How do you know that Christianity is true? How do you know that it isn’t just subjectively “true” for you, but not true for everybody? These are important questions that we need to answer, first for ourselves, and then for others to whom we may witness.
As we have seen, the foundation for the Christian faith is a historical event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless” (1 Cor. 15:17). But our evidence for the resurrection hinges on the credibility of the witnesses. How do we know that they weren’t deluded or deceived? How do we know that their witness was not tainted by selfish motives? How do we know that the men who testified about Jesus’ resurrection were credible witnesses? That is the question that Luke deals with as the Book of Acts unfolds. He begins by assuring his first reader, Theophilus, that Jesus presented Himself alive to these men by many convincing proofs (1:3). Now he wants to show that these men were godly men of integrity, whose witness we can trust.
When you study the Bible, a good question to ask is, Why did the author include this material at this point? What is his line of reasoning? What is his purpose? Luke here wants his readers to see that Christianity is founded on the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, which is a major theme of the apostolic witness throughout the whole book (2:32; 3:15, 26; 4:10; 5:30; etc.). And, he wants us to know that the men who proclaimed this resurrection were trustworthy men. They were not religious hucksters, making a good living by peddling their wares. In fact, they suffered greatly because they proclaimed this message. Luke wants us to know that …
Christianity is credible because it is based on the witness of the apostles, who were godly men of integrity.
With that purpose in mind, let me deal at the outset with a somewhat common view that I think is in error, namely, that the apostles were mistaken to replace Judas with Matthias. Those who propound this view argue that Peter was being his old, impulsive self, acting without waiting on the Lord. If he had just waited until the Holy Spirit had been given, God would have made it clear that Judas should be replaced by the apostle Paul. We never hear anymore of Matthias, which proves that he was not God’s choice. Also, the way he was chosen, casting lots, was not from the Lord. Therefore, Peter was wrong.
The major flaw with that view is that it goes against Luke’s main purpose for this passage, which is to establish the credibility of the apostolic witnesses. He isn’t arguing that they were perfect men. He would never say that Peter was the infallible first Pope of the church. But even so, to say that Peter was mistaken on this crucial matter of appointing a replacement for Judas would be to go against the flow of what Luke is trying to establish here.
Also, if Peter were mistaken, surely there would be some hint of it in the context; but there is none. Rather, he takes this action after waiting on the Lord in prayer (1:14). He bases his action on Scripture (1:16, 20). He does not promote his favorite candidate, but rather submits the whole process through prayer to the Lord’s sovereign choice (1:24). (I’ll deal with the casting of lots later.) The fact that Matthias is never heard from again is irrelevant, because we never hear of most of the other apostles again, either. While Paul was clearly an apostle, appointed by God, he did not meet the criteria set forth here, since he was not with Jesus from the beginning of His ministry. If Peter had been wrong on such a major decision, surely there would be some correction from the Lord afterwards, but there is none. I think we must conclude that Peter acted in line with the will of God.
Our text reveals five qualities that these twelve men possessed to make them credible witnesses:
The apostles had spent three years living with Jesus. They saw Him when He was tired and hungry. They saw Him arrested, mistreated, and finally crucified. Surely they knew and affirmed that He was fully human. And yet they affirmed that He was also fully God. Peter here calls Him, “the Lord Jesus.” “Lord” means God. It is likely, in light of the reference to the Lord Jesus in verse 21, that when they pray to the Lord in verse 24, they are praying to Jesus as God. Thomas, the doubter, had exclaimed to the risen Jesus, “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28). If, as the Jehovah’s Witnesses claim, he was swearing, surely Jesus would have sternly rebuked him. Instead, Jesus affirmed his testimony by saying, “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and yet believed” (John 20:29).
