12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers. 15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and “‘Let another take his office.’ 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” 23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
Between the ascension of Christ and Pentecost, the Church has to wait. They are waiting for the promised Spirit who will be poured out upon them in enabling power. Even so, the Church demonstrates in its waiting that it understands itself to be the body of Christ, and it does so in fascinating ways.
The Church was united in prayerful expectation.
First, the Church binds itself together in the unity of prayerful expectation. They know something is about to happen in and among them, so they come together and call on the name of God.
12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. 14 All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
They return from Jerusalem, the eleven disciples and “the women” and Jesus’ brothers. They return, and they “devote” themselves to prayer. What a beautiful, sweet picture of gospel fellowship, these men and woman joined together in prayer. I cannot help but note that they are not praying to Mary, but they are praying with Mary, together, to the Father.
This unity crossed gender barriers and also crossed the barriers of at least some of their earlier denials. We see this in the presence of Jesus’ brothers. Suffice it to say that, despite the protests of most within the Roman Catholic Church, there is no reason to see these “brothers” as anything other than biological brothers. This has been denied by many who want to maintain the idea of Mary’s perpetual virginity. Even so, the text here and in the gospels seem clear enough: Jesus had biological brothers.
Their presence in our text is beautiful. Previously, in the gospels, we see that Jesus’ brothers did not believe in Him. This is evident in His exchange with His brothers in the beginning of John 7.
1 After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him. 2 Now the Jews’ Feast of Booths was at hand. 3 So his brothers said to him, “Leave here and go to Judea, that your disciples also may see the works you are doing. 4 For no one works in secret if he seeks to be known openly. If you do these things, show yourself to the world.” 5 For not even his brothers believed in him. 6 Jesus said to them, “My time has not yet come, but your time is always here. 7 The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil. 8 You go up to the feast. I am not going up to this feast, for my time has not yet fully come.” 9 After saying this, he remained in Galilee.
So there had existed a kind of tension between Jesus and His brothers, with His brothers challenging Him to show Himself publicly for who He claimed to be, no doubt out of a desire to see an end to the scandal surrounding their brother Jesus’ life. It is possible that we may also see this tension in Matthew 12, though here we have to conjecture about what Jesus’ family wanted to speak with Him about.
46 While he was still speaking to the people, behold, his mother and his brothers stood outside, asking to speak to him. 48 But he replied to the man who told him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” 49 And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”
However we interpret this, it is clear that the brothers of Jesus did not count themselves among His followers in the gospels. We perhaps should be slow to judge. How would we have responded to having a brother like Jesus? It could not have easy. It is a lot to ask of a man that he believe his brother is God-made-flesh. Regardless, this was the case, even though his brothers initially rejected this idea.
How beautiful it is, then, to see His brothers joined with the gathered Church here, in Acts, to devote themselves to prayer and to await the Spirit. They join with the gathered Church as part of the gathered Church. They now believe!
This picture of unity in prayer and watchful expectation is, again, a beautiful picture to be sure. The 17th century French Protestant, Moise Amyraut, wrote movingly about this scene.
[T]he affection that they had for one another, and the common expectation that they shared of what had to happen, did not allow them to be separated, nor did their condition and the state of their affairs allow them to be scattered, because they were greatly counting on one another. Thus, they would go up to this room and there they would meditate on all these things…It is necessary to mention here that [God’s] goodness had joined them together. Thus, all of them not only remained in the same dwelling but also spent time together in common affection, with a singular diligence, and with great perseverance in the practice of prayer and praise, asking God to grant the blessings that Jesus had promised them and to deliver them from wicked people and the persecution with which they were threatened by their enemies.
This is well said! They were bound together, Amyraut says, by affection, by common expectation, by their condition and the state of their affairs, by God’s goodness, by a singular diligence, and with great perseverance. Nothing less than the name Christ was at stake in their unity.
It is the same with us. Surely if those who lived on that side of the bestowing of the Spirit of God could bind themselves together in such a unity, we who are born on this side of the bestowing of the Spirit can do the same!
The Church was united in continuing the original intention of Christ.
We also find in our text that the early Church continued the original intention of Christ. We see this in the continuance of the original structure of the twelve, first established by Christ, and now continued in the early Church’s desire to fill Judas Iscariot’s vacancy.
