[And Moses said] The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among you, from your fellow Israelites. You must listen to him. For this is what you asked of the LORD your God at Horeb on the day of the assembly when you said, “Let us not hear the voice of the Lord our God nor see this great fire anymore, or we will die.”
“If you love me, keep my commands. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever— the Spirit of truth. The world cannot accept him, because it neither sees him nor knows him. But you know him, for he lives with you and will be in you.
The Son of David was murdered, hung on a tree.
The Gospel of Luke tell us what happens next: the resurrection and ascension of Jesus
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
The first time this happened, when Joab murdered Absalom, David did not see his son ascend. He had to hope.
So the watchman said, “I think the running of the first is like the running of Ahimaaz the son of Zadok.”
And the king said, “He is a good man, and comes with good news.”
2 Samuel 18:17
But you know what they say about hopes
Then the king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept. And as he went, he said thus: “O my son Absalom—my son, my son Absalom—if only I had died in your place! O Absalom my son, my son!”
2 Samuel 18:33
The stuttering, the stammering, the weeping from the King recalls Moses paralysis at the illness of his wife
And Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “God, pray, heal her, pray.”
But David was no Moses, and Absalom was not healed.
We go to the dead. They do not go to us.
And he said, “While the child was alive, I fasted and wept; for I said, ‘Who can tell whether the LORD will be gracious to me, that the child may live?’ But now he is dead; why should I fast? Can I bring him back again? I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me.”
2 Samuel 12:22-23
Like David we do not see the ascension. We are not part of that happy few.
We will not see the resurrection of the dead, until we are dead.
So what now?
The Teaching of the Acts
Acts of the Apostles begins as a rambling and somewhat weird (the Apostles as a corporate organization; the Holy Spirit is doing things) continuation of the Gospel of Luke. Another Messiah is dead and, much worse, is turns out that while flames do not harm the Son of Man, nails are pretty effective at shutting him up. After the hustle and bustle of life after the birth and death and resurrection and everything else is the writing itself, written in Greek but recalling ancient Hebrew.
In Genesis and the older parts of the Hebrew Bible, the difference between the objective situation and verbalized description is used to explain character and motivation. This goes beyond someone simply “not telling the truth.” The difference between how the LORD instructs Moses to threaten Pharoah, and how Moses actually threatens Pharoah, gives a foreshadowing of Moses’s arrogance and bloodlust (Robert Alter, summarizing William H.C. Propp). Likewise, both meaningful silence of both Abner and David in fully answering Saul’s question (1 Samuel 17:57-58) foreshadow their future treatment of the Branch from Kish.
But we’re not all fated to be like Moses before the Pharaoh. Sometimes, people can reveal good character.
Consider the Revelation to Cornelius
At Caesarea there was a man named Cornelius, a centurion in what was known as the Italian Regiment. 2 He and all his family were devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly. 3 One day at about three in the afternoon he had a vision. He distinctly saw an angel of God, who came to him and said, “Cornelius!”
Cornelius stared at him in fear. “What is it, Lord?” he asked.
The angel answered, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God. Now send men to Joppa to bring back a man named Simon who is called Peter. He is staying with Simon the tanner, whose house is by the sea.”
And Cornelius’s retelling of it
Cornelius answered: “Three days ago I was in my house praying at this hour, at three in the afternoon. Suddenly a man in shining clothes stood before me 31 and said, ‘Cornelius, God has heard your prayer and remembered your gifts to the poor. 32 Send to Joppa for Simon who is called Peter. He is a guest in the home of Simon the tanner, who lives by the sea.’ 3
What differences there are the result of virtue, not vice.
- Cornelius downplays the reception of his “prayers (“come up as a memorial offering” v. “remembered”)
- Elided over speaking directly to the Angel (“What is it, Lord?” v. passively listening to orders)
- Emphasized Peter’s social position (“a man named Simon” v. “for Simon”, and Peter as simply staying with Simon v. being a guest of Simon’s)
This writing — what Cornelius saw, what he told to Peter — was placed there by Luke. He’s demonstrating he understands the literary style of the Torah and the Prophets. The purpose is to make one sentence make sense because it is the most important sentence written after the Gospels.
The Most Important Sentence
In the Hebrew Bible, the first words spoken by a character indicate his true personality — his heart and his spirit.
If you know only this about Abraham, know this: he is smart, loving, and very cautious
When he was about to enter Egypt, he said to his wife Sarai, “I know well that you are a woman beautiful in appearance; and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’; then they will kill me, but they will let you live. Say you are my sister, so that it may go well with me because of you, and that my life may be spared on your account.”
If you know only this about Moses know this: he is a natural ruler of a people:
The next day he went out and saw two Hebrews fighting. He asked the one in the wrong, “Why are you hitting your fellow Hebrew?”
