One can hardly overstate the importance of the Book of Acts or its contribution to the canon of Scripture. Let me mention just a few of the reasons why Acts—and thus our study of this book—is so important.
First, Acts (combined with the Gospel of Luke) makes up over one-fourth of the entire New Testament. Luke/Acts is really one work in two volumes (remember that only so much could be put on one scroll, just as only so much can be recorded on a cassette). If this one work makes up over one-fourth of the content of the New Testament, the principle of proportion alone tells us that it must be very important material.
Second, the Book of Acts provides us with a vivid account of the radical change which took place in the attitudes and actions of the disciples, who were passive and almost invisible after our Lord’s death, as described in the Gospels. The Peter who would deny his Lord in the courtyard of the high priest, who would hide behind locked doors after Jesus’ death, and who would “go fishing” after His resurrection, is a very different man in Acts 2, where he boldly proclaims Jesus to be the Christ and announces to his audience that they were guilty of His death and were facing divine judgment. The transformation of the Lord’s disciples is evident in the Book of Acts.
Third, Acts is a crucial book because it is the only book in the New Testament which fills in the gap between the Gospels and the Epistles. The Gospels end in Jerusalem with no church, a few Jewish believers in Jesus, and a group of disciples who are still living, as it were, in the past. The Epistles, on the other hand, depict a growing number of churches made up of mainly Gentile believers and a group of disciples who are boldly proclaiming Christ as Israel’s Messiah, and as the Savior of the Gentiles as well. Only Acts fills in the gaps, to explain how these changes took place. We would not understand the Epistles apart from the Book of Acts.
Fourth, Acts provides us with an inspired account of the transition of the gospel from a largely Jewish context to a gospel which is universal, not only embracing the Gentiles but becoming, for a season, a largely Gentile phenomenon. We begin in Jerusalem with a handful of Jewish followers of Jesus. The Book of Acts ends in Rome, with a number of Gentile churches having been founded, and a predominantly Gentile Christian community. The Book of Acts describes this transition: geographically, from Jerusalem to Rome; theologically, from Israel to the church; and racially, from Jews to Gentiles.
Fifth, the Book of Acts (in conjunction with Luke) gives us the history of the origin and nature of the opposition against the gospel by the Jews. One of the greatest and most frequent problems the New Testament church had to deal with was the opposition of the Jews, who resisted the gospel, and the Judaizers, who sought to pervert it. The Gospel of Luke (and the other Gospels as well) describe the roots of this opposition, which began as a resistance to Jesus’ actions and teaching. The Book of Acts shows how this opposition continued on against the gospel and the church after the death, burial, and resurrection of our Lord. What Paul does theologically in the Book of Romans, Luke does historically in the Book of Acts. We would never understand the nature of the problem which faced the church (which, incidentally, has its own forms today) apart from Luke/Acts.
Sixth, the Book of Acts provides us with a historical background for many of the churches which are dealt with in the Epistles of the New Testament. When we read the Epistles of Paul to the church at Thessalonica, or Ephesus, or Philippi, we know much about the church and how it started from the account which Luke has provided for us in the Book of Acts. Acts provides valuable background information for the churches that are addressed in the Epistles. It is often not difficult to understand the problems these churches are facing in the light of their birth and early years.
Seventh, the Book of Acts supplies us with some excellent examples of the apostolic preaching of the gospel. Gospel preaching is modeled in Acts. If we would follow the example of the apostles in proclaiming the gospel, then we will learn from Acts how it is done.
Eighth, the Book of Acts contains a dramatic portrayal of the power of God at work in the church through the Holy Spirit which began at Pentecost and which will continue until the return of our Lord. If the Gospels contain the account of God’s working through Christ (empowered by the Holy Spirit), the Book of Acts depicts Christ at work in the church through His Spirit. The beginnings of the “age of the Spirit” are found in Acts, and only in Acts. A small, fearful, unpromising group of men and women become a revolutionary force, transformed by the work of the Holy Spirit (including the resurrection of Christ by the Spirit—cf. Romans 8:11).
Ninth, the Book of Acts is an account of the fulfillment of our Lord’s promises to His disciples concerning the coming of the Spirit and His ministry in the world to and through them. During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the Holy Spirit. Near the time of His death, He spoke in much greater detail concerning the Spirit. After His resurrection, He commanded His disciples to “make disciples of all nations,” but not until after they were endued with power, for which they were to wait. The fulfillment of these promises is recorded in Acts.