15 In those days Peter stood up among the brothers (the company of persons was in all about 120) and said, 16 “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit spoke beforehand by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was numbered among us and was allotted his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the reward of his wickedness, and falling headlong he burst open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out. 19 And it became known to all the inhabitants of Jerusalem, so that the field was called in their own language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.)
Peter retells the story of Judas’ betrayal in seemingly gory detail. It had to be painful to hear. This is a heart-breaking story, and one steeped in shame. It involved the shame of their friend, Judas, and his ignominious end.
Throughout the ages, many have tried to imagine how Judas was punished for his betrayal of the Lord Jesus. In Umberto Eco’s novel, The Island of the Day Before, a 17th century man named Ferrante encounters Judas Iscariot chained to a rock in the sea. After inquiring as to the nature of his punishment, Judas offers this explanation:
Why, because God has willed that my punishment consist in living always on Good Friday, to celebrate always and every day the Passion of the man I betrayed. The first day of my suffering, when for other human beings sunset approached, and then night, and then the dawn of Saturday, for me only an atom of an atom of a minute of the ninth hour of that Friday had gone by. As the course of my sun began to move even more slowly, for the rest of you Christ was rising from the dead, but I was still barely a step from that hour. And now, when centuries and centuries have passed for you, I am still only a crumb of time from that instant…
Calvin Miller has passed on a Celtic Christian imagining of Judas’ punishment.
On the island Brendan [the first Celtic sailor] meets Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus! Judas explains that, by the mercy of Jesus, he is on the island for a brief respite from his never-ending suffering in hell:
“I am Judas, most wretched, and the greatest traitor. I am here not on account of my own merits but because of the mysterious mercy of Jesus Christ. For me this is not a place of torment but rather a place of respite granted me by the Savior in honor of his Resurrection.” It was the Lord’s own day. “It seems to me when I sit here that I am in the Garden of Delights in comparison with the agonies which I know I shall suffer this evening. For I burn like molten lead in a crucible day and night at the heart of the mountain which you see, where Leviathan lives with his companions. I have a respite here every Sunday from first to second vespers, from Christmas until Epiphany, from Easter until Pentecost, and on the Feast of the Purification and the Assumption of the Mother of God. The rest of the year I am tortured in the depths of hell with Herod and Pilate, Annas and Caiaphas. Therefore I beseech you by the Savior of the world to be kind enough to intercede for me with the Lord Jesus Christ that I may be allowed to remain here until sunset tomorrow and that the devils may not torment me, seeing your arrival here, and drag me off to the hideous destiny which I purchased with so terrible a price.” St. Brendan replied: “The Lord’s will be done. You shall not be consumed by devils tonight until dawn.”
These are chilling images, even though fictional. In reality, the most shameful image we have in Judas’ sad and pitiful saga, outside, of course, of his actual betrayal of Jesus, is the vacancy of his office here in the gathered early Church. The fact that the eleven have gathered, but not Judas, is a powerful indictment and reminder of the shame of abandoning Jesus. His empty chair is an indictment to all who would put their hand to the plow and then turn back. Jesus warned of such in Luke 14.
25 Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. 28 For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? 29 Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, 30 saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31 Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? 32 And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
It is tragic when one begins to follow Christ but then abandons Him. The truth of Judas’ abandonment of Christ and His cause needed to be expressed. In truth, almost all the original disciples abandoned Jesus in His time of greatest need, but all but Judas returned in repentance and with a new resolve never to do so again.
But Peter does not tell the story of Judas as a cautionary tell. Instead, he tells the story of Judas in order to call the early band of believers to fill the vacancy.
20 “For it is written in the Book of Psalms, “‘May his camp become desolate, and let there be no one to dwell in it’; and “‘Let another take his office.’ 21 So one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, 22 beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us—one of these men must become with us a witness to his resurrection.”
The disciples felt a responsibility to place somebody in Judas’ abandoned post. Peter lists the qualifications of the replacement. He must be “one of the men who have accompanied us during all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us” and he “must become with us a witness to his resurrection.” So he must have walked with Jesus and he must have been present to receive the news that Christ, who had been crucified, yet lived. As we mentioned earlier, his job would be the same as the job of all Christ-followers: to bear witness to the resurrection. John Chrysostom pointed out that, “He did not say a witness of the rest of his actions but a witness of the resurrection alone…the thing required was the resurrection.”
