. Luke and Acts show how people, based on all that Jesus did and taught and all the Spirit empowers them to do, act where they are and wherever God calls them to go. And, so, the two men in white robes say to Jesus’ followers, “People wherever you are, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? It’s time to move.”