If you know only this about Samson, know this: he is bold and earthy
Samson went down to Timnah and saw there a young Philistine woman. When he returned, he said to his father and mother, “I have seen a Philistine woman in Timnah; now get her for me as my wife.”
And the nightmare at the heart of the Hebrew Bible: the kindest and most timid man in Israel:
When they reached the district of Zuph, Saul said to the servant who was with him, “Come, let’s go back, or my father will stop thinking about the donkeys and start worrying about us.”
1 Samuel 9:5
Prophets and Apostles
As the greatest writing of the ancient world, the Hebrew Bible contains the most complex characters. The Book of Samuel, specifically, is the greatest work of psychological realism — with the conflicting motives, roles, experiences, and ages of characters — before the modern world
This is Samuel, who anointed that humble man Saul, and learning from his mistakes, anointed David:
Samuel answered, “Here I am.”
1 Samuel 3:4
If you know anything about Samuel, know this: he is that he is.
And David, anointed by Samuel and first king of the line that ends with Jesus Christ:
David said to the men who stood by him, “What shall be done for the man who kills this Philistine, and takes away the reproach from Israel? For who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?”
1 Samuel 17:26
Rabble rouser, warrior, and looking for a deal.
But Samuel and David, with their inner lives and inner faults, are not villains. They (ultimately) do the right thing, if not for the right reasons.
But now, in Acts, we meet a man doing the wrong thing
And Saul approved of their killing him
That day a severe persecution began against the church in Jerusalem, and all except the apostles were scattered throughout the countryside of Judea and Samaria. Devout men buried Stephen and made loud lamentation over him.
But Saul was ravaging the church by entering house after house; dragging off both men and women, he committed them to prison.
But Saul does this without saying a word. We have read eight chapters of Acts, and still do not know who Saul is.
Aside: The Character of God
According to the four Gospels, these are the first recorded sentences of Jesus
Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.
“The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
“Why were you searching for me?” he asked. “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?”
Turning around, Jesus saw them following and asked, “What do you want?”
Two statements, emphasizing now.
Now, what are the answers?
Who is Saul of Tarsus?
This is all you need to know about Saul
He asked, “Who are you, Lord?
Saul — truly and in his heart — is a man searching for God.
The Unknown God
It’s striking how often people think Saul is a god.
And Barnabas they called Zeus, and Paul, Hermes, because he was the chief speaker. Then the priest of Zeus, whose temple was in front of their city, brought oxen and garlands to the gates, intending to sacrifice with the multitudes.
But Paul shook the snake off into the fire and suffered no ill effects. The people expected him to swell up or suddenly fall dead; but after waiting a long time and seeing nothing unusual happen to him, they changed their minds and said he was a god.
The people saw Saul and thought that God must be very close. They weren’t wrong.
But Saul says, God is unknown
Then Paul stood in front of the Areopagus and said, “Athenians, I see how extremely religious you are in every way. For as I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship, I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you. The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things
Saul says he hopes for the resurrection of the dead.
When Paul noticed that some were Sadducees and others were Pharisees, he called out in the council, “Brothers, I am a Pharisee, a son of Pharisees. I am on trial concerning the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” When he said this, a dissension began between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, and the assembly was divided. (The Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, or angel, or spirit; but the Pharisees acknowledge all three.)
But you know what they say about hopes
Who knows whether the spirit of the sons of men goes upward, and whether the spirit of the animal goes down to the earth?
The Teaching of the Unknown
Immediately after Ecclesiastes exposes the greatest existential doubt of Scripture, the teacher concludes
So I perceived that nothing is better than that a man should rejoice in his own works, for that is his heritage. For who can bring him to see what will happen after him?
Paul agrees. There is great uncertainty. Even among those who spoke the most with God — Abraham and Moses, Samuel and David — each was so different from the other. We are like blind men searching without sight
From one ancestor he made all nations to inhabit the whole earth, and he allotted the times of their existence and the boundaries of the places where they would live, so that they would search for God and perhaps grope for him and find him—though indeed he is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’; as even some of your own poets have said,
It is appropriate that Paul’s life is the great unfinished life of the Bible. The truth – his execution, his martyrdom – is well known. But Acts ends a little before, open-ended
Then Paul dwelt two whole years in his own rented house, and received all who came to him, preaching the kingdom of God and teaching the things which concern the Lord Jesus Christ with all confidence, no one forbidding him
And thus Acts concludes, perfectly matching Luke.
We don’t see the ascension. We search for God and, perhaps, grope for Him and, perhaps, find Him.
But we can receive others. We can have confidence.
As do the priests. As do the cardinals. As do the writers of the Torah and Samuel, as did Father Abraham and King David, as did the evangelists and the letter-writers.
It is for the Spirit that they grope, and, when God wishes, with the Spirit that they grope.
We can rejoice in our work. Delight in our searching.
why do you work,
and what do you want?