The disciples felt they were fulfilling scripture in appointing a twelfth disciple, particularly scripture found in Psalms. Even more so, we may see in their actions a desire to continue the original model of Christ. To be sure, there is no evidence that the next generation of the Church continued the precise model of the twelve, but so long as the original disciples lived they maintained the standard established by Christ: twelve disciples.
This is symbolic, I believe, of the Church’s great need to continue the work of Christ as He intended it. Not, again, in terms of precise numerics. That is not the point. The remainder of God’s Word will flesh out, to an extent, how the churches in various locales were to be organized. Even so, the action is profoundly significant in demonstrating that the early Church saw no radical disconnect or discontinuity between their lives as a body and their lives as they walked with Christ incarnate. That is to say the early Church undoubtedly had already begun to realize that they were the body of Christ, even if they had yet to develop a full-orbed theology of what that meant.
There is something admirable in this, something touching, something courageous. This early band of beleaguered disciples do the only thing they know to do as they await the Spirit: they do what Jesus did. They fill the number back to twelve. It is not a small thing to do. It is powerful! In so doing they communicate to themselves and, soon, to the watching world, that they will carry on the movement of Christ in the world.
The Church was united in trusting God to keep them unified in the face of potential division.
Their method of filling the vacancy is most intriguing.
23 And they put forward two, Joseph called Barsabbas, who was also called Justus, and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all, show which one of these two you have chosen 25 to take the place in this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they cast lots for them, and the lot fell on Matthias, and he was numbered with the eleven apostles.
The casting of lots will sound strange to us, no doubt. This sounds rather like hocus pocus to us, and I daresay we should note that this episode is descriptive and not prescriptive. That is, it simply tells us what they did in a particular and particularly unique case, not what the Church should normally do in cases that can never replicate this (i.e., the appointing of an eye-witness disciple).
In point of fact, however, lot casting was an occasional practice of the Jews and they did not have the qualms with it that we do. There were times when they felt that God could speak through this method when they reached points of decision in which they were uncertain which way to go. Thus, in Proverbs 16:33, we read, “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the Lord.”
This is undoubtedly the sentiment here. They put forth two equally qualified candidates, but they let the Lord make the decision. The Lord chose Matthias to be Judas’ successor.
What is most interesting here, however, is how the Church maintained its unity even in the face of a potentially divisive decision. There had to be people, even in that early and small assembly, who favored Joseph and others who favored Matthias. Yet they were both put forward because it was right that they should be: they both met the qualifications.
Tellingly, we see a complete absence of division on the process and on the final decision. We also note the absence of manipulative, top-down power politics. Peter does not assume the place of Christ here. Had he done so, he would simply have appointed the one he wanted. Furthermore, we see no haughtiness in Matthias for being chosen and no bitterness in Joseph for not being chosen.
In fact, the whole story is told with a refreshingly understated air. It is almost as if Luke, in recounting this scene, wants to communicate a crucial fact: that the early Church was so bound together in love for Christ and in solidarity around their calling to be witnesses that they would allow no petty divisions to divert them from the task at hand.
To be sure, the New Testament recounts more than a few divisions in the early Church, but this choosing of the twelfth should stand as a powerful reminder to us that it need not be so. We, like these first followers, can also determine to stand together in prayer and earnest expectation and witness and mission and ministry. We too can decide that the decisions we face will not tear us asunder or rend our fellowship one with another. We too can decide that our story, when and if written later, will communicate to future generations that we refused to fragment, that we refused to practice power politics, that we refused to bite at each other when we did not get our way, that we refused to be many, but instead chose to be one.
So much hinged on the early Church staying together. So much hinged on them not falling apart.
So much hinges on our unity as well.
Let us stand together in Christ. Let us join together as an authentic family around the whole gospel for the glory of God and the reaching of the nations.
 Esther Chung-Kim and Todd R. Hains, eds. Acts. Reformation Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.VI. Timothy George, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2014), p.14.
 Umberto Eco. The Island of the Day Before (New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1994), p. 466-467.
 Calvin Miller, The Path of Celtic Prayer: An Ancient Way to Everyday Joy (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), p.76.
 Francis Martin, ed. Acts. Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture. New Testament, vol.V. Thomas C. Oden, gen. ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006), p.17