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Acts of the Apostles (Part -2)

Acts :Chapters 1-5

-Dr Rosemary Varghese

(Published in Radio Veritas Asia Feb 9, 2022)

After the Introduction (Part-1) of this series, we commence with the actual happenings recorded in the Acts. Part -2 is based on the first five chapters of The Acts. The narrative seeks to bring out the main elements that marked the beginning of the spread of Christianity throughout the world. It begins with the Ascension of Jesus Christ, followed by the divine outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. After that we witness the powerful impact of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, and on the fledgling community of believers that was rapidly increasing, spreading Christianity in Jerusalem first, and later in other countries.

The Acts begins where the Gospels end, and Luke addresses this discourse to Theophilus, just as in the case of his Gospel. The disciples were witness to many appearances of the resurrected Christ during the forty days He spent in this world before returning to His heavenly abode. He continued to educate them about the kingdom of God. Finally, He called them together and instructed them that they should remain in Jerusalem till they received the powerful baptism of the Holy Spirit.

The important events described in these early chapters include the Ascension of Jesus Christ, the Descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles during Pentecost, the manifestation of the power of the Holy Spirit in the apostles, and the formation of the early community of believers.

  • The Ascension

Forty days had passed since the Resurrection of Christ, and it was time for His Ascension into heaven. The apostles were excited about the baptism they were to receive, but even at this point of time, they had not understood God’s plan of establishing His kingdom, and the vital role they were commissioned to play in this.

As His chosen ones and constant companions, they believed that Christ was the Messiah whom the prophets had written about, but they were expecting a mighty earthly king, like King David who would tower above all earthly kings. As seen in the final chapters of the Gospels, their hopes were shattered as they witnessed Jesus being treated and punished like a common criminal, and many of them, including Peter, deserted Him as He hung on the cross. However, their confidence was renewed with the Resurrection, and the Acts opens with the Risen Lord instructing them to remain in Jerusalem till they received the baptism of the Holy Spirit. After giving them an accurate geographical plan on how they would be empowered to spread the Word, He completed His mission on earth and ascended to His heavenly abode.

Peter took the reins of leadership and his first task was to find a successor for Judas. Two names were proposed, both men who fitted in with the conditions Peter proposed –Joseph and Matthias. Finally Matthias was chosen as the twelfth apostle.

  • The anointing of the Holy Spirit

Acts 2 describes the spectacular descent of the Holy Spirit on the believers who were praying together. This happened on the day of the Pentecost, a celebration that dated back to the time of Moses, almost fifteen centuries before Christ. This ancient Jewish festival was celebrated as a festival of first fruits, where everyone gathered to offer the first grain of the season along with other animal sacrifices. This explains why there were so many foreigners present in town that day. They had all come into Jerusalem to commemorate the Pentecost with grain offerings.

On closer examination , there seems to be a deeper connect between Pentecost Sunday in the Acts, and the actual festival of first fruits, the Pentecost in the Old Testament. The Gospels recount how the Passion and Death of Jesus coincided with the ancient Jewish feast of the Passover. Just as the blood of the sacrificial lamb had saved the Israelites from death in the Old Testament (Exodus 12), Jesus became the sacrificial lamb in the New Testament during the Passover festival, serving as a ransom to save God’s people from the fatal yoke of the devil.

It is significant, then, that forty days later, the anointing of the Holy Spirit coincided with the Pentecost, the festival of first fruits, symbolizing the Descent of the Holy Spirit as the first fruits of the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. Christ’s promise to all humanity had been fulfilled— “ And I will pray to the Father, and He will give you another Helper, that He may abide with you forever— the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees Him nor knows Him; but you know Him, for He dwells with you and will be in you.”-John 14:16

  • The manifestation of Holy Spirit Power

The power and presence of the Holy Spirit was first experienced by the disciples as they gathered in a room to pray. There was the sound of rushing wind, and split tongues of fire hovered over each of them. There was great rejoicing as each one began to speak and praise God in different languages, and the large crowds that assembled there were astonished that they could understand what the disciples said , each in their own language! There were people from European and Arabian countries, speaking in multiple languages and the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit amazed everyone. This was followed by a miraculous change in the personalities of Peter and the apostles. They became emboldened in speech and action, and were blest with powerful gifts of healing and deliverance, just like their Master.

Peter’s speech

The Pentecost experience was beyond the boundaries of human imagination. The disbelieving Jewish onlookers were trying to make sense of what they had just witnessed. As the strains of praise and worship in different tongues rose to a crescendo, they accused the disciples of being drunk. Peter took the cue from this and rose to make his first speech, one that left his audience in a state of spiritual and emotional shock.

Beginning from common ground, Peter commenced his speech by quoting the prophecies of the coming of the Messiah from the Old Testament. He then built his argument steadily to establish that Jesus, whom the Jews had crucified was this Messiah, and His resurrection proved that beyond doubt! Having laid the burden of blame and guilt on their shoulders, he concluded by offering them the opportunity to repent for their actions, and accept the baptism of the Holy Spirit. Many among his audience were convinced, and that very day, three thousand people received baptism. The prophetic words of Jesus to His disciples during His public ministry, were now being fulfilled—“When you are brought before the synagogues, rulers, and authorities, do not worry about how to defend yourself, or what to say. For at that time the Holy Spirit will teach you what to say”— Luke 12:11

Healing powers from the Holy Spirit

The believers were witness to many signs and wonders by the apostles. People gathered from near and far bringing the sick and the possessed, and all were healed. Among these, Peter’s healing of the lame beggar takes the central place in the early chapters of the Acts. The man was lame from birth and sat at the temple begging for alms everyday. Peter commanded him to walk in the name of Jesus and, in front of the entire group of onlookers, the miracle took place. Once again, Peter took the opportunity to speak convincingly to the group around him about how Jesus was crucified to save the Israelites, and he gave them the message of repentance and reconciliation.

The apostles fearlessly face tribulations

The priests and Sadducees were greatly disturbed at the publicity the apostles had earned. Their teachings about the death and resurrection of Jesus had a profound influence on the listeners, and everyday, the number of believers was increasing. The tussle between the authorities and the apostles continued as they were subject to threats, warnings , floggings, and imprisonment. All through, the Holy Spirit was working powerfully among them, releasing them from prison and helping them work great signs and wonders among the people. At one point they were under threat of being sentenced to death by the Sanhedrin, but once again, they escaped unharmed, due to the sane and just intervention of Gamaliel, a teacher of the law, who advised the others to refrain from extreme judgements, in case they find that their actions were against God’s will.

The Holy Spirit had deeply transformed the apostles and their leader Peter. Unschooled and unlettered as most of them were, they became courageous beyond human capacity. Even the high priests and elders understood that they had been empowered through some divine intervention. If we recall the incidents surrounding Christ’s crucifixion, we would remember Peter, fearful and cowardly, denying his association with Jesus three times, leading to that awful moment when the cock crowed and Jesus turned to look at him. Peter, in Acts, was a changed personality, standing fearlessly in the face of threats and challenges, taking pride and pleasure in suffering for Jesus.

  • The early Christian community

The power of the Holy Spirit was also evident in the small community of believers that had come together. Everyone sold their possessions and shared the money with others, according to each one’s need. It was the perfect Utopian society where everyone gathered regularly in a home , or in the temple courts, to preach and to pray for the infilling of the Holy Spirit.

This divine bonding and sharing continued among the growing congregation, barring one instance where this perfect harmony was threatened by the evil one. Ananias and his wife Sapphira also sold their property, but decided to keep part of the money for themselves. They offered the rest to Peter, insisting that this was the entire amount. The presence of the Holy Spirit proved fatal for the erring couple. They fell down dead even as they uttered words of falsehood to Peter.

  • The Lord's promise for those who follow the Way

Never has the outpouring of the Holy Spirit been witnessed publicly in such intensity as seen during Pentecost Sunday, and in the subsequent course of events. We witness with awe and reverence the astonishing transformation of Peter and the apostles. They spoke with power and conviction, as their words pierced the hearts of their listeners, and encouraged them to repent and follow the Way preached by Peter. The Spirit empowered the apostles to perform signs and miracles that instilled fear in the high priests and teachers of the law, who knew that the situation was beyond their control. Besides, the apostles lost their sense of fear for human suffering. In fact, they rejoiced at every opportunity they got to suffer for Christ. Those who believed and accepted Christ as the Way were also empowered through the Spirit.

The Pentecost and its aftermath bring us to a close understanding of how the Holy Spirit can work in us, and how we can prepare ourselves to receive the gifts of the Spirit. Just as the apostles underwent a complete transformation, the infilling and anointing of the Holy Spirit can make each one of us much more than what we can ever humanly hope to be. One is reminded of the gospel passage when Jesus asked the apostles to feed the crowd of five thousand people who had gathered to listen to Him. They had with them only five loaves and two fishes. And yet, once blest, it was enough to feed everyone, and twelve baskets of food were left over. We too, can achieve that spiritual highpoint, as did Peter and the believers with him. It is the Lord’s promise not only to His apostles but to all those who follow His Way—" If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth”— John 14:15-16

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