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What the Early Church Did First {Acts 1:12–26}

This article is part of our weekly series, “The Book of Acts and the Church Today.” You can see all articles in the series here. 

The book of Acts teaches today’s church how to participate in God’s mission of disciple-making. So we should pay careful attention to what the recently commissioned church did first—they prayed and witnessed (see Acts 1:12–26).

Praying and witnessing aren’t the only things Christians should do. But they are essential. And the order of these two events in Acts 1 encourages us again with this truth: our faithful witness for Jesus is empowered by his grace which we seek in prayer.

The Disciples Sought God’s Help through Prayer

As soon as the disciples “returned to Jerusalem … they went up to the upper room” and “with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer” (Acts 1:14). Luke doesn’t tell us what the first Christians prayed for. But we have some clues.

The disciples probably prayed for the Holy Spirit. Jesus commanded them to “wait for the promise of the Father,” the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4–5, 8), the third person of the Godhead who would come and powerfully unite believers to the triune God. And they believed that the “Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him” (Luke 11:13). The first Christians had no confidence in their own strength. They knew that their power came from above (Acts 1:8). So they prayed for the Spirit to help them fulfill their commission. That prayer meant something different for them than it does for us. The outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost was a definite historical experience. God has kept his ancient promise to give his Spirit to each of his believing children (Num. 11:29; Joel 2:28; Acts 2:17). We don’t pray for another Pentecost. But we must continue to pray “in the Spirit” (Eph. 6:18), aware of his presence and dependent on his power. Pray like this: “Holy Spirit, strong and mighty, thou who makest all things new, make thy work within us perfect and the evil foe subdue.”[i] And believe that the Spirit truly makes you “share in Christ and in all his benefits.”[ii]

The disciples probably also prayed that the kingdom of God would advance. Christ came to declare and establish his rule. He also taught his people to pray for his kingdom to continue to come (Matt. 6:10). The kingdom of God was forefront in their minds (Acts 1:6). They were wrong to try to time the kingdom’s coming but right to anticipate it. These first Christians must have felt vulnerable, having been cast out of the religious community they had grown up in (John 9:22). So they prayed for the king to act. And God was already answering their prayers. Jesus’s brothers had not believed in him during his ministry (John 7:5) but were now part of this prayer meeting, along with 120 others whom Christ had made into a family of brothers, sisters and mothers (Mark 3:34, 35).

And this holy family prepared for even greater growth.

The Disciples Obeyed God’s Call to Witness

Luke shows Peter practicing bold leadership in the early church. The last time we read Peter’s name in Luke-Acts, he was investigating the seemingly incredulous report that Jesus had risen (Luke 24:1–12). The prior eight references to Peter are in the story of his denial of Jesus. Now “Peter stood up among the brothers” to speak (Acts 1:15). What a story of grace! Peter faltered. But Jesus preserved his faith and restored him for strengthening his brothers (Luke 22:31–32).

What Peter stood up to say was that Judas’s departure left a void in the apostleship. After betraying Jesus, Judas’s worldly sorrow drove him not to repent but to commit suicide (see 2 Cor. 7:10). Jesus’s plan had always been for the apostles to represent the twelve tribes of the new Israel of God (Gal. 6:16). Judas had reduced the number to eleven. But even Judas’s departure was no accident—it fulfilled the Scriptures. The psalms long ago condemned those who conspire against Christ (see Ps. 69:25; 109:8, 17). Now the disciples realized that God had warned them about this sad development.

The incoming apostle needed to have been with Jesus during his entire ministry so that he could testify especially to the resurrection. Why single out this event from all the things that Jesus did and taught? Because the resurrection is the engine of Christianity. Without it we are still in our sins; our faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:17). Only the resurrection can make us share in Christ’s righteousness and empower us to obey his law and imitate his acts of mercy. Only by meeting the resurrected Christ did Peter the defector become Peter the defender!

In God’s providence, Matthias was chosen as witness to the resurrection. The method—casting lots—isn’t normative; there are no more examples of the church casting lots after Pentecost. A unique office required an extraordinary selection process. Like the original apostles, Jesus hand-picked Matthias. Still the early church models amazing confidence in God’s omniscience and sovereignty. The apostles were so sure of God’s total control and his knowledge of the heart that they trusted the lot (see Prov. 16:33).

At the end of Acts 1, the full number of apostles had been restored and the believers were praying for promised power. Don’t be surprised that amazing things began to happen.

[i] Heinrich Held, Trinity Psalter Hymnal, 391.

[ii] Heidelberg Catechism, Q/A 53.

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William Boekestein

William Boekestein is the pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, Michigan. He has written several books and numerous articles. He and his wife, Amy, have four children.