28 Oct 2020

Acts 1: Luke’s “Old Testament” Connection with Isaiah, Joel and Tobit

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Acts, Apocrypha, Exegesis, Hermeneutics, Isaiah, Jewish Backgrounds, Mission, Patternism, Tobit

Luke-Acts is a Third Chronicles

Old familiar texts often have connections and dimensions that we modern disciples miss because our world is not saturated with the Hebraic worldview. Luke goes out of his way to paint his story using a brush dipped in, what we sometimes call, the Old Testament. His story is very much in line with the contours and cadence of the Story he found in his Greek version of the Hebrew Bible, the Septuagint. I have often referred to Luke as a Third Chronicles.

Luke is telling the same story that the Chronicler is. God has not cast off his people but instead has renewed them by keeping his covenant with Abraham and David by sending the Messiah Jesus. Contrary to some VBS material in the past, as Luke tells it, there is only one people of God and that is “Israel.” There are not two, OT Israel and NT Church. Just One People. Restored Israel is made up of believing ethnic Jews and Gentiles who have come to believe in the God of Israel and the Jewish Messiah.

Same God.
Same Promise.
Same Mission.
Same People Renewed.

In the first eleven verses of Acts there are multiple echoes of the Story of Israel already embedded in the text. I cannot examine them all in this little note. However, I will examine a few that help us see the continuity that Luke is stressing. I pray they add depth to our reading and understanding of Acts and help us see how important the Hebrew Bible was to Luke himself and renewed Israel (Luke will not use the word church btw until chapter 5.11).

“The Promise of the Father” (1.4)

The promise of the Father (1.4). This promise connects the opening of Acts not only with the ending of the Gospel of Luke (24.49) it connects with the Hebrew Bible. The promise of the Father is the Holy Spirit.

Three passages in the Hebrew Bible are critical, Isaiah 59.21, Ezekiel 36.22-38, and Joel 2.26-32.

And as for me, this is my covenant with them [Israel], says the LORD:
my Spirit that is upon you,
and my words that I have put in your mouth,
shall not depart out of your mouth,
or out of the mouths of your children,
or your children’s children, says the LORD,
from now on and forever” (Isaiah 59.21)

The echoes of Peter’s words in Acts 2.39 of the gift of the Spirit to the “children” are plainly evident.

The coming of the Spirit was proof of the messianic age having arrived. If in fact the Spirit is here then the Messiah had come. Don’t miss this point. The coming promised Spirit means the Covenant has been renewed and creation itself is being renewed. The promise of God has come.

In Joel 2 creation (as in Genesis 3 and Romans 8) is in anguish as a result of human sin. Even the animals are groaning and crying to Yahweh for relief (1.18, 20). God’s army of punishment devours “the garden of Eden” (2.3) before it, leaving a wasteland behind it. The prophet quotes the Golden Text of the Bible, Ex 34.6-7, in 2.13.

God is gracious and merciful,
slow to anger and abounding in hesed
[steadfast love],
and relents from punishing
” (Joel 2.13).

The text declares that Yahweh becomes “jealous for the land” (2.18) and, true to his name, pours out amazing grace. There are three targets of God’s promised grace

1) the land itself (2.21)
2) the animals that cried to God (2.22)
3) finally the sinful people of Israel (2.23).

Such stunning grace, in fact, that Yahweh asserts, shockingly, he will even pay sinful Israel back for the devastation caused by his own army of judgement (2.25)!

How is it that the earth, the animals, and the people are “healed?” Because God promises to live (dwell) among his creation just as he did in Eden.

You shall know that I am in the midst of Israel.”


I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh” (2.28).

The readers of Acts know what the “promise” of the Father is. In fact, Luke has been using Joel 2 as a sort of template for his narrative since the he opened his Gospel in Luke 1.

The Spirit of creation and renewal is here. The Spirit that brings healing to all God’s creation is about to be poured out, thus the covenant is being renewed, creation is being healed. The Age of the Messiah is here … which is the Age of the Spirit of Life. The Spirit brings God’s grace to all creation. If the Spirit is here then God’s people are also being renewed (Ezekiel 36-37) and that is exactly what we see in Acts 2 when Luke explicitly roots Shavuot in Joel 2. For more on Joel’s amazing promise see “Do Not Fear, O Earth, Animals & People: Hope of Cosmic Redemption in Joel.”

