A City Set on a Hill

Acts 1-2

“Ye are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hid” (Matthew 5:14 RVIC).

by Todd Alexander

A City Set on a Hill

If, as proposed in the previous article, the books of Luke and Acts are a two-part compilation of Paul’s legal defense before Roman authority, Acts chapters 1-2 unfold the critical proof of the endowment of power from Jesus Christ to his disciples. The most powerful evidence was the promise and descent of the holy Spirit. Paul’s work in Rome is revealed to have become much more important than a mere defense of himself and his ministry. It became a defense of Christianity itself. In his defense of the gospel in Roman courts, Paul would truly bear Jesus’ name before Kings (Acts 9:15,16).

Jesus Grants Authority (1:1-12)

Theophilus, now Luke’s acquaintance (perhaps due to the previous treatise) is addressed without the formality of “most excellent” normally accorded a Roman official. Luke identifies “Acts of the Apostles” as a continuation of the treatise of the Gospel of Luke.

Jesus provides legal authority to the apostles, and Luke records Jesus’ last interaction with the disciples when they ask him a topof-mind question: “Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus does not answer their question but responds by explaining what will happen next. He tells them the holy Spirit will soon give them the power to carry out the great commission to go teach, preach, and baptize individuals throughout the world.

This granting of divine authority by sending God’s Spirit was the last interaction the eleven had with Jesus before his departure. They witnessed his ascension and his promise to return in “like manner.” In a legal defense, legitimate authority is important to establish in a court of law. For Christianity’s legal defense, it closed the chapter of Jesus’ life on earth. Consider that the Gospel of Luke begins with Jesus’ miraculous birth announced by both an angel and a multitude of heavenly hosts appearing to the shepherds from heaven, and Luke ends with the illegal trial and crucifixion of that same Jesus by Jewish and Roman authorities.

Rome should have been “quaking” from these revelations of a “new global power” evidenced in Jesus’ ascension to heaven and his promise to continue his work through his disciples. However, Rome as well as the Jews were blind to these things and eventually murdered the Apostle Paul.

Birth of the Early Church (1:13-14)

Astonished by their final experience with Jesus, the apostles were knit together in purpose along with the women who supported Jesus’ ministry. This included Mary, Jesus’ mother, and his brothers, some of whom finally believed. Hope deferred led to their discipline as a group through careful obedience to Jesus’ commands and then to inspiration. The early church began with 120 people!

No longer scattered sheep, 120 was also the minimum number of people required for a Jewish sect to come together and select their own lesser Sanhedrin of 23 Rabbis.1 This was an important fact for Luke to share with the Roman authorities since it established the legal right, under Jewish law, for Christianity to exist as a sect of Judaism.

(1) Mishnah Sanhedrin 1.1: “And how many men must be in the city for it to be eligible for a lesser Sanhedrin? One hundred and twenty” (www.sefaria.org/Mishnah_Sanhedrin).

Peter’s First Speech (1:15-22) Peter was also enjoying a new beginning. He was no longer full of doubt. Instead, he had been developed by Jesus into the humble, hungry, and intelligent leader needed for the work. Peter’s first speech was the moment when he left behind the bitter disappointment of his denial of Jesus and began feeding the flock of God — just as Jesus had asked of him on the shores of Galilee.

Peter opened up the scriptures to the infant church and answered the lingering question about Judas’ betrayal. He showed, perhaps from Proverbs 16:33 and Psalms 69:25, 109:8, that “another” would take Judas’ place. He suggested that perhaps they should facilitate the selection of the replacement apostle from among two in their group who were with them from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry.

Perhaps the apostles felt that God would use their lots in a way similar to the Urim and Thummim of the tabernacle arrangement. In either case, they came together and did what they thought was right by selecting Matthias.

A City on a Hill (2:1-13)

In retrospect, Pentecost was the perfect time for God to deliver the holy Spirit to the start-up Church. The city of Jerusalem was overcrowded with devout Jews from all over the world who came for the Feast of Weeks (Shavuot). Many of these devout followers of the Jewish Law would witness the miracle of the holy Spirit. They would listen to Peter’s inspirational speech and would soon spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to their countries of origin which form a circle of the civilized world around Jerusalem. These foreign visitors included “strangers from Rome” and is likely the way the gospel first reached Rome, paving the way for the Apostle Paul to later send his letter to Rome with Phebe (Acts 2:10, Romans 16:27 KJV endnote).

Jesus was “jump-starting” the great commission work that he asked of his apostles. It must have been truly inspirational for them to see him working alongside them with the power of the holy Spirit as their comforter (John 14:26). Jesus would help them make the Church into “a city set on a hill” for the whole world to see its gospel light. Some who heard the disciples speak in their own languages mocked them and suggested that they were drunk with new wine. The apostles were not inebriated, but perhaps they were beginning to be filled with the wine of new doctrine: the gospel of the kingdom that God chose not to put into the old wineskins of the Jewish religious establishment.

