Acts 1:12-26—A Short Commentary—Part 2

Posted: August 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

This post will only deal with the first half or so of the text to be examined.


1:12—Verse 12 immediately introduces us to those who Jesus had been spending His time with.  Acts chapter 1 verse 2 tells us that Jesus presented Himself to the “apostles.”  The language used from verse 3 until verse 12 continually refers back to the individuals in verse 2 as “them” (1:3, 4, 7), “they” (1:6, 9, 10), and “you” (1:4, 5, 7, 8, 11).  The opening “they” in verse 12 is to be understood as the apostles.  Were the women, brothers, and other disciples that are mentioned later also present?—that is a question that allows us only to speculate.  We are, however, certain that the apostles, minus Judas, return from the “mount called Olivet.”

The “mount called Olivet” is also known as the Mount of Olives.  It is located about one mile east of Jerusalem and is the site of the famous Olivet Discourse (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21).  According to Dr. Polhill, this setting may have connection with Zechariah 14:4, which states that the “Messiah will descend from heaven at Olivet”[i]

The reading of Acts 1:12 suggests that the ascension has taken place at the Mount of Olives.  This would certainly fit with Luke’s description of the length of their journey as being a “Sabbath day’s” walk.  Dr. Stanley Horton has written that the rabbis had used the term “sabbatou hodos” (Acts 1:12) as “the limit in distance a Jew could go from his or her home on the Sabbath”[ii].  Dr. Longnecker states that, according to the Mishnah, “travel on the Sabbath was limited to two thousand cubits, which would be somewhere around eleven hundred meters”[iii].  This would be somewhere between one-half and three-fourths of a mile.  To travel further than this distance on the Sabbath would be considered work and one would be breaking the Sabbath.

This distance of one-half to three-fourths of a mile would be consistent with the location of the ascension being at the Mount of Olives, because the Mount is approximately that distance from the city of Jerusalem.  However, a problem arises when we read Luke in his Gospel.  Luke 24:50 tells us that the ascension takes place at Bethany.  “Then He [Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them” (Luke 24:50).  John 11:18 says that Bethany is “about two miles” from Jerusalem.  If this is the case then Luke has contradicted himself in his later writing.  Has Luke created a problem?  Not really.

Dr. Polhill quotes D.J. Williams who says the Greek of Luke 24:50 “should be taken quite literally—on the road to Bethany”[iv].  This road would have led travelers from Jerusalem, through the Mount of Olives, to Bethany.  Jesus takes the apostles as far as this road but not all the way to Bethany.  Therefore, Luke 24:50 and Acts 1:12 do not stand in tension.  Luke simply states the scene in two different ways in two different writings.   The apostles travel approximately three-fourths of a mile from the Mount of Olives to Jerusalem to wait on the promised Spirit.

1:13-14—The apostles do not go back to Jerusalem and sit idly!  Instead, they gather in the “upper room” and begin to seek the Lord in prayer.  This room may have been a well-known room since it is referred to as “the upper room.”  Simon Kistemaker states that this was the room in which they were “accustomed to meet”[v].  He also states that Luke has a “different word for the Passover room” (Luke 22:12) and one cannot know for certain that this is the same room[vi].  Since Acts 2:5-13 notes that the coming of the Spirit creates a commotion around the temple complex we could suggest that this room is near the temple itself.  More information than that is only speculation.

In this upper room we find the apostles gathered with “the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and His brothers.”  Together, this group is “devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14).  Some questions can be and have been raised as to who are the occupants of this room.  To whom do the terms “the women” and “the brothers” refer?  Both questions help us understand the scene.

John Calvin takes verse 14 to read “with their wives” instead of “the women.”  His reasons seem to be pragmatic more than exegetical.  He says, “I grant that the word which Luke useth may be interpreted both ways.  But this is my reason, why I do think that he speaketh rather of wives, because, seeing that they used afterward to carry their wives about with them, as Paul doth testify (1 Corinthians 9:5), it is not likely that they were then asunder”[vii].  Calvin makes a good, but inconclusive, point.  One familiar with the Gospel of Luke would know that Luke has listed on numerous occasions women who accompanied Jesus during His earthly ministry (Luke 8:2; 23:55; 24:10).  This does not exclude the wives from being present.  As Dr. John MacArthur has noted, “Some of the Apostles wives may have been present”[viii].  We are certain that those gathered in the upper room after the ascension of Jesus were both the apostles, Mary the mother of Jesus, and some other women.