Same God.
Same Promise.
Same Mission.
Same People Renewed.

“You Will Be My Witnesses” (1.8)

Our second example of Luke’s grounding his story in the history of Israel comes in verse 8, “you will be my witnesses.” This is not some randomly chosen verbiage by Jesus nor Luke.

The Book of Isaiah tells us that Israel was created for a priestly function (cf. Exodus 19.6) to be a “light to the nations” in fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant (Gen 12.1-3). But Israel did not show the world either who God was nor what it meant to live as a holy nation. Rather God’s name became profaned because of Israel.

Israel, in Exile, (as in Joel 2) is not cast off. Instead God acts on his own account (by grace) and will place Israel in a situation where they will bear witness to the nations. Isaiah 43.8-13 and Isaiah 44.6-8 are critical for Luke. We will look at 43.8ff. God calls forth a people “blind” and “deaf” before an assembly of the nations Gentiles) in v.8. Israel, characterized as blind and deaf, is placed on the Stand to testify about the one true God.

You are my WITNESSES, says the LORD,
and my servant whom I have chosen …
besides me there is no Savior …
you are my WITNESSES …
declares the LORD,

‘that I am God.'”

The refrain “you are my witnesses” is in 43.10, 12 and 44.8. The entirety of chapters 43 and 44 are relevant to Acts, but I will refrain from quoting the entire section.

The commission of Acts 1.8 is to continue the very mission of Israel herself. Now that promised Spirit will renew the people the mission can continue. But the “church” will be just as “blind” and “deaf” to the ways of God (as in Kings and Chronicles) as the narrative of Acts clearly goes on to show. The Promised Spirit literally drags the renewed People of God kicking and screaming to be his instruments of covenantal and creational renewal.

Being a witness is not simply another word for “evangelist.” Rather Luke is saying, by connecting to Isaiah, that even the Exile has not derailed God’s purposes for his people … to be his Witnesses in the middle of cursed creation. God’s people are to testify to his healing and his grace because the Messiah has come and the Spirit has been given to bring healing not only to traditional Israel but to bring all creation into the new world. The renewed People of God are formed, as in Isaiah, “so that they might declare my praise” (Isaiah 43.21). They can do this because they are “Exhibit A” of God healing grace. They witness to it because they are the “graced.”

“To the Ends of the Earth” (1.8)

Our third example comes from the same verse, “to the ends of the earth” (1.8). Some mistakenly read this as some kind of geography lesson from Luke. It is not. In fact the language of the text has practically nothing to do with geography – literally.

Rather than geography this is missional language that comes from the Greek Bible (Septuagint) that Luke uses. The Greek comes from a text we have already referred Isaiah 49.6, one of the “Servant Songs.” As in Isaiah 43, we see the task of Israel in full view. The Song beginning in v.1 and ending in v.7, records Yahweh’s words to the “distant nations” (v.1) and how he will “display my splendor” in “my servant Israel” (v.3). Yahweh asks

Is it too small a thing for you to be my servant,
to restore the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back those of Israel I have kept.
I will make you a light for the Gentiles,
that you may bring my salvation
to the ends of the earth
” (v.6).

The phrase to the ends of the earth are ethnic, meaning to non-Jews. The full text of Isa 49.6 is quoted again by Luke in his version of Paul’s synagogue sermon in Acts 13.46.

So in one verse we have a combination of Isaiah 43 and 49. God’s deaf and blind people are gathered by the Lord himself and commissioned to testify and to fulfill the role for which they were created. The “gentile mission,” as some call it, is directly connected to the restoration of Israel in these texts.

The coming in of the Gentiles does not signify the creation of a new people of God replacing the old people of God. Rather the coming in of the Gentiles symbolizes that God is restoring Israel herself to the task and commission for which she was created in the first place.

Same God.
Same Promise.
Same Mission.
Same People Renewed.

