Jesus Ascends to Heaven, 1-11

1:1 I wrote the former account, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach 1:2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after he had given orders by the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.

The former account is, of course Luke’s Gospel.  We may regard Lk 24:46 as summarising the message of the Gospel, and Lk 24:47 as summarising that of Acts.

Schnabel comments that

‘the opening line of Acts is the only place where Luke directly addresses his readers. In contrast to other ancient texts, we have no further explicit “authorial guideposts” either in transitional passages or at the end of the volume. In the “we passages” Luke presents himself as an active participant in the missionary work of the church which he describes (cf. Acts 16:10), but he does not proceed to explain the meaning of the events which he records. This does not mean that Luke necessarily believed that what he writes is self-explanatory. Given the important role of teachers and of teaching in the church in Jerusalem (Acts 2:42; cf. Acts 4:2; 5:21) and in other churches (Acts 18:11; 20:20; cf. Acts 21:21, 28; 28:31), Luke probably assumed that as his two volume work was read in the churches, there would be teachers who were capable of providing explanations.’

Theophilus – The name means ‘dear to God’. Who was Theophilus? One suggestion is that the name designates the “Christian reader” in general, rather than any individual. But the honorific title “most excellent” (Lk 1:3) makes this unlikely. It is probable that he was an intelligent, middle-class Roman citizen whom Luke wished to win over from the negative opinion of Christianity which prevailed in Rome.

Ac 1:1-11 recapitulates (with greater detail) the events recorded in Lk 24:36-53.

All that Jesus began to do and to teach – The implication is that in Acts Luke writes about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach (through his Spirit and through his apostles).

Polhill agrees that this expression ‘may imply that the work is unfinished. The work and words of Jesus continue throughout Acts in the ministry of the apostles and other faithful Christian witnesses. It still goes on in the work of the church today.’

The cavil of the Sceptic’s Annotated Bible that Luke’s claim to record ‘all that Jesus began to do and to teach’ is contradicted by John’s statement that his own record was incomplete (Jn 21:25) is scarcely worthy of a reply.  Suffice it to say that the allegation relies on an extraordinarly wooden interpretation of Luke’s words.  In reality, he is claiming no more than to have been thorough in his record of Jesus’ ministry.  It is as if one person might say to another, ‘Now tell me all about it.’

The continuing works and words of Jesus

Although Jesus appears ‘on stage’ only for the first few verses, Acts truly records what he continued ‘to do and teach’.  For it is Christ:-

  • who appoints the twelve witnesses, Acts 1:24
  • who sends his Holy Spirit to his church, Acts 2:47
  • who turns his people away from their iniquities, Acts 3:26
  • who works miracles in testimony to his apostles’ preaching, Acts 3:6,10,30,9:34,13:11,14:3,19:13
  • who reveals himself, standing at the right hand of God, to Stephen, Acts 7:55f
  • who speaks through his angel to Philip, Acts 8:26
  • who appears to Saul, Acts 19:5,27,22:8,26
  • who establishes the first church among the Gentiles, Acts 11:27
  • who delivers Peter through his angel, Acts 12:7,11,17
  • who strikes Herod, Acts 12:23
  • who appears to Paul in the temple, and calls him to minister to the Gentiles, Acts 22:17,21
  • to whom the infant churches are commended, Acts 14:23
  • whose Spirit prevents the missionaries from preaching in Bithynia, Acts 16:7
  • who calls them by the man from Macedonia in Europe, Acts 16:10
  • who open the heart of Lydia, Acts 16:14
  • who encourages Paul at Corinth, Acts 18:9f
  • informs Paul of his journey to Rome, Acts 23:11

(Baumgarten, in The Biblical Illustrator, adapted)

Stott comments, ‘Luke’s first two verses are, therefore, extremely significant. it is no exaggeration to say that they set Christianity apart from all other religions. These regard their founder as having completed his ministry during his lifetime; Luke says that Jesus only began his. True, he finished the work of atonement, yet that end was also a beginning. For after his resurrection, ascension and gift of the Spirit he continued his work, first and foremost through the unique foundation ministry of his chosen apostles and subsequently through the post-apostolic church of every period and place. This, then, is the kind of Jesus Christ we believe in: he is both the historical Jesus who lived and the contemporary Jesus who lives. The Jesus of history began his ministry on earth; the Christ of glory has been active through his Spirit ever since, according to his promise to be with his people ‘always, to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20)

Milne remarks that we would be wrong to think that the Gospels are ‘about Jesus’, whereas Acts is ‘about the church’.  No – both are ‘about Jesus’: ‘his ministry on earth, personally and publicly exercised (the Gospel), and his subsequent ministry from heaven, exercised on earth through the Holy Spirit (Acts).’  Unlike that of human teachers, the ministry of Jesus continues after his death, ‘to the end of the age’ (Mt 28:20).

Milne adds that, in contrast to the great ones of this world, ‘no ageing effigies commemorate the life and ministry of Jesus. No visit to His tomb with its crumbling remains is incumbent upon those who would honour His earthly conquests. No sobbing ranks of mourners commemorate His final passing. Jesus lives! His ministry continues, all around the globe, fresh and vibrant in each new day; and will do so until the day of His glorious appearing, when every knee will bow and every tongue confess Him Lord of all.’

‘This continuity between the Gospel and the Acts means that our understanding of Jesus cannot be confined to the thirty-plus years of His earthly life and ministry; it needs also to encompass this continuing ministry of the Risen Lord across the ages of history, and not least in our own day, when as never before in human history He is seen, known and passionately followed in every corner of the earth. It also needs to embrace, by implication, the entire mission of the church until the parousia. Putting the same point more technically, Christology needs to include ecclesiology.’ (Milne)

Until the day he was taken up to heaven – ‘to heaven’ not in the original, but implied (cf. v11).

Interesting that Luke divides his two-volume work not at the point of Christ’s resurrection, but at the point of his ascension.

Instructions – especially the Great Commission, Mt 28:19; Mk 16:15-19.  A church instructed and empowered for mission was a high priority for our Lord.

The apostles he had chosen – The Twelve.  See Lk 6:12–16.  He had chosen them for a missionary purpose: they were ‘a group of people whom Jesus had called in order to be trained for the task of catching people (Luke 5:10; cf. 6:13; see in Mark 1:17 the reference to “fish for people”.’ (Schnabel)

By the Holy Spirit – it is uncertain whether these words should be attached ‘he had given orders’ or ‘the apostles he had chosen’.  Williams supports the former as the more natural reading, meaning that in his teaching ‘Jesus was invested with divine power and authority.’  Marshall argues for the latter, which would then be ‘an affirmation of the unique and significant status of the apostles’.

1:3 To the same apostles also, after his suffering, he presented himself alive with many convincing proofs. He was seen by them over a forty-day period and spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God.

After his suffering – Luke uses here a word that, ‘more than most, reminds us of the cost at which our salvation was won (cf. Acts 17:3; 26:23).’ (Williams)

Schnabel comments that

‘While it is true that Luke, in his account of the apostolic preaching, is surprisingly silent about the atoning significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, it is significant that the first sentence after the prologue refers the reader back to the gospel and to Jesus’ assertion during his last meal with the Twelve before he was crucified that he gives up his life for them (ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν) and that his violent death in which he sheds his blood for them ὑπὲρ ὑμῶν establishes the promised new covenant (ἡ καινὴ διαθήκη; Luke 22:19, 20).’
Jesus suffered in his body

Milne reminds us that we can be so busy theologising about the cross of Christ that we forget its personal physical cost.  ‘”He suffered under Pontius Pilate.…” This and similar phrases were of great importance in the church’s struggle with Gnosticism and docetism, early heterodox views which denied the full humanity of Christ.’  Milne adds: ‘For many believers, Christ is in many respects a kind of ‘superman’ who hovers somewhere between earth and heaven and in the process never really identifies with our human struggles, temptations and sufferings. But ‘we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who was tempted in every way just as we are’ (Heb. 4:15).’

Many convincing proofs – examples of which had been given in Lk 24.  See also Mt 28, Mk 16, Jn 20–21, and 1 Cor 15:5–7.

‘He offered ‘convincing proofs’ (Acts 1:3), inviting the disciples to touch his ‘flesh and bones’ (Luke 24:39), eating supper with them and cooking breakfast for them (Luke 24:41–43; John 21:9). At one point he ‘appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time’ (1 Corinthians 15:6), though some, perhaps on the fringe of the crowd, were not convinced (Matthew 28:17).’  (Pawson, David. Where is Jesus Now?)

As Flavel says, ‘we have testimonies of it both from heaven and earth.’ From heaven, the testimony of angels, Jn 20:14. From earth, the testimony of honest eyewitnesses.

At the very beginning of his Gospel, Luke also confirmed his apologetic purpose (Lk 1:1-4).

Wright insists: ‘The historian, of whatever persuasion, has no option but to affirm both the empty tomb and the ‘meetings’ with Jesus as ‘historical events’…they took place as real events; they were significant events; they are, in the normal sense required by historians, provable events; historians can and should write about them. We cannot account for early Christianity without them.’

He appeared to them over a period of forty days – ‘Truly the care and love of Christ to his people was very manifest in this his stay with them. He had ineffable glory prepared for him in heaven, and awaiting his coming, but he will not go to possess it, until he had settled all things for the good of his church here. For in this time he confirmed the truth of his resurrection, gave charge to the apostles concerning the discipline and order of his house or kingdom: which was but needful, since he intended that their Acts should be rules to future churches. So long it was necessary he should stay. And when he had set all things in order, he would stay no longer, “lest he should seem to affect a terrene life.” And besides, he had work of great concernment to do for us in the other world. He desired to be no longer here, than he had work to do for God and souls. A good pattern for the saints.’ (Flavel, The Fountain of Life)

This verse affirms two great reasons for the delay of 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension: (a) to offer ‘many convincing proofs’ that Jesus had indeed been raised from the dead; (b) to teach his disciples many things about the kingdom of God (things, presumably, that they would have not been able to accept or understand before his resurrection).

He…spoke to them about the kingdom of God – Just as this had been a central theme of Jesus’ teaching, so it would be of theirs (Acts 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).  The expression signifies ‘God acting in his kingly power, exercising sovereignty and, in particular, asserting his rule for the overthrow of Satan and the restoration of humanity to a relationship with himself’ (Williams)

‘The only things we know that Jesus said during the forty days between his resurrection and his ascension are those reported in Mt 28; Mk 16; Lk 24; Jn 20-21 and Acts 1. There were seven major items.

