Hearing From God
Passage: Acts 1:12–26
Pastor Ray Lorthioir
Trinity Lutheran Church
W. Hempstead, NY
Based on the First Lesson for the Seventh Sunday of Easter, Acts 1:12-26
Hearing From God
This morning’s first lesson is a proof text that I use to present a thesis concerning the person and work of Lord Holy Spirit. So, let me develop the thesis.
Way back in 1979 I was alerted to a passage of Scripture that is often ignored concerning the Holy Spirit. The setting for this passage is the upper room where the disciples — soon to be apostles — were gathered on the first Easter evening. According to John, there were ten of them present. Judas was missing for obvious reasons. Thomas also was not there. Thomas would catch up with the risen Christ a week later.
Thus we read in John 20:19-20, “19 On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’ 20 After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord.” This is the setting.
John 20:21-23, “21 Again Jesus said, ‘Peace be with you! As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’ 22 And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. 23 If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven.’”
The part we’re going to concentrate on is Jesus breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” However, the charge He then gave the Apostles, “If you forgive anyone his sins, they are forgiven; if you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven,” — this often upsets the modern reader. So let’s explain it.
In order to understand what Jesus meant, we have to start with what Jesus said in verse 21. “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” Here Jesus was commissioning these men as Apostles. The Greek word Apostle literally means, “sent one.” So having commissioned them as sent ones, what was Jesus sending them to do? This is where the verse on forgiving sins comes in. The good news of the Holy Gospel is that Jesus’ obedient death on the cross has made it possible for Yahweh to be reconciled to us through the forgiveness of our sins. Jesus has atoned for our sins. He has satisfied God’s wrath against us for sin.
Thus, we read in 1 John 1:8-10, “8 If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we claim we have not sinned, we make him out to be a liar and his word has no place in our lives.” From these verses it’s very clear that God willingly forgives and cleanses any penitent sinner — anyone who confesses their sins. But, other people call God a liar and deceive themselves by denying their sin. Thus, without confessing their sins, they receive no forgiveness.
So, on Easter evening, Jesus gave the Apostles authority to pronounce forgiveness of sins to every penitent sinner. He gave them authority to withhold forgiveness from any impenitent sinner. They were to let impenitent people know that they were going to die in their sins because they had refused the grace of God in Jesus Christ. This is the proper preaching of Law and Gospel.
Thus, Jesus didn’t give the Apostles authority to forgive or not to forgive in any whimsical, arbitrary fashion they saw fit. No. Jesus gave them authority to forgive or not to forgive based on what He — Messiah and God the Son — thought fit. The Apostles were to forgive only those who repented of their sins. I hope that’s clear.
Now, when Jesus gave the Apostles this authority, He did so by breathing on them and saying, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” This shows us that Lord Holy Spirit is intimately involved in the forgiveness of sins. And that’s why we confess the forgiveness of sins in the third article of the Apostles Creed, the article that begins, “I believe in the Holy Spirit,” and not the article about Jesus Christ.
Now, in addition, Jesus did something else that night also connected with Lord Holy Spirit. And for this we have to turn to Luke’s account of the same Easter evening meeting in the upper room. Luke 24:44-49, “44 He [Jesus] said to them, ‘This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.’ 45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, ‘This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.’”
Here Jesus said that the Apostles would be sent what the Father promised from on high. This matches up with what Jesus said in John 16:7, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” This was all fulfilled when Jesus ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit was poured out on the Day of Pentecost, 33A.D. However, the account in Luke almost seems to make Jesus contradict what He said in John about receiving the Holy Spirit.
But that’s impossible. So, we’ve got to parse this carefully. On Easter evening, Lord Holy Spirit was given to just a select group — those in the upper room. Fifty days later, on the Day of Pentecost, Lord Holy Spirit was not only poured out afresh on those who had been in the upper room, the Spirit was also poured out upon all who would believe the Gospel message through the Apostles’ preaching. That Pentecost day it was 3,000 men plus their families.
Thus, when we add John’s account of Easter evening with Luke’s, we see that the Holy Spirit was intimately involved in giving the Apostles understanding of what is written about Messiah in Moses and the Prophets. This is confirmed by what Jesus said in John 14:26, “‘But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.’”
