Background to Acts

After His resurrection, Christ was seen by over 500 brethren at one time in Galilee. Only 120 are mentioned at Pentecost in Jerusalem, but soon thousands were converted as Christ launched His Church on this important holy day.

The Old Testament predicted the coming of the Messiah, and God sent John the Baptist to prepare the way for Him. Both John the Baptist and Jesus Christ attracted large crowds. Yet surprisingly few people were true disciples of Christ at His death.

As the Gospels end and the book of Acts begins, we see a transition that men couldn’t have predicted, but that God had long planned.

Expecting the Messiah

John the Baptist had prepared the way for the Messiah by teaching repentance toward God (Acts 19:4). The effect of his preaching had been to electrify the people of Judah to the point that “Jerusalem, all Judea, and all the region around the Jordan went out to him” (Matthew 3:5-6). The prophecies of Daniel had pointed to the Messiah’s coming, and people were ready to follow (John 1:41).

John knew his ministry would be followed by someone with much more authority and power. He directly pointed out Jesus as the Messiah and the Lamb of God to his followers (John 1:29-36). The hope of national deliverance from the occupying Roman forces contributed to the momentum of this developing movement (Acts 1:6).

So when Jesus started His ministry, the nation was ready for Him to preach the gospel of the Kingdom of God. But the focus of this new Teacher turned out to be a Kingdom to come rather than one that would remove the Romans then. Some who had at first followed Him now turned away from the One they had previously accepted as the Deliverer (John 6:66). They could no longer understand His message.

Did Jesus only convert 120?

The Scriptures show that it is the Father who calls disciples to true repentance (Romans 2:4; John 6:44). So it would always be His prerogative as to who would be called through the ministry of Jesus. Though multitudes followed Christ, very few took action in their lives to become true disciples at that time.

Jesus Christ was, of course, not surprised. He referred to His followers as a “little flock” (Luke 12:32). The Day of Pentecost itself pictures that God is only calling “firstfruits” during this age (Romans 8:23; James 1:18). This is an important piece of the puzzle for anyone wishing to understand God’s plan. The term firstfruits implies a later harvest to follow.

Jesus would surely have had the ability to convince and convict many more than John the Baptist, who did no miracles at all (John 10:41). Many followed Jesus because of what John had said of Him (verses 40-42). Miracles were a powerful witness of God’s approval of Christ’s ministry. “Believe Me for the sake of the works themselves,” Jesus said before promising the same power to His apostles (John 14:11).

But Scripture mentions only two small groups of brethren after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, but before Pentecost:

  1. “Over five hundred brethren” probably in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6), most of whom were still alive when Paul wrote this epistle.
  2. The number of “names” or persons was “about a hundred and twenty” at Jerusalem just before Pentecost (Acts 1:15).

Both of these events took place before the conversion of thousands on the Day of Pentecost and shortly thereafter (Acts 2:41; 4:4).

A large gathering saw the resurrected Jesus

The group of 500-plus that saw Jesus Christ after His resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6) appear to have been in Galilee (see comment in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Vol. 9, pp. 261-262, notes on Acts 1:14). The majority were still alive when Paul was writing to the Corinthian congregation some 25 years after the event. They could affirm seeing the resurrected Son of God.

The majority of Jesus’ time preaching had been in Galilee, several days’ walk from Jerusalem. He had told the disciples that after His resurrection He would go to Galilee ahead of them and would meet them there and spend time with them (Matthew 26:32; 28:8-10; Mark 16:6-7). In fact, Matthew mentions that Jesus gave the disciples the great commission (28:18-20) while in Galilee (verse 16).

Sometime during the 40 days Christ taught them about the Kingdom of God, the core of the disciples traveled back to Jerusalem. Before He was taken up into the clouds 10 days before Pentecost, Jesus told this group to stay in Jerusalem until Pentecost (Acts 1:4). There they would receive the Holy Spirit, an event predicted by John the Baptist and affirmed by Christ (John 1:33; Acts 1:4-5). Then they would be responsible for spreading the gospel around the world (verse 8).

In Jerusalem: Judas’ replacement

When Peter stood in the midst of “about a hundred and twenty disciples” (or possibly “brothers”), he started the process of selecting a successor to fill the gap left after the death of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus. Peter talked to them and described Judas as “one of our number” (verse 17, New International Version) who needed to be replaced (verses 20-22). The candidates were to be from among the 120 and specifically among those who had “accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John to that day when He was taken up from us” (verses 21-22).

Verse 23 says, “They proposed two.” The final selection between the two was by lot (verse 26).

Who were these 120 who spent much time learning from and living close to Jesus Christ as He worked? We know of two specifically named groups that He trained—the 12 apostles and “the seventy.” Some have suggested that members of Jesus’ family, such as James, Joses, Jude and His mother Mary, made up a significant number of the rest. The Greek word used for disciples here is mathetes (Strong’s #3101), which is a masculine noun but may include women.

Miracles at the launch of the Church in Jerusalem

God used these events to draw attention to the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. Their inspired preaching led to a dramatic increase in the number of believers.The Feast of Weeks (called Pentecost in Acts 2) was a pilgrim feast, one of the three festival seasons (Deuteronomy 16:16) when males were commanded to appear before God in Jerusalem. Some family members might have been unable to make the long walk from Nazareth or Capernaum.

The account in Acts 2 focuses on the miraculous appearance of tongues of fire, when God gave the Holy Spirit and inspired the message from Peter that convicted the hearts of many who were listening.

God used these events to draw attention to the apostles and disciples in Jerusalem. They had been trained by Jesus Christ to preach the gospel and now were given the additional miracle of being heard in other languages (Acts 2:8). Their inspired preaching led to a dramatic increase in the number of believers. Since so many visiting Jews were from other provinces, the message of what had happened would quickly spread to other parts of the Roman Empire.

The gift of the Holy Spirit and the launch of the Church of God

Many of those listening to the apostle Peter teach about Jesus’ death and resurrection were “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37, 41), deeply repentant for the part their sins had played in His death. They were now committed to a new way of life, ready for baptism to show that dedication, and ready to receive the Spirit of God. They became founding members of the New Testament Church of God.

After that powerful beginning, wherever repentant believers are, they receive the power of God to overcome evil in all its forms (Ephesians 3:20). This same promise in Acts 2:38 applies to us today. The Spirit of power, love and a sound mind is available if we will follow the path of repentance, faith and true discipleship (2 Timothy 1:7).

The miracles of the appearance of tongues of fire and hearing different languages were special ways God used to draw the attention of thousands in Jerusalem to the formation of the Church of God. Although the Church began in Jerusalem, the message taught by Jesus and His disciples was to be taken to all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). By the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, Christ had motivated Paul, Peter and the other apostles to spread true Christianity into Asia Minor and many other parts of the Roman Empire.

Read more about these momentous events in our articles “Acts of the Apostles,” “The Sermon That Launched the Church” and “Church History: The Beginning.”

About the Author

Peter Hawkins

Peter Hawkins

Peter Hawkins was born in England but lived in South Africa for 30 years before returning to the United Kingdom in 2002. While in South Africa, he met his wife of over 40 years, Sonja. They have four children and five grandchildren.

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