  1. he confirmed that he really had raised from death.
  2. he explained how he fulfilled the OT Scriptures, “the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms.”
  3. he gave the great commission to preach the gospel to the whole world.
  4. he promised that power would be sent from the Father.
  5. he reinstated Peter so he would feed Jesus’ sheep.
  6. he predicted the manner of Peter’s death.
  7. he uttered various ordinary greetings in general conversation.

What do these seven things teach us about the kingdom? From its beginning the church has accepted (3) as central to her mission. Her mouth was full of (1) and (2). At his ascension Jesus said (4) would be “in a few days.” (Ac 1:5) The special empowering events of Pentecost, recorded in Acts 2, were just ten days after his ascension. Peter certainly aligned his energies with the new Christian community in preaching the gospel and building up the church, (5) and (6). Ordinary greetings, (7), have nothing distinctive about the kingdom.’ (College Press Commentary on Heb 1:2.  Reformatted)

‘Many convincing proofs’

They needed to be convincing, because the starting points had been panicked flight (Mt 26:56) and cowardly denial (Lk 22:54-62).

Apart from two significant exceptions – Saul (Acts 9), and James (1 Cor 15:7, cp. Jn 7:3-5) – the risen Jesus seems only to have appeared to believers.  Does this suggest that the accounts are fictional?  Not really.  ‘A possible explanation for Jesus’ habit of appearing to believers rather than unbelievers is that he intended that from the very start the resurrection message be spread by appointed spokespersons, those in whom he had already invested for several years….Had Jesus gone on a parade to show himself to the mass of unbelievers, all sorts of superstition and misinformation would have spread, perhaps eclipsing the truth.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

Gospel truth and the postmodern mind

Fernando suggests that verses 2 and 3 challenge today’s postmodern culture in several ways:-

  1. If the ‘orders’ he had given were primarily in the form of his great commission, then these confront religious pluralism.  The mission of Christ entails a particularity, a belief in the uniqueness of the gospel, and an appeal to ultimate truth, that postmodernism finds intolerable.
  2. If the resurrection of Jesus lies at the heart of the Christian message, then an appeal to this as objective fact will be unpalatable to the postmodern mind, with its flight to relativism and experientialism.
  3. If the proclamation of the Christian gospel involves teaching about ‘the kingdom of God’, then it means submitting to the rule of a sovereign and transcendent God.  But the postmodern mind is not looking for such a God: it is looking, not for any god ‘out there’, but rather for a god ‘within’.  But this is no less than self-worship, which is the commonest form of idolatry.

In such ways, the gospel clashes with our postmodern culture.  The challenge to Christians today is to find relevant and effective ways of presenting the message of Christ while remaining faithful to biblical truth.

1:4 While he was with them, he declared, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised, which you heard about from me. 1:5 For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

While he was with them – (NIV – ‘eating with them’ – lit. ‘took salt together’ – an idiom for table fellowship). This demonstrates both the physicality of Jesus appearances to his disciples (according to many Jewish traditions, angels did not eat human food) and also its intimacy.

How typical of Jesus to meet with his friends, and instruct them, over a meal!  So also at the feeding of the 5,000 (Lk 9:16); his association with tax collectors and sinners (Mk 2:15–16; Lk 5:29–30); his meal at the Pharisee’s house (Lk 7:37); at the Passover/Communion Supper (Mt 26:21, 26); and after the resurrection (Lk 24:42; Jn 21:9–15). (New Testament Background Commentary)

The following words of Jesus are not found verbatim in any of the four Gospels, but recall, eg., Lk 24:48f; Jn 20:22.  What we may have here is a summary of the teaching he gave on several occasions.

“Do not leave Jerusalem” – ‘The location was surely primarily in anticipation of the Pentecost feast with its cross-cultural, multi-linguistic spread of the nations. They are to remain in the place where the world can be given a foretaste of the glory of the multi-national, multi-cultural, multi-linguistic, multi-generational community of the reign of God (cf. Luke 13:29; Dan. 7:14; Rev. 7:14).’ (Milne)

“Wait for the gift my Father promised” – See Isa 32:15; Joel 2:28–32; Acts 2:33, 39; Gal 3:14; Eph 1:13.  Cf. the teaching of Jesus in Mt 10:20; Jn 14:16f., 25; 15:26; 16:7f., 13–15).

We do not need to wait

‘There is no need for us to wait, as the one hundred and twenty had to wait, for the Spirit to come. For the Spirit did come on the day of Pentecost, and has never left his church. Our responsibility is to humble ourselves before his sovereign authority, to determine not to quench him, but to allow him his freedom. For then our churches will again manifest those marks of the Spirit’s presence, which many young people are specially looking for, namely biblical teaching, loving fellowship, living worship, and an ongoing, outgoing evangelism.’ (Stott)

“Baptized with the Holy Spirit” – cf. Mt 3:11.

“In a few days” – ‘The proofs of Jesus’ resurrection lasted for a period of forty days while he appeared to his disciples. Since Pentecost (2:1) occurred fifty days from the Sabbath of Passover week, we infer that the waiting period of 1:5 was ten days.’ (ECB)

Milne draws from Jesus’ words here the following truths about the Holy Spirit:-

  1. “Wait…not many days from now” – We are totally dependent on his presence, his power, his enablement.
  2. “The gift” (NIV) – He is a gift, not a reward.
  3. “What my Father promised, which you heard about from me” – The gift of the Holy Spirit was promised through the prophets of old (Joel 2:28f; Isa. 32:15; Ezek. 36:27f; Jer. 31:31ff), and also by Jesus himself (Luke 11:13; John 14:15–18; 14:26–27; 15:26; 16:5–15; 20:22).
  4. “You will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” – He is an effusive gift.  The image of baptism ‘cannot but have conveyed to the disciples an image of an overwhelming experience of the Spirit’s enablement.’
The danger of Spiritless Christian work

‘Acts 1 implies that ministry should not be done without the minister’s experiencing the Spirit. Often Christian workers with serious spiritual problems refuse advice to stop their work and spend some time alone with God, trying to get their spiritual life back together. Usually the reason given is that their work will crumble if they take such a break. But even more serious than that is to have people doing God’s work in the flesh, for then the most noble work is being done in an ignoble way and God’s name is being dishonored.'(Fernando)

1:6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

They began to ask him – ‘they were asking him,’ or, ‘they kept on asking him.’

“Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

Wright points out that nothing that had happened during the last few weeks had conformed to their expectations.  Moreover, throughout their time with Jesus ‘they had seen [him] rather like King David in the Old Testament, who for several years was a kind of king-in-waiting, standing in the wings with a ragtag group of followers wondering when their turn would come. Jesus’ motley band of followers had imagined that he would be king in some quite ordinary sense, which was why some of them had asked if they could have the top jobs in his government. Jesus, with his extraordinary healing power and visionary teaching, would rule in Jerusalem, and would restore God’s people Israel.’  That restoration would mean Israel becoming top nation, and the other nations being judged for their wickedness (even though there was a hope, too, that israel’s blessing would extend to the whole creation).  Not surprising, then, that this question reflects this expectation, and asks, “Are we nearly there yet?”

‘This question was the most natural one for the disciples to ask Jesus. He had been talking about the kingdom (Acts 1:3), and the references to the outpouring of the Spirit in the Old Testament were all in the context of Israel’s restoration.’ (Isa 32:15; 44:3; Eze 36:25-28; 37:14; 39:29; Joe 2:28-3:1) (IVP NT Background Commentary)

A misguided question?
Acts 1:6 So when they had gathered together, they began to ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”

For many commentators, the disciples’ question was misguided.  It amounted to an expectation of a political kingdom of Israel with Jesus as King.  This would be equivalent to the request of the mother of James and John in Mt 20:21.

‘Such questions became them not. Theirs was to be work, not rest; suffering, not triumph. The great promise before them was of spiritual, not outward, power of the Holy Ghost-and their call not yet to reign with him, but to bear witness for him.’ (Edersheim)

And yet, ‘as Calvin commented, “there are as many errors in this question as words.” The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb “restore” shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun “Israel” that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause “at this time” that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (vv7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.’ (Stott)  So also F.F. Bruce.

‘Clearly they were wedded still to the popular notion of the kingdom of God as something political—that its coming would see the gathering of the tribes, the restoration of Israel’s independence, and the triumph of Israel over its enemies. In this respect they had not progressed very far from their earlier hope of occupying the seats of power in such a kingdom (Mark 10:35ff.; Luke 22:24ff.).’ (Williams)

Others, however (such as Peterson and Kistemaker), think that the question is not so misguided.  It is to be noted that Jesus does not deny their expectation of the ‘restoration’, dealing rather with (a) their question about ‘when’ (“are you at this time going to…”); and (b) the extent of the kingdom (their reference to Israel was too restrictive; the gospel is to be preached in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the world, v8).  Kistemaker is of a similar opinion.

Polhill agrees that Jesus did not ‘reject the concept of the “restoration of Israel.” Instead, he “depoliticized it” with the call to a worldwide mission. The disciples were to be the true, “restored” Israel, fulfilling its mission to be a “light for the Gentiles” so that God’s salvation might reach “to the ends of the earth” (Isa 49:6).’

‘He endorsed [the disciples’ question], but interpreted it in terms of the gift of the Spirit and the fulfillment of prophecies about the restoration of Israel as a servant community, called to be God’s ‘witnesses’ to the nations (Isa 43:10, 12 and 44:8). The end-time restoration would begin with the pouring out of the promised Spirit and the bringing of God’s salvation, first to Israel and then ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Isa 49:6; cf. Isa 42:6–7). It would be consummated when Jesus returned (cf. Acts 1:11; 3:20–21). Through the witness of Jesus’ apostles, ‘the kingdom’ would be restored to Israel, but not in nationalistic or political terms, nor immediately in the full and final sense outlined in biblical prophecy (cf. Acts 3:19–26).’ (Peterson)

Wright cautions against our reacting to this question is if Jesus said, “No, I am not going to establish any earthly kingdom.  I’m off to heaven, and that’s where my kingdom is.  But I’m not going to give you a timetable of events.”  Rather, Jesus commissions his disciples to be his witnesses, his heralds, pronouncing that he is King not just in heaven but on earth, not just in the future but now.  In other words, Wright is insisting on the ‘already/not yet’ dimensions of the gospel: ‘already’, Christ has been exalted, but ‘not yet’ have all things been brought under his rule.

