From Jerusalem To Rome (2): The Last Question

Last time, we discussed the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. As you know, the two volumes of Luke (the Gospel and the Acts) have a lot in common. Among many other similarities, there is a peculiar resemblance in the structure, especially in the beginning: in both volumes, the main “opening” event happens only in the second chapter: the birth of Jesus in the Gospel; the birth of the Church in Acts. Last time, from the words of Luke himself, we learned that reporting things in order was a very essential feature of his writings. Therefore, the events of the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel must have been very important in his eyes if they precede the birth of Jesus in his orderly account! As we open the book of Acts, we see that also in the first chapter, Luke sets some background for future events, and similar to the Gospel, it is a very Jewish background as well! Just as in the Gospel, this Jewish background of the first chapter of Acts forms the foundation and constitutes ‘number one’ in the sequence of Luke’s account and not only the second, but all the chapters of this book, need to be read against this background!

The Last Question

So, let us start reading. We are in the first chapter of Acts. In Acts 1:4 Jesus commanded his disciples not to “depart from Jerusalem”. In order to better understand this command, we have to remember that this conversation happened just a few days before Pentecost/Shavuot and that Shavuot is one of the three Biblical pilgrimage festivals[1] when all pious Jews were expected to be in Jerusalem. In this sense, Jesus is just confirming to his disciples the commandments given in the Torah. Luke emphasizes that the story of the Church starts on the Jewish – Biblical – Feast of Shavuot (just like in his Gospel, the story of Jesus starts in the Jewish – Biblical – Temple).

However, as important as this detail is, the most significant part of the background that Luke sets in this Chapter is undoubtedly the question that the disciples of Jesus ask him here. Many Christian readers pay no attention to this question, yet it is absolutely crucial for the correct understanding of the whole book. It is like a correct setting in your computer: you won’t be able to go online if your WIFI setting is off and you are not connected. You won’t be able to understand the story of Jesus and Israel in general, and the book of Acts in particular, if you miss this very last question the disciples asked Jesus: ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’[2] This one question is enough to understand how great the difference was between the redemption Israel was looking for and that which Jesus brought.

Of course, it was a very topical question—the Messiah that Israel was waiting for couldn’t help but bring redemption and salvation to the people of Israel. Mashiach (Messiah) was understood to be the one who would come primarily to fulfill this purpose. No devout, believing person in Israel could imagine that God would send His salvation by a savior who would not save His people—most of my readers would probably know that. However, there are two very important points there that I want to emphasize because I believe that Luke wants to emphasize them. We cannot understand the Book of Acts properly if we don’t understand these points.

First, we must realize that the disciples ask this question, not only after three years of uninterrupted fellowship with Jesus, but after his death on the cross, after his resurrection, after the forty days he had appeared to them, teaching and explaining the mysteries of God’s plan: “being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”[3] And if, after all His explanations and messages, the disciples He had chosen and instructed continued to expect this from Him, then what does this say about all the other multitudes of Israelites who, listening to His messages and seeing His miracles, were absolutely convinced that sooner or later He would be sure to begin saving and restoring Israel?

Faith in a kingly Messiah who would restore the throne of David and hence the kingdom to Israel was an inseparable component of faith in God, and was based on a Biblical promise. “I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son.”[4] In this context, it is vital to realize that the people of Israel could not accept Jesus as their Messiah, out of faithfulness to God and His Word: in their understanding, this would have contradicted Scripture. And here is the point that I want you to see. According to Luke, God alone could have opened the eyes of the people of Israel to recognize the Messiah who differed from the traditional expectations. We see it very clearly in the last and transitional chapter of Luke’s Gospel, in the story of Emmaus, where God Himself first closes and then opens the eyes of the disciples. Here in Acts, Luke places this question – The Question – as kind of a preface to the whole book: starting from the next chapter, he will show how God Himself opens the eyes. In his account, we will see both those whose eyes were opened and those whose eyes God Himself chose not to open. However, in both cases, the opening of the eyes is God’s prerogative and God’s choice—and we need to remember that while reading this book.

There is another point that Luke wants us to see here. In his response to the disciples, Jesus doesn’t say: What a stupid or inappropriate question! He doesn’t say: “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken” – as he said on the road to Emmaus![5] His answer implies that the kingdom will indeed be restored to Israel, but it’s not for us to know when, it is outside of human knowledge. And this is the setting that, I maintain, is necessary for understanding the whole book. More often than not, the book of Acts has been seen as proof that God has abandoned the Jews and turned to the Gentiles. I will try to show that this book if read properly, doesn’t support this view at all. Stay tuned – as I mentioned in my last post, we will be doing some ‘recalculating’ here!

[1] Ex.23:14-17

[2] Acts 1:6

[3] Acts 1:3

[4] 2 Sam. 7:12-14

[5] Luk.24:25

 

 

Excerpts from my books are included in many posts on this blog, so if you like my articles,  you might enjoy also my books, you can get them here. Also, I would like to remind you, that we offer wonderful courses, and those interested in studying in-depth Parashat Shavua, along with New Testament insights, or exploring the Jewish Background of the New Testament, are welcome to contact me  (juliab@eteachergroup.com) for more information and for the discount for the new students,. 

About the author

Julia BlumJulia is a teacher and an author of several books on biblical topics. She teaches two biblical courses at the Israel Institute of Biblical Studies, “Discovering the Hebrew Bible” and “Jewish Background of the New Testament”, and writes Hebrew insights for these courses.

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  1. David Oberdieck

    I agree with you that Jesus does not at all rebuke the disciples for the content of their question. It is common, however, to read a rebuke into the text. Many view it as if Jesus is giving Himself a head slap thinking that Jesus is incredulous over their question. None of that exists in the text however, and it must be read into it to conform the apostles to certain eschetological views. One commentator put it this way, ““Their minds [apostles] had returned entirely to the earthly, carnal understanding…Their foolish thoughts were not effectually dispelled until the Spirit of Pentecost was shed forth upon them.”

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, David, you are absolutely right, it is very common to read rebuke into Jesus’ answer and to label as “foolish” and “carnal” the question of the disciples. As you write, “none of that exists in the text, however”. Jesus doesn’t rebuke them at all, moreover, from his answer, we learn that God might indeed restore the kingdom of Israel – but it’s not a human task to know or guess when it will happen.

  2. Gladys

    Thanks again Dear Teacher Julia,
    You always teach me more than any other teacher and you must know how very much that means to me .
    I thought that I had all of your books , but I found a new one ,” Nacho the Lionheart ” and I am eagerly awaiting for it to be delivered to me . I know ..I am very close to being 79 years old and this book is for children . I’m still a child at heart and I still love books for children as they teach me many many things.
    May God Bless the children and the really really old children too .

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you Gladys, it’s always a joy to hear from you! You are the first among my readers to discover my “little secret”: yes, lately I’ve started to write children’s books, and this is the first one. I would love to hear your comments – and if there are any children around you, maybe, they can read the book as well and you can tell me about their reaction! Thank you!

  3. Dorothy HEALY

    It’s completely understandable that the Jews missed Messiah when he came the first time. Christian’s today should not judge – many will not be ready when he comes again.

    1. Julia Blum

      Yes, Dot, this is what I am trying to show in these articles: Jesus didn’t come in accordance with the messianic expectations of Israel, therefore, out of faithfulness to God and His Word, the people of Israel could not accept Jesus as their Messiah: in their understanding, this would have contradicted the Scripture.

  4. Nick

    I think most of us “see” more than we used to “see”, but uncertainty will always be a part of the journey. And that is okay. The sages have said that God created the world that there might be a place where faith could exist.
    Thanks,
    Nick