The opening chapters of the Acts of the Apostles form an introduction to the second part of a two-part work written by Luke. These two works, the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, were written to someone named Theophilus.
Though most likely a real person, it has been suggested that Theophilus may have been a pseudonym to protect the individual from various persecutors. In any event, Theophilus appears to be a gentile who most likely made Luke’s writings available to other interested readers.
Luke also was a gentile. This connection formed a bond between Luke and Theophilus, influencing much of what Luke wrote about.
Themes in Luke-Acts
Luke had several interests that governed his writing. A close examination of Luke-Acts reveals that these interests form themes that are laced throughout Luke writings. It is of value to briefly examine each theme in order to better understand the purpose of Luke’s writings and therefore see more clearly why Luke recorded the events of Acts 1-5. The following are a list of themes found in Luke-Acts:
An important, yet subtle, theme found in Luke-Acts is Temple vs. House theme. This is a contrasting theme rather than a theme of opposition. For Luke, the temple represents the ritual of worship where the house represents the heart of worship. That is to say, in the temple (where rituals were performed to God), such rituals may be ceremonial only. The genuineness of one’s commitment to the gospel is truly found in how one lives the gospel in the home.
Carefully examining Luke’s writings will reveal numbers of stories taking place within the temple or house or where both temple and house (either in name or implied) are found in juxtaposition to each other.
The physical resurrection of Christ is another theme that is important to Luke. As will be noted, the resurrection was not a well-accepted concept in the world in which Luke wrote. Yet the resurrection is the sign of the reality of Christ and his mission.
The Theme of Resurrection and the Ascension of Christ
Keeping these themes in mind, I will present a few insights into some of the important aspects of Acts 1-5. The opening chapter of Acts centers on two stories: the ascension of Christ (1:4-11) and the calling of Matthias to replace the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve occasioned by the suicide of Judas (1:15-26).
Organizationally, Luke uses the story of the ascension of Christ as a vehicle to establish the structure of Acts, which is carefully organized around the theme of the universality of the gospel. The structure is given in verse eight. Here the Savior tells the Apostles that “ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.”
Acts 1-5 records incidents associated with the gospel as taught by the Apostles in Jerusalem. Acts 6-9 outlines the spread of the gospel throughout Judaea and Samaria. Finally, Acts 10-28 narrates how the gospel was taken to the gentiles, focusing mainly on the ministry of Paul.
Theologically, the story of the ascension continues the theme of the physical reality of the resurrection of Christ. In his gospel, Luke recorded the very important incident of the Savior’s appearance to the Twelve Apostles after His crucifixion.
The Apostles were troubled by what they saw and supposed it was a spirit and not the physical Lord. But the Savior said: “Why are ye troubled? And why do thoughts arise in your hearts? Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit hath not flesh and bones, as ye see me have.” They touched His physical resurrected body and learned for themselves of its reality (23:36-40).
That Jesus is still in a physical, resurrected state is made clear in the story of the ascension. Having taken the Twelve to the Mount of Olives and spoken to them one last time, all of a sudden “he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.” Astonished, the Apostles “looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up” when “two men stood by them in white apparel.”
The angels said, “Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11). Just as Jesus ascended to heaven in a physical resurrected body, He would in like manner return to that very same mountain in the same form.
The Hellenistic mind‑set found the idea of a resurrection strange indeed. Many a Greek or Roman would have had little difficulty believing that a god had sired a son, for their mythologies supported the idea. Also, belief in prophecy and portents was widespread, as were reports of miracles and those who performed miracles. The idea that a mortal could become as the gods was not difficult for many to accept, and there were precedents for both men and gods dying and coming back to life.
But the idea that a mortal could rise from the dead and enter eternal life with a physical body had little precedent. Much of the Hellenistic world denied the reality of any kind of resurrection, let alone a physical one. The Greek rejection of the physical body made the idea of a resurrection of that body abhorrent.
Some believed that mortals had been resuscitated from death, but these isolated incidents were a mere postponing of eventual death. There simply was no room in the Hellenistic world view for belief in any kind of a general resurrection at the end of world history.