Milne urges that we give the disciples and their question some credit, for they had realised:-

  • that God’s purposes have reached a climactic stage;
  • that Jesus has power to revolutionize events;
  • that God’s kingdom is about to enter a glorious new phrase;
  • that Jesus as the Risen One is Lord of all; and
  • that in bringing the kingdom God will also fulfil his promise to Israel;

This latter would not be ‘in the nationalistic and political terms of the disciples’ question, but in the deeper, profounder sense of a future universal reign of the one true Israelite, Jesus Messiah (John 15:1), a kingdom in which a believing remnant of Israel would find an honoured place (Rom. 11:1–12; Rev. 21:12) within a worshipping community which would embrace all the world’s nations (Isa. 56:7; Mark 11:17). God’s old covenant promise will inevitably be fulfilled in His new covenant reign.’ (Bulleting added)

According to Christian Zionists such Derek White (Christian Friends of Israel), ‘Jesus by no means denies that sovereignty will in the future be restored to Israel (indeed He implies that it will be so restored)…It is clear that the disciples had in mind the future restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, as an integral part of their Messianic hope. Had they been mistaken in this expectation, it is unthinkable that Jesus would not have corrected them by some clear explanation of God’s change of purposes consequent upon the birth of the church.’.

But this is to ignore Jesus’ words about the nature and extent of the kingdom, as indicated in v8 etc.  ‘He tells them to be witnesses for Jesus in Israel, but not only in Israel. They are to be witnesses through the whole world. This is not about establishing a worldwide Jewish theocracy. It is about a spiritual kingdom.’ (Clarke Morledge, who does not, however, think that this necessarily rules out the Zionist position).

1:7 He told them, “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.  1:8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth.”

“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set” – Mt 24:36.  ‘This key God carries under his own girdle.’ (Trapp)

‘If I were introduced into a room where a large number of parcels were stored up, and I was told that there was something good for me, I should begin to look for that which had my name upon it, and when I came upon a parcel and I saw in pretty big letters, “It is not for you,” I should leave it alone. Here, then, is a casket of knowledge marked, “It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.” Cease to meddle with matters which are concealed, and be satisfied to know the things which are clearly revealed.’ (Spurgeon)

So, Jesus discourages speculation regarding the future.  Instead, he draws attention to their present duty (cf. Jn 21:21f).  They are neither to stare into the future, nor into the sky (v11) but be his witnesses.

As Milne says, Christian should proclaim the certainty of Christ’s return in glory from the roof-tops, while resisting all temptation to obsess about dates and times.

Bruce remarks that ‘the question in v. 6 appears to have been the last flicker of the apostles’ former burning expectation of an immanent political theocracy with themselves as its chief executives. From this time forth they devoted themselves to the proclamation and service of God’s spiritual kingdom, which people enter by repentance and faith and in which the chief honour belongs to those who most faithfully follow the King himself in the path of obedience and suffering.’

Although the time of Israel’s restoration was unknown, the responsibility of Christ’s disciples to engage in world-wide testimony was clear. This itself would be in fulfilment of prophecy, Isa 42:1,4,6; 43:10-12; 44:3,8.

This verse may be regarded as a summary of the Book of Acts. Summary statements throughout the book emphasise the spread of the gospel, Acts 6:7; 9:31; 12:24; 16:5; 19:20; 28:31.

“Authority…power” – Wright remarks on the subtle difference between these two words, in context.  It is God, and no human being, who has ultimate ‘authority’.  But he gives ‘power’ to his people, so that they can be effective witnesses.

“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come on you” – this is not physical, intellectual, or political power. It is spiritual power, a divine enabling for the work of spreading the gospel. This power is seen in the great transformation that occurred in the disciples and in the wonderful effectiveness of their work, as recorded in Acts.  The ‘coming on them’ of the Holy Spirit has already been referred to in the powerful and immersive terms of baptism (v5).  Jesus had already spoken about the Spirit’s ‘unique enablement’ (Milne), Jn 14:26; see also Jn 20:22.

For another version of this commission, see Acts 10:42.

Polhill says that the two ‘you wills’ (‘you will receive power’, and ‘you will be my witnesses’) have an ‘imperatival’ sense: ‘an imperatival sense: “you will [must] receive power”; “you will be my witnesses.”  This is, in effect, a restatement of the commission recorded in Lk 24:47-49).

This power will be seen in the supernatural ability to work miracles and preach effectively (Ac 4:7-10,31,33; 6:5,8; 8:13).

Fernando expands:

‘The Spirit is the one who regenerates and sanctifies us so that we experience the risen Christ to whom we witness (vv. 4–5; cf. John 3:5–8). He fills individuals with special anointings to face special challenges in witness (Acts 4:8, 31; 6:10; 7:55; 13:9). He gives boldness in witness (Acts 4:9–13, 31; 13:9–11) and encourages his people in a way that helps them to grow in numbers (Acts 9:31). Just as the Spirit enabled the first Christians to speak in other tongues (Acts 2:4), he is the one who gives the words to speak in witness, in keeping with the promise of Christ (Mark 13:11). He directs people to special witnessing situations (Acts 10:19) and forbids them to go to some places they want to go (Acts 16:6–7). He calls people to their special mission (Acts 13:2) and sends them on their way (Acts 13:4). Finally, he directs the church to important doctrines relating to the mission of the church (Acts 15:28). The Christian mission and ministry, then, can only be done in the power of the Spirit.’

‘Through the Holy Spirit the disciples will receive power to communicate. This power will make the witnesses clear and convincing and the listeners open and receptive, thus producing converts and genuine disciples.’ (Mt 28:19) (ECB)

Fernando notes the combined stress on fact (‘many convincing proofs’) and experience (‘you will receive power’).  This combination is important (perhaps especially important) in times of spiritual awakening.  It was seen in the times of King Josiah, when the Book of the Law was discovered and a significant revival followed (2 Kings 22-23).  We must ask if some sections of the church today neglect the experiential aspects at the expense of the doctrinal, and vice versa.

Last words

“I love you!”
“Don’t forget to write!”
“I’ll always remember you!”

The last words spoken by someone before they leave us often ring in our ears long afterwards.

As Kent Hughes remarks: ‘These were Jesus’ final earthly words. It has been 2,000 years, and Jesus has not during that time planted his feet on terra firma and audibly addressed his followers. Perhaps that silence is intended to prevent anything from obscuring Jesus’ last words, so they will continue to reverberate in the Church’s ears.’

No other plan

An old legend imagines Jesus arriving in heaven right after the Ascension, welcomed by all the angels. Then the angel Gabriel asks Jesus, “You suffered much, dying for the sins of mankind. Does everyone down on earth know it?”

“Oh, no,” replied the Savior, “just a handful of folks in Jerusalem and Galilee know about it.”

“Well, Master,” continued Gabriel, “what is your plan for everyone to know of your great love?”

The Master replies, “I asked all my apostles to carry the message into all the world. I told them to tell others, who will in turn tell others until the last person in the farthest corner has heard the story.”

Gabriel’s face clouds, for he spots a flaw in the plan. “What if after awhile Peter forgets, and goes back to his fishing on Galilee, also James and John and Andrew? Suppose Matthew returns to his tax booth in Capernaum, and all the others lose their zeal and just don’t tell others. What then?”

After a pause comes the calm voice of the Lord Jesus, “Gabriel, I have no other plan.”

(From Leslie B. Flynn, The Twelve, pp. 22f.)

The Holy Spirit essential

Fernando quotes ‘a story that Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones told about an old Welsh preacher who was preaching at a convention in a small town. The people were already assembled, but the preacher had not come. So the leaders sent a maid back to the house to fetch him. She came back and reported that he was talking to somebody and she did not want to disturb him. They said, “That is strange because everybody is here. Go back and tell him that it is after time and he must come.” She went again and returned with the same report: “He is talking to somebody.” The leaders asked, “How do you know that?” She answered, “I heard him say to this other person who is with him, ‘I will not go and preach to these people, if you will not come with me.’ ” The wise leaders replied, “Oh, it is all right. We had better wait.”’

“You will be my witnesses” – i.e., ‘witnesses to me.’  The word occurs some 39 times in Acts.  Milne remarks that this is incumbent first on the apostles (Acts 1:8; 2:23; 3:15; 4:33; 10:39), but then, as the apostles begin to die (Acts 12:20) and the gospel spreads far and wide, on their successors.  Indeed, the responsibility for witness-bearing passes to the whole church in every generation.  Note that in Acts 8:1-3, at a time of great persecution of the church in Jerusalem ‘all except the apostles were scattered throughout Judea Samaria.’

The primary role of the witness is not to ‘give a testimony’ about their own experience, but rather to point to Christ, whose achievement lies behind our very experience.  As we so witness, the Holy Spirit will witness with us, Acts 5:32 (cf. Mk 13:11).

Polhill expands:

‘The role of the apostles is that of “witness” (martys). In Acts the apostles’ main role is depicted as witnessing to the earthly ministry of Jesus, above all to his resurrection (cf. Acts 1:22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41). As eyewitnesses only they were in the position to be guarantors of the resurrection. But with its root meaning of testimony, “witness” comes to have an almost legal sense of bearing one’s testimony to Christ. In this way it is applied to Stephen (Acts 22:20) and to Paul (Acts 22:15; 23:11; 26:16). The background to this concept is probably the servant psalms of Isaiah, where God called on his servant to be a witness (Isa 43:10; 44:8). L. Keck notes the close connection between the Spirit’s power and the witness to Jesus, observing that what was true of those first apostolic witnesses is still true of witnesses today: “The less Jesus is the core of witness, the less power we have.”’

“In Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” – Various authors suggest that we can regard this as ‘a table of contents’ for the remainder of Acts: Jerusalem is the focus in Acts 1-7; Judea and Samaria in Acts 8:1-11:18, and ‘the ends of the earth’ – as far as Rome – from Acts 11:19 onwards.

‘The story of Jesus led to Jerusalem; the story of the church led from Jerusalem.’ (Polhill)

“The ends of the earth” – This phrase might have signified Rome (this was certainly the immediate goal so far as Acts was concerned).  But Marshall thinks that

‘it is much more probable that it has a wider sense; the end of Acts does not mark the completion of the task proposed here, but simply the completion of the first phase.’
Some ancient texts used this expression to refer to Ethiopia (cf. Acts 8:27). Ultimately, however, all peoples are meant (Ps 67:1,7; Isa 45:22; 49:6; 52:10; so Acts 13:47).  But there is something more that simple geographical extension in view here: Isa 49:6 may well have been in Jesus’ mind when he spoke these words, and the parallelism in that passage suggests that ‘the ends of the earth’ connotes Gentile territory.  See also Acts 26:23; 28:28; Lk 2:32.

