The Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ
The Gospels set the stage for the rest of the New Testament. They present a man named Jesus who was unlike all other men. No one else in this world has attained the wisdom we find in Jesus' words, or exercised the supernatural power we see in Jesus' miracles, or demonstrated the moral perfection we observe in Jesus' daily life. The reason all other men fall short of Jesus is that He was not merely a man. He was God in the flesh. But instead of using His divine abilities for any selfish purpose, such as to gain carnal pleasure or worldly power, He used them to help others. He taught the simple, healed the sick, gave food to the hungry, and raised the dead. In all that He did and said, He displayed a love so great that it could only be divine.
But though the life of Jesus is fascinating and inspiring, the Gospels give a more detailed account of His death. How did this man die who brought the dead back to life? We must look at the circumstances. Jesus came to this earth as the son of a Jewish woman living in Palestine during the Roman era. At about age thirty He began ministering to His fellow Jews. But despite His goodness to all men, most of the Jewish nation rejected Him. They could not accept His call to genuine righteousness, pleasing to God. The leaders hated Him so vehemently that they pressured the Roman authorities to condemn and crucify Him. Crucifixion was one of the cruelest ways of killing a man ever invented. In the hours before He died, Jesus went through great agony of both soul and body.
Jesus’ death is the central event in the Bible—indeed, in all of human history. Why did a divine person allow Himself to be killed? Because His death fulfilled the purpose in His coming. By His death, He paid the penalty for all past and future sins of the human race. God is a righteous, holy God who will not let sins go unpunished. Yet no man can pay for his own sins except by suffering in hell. To save us from that place "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44), God chose Jesus to suffer in our place. God’s motive was an immeasurable love for us all, including you and me. But Jesus’ suffering will not count for us unless we believe in Him. In other words, we must first admit that we are sinners. Then we must accept Jesus as our Savior from sin.
Jesus' death did not bring His life to a final end. After three days in the tomb, He rose to life again and showed Himself to His disciples, who saw Him repeatedly over a period of forty days. He gave them many proofs that He was neither a ghost nor a product of their imaginations, but a living man. He spoke with them at length, ate in their presence, and allowed them to touch Him. From this time forward, Jesus was known to His followers as the Lord Jesus Christ: as "Lord" because He is God, as "Christ" because He is the Savior prophesied in the Old Testament.
During these forty days, Jesus gave His disciples the mission of telling the whole world that pardon for sin was now available as a result of His death and resurrection. The good news of salvation through Jesus Christ is known as the gospel. Yet He had warned them throughout His ministry that as witnesses to the truth, they would not be popular. Many would hate them and try to silence them.
In the years following, the disciples faithfully carried the gospel as far abroad as they could. Wherever people received the gospel, the new believers met regularly for prayer, study of God's Word, and fellowship. The first local assembly of believers, the one in Jerusalem, was known from the beginning as a church, and the same term was used for the assemblies that sprang up in other cities. The entire body of believers everywhere was known as "the church." For example, an early Christian writing preserved in the New Testament says, "Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it" (Eph. 5:25).
Background of the Book of Acts
One of the most effective preachers of the gospel was the apostle Paul. After a long career of witnessing for Christ throughout much of the Mediterranean world, he returned to Jerusalem, where he had once been a prominent Jewish leader opposed to the church, but now was seen as a traitor to his religious heritage. A mob of Jews seized him in the Temple with the intent of dragging him out and stoning him to death. He would have died except a troop of Roman guards intervened and took him into custody. The Romans dealt with him as an ordinary troublemaker until they found out that he was a Roman citizen protected by Roman law. Then the Jewish leaders brought false charges against him, hoping to convince the Romans that he was an enemy of the Roman state. After long delays, the case was brought before Festus, a new governor who appeared to side with Paul’s accusers. Left with no other good option for defending himself, Paul exercised his right of appeal to Caesar, and soon afterward he was taken to Rome for trial.
He was accompanied by the physician Luke, his traveling companion in several earlier journeys. Many scholars believe that in Rome, Luke wrote both the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts to assist in Paul's defense. Theophilus, addressed at the beginning of each book, was probably a Roman official who was hearing the case.
