From Jerusalem To Rome: The Hidden Allusions

To the Ends of the Earth

A few weeks ago, when I started this series and analyzed the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel, comparing it with the first chapter of Acts, I wrote: “You might be thinking that the ‘Jewishness’ of Acts 1 is less obvious than the ‘Jewishness’ of Luke 1 – if so, you might be surprised as we read this chapter together!”  A week ago, we discussed the last question that the disciples asked Jesus: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The New Testament in general and the book of Acts in particular, cannot be understood properly if we miss this question. Of course, the answer that Jesus gave them is no less important. As I wrote last time, 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! His answer doesn’t delegitimize their question, it just shifts their focus. Their task is not to calculate the times, but to be His witnesses “to the ends of the earth”.

It’s important to understand that Jewish settings, including prominent historical figures such as Rabbi Gamaliel, and institutions such as synagogues and the Temple, are very important throughout the entire book of Acts. However, it is here in the first chapter, that this importance is grounded and established. It is here, in this chapter, that we find several very important allusions to the Hebrew Scriptures; it is here, in this chapter,  that several key themes begin that continue throughout the entire book. Thus, regarding the ends of the earth, we find an identical expression in Isaiah:

I will also give You as a light to the Gentiles,
That You should be My salvation to the ends of the earth
.” [1]

This verse is quoted explicitly in Acts 13:47, but it is here, in this chapter, before the mission to Gentiles has even begun, where this expression brings out a very important point: the mission that Jesus is commissioning them for is based on God’s Word and God’s plan for His people!

Jesus and Elijah

We find here another allusion that would be clear to anyone familiar with the Scriptures, which at that time would mean all the Jewish readers of Acts. The departure of Jesus here is paralleled with the ascent of Elijah when Elijah “went up by a whirlwind into heaven”. The important point is that he was taken in the sight of Elisha, his appointed successor. If you remember, a little earlier, when Elisha asked for a double portion of his spirit, Elijah answered: “if you see me when I am taken from you, it shall be so for you; but if not, it shall not be so.[2] Since Elijah went up in the sight of Elisha, Elisha was indeed empowered by a double portion of his spirit and therefore proceeded to act as a prophet capable of mighty works in “the spirit of Elijah”.

Thus, the whole scene in Acts 1:4-10 should bring our attention to the parallel between the departure of Elijah after commissioning his successor to continue his work in his spirit, and the departure of Jesus after commissioning his followers to continue his work, and promising them His Spirit. That scene should have brought the disciples’ attention to this parallel as well. The fact that the disciples saw Jesus going up corresponds with the way in which Elisha saw Elijah going up. Elisha was assured thereby that he would receive a double portion of his spirit. In the light of this allusion, the disciples would have been assured as well, that they would receive Jesus’ Spirit.

Luke doesn’t describe their feelings, just as 2 Kings doesn’t describe the emotions of Elisha. However, we can guess that, even though in both cases they had expected this parting, and even though in both cases this going up was a truly glorious heavenly event, the first thing the disciples experienced was their personal loss—the Master was gone! I think it would have been very similar to what Elisha experienced, when he cried: “My Father, My Father”. I imagine they felt the same—they felt orphaned! If you don’t agree, remember these words of Jesus: “I will not leave you orphans; I will come to you[3]. He knew that, without Him and his spirit, they would feel as orphans.

However, like Elisha, they were commissioned to continue the work of the Master, and that actually explains the next scene. They return to the upper room where they were staying  (by the way, we have no way of knowing whether it’s the same room where they had eaten the Last Supper), they pray single-mindedly, and they know and feel that they need to be fully prepared and equipped for the mission they were given. Therefore, “Peter stood up in the midst of the disciples” and suggested they choose another Apostle, to replace Judas, because it was absolutely clear to the Jewish Apostle Peter that, in order to be fully equipped for the mission ahead, the number of Apostles, like the number of the tribes of Israel, had to be twelve.

Casting Lots

The following verses describe a very special and unique incident in the New Testament scene. When the disciples decide whom to appoint instead of Judas, they choose two men as potential candidates. Then, in order to allow God to nominate which of the two He had chosen, they do something that seems somewhat unusual in our day – they cast lots. Why? Was it a regular custom of the time?

First of all, we have to know that in the Old Testament, casting lots was a method regularly employed for revealing God’s choice: whether somebody responsible for certain acts needed to be found (Josh. 7:14, 1 Sam.14:42), or for discovering God’s choice regarding His representatives (1 Sam.10:19). Scripture teaches that “the lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord”.

Did this tradition of seeking God’s choice by casting lots still exist in the 1st century? It certainly did, and we have several confirmations. One is Josephus, who describes himself and the last remaining fighters on Masada casting lots to determine the order in which they would die. The second one comes from Qumran: the expression yetzey ha-goral – “the result of the lot” – occurs several times in the Scrolls to indicate a communal decision.

In Acts 1, the disciples probably wrote each name on a tablet, placed them in an urn, and then shook the urn till one came out – that was the most common way of casting a lot in order to ascertain God’s will.

I would like to finish this article with the same thought that I have repeated several times before. There is really no reason for Luke to describe this procedure unless he wants his readers to know that, whatever the disciples were doing was completely in line with biblical patterns. By setting this Jewish Background in the 1st chapter of Acts, Luke wants to make sure that a reader knows that the events of Acts 2 were happening in the very Jewish setting of Acts 1—just as Jesus being born in Luke 2 was born in the very Jewish setting of Luke 1. This Jewish background serves as a foundation of all the future events in Luke’s report, and it is Luke’s intention that, not only the second chapter but all the chapters of this book, should be read against this background!

 

[1] Is. 49:6

[2] 2 Kings 2: 9–12.

[3] John 14:18

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. Gladys Fox

    Thanks again Julia .
    As always your teachings make everything so clear .
    I finally got your book” Nacho the Lionheart ” and I think that is a wonderful Book and I love the illustrations . I believe that it is a book that even adults can enjoy . Sadly there are no children in my life at this time . My grandchildren are grown and they have no children yet .
    I recently heard that dogs are taken into hospitals to help calm children . Your book could help calm children if dogs aren’t available . If adults read your book it just might make them want to get their own little dog ( or big ) and more ” fur babies” would find permanent homes .
    Thanks again Dear Teacher Julia and thanks to Nacho too . May God Bless you and your family including Nacho

    1. Julia Blum

      Dear Gladys, I am so touched and happy to hear that! I really hope that through this book, Nacho can touch children’s hearts with God’s love – as he touched ours! Thank you so much!

  2. Dorothy Healy

    Thank you for this insightful teaching Julia. I was particularly moved by the connection you made with Elijah and Elisha. It brought to mind John 14:12 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father.” This may have been true in the beginning, but sadly ‘religion’ soon took over and largely quashed the spirit. The Ecclesia needs to take hold of this and rise up into the mantle promised her – for His Name’s sake!

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you, Dot! This connection with Elijah and Elisha is often overlooked – while it’s so important to see it in order to understand that in the light of this allusion, the disciples would have been assured that they would receive Jesus’ Spirit – because they saw Jesus going up, exactly like Elisha saw Elijah going up. Elisha was assured thereby that he would receive the promised double portion of the spirit; thus, the disciples knew they would receive the promised Spirit as well.

  3. Nick

    Wonderful teaching! Clarity of the continuity of the original gospel message from Genesis. The purpose of the Kingdom to be a Light, that the nations would see the Good/God.
    Thanks,
    Nick

    1. Julia Blum

      Thank you for your kind words, Nick. I absolutely love this expression: “continuity of the original gospel message from Genesis”. Well said! Thank you!