Polihill comments:

‘The “ends of the earth” are often taken as referring to Rome, since the story of Acts ends in that city. The phrase is often found in the prophets, however, as an expression for distant lands; and such is the meaning in Isa 49:6, which may well lie behind Acts 1:8. In fact, the final verse in Acts (Acts 28:31), with Paul preaching “without hindrance” in Rome, suggests that the story has not reached its final destination—the witness continues.’

Wright points out that as this journey ‘to the ends of the earth’ unfolds there will be too much going on to be preoccupied with questions of ‘when’!

Cf. v6.  The disciples ask in terms of the kingdom being ‘restored’ to Israel.  Jesus replies in terms of the worldwide reach of his kingdom.  Williams comments that they would scarcely, at the time, have heard his words as referring to the Gentiles, but, at the most, to the Jewish diaspora:

‘The thought of including the Gentiles would never have crossed their minds and was accepted later only with great difficulty. The Jewish nationalism of the early church died hard. But by the time Luke was writing that was largely a thing of the past, and the phrase the ends of the earth had taken on a wider meaning. It now embraced the Roman Empire, epitomized by Rome itself, and on that basis Luke adopted the program of this verse as a framework for his narrative.’

We have no right to neglect those closest to us (Jerusalem) or those furthest away (the ends of the earth).

‘Put yourself in the shoes of the apostles. How would you feel if you were the first to be given the task described in verse 8? We are indeed given the task of being Jesus’ witnesses throughout the world. The purpose of this question is to ‘feel’ the awesomeness of the task as first presented to the apostles…and for that awesomeness to penetrate us as we continue in the task.’

Milne laments that this missional focus of the church has often been muted down the centuries:

‘It was not until the end of the eighteenth century under the influence of visionary leaders like William Carey, that Christian mission, both in terms of its primary importance as well as its form and content, can be said to have begun to recover its proper biblical proportions.’

‘Today the unfinished task remains a formidable challenge. But it is possible to complete the task-to take the witness to the ends of the earth and plant a church in each unreached ethnic group. For the 1989 Lausanne II Congress on World Evangelization in Manila, David Barrett calculated that there remain twelve thousand distinct cultural groups (1.8 billion persons) that have no church in their language and culture (Lausanne Committee 1989:13-14).’ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘How are we equipped for this task, according to the passage?’

In our own day we have many advantages in achieving this goal. We have worldwide mobility, excellent education and training facilities, electronic and mass media. So what is holding us back in accomplishing our mission?

‘The series of Holy Spirit baptisms in the book of Acts does not teach the norm of a particular post-conversion experience. Rather Luke seems to follow his introductory outline of 1:8 in tracing how the gift of the Holy Spirit and the gospel is given first to believing Israel and then to all the nations through the witness bearing work of the Apostles.5 God pours out his Spirit in Acts 2 which came to the Jews living in Jerusalem, (Ac 2:5) to the Samaritans, (in Acts 8:4-17) and to the Gentiles (represented by Cornelius household, Acts 10).’ (Ken Ewart, U.Turn,

‘This commission obviously had a special reference to the apostles, who would uniquely authenticate the gospel data—the life, the death, the resurrection, and the ascension of Jesus. In this sense they would be the foundation and pillars of the church (cf. Matt. 16:18; Gal. 2:9). But the church to be built upon that foundation would itself become “the pillar and foundation of the truth” (1 Tim. 3:15). Herein lies the secondary reference of Jesus’ words. Not all are apostles, but all are commissioned to witness to the truth that they established.’ (Williams)

The church’s mission

‘If you are looking for a picture of the early church giving itself to creation care, plans for societal renewal, and strategies to serve the community in Jesus’s name, you won’t find them in Acts. But if you are looking for preaching, teaching, and the centrality of the Word, this is your book.’

Kevin DeYoung, Greg Gilbert. What Is the Mission of the Church? (p. 49). Crossway. Kindle Edition.


‘What a shock these geographical designations must have been to the disciples. Jerusalem? The Lord was crucified there. Judea? They had been rejected there. Samaria? Minster to those half-breeds? The ends of the earth? Gentiles too? The words were not only spiritually revolutionary, but socially and ethnically unheard of.’ (Kent Hughes)

Simple, but demanding

Kent Hughes reminds us that ‘to be a witness for Christ is to bring a message that is a marvel of simplicity: Jesus Christ is God come in the flesh; he died to pay for our sins; he was resurrected; now he is exalted in Heaven; he calls us to believe in him and so receive forgiveness of sins.’

But, says Hughes, witnessing is also demanding, because it involves not only the logos (the message), but also ethos (our life).  Hughes cites the words of Stanley about David Livingstone, ‘If I had been with him any longer, I would have been compelled to be a Christian, and he never spoke to me about it at all.’

It also involves pathos (passion).  David Hume, the Scottish philosopher and sceptic, was making his way one day to hear the great evangelist George Whitefield.  An acquaintance remarked: “I thought you did not believe in the gospel.” Hume replied, “I do not, but he does.”

Highes concludes: ‘The message is simple, but the demand on the messengers is serious. For effective witness, there must the Word, the inner reality, the passion.’

Confrontation is unavoidable

To be Christ’s ‘witnesses’ in every part of the world entails confronting the religions and ideologies of the world.  This is unpopular, in the present climate of pluralism and relativism.  Those who have imbibed the spirit of postmodernism may not object to us declaring that we have ‘truth’, but they will very probably balk at any claim to possessing unique truth.  The question then will be: Do we bend to the spirit of the age, or submit to Christ our Lord?  For faithful witnesses, the matter is clinched by v3a, and the objective and unique fact of the resurrection (cf. Act 17:31).

Messengers in the making

Christ chose the apostles, v2.  ‘All the apostles…were neither self-appointed, nor appointed by any human being, committee, synod, or church, but were directly and personally chosen and appointed by Jesus Christ himself. (Stott)  Christians, too, have been chosen, Eph 1:4,11.

Christ revealed himself to the apostles, v3.  He gave them ‘many convincing proofs that he was alive’, and appeared to the ‘over a period of forty days’.  ‘Such an objective experience of the risen Lord was an indispensable qualification of an apostle, which explains why Paul could be one (1 Cor 9:1; 15:8ff) and James (1 Cor 15:7) and why there have been no comparable apostles since and can be none today.’ (Stott)  On how Jesus Christ does reveal himself to people today, see 1 Pet 1:8.

Christ commissioned them, v2,8.  See also Lk 24:47f.  An apostle was ‘an envoy, delegate or ambassador, sent out with a message and carrying the authority of the sender’ (Stott).  As for Christians generally, the Great Commission, first issued to the disciples, holds good, until ‘the end of the age’, Mt 28:18-20.  See also 1 Pet 2:9; 3:15.

Christ promised them the Holy Spirit, v4.  This had been promised by the Father, Joel 2:28ff; Isa 32:15; Ezek 36:27, and by Jesus himself, Lk 24:49; Jn 14:26.  This same Holy Spirit is given to us.  In fact, his work in us indispensable, Rom 8:9, sovereign, 1 Cor 12:11, indiscriminate, 1 Cor 12:13, and personal, Gal 4:6.

Thus was the Christian church launched, and thus she completes her voyage.  The story of Acts is complete, in the sense that Christ’s work of redemption is complete, and the canon of Scripture complete.  But there are more chapters to be written, in the sense that Christ continues his work by his Spirit, through his people, until the close of the age.

Jesus the model for mission

‘He talked of the significance of this mission (Matt. 24:14); he presented the need and the challenge to the people (9:36–38); he responded to objections to it (John 4:35–38); he gave himself as the model to follow (20:21); he showed them where it should be done (Matt. 28:19; Mark 16:15; Acts 1:8) and how it should be done (Matt. 10:5–42; 28:19–20; Luke 24:46–48; Acts 1:8). Note how there was creativity, variety, motivation, and instruction in the way he presented this commission.’ (Fernando)

Doctrine and experience

Fernando remarks that there is in this passage a dual emphasis on the objective and the subjective; on doctrine and experience, on ‘many infallible proofs’ and ‘you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.  Fernando laments that too many churches lurch towards one extreme or the other.  They either slide into dead orthodoxy, or becomes lost in unrestrained emotionalism.

He concludes: ‘From Acts 1, then, we can infer that the ideal Christian teaching is done by Spirit-empowered individuals whose teaching is grounded on the objective facts of the gospel and should result in evangelism.’

Word and Spirit

“You will receive power…you will be my witnesses”.  It was the Holy Spirit who enabled them to witness to Christ, and to speak about him with boldness.  Notice the repeated connection:

‘[They] were filled with the Holy Spirit…[Then Peter stood up…raised his voice and addressed the crowd…”Men of Israel, listen to this: Jesus…”‘ (Acts 2:4,14,22).

‘Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…”It is by the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, whom you crucified but whom God raised from the dead, that this man stands before you healed’ (Acts 4:8)

‘After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly’ (Acts 4:31).

1:9 After he had said this, while they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Here in vv9-11 we have the fullest account of Jesus’ ascension.  It is possibly the only account, since Mk 16:19 and Lk 24:51 may not be part of the original text.  We should not on this account doubt its historical value, even though there are some aspects that probably defy accurate human description.  The ascension is, of course, presupposed in passages such as Acts 2:33f.; 3:21; John 6:62; Eph. 4:8–10; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 4:14; 9:24; Rev. 5:6, and is directly referred to by Peter (1 Pet 3:21f ) and Paul (1 Tim 3:16).

We should not miss the decisiveness of the ascension.  It is not that Jesus, having appeared and disappeared over a period of about 6 weeks, simply failed to turn up any more.  No: the ascension provides a visible reference point marking his exaltation.

‘According to C. K. Barrett, Acts 1:9-11 may be based on tradition, but it is the tradition spawned by the theological conviction, expressed in terms of Ps 110:1, that Jesus after his death now reigns at God’s right hand in heaven (Barrett, 62).’ However, ‘This approach’s historical reconstruction reveals more about the constraints of its antisupernaturalist presuppositions than it does about what occurred.’ (DLNT)

While they were watching – Note the emphasis on eyewitness testimony, both here and in the next verse.  While what follows may defy literal description, ‘Luke is certain that something objective took place’ (Williams).