Luke's purpose in writing Acts explains his choice of themes. Throughout the book he makes three points: 1) that Paul and other preachers of Christianity have never encouraged rebellion against the Romans; 2) that their preaching has often started riots only because the Jews hate the new religion; and 3) that the followers of the new religion are model citizens, devoted to good works, worship of God, and loving fellowship with each other.
The main subject of Acts depends on our perspective. If we focus on the human instruments that God used to accomplish His will, the book is the story of the apostles. But if we focus on what God accomplished through them, the book is the story of how the church began and grew.
The full title of the book is the Acts of the Apostles. The book has been so named since ancient times because it tells how the chief apostles, especially Peter and Paul, worked to spread the gospel. Many have argued that the book should be called the Acts of the Holy Spirit, because the Holy Spirit was the real power behind everything the apostles achieved.
Acts has much the same place in the New Testament as Joshua has in the Old Testament. Both come after the foundational books at the beginning, Joshua after the five books of Moses and Acts after the four Gospels. Both show the people of God successfully carrying out the mission that God laid upon them when He set them apart for Himself. For the people of Israel, the mission was conquest and occupation of Canaan. For the church, the mission was to begin evangelizing the world.
Acts also resembles Genesis. Like Genesis, it is a book of beginnings.
Promise of the Spirit
During His last days with His disciples, Jesus met with them on several occasions. At least once when they were all "assembled together," He instructed them that they were not yet ready to preach the gospel. They were to stay in Jerusalem for a short time until they were baptized with the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49). The word "baptize" means to dip or immerse.4 Jesus' promise meant that they would be saturated with the Holy Spirit, much as a cloth dipped in water becomes soaked. The idea is that the Holy Spirit would possess them fully. Why was it essential for them to receive the Holy Spirit before they embarked on their mission to the world? Because He would supply them with power and guidance. If they relied on mere human ability, they would fail. It is impossible to accomplish any work for God without God's help.
The Time of Christ's Return
About forty days after His resurrection, Jesus came to His disciples for the last time. He found them in Jerusalem and led them eastward out of the city to the village of Bethany about two miles away on the far slope of the Mount of Olives (Luke 24:50). His likely purpose was to make a final visit to the home of His special friends: Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Then after spending time in Bethany, the whole company of His close followers walked back toward the city until they were less than a mile from the gate. As we will show later in this commentary, Luke’s account leaves the impression that they went no further that day, but stopped overnight, finishing their return on the morrow. The companions of Jesus were accustomed to sleeping beside the road (Luke 9:58).
When the disciples awoke in the morning, they came together with Jesus (v. 6) to hear more instruction. From the beginning of His ministry, they had expected Him to overthrow the Romans and set Himself up as king. They had even quarreled among themselves about who would become His chief minister. With His death, all their ambitions crumbled. But His resurrection, showing that He was more powerful than any earthly foe, revived their hopes that the Kingdom was near. Thus, as they stood with Jesus on the Mount of Olives, they asked Him whether He was ready to restore the kingdom to Israel. We too would like to know the answer to that question, for He will restore the kingdom to Israel when He returns.
Mission of the Church
Although the disciples had asked an improper question, Jesus answered it anyway, for two reasons: (1) the answer did not require that He reveal the time of His final descent to overcome His enemies; (2) the answer pictured their coming task in larger dimensions so that they might move forward with greater dedication and energy.
The basic answer to their question was, no. The time had not yet come to establish the Kingdom. Why? The disciples had a job to do first. He wanted them to carry the gospel to the whole world. The work of spreading the gospel is called evangelism.
During the days after His resurrection Jesus had spoken often to His disciples about their future work. Each Gospel writer gives a different portion of His instructions. We must put all these portions together to get a full picture of what Jesus said.
1. The program (Matt. 28:18-20). Matthew records the Great Commission, which describes the disciples' task. They were to go everywhere, teach (literally, "make disciples of"5) all nations, baptize new believers, and teach them Jesus' commandments.