Every time Jesus predicted His death and resurrection to the disciples, He no doubt did so from Moses and the Prophets. But the disciples couldn’t get it. They couldn’t understand it. This was even apparent with the two disciples that walked with Jesus to Emmaus on Easter afternoon as recorded in Luke 24. We read that Jesus said to these two in Luke 24:25-27, “25 . . . ‘How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?’ 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.” But they still didn’t get it until Easter evening when Jesus opened their minds and breathed the Holy Spirit upon them.
Thus, it is my contention that a primary work of Lord Holy Spirit is to enable every believer to see Jesus and His work in all the prophecies made about Messiah in the Old Testament. This ability was first given to the Apostles on Easter evening.
Proof of this is found in today’s first lesson. From Acts chapter one, we learn that the event of choosing Matthias to replace Judas Iscariot took place within the ten day interval between Jesus’ ascension into heaven — forty days after the Resurrection, and the Day of Pentecost — fifty days after the Resurrection. So, the pouring out of the Spirit from on high on Pentecost had not happened yet. And Jesus was no longer with them. Yet, Peter was prompted by the Holy Spirit to consider two obscure passages of Scripture — one from Psalm 69; the other from Psalm 109. The Spirit showed Him that these passages pertained to the Judas situation and the Apostles were supposed to do something about it immediately. How did Peter know from Scripture to propose replacing Judas unless Lord Holy Spirit taught him “all things” as Jesus prophesied? Holy Spirit zeroed Peter in on these two obscure passages.
However, since the account in Acts 1 of the choosing of Matthias is interrupted by an account of Judas Iscariot, we need to briefly consider Judas because the information we get about him in Acts 1:18-19 seems to contradict the information we get from Matthew 27:3-5. In Matthew a remorseful Judas went out and hung himself. On the other hand, in Acts a seemingly impenitent Judas bought a field with the thirty pieces of silver, but then came to a horrible end in that field. Is this a contradiction? Only if a reasonable way of reconciling the two accounts cannot be found.
First, there’s the thirty pieces of silver. We read in Matthew 27:6-10, “6 The chief priests picked up the coins and said, "It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money." 7 So they decided to use the money to buy the potter's field as a burial place for foreigners. 8 That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. 9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: ‘They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, 10 and they used them to buy the potter's field, as the Lord commanded me.’” On the other hand, we read in Acts 1:18, “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field. . . .”
There is a way to reconcile the two accounts. They both agree that the thirty pieces of silver given to Judas were used to buy a field and the field was called the Field of Blood. The only question is who bought the field. Either way, Judas did. For the money was originally given to him. If we use Matthew’s account as a basis, then we can say that Judas is probably being mocked in Acts — as in Judas bought the field, all right.
Now as for Judas’ manner of death. In order to hang yourself, you’ve got to set things up so that you can get rid of any support under your feet. One way to do that would be to find a tree with a strong branch that overhangs a cliff. It doesn’t need to be a large cliff. Say five feet will do. Tie one end of the rope to the branch. Properly measure off the correct amount of rope before you tie it around your neck so that when you swing yourself off the cliff your body will dangle. The area around Jerusalem is hilly with outcrops of rock. So this easily could have been done using the right tree.
Let’s say Judas did this. And the field was in a relatively remote place. His body could have hung on that rope for several days without being discovered. After several days of decay the muscles of the abdomen weaken and the abdomen becomes bloated with the gases produced by decay. Therefore, if Judas’ body fell to the ground several days later because the branch broke, the rope snapped or his neck let go, his abdomen could have exploded open in the gruesome fashion described in Acts.
There’s only one further thing to reconcile: the words, “fell headlong,” in Acts. These words imply stumbling rather than falling. Most English translations follow the King James Version where this translation “fell headlong” was first used. However, in an English-Greek interlinear bible that I have, a more literal translation of the Greek comes out this way: “and having become swollen up he burst asunder in the middle, and all the bowels were poured out of him.” That makes a reconciliation of Matthew and Acts possible because it removes stumbling from the picture. The Field of Blood may have had a tree under which Judas’ decaying body was found. This scenario is speculation, but it shows that there is a reasonable way to reconcile the two accounts.
So, let’s get back to the important business. In today’s first lesson, we’ve seen we’re in the ten day period between Jesus’ ascension and the pouring out of Lord Holy Spirit on Pentecost. On Easter evening Jesus had breathed on the disciples; given them the Holy Spirit and had commissioned them as Apostles. At the same time He gave them Holy Spirit understanding of the Old Testament scriptures concerning Messiah. Therefore, with Holy Spirit understanding of the Scripture, Peter stood up and announced to the Apostles and the other hundred or so people in the upper room in Acts 1:16-17, “16. . . ‘Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus — 17 he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.’”