‘There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose.  It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for ‘going to the Father’ did not involve a journey in space and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions.  The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final.  He had now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory.  So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p63)

‘Thus was Christ’s ascension visibly performed in the presence and sight of the apostles, for the confirmation of the reality and the certainty thereof. They did not see Him when He rose, but they saw Him when He ascended; because an eyewitness was not necessary unto the act of His resurrection, but it was necessary unto the act of His ascension. It was sufficient that Christ showed Himself to the apostles alive after His passion; … But since the apostles were not to see our Saviour in heaven; since the session was not to be visible to them on earth; therefore it was necessary they should be eyewitnesses of the act, who were not with the same eyes to behold the effect.’ (John Pearson, Exposition of the Creed)

He was lifted up – ‘Because the Jews thought of heaven as “above” and earth as “below,” the movement of Jesus from the visible to the invisible world is expressed in terms of his going “up.” The idiom may not seem appropriate to us, but it was to them and is found elsewhere in the New Testament, coupled with the thought of Jesus’ exaltation (cf., e.g., Eph. 1:20; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 1:3; 2:9).’ (Williams)

Why ‘up’?

‘What happened at the Ascension, then, was not that Jesus became a spaceman, but that his disciples were shown a sign, just as at the Transfiguration. As C. S. Lewis put it, “they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (that is what ‘cloud’ presumably means …) and then nothing.” In other words, Jesus’ final withdrawal from human sight, to rule till he returns to judgment, was presented to the disciples’ outward eyes as a going up into heaven in sense 3. This should not puzzle us. Withdrawal had to take place somehow, and going up, down, or sideways, failing to appear or suddenly vanishing were the only possible ways. Which would signify most clearly that Jesus would henceforth be reigning in glory? That answers itself.’ (J.I. Packer, Growing in Christ)

Heaven is a place

‘It is surprising that even some evangelical theologians hesitate to affirm that heaven is a place or that Jesus ascended to a definite location somewhere in the space-time universe. Admittedly we cannot now see where Jesus is, but that is not because he passed into some ethereal “state of being” that has no location at all in the space-time universe, but rather because our eyes are unable to see the unseen spiritual world that exists all around us. There are angels around us, but we simply cannot see them because our eyes do not have that capacity: Elisha was surrounded by an army of angels and chariots of fire protecting him from the Syrians at Dothan, but Elisha’s servant was not able to see those angels until God opened his eyes so that he could see things that existed in that spiritual dimension (2 Kings 6:17). Similarly, when Stephen was dying, God gave him a special ability to see the world that is now hidden from our eyes, for he “gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God; and he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing at the right hand of God” ’ (Acts 7:55–56). And Jesus himself said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2–3).’ (Grudem, Systematic Theology, p617)

A cloud hid him from their sight – The cloud over the tabernacle (Ex 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11) and the one that led the Jews through the wilderness (Ex 13:21) symbolised the glory and presence of God with the people of Israel. Now Jesus is entering that same immediate presence of the Lord. He will be where God is (“heaven”).

We might wonder if this is in at least part fulfilment of Daniel’s vision, when he saw ‘one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven.  He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.  He was given authority, glory and sovereign power…His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed’ (Dan 7:13f).

‘It is not for nothing that the cloud is said to have received him “out of their sight;” for lest it should be thought that he had simply disappeared while they were looking in some other direction, the historian emphatically says, it, was ‘while they were looking,’ or ‘gazing steadily’ atenizontes, that he was taken up, “and a cloud received him out of their sight.”‘ (JFB)

‘Our mind is not able to ascend so high as to take a full view of the glory of Christ; therefore, let this cloud be a mean to restrain our boldness, as was the smoke which was continually before the door of the tabernacle in the time of the law.’ (Calvin)

‘That the disciples can no longer “see” Jesus indicates the times of Jesus’ physical appearances are ended. Now the crucified Christ, risen from the dead, has been “lifted up” and enters into his glory. He will no longer be visibly observed by his gathered community. Now a new relationship between Jesus and the company of believers is established. From now on Jesus will not be physically perceived but will be known through “what my Father has promised,” the “power from on high” (Lk 24:49, NRSV) -the promised Holy Spirit.’ (Ac 1:4-5).’ (Christianity Today, May 18, 1992)

Jesus departed, in C.S. Lewis’ words, ‘through a fold in space.’

It is tempting to wonder what Jesus was doing, and where he was, during the forty days between his resurrection and ascension when he was not actually in contact with his disciples. Lk 24:31, for example, describes him as ‘disappearing’ after his appearance to the two on the road to Emmaus. Some suggest that, in his resurrected body, his home was already in heaven, and the ascension was then simply the last of his returns to that abode.

‘Our Lord’s ascension into heaven was an important part of his ministry, for if he had not returned to the Father, he could not have sent the promised gift of the Holy Spirit (Jn 16:5-15).  Also, in heaven today, the Saviour is our interceding High Priest, giving us the grace that we need for life and service (Heb 4:14-16).  He is also our Advocate before the Father, forgiving us when we confess our sins (1 Jn 1:9-2:2). The exalted and glorified Head of the church is now working with his people on earth and helping them accomplish his purposes’ (Mk 16:19-20). (Wiersbe)

The ascension

For Derek Thomas, the ascension signifies three things in particular:-

  1. A visible demonstration of Jesus’ return to heaven.  He had appeared to his disciples repeatedly over the previous 40 days.  But there is something permanent about this departure.
  2. The manner of his return at the end of the age.  He will return ‘in the same way’ that he left.  The two are events are equally visible, and equally real.  He ascended in his (transformed) flesh and blood.  That flesh and blood now occupies some space in the cosmos (think of it!), and in that flesh and blood he will come back.
  3. A tangible indication of his promotion.  He now, in his glorified body, occupies a place of highest honour and distinction.  For an anticipation of this, see Psa 24:7-10.
The meaning of the ascension

  1. For Jesus himself – he has been highly exalted (Phil 2:9f) and given ‘all authority’ (Mt 28:18).
  2. For the church’s mission – His exaltation and authority provide the impetus for the command ‘therefore go…’.  ‘It is His ascended presence which authenticates its testimony, and which again and again renews its life, inspires its servants, establishes its authority, directs its progress, and will culminate its work.’
  3. For our relationship with Christ – He is risen, and so our relationship with him is real and living.  He is ascended, and so relationship with him is by faith and not by sight.  It is a relationship of confidence, for he reigns; of sympathy for he ‘ever lives to make intercession for us’; of hope, for he will ‘come again’; of missional activity, for he commands us to ‘go’; of love, for the ‘same Jesus’ who left this world will return and take his friend to be with him for ever.
  4. For our Christian hope – He was raised and ascended in bodily form; and though that form is now hidden from us, it continues to have relevance for his priestly ministry (Heb  4:14–5:10; 7:23–25; Rom. 8:34), and it will be in that bodily form that he will return (1 Jn 3:2).

(Based on Milne’s comments)

1:10 As they were still staring into the sky while he was going, suddenly two men in white clothing stood near them 1:11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven.”

They were looking intently up into the sky – What were they thinking: “What next?;” “Has he gone for ever?”

As he was going – one can almost picture the scene, the action freeze-framed in these four words. Our Lord did not simply vanish out of sight. The realism of the situation is accentuated by the fact that the ascension took place in broad daylight.

Two men dressed in white – probably angels: see Lk 24:4, where the same description is used of angels.

‘The angels describe in simple terms what has just happened: Jesus has been taken up into heaven. The implications are unmistakable. Jesus will no longer be with the disciples in the way he was with them during his earthly ministry or in postresurrection appearances. In heaven Jesus is in a position of authority, at the Father’s right hand, whence he can pour out salvation blessings as by his Spirit he directs and empowers the church’s mission. (Ac 2:33; 4:10-12; 5:30-31) The angels conclude with an affirmation of the certainty of Christ’s return. He will come in the same way that he has gone.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

The angels have a twofold message: (a) to dissuade the disciples from unhelpful curiosity; (b) to assure them of Christ’s return.

On the other hand, it has been argued that when Luke means ‘angels’ he says ‘angels’, and when he says ‘men’ (as here) he means ‘men’.  This takes us back to the Transfiguration, when ‘two mean, Moses and Elijah, appeared in glorious splendour, talking with Jesus.  They spoke about his departures, which he was to bring to fulfilment at Jerusalem’ (Lk 9:30f).

“Men of Galilee” – the angels indicate their knowledge of the disciples. This suggests that angels observe and know us more than we think.

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” – Yet there is ‘a slight degree of censure implied in this, as well as a design to call their attention away from a vain attempt to see the departed Saviour’ (Barnes). They may have (a) felt disappointed, as if he would not restore the kingdom to Israel after all; (b) felt puzzled, despite his many promises of ascension; (c) felt bereaved, for the Saviour who had so gloriously manifested himself as being alive after his death was now being taken from them again; (d) not know what else to do. But they had already been told what to do next, vv4ff.

This may have been a gaze of anticipation (what next?), of regret (we won’t see him again?), of confusion (what is going on?)

‘They were not reprehended because they looked up towards heaven; but because they coveted to see Christ, when as the cloud which was put between them and him did keep them from seeing him with their bodily senses: Secondly, because they hoped that he would return again straightway, that they might enjoy the sight of him again, when as he did ascend to stay in the heavens until such time as he should come to judge the world.’ (Calvin)

It was very natural for them to do so. But sometimes natural feelings are not to be carried too far. ‘Sometimes you stand by a grave where one is buried whom you dearly loved: you go there often to weep. You cannot help it, the place is precious to you; yet you could not prove that you do any good by your visits, perhaps you even injure yourself thereby, and deserve to be gently chidden with the question, “why?” It may be the most natural thing in the world, and yet it may not be a wise thing.’ (Spurgeon)

‘The implication seems to be that they will not bring him back by gazing up into the sky. He has gone, and they must let him go; he will return in his own good time and in the same way.’ (Stott)

We are not to spend too much of our time gazing. ‘Like the apostles, I hope our memorial will be our acts. There are good brethren in the world who are impractical. The grand doctrine of the Second Advent makes them stand with open mouths, peering into the skies, so that I am ready to say, “Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye here gazing up into heaven?” The fact that Jesus Christ is to come again is not a reason for star-gazing, but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.’ (Spurgeon, An All-Round Ministry, 54)

‘Their gentle rebuke to the sky-gazing disciples implies that in the interim there is a task to be done: fulfillment of the missionary mandate.’ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the ‘sky’ when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the ‘earth’. It was the earth not the sky which was to be their preoccupation. Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers. The vision they were to cultivate was not upwards in nostalgia to the heaven which had received Jesus, but outwards in compassion to a lost world which needed him. It is the same for us. Curiosity about heaven and its occupants, speculation about prophecy and its fulfilment, an obsession with ‘times and seasons’ – these are aberrations which distract us from our God-given mission. Christ will come personally, visibly, gloriously. Of that we have been assured. Other details can wait. Meanwhile, we have work to do in the power of the Spirit.’ (Stott)