2. The promises (Mark 16:15-18). In Mark's portion, Jesus assures the disciples that their message would have an importance worthy of their hard labors. Those who believed it would be saved. Those who did not would be damned. He also declares that God would verify their message by blessing their ministry with supernatural signs. They would cast out demons, speak in tongues, heal the sick, and enjoy immunity to serpents and poison. He was referring to signs that would accompany the work of the apostles themselves. As we will see, all these signs except immunity to poison are recorded in the Book of Acts. Yet the Christian writer Papias, living in the early second century AD, affirms that Justus, one of the disciples who heard these promises (Acts 1:23), drank poison without harm.6
3. The power (John 20:22-23). John remembers when Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost." This was not the moment when the Holy Spirit actually came upon them. Rather, Jesus was teaching them what would happen later, on the day of Pentecost. Through the Spirit they would acquire the power and authority needed for their work. Jesus said their authority would extend to forgiving and retaining sins. He chiefly meant that men everywhere could obtain forgiveness of sins only by heeding what the disciples preached.
4. The places (Acts 1:8). In the Book of Acts, the Gospel-writer Luke records Jesus' last words to His disciples. These were a warning not to be satisfied with a half-hearted effort to reach the world. He commanded them to carry the gospel to every place where they could find people: first to their home city, Jerusalem, then to the neighboring regions of Judea and Samaria, and eventually to the "uttermost" ("most distant") parts of the earth.
When Jesus said that beginning in Jerusalem, the church should move outward in its work of evangelism until it reaches "the uttermost part of the earth," He was obviously defining a corporate rather than an individual responsibility. Only the church as a whole can take the gospel everywhere. Yet if an obligation falls on the whole church, each believer must bear some of the weight. The whole world will not hear the gospel unless each believer proclaims it within his small corner of the world.
Taken Up by a Cloud
The disciples listened with eager attention until the Lord finished instructing them. It is doubtful that they had any notion of what was going to happen next. As the disciples watched Jesus intently, He suddenly began to rise in the air. The account suggests that He moved upward gradually, remaining in view until He disappeared behind a cloud. Jesus' ascent to heaven as His disciples watched is known as the Ascension. The onlookers must have stood breathless. The amazing sight left them staring upward in the hope of catching another glimpse of their beloved Master.
Then another amazing sight caught their attention. Two angels who looked like men in white clothing appeared on the ground nearby. The angels chided the disciples for continuing to gaze into the sky. They implied that it was foolish to go on looking for Jesus when He had departed from them. They seemed to be hinting that Jesus would not be returning soon.
Jesus' Future Return in Like Manner
Yet the angels immediately added words of encouragement, for us as well as for the disciples. They said that Jesus had not departed forever. Someday He would return. Although nearly two thousand years have gone by since the Ascension, we dare not doubt the angels' promise that Jesus will come again.
As the angels said, Jesus will return in "like manner"; that is, in the same manner that He ascended two thousand years ago. Just as He went up gradually into a cloud, so He will descend gradually from the clouds. "They shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30). He will first set foot on the Mount of Olives, the last place where He stood before leaving. "Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east" (Zech. 14:3-4).
Waiting in the Upper Room
Immediately after Jesus’ ascension, the whole company of witnesses returned to Jerusalem, a short journey within the limits that tradition had set for travel on the Sabbath.
The day of Jesus’ ascension may point to the day of His return "in like manner." Possibly it will be another Sabbath when He descends in glory to the mount east of Jerusalem.
Luke told Theophilus that Jesus after His resurrection was "seen of them forty days" (v. 3). Thus, if the Ascension indeed fell on a Sabbath, a Saturday, the next day must have been the Sunday exactly six weeks after the Resurrection. A strong consensus has emerged among conservative Bible scholars that the Crucifixion fell on 14 Nisan (3 April), AD 33.12 The dates of the Resurrection and the Ascension, both soon following in the same year, were therefore 16 Nisan (5 April) and 28 Iyyar (16 May).13
In the next lesson we will show that Pentecost in AD 33 fell on 6 Sivan (24 May), a Sunday. It follows that Jesus ascended a little more than a week before the Spirit descended at Pentecost.
Upon reentering the city, they all went to "an upper room," no doubt the same place where Jesus shared the Last Supper with them, also called an upper room (Luke 22:12). Many have believed that it was the upper room in John Mark's house, which later served as a secluded gathering place for the early church in Jerusalem (Acts 12:12).14
There, about 120 adults waited for the Holy Spirit. The assembled people included the mother and brothers of Jesus. The best evidence we have is that His earthly father, Joseph, died some years earlier. For example, Jesus made His first public appearance at a wedding where His mother had charge of the servants (John 2:1–11). The bride may have been one of His sisters, yet Joseph seems to be missing from the celebration.
