Facts, Faith and Unfulfilled Promise in Acts 1:3-14
The church is abuzz with the idea of “Missional” Faith, but so much of the conversation lacks a meaningful engagement with history. Luke, on the other hand, makes a strong rhetorical connection between the historial facts of Jesus life with the mission of the church. New Testament Scholar, Ben Witherington, helps us see this connection.
The reference to many convincing τεκμηριοις in v. 3 is important, for this is a technical term for a “necessary proof” (see Aristotle, Rhetor. 1.2.16f.). Quintilian (Inst. Or. 5.9.3) puts it more strongly: τεκμηρια are things which involve conclusion, “those which cannot be otherwise are called τεκμηρια by the Greeks, because they are indications from which there is no getting away.” In other words, Luke believes the resurrection appearances of Jesus are strong, irrefutable proofs that Jesus is alive, providing basis for all that follows, including the sending of the Spirit, the creation of the church, the success of the Christian mission. That Luke stresses that Jesus gave such proofs that he was alive indicates already that he is engaged in volume two, as he was in volume one, in the art of persuasion, in apologetics, in order to strengthen or confirm
Luke’s very unique word choice in this passage emphasizes “convincing proofs” and demonstrates, says Witherington, that Luke continues to write in the Hellenistic historiographical mode. Luke’s rhetoric also reinforces, to his Greek and Roman audience, the importance of accepting these historical proofs as context for the story of the early church he is about to reveal. As one example, lets look at how Luke tells the story of Jesus’ ascension.
It may be worthwhile to consider what function the ascension has in Luke’s narrative, since he is the only Evangelist who really mentions such an idea, and does so in both of his volumes. It may not be accidental that his audience is Gentile, for Gentiles were well familiar with the idea of gods or semidivine figures materializing on earth in disguise and then being transported back into the heavens, but were much less familiar with the idea of resurrection, unless they had had some contact with Judaism. Thus it is resurrection that Luke must be convincing about, and it must be distinguished from pagan notions of various sorts. Nevertheless, the christological implications of this narrative for a Gentile audience familiar with the deification accounts of figures like Herakles should not be overlooked. Jesus is being portrayed here as a human yet divine figure worthy of a place in heaven alongside the Creator of the universe.
Luke stresses that the resurrected Jesus was no mere spirit but was tangible and could eat and drink with the disciples (cf. Luke 24:30, 37–39, 41–43). That is, in Luke’s view the resurrection appearances were not merely visions from heaven, but happenings on earth. Thus, the ascension serves the function of making clear to the disciples (and in this case to Theophilus) that Jesus’ life on earth had a definite closure, after the resurrection appearances. The disciples will not be called upon to be witnesses to any transcendent events, but only to things they saw and heard while Jesus was on earth—in particular, the resurrection appearances.
Witherington goes on to point out that acceptance of the ascension narrative as historical fact, is paramount to accepting both the message of Jesus and the mission of the church to the World.
The subject of Jesus’ messages after the resurrection is stated in v. 3 to be the dominion of God, which binds the content of Jesus’ earthly teaching to that about which the disciples will instruct others to the very end of Acts (cf. 8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31). Luke is concerned with various continuities throughout Acts. The continuity between the ministry of Jesus and that of his followers (including both the message and the empowering presence of the Spirit), the continuity between Judaism and Christianity, the continuity between OT prophecy and the events that transpired among Jesus’ followers both before and after Easter (and Pentecost). This concern is understandable in the first century, because the one thing bound to offend many pagans in the Empire was a religion that was too new, a religion which could not claim a lengthy pedigree going back into hoary antiquity.
Luke’s rhetoric was designed to help his readers see the inextricable link between past, present and future history. For Luke, the present story of the church, is rooted in the ancient story of the Jewish nation and feeds into the hope that God will remain faithful to write the story of the promised future.
Jesus identifies the Holy Spirit as “the promise of the Father,” thus connecting it with OT prophecy, which prepares us for what follows in Acts 2:16–22. In view of the parallelism of vv. 3–4 it seems likely that in Luke’s mind the coming of the kingdom or dominion of God is synonymous with, or at least closely associated with, the coming of the Holy Spirit in power (cf. Luke 11:13, 20). This last conclusion is confirmed by what follows in vv. 4b–5, where we are told that what Jesus taught during his ministry was about being baptized by or with the Holy Spirit in contradistinction to John’s baptism, which was merely by or with water.
The promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit in v. 5 also carries with it a time limit—“not many days” from now. It is possible that Luke arrived at the forty-day-appearance period by calculating back from the date of Pentecost, which of course was fifty days after Passover, and then allowing for a few extra days after the ascension. The issue of timing here is brought up in more than one connection.
The promise of the Spirit in “not many days” prompts the question, “Is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6). It is a natural question not only in view of the connection in Luke’s thought between the pouring out of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom, but also because of the speculations in early Judaism about the restoration of the land (cf. Sir. 48:10, the LXX of Mal. 3:23). In terms of Lukan theology, what this verse shows is that while Luke does believe that the coming of the Spirit inaugurates the kingdom, he does not believe that that is all there is to be said about the kingdom. This verse suggests that God will one day fulfill his promises to Israel, in fact that God has already set that time and determined the interval before it by his own authority, but that human speculation about the timing of such an event is unfruitful, since only God knows that timing and he is not revealing it to mortals. What this also shows is that Luke believes, not surprisingly, that many early followers of Jesus believed in the restoration of the control of the land to Israel (cf. Luke 24:21).
Ben Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles : A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998), 108-10.