Together, Luke-Acts comprises a larger portion of the New Testament than do the writings of any other Scripture writer (unless Paul wrote Hebrews). Because Luke wrote both books to the same man, Theophilus (Luke 1:1-4; Acts 1:1-2), he has the unique distinction of being the one person to whom the Spirit directed more of the New Testament than He did to any other person.
Luke ends his Gospel with an account of Jesus’ instructing His disciples prior to His Ascension (Luke 24:15-49). He begins Acts by reminding Theophilus of what he had previously written to him, including an explicit reference to Jesus’ instructing them before He ascended: “The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen” (Acts 1:1-2; cf. Luke 1:1-4). The explicit references to Jesus’ instructing them before His Ascension (at both the ending of Luke and the beginning of Acts) underscored to Theophilus the importance of that instruction.
JESUS’ FOCUS ON THE KINGDOM PRIOR TO HIS ASCENSION
Luke then related to Theophilus that prior to His ascension to heaven, Jesus appeared repeatedly to His disciples over a 40-day period: “To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). This statement communicated to Theophilus that during that entire time, Jesus was speaking to them about the things concerning the kingdom of God. In fact, Luke said that His appearing to them and His speaking to them about precisely that subject were the infallible proofs that He was alive after His passion.
Based on this singular emphasis of Jesus’ communications to His disciples during this 40-day period, Theophilus understood that the preeminent subject in the minds of both Jesus and His disciples during that entire period was the kingdom of God. Keeping this fact in mind is vital for a proper interpretation of the subsequent events.
THE DISCIPLES’ QUESTION ABOUT JESUS’ RESTORING THE KINGDOM TO ISRAEL
Theophilus learned next that Jesus gathered His disciples together and commanded them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the baptism of the Holy Spirit that the Father had promised (Acts 1:4-5). In response to His interactions with them throughout this post-Resurrection, pre-Ascension period and specifically to His specific instructions to wait for the giving of the Spirit, His disciples asked him, “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Noting the earlier emphatic statement about Jesus’ speaking about the kingdom to His disciples (Acts 1:3), Theophilus certainly would have understood this question in relation to that emphasis. He would thus have known that the disciples were not bringing up a matter that was important only to them but not so to Jesus.
JESUS’ ANSWER TO HIS DISCIPLES
Theophilus then read of Jesus’ answer and of His Ascension:
“And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight” (1:7-9).
Clearly, he would have interpreted Jesus’ answer and Ascension from the standpoint of not just the disciples’ question but also from the standpoint of Jesus’ singular emphasis on the kingdom of God throughout that 40-day period. On this reading of Acts 1:1-9, we can only interpret Jesus’ answer properly by seeking to understand it in the same way that Theophilus did.
A “THEOPHILIC” UNDERSTANDING OF THE DISCIPLES’ QUESTION AND JESUS’ ANSWER
To assess rightly how Theophilus understood Acts 1:6-9, we must consider key truths about the kingdom from both Luke and Acts, the two books that Luke wrote specifically to him:
(1) In his Gospel, Luke informed Theophilus that an angel instructed Mary to name Him Jesus before He was even conceived and explained the significance of that naming in a way that can only be rightly understood as pointing to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Luke 1:30-33). Theophilus therefore would have believed that Jesus’ sitting on the throne of His father David and ruling forever over the house of Jacob was central to the mission that His name reveals (Luke 1:32-33).
(2) Theophilus learned at the end of Luke that the disciples expected Jesus to redeem Israel (Luke 24:21), which certainly hearkened back to the confident expectation that he had read about of Israel’s national deliverance from those who were oppressing her (cf. Zacharias’ Spirit-filled prophecy that spoke of his thanking God for redeeming and saving him and his people (Israel) from their enemies and from the hand of all those who hated them [Luke 1:68-79]).
(3) Theophilus did not read in Acts 1:7-8 that Jesus told His disciples that they were mistaken in thinking that Israel still has a glorious national future. Nor did he read that Jesus informed them that they were wrong in expecting that He would be the One to bring about the glorious restoration of the kingdom to them.
(4) Instead, what Luke wrote to Theophilus told him that Jesus pointed them to the Father’s sovereignty over the timing of that glorious event and instructed them that they were not to focus at this time on the timing of that event.
Viewing Jesus’ answer to His disciples from this “theophilic” (the consistent focus on the kingdom from Luke 1 to Luke 24 to Acts 1) viewpoint, we should understand that Jesus upheld to them the validity of their expectation but redirected their focus to the present priority of their testifying for Him throughout the world. Doing so, they would faithfully occupy until He would gloriously return to restore the kingdom to Israel, just as He said (implied in Acts 1:6).
WHY THE OPPOSING VIEW IS WRONG
Many deny this understanding of Jesus’ answer because it does not fit with their overall theological understanding of Scripture. They hold that Israel has no national future. As seen above, however, a consideration of how Theophilus, the original recipient of both Luke and Acts, would have understood this matter shows that this view is erroneous.
Despite the arguments of those who for theological reasons deny that Israel has a national future as a kingdom, Jesus’ answer interpreted through the eyes of Theophilus shows that Luke wrote to him to inform him (and us) of this glorious truth: Jesus will restore again the kingdom to Israel at the precise time and season that the Father has put in His own power. O Theophilus, Jesus will restore again the kingdom to Israel!