Although we don’t have much historical information on most of the apostles, we know enough to say that they were all men who were dramatically changed by their encounter with Jesus Christ. Peter himself, when he witnessed the first miraculous catch of fish, fell before Jesus and proclaimed, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). Matthew had been a wealthy tax collector, living a comfortable life. But he gave it all up and turned from his greedy, crooked ways, to follow Jesus as Lord. Simon the Zealot was a part of a radical political movement that killed tax collectors for sport. But here he is, joining with Matthew as a part of this apostolic band. While we don’t know for sure what became of most of these men, early tradition tells us that most of them gave their lives to proclaim the message that Jesus Christ is Lord, risen from the dead.
Not only the apostles, but also Jesus’ mother, Mary, and His brothers are a part of this group. This is the last reference to Mary in the Bible. There is no biblical evidence that Mary was perpetually a virgin. That view arose from the unbiblical idea that celibacy is morally superior to having marital relations. She and Joseph had other children after Jesus was miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit. Neither is there any biblical evidence that we are to pray to Mary or that she is elevated above any other believer. There is no biblical support whatever for the blasphemous teaching that Mary is co-redemptrix with Christ. It is implicit by her being present here that she believed in Jesus as her Savior and Lord.
Jesus’ brothers had not been believers just a few months before (John 7:5). At one point, they had even thought that He had lost His sanity (Mark 3:21). But Jesus had appeared at least to His half-brother, James, after the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7), leading to his conversion. His other brothers (Mark 6:3) may also have seen the risen Lord Jesus, or James may have borne witness to them. But their presence here indicates that they now believed in Jesus’ deity and in the truth of His resurrection.
The point is, each of those gathered in this upper room, was there because he or she had experienced a dramatic change in their hearts and lives because of their personal encounter with Jesus Christ. Although many of them had been thrown into doubt and confusion by His crucifixion, they now fully believed that He was raised from the dead. With Thomas, they believed that He is Lord and God.
That is the starting point of the Christian faith. Have you come to know Jesus Christ personally? Has He changed your heart from being self-seeking to being subject to Him? Christianity is not just a matter of accepting a set of doctrines or of following a moral code, although it involves both. It is primarily a matter of coming to know God through Jesus Christ, of receiving forgiveness of sins and eternal life through believing in His death and resurrection for your sins (John 17:3; 3:16).
Why were they gathered in this upper room in Jerusalem? Because Jesus told them to stay there and wait for the promise of the Holy Spirit (1:4). That was not an easy thing to do. Jerusalem was not a friendly place for believers in Jesus just then. It would be easier to find a quiet retreat out in the countryside. Besides, they all had living expenses to think about. Why not spend the time earning some money by going back to their fishing business or doing some other kind of work? Or, if they were thinking about the Great Commission, they might have thought, “We need to get going on the task of preaching the gospel.” But Jesus told them to wait, and so they waited.
Waiting on the Lord is one of the hardest things to learn in the Christian life. Why doesn’t God hurry up? Life is short enough as it is! But so often the Lord says, “Wait!” We need to learn to obey Him. The apostles’ obedience shows us that they were not self-willed men, trying to build their own empires. We can trust their witness.
What did they do while they waited? They devoted themselves to prayer (1:14). What were they praying for? We are not told. They may have been praising God for the times that they had experienced with Jesus after His resurrection. They may have been praying for wisdom in carrying out the Great Commission that Jesus had given them. And, they may have been praying for the gift of the Holy Spirit that Jesus had promised.
You may ask, “Why would they pray for something that Jesus had promised? If He promised it, isn’t it going to happen?” But Scripture is clear that we should pray for the things that God has promised. We see this in the Lord’s prayer. Is it a certainty that God’s kingdom will one day be established on earth? There is no question about it! Yet Jesus instructs us to pray, “Your kingdom come, Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matt. 6:10; see also Dan. 9:2-3).
Thus God’s promises should motivate us to pray and to persist in prayer until they are a reality, because we know that He will fulfill His Word. Like the apostles here, we should join with others in prayer, making sure that we are not at odds with one another, but rather that we are of one mind (1:14), “striving together for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27). Prayer shows our dependence on the Lord and our submission to Him. Because the apostles were men of obedience and prayer, we can trust their witness about Jesus’ resurrection.