‘Here is the practical point for us: What they did we are very apt to imitate. “Oh,” say you, “I shall never stand gazing up into heaven.” I am not sure of that. Some Christians are very curious, but not obedient. Plain precepts are neglected, but difficult problems they seek to solve…I have known men marvellously great upon Daniel, and specially instructed in Ezekiel, but singularly forgetful of the twentieth of Exodus, and not very clear upon Romans the eighth. I do not speak with any blame of such folks for studying Daniel and Ezekiel, but quite the reverse; yet I wish they had been more zealous for the conversion of the sinners in their neighborhoods, and more careful to assist the poor saints. I admit the value of the study of the feet of the image in Nebuchadnezzar’s vision, and the importance of knowing the kingdoms which make up the ten toes, but I do not see the propriety of allowing such studies to overlay the common-places of practical godliness.’ (Spurgeon)

“This same Jesus” – ‘This was said to comfort them. The same tried Friend, who had been so faithful to them, would return. They ought not, therefore, to look with despondency at his departure.’ (Barnes)

The NT recognises no distinction between ‘the Jesus of history’ and ‘the Christ of faith’.  ‘The apostles…consistently proclaim, and without embarrassment, that it was Jesus who was raised from the dead (Acts 2:32), who ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9), who has been exalted and glorified (Phil 2:9), and who is coming again (Acts 1:11).’ (Hughes, on Heb 6:20, adding that in Hebrews ‘it is Jesus who after the humiliation of incarnation and death has been crowned with glory and honour (Heb 2:9), who as our great high priest has passed through the heavens (Heb 4:14), to whom as our victorious and exalted Saviour we, the runners of the Christian race, are urged to look (Heb 12:1f; cf Heb 3:1), to whom as the living mediator of the new covenant we have come (Heb 13:24), who as the risen shepherd of the sheep continues to tend his flock (Heb 13:20f), and who, in short, is the same yesterday and today and forever (Heb 13:8).’)

‘Jesus is gone but he still exists. He has left us, but he is not dead; he has not dissolved into nothing like the mist of the morning. “This same Jesus” is gone up unto his Father’s throne, and he is there to-day as certainly as he once stood at Pilate’s bar. As surely as he did hang upon the cross, so surely does he, the self-same man, sit upon the throne of God and reign over creation. I like to think of the positive identity of the Christ in the seventh heaven with the Christ in the lowest deeps of agony. The Christ they spat upon is now the Christ whose name the cherubim and seraphim are hymning day without night. The Christ they scourged is he before whom principalities and powers delight to cast their crowns.’ (Spurgeon)

‘He will be “the same Jesus” in nature though not in condition: he will possess the same tenderness when he comes to judge, the same gentleness of heart when all the glories of heaven and earth shall gird his brow.’ (Spurgeon)

‘This same Jesus shall come again in his own person, clothed with a glorious body; this same Jesus, who came once to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, will appear a second time without sin, (Heb 9:26,28) who came once in disgrace to be judged, will come again in glory to judge. The same Jesus who has given you your charge will come again to call you to an account how you have performed your trust; he, and not another,”‘ (MHC)

“who has been taken from you into heaven” – The expression ‘into heaven’, ‘denotes into the immediate presence of God; or into the place of perpetual purity and happiness, where God peculiarly manifests his favour. The same thing is frequently designated by his sitting on the right hand of God, as emblematic of power, honour, and favour.’ (Barnes) And it is from heaven that he now acts as mediator and intercessor.

Wright insists that the common understanding of ‘heaven’ needs some correction: ‘The reality is this: ‘heaven’ in the Bible is God’s space, and ‘earth’ is our space. ‘Heaven’ isn’t just ‘the happy place where God’s people go when they die’, and it certainly isn’t our ‘home’ if by that you mean (as some Christians, sadly, have meant) that our eventual destiny is to leave ‘earth’ altogether and go to ‘heaven’ instead. God’s plan, as we see again and again in the Bible, is for ‘new heavens and new earth’, and for them to be joined together in that renewal once and for all. ‘Heaven’ may well be our temporary home, after this present life; but the whole new world, united and transformed, is our eventual destination.’

Wright adds that Jesus’ resurrection was the first stage in this new joined-upness of heaven and earth.  It was not only that he came back to life: ‘It was, rather, that because on the cross he had indeed dealt with the main force of evil, decay and death itself, the creative power of God, no longer thwarted as it had been by human rebellion, could at last burst forth and produce the beginning, the pilot project, of that joined-up heaven-and-earth reality which is God’s plan for the whole world.’  Thus we can begin to account for the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus, when just at the point when he affirms that it is really him, ‘in the flesh’, his body is able to appear and disappear at will.  ‘”Heaven’”and “earth” are the two interlocking spheres of God’s reality, and…the risen body of Jesus is the first (and so far the only) object which is fully at home in both and hence in either, anticipating the time when everything will be renewed and joined together.’

So (says Wright) we should not understand Jesus’ ascension ‘up…into heaven’ as going into orbit in somewhere in outer space, but rather as entering ‘God’s space’ (the cloud symbolising the presence of God).  And this is an anticipation of the day of his return, when heaven and earth are brought back together once and for all.

Tim Chester explains:

‘Heaven is not a far away place at the corner of the universe. Angels do not need to teleport to appear to people. They simply step from one dimension into another. Jacob dreamed of a ladder connecting earth and heaven at a place he called ‘the gate of heaven’ (Gen. 28:10-19). At the transfiguration the heavenly realm transfigured the earthly realm. Jesus says to Nathaniel: ‘I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.’ (John 1:51) Or think of it like Narnia. In his series of children’s stories, The Chronicles of Narnia, C. S. Lewis imagines another world that is not our world, but which intersects with our world so that it is sometimes possible to move between them. Lewis himself said Jesus was like an actor who slips between two curtains, but appears to slip into one of its folds. Jesus disappears, as it were, into a ‘fold’ in space. Heaven and earth are like different dimensions in one universe – two dimensions that inhabit the same space.’
(The Ascension)

‘The implications are unmistakable. Jesus will no longer be with the disciples in the way he was with them during his earthly ministry or in postresurrection appearances. In heaven Jesus is in a position of authority, at the Father’s right hand, whence he can pour out salvation blessings as by his Spirit he directs and empowers the church’s mission.’ (Ac 2:33 4:10-12 5:30-31) (IVP NT Commentary)

By this the disciples were to understand that Jesus’ earthly appearances are now at an end, and they should not look for any more, until the time when he…

“…will come back in the same way you have seen him go” – personally, physically, visibly, locally. Or, more specifically, in a cloud, Lk 21:27.

‘Thus the promise of the parousia forms the background of hope against which the disciples are to act as the witnesses to Jesus. In effect the present passage corresponds to Jesus’ statement in Mk 13:10 that the gospel must first be preached to all nations before the end can come.’ (Marshall)

‘Imagine that you were there, looking into the sky. How do you think the followers of Jesus were affected by the promise that he would return?’

‘Until then the Christian life is a life of hope, lived with the assurance that the ascended Lord is with his people always, even to the close of the age.’ (Mt 28:20) (ISBE)

In saying this, the angels ‘initiate that spirit of watchfulness that would characterize the early church as it worked and waited for its Lord to return.’ (see 1 Thess 1:10) (ECB)

And in between these two events – his ascension and his return – the gift of the Holy Spirit and the worldwide spread of the gospel.

‘Would that Christians realized more vividly the delightful and soul-stirring identity between the crucified, risen, ascending, and returning Redeemer-that as that very Jesus who ate and drank, and slept and waked, and wept and groaned, and bled and died here be low, is he who rose again from the dead, was seen with men’s eyes to go into heaven, and now wields the sceptre of universal dominion; so he will at the time appointed so come in like manner as he was seen to go into heaven! Would not this put substance in place of the shadows in which our faith of such truths is apt to lose itself; and, connecting earth with heaven in that glorious Person on whom our faith reposes, impart to our Christianity the solidity of the one and the brightness of the other? Nor let the promised presence of the Spirit-precious compensation though that is for the absence of Christ-dim the recollection that our only full consolation under that absence is the assurance of his Personal Return; in prospect of which, instead of looking idly upwards, we learn with joyful alacrity to “occupy until he come.”‘ (JFB)

‘The remedy for unprofitable spiritual stargazing lies in a Christian theology of history, an understanding of the order of events in the divine programme. First, Jesus returned to heaven (Ascension). Secondly, the Holy Spirit came (Pentecost). Thirdly, the church goes out to witness (Mission). Fourthly, Jesus will come back (Parousia). Whenever we forget one of these events, or put them in the wrong sequence, confusion reigns. We need especially to remember that between the ascension and the Parousia, the disappearance and the reappearance of Jesus, there stretches a period of unknown length which is to be filled with the church’s world-wide, Spirit-empowered witness to him. We need to hear the implied message of the angels: ‘You have seen him go. You will see him come. But between that going and coming there must be another. The Spirit must come, and you must go – into the world for Christ.” (Stott)

Note Derek White’s over-confident and over-literalistic inference: ‘Jesus is going to return to a specific place, and that place is the Mount of Olives just outside Jerusalem (see also Zechariah 14:4). The language of Zechariah 14:1-4, which refers to the same event as Acts 1:11, must be taken literally if complete violence to any reasonable interpretation of Scripture is to be avoided. This being so, it implies that Jerusalem is, at that time, the Capital of the Jewish nation (or why else will “all the nations” be gathered against her?).’

Jesus’ absence is good news!

‘Imagine that you are living under a repressive regime. But there is a king in exile who promises a new life. You are part of a resistance cell spreading the news of this coming king. Imagine that you suddenly discovered the king was one of your companions. What disappointment! You had hoped that when the king arrived everything would be made new. But here he is and nothing much has changed. No, his absence is good news. It means there is still hope. It means a day of freedom is coming.’ (Chester, The Ascension)

A Replacement for Judas is Chosen, 12-26

1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mountain called the Mount of Olives (which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away). 1:13 When they had entered Jerusalem, they went to the upstairs room where they were staying. Peter and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James were there.

Then they returned to Jerusalem – ‘There is no need to doubt the literal nature of Christ’s ascension, so long as we realize its purpose. It was not necessary as a mode of departure, for “going to the Father” did not involve a journey in scape and presumably he could simply have vanished as on previous occasions. The reason he ascended before their eyes was rather to show them that this departure was final. He has now gone for good, or at least until his coming in glory. So they returned to Jerusalem with great joy and waited – not for Jesus to make another resurrection appearance, but for the Holy Spirit to come in power, as had been promised.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, p63)

Upstairs – Upper rooms in dwellings were often large than those on the ground floor, and so able to accommodate the Eleven.

