1:1 In the first book,
I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught
from the beginning
1:2 until the day when he was taken up to heaven,
after giving instructions
through the Holy Spirit
to the apostles whom he had chosen.
1:3 After his suffering
he presented himself alive to them
by many convincing proofs,
appearing to them during forty days
and speaking about the kingdom of God.
1:4 While staying with them,
he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem,
but to wait there for the promise of the Father.
"is what you have heard from me;
1:5 for John baptized with water,
but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit
not many days from now."
1:6 So when they had come together,
they asked him,
"Lord, is this the time
when you will restore the kingdom
1:7 He replied,
"It is not for you to know the times
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 all Judea and Samaria,
and to the ends of the earth."
1:9 When he had said this,
as they were watching,
he was lifted up,
and a cloud took him out of their sight.
1:10 While he was going
and they were gazing up toward heaven,
suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.
1:11 They said,
"Men of Galilee,
why do you stand looking up toward heaven?
who has been taken up from you into heaven,
will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."
1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem
from the mount called Olivet,
which is near Jerusalem,
a sabbath day's journey away.
1:13 When they had entered the city,
they went to the room upstairs where they were staying,
Philip and Thomas,
Bartholomew and Matthew,
James son of Alphaeus,
and Simon the Zealot,
and Judas son of James.
1:14 All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer,
together with certain women,
including Mary the mother of Jesus,
as well as his brothers.
V. 1 ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς ποιεῖν τε καὶ διδάσκειν
One of the pieces that matters in Acts 1:1-14 is the word: ἤρξατο.
Customary translation reads this as “from the beginning.” That is an odd translation. The root carries the notion of beginning, but this is a plain old aorist verb with plain old Jesus as its subject. And the plain old verb means “Jesus began…” and then gives us two infinitives that tell us what Jesus began: “to do” and “to teach.” This is pretty straightforward. Why have customary translators complicated things? My guess is that they are nervous about having Jesus only “begin” to do and teach. I think that interpreters should take notice when translators get nervous. There is usually something worth thinking about in such spots.
The story told in the gospel of Luke is not a story of accomplishment, but of beginning. That matters. Embodied in that important word is an explicit recognition of the incompleteness of Jesus’ career as messiah. This shows up in Christian circles as a fixation on the “second coming” of the messiah, which (to any articulate Jewish analysis, would amount to the actual FIRST coming of the messiah, since Jesus (even when read charitably by Jews or by Christians who have a clue about what “messiah” means and does) simply did NOT accomplish what messiah must accomplish. At the end of his career, the world is still obviously upside-down. Rome is still in power, and has demonstrated that position by having crucified the messiah.
Christians will leap to their feet and cheer for the resurrection. But if they are cheering for the power demonstrated by God’s raising a corpse to life, the resurrection has become some kind of circus trick. “And for my next magical trick,” says God, “I will make this dummy speak while drinking a glass of water.” Such acts belong on the Ed Sullivan show, or on any one of many variety shows in the early days of television, but not in any serious theology.
Paul reads the resurrection as some kind of “first-fruits,” as a promise of life erupting out of all-too-common death. He didn’t mean that in some metaphorical sense. He meant that resurrection was soon to become a common experience. It has not.
Christian theology has, of course, responded to this through the millennia with great vigor and creativity. The resurrection is morphed into a kind of “spiritual rebirth.” We are raised to a new life that is “free from sin,” theologically at least, if not in any observable sense. Resurrection becomes a metaphor for hopefulness or cheeriness or courage. It can be all of those things, but only if you recognize how metaphors actually work: whereas a simile posits an essential similarity between the things that are identified as similar, a metaphor gains its energy from the lack of fit between Term A and Term B: Madeleine Albright is most assuredly NOT a lion. But the disjunction sharpens both sides of the metaphor.
In Acts, the storyteller is clear: all we can say about Jesus is that he BEGAN to do and teach things that are proper to the work of the messiah. Whatever else messiah does, the narrative image of messiah makes it clear that what you need a messiah for is to turn the world right-side-up.
The issue, then, is: if Jesus only BEGAN this work, how is it to be completed? The narrative logic of Acts shows up in this little scene: Jesus will return from the sky to complete the work. I am deeply uneasy with what people have done with the notion of a “second” coming. Historically the notion of a “second” coming has been tied to political, social, and personal quietism: when James Watt (Secretary of the Interior) was asked whether we shouldn’t try to slow our use of fossil fuels, specifically when he was asked how long our coal supplies would last, he answered by asking how long it would be until Jesus came back. This is irresponsible. It is also typical.