Take note how the Holy Spirit spoke to Peter and through Peter. It was entirely based on Scripture. And take note. When did Holy Spirit say these things about Judas? He had spoken them a thousand years earlier through the mouth of King David to whom the Spirit gave both Psalm 69 and Psalm 109. Notice what Peter didn’t say — “the Holy Spirit has just personally told me.” So, if this is how Lord Holy Spirit dealt with the leader of the Apostles, we should mark it well. It’s how He will deal with us. For, how is it that any of us are greater than the Apostle Peter who was personally commissioned an Apostle by our Lord?
The book of Acts has the name Acts because it’s a record of the acts — the actions — of the Apostles. But it’s also a record of the acts of Lord Holy Spirit among the Apostles and the church. And when the book of Acts is studied carefully, we see that nothing in it was created out of whole cloth. That kind of thing is the work of false prophets like Mohammed and Joseph Smith who each came up with a book out of thin air.
Instead, like everything else in the New Testament, Acts teaches us a proper interpretation of the prophesied work of Messiah that had been hidden in plain sight in the Old Testament. The Old Testament prophecies had remained incomprehensible until Jesus demonstrated that He is the fulfillment of them all. And then, when Jesus breathed the Holy Spirit on the disciples, the Spirit led them to locate and assemble all the disconnected prophecies into a viable whole that foreshadowed and declared the work of Messiah Jesus. When Peter stood up to announce that the church needed to replace Judas, that’s exactly what Lord Holy Spirit was working through him — a comprehensive assembly of prophecy about Messiah Jesus.
We see this as we read on in Acts 1:20-22, “20 ‘For,’ said Peter, ‘it is written in the book of Psalms, “May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,” [Psalm 69:25] and, “May another take his place of leadership.” [Psalm 109:8] 21 Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from John's baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’” The Spirit assembled those two verses from the Psalms as pieces of the total picture of Jesus’ ministry. The result was that a man named Matthias was chosen to take Judas’ place, just as God had willed.
Therefore, my thesis is that the primary work of Lord Holy Spirit was and is to prove to us, and all humanity, from Scripture that Jesus of Nazareth is in fact Messiah and Lord. Prior to Easter evening, every time Jesus spoke of His saving work as the suffering and victorious Messiah, even His closest disciples were unable to understand it. This was true even of the two men that walked with Jesus on Easter afternoon. But once the Holy Spirit had been breathed on them Easter evening, they could completely understand. Peter’s action concerning Judas is proof of this. Lord Holy Spirit used the written Scriptures to lead Peter into God’s will concerning a replacement for Judas.
As someone has said, if you want to hear God’s voice, read your Bible. And I’ll add to that: then take what you read to heart and live it. It’s the truth about this life and our lives after death.
Thirty-five plus years ago we knew a woman from the community who had been a member of a small Christian group who were all attempting to live their lives by hearing directly from God. She said it got to the point of the sublimely ridiculous one night when she received a call at three in the morning from another member of the group who was absolutely desperate to know if God was telling her to buy the blue shoes or the green shoes.
Is God interested in us having shoes? Yes. Shoes are among the things we pray for when we pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” However, God leaves us free to buy the blue shoes or the green or both. Except for the specific garments Yahweh ordered His priests to wear, there is no model of Him dictating clothing choices anywhere in Scripture. He just wants us to spend within our means. That He does declare in Scripture when He says in Romans 8:13, “Owe no one anything. . . .” (ESV)
It’s Yahweh’s will that we have much freedom in this life. Scripture places no boundaries on us concerning many things. But when everything is said and done, we’re only free to do what is right and good in Yahweh’s sight as outlined by His commandments given through Moses and our Lord Jesus Christ. Scripture does place those righteous boundaries upon us. And ironically, it’s precisely at this point where those seemingly anxious to hear God’s voice resist His voice the most. That’s par for the course for us sinners.
Want to hear God’s voice? Read your bible. And within its pages you’ll find the way Lord Holy Spirit resists your resistance. The Spirit brings our resistance to Jesus to be crucified and put to death with Him. The Spirit brings us to Jesus to be resurrected into new obedience through Him. Lord Holy Spirit does all this for us and much more. Let us praise Him. Amen.
All Bible quotes are from the NIV except where noted.