Tenth, the Book of Acts is a forceful defense of the apostleship of Paul. If one were to read the Epistles of Paul apart from the Book of Acts, one would wonder who he was and what right he had to speak with such authority. The Book of Acts not only contains the account of Paul’s conversion (in three accounts), but it is an account of the way in which God appointed him as an apostle, in spite of the actions and early resistance of the other apostles. Acts provides Paul and his epistles with a credibility and authority which enhances their impact on those who would read them.
Eleventh, the Book of Acts describes how the purpose of God to save the Gentiles through Israel was accomplished, but in a way no one would have expected. It was not through the obedience of Israel that the Gentiles received the gospel but actually through their disobedience. The book gives us the incredible account of how God achieved the beginnings of a world-wide religion (rather than a small Jewish sect) by the opposition of the Jews, by their persecution of the saints, and even in spite of the actions and example of the Jerusalem church. It is an account of the sovereignty and power of God, using even men’s sin to accomplish His purposes.
Finally, the Book of Acts is vitally important because it has become a battleground for evangelical Christians. Acts is unfortunately a battleground for Christians. The charismatic Christians make it their textbook, while anti-charismatics try to minimize it as merely transitional. My opinion is that neither position is totally correct. Christian living is intended to be more supernatural than many non-charismatics say, and it is not as continually miraculous as some charismatics maintain (Acts itself is not riddled with the spectacularly miraculous). Whatever the greater works are, it is not in the realm of the spectacular.
It is for these and other reasons that the Book of Acts is vital for our understanding and our practice of the gospel. I look forward to this study of Acts with great anticipation. I ask that you commence this study with much prayer for an open heart and mind to learn that which God has here for us. I urge you to read and reread this great book as often as possible. May God grant that we find our lives transformed by the truths of this book, and even more, that we be drawn ever more closely to our Lord Jesus Christ and to His Spirit who now dwells among and within us who are saved.
As I approach the study of the first chapter of Acts, one question overshadows all others, and it is this: Just whose name would be on the foundation in place of Judas? Who was the twelfth apostle?
In the twenty-first chapter of the Book of Revelation we read these words: The wall of the city had twelve foundations, and on them were the names of the twelve apostles of the Lamb (Revelation 21:14).
In the first chapter of Acts we read of the selection of Matthias as the twelfth apostle, the replacement of Judas. Is the name “Matthias” the name which we will find on the twelfth foundation stone? Some would say, “Yes”; others, an emphatic “No!” Let us look at this chapter with this question in mind.
Before we begin our study, I want you to take note of the proportions of the passage in light of the “principle of proportion.” Allow me to spell out this principle here:
THE PRINCIPLE OF PROPORTION BEGINS WITH THE PREMISE THAT MUCH MORE COULD BE SAID ABOUT THE LIFE OF OUR LORD AND THE EARLY CHURCH THAN HAS BEEN SAID IN WRITING (cf. John 20:30-31; 21:25). THUS, THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE RECORDED ARE IMPORTANT, AND THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE GIVEN MORE SPACE AND ATTENTION THAN OTHERS SHOULD BE CONSIDERED MORE IMPORTANT. IN SHORT, THE SPACE DEVOTED TO ANY TOPIC OR DOCTRINE IS INDICATIVE OF ITS RELATIVE IMPORTANCE TO OTHER TRUTHS.
Look at the principle of proportion in action in Acts, particularly in chapter 1. Of the twenty-eight chapters of Acts, only one chapter (the first) gives an account of matters prior to Pentecost. The remaining chapters depict Pentecost (2:1-4), its impact (2:5-13), its interpretation (2:14-40), and its implications (2:41–28:31).
If only one chapter is devoted to pre-Pentecost matters, this tells us something. Of all that could have been said that fits into this category, Luke chose to take up the greatest part of the chapter with an account of the selection of the twelfth apostle. It would seem to me that this must be, in the mind of Luke (and of the Holy Spirit who inspired this book), a very important incident, at least as it relates to the unfolding argument of the book. Thus, I will focus most of my attention in this lesson on verses 12-26, because this is where Luke has indicated the emphasis should come, based on the principle of proportion. The mystery is that as important as this incident seems to be, Matthias is never specifically mentioned again. The rest of the Book of Acts, and the Epistles as well, virtually ignore Matthias. Why then is the selection of Matthias given such editorial priority? We will find the answer to this question at the conclusion of our study. We will, however, begin by making a few comments on the first eleven verses as they provide the background and the context of the episode of the choosing of Matthias as the twelfth apostle.
While it may not be necessary to do so, let me underscore the importance of our text in chapter 1 by pointing out that the selection of the twelfth apostle is not only the only incident which Luke recorded during the ten-day period of the disciples’ waiting, but it is the incident which immediately precedes Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit, in chapter 2. If there is any importance by association—as there surely must be—then what comes in the immediate context of Pentecost must be important. The position of our passage is a clue to its importance.
