What is Strange?

If you picked up the New Testament and read it without the benefit of being a part of the institutionalized church, you could get the impression that the ideas it presents are offensive, shocking, and hard to accept. That’s only natural, given all the stories it tells about people’s strong reactions to the Gospel. Jesus teaches and many disciples leave him. The religious leaders get so distraught about Jesus’s message that they plot to murder him. People stirred up riots when the first disciples started spreading the Gospel. Even secular powers, including Ceasar himself, commanded the message to stop. Those Christians who continued to teach in the name of Jesus despite the threats were imprisoned and executed.

If you grew up inside Christianity, however, you know that actually the message is a nice, boring one about how to feel good. It’s a message of how great we are when we do good things, and how horrible other people are when they do bad things. It’s about finding out that God is mad about the same things, and at the same people, as you are. The Gospel message, in simplest terms, is that if you say the right prayer and are initiated into our group, you too can look down on sinners and feel morally superior.

It would be very strange to find Christians who reject this Gospel. Why wouldn’t they want to work their way up the ladder of spirituality? Who wouldn’t want to fit into one of these nice slots we’ve prepared for them? How could they not accept such a perfect system, fine-tuned over two-thousand years? What we have today is obviously a vast improvement over the messy and downright dangerous early days of the church.

Why would anyone want to be so strange?

The World Had Changed

At the beginning of the book of Acts, Jesus’s resurrection was already starting to have a dramatic effect. The powers-that-be, while not mentioned by Luke explicitly, were obviously shaken by more and more reports that the man they had publicly executed was alive. Even those who dismissed such reports could feel a growing public sentiment that they were not eager to challenge. In this short vacuum of uncertainty, Jesus chose to spend forty more days teaching his disciple about the kingdom of God. ((Acts 1:3))

That his disciples needed further teaching about something that he had focused on throughout his ministry illustrates just how contrary it was to their culture. Even when Jesus had used the plainest possible language, his followers had failed to understand, mistaking the literal for parables and parables for reality. Now that they had seen his predictions literally fulfilled, he tried once again to explain God’s plan.

Exactly what Jesus told his disciples we can only guess from what they later told others. It is likely that much of what he said was still beyond their understanding, but in time they would remember and understand. They could see that Jesus was preparing them for something, but what that might be was still a mystery. Even if they had wanted to act, Jesus forbade it. They were to wait in Jerusalem until they were “baptized with the holy spirit.” ((Act 1:4-5))

The number of disciples now stood at around one-hundred and twenty, including Jesus’s earthly family. For forty days he lived among them as he had before, but everything was radically different. His human flesh was now glorified, and he traveled freely between the realms of heaven and earth, appearing behind locked doors and moving instantly between distant places. That Jesus was alive at all after his brutal crucifixion was amazing, but it slowly began to dawn on his followers that this resurrection was not like the few others they had seen.

The Jewish teachers had long awaited the resurrection of the dead. Not a single resurrection, but the resurrection of all the righteous Jews at the end of the age, when God would judge wickedness and reconnect heaven with earth. That God had carried out this resurrection for one man in their own time was a puzzle. In some ways it seemed as though the world had ended, but no one had noticed!

The disciples could not miss the symbolism when, forty days after his resurrection, he invited them to meet him on the mountain across the valley from Jerusalem. Just as Moses had spent forty days on Mount Sinai before being given the old covenant, they hoped that, after their forty days of preparation, the last battle was finally about to begin.

Conquering Rome

The disciples gathered at the Mount of Olives ((Acts 1:12)) with growing expectation. They could tell that Jesus was leading up to a big moment. The triumphant Messiah was untouchable. Death itself could not stop him. He could now travel anywhere in the world in an instant, and they had already known he was a miracle worker. Their imaginations ran wild with scenarios: He could appear inside the Holy of Holies and announce himself to the startled high priests as their new king. For that matter, he could show up in Tiberius’ bedroom, strike down that false “son of a god”, and declare himself the world’s rightful Caesar.

The world had no power over him now, and the disciples knew that victory lay ahead. They could be forgiven a moment’s thought to their own impending reward, as those who had chosen to follow when he had been a little-known Galilean construction worker turned rabbi. They were ready to see the dreams of their ancestors fulfilled. Today could be the day when Israel returned to its rightful place as a world power. Was it? They had to know, and so they asked him. ((Acts 1:6))

For Jesus, this question posed three problems:

In some sense, the answer was “no”, and would always be “no”. Their culture’s view of what the Messiah was meant to be had muddied the waters so much that having the kingdom restored was unimaginable to them without wars and conquests, but that had never been the real plan.

In another sense, the answer was “yes”, and actually “that has already happened”. He, as Israel’s one righteous representative, had battled and defeated death. The announcement of his rule had already gone out to all of creation. If they could not see it, it was only because of the deep-rooted rebelliousness of mankind.

In the most important sense, it simply wasn’t helpful. Jesus knew many people who were so obsessed with foretelling the Messiah, and finding every shred of scripture pertaining to him, that they had missed him when he was standing right in front of them. “That’s God’s concern, not yours”, he told them. ((Acts 1:7)) “I have a different mission for you, but you can’t do it without the holy spirit’s power. I need you to announce my kingdom to the entire world.” ((Acts 1:8))

The Cloud

The disciples listened intently as Jesus told them their mission. ((Acts 1:8)) They weren’t clear on all the details, but that didn’t dull their anticipation. It was hard to say exactly when they noticed the cloud, but they knew it symbolized something important: the smoke around Mount Sinai when God met with Moses ((Exodus 19:18)); the pillar of cloud that guided the Israelites through the desert ((Exodus 13:21)); the cloud that had descended on the temple when it was dedicated ((1 Kings 8:10-11)). Peter, James, and John remembered the cloud they had seen on the mountain, when Jesus had met with Elijah and Moses, shining as brightly as the sun ((Luke 9:29-30)). They knew something amazing was going to happen.

The cloud was a symbol of God’s presence, the cloak that protected human eyes from gazing on his true glory. That Jesus was now inside that cloud ((Acts 1:9)) filled their hearts with awe. At any moment he would reappear, surrounded by the armies of heaven. They pictured the army of angels riding through the streets, overrunning their armies and seating Jesus on the throne. A minute passed, and the cloud started to thin. They looked intently, but Jesus was nowhere to be seen. ((Acts 1:10))

That he was gone dawned on some sooner than others, but they could not tear their eyes away from the spot where he had been standing. What had just happened? They had already lost Jesus once. Had Jesus finally outgrown his motley band of followers? What now?

Then an unknown voice broke the silence. “Hey, Galileans! Why are you just standing there? Jesus has been taken from this world into heaven.”

Two men, dressed in white, were standing on the hill with them. They had not been with the group minutes earlier, and no one had heard their approach. Some of the disciples remembered that men in white had also been outside Jesus’s tomb, and had delivered the message that he was no longer there.

The men in white continued: “He is coming back.” ((Acts 1:11))


The walk back to Jerusalem (( Acts 1:12)) was surreal. On the one hand, they had witnessed Jesus enter heaven, where they knew he was going to be with his father. They praised God for what they had seen. ((Luke 24:52)) On the other hand, they were confused. Jesus had not done what they expected from a triumph Messiah. Why choose such an unusual method to establish his kingdom? What king had ever been victorious by retreating? It seemed to them a very strange way to restore the kingdom to Israel.

Alone, without either Jesus or the holy spirit, their minds grappled with what they had just witnessed. Though Jesus had tried to prepare them for this moment, it was beyond what they could imagine. It would take some time before they realized it was a lesson about what it meant to be the kingdom of God.

If Jesus had marched into Rome and taken control, like countless dictators before and after, it would have satisfied the disciples, but it would not have fulfilled God’s purpose. A leader like that, no matter how good and just, would always find opposition from others who wanted supremacy. Even if he could defeat every insurrection and coup, the war would be endless and the body count staggering.

If Jesus had set himself up as the supreme overlord of earth, it would have met the expectations of his followers, but destroyed their unity. Already prone to jockey for position, each one would have been at the others’s throats, constantly scheming to secure his own promotion and stop the rise of those below. The seat at Jesus’s right hand would always be contested, and the hierarchy of those struggling to reach it would crush those at the bottom.

If Jesus had remained as a earthly teacher, dispensing wisdom and settling disputes, it would have pleased his followers, but it would have made them useless. Given the choice between listening carefully to the holy spirit or asking Jesus what to do,  the easy way would win every time. Why experiment with something new when you have the perfect teacher who can give you all the answers? The kingdom could never grow beyond the area that one man could govern.

Instead, he gave his followers the chance to discover his kingdom for themselves. Without him they would struggle, and sometimes fail, but they would grow. The men in white had said Jesus would be back, but they hadn’t said when. All the disciples knew was that they were to wait in Jerusalem. ((Acts 1:4))

The Lions’s Den

Jesus was gone, but his enemies were not. The religious leaders were still in confusion over what had happened, but the disciples knew they would soon resume their effort to wipe out Jesus’s ministry. The fear that had gripped them after Jesus’s crucifixion threatened to return. They were alone again.

Even if they had known what to do, their orders were clear: wait. ((Acts 1:4)) Nearly all of the disciples were from Galilee ((Acts 1:11)). They had houses, family, and friends there, but Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem, the city where he had been tried and killed. The city where the enemies of Jesus were the thickest.

There was only one place in Jerusalem where one hundred and twenty ((Acts 1:15)) men and women ((Acts 1:14)) of limited means could meet: the Temple ((Luke 24:52)). Every day they watched from their upper room ((Acts 1:13)) as the men who had accused Jesus of treason before Pilate ((Luke 23:2)) came and went. They hid in the massive crowds, but they knew it couldn’t last forever. Eventually someone would recognize them and report them to the priests. It was no wonder that they spent most of their time together in prayer ((Acts 1:14)).

Replacing Judas

Originally there had been twelve apostles. Jesus had made it that way. The number was significant. Twelve men, like the original twelve sons of Israel, chosen to restore their fallen country. Now there were only eleven. Peter, suddenly finding himself with a lot of time to think, pondered Judas’s empty position. Even though they now numbered more than a hundred ((Acts 1:15)), the vacancy bothered him.

Peter remembered that Jesus had gotten a lot of information about his ministry from the Psalms, so he also went to them for guidance. Soon he found a couple that echoed his own pain and anger at a friend’s betrayal. It didn’t take him long to find a verse he could use: “Let him die quickly and give someone else his position.” ((Psalms 109:8))

Peter interrupted the prayers of the others to unveil his revelation. ((Acts 1:15)) He formed a committee to find the best replacement candidate for the inner circle. The new man must be respected and entirely loyal. ((Acts 1:21-22)) Peter would not risk another Judas incident. Eventually they narrowed it down to two candidates. To ensure that they got the best possible man, and also gave God his proper due, they prayed for blessing on their endeavor ((Acts 1:24-25)) and flipped a coin. ((Acts 1:26))

Matthias was welcomed into the inner circle. Joseph, and the rest, remained outside, as mere disciples. ((Acts 1:26)) Peter felt content. He had ensured that Jesus’s carefully laid plan hadn’t been damaged by Judas’s action. The disciples resumed praying.

Down in the temple, a young but powerful Pharisee named Saul went about his business. He was as unlike the disciples as a Jew could be, and both he and the disciples liked it that way. Neither side could have imagined that Jesus would choose him as an apostle.

The Spirit of God

Jesus had promised ((Luke 24:49)) his disciples that “the holy spirit” would “come upon” them ((Acts 1:8)) in a few days ((Acts 1:5)). They waited expectantly, remembering the Bible stories about God’s spirit filling great men like David ((1 Samuel 16:13)), Samson ((Judges 13:25, 14:6, 14:19, 15:14)), Gideon ((Judges 6:34)), Joshua ((Numbers 27:18)), and many other heroes ((Genesis 41:38, Judges 3:10, 11:29, 1 Samuel 10:10, 1 Chronicles 12:18, 2 Chronicles 24:20, Ezekiel 11:5))  and prophets ((Ezekiel 11:5, Daniel 4:8, Micah 3:8)). It had given them wisdom and power, and brought deliverance numerous times.

Prophecy said that the Messiah would have the spirit of God on him ((Isaiah 1:2)), and they had witnessed it themselves. When Jesus said the same spirit would be given to them, they could not help but recognize it as the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy ((Ezekiel 39:29, Joel 3:15)): God would restore Israel and pour his spirit on all, marking the dawning of a new age.

Yet even though scripture spoke often of God’s spirit, it was still a mystery to them. Its appearance had grown uncommon in the centuries since the last prophets. Those in power at the temple were certainly devout, but God’s spirit was not part of the routines of temple life. Those ministering at the altars carried out the traditions of a millennium, confident that they were following the will of God. Without the insights of the holy spirit, they could not conceive what God was preparing in an upper room at the edge of the courtyard.


It had been a week since Jesus had entered heaven. His followers still awaited his promise. Jewish pilgrims from around the ancient world ((Acts 2:9-11)) were packed into Jerusalem for the festival of Pentecost; every year they presented the first of their harvest at the temple, to show God their gratefulness, and that they trusted him to provide even more.

Like that fateful Passover almost two months past, the city was on high alert. With so many gathered together, mobs formed quickly. Pilate had his Roman guards on prominent display, but out of easy reach. The crowds seemed to grow more volatile every year. The Jews were growing tired of their overlords.

It was almost time for the morning prayer ((Acts 2:15)). The crowds filled every inch of the temple’s massive courtyard. Latecomers fought for any open space they could find. Then, without warning, the thunder of a roaring wind ((Acts 2:2)) echoed through the temple.


The disciples had seen the pillar of cloud on the mountain ((Acts 1:9)) , and now they saw the other manifestation of God: the pillar of flame ((Genesis 15:17, Exodus 3:2, 13:21, 19:18, 24:17, 2 Samuel 22:13, 2 Kings 6:17, Psalms 50:3, Ezekiel 1:27)). The roaring fire rushed into the upper room, illuminating everything inside. The startled disciples watched as it spread out, marking each of them with a flame ((Acts 2:3)). As the flames over their heads faded, a new flame ignited in their spirits.

They felt a connection with something, someone, more wise, more powerful, more holy than themselves. Though he could easily have consumed them, instead he prompted gently. Down below, in the temple, a multitude of their countrymen had come to offer the first fruits of their harvest. Now they saw it clearly: They were the first fruits of a different kind of harvest, and it was time to offer themselves in the temple.

As one, they rushed from their room and into the waiting crowd, eager to tell those still in darkness about what they had seen: eager to spread the fire of heaven ((Acts 2:4)).