I need to go to theologies rooted in the Incarnation that have vital ties to vigorous readings of the Body of Christ. In such theologies (thank you, Dietrich Bonhoeffer) hand the work of turning the world right-side-up (that is: doing the actual work of messiah) to the Body of Christ in the world. That makes us partners in beginning the work that will always be larger than we are. Because it was also larger than the messiah, himself.
V. 5 ὅτι Ἰωάννης μὲν ἐβάπτισεν ὕδατι, ὑμεῖς δὲ ἐν πνεύματι βαπτισθήσεσθε ἁγίῳ οὐ μετὰ πολλὰς ταύτας ἡμέρας.
There are two crucial bits in this. The first is related to the word, ἐβάπτισεν. The problem with ἐβάπτισεν is that we have a word “baptize” that we think we understand. Of course, we don’t. Lutherans baptize, but an entire set of denominations (the Baptists in all their wild variegation) doesn’t recognize our baptizing as any kind of baptism at all. But we all agree that this word refers to a sort of religious ceremony that we regularly perform. But the word in Greek means “washing,” “cleansing,” “purifying.”
And the washing in question (for John the “baptizer”) maps most naturally on the various washings that are part of Jewish life in both the ancient and contemporary world. Women ritually wash at the conclusion of their monthly periods as part of their returning to ordinary life after being in mysterious contact with blood, the bearer of the deep mystery of life. Soldiers wash (in the ancient Jewish world at least) in preparation for the extraordinarily destabilizing work of combat. John’s washing appears to be more closely related to the preparation for apocalyptic warfare against the powers that hold the world upside down. That’s why it matters in Luke’s story that even soldiers and tax collectors show up to be washed: Rome thinks it controls the universe, but even its very agents of domination are defecting to the side of the God who is working to turn the world right-side-up.
In Acts, the washing is tied decisively to the πνεύματι … ἁγίῳ. This phrase is translated (adequately) as [the] Holy Spirit. The problem is that πνεύματι means “breath” long before it means “spirit.” It means “wind” also. Tying this breath to the notion of holiness means that you cannot make sense of this phrase until you go back and soak up the story in Genesis 2. God makes an intricately crafted Mudguy (a good translation of the Hebrew word, adam), but it lies on the ground inert. The Mudguy is eerily motionless (think of the first person you saw die; think of every person you have seen die) until the holy mystery of life is blown into its nose. Why the nose? Because Genesis 2 is not a story of the FIRST human breath, but a revelation of what is happening in EVERY human breath: each inhalation happens because God bends down and blows, yet one more time, the gift of life into each human nose. Including yours.
Acts is arguing that, because God blew life back into the inert body of the messiah (who embodies the hope that the world will be turned right-side-up) and Jesus rose from the dead. That makes Acts 1 into a promise of a re-staging of Genesis 2, but now with the breath of resurrection, not just life, as the central factor. Paul, by the way, reads it the same way, which is weird, given how different Luke and Paul sometimes are.
V. 6 τῷ χρόνῳ τούτῳ ἀποκαθιστάνεις τὴν βασιλείαν τῷ Ἰσραήλ; Οὐχ ὑμῶν ἐστιν γνῶναι χρόνους ἢ καιροὺς οὓς ὁ πατὴρ ἔθετο ἐν τῇ ἰδίᾳ ἐξουσίᾳ:
Two things here: first, there is the matter of “restoring the kingdom to Israel,” whatever that might mean. The details of this notion are murky, and tangled, but the basic notion is important. Jesus is being asked when Israel will finally be released from Roman domination. Christian interpretation has typically spent its energy making fun of the notion that the work of the messiah would have some kind of earthly effect. When I was in undergrad, the typical Christian interpretation of such a notion began with ridicule of “Jewish foolishness.” Ish.
This was done in the name of avoiding false linking of the work of God with any particular side in a partisan conflict. Ancient Jews were caricatured as “foolishly nationalistic.” This interpretive line was often advanced by interpreters with their roots in European Christianity, interpreters who were quite sure that that form of Christian theology represented the best and most true form of God’s work on earth. Translated: ancient Jews were wrong because they didn’t see that Jesus’ career fosters OUR nationalism, not theirs. Ish.