1:14 All these continued together in prayer with one mind, together with the women, along with Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.

They all joined…in prayer – ‘Given the fifty days from Passover to Pentecost, and subtracting Jesus’ time in the tomb and the forty days of 1:3, this meeting may have lasted close to a week. (In church tradition, possibly based on this passage, it is ten days before Pentecost.)…The text need not imply uninterrupted prayer, but it must mean more prayer than usual (i.e., more than several hours a day) or Luke would have no reason to mention it.’ (IVP NT Background Commentary)

1:15 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty people) and said, 1:16 “Brothers, the scripture had to be fulfilled that the Holy Spirit foretold through David concerning Judas—who became the guide for those who arrested Jesus—1:17 for he was counted as one of us and received a share in this ministry.”

1:15-26 Replacing Judas

Peter…said – For Parsons, ‘that Peter’s first speech (1:16–22) is in keeping with his character as developed elsewhere in Acts is not surprising given the fact that one of the progymnasmatic exercises practiced in antiquity was that of prosōpopoeia, or speech in character…, whereby the author attributes to a person words that “are suitable to the speaker and have an indisputable application to the subject discussed” (Theon, Prog. 115, trans. Kennedy 2003, 47). In order to present a speech that is suitable, Theon argues that “one should have in mind what the personality of the speaker is like, and to whom the speech is addressed” (Theon, Prog. 115, trans. Kennedy 2003, 47).’  There is, of course, another way of explaining why this speech sounds like Peter: that it faithful represents a speech actually made by him!

‘When the probably Essene community of the Dead Sea Scrolls chose a group of leaders which included twelve special officials, it was meant to symbolize that this community was the true remnant of Israel, faithful to God even though the rest of the nation was apostate. Jesus had chosen twelve special disciples to make the same point, so the number had to be restored to twelve official leaders at least until the point of having twelve had been effectively communicated.’ (IVP NT Background Commentary)

A group numbering about a hundred and twenty – ‘The number a hundred and twenty here is more than just a round number. This is the smallest number in Jewish tradition for a population that could have its own ‘council’. There was a tradition that each judge should rule or represent at least ten members. It may be, therefore, that Luke is suggesting the young church was already a community in its own right and that a twelfth ‘leader’ was required.’ (NBC)

‘Peter comes forth as the leader of this group. He goes to Scripture immediately when he speaks. How do these words of David affect their confidence as well as give them direction? It would build their confidence greatly to see again that some of these remarkable things that were happening to them were written down many years before they had happened. David was a very important patriarch. The direction came from the instructions that were in the quoted passage (Ps 69:25; 109:8).’

1:18 (Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 1:19 This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”)

His unjust deed – Barclay (DSB) seeks to somewhat excuse Judas, when he writes that it is likely that he ‘never meant Jesus to die but betrayed him with the intention of forcing his hand. If that be so, Judas had the tragic experience of seeing his plan go desperately wrong; and in his bitter remorse he committed suicide.’  The NT consistently regards Judas as culpable for his betrayal of Jesus.  To regard him as a well-meaning, but misguided, character, is to fly in the face of this evidence.

Falling headfast – James Bejon insists that this should be translated, ‘falling headlong’ (i.e. ‘prostrate’).

How did Judas die?

Matthew 27:3 Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 27:4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!” 27:5 So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself. 27:6 The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.” 27:7 After consulting together they bought the Potter’s Field with it, as a burial place for foreigners. 27:8 For this reason that field has been called the “Field of Blood” to this day. 27:9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price had been set by the people of Israel, 27:10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Acts 1:18 (Now this man Judas acquired a field with the reward of his unjust deed, and falling headfirst he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 1:19 This became known to all who lived in Jerusalem, so that in their own language they called that field Hakeldama, that is, “Field of Blood.”)

The accounts of Judas’ death in Mat 27 and Acts 1 diverge in a number of ways.  Matthew says that Judas died by handing.  Acts describes the consequences of his headfirst fall.


The contributors to Harper’s Bible Commentary seem to think that the two accounts are irreconcilable.  The Matthew account is ‘a legendary explanation of the name of Akeldama’ (‘Field of Blood’).’  Acts ‘may suggest an accidental fall from a building or even a suicidal leap.’  But to suppose that this led to a bursting of the abdomen requires a stretching of credulity greater than the supposition of a harmony between the two accounts.

David Williams (UBCS) thinks that any attempt to harmonise the two accounts would be ‘somewhat forced’, and that we may have to accept that two contrasting accounts of Judas’ death were in circulation.  But, even so, it is clear that Judas died a violent death and that his demise was in some way connected with a plot of land that became known as ‘blood field’.

Marshall, similarly, thinks it possible that either Matthew or Luke was simply reporting what was commonly said in Jerusalem, making harmonisation unnecessary.

However, as Blomberg points out, both Evangelists distinguish between popular but untrustworthy reports from reliable ones (Mt 28:11-15; Acts 9:11-14).

How might these accounts fit together?

Both events are, of course, terrible in their own way, and it is not difficult to see why one account might stress one thing and another account the other.

According to the Holman Apologetics Commentary,

‘It is evident that Matthew wants to discuss more than just Judas’s fate; he also wants to make known the involvement of the Jewish leadership in the betrayal of Jesus. This fits Matthew’s polemic against the leadership. In distinction from this approach, Acts is interested only in Judas’s eventual fate, not in any intervening activity, including any regret (however temporary or permanent) Judas may have felt.’

Marshall thinks that the following harmonisation is possible:

‘(1). Judas hanged himself (Matt.), but the rope broke and his body was ruptured by the fall (possibly after he was already dead and beginning to decompose);

(2). What the priests bought with Judas’s money (Matt.) could be regarded as his purchase by their agency (Acts);

(3). The field bought by the priests (Matt.) was the one where Judas died (Acts).’

It is to be noted that Acts does not tell us that this was how Judas died (whereas Matthew does).

Osborne comments:

‘What may well have happened is that the rope broke and his body fell into the field (or perhaps that his body was thrown into the field afterward). This is possible, for Luke in Acts 1 is explaining the name of the field and chose those details that fit his explanation.’

Comparing Matthew’s account with that found in Acts 1, Green remarks:

‘It is not very difficult to reconcile those two accounts. Judas went and hanged himself: then either his corpse rotted and fell, or the rope broke and he fell and his insides were ruptured and gushed out. Either Judas had already acquired this field previously, or the priests bought the field in Judas’ name with the money that was still legally his and which they could not receive back into the treasury because it was blood money (6). The field fittingly became a cemetery (the meaning of the Aramaic ‘Akeldama’ in Acts 1:19).’

James Bejon: Judas as recalling Absalom (Matthew) and Ahab (Luke)

James Bejon, while acknowledging the differences between Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts, maintains that the two are not irreconcilable.  Each has its own emphases, serving the different purposes of the authors:

‘Matthew wants us to see Judas as an Absalom—a man who ends up hung as a result of his own selfish ambition—while Luke wants us to see Judas as an Ahab—a man whose ill-gotten ends up soiled by his blood—and each author’s portrayal of Judas has important Christological implications.’

The substance of the two accounts is the same:

‘Judas betrays Jesus for a pre-agreed sum of money; a field is purchased with the money; and Judas ends up dead in the field.’


‘Matthew has Judas hang himself in a field purchased by the chief priests (Matt. 27.3–8), while Luke has Judas’s body burst open in a field owned by Judas (Acts 1.18–19).’

But there is no compelling reason to dismiss either (or both) of the accounts as ahistorical, for each account simply describes a different aspect of Judas’ death:

‘Matthew describes the means by which Judas decides/tries to kill himself, that is, asphyxiation, while Luke describes the final state/position of Judas’s body, that is, prostrate on the ground.’

Of course, a body hung on a tree can end up on the ground for a number of reasons, especially bearing in mind that Deut 21:23 forbids a body hanging on a tree overnight, and that Absalom’s body was hung from a tree and later cut down (2 Sam 18:9-11,17).

So it is quite plausible that one witness saw Judas hanging from the tree, while another saw his body after it had fallen.

This is not a case of desperate harmonisation, but rather a case of one account tying up the loose ends of another:

‘By way of illustration, consider the situation described in Matthew 27. To distance themselves from Judas’s blood money, the chief priests buy a field with it. Yet, if it wasn’t permissible for the chief priests to keep Judas’s blood money, why was it permissible for them to own a field bought with it? Furthermore, if Judas died a bloodless death (because he hung himself), how come the field in which he died acquired the name ‘the Field of Blood’?’


‘Matthew provides us with a theological answer to the question, viz., because the field was bought with ‘blood money’. In historical terms, however, a different answer is required, since Judas’s money is referred to as ‘blood money’ only by the priests (Matt. 27:6), who are unlikely to have named a field after an incident they wanted to hush up. Luke tells us ‘what comes to be known by the inhabitants of Jerusalem’ at large: Acts 1:19.’

Conversely, Luke’s account has some loose ends that are tied up for us by Matthew:

‘How did Judas’s body end up on the ground burst open? People fall over every day, often quite hard, but their insides don’t normally burst out.’


‘Judas’s body wasn’t simply hung: after it was hung, it fell to the ground, which it did from a significant height, quite possibly in a bloated state.’


‘why does Luke employ the verb ‘acquire/possess’ (κτάομαι) to describe Judas’s acquisition of a field? If Judas bought the field in the standard way, why doesn’t Luke use a standard verb like ‘buy’ (ἀγοράζω)?’


‘Judas didn’t in fact ‘buy’ the field in the standard way: the chief priests bought it on his behalf (with his money); hence, in Matthew, the field is said to be ‘bought’ (ἀγοράζω) by the chief priests, while, in Acts, it’s said to be ‘acquired’ (κτάομαι) by Judas.’

It is interesting that each account reflects something of the traditional understanding of each of the authors’ occupations and interests:

‘Matthew the tax collector is interested in the legal/financial details involved in Judas’s death— how the thirty pieces of silver were accounted for by the chief priests—while Luke the physician is more interested in (literally) the blood and guts of the matter.’

We don’t know how Judas’ body ended up on the ground.  Perhaps the branch snapped, or someone cut the body down.  But it is not necessary to answer this question in order to show that the two accounts are reconcilable.

But, since there are significant, though complementary, differences between the two accounts, we must enquire about the authors’ purposes in emphasising certain aspects.