The structure of Acts 1 can be summarized as follows:
If we are to understand the events in Acts 1, it is important for us to gain a sense of chronological sequence. In verses 1 and 2 Luke referred to his previous volume, the Gospel of Luke, in which he covered a time span of approximately thirty-three years. That Gospel began a little before the birth of Jesus and of John, His predecessor. It gave some detail about the births of both John and Jesus. Only one incident in the childhood of Jesus was briefly mentioned, and other than this, the first thirty years of Jesus’ life are virtually passed by. The major portion of that Gospel pertains to the three years of Jesus’ public ministry, beginning with the introduction of John and the baptism and temptation of Jesus. The Gospel of Luke ends with the resurrection of Jesus and with an anticipation of the coming of the Holy Spirit. Luke’s Gospel, then, covers a period of time somewhat less than forty years, essentially dealing with the life of Jesus from His birth to His resurrection.
The Book of Acts takes up precisely where Luke’s Gospel left off. The first eleven verses of Acts 1 deal primarily with that forty-day period when Jesus was risen from the dead but had not yet ascended to the Father. Verses 12-26 are the only inspired account of that ten-day period of time (approximately)1 between Jesus’ ascension and the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, some fifty days after the time of Jesus’ resurrection. The actions taken by the disciples occur during that point in time much like the four-hundred-year period just prior to Messiah’s coming to the earth. Jesus was now physically absent, and yet the Holy Spirit has not yet descended. It was during this period of time that Jesus had told His disciples to wait. They spent most of their time at the Temple (cf. Luke 24:52-53) or in that upper room, praying, and perhaps discussing the Scriptures. The one event which Luke chose to record for us was the selection of the twelfth apostle which, we must assume, was an event important to us, and most of all important to the development of the argument of this volume. Let us press on to see what we are to learn from this first introductory chapter.
1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen (Acts 1:1-2, NASB).
The Book of Acts is clearly a sequel, a second volume to be read in conjunction with the first, the Book of Luke. The author is the same, as well as the recipient, Theophilus. The content of the first volume pertained to the deeds and the doctrines of the Lord Jesus Christ, ending with His ascension. Jesus’ final words, Luke tells us, were orders to the apostles He had chosen. These orders were given, Luke includes, “by the Holy Spirit.” Those orders were given in Luke and will be reiterated here shortly. The purpose then of Acts is to provide an account of that which Jesus continued to do through His church, by means of the Holy Spirit. What Jesus began to do and to teach, the Holy Spirit would continue to do, through the church.
3 To these He also presented Himself alive; after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:3-5, NASB).
Verse 3 tells us something very clearly which is of great importance: Jesus set aside once and for all the doubts of the disciples concerning the fact of His resurrection. In the Gospel of Luke, the disciples are doubtful as to our Lord’s resurrection to the very end. Mark’s Gospel tells us most clearly that the disciples’ unbelief was deep-seated and that Jesus found it necessary to rebuke them for it (Mark 16:14). Here, in Acts, Luke tells us the reason the disciples could be so entirely convinced about His resurrection. It was not just that Jesus rebuked them for their unbelief, but that He presented Himself alive to them on various occasions and over a period of forty days. This evidence was irrefutable. They were convinced. Never again does the issue of the fact of His resurrection arise with them. Indeed, from this point on they are the “witnesses of His resurrection,” something which they will repeatedly and confidently affirm (cf. Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39-42; 13:31).
Verse 3 also informs us of the content of the teaching of our Lord during those forty days. It is summed up by Luke by the use of the phrase, “the kingdom of God” (verse 3). Jesus commenced His ministry by announcing that the “kingdom of God” had come (Mark 1:15), much the same as John the Baptist had been preaching (cf. Matthew 3:1-2). Throughout His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God and found it necessary to continually correct the misconceptions of Israelites and even of His own disciples. Now, after His resurrection, Jesus spoke once again of that kingdom, which was still future. It is not just a matter of the very distant future, however, but a matter of the present as well. While the promises of the kingdom of God have not been fulfilled in 2,000 years since the days of our Lord, there were some present aspects of that kingdom of which our Lord must have been speaking. Surely Jesus was not talking only of the distant future with His disciples, but He was teaching them the things which they needed to know pertaining to the near future and to their ministries in particular. Thus, the “kingdom of God” must have included the ministry and message of the apostles, which would commence with the coming of the Spirit.
