Ascended Like No Other

| Acts 1:3-11

The Point:  Jesus ascended to heaven but did not leave us alone.

The Ascension:  Acts 1:3-11.

[3]  He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. [4]  And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, "you heard from me; [5]  for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now." [6]  So when they had come together, they asked him, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" [7]  He said to them, "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. [8]  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth." [9]  And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. [10]  And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, [11]  and said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."  [ESV]

[3-5]  “The ascension was the watershed between the two phases – earthly and heavenly – of the ministry of Jesus Christ. But He was not taken up to heaven until after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles [2]. Thus, before ending His personal ministry on earth, Jesus deliberately made provision for its continuance, still on earth (through the apostles) but from heaven (through the Holy Spirit). Because the apostles occupied a unique position, they also received a unique equipment. Luke outlines four stages: Jesus chose them, Jesus showed Himself to them, Jesus commanded or commissioned them, and Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit. (1) Jesus chose them. They were the apostles whom he had chosen [2]. It is thus emphasized that all the apostles were neither self-appointed, nor appointed by any human being, committee or church, but were directly and personally chosen and appointed by Jesus Christ Himself. (2) Jesus showed Himself to them. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs [3]. Jesus presented himself to the apostles’ senses: their eyes, ears and hands. Such