Peter had not only been attending prayer meetings. He also had been spending time in God’s Word. His sermon on the Day of Pentecost is loaded with Scripture that he recites from memory (2:17-21, 25-28, 34-35). Here, he quotes from Psalms 69 and 109 to cite reasons why Judas had defected and why his position should be filled by someone else. He affirms that David did not write the Psalms by his own genius, but rather through the Holy Spirit (1:16). During His 40-day ministry to the apostles after the resurrection, Jesus had taught them from all of the Old Testament concerning Himself (Luke 24:44-45). Thus during these ten days after His ascension and before Pentecost, the disciples were poring over Scripture, seeking to understand in more depth the things that Jesus had been explaining.
Judas’ defection and suicide had been difficult for the disciples to understand. How could a man chosen by Christ for such a high privilege turn against Him? Had Jesus made a mistake in choosing Judas? Why would God let such a terrible thing happen? Peter and the other apostles found help with these difficult questions by going to God’s Word. “The Scripture had to be fulfilled” (1:16). “Had” is the word that Luke uses often to refer to divine necessity. God’s purpose will be accomplished. God is sovereign, even over evil events, such as the betrayal and crucifixion of Jesus, and yet He is not responsible for sin. Judas was fully responsible for the wicked deeds that he committed, even though they were a necessary fulfillment of David’s prophecies.
Luke inserts a parenthesis in verses 18-19 to explain Judas’ tragic end to his readers who were not familiar with the story. Judas did not himself buy the field with his betrayal money. Rather, he threw it down at the feet of the Jewish leaders in remorse for what he had done. They used it to buy the Potter’s Field as a burial place for strangers. Meanwhile, Judas went out and hanged himself (Matt. 27:5-7), perhaps at that very field. It became known as the Field of Blood, due both to Judas’ death and to its subsequent use as a burial ground. So Judas exchanged his privileged position as one of the twelve apostles for a piece of ground that he never got to use, except as perhaps a place to kill himself!
Why does Matthew report that Judas hanged himself, whereas Peter here states that he fell headlong and all of his bowels gushed out? Probably, both were true. He hung himself over the edge of a cliff, but either the rope or the limb broke. He may have already been dead and bloated. The impact of his fall caused his intestines to gush out. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience that viewed suicide as a sinful, terrible way to end life. Thus to show the awful end of Judas’ life, all he had to say was that he hanged himself. Luke was writing to a Gentile audience where suicide was not necessarily viewed as bad. To make the point that Judas’ end was reprehensible, Luke had to bring out more of the gory details (Richard Longenecker, Expositor’s Bible Commentary [Zondervan], 9:264). But both reports were factually true.
Peter appealed to Psalm 109:8 as the justification for why Judas’ office must be filled by another. Jesus had told the twelve that they would sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel (Matt. 19:28). In Revelation 21:10, 12, & 14, the New Jerusalem has twelve gates with the names of the twelve tribes of Israel and twelve foundation stones with the twelve names of the apostles written on them. If the apostles were to be credible witnesses to Israel, it was important for this symbolism to be preserved. Thus a replacement had to be found for Judas.
The point is that the apostles were men of the Word who were appealing to the Word to explain the difficulty of Judas’ defection and death, and of the need to replace him with another credible witness. They teach us that we should go to God’s Word with all of the difficulties that we encounter.
Thus we can believe the testimony of the apostles because they were men whose lives had been changed through a personal encounter with Jesus Christ. They were men of obedience and prayer, and men of God’s Word.
As I said in earlier studies, the apostles were not religious geniuses who invented Christianity. They were not profound philosophers. They were not even, primarily, theologians. They were witnesses. Good witnesses don’t invent stories; they truthfully tell exactly what they have seen and heard. Thus Peter, in setting forth the qualifications for a replacement for Judas, states that the man must have been with Jesus from the beginning of His ministry and he must be a witness of His resurrection (1:21-22).