Matthew’s purpose

Note the similarities between the death of Judas and that of Absalom, who, like Judas,

  • is described as the king’s ‘friend’, 2 Sam 12:11 (cf. Mt 26:50)
  • feigned loyalty to the king, 2 Sam 14:33
  • dies hanging from a tree, 2 Sam 18:9f

We know that Matthew is very interested in how Jesus fulfils the story of Israel (see Matt  1:22, 2:15, 17, 23, 3:15, 4:15, 5:17, etc.).

More specifically:

‘For Matthew, Jesus is the true Son of David (Mt 1:1). As such, Jesus has to ‘fill up’ each and every aspect of David’s life (sin apart), which he does. At his birth, he becomes an heir of David’s throne (compare Matt 1.1 with 2–17); in his death and betrayal, he becomes separated from David’s kingdom (though not as a result of his sin); and, in his resurrection, he inherits the fulness of David’s kingdom—‘all authority in heaven and on earth’ (Matt 28.18).’

Matthew’s account of the death of Judas doesn’t differ from that of Luke because they are drawing on different (and incompatible) sources.  Rather, he picks out those features that best fit his overall purpose in writing his Gospel.

In short:

‘He omits the less Absalomic aspects of Judas’s death (the fact Judas ends up disembowelled) in order to draw his reader’s attention to the more Absalomic aspect of Judas’s death (the fact he’s hung).’

There are, of course, other OT connections that Matthew makes in connection with the death of Judas: note the references to Jeremiah and Zechariah.  So the Absalom allusion is not exhaustive; but it is significant.

Luke’s purpose

We have seen that

‘whereas Matthew has Judas end up in a field due to a technicality in Temple law, Luke has Judas acquire a field due to his love of money, and…whereas Matthew has Judas die by asphyxiation, Luke focuses on the spillage of Judas’s blood.’

It would seem that Luke, in making his selection of the material, wanted us to view Judas’ death (and, by extension, that of Jesus) in the light of a different OT incident.

At beginning of his Gospel, Luke has stressed the lowliness of Jesus:

‘Whereas Matthew has Jesus born ‘king of the Jews’, Luke describes Jesus’ birth in far more understated terms: he has Mary and Joseph hail from lowly Nazareth rather than royal Bethlehem; he has Jesus visited by mere shepherds rather than dignitaries from foreign lands; and he has Jesus presented at the Temple by parents who are unable to afford the standard sacrifices. As such, Luke emphasises Jesus’ poverty rather than his royal pedigree, which determines his portrayal of Judas.’

But now consider the distinctives of Luke’s portrayal of Judas:

‘a man consumed by greed who condemns a godlly Israelite to death for the price of a plot of land, and whose ‘reward’ ends up stained by the Israelite’s blood.’

This brings to mind one OT character in particular – Ahab,

‘a man who was consumed by his desire for a vineyard, who condemned a godly Israelite to death in order to acquire it, and whose blood ended up spilt on the soil not far away (1 Kings 21:19, 22:38). Consider also how both Ahab and Judas’s lineages are alike condemned (compare Elijah’s imprecation in 1 Kings 21:20–25 with Peter’s in Acts 1:20).’

But if Judas recalls Ahab, then Jesus recalls Naboth:

‘If Matthew’s Jesus is the David to Judas’s Absalom, then Luke’s Jesus is the Naboth to Judas’s Ahab—a vineyard-owner who was slandered by false witnesses at a religious assembly so the powerful could take possession of his vineyard (or at least try). Luke’s portrayal of Jesus is thus very different from Matthew’s: while Matthew’s Jesus is a Davidic king, Luke’s is a Naboth-like victim.’

So, whereas Matthew and Mark emphasise the crucified Jesus’ kingship (dressed in a royal robe of purple or scarlet, and declared ‘the Son of God’, cf. Psa 2),

‘Luke has him clothed in the resplendent (λαμπρός) robe of the saints in reflection of his Naboth-like innocence (compare Luke 23.11 with Rev. 19.8, 22.1); and [Luke’s centurian] simply declares Jesus “innocent”.’

All of this fits well with Luke’s overall scheme:

‘For Luke, the Gospel is for the poor and oppressed, and the kingdom of God is about the reversal of the world’s wrongs—a time when valleys are lifted up and mountains brought low, the lowly are exalted and the proud humbled, and Lazarus-like beggars change places with the rich.’

If at the end of Luke’s Gospel we find Jesus in the place of the poor and the oppressed, then at the beginning of Acts the great reversal begins:

‘Jesus ascends into realms of glory, the Ahab-like Judas receives his comeuppance, and, as the Gospel goes forth, the mighty continue to fall.’


The two accounts of Judas’ death need not be read as contradictory.  But, on the other hand, we should recognise and welcome their differences as bringing out meaning which was clearly important for the Gospel writers and  which should can be of interest and significance for Bible readers today.

1:20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his house become deserted, and let there be no one to live in it,’ and ‘Let another take his position of responsibility.’

‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ – This quotation is from Psa 69:25.  It might be thought that this Psalm has nothing to do with Judas.  In fact, with its retaliatory tone, it even seems anti-gospel.  But, as the superscription tell sus, this is ‘a Psalm of David’.  There is, in the Old Testament, a ‘Davidic trajectory’ that points forward to Christ.  In this case, it is the suffering Christ who is anticipated.  Carson writes:-

‘Just as there are servant songs in Isaiah that point forward to the ultimate suffering servant, so there are Davidic psalms that point forward to the ultimate suffering David. That is why Psalm 69 is repeatedly quoted as being ultimately fulfilled in the sufferings of Jesus (e.g., Matt. 27:34; Mark 15:23; John 2:17; 15:25; 19:28-30; Rom. 15:23). Once we see that this is the way Christians commonly read Psalm 69—that is, along this Davidic trajectory—the application of Psalm 69:25 to Judas in Acts 1:20 does not seem far away: As the experience of suffering and betrayal belonged to the historical David while pointing forward to the experience of suffering and betrayal of the ultimate David, so the betrayers of the historical David are finally fulfilled in the betrayer, Judas Iscariot, of the ultimate David, Jesus himself. That seems to be the way Peter in Acts 1 is understanding Psalm 69:25.’
Confronting the problem

Notice how Peter confronts the problem of Judas’ betrayal and subsequent suicide.

  1. He brings the issue right into the open.  He names the offender, refers to his wickedness, and describes his end.
  2. He acknowledges the sovereignty of God in the matter, without excusing Judas.  ‘The Scripture had to be fulfilled.’
  3. He alludes to the deep personal pain for the whole body of disciples.  Judas had, after all, ‘was counted as one of us and received a share in this ministry.’
  4. He leaves the matter in God’s hands.  Judas is left ‘to go to his own place’.
  5. He, together with the body of disciples, moves forward in the light of Scripture.  He quotes Psa 109:8 – ‘Let another take his position of responsibility.’

(Milne, summarised and adapted)

1:21 Thus one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time the Lord Jesus associated with us, 1:22 beginning from his baptism by John until the day he was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness of his resurrection together with us.”

21f – Note the importance of eyewitnesses.  They were as crucial to the verification of historical fact then as they are today.  Cf. Acts 1:8.

1:23 So they proposed two candidates: Joseph called Barsabbas (also called Justus) and Matthias. 1:24 Then they prayed, “Lord, you know the hearts of all. Show us which one of these two you have chosen 1:25 to assume the task of this service and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 1:26 Then they cast lots for them, and the one chosen was Matthias; so he was counted with the eleven apostles.

Barsabbas – means ‘son of the Sabbath’.  Possibly this man was born on that day.

‘Acts 1:15-26 shows us the church before Pentecost prayerfully asking Christ through the casting of a lot to choose a successor to Judas. Whether they were right to do this, and Paul was Christ’s thirteenth apostle, or whether Paul was Christ’s intended replacement for Judas and the choice of Matthias was a mistake, is not clear in Acts; Luke himself may not have known.’ (Concise Theology)

Stott tracks the process by which God’s will was sought:

‘First came the general leading of Scripture that a replacement should be made (16–21). Next, they used their common sense that if Judas’ substitute was to have the same apostolic ministry he must also have the same qualifications, including an eyewitness experience of Jesus and a personal appointment by him. This sound deductive reasoning led to the nomination of Joseph and Matthias. Thirdly, they prayed. For though Jesus had gone, he was still accessible to them by prayer and was acknowledged as having a knowledge of hearts which they lacked. Finally, they drew lots, by which they trusted Jesus to make his choice known. Leaving aside this fourth factor, because the Spirit has now been given us, the remaining three (Scripture, common sense and prayer) constitute a wholesome combination through which God may be trusted to guide us today.’

But should Paul have been chosen?  According to HSB:

‘Some have suggested that Paul was God’s choice as a replacement and that the decision here was premature. That can hardly be the case. First, one qualification was that the person had been with Jesus during his whole earthly ministry (Acts 1:21–22). While many disciples other than the Twelve often followed Jesus, Paul was certainly not one of them. Second, the Twelve were oriented toward the “twelve tribes of Israel”; that is, their focus was and remained the Jewish-Christian mission. Paul was the great apostle to the Gentiles. Third, in his letters Paul never groups himself with the Twelve but rather maintains the uniqueness of his own apostleship (for example, 1 Cor 15:8–9; Gal 1:12, 15). Finally, Paul knows several other apostles, such as James (Gal 1:19) and Andronicus and Junia (Rom 16:7). Thus, while all of the Twelve were apostles, not all apostles belonged to the Twelve. The Eleven correctly realized that unique qualifications were needed to fill that twelfth spot.’

Noting the use of the lot in the OT (Lev 16:8; Josh 18:10; Neh 10:34; 11:1; Prov 16:33) the same chapter in HSB asks:

‘Why, then, is this the last time that we read about the early church using dice? In the next chapter, with the gathering fully organized (all twelve apostles in place), the Holy Spirit falls. The Spirit was also the Spirit of prophecy, whose departure from Israel had left them with only dice as a means through which God might communicate his will. But now in the wake of the coming of Jesus the Spirit is back, not resting only on a few prophets, but on the whole people of God. Many of them received the gift of prophecy. From this point on Acts records prophetic words that explain decisions (for example, “the Spirit told me,” Acts 11:12), indicate people chosen for special roles (Acts 13:2) and apparently lead to consensus (Acts 15:28). In the church empowered by the Spirit, God speaks through that Spirit. It is therefore no wonder that in such a context the lot and similar indirect means of discerning the divine will (such as seeking omens from God like Gideon’s fleece) were relegated to history. We who live in a church still filled with that Spirit can continue to be thankful that due to our direct connection with God we no longer have to copy the means that were necessary for the first ten days of the church after Jesus left.’

The stage is now set for the Day of Pentecost.