It is interesting to see that the “brothers” of Jesus are present as well. We know from Mark 6:3 that Jesus had several brothers, including James, Joseph, Judas, and Simon. Not long before this point in history the brothers of Christ had considered Him to be out of His mind and possibly demon-possessed.  Those who thought Christ a fool are now fools for Christ.

Going as far back as the early church theologian Jerome, some have said natural children of Mary are not in view.  If Mary had children, the doctrine of perpetual virginity is turned on its head.  Dr. Polhill says “there is no reason” to see these words as referring to anything other than the “natural offspring of Mary and Joseph”[ix].  Richard Longnecker says that tois adelphois autou “is most naturally taken as referring to uterine brothers”[x].  Albert Barnes notes that “at first they had been unbelieving about the claims of Jesus (John 7:5), but it seems that they had been subsequently converted”[xi].

Therefore, we see the apostles traveling back to Jerusalem from Mount Olivet after the ascension of Christ.  They gather in the upper room and are joined by others.  This group, those who are believers in Jesus, are waiting.  However, their waiting is not idleness or inactivity.  They are active.  They were “devoting themselves to prayer” (1:14) as they waited.  In verses 15-20 we see them searching the Scriptures and in verses 21-26 they are carrying out the Father’s business.  This is an active form of waiting.  This is a group of individuals that have encountered the risen Christ, have been changed by Christ, and are now preparing to proclaim the gospel of Christ.

1:15-17—Not only do we see the apostles, the women, and the brothers of Christ gathered, but we see a crowd of “brothers.”  Approximately 120 followers of Christ had gathered in this upper room.  Paul tells us that Jesus appeared to more than 500 people after his resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15:6.  The sight of the risen Christ would no doubt bring many to faith.  Thus 120 “brothers,” a term that denotes believers within the New Testament, is not farfetched.

It would have not been uncommon during the festival times, when the population of Jerusalem would swell considerably, for upper rooms to be rented out and used as meeting halls for large groups.  This early group of believes have gathered to wait as their Lord had told them to do.  While they are waiting, they are spending their time wisely.  We have seen them praying and now we see them listening to the Word.

The phrase “in those days” would refer to the ten days between the ascension and Pentecost.  Pentecost means fiftieth in the Greek and is a reference to the Old Testament Festival of Weeks or Firstfruits[xii].  It is significant then that the Spirit would descend upon the believers fifty days after the resurrection of Christ.  We know from Acts 1:3 that Jesus spent forty days with the apostles, presenting “Himself alive after His suffering by many proofs.”  When the day of Pentecost arrives in chapter two it is the fiftieth day.  That leaves ten days between the ascension and Pentecost in which the apostle were waiting in Jerusalem.

Peter, then, “stood up” and began to expound the Scriptures.  This first meeting of the church is one that has thus far involved prayer and preaching.  There is business to be taken care of while they wait.  Peter sees what Judas had done and his subsequent fate as prophetically declared by “the mouth of David.”  We will deal with whether or not David had Judas in mind specifically in later verses.  Here it is important to note that Peter sees God fulfilling His plan and His Word coming to fruition. 

Judas, although a traitor, was a true apostle.  He was “numbered among” the others and “was allotted a share in this ministry.”  The phrase here means that Judas literally shared a “lot” in the apostleship.  Judas “shared the lot of this ministry.”  The word here for lot is used again in 1:26 and “came to have derivative meaning of the office or rank”[xiii] that one had obtained.  As Albert Barnes notes, this “does not mean that he was a true Christian, but that he was reckoned among the apostles”[xiv].  Judas, holding the position of one of the twelve that would sit in judgment of the twelve tribes of Israel (Luke 22:28-30), has abandoned a position that must be filled.  The business that Peter undertakes is to restore the apostles to the complete and perfect number of twelve.