It is important to affirm that the Christian faith is founded primarily on a historical event that has many credible eyewitnesses, namely, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. I am not minimizing the importance of the core doctrines about Christ and the cross. Rather, I am affirming what Scripture affirms, that the foundation of our faith is a verifiable historical event (1 Cor. 15:1-19). If it is true, everything else follows. If it is false, then nothing else follows.
Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture, Acts 1-12 [Baker], pp. 34-35) points out that you cannot prove that a thing has happened by showing how desirable it is that it should happen, how reasonable it is to expect that it should happen, or what good results would follow from believing that it has happened. All of this is irrelevant. The only relevant question is, Did it happen? Is it true because credible eyewitnesses assert it? Is it commended to us by ordinary standards of evidence that we accept with regard to all other matters of fact? He goes on to argue (p. 36) that the testimony for Christ’s resurrection is enough to guarantee any other event. If so, why isn’t it enough to guarantee this also?
It was to this historic, life-changing event, the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, that the apostles spent the rest of their lives proclaiming that it was true. Each of us must consider their witness and either accept or reject it. There is a final reason we should accept their testimony as credible:
Many men have abused positions of authority, even in church history. The popes have a terrible track record of using spiritual office for selfish gain. Sadly, even many Protestant churches operate on a political basis, with various factions vying for control. But it is clear here and throughout the record of Acts that the apostles did not view their privileged position as a base for power or prestige. They viewed it as a ministry (1:25). The word means, being a servant. When it came to replacing Judas, they did not pick the most politically correct man for the office. They didn’t maneuver behind the scenes, lining up votes for their favorite candidate. Even though they were quite diverse in background and personality, which could have led to a power struggle here, the eleven all submitted themselves to God’s sovereign will.
First, they listed the spiritual qualifications. The man had to have followed Jesus from the earliest days of His earthly ministry, and he had to be a witness of the risen Savior. Two men were qualified. One of these, outwardly, seemed to be better qualified. He was nicknamed “Justus,” a Latin name meaning “just” or “righteous.” His Jewish name, “Barsabbas,” probably meant that he was born on the Sabbath. But they didn’t pick him based on outward qualifications. They prayed, “Lord, You know the hearts of all men. Show us which one of these two You have chosen.” Then they determined the Lord’s choice by casting lots. This involved putting each man’s name on separate stones of similar size. The one that fell out of the pot first was the choice.
This was an acceptable means of determining God’s will in the Old Testament (Lev. 16:8ff.; Num. 26:55ff.; Josh. 7:14; 1 Sam. 10:20; 14:41ff. Prov. 16:33; 18:18). But this is the last instance of it in the Bible, indicating that since the Holy Spirit has been given, it is no longer a valid means of determining God’s will. Some Christians have used this method, but I would not recommend it. I would point out that if you do use it, you can’t go for two out of three if you don’t like the first result! You have to submit to God’s will as revealed the first time! That’s what the apostles did here. They weren’t voting for their favorite candidate. They were submissive to God’s will. They let Jesus, who chose the original twelve (1:2), choose Judas’ replacement.
In a jury trial, the attorneys try to discredit their adversary’s witnesses. If they can convince the jury that their opponent’s witnesses are questionable, they can win their case.
God wants us to know that our Christian faith is credible. It is not based on religious speculations, but on the historical resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. That event proves that He is God, and everything else follows from it. We know that the resurrection is true because these twelve godly witnesses, the apostles, affirmed that it was true. They did not profit from their witness, either materially or by gaining power. Rather, they were servants who laid down their lives for the sake of the truth that they had personally experienced, that Jesus Christ was risen from the dead.
You must decide: Will you, like Judas, ignore the evidence and follow your selfish desires that lead to destruction? Or, will you accept the apostolic witness as true and follow Jesus as your Savior and Lord?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation