Scripture Notes

Notes on This Week’s Scripture Reading, May 20: Acts 2:1-21

The Acts of the Apostles is the second volume of Luke’s “gospel” (Greek euangelion, meaning “good news”). At the end of what Luke calls “the first book” (what Christians call the Gospel According to Luke), Jesus appears to “the eleven and their companions” in Jerusalem, blesses them, and, apparently that same day, is “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:13-51). In Acts, however, the narrative is curiously different. Jesus, after the crucifixion, appears to the apostles “over the course of forty days,” presenting “himself alive to them by many convincing proofs” and “speaking about the kingdom of God” (1:3). He then orders them to stay in Jerusalem and “wait there for the promise of the Father” (1:4). The apostles, believing that the end of the age and the restoration of the kingdom of Israel are imminent, ask Jesus if now is the time, but Jesus ducks the question: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you…” (1:7-8). Sure enough, in Acts 2 the apostles receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost—a Jewish festival held fifty days after Passover to celebrate the spring harvest and the giving of the Law—and, having received the Spirit, they are able to speak to the crowd of “devout Jews from every nation” in their native languages. And what is the crowd told? That Jesus’ death and resurrection were a part of God’s “definite plan” (2:23) and that they should therefore “repent, and be baptized … in the name of Jesus Christ so that [their] sins may be forgiven; and [they] will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (2:38). (It’s worth noting that those whom Peter addresses in Acts 2 and who “welcome his message” are “Jews and proselytes” (i.e., Jewish converts). The so-called “mission to the gentiles” will come later.)

Prior to the Day of Pentecost, however, a rather odd event occurs. Peter tells the gathered crowd of believers, numbering around 120, how scripture demands that the apostle Judas, who betrayed Jesus, must now be replaced. After praying and casting lots, “the lot fell on Matthias” (1:26), “one of the men who … accompanied [the others] throughout the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among [them], beginning from the baptism of John until the day when [Jesus] was taken up from [them]” (1:21-22). It’s not entirely clear why Judas needed to be replaced. Peter quotes a verse from Psalm 109 (“Let another take his position of overseer”) in an apparent attempt to show that replacing Judas is a scriptural imperative. If the NRSV translation of the psalm is correct, however, Peter’s use of the verse is both mistaken and ill-considered. But that’s another topic for another day. A more obvious explanation goes unmentioned. In Luke 22, Jesus tells the twelve that, when the kingdom comes, they “will sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel” (22:30). (In Matthew, Jesus is more explicit: “Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things, when the Son of Man is seated on the throne of his glory, you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel” [19:28].) Hence, it would appear, a twelfth apostle is needed to fulfill Jesus’ prophecy: one throne for each apostle and one “judge” for each of the twelve tribes.

Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team

Scripture notes for May 13: Colossians 3:12-17

In Colossians 3 “God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved” (3:12), since they “have been raised with Christ” (3:1), should now “set [their] minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (3:2). Everything they do, the author says, should be done “in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him” (3:17). Even when they “sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs (Greek pneumatikais) to God,” they should do so “with gratitude in [their] hearts” (3:16). [Similar language is found in Ephesians, where the author urges the “the saints who are in Ephesus” (1:1) to “be filled with the Spirit (Greek pneumati), as [they] sing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs among [themselves], singing and making melody to the Lord in [their] hearts, giving thanks to God the Father” (5:18-20)].

The importance of music in ancient Judaism and early Christianity cannot be overstated. In the patriarchal period, for example, music often accompanied family and folk celebrations or served to invoke divine inspiration. Later it is said to have aided the capture of Jericho (Josh. 6), and when Jephthah defeated the Ammonites, his daughter welcomed him home “with timbrels and with dancing” (Judg. 11:34). When Saul was King, David played the lyre whenever “an evil spirit from the Lord tormented Saul” so “the evil spirit would depart from him” (1 Sam. 16), and during David’s reign musicians “ministered with song before the tabernacle of the tent of meeting” (1 Chron. 6:32). Upon the completion of Solomon’s Temple, singers and musicians made “themselves heard in unison in praise and thanksgiving to the Lord” (2 Chron. 5), and centuries later, when the foundation of the Second Temple was laid, the priests and Levites played instruments and sang from Psalm 136, the Great Hallel, Hebrew for “praise” (Ezra 3).

The New Testament reveals how substantially the earliest Christian communities adopted the Jewish practice of singing hymns and psalms and how thoroughly music served both worship and instruction. The four “canticles” in Luke’s infancy narrative (1:39-56; 1:67-79; 2:14; 2:29-32), for example, blend ancient Jewish and early Christian themes and, says scholar Raymond Brown, were likely early Christian hymns, woven from Old Testament passages. At the Last Supper, according to Mark (14:26) and Matthew (26:30), Jesus and the apostles sang a hymn, possibly, say some scholars, a portion of the Hallel Psalms (113-118) that were chanted at major Jewish festivals, including Passover. A rather bizarre use of music is found in Acts 16. There, Paul and Silas, imprisoned at Philippi, sang hymns as the other prisoners listened, after which a violent earthquake shook the foundations of the prison and unfastened everyone’s chains. Finally, two letters attributed to Paul, Philippians and Colossians, contain what are thought to be Christological hymns already in use in the early Church, and in 1 Corinthians Paul tells the community at Corinth that song and music are a gift of the Spirit (Greek pneumatika) to be used to praise and thank God (14:16) as well as to “build up” and instruct others (14:17).

Lou Suarez, Adult Christian Education Team