Hoping for the restoration of the “kingdom to Israel” is a cry for an end to injustice and brutal domination. The disciples in this scene were asking for the same thing that any dominated and brutalized people asks for. Listen to the speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., or those of Malcom X. Now imagine that the interpreters I read as an undergrad were speaking instead of the “foolishness” of people who had been held as slaves. Ish.
Also, notice that the disciples ask about this crucial establishment of justice in terms of τῷ χρόνῳ. The Greek word, chronos, is the word that gives birth to chronology. They are asking if this is the particular point in time when you can start to count on things to start happening.
The answer attributed to Jesus responds in terms of both χρόνους ἢ καιροὺς, both chronos and kairos. If chronos refers to locateable points in time, kairos refers to those astonishing “sweet spots” in time that suddenly open up. Jesus says that both kinds of moments are unknowable. He is not (not to my eye, anyhow) training his disciples in quietism, not administering the opiate that Karl Marx noted centuries later. His words (at least for me) spur dissatisfaction. “No, this is not the time,” he says, even though he taught his disciples to pray that God’s will would ACTUALLY be done on earth, not just somewhere up in the sky. For once.
V. 8 λήμψεσθε δύναμιν
A short note here: δύναμιν is generally translated as “power.” This word is risky when you hand it to people who are already in control of most of the power in a society. It also implies that the work of the disciples will be accomplished by force. The word in Greek refers more to “dynamic potentiality.” In fact, in biblical texts, when δύναμιν goes out of a person (especially a male), he becomes im-potent. Any decent translation needs “potence” in the mix somehow. So, if the followers of the messiah are somehow the “Body of Christ,” they are promised the dynamic potentiality to actually carry out this transformative and life-giving work.
V. 9 νεφέλη ὑπέλαβεν αὐτὸν
A cloud received him. Jesus goes up, not into “heaven,” but into the sky. Our notions of “heaven” have almost nothing to do with ancient Jewish notions. The sky was a place no human being could reach. There were no airplanes, and no space craft. Humans lived their entire lives on the (relatively) flat plane of the earth. The sky was the barrier between ordinary life on earth and the uncontrollable forces that were held back by the dome. The sky was the dome in which the stars were set, and the stars were orderly and ordered, they allowed the prediction of seasons and cycles. Jesus is returning to the site where order and the inexorable were balanced against each other. And thus it was that a cloud received him.
V. 12 σαββάτου ἔχον ὁδόν.
It matters that the disciples were a “sabbath’s journey” from Jerusalem. This scene takes place, we are told, on a sabbath 40 days after Jesus was seen to have been raised from death (on the day after the sabbath, a Sunday). That means that this scene takes place (apparently) 43 days after Passover. And that means that this scene takes place one week before Pentecost, the feast of 50 days, Shavuot, in Hebrew. This may not be earth-shaking, but it matters in a world that measures time from sabbath to sabbath. This scene takes place one sabbath before the next major festival in the life of Jews, and thus contributes its energy to that coming festival. Christians tend to think of this as their own story. It draws its energy, however, from the structure of a Jewish world. Remember, Jesus is Jewish. Then and now.
V. 14 Γυναιξὶν
Customary translations say something about “certain women.” I can’t figure out where they get the word “certain.” That implies, in my ear at least, that the group of women is rather small. The Greek just says that the named disciples devoted themselves to prayer with women. The group of women included Jesus’ mother, but it is implied that the group was large. Perhaps much larger than the group of 11 males who are named. That is worth thinking about slowly. Imagine that. Now go back and read Luke’s story. It is, to be sure, a story that assumes that a patriarchal world is normal. There are baritones everywhere. But there are also women who are decisive in the story, decisive in ways that males are not. Zechariah has a scene paired with Mary’s first appearance in the story. Mary comes off strong enough to sing the Magnificat. Zechariah is reduced to making incomprehensible signals that people can’t quite figure out. Elizabeth plays the role of a powerful auntie to whom Mary flees for protection. Anna in the Temple anchors the story in the history and hope of the Jewish people. At the end of the story, the “daughters of Jerusalem” come out to mourn for Jesus as their brother. And now the small group of male disciples join with this ever-expanding group of women in devoting themselves to prayer.