Not separate from the teaching of our Lord and the kingdom of God was the matter of the “promise of the Father” (verse 5), for which they were to wait. It was a baptism which the Father had promised, and thus a matter of Old Testament prophecy, but it was also one of which our Lord Himself had taught (“which you have heard of from Me,” verse 4). While Luke has some things to say on this matter, John’s Gospel is the most thorough on the matter of the Holy Spirit (cf. 7:37-39; chapters 14-16). This promise was a “baptism,” not one like that of John, but distinct from it. Jesus contrasted the coming of the Spirit and the baptism He (Christ) would perform through the Spirit, with that of John. Indeed, it was a contrast which John himself taught. John told his audiences that while he baptized with water, Jesus would baptize men with the Holy Spirit and with fire. This was the “promise of the Father” for which they were now commanded to wait. It would not be many days before this would come to pass.
6 And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” 9 And after He had said these things, “He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; 11 and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:6-11).
One of the things about which Jesus must not have spoken was the timing of the coming of the kingdom. The disciples found it necessary to ask Jesus when the kingdom was going to come about. More specifically, they asked the Savior if the kingdom was to be established immediately.
It is the Christmas season as I write this message, and the poem, “The Night Before Christmas,” somehow comes to mind in connection with this question of the disciples. Just as thoughts of Christmas and the “coming of Santa” filled the minds of children on Christmas eve, so thoughts of the kingdom seemed to be dancing in the minds of the disciples. I am not certain their motivation for wanting the kingdom to come was much different than it was during the earthly ministry of our Lord. Perhaps the disciples were still thinking of power and position and prestige. It isn’t impossible. The resurrection of Christ need not have changed the attitudes and motivations of the disciples. As we shall see, even Pentecost will not produce all the changes which are yet to come in the lives of the disciples of our Lord. It would seem that the disciples were preoccupied with the kingdom, a “Jewish” kingdom2 (“restore the kingdom to Israel”), and an imminent one. How Acts will fill in the details here!
The timing of the kingdom was within the sovereign purposes of God, not to be known by the apostles. It is clear that knowing the time would not have been beneficial to them. What was within their realm of responsibility was to proclaim the good news of the gospel to all nations, and thus our Lord reiterated the Great Commission, not so much as a command, mind you, but as a prophecy of what was certain to come. The Holy Spirit would come upon them, bestowing power on them, and they would be witnesses to the nations. This was a certainty. It did not always happen consciously or voluntarily—even willingly—but it did happen. Acts is the historical account of how, in the wisdom of God, this was accomplished in spite of His disciples, as well as because of them.
It has often been noted, and rightly so I believe, that Acts 1:8 provides a geographical outline of the development of the preaching of the gospel and of the growth of the church, but also of the argument of the Book of Acts as well. The gospel will be preached in Jerusalem and Judea (Acts chapters 1-7), in Samaria (chapter 8), and eventually all the way to Rome (chapters 13-28). Luke gives us the key to the Book of Acts at the “front door” of this book, in Acts 1:8.
From the very outset of the Book of Luke, God’s intention of saving Gentiles, as well as Jews, has been indicated. The angel Gabriel (1:30-33) spoke of the Lord Jesus in terms of fulfilling Israel’s hopes; Mary spoke likewise (1:46-55). But the angel who spoke to the shepherds said, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people (Luke 2:10).
Jesus, in His first public announcement of His Messiahship in Luke 4, clearly spelled out that the salvation of the Gentiles was an inseparable part of the plan of God which He came to fulfill. Thus, Acts 1:8 spells out what Luke is going to report as the Book of Acts continues: The Holy Spirit will come on the disciples, empowering them to be witnesses of the resurrection and the gospel of our Lord world-wide, beginning at Jerusalem but extending to the ends of the earth.
The discussion ends with the ascension of our Lord. While they looked on, Jesus was taken up, into the clouds, disappearing from their sight. It seems as though the disciples must have stood there for some time, gaping into the clouds as though expecting Him to come back. The two angels who were present gently rebuked the disciples and sent them on their way with the assurance that the Lord Jesus would return in a similar way, but also informing them that their standing there, looking into the sky, was of no profit. No idle standing around waiting for the return of the Lord was sanctioned then. Surely such idleness is not of profit today either.
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. 15 And at this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 “For he was counted among us, and received his portion in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness; and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO MAN DWELL IN IT’; and, ‘HIS OFFICE LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE.’ 21 “It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us—22 beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. 24 And they prayed, and said, “Thou, Lord, who knowest the hearts of all men, show which one of these two Thou hast chosen 25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was numbered with the eleven apostles (Acts 1:12-26, NASB).
Verses 12-14 give us a very general description of the activities of the apostles (and the broader group of disciples) during that ten-day “waiting period.” They went back to Jerusalem, as commanded, and went up to the “upper room,” where they, the eleven (verse 13), along with the women who had followed Jesus (cf. Luke 8:1-3; 23:49, 55-56; 24:1-10), Mary, the mother of our Lord, and His brothers (verse 14), waited. These men, who had not believed in Jesus during His life, had now come to faith.
There, in that upper room, this group of about one-hundred and twenty believers devoted themselves to prayer (verse 14). We are not told for what they were praying. It may well have included prayer that the kingdom of God would come (cf. Luke 11:2), but I suspect that it must have involved prayer for the coming of the promised Holy Spirit, based upon our Lord’s words recorded in Luke 11:
“If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him” (Luke 11:13).
It was in the context of this prayer vigil that the twelfth apostle was chosen, as reported in verses 15-26. Many have debated whether this action should have been taken by the disciples. Below are some of the arguments for and against this action.
(1) The action is taken by the apostles, of whom Peter is the leader.
(2) The decision is one that is concurred with by the entire group of one-hundred and twenty.
(3) The decision appears to be based upon a study of the Scriptures, prayer, and discussion by the entire group.
(4) There is subsequent mention of the twelve, which would appear to include Matthias (cf. Acts 2:14; 6:2).
(5) There is never any word of condemnation, rebuke, or criticism for the action which was taken here.
All of the above are reasons some would hold that the action taken by the group was appropriate. On the other hand, there are other factors which seem to question the wisdom of what was done. Among these are the following:
(1) The action taken was prior to Pentecost, before the Holy Spirit had come upon the apostles to guide them.
(2) The apostles were “taking action” when Jesus had specifically commanded them to wait, until the Spirit had come on them.
(3) Jesus had chosen all of the other apostles (cf. 1:2), and He had given them no command to choose a replacement for Judas.
(4) While there is a minimal reference to “the twelve” later on, Matthias is never again specifically referred to in the New Testament. Why is so much attention giving to the choice of a man who is then ignored throughout the rest of the New Testament?
(5) The context surrounding this incident does not suggest that it was a decision prompted by a command of the Lord, a biblical imperative, or the guidance of the Spirit. I have mentally labeled this section, “Doing What Comes Naturally.” It seems that the apostles were, along with the rest, acting on their own, apart from any clear imperative or command. In the immediate context, the disciples seem preoccupied, and Jesus had to turn their attention toward things other than what they had in mind. The angels had to spur the group on, rather than to stand on the mount, looking into the sky. The immediately preceding context suggests that the apostles still had things out of focus, while the immediately following context (Pentecost) informs us that the Spirit’s coming was not yet, and thus suggests that the apostles were acting on their own initiative, and not that of God.
(6) The motivation of the apostles might seem suspect, when considered in light of their past thinking and actions. You will recall from the Gospel accounts that the disciples were eager for the kingdom to come, but from a motivation of self-interest, from a desire for position, power, and prestige. They were even competitive with one another. Why then the urgency for the position of the twelfth apostle to be filled? It could be suggested that it was because the disciples felt the kingdom could not come until there were twelve apostles in place, so that there would be twelve thrones filled in order that the twelve tribes could be judged. This would be a reasonable conclusion, based upon our Lord’s words to the disciples in Luke 22:30, spoken shortly before His betrayal, arrest, and crucifixion.
(7) While Peter’s interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures to which he referred may well have been sound, the inferences he drew from them are possibly more suspect. Jesus Himself linked Old Testament prophecy to His betrayal by Judas. He cited Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 and 26. Peter seems to allude to the text in Psalm 41:9 cited by our Lord, but he specifically quoted from two passages from the Psalms. The first citation was from Psalm 69:25; the second was from Psalm 109:8. If Peter’s interpretation of these two texts as being prophetic is correct, I am not certain his interpretation necessarily follows from them. In the first citation from Psalm 69, the text Peter cited is this, “LET HIS HOMESTEAD BE MADE DESOLATE, AND LET NO MAN DWELL IN IT.”
(8) Now from the account of the fate of Judas, which Luke has given to us parenthetically in verses 18 and 19, who was it that made the homestead of Judas desolate? It was surely not the disciples nor was it anyone else who consciously did what they did in order to obey this prophecy. God fulfilled this prophecy. And so, when we come to the second statement, “HIS OFFICE LET ANOTHER MAN TAKE,” should we assume that there is anything called for here on the part of the apostles? I think not. If God fulfilled the first “LET …” from Psalm 69, why should the disciples feel obliged to fulfill the second “LET …” from Psalm 109? If the second citation were fulfilled in the same way the first was fulfilled, the disciples would not need to have done anything. I am not certain the Old Testament text requires anything of the disciples, but Peter and the others felt it did.
(9) The process used to choose Judas’ replacement seems somewhat suspect. At best, one can say that the selection of Matthias was carried out in an Old Testament fashion by the casting of lots. This method was never given to the disciples, nor is it ever found again in the New Testament as a means of determining who God has chosen to hold any office. The casting of lots allowed for a decision to be reached totally apart from divine intervention. Of course God can and does determine the outcome of the casting of lots (Proverbs 16:33), but is this the way God intended this decision to be made? The candidates were nominated, and the two candidates put before the Lord were chosen by the group, based on the requirements they themselves determined. They allowed God to choose between the two candidates. Somehow this seems sub-standard to me. The method employed by the group seems to put God in a box and to limit Him to the options men have placed before Him.
(10) Luke’s argument in Acts seems to challenge this action, because in Acts Paul’s apostleship seems to be affirmed at the expense of that of Matthias. Paul constantly stressed that his apostleship was the sovereign will and purpose of God, and not of man. He also spoke of himself as an equal with the rest of the apostles.3 And remember, Paul was also a witness of the resurrection of Christ, for he was stopped short by a vision of the Lord Himself, risen from the dead. If Paul’s apostleship is affirmed and Matthias’s apostleship is ignored, there is good reason to question the legitimacy of Matthias’ apostleship. There is at least some evidence to challenge the action taken by the apostles due to this emphasis on Paul’s apostleship.
Having presented the pros and cons of the legitimacy of this selection of the twelfth apostle by the one-hundred and twenty, we now must square off with the issue of who was right and who was wrong. Or must we? Notice that while we are preoccupied with this question, Luke does not seem to have been so troubled by the issue. Indeed, Luke presents evidence supporting both sides. And Luke never chose to pronounce on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this action. Why? In my opinion, the answer is simply that it did not really matter, because it was not the real issue.
The feeling that we must pronounce on the “rightness” or “wrongness” of this selection of Matthias reveals a serious fallacy in our thinking. What real difference does it make whether the apostles were “right” or “wrong”? We seem to think it makes a great deal of difference. But does it? Do we believe the plans and purposes of God collapse when men fail to do the “right” thing? Do we really believe God’s purposes are achieved only when we do the “right” thing? Then we are wrong, dead wrong!
If the Book of Acts underscores any truth, it is that of the sovereignty of God, who works all things in accordance with His will, whether or not men believe or obey. Much of what the Spirit of God accomplished in the Book of Acts was in spite of men. God can just as easily use the “wrath of man” to accomplish His will as He can the obedience of man. The Gentiles will hear the gospel, and many will come to faith on account of the Jews. Not because of their faith and obedience, mind you, but ultimately because of their stubborn unbelief. As Paul will clearly teach in Romans 9-11, and as Luke will clearly demonstrate in the Book of Acts, it was the rejection of Messiah by Israel that made the preaching of Christ to the Gentiles possible.
In the matter of the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the selection of the twelfth apostle, God was not obliged to use Matthias just because the one-hundred and twenty “rightly” chose him, any more than He would have been prevented from using him if they had “wrongly” selected him. I believe the account of the selection of Matthias is a key to the message of the entire work, the message that God was sovereignly at work, through His Spirit, to accomplish His will in ways in which men would never have conceived and which they would not believe even if they were told. In this way, God receives the glory, and not men. Is this not precisely what Paul concluded in Romans 11, after spending three chapters explaining the relationship of the Jews and the Gentiles to the gospel:
For just as you once were disobedient to God but now have been shown mercy because of their disobedience, so these also now have been disobedient, in order that because of the mercy shown to you they also may now be shown mercy. For God has shut up all in disobedience that He might show mercy to all. Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways! FOR WHO HAS KNOWN THE MIND OF THE LORD, OR WHO BECAME HIS COUNSELOR? OR WHO HAS FIRST GIVEN TO HIM THAT IT MIGHT BE PAID BACK TO HIM AGAIN? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen (Romans 11:30).
I believe Luke cites the incident of the selection of Matthias at the beginning of Acts because it is so typical of the way God will work throughout the book, and indeed, throughout the history of the church. Men may rightly or wrongly make decisions and take action, and God, in His sovereignty, is free either to use or to set aside their actions. God often sets aside the plans and purposes of men because they seldom, if ever, come up to the wisdom of God. That is precisely what Paul has concluded above. And it is what Acts will dramatically demonstrate for us as well. The Book of Acts is not the account of men so transformed that the growth of the church was inevitable. The Book of Acts is the account of the working of a sovereign God through His Spirit, by means of men, and in spite of them, to accomplish that of which men would never have conceived and in ways they would never have imagined. Acts is the account of the workings of a sovereign God, working through fallible men and women. This selection of Matthias is but the first of many of man’s plans (good or bad) which God will set aside for a better plan—His plan.