The Ascension (1.9f)

Luke is the only NT author to record the ascension of Jesus. Both in the telling in Luke 24.50-52 and here in Acts 1.9f, he uses powerful images from the Story of Israel. I have met more than one person through the years think Jesus exited the world via a white fluffy Cumulus cloud. Simply white water vapor (some have even thought Jesus’s body ceased to exist in those clouds!). I used to be one of them.

While it is possible that some water vapor was involved, no first century Jew would have read the text that way. It may surprise many but the word “cloud” (Hebrew ‘anan) occurs 87 times in the “Old Testament.” Fifty Eight (58) of those 87 are used in connection with God’s theophanic presence not some meteorological activity. That is the vast majority of the time when the Bible mentions something about clouds it is not about rain but when God “shows up” in a big way.

The cloud represents God’s “shekinah“glory. The Israelite would think principally of the completion of the Tabernacle in Exodus 40.34-38 and the dedication of the Temple in 1 Kings 8.10f; 2 Chronicles 5.13-14; 7.1-2. In these texts we read

Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses was not able to enter the tent because of the cloud …the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle For the cloud of the LORD was on the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night …” (Exodus 40.34-38)

This same cloud that enveloped the tabernacle has enveloped Jesus in the Transfiguration (Lk 9.28-36). Luke tells us that the last thing the apostles see of Jesus is a theophany. What a glorious moment.

while he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice ...” (Lk 9.34-35).

As an aside, because it is such a historical moment, Luke taps into another story in his Greek Bible. How do you tell a story that can hardly be described? No other NT writer even makes the attempt. But there is an “ascension” in one other place in the Greek Bible, the book of Tobit. Tobit was a popular work and known in Greek, Hebrew and Aramaic in what we call Palestine today (some scholars believe it was regarded as scripture by the owners of the Dead Sea Scrolls).

In Tobit 12, the angel Raphael revealed his identity to Tobias and Tobit as “one of the seven angels who stands ready and enter before the glory of the Lord” (12.15). At this revelation, much like John in Revelation, Tobias and Tobit immediately fall on their faces in holy terror. Raphael tells them not to be afraid. He commands them to get up and says “See, I am ascending {or about to ascend} to him who sent me.” (12.20). Then we read,

And he ascended. Then they stood up, and could see him no more. They kept blessing God and singing his praises, and they acknowledged God for these marvelous deeds of his, when an angel of God appeared to them” (12.21-22).

This sounds very much like the description Luke gives us of the apostles in Luke 24 that they broke out in worship and praise. How else do you respond to a theophany!?

Same God.
Same Promise.
Same Mission.
Same People Renewed.

Final Thoughts

Ok, my little note has grown a little long but I hope you have enjoyed it. I hope we see just a little more how the Hebrew Bible is so embedded in the warp and hoof of New Testament that the latter simply cannot exist without the former.

Hopefully with these thoughts we also have a deeper appreciation for our mission as the people of God. It is the same mission from the same God based on the same promises that have been there all along.

And finally it is my prayer that it has helped encourage us to become as aware of the Scriptures that Jesus himself taught to the apostles for 40 days (Lk 24) and that we must devote ourselves to them. I pray we are spurred to deeper appreciation of how God’s people today are one with the people in Kings, Chronicles, Psalms, Isaiah, Joel and the rest.

Be blessed and filled with God’s glorious shalom.

Related Articles of Interest

Luke’s Pattern for the Church: Reading Luke-Acts, a Story within a Story

They Continued Steadfastly in … THE Prayers: What Does Luke Say the Disciples are doing in Acts 2.42?

Acts 2: Shavuot/Pentecost, the Day God Renewed His Covenant

Aroma of Incense: Shadow of the Temple in Luke’s Jewish Story of Jesus and the Way

One Response to “Acts 1: Luke’s “Old Testament” Connection with Isaiah, Joel and Tobit”

  1. Charlie M Says:

    Any chance Luke is penning a Christian answer/version of the Aeneid?


  1. Stoned-Campbell Disciple » Blog Archive » Luke the Priest? Was Luke Gentile or Jewish?

Leave a Reply