1:18-19—The business meeting continues as Peter recounts what has happened to the traitor Judas.  Judas was “numbered among” the apostles (1:17) but is now departed.  There is no chance that he has simply backslidden for a time and he will one day return.  If that were the case there could be objection that the apostles are being hasty and unforgiving in replacing him so soon.  Peter is one who knows that a sinful man is one who can be restored.  He himself had only weeks before denied the Lord Jesus not once but three times.  Peter makes it clear that this is not a similar issue.  Judas is dead and therefore a slot is left vacant.

In stating the situation as he does, Peter raises a couple of questions: who bought the field and how Judas died.  Here we are told that Judas bought the field and in Matthew 27:7 we are told the religious leaders bought the field.  Which is it?  In Matthew 27:5 we are told that Judas “hanged” himself after an apparent time of remorse for his actions.  Judas returns the thirty pieces of silver that he was paid to betray Jesus and then commits suicide.  Does the Matthean account of the death of Judas contradict what Luke as said in Acts 1:18?  Dr. Simon Kistemaker sees the two accounts as “supplementary and not contradictory”[xv]

The first issue is who bought the field.  The Acts account seems to state clearly that Judas purchases the field.  This issue is not as difficult as would first appear.  When we look at the account in Matthew we see that the religious leaders cannot accept the money and use it for their own purposes.  It is unlawful for them to put this “blood money” in the treasury.  Therefore, Matthew tells us that they buy the field.  Luke records for us that it was Judas who “bought” the field with “the reward for his wickedness.”  These can both be true.  John MacArthur says, “Because the field was bought with the money the Jewish leaders paid to Judas to betray Jesus, which he returned to them (Matthew 27:3-10), Luke refers to Judas as if he was the buyer (cf. Zechariah 11:12, 13)”[xvi].

The second issue deals with the death of Judas.  Luke simply tells us that Judas fell and “burst open.”  The phrase “falling headlong” does not necessarily contradict what Matthew says in Matthew 27.  Augustine wrote that both accounts were probably true.  Longnecker points out that Luke is writing to a different audience than Matthew.  When Matthew writes to the Jews it is sufficient to say that Judas hanged himself as the Jewish people would have then understood the horrible end that Judas met.  Suicide “was heinous for Jews”[xvii].  For Matthew to get the point across that Judas met a horrific fate would require no more.  Luke, on the other hand, is writing to Gentiles.  For the Gentile, suicide did not carry the same connotations.  Luke, then, takes the liberty to explain details that the Matthean account omits.

Any number of plausible options can be stated to show the passages are simply complementary.  The rope could have broken on the initial jump, causing Judas to fall, hit a sharp object, and burst open.  Judas could have hanged himself and remained suspended for a few days.  The body could have swollen (as some translations render “falling headlong”) and then fallen to the ground.  The examples can go on.  The point that Peter makes is that Judas is dead and gone.  A replacement to sit as the twelfth apostle is needed. 

[i] John B. Polhill, Acts, The New American Commentary (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1992), 88.

[ii] Stanley M. Horton, “A Sabbath Day’s Journey” Enrichment Journal (2009), [journal on-line], accessed 27 October 2009; available from; Internet.

[iii] Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1981), 260.

[iv] John B. Polhill, Acts, 88.

 [v] Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1990), 58.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] John Calvin, Commentary Upon the Acts of the Apostles, Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XVIII (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 56.

[viii] John MacArthur, Acts, The MacArthur Bible Commentary (Nashville, TN: Tommy Nelson Publishers, 2005), 1433.

[ix] John B. Polhill, Acts, 89.

[x] Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, 261.

[xi] Albert Barnes, Acts,   Barnes’ Notes (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2005), 10.

[xii] John B. Polhill, Acts, 97.

[xiii] Ibid., 92.

[xiv] Albert Barnes, Acts,11. 

[xv] Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts, 62.

 [xvi] John MacArthur, Acts, 1433.

 [xvii] Richard N. Longenecker, Acts, 262.



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