The first two things that strike me as I begin reading the Canonical Book of the Acts of the Apostles (hereafter referred to as Acts; although there are several recorded Acts of various individuals which are not included in the Bible) are:
1) The immediate introduction of and the suddenly significant status of the Holy Spirit, and
2) The inexplicable ignorance of the Apostles as to the nature, role, and function of the promised “power from on high”.
Now, it is not as though the Holy Spirit was a completely new topic among Jesus and his faithful companions. In John’s account Jesus had promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the Apostles into all truth. Again, Luke’s Gospel has Jesus reiterate his intent to send “the promise of My Father upon you”; and indicates that the Apostles would be “clothed with power from on high”.
And so it would seem that the Apostles would have been anticipating this “baptism of the Holy Spirit” from the heavenly father. And indeed they do seem to have been doing so. Yet, their response to this promise indicates that they were not on the same page with Jesus with regards to the nature of and the role of “this “power from on high”.
In fact, upon hearing that they would be receiving this baptism of the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.”, the response of the Apostles was immediate and to the point: “Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”. The Apostles seemed to have been under the impression that the power they would receive from this “Holy Spirit” would somehow enable the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Evidently, the Apostles were anticipating this “power from on high” to serve as a means to restore the kingdom to Israel, and hence renew the national identity of the nation of Israel.
The question then must be asked: Why would the Apostles assume that the power of the Holy Spirit would be related to restoring the kingdom to Israel? Were they thinking that this “power from on high” would somehow enable them to rise up in rebellion and overthrow the Roman powers that resided in Jerusalem? Is there any reason for them to have thought that this “power from on high” was to be used in a military type of armed rebellion? Why would they be under such an impression after three years of living with and traveling with Jesus? Were they then justified in assuming that the baptism of the Holy Spirit would be the miracle to suffice such an endeavor as taking on the Roman Army?
Actually, not only were the Apostles justified to think of this promised “power from on high” as somehow being related to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, there is simply little reason to assume that they would have thought otherwise. Only a few weeks before, Jesus had clearly described a miracle which would involve the coming of the Son of man, even stating that this miracle would cause all the nations of the earth to mourn, and furthermore asserting that with no uncertainty whatsoever, that all which this miracle entailed would take place during that very generation (Matt 24:30-31,34). Now, most any Jew would have naturally interpreted these words of Jesus as assurance that during their generation the much anticipated Messiah would appear, and subsequently restore the kingdom to Israel, all the while returning Israel to its once glorious state as a supreme ruling power. In addition, Jesus is said to have spent the previous 40 days (since his crucifixion) making a number of appearances to the Apostles speaking to them about the kingdom of God. Thus there is every reason to conclude that the Apostles would have assumed that this promised baptism of the Holy Spirit and the recently promised “power from on high” meant that the restoration of the kingdom to Israel would occur during their lifetime. Hence, when Jesus starts talking about the Apostles being empowered by some Holy Spirit, naturally they would have assumed that this Holy Spirit would enable the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. In the light of what they had been told, and in the light of the much anticipated Messiah, why would the Apostles have expected anything other than some miraculous power to enable the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. Their response was quite frankly, not only justified but also rather predictable.
Jesus’ reply to their inquiry however; only muddles the matter further. After having so emphatically stated that all matters related to the coming of the Son of Man and the Messianic miracle would take place during the lifetime of the Apostles, now Jesus inexplicably tells them that it is not for them to know when God would restore the kingdom to Israel. This vague reply was quite the contrast to his earlier assertion to say the least. Now for no explainable reason, Jesus seems hesitant to declare a time frame for the promised Messianic events. He further sidesteps their inquiry by offering the Apostles somewhat of a consolation power which was to aid them to be witnesses on his behalf throughout the regions surrounding Jerusalem. So not only is the matter no longer that of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, but now the mission involves being separated from the capital city. Clearly, there has been a change of plans.
Amazingly, the Apostles seem to have accepted this transition in stride! This is frankly somewhat difficult to accept. How is it that eleven born and raised Jews who were quite naturally preoccupied with restoring the kingdom to Israel could have been so easily pacified with what was clearly a diversion from previously supplied information? Especially when they had been lead to believe that the restoration of the kingdom would take place during their lifetime? The ease of their acceptance of this new plan seems to indicate that this is scripted material designed to suit a specific context. That specific context obviously a scenario which for all practical purposes, discounted the previously anticipated restoration of the kingdom to Israel.
I can think of no historical context more likely suited for such a scenario than the circumstances of Judea in general and Jerusalem more specifically after the year 135 CE . Although there had been several alleged Messiahs which came and went in the land of Judea throughout the first and into the first third of the second century, all such movements came to a swift end with when the Romans brutally subdued the Simon Bar Kosiba uprising.
Simon Bar Kosiba was the self proclaimed Christ who lead an initially successful uprising against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem in the early 130’s. Bar Kosiba and his zealots actually occupied and set up an exclusive Jewish government in the capital city from 132-135. During his brief reign over Jerusalem, the practice of circumcision, which had been outlawed in 127, was renewed midst hopes that the nation of Israel was on its way to its once glorious state as a feared and respected world power. However; the extent to which the Roman government subdued the Bar Kochba uprising, and the extreme policies which were enacted after the fact, basically eliminated any hopes whatsoever from that time forward of any Jewish kingdom whatsoever in the region of Judea.
The Jews who survived what has been described as a genocide by the Roman army were driven out of both Jerusalem itself and several known Jewish communities throughout Judea. Both the city and the region of Judea were renamed (Syria Palaestina). Concerns of future nationalistic movements were such that no Jew was allowed to even camp within 1 mile of the city walls. The Jewish diaspora of 136 BC was more extreme and effective at disheartening the Jewish people than even that of 73 AD when Titus destroyed the Temple during the First Jewish War. In fact, although the Jewish uprising of the late 60’s and early 70’s likewise resulted in the defeat of the Israeli nationalists, even that setback did not compare to the despondent state of the Jewish people from the mid 130’s forward. Basically speaking, by the time the Romans were done with the aftermath of the Bar Kosiba uprising, there was simply no more anticipation of a Messiah to restore the kingdom to Israel, and Jerusalem then became a Gentile city.
Thus any Messianic hopes that the Jews had from that time forward would have necessarily been symbolic and ceremonial. Which is precisely what the Messianic movement became beginning with the text at hand. For now that the promise no longer involved the restoration of the literal kingdom to Israel, now a “new and revised” plan is in the process of development commencing with Acts 1. This revised Messianic narrative is founded on a celestial king rather than on an earthly ruler. In addition, this revised Messianic narrative allowed for a flexible time frame as to any possible future scenarios which would be conducive to the actual restoration of the kingdom of Israel. Hence the inconveniences of any seemingly unfulfilled prophecies relative to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel are now eliminated in the light of the revised “Father knows best” mentality. All the while though the remote possibility of such is never altogether dismissed. Frankly, this “new and revised” Messianic narrative was well thought out and flexible enough to fit the context of the times following the Bar Kosiba uprising and the ensuing Diaspora of the native Jews.
Thus there was nothing left for Jesus to do now except to fade out and take his place as a ceremonial and symbolic figure over a mystical Messianic movement which would gradually develop into the early Catholic church. Hence, the ascension of Jesus set the stage for an amended message and a mystical movement. Out with the old, and in with the new. And as we will see as we delve further into the book of Acts, not only does Jesus fade into the background, but soon even his close friends the Apostles are somewhat written out of the script as well.