We identify ourselves in various ways: name, race, gender, job and so on. When that identity is disturbed then we may be upset, confused or uneasy. Western society often adds to that unease by encouraging us to decide who we are based on our feelings. But Christians have a solid basis for our identity. We don’t rely on changeable feelings or circumstances, but upon the unchanging Son of God. In Christ we know that we are God’s forgiven people, his eternal family.
Acts tells the story of that community being built, by the message of Jesus as King and Saviour travelling from the Jews into the whole world, through Jesus’ official representatives: the apostles. In 1:1-8 he prepares them for the task before ascending in a cloud (v9). This is not space travel but his transferral to heaven where God lives. From now on heaven and earth will be joined since Jesus lives there in his resurrection body. This was foreseen long before by the prophet Daniel (Dn 7:13-14). Jesus is the glorified man who rules the world with God’s authority. His apostles are stunned (v10) and will never be the same again. These ‘men of Galilee’ are now the servants of a heavenly king whose return they await (v11) and whose kingdom they serve (Mt 28:18).
However, returning to Jerusalem from Olivet, the apostles know they must wait for Jesus to forge them into God’s community through baptism in the Holy Spirit (v5). John the Baptist symbolised the birth of a renewed Israel by dipping the repentant in the Jordan (Lk 3:3), and Jesus’ disciples continued the practice (Jo 4:1,2). But its living reality needs power from on high (Lk 3:16). So all 11 apostles (v12, Lk 6:12-16) wait in their accommodation (possibly the same location as the Last Supper, Lk 22:11), praying, as Jesus said (Lk 11:13), for the Spirit. And they are not alone for other friends are with them, as are some of Jesus’ family (v14). Not that this renewed Israel is built on natural ties – Jesus made plain it isn’t (Mk 3:33-35). That was true of Israel in the past and family life is a precious gift from God (sadly spoiled by sin too often), but God’s eternal family is made up of those born of the Spirit (Jo 3:5-8). Hence, Jesus’ family are present simply because they have faith in him and they have no priority or authority over others in the room.
So it is Peter who stands to lead God’s new family (v15, symbolised in the 120 believers present). The old 12 tribes of Israel are being replaced by those lead by 12 apostles. However, with Judas’ death, there are only 11. Not that Judas’ betrayal was a surprise, since Israel has previously seen treachery from those close to the king (v16,17). Indeed, Jerusalem is stained by the blood of betrayal (Lk 13:34,35). Therefore, Judas’ memorial – a field purchased with his blood money, marked with his entrails and known as the Field of Blood (v18,19; Mt 27:3-10) – is a suitable reminder of Jerusalem’s shame. Well Peter has pondered Israel’s past and sees Judas predicted long before (v20; Ps 69:25). But at the same time he sees the next step too (Ps 109:8): Judas must be replaced; a renewed Israel will rise! The community must identify the right man (v21). The new apostle needs to have known Christ right through his ministry (v22) and the believers identify two candidates (v23). But this unique decision must be made by the Lord, who judges all hearts (v24,25). So they cast lots (v26) as one of their ancient proverbs said (Pr 16:33), Matthias is chosen and the Lord’s people are ready to be made one by the Spirit, to gain their eternal identity.