Besides sisters, Jesus had four younger brothers (Matt. 13:55). They were James (an English distortion of his real name, Jacob15), Joseph ("Joses" in the KJV), Simon (perhaps a contraction of "Simeon," one of the twelve tribes16), and Judas (derived from "Judah," another tribe17). Since Jesus was conceived in the Virgin Mary before she and Joseph came together in marriage, the other boys in Jesus' family were only His half-brothers.
During His lifetime, Jesus' brothers had rejected His claim to be the Christ, the Son of God (Luke 8:19–21; John 7:2-9). But by the time Jesus returned to heaven, they had become His followers. The event shattering their unbelief was Jesus' victory over death. One of Jesus' appearances in His risen body was to James, presumably when he was alone (1 Cor. 15:7), yet the remainder of Jesus' family evidently did not doubt James's testimony, for they all came to the Upper Room.
Tragic End of Judas
Only eleven of the original twelve disciples were in the Upper Room. The twelfth, Judas, was missing. In a speech before the gathering, Peter retold the tragedy of Judas. Although he enjoyed the wonderful privilege of walking with Jesus day by day and sharing in the work of the Twelve, he had gone to the authorities and told them where they might find Jesus in the dead of night, so they might arrest Him quietly, without danger of setting off riots among the people who believed His claim to be the Christ. Judas's reward for betrayal of a man who had shown him nothing but divine goodness and love was a few pieces of silver.
Yet what did Judas gain from "the reward of iniquity"? Nothing at all. When he realized the enormity of his wickedness, he went to the priests and cast the money at their feet. Then he "went and hanged himself" (Matt. 27:5). He later realized the enormity of his wickedness. Then a remorse so unbearable seized him that he returned to the priests and cast the money at their feet. Right afterward he "went and hanged himself." The priests, unwilling to put blood money into the treasury, used it to buy a field where they might bury strangers; that is, foreigners who died while visiting Jerusalem. The place became known as the Field of Blood.
Matthew informs us that Judas plunged into despair "when he saw that he [Jesus] was condemned." Jesus' trial and crucifixion were on the day of Passover, a Friday. Therefore, the flurry of Judas's desperate acts ending with suicide must have fallen on the same Friday, or on the next day at the latest. Since Friday was the Feast of Passover, the priests were too busy then to shop for a field to buy, and they were forbidden to conduct ordinary business on the next day, which was a High Sabbath (John 19:31), so it appears certain that the purchase was made after Judas ended his life. No doubt their selection of the potter's field was guided by knowledge that the owner of the money they were using had recently died there. If his body had been cast into a pit at the site of his self-destruction, they may have decided that it was only fitting to give him proper ownership of his burial ground.
When Peter stood up to speak, he said that Christ's betrayal was not an accident of history, but a fulfillment of prophecy, and he reminded everyone that prophecy must be fulfilled.
From the Book of Psalms, Peter showed that Judas' terrible fate was just. He quoted Psalm 69:25: "Let their habitation be desolate; and let none dwell in their tents." Here, David pronounced a terrible sentence on the future betrayer of Christ. He said, let the man die, and let nothing be left of his family or belongings, so that his dwelling place will be found empty.
Choosing a Twelfth Disciple
Peter immediately quoted from another psalm, where David says, "Let another take his office" (Ps. 109:8). Peter understood this saying to mean that the disciples should choose a replacement for Judas.
As leader of the Twelve, Peter ruled that the new member must be a man who had followed Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry, when He was baptized by John. The company found two eligible men: Joseph (also called Barsabas, surnamed Justus) and Matthias. Rather than choose the twelfth by ballot, they submitted the decision to God. They prayed that when they cast lots, the lot would fall on the right man. The result was that Matthias took Judas's place.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
The company in the upper room numbered about 120 adults. How could so few evangelize the world? But in the days ahead the church quickly grew to include thousands more. A few years later there were believers in every corner of the Roman world. The church continued to expand at a tremendous rate for the next several centuries.