Peter Rising

Judaism and Polytheism were the only religions permitted by Roman law. Therefore, a speech by the new leader of Christianity, that quoted generously from the Old Testament, would be the best way to show that this new sect (Acts 28:22) was actually rooted in Judaism and therefore, by Roman law, a legal religion.

Peter’s second speech, now guided by the holy Spirit, would be a powerful rebirth for this beloved apostle who once denied Jesus. It represented the beginning of his journey toward self-discovery in his new relationship with his risen Lord Jesus Christ, and with the help of the holy Spirit, Peter’s part in this relationship was his willingness to do the work of the great commission. (This is our part in our relationship with our Lord Jesus Christ too!)

Commencing with his second speech, Peter set the tone and pace for the work of public teaching, a template that the other apostles and disciples would follow. All who did the work would be rewarded with spectacular experiences, including the reward of new converts, and their own sanctification through miraculous signs and great power. Peter stated that signs would accompany this new arrangement, similar to the way signs accompanied the giving of the Law on Mount Sinai (Acts 2:17-21).

Peter’s Speech to Devout Men of all Nations (2:14-21)

Peter began to use the first “key” to God’s kingdom that he was given. He contended with the mockers by saying it was only 9:00 AM and far too early to be drunk with wine. Incidentally, 9:00 AM was the time Jesus Christ was put on the cross and also the time the daily morning sacrifice was offered. Some years later, Cornelius would be converted at 3:00 PM (the time of the daily evening sacrifice).

Perhaps by coinciding with the times of the morning and evening sacrifices, the Lord was indicating that the early church would eventually see both Jews and Gentiles come under the blood of the antitypical Lamb of God. Peter now knew the true nature of the wonderful gift he was given, the two keys to God’s kingdom.

Words Directed to Israel (2:14-36)

Peter then directed his speech away from devout men of all nations toward the people of Israel. He began by explaining that Jesus’ life and work was the central component in the fulfillment of Joel’s prophecy. These miracles and wonders would be seen and those that turned to the Lord would be saved. Then Peter delivered the condemning statement that they had illegally crucified Jesus Christ (verse 36). He explained by showing how, through David’s words, Jesus was prophesied to be resurrected by God and made “both Lord and Christ,” God’s anointed.

Pricked in Their Heart (2:37-47)

“Now when they heard this, they were pricked in their heart, and said unto Peter and the rest of the apostles, Brethren, what shall we do?” (Acts 2:37 RVIC).

Peter was speaking to the individual Jews in attendance about the action of their leaders as if they were each individually responsible for the crucifixion of Jesus. Why would they feel individually accountable for the crucifixion of Jesus? How did Peter’s words prompt immediate repentance from the Jerusalem Jews? Perhaps we find the answer in the words of the prophet Zechariah: “These are the things that ye shall do; Speak ye every man the truth to his neighbour; execute the judgment of truth and peace in your gates: And let none of you imagine evil in your hearts against his neighbour; and love no false oath: for all these are things that I hate, saith the LORD” (Zechariah 8:16-17, Tanakh, JPS).

Zechariah instructed each Jew to promote righteousness in their communities, a spiritual gyroscope of sorts for the community. God encouraged them to make judgments and to protect those who could not protect themselves. By Peter’s words, these local Jews realized they were guilty in this regard and were now pricked in their hearts and said, “what shall we do?” They mourned for him (Zechariah 12:10).

Peter answered by directing them to repent and be baptized in the name (into the family) of Jesus Christ. Peter continued by telling them that their calling contained a precious promise of receiving the holy Spirit. That day, 3,000 people were added to the church.

They came together as a group and ordered their lives in the light of the gospel, which included doctrine (teaching), fellowship (koinonia), group meals, and prayer. They were inspired to a reverential fear of God by the miraculous gifts given to the apostles.

The early church lived together in a semi communal arrangement, where they shared material possessions for the satisfaction of everyone’s need. They were happy and spiritually satisfied with the goodness of the gospel and with its outworking among the growing group of believers. Finally, John specifies that it is God who calls each member of the church and saves them to a better life through the hope of the gospel and ultimately to salvation through Jesus Christ (John 6:45).


The Church truly became “a city set on a hill” and its light would grow over the next twenty centuries. The remaining articles consider the miraculous experiences throughout Luke’s second treatise. He records how the apostles and disciples were inspired to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, even to the ends of the world. Let us wonder at the miracles and signs and follow in Jesus’ footsteps. Let us pick up the torch of the gospel of salvation and continue sharing it with the world.

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