Acts~1:12-26

“All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (v14) feels like a punch in the teeth to most Christians. One of the huge themes in Acts is the prayerfulness of the early church and here we see it in all its glory – and hardly ever measure up. There was a devotion to prayer which went far beyond five minutes by the foot of the bed some nights and a unity not just between the apostles but also the family of Jesus – who hadn’t believed in Jesus while he had been alive (John 7:5). It’s a big ol’ challenge.

While it may seem that Judas didn’t really have a choice since someone had to betray Jesus to fulfill the Scripture, of course he did. The events of that night were part of God’s sovereign choice, but Judas was completely responsible for what he did.

Muslims (and probably other people) enjoy pointing out the apparant contradictions in the accounts of Judas’ death in Acts and Matthew 27:3-10. However, is it possible that they are talking about exactly the same events but emphasising different points? Noting that the word we translate “hanged” in Matthew didn’t just mean death by gallows but can refer to crucifixion or being impaled on a stake, it could be that Judas impaled himself and lost some of his bowels in the process, or (as I believe some traditions have it) he hanged himself on the top of a cliff and the rope snapped so he fell into the field and burst. The chief priests bought the field with his money, so essentially bought it on his behalf. In neither Matthew nor Acts is it clear why the field got its new name – in Matthew the ‘therefore’ is ambiguous, and in Acts the ‘it’ in v19 could be referring to Judas’ bowels gushing out or to the whole incident of his death and the buying of the field to bury strangers. Matthew and Luke are not at odds on that point.

I believe that the two accounts are completely unifyable, but also that it’s important not to let unity remove distinctivness. The two writers wrote differently for different purposes and while it’s important for apologetics to be able to reconcile them, it’s important for understand of their points to be able to interpret each in its context. Luke’s choice of words and emphasis seems to be aiming for shock appeal, which is continued by Peter’s choice of Psalms to allude to (see next paragraph). It seems that Luke’s message to the early church is that betraying Jesus is not a small matter – see also Acts 5:1-11 – and that the consequences are horrific.

Peter quotes twice from the Psalms, from 69 and 109, and says that the Holy Spirit spoke them “by the mouth of David concerning Judas” (v15). Peter recognised that the Old Testament was of joint authorship between its human writers and the Holy Spirit, and acknowledged its words as the speech of God. They are interesting reading in their own right – Psalm 69 is a Messianic Psalm and Psalm 109 may be. Certainly of all the things that Peter could have quoted from Psalm 109, “Let another take his office” is one of the very nicest – and he would certainly have known how negative the Psalm was that he was linking to Judas.

Selecting a man who had been with the apostles from the beginning seems like a common sense call, rather than a direct application of the Psalms, and it is interesting that he is to be a witness to Jesus’ resurrection. The apostles highly valued Jesus’ life, teaching and death but it was the resurrection that was the heart of their message – it was the ultimate proof of Jesus’ lordship and the means by which we can be justified.

Before making the decision of who the newest apostle should be they, of course, prayed. Then they cast lots to ask for God’s guidance. It could be argued from this that drawing straws should take a more prominent place in the lives of our churches. Acts, however, is a history lesson rather than one in theology or church order. I think it’s important while reading Acts to consider it in the light of the Epistles, where there are no instructions to make decisions this way. Of course, this was being decided before Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was sent, so the decision-making process is probably not normative. What we learn from this account isn’t how to seek God’s guidance (for that see, eg, Romans 12:2) but that the apostles thought it was hugely important to do so and that they hugely valued prayer while they were doing it. If I could learn to do the same in everything it would be a great thing.

Heavenly Father, I thank you again for the gift of your Holy Spirit whose guidance means I don’t have to resort to casting lots. I pray that he would increase my love for the Old Testament, and teach me to interpret it in the light of Jesus Christ and the teaching of the apostles, and by the warning of Judas give me greater fear and reverence for you and your Son so I will serve you better. Amen.

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