In the earliest narratives of the Bible, Moses expresses a desire which seems to apply to all of us today, “If only all the people of the LORD were prophets! If only the LORD would bestow his spirit on them!” (Numbers 11:29). Each of us has a God-shaped hole in our hearts which leaves us seeking and desiring to know God. In the Gospels we see the fulfillment of this desire. Jesus reveals the very face of God to us and fulfills the promises of God’s divine plan for a Messiah and the establishment of a new covenant between God and his people. Even after Jesus’ death and resurrection, we continue to see the reflection of the face of Jesus in the lives of his followers as they are filled with the Spirit. Jesus’ own intimate relationship to the Father as a Son becomes the model of our own Spirit-filled relationship with God as his children. Luke gives us an account of this ongoing work of God’s Spirit in his second volume, the Acts of the Apostles.
Although they do not occur side by side in our modern Bibles, Luke is the author of a two volume work: the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. Following the art of ancient history writing, Luke repeats in Acts the account of the Ascension (Luke 24:36-53) which was the final event of his Gospel. It was customary in ancient works to summarize briefly the content of the first narrative before moving on to the second. The word used here for the Ascension parallels the “taking up” of the Prophet Elijah into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1). The Ascension is the hinge that links the two volumes.
Luke reminds his readers of “all that Jesus did and taught” in the Gospel, of his commissioning of the apostles, of Jesus’ suffering death and of the “many proofs” of his resurrection. Jesus speaks to them about the kingdom of God, and of the empowerment of the gift of the Holy Spirit which will soon be received in Jerusalem. Luke’s Gospel prologue (Luke 1:1-4) and the prologue to Acts (1:1-5) are clearly linked and Luke uses special language to alert his reader to the historical nature of the material. We must remember as modern readers that it was not possible to easily scan or preview the material written in a scroll, so ancient authors would add a short summary that functioned like a table of contents in a modern book.
The promises of Jesus narrated earlier in the Gospel prompt a question from the apostles here in Acts, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom of Israel?” (1:6). Jesus’ reply to this question forms an outline of what will follow in Acts. “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, throughout Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). In the power of the Holy Spirit the Apostles will be witnesses first in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria and finally to the “ends of the earth.” The first eight chapters of Acts focus on the ministry of Peter in Jerusalem and primarily to the Jews. This ministry expands geographically to Judea and Samaria and begins to include the Gentile peoples. Finally after the conversion of Paul we see the ministry of the Church reach out to the ends of the earth. Paul is the Apostle to the Gentiles. The narrative ends with Paul’s journey to Rome to be tried by Caesar.
Yet in order for the new people of God to be the fulfillment of the Old Testament promises to the kingdom of Israel, there must first be a restoration of the Twelve Apostles who mirror the twelve tribes of Israel. Since Judas has betrayed our Lord and died a tragic death, they must replace him. Peter sees the following Scriptures as fulfilled in Judas, ‘Let his encampment become desolate, and may no one dwell in it.’ And: ‘May another take his office’ (Acts 1:20).
The Greek word underlying the word “office” in this verse can accurately be translated “office of bishop”. Later in Paul’s letters to Timothy we find the same Greek word “whoever aspires to the office of bishop desires a noble task” (1 Tim 3:1). A connection is seen here between the authority of the Apostles and the later authority of the bishops who are ordained by the Apostles as their successors (cf. 2 Tim 2:2). Matthias is chosen to replace Judas so that the initial mission of the Twelve Apostles is fulfilled. It is the apostolic nature of the Church rooted in Jesus’ own discipleship that sets the stage for the witness of the Spirit that will follow at Pentecost.
Recently Cardinal George commented, “The Church at worship is the context for interpreting the text of Scripture. It is the living community of faith that gives the texts their proper understanding by relating them to the realities of faith through the tradition that binds us to Christ.” The call to witness in the power of the Spirit must be integrally connected to the apostolic Church. Holy Mary, Queen of Apostles. Pray for us.
Scott McKellar is Director of the Bishop Helmsing Institute.