If I were forced to make a choice as to whether the apostles were guided by God to select Matthias as the twelfth apostle, I would have to answer in the negative. If I were asked whether the apostles thought they we are doing the will of God and were acting on the highest human plane, I would say, “Yes.” But that really is not the issue. It surely is not something on which Luke wants to pronounce, since he has simply reported what happened, without a word of commendation or condemnation.
To be perfectly honest, I believe many of the decisions we make and actions we take are of this same kind—they are based on our best understanding of the Scriptures and the situation, based on the best decision-making process we know, and done as though this were the will of God for us. Often times it will not be until much later that we will either see the hand of God at work in the matter, or we will not see it. While we do not always know, at the moment, whether God is in what we are doing, the really important thing is whether or not we are in what God is doing. When the purpose of God is evident, when God’s Word gives us a clear command, and when God’s Spirit has led the way, are we involved in what God is doing? The Book of Acts has much more to say about men getting in step with God’s plan than about God getting in step with ours. That is because He is God, and we are men; He is sovereign, and we are finite and dependent.
What we are talking about here is not unique to the apostles in their day and time. It is a phenomenon which is typical in our own time. Have you ever come to the conclusion, after much thought, counsel, and prayer, that God’s will for you was a particular line of work, or a particular mate, or a particular place, only to discover in time that such was not the case at all? Do you agonize over such decisions, or simply acknowledge that God’s will and ways are beyond our comprehension, and that we must, at times, continue to wait on Him to reveal His will clearly to us?
What we experience on a personal level, we also see happening on a corporate level. As a church we believe it is necessary for us to have certain organizational structures in place and certain programs in operation. We, as elders, may pray and talk and plan. We can, for example, organize outreach programs which seek to spread the gospel to the lost in our neighborhood. While we are responsible, I believe, to do such things in obedience to the clear commands of Scripture, we must always be alert to the working of God in ways beyond our ability to predict, plan, or execute. And when we see that God has been opening new doors, we need to be quick to move in these new directions, perhaps even setting aside our plans and programs. It does not matter that we have been well motivated or that our actions are based on biblical principles. God is not obligated to use such plans and programs, though He may. But God may wish to use methods and means which will not only be more effective but which will give all the glory to Him. We cannot, therefore, take pride in our plans, our program, our obedience. This, as I understand it, is what the sovereignty of God means in practical terms.
Let us look at another illustration of what our text, in the context of Acts, may mean for us. I believe our nation desperately needs revival. I also believe that the sovereignty of God means that only God can bring revival, in His time, in His way, and using His divinely ordained means. We can and surely should pray for revival, but let us never think that if we but pray hard enough God will produce a revival for us. He will bring revival in His own good time and in His own good way. We should pray for revival because, I believe, this is biblical, but not because we suppose that our prayers will produce the results we desire. Prayer should leave the matter in God’s hands and not presume He has put the matter entirely in ours. This does not mean we should be inactive, not doing anything at all. It does mean that when we actively seek a revival we wait for God’s good timing, and we look for God to work in ways that we would not have predicted. We don’t presume God will bring revival just as we have planned it or prayed for it. Prayer is the acknowledgment of our dependence on God. God is not waiting for us to be faithful or obedient enough. If He did, nothing would ever happen.
When it was time for God to bring revival to Nineveh, it was not because any Jews were faithfully praying for such an event. It was not because Jonah, a prophet of God, was eager for it to happen. It was not because Jonah was so obedient or because his preaching was so sincerely motivated. It was because God had purposed to save the Ninevites, by His grace. And because it was God’s purpose to save Nineveh, God did so, in spite of the spiritual condition of Israel and in spite of Jonah’s resistance and rebellion. This was a revival, and it was one that was the result of the plans and purposes of a sovereign God who is able to accomplish His plans, in His time, in His way, with or without our cooperation.
Quite frankly, little of the progress of the gospel among the Gentiles, as described in the Book of Acts, was the result of willing obedience on the part of men. The saints in Jerusalem were forced out of this city by persecution. It was not that they meditated on the Great Commission of our Lord and concluded that it was time for them to venture out to proclaim the gospel to Gentiles in far away places. It was that things became so unbearable in Jerusalem they had to flee for their very lives. Peter was jolted from his Jewish ceremonial cleanness, which practically forbade contact with Gentiles, to go the house of Cornelius, a Gentile (Acts 10). The Jerusalem church called Peter on the carpet for doing so in chapter 11, and even when they acknowledged God’s purpose to save the Gentiles in this same chapter, they did not see practically preaching the gospel to the Gentiles. The evangelization of Gentiles did not come through the apostles (save Peter and a few brave souls who were the exception), but through others, like Stephen, like those bold men of Cyprus (chapters 8 and 11), and like Paul. It was not the church at Jerusalem that was the launching pad for foreign missions, but the church at Antioch. Here is the sovereignty of God in the salvation of Gentiles.
In the Book of Acts, then, we should expect the theme of the sovereignty of God to be a very prominent one. I believe we shall see this in two areas in particular. First, we shall see the sovereignty of God in the spreading of the gospel to the Gentiles and not just to the Jews alone. Second, we shall see the sovereignty of God in the salvation of Paul and in God’s use of him as a chosen vessel (in contrast, perhaps, to Matthias) to carry the gospel to the Gentiles.
May God grant that our study of this great Book of Acts would prove to be a life-changing one, and that each of us may, in the power of His Spirit, be His instruments for the carrying out of the Great Commission in our day.
If you, my friend, have never heard this gospel which the apostles were to carry to all men, it is the same gospel which I bring to you today:
“For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, …” (1 Corinthians 15:3).
“And He ordered us to preach to the people, and solemnly to testify that this is the One who has been appointed by God as Judge of the living and the dead. Of Him all the prophets bear witness that through His name every one who believes in Him has received forgivenss of sins” (Acts 10:43).
May you believe in Him today for the forgiveness of your sins and eternal life.
1 It is a little difficult to be exact here. Pentecost occurred fifty days after the first Sabbath after Passover. It would seem that this would have been fifty days after the resurrection of our Lord, which was on Sunday, the first day of the week.
2 The disciples asked Jesus about His “restoring the kingdom to Israel.” Jesus had, for forty days now, been speaking of the kingdom. Obviously, He had not dealt with timing. That was the disciples’ preoccupation. But it was also their preoccupation with Israel; it was a Jewish preoccupation. What a surprise they were in for. And no wonder Jesus reiterated the Great Commission in response. While they had thoughts of Israel’s restoration (where their glory was vested), Jesus purposed to save the world and thus the need to proclaim the good news to all nations. How little they grasped it. How slowly, in Acts, they actively pursued it (not until chapter 13), and then by a front-runner like Paul, who was persecuted for doing so (cf. Jerusalem church’s reticence throughout--Acts 11, Acts 21:17ff.). Peter had to be virtually “booted out” to evangelize Gentiles, and he would eventually backslide (cf. Galatians 2:11ff.).
3 Below are the texts affirming Paul’s apostleship in the New Testament:
Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes (1 Corinthians 1:1).
1 Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not the result of my work in the Lord? 2 Even though I may not be an apostle to others, surely I am to you! For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 This is my defense to those who sit in judgment on me. 4 Don’t we have the right to food and drink? 5 Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas? (1 Corinthians 9:1-5).
And in the church God has appointed first of all apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, also those having gifts of healing, those able to help others, those with gifts of administration, and those speaking in different kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Corinthians 12:28-29).
Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 9 For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. 10 But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them--yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me (1 Corinthians 15:7-10).
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother, To the church of God in Corinth, together with all the saints throughout Achaia (2 Corinthians 1:1).
The things that mark an apostle--signs, wonders and miracles--were done among you with great perseverance (2 Corinthians 12:12).
Paul, an apostle--sent not from men nor by man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead (Galatians 1:1)
Nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. 18 Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. 19 I saw none of the other apostles--only James, the Lord’s brother. 20 I assure you before God that what I am writing you is no lie. 21 Later I went to Syria and Cilicia. 22 I was personally unknown to the churches of Judea that are in Christ. 23 They only heard the report: “The man who formerly persecuted us is now preaching the faith he once tried to destroy.” 24 And they praised God because of me. 2:1 Fourteen years later I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. 8 For God, who was at work in the ministry of Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in my ministry as an apostle to the Gentiles (Galatians 1:17--2:1, 8).
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 1:1).
It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers (Ephesians 4:11).
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother (Colossians 1:1).
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the command of God our Savior and of Christ Jesus our hope (1 Timothy 1:1).
And for this purpose I was appointed a herald and an apostle--I am telling the truth, I am not lying--and a teacher of the true faith to the Gentiles (1 Timothy 2:7).
Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, according to the promise of life that is in Christ Jesus, . . . 11 And of this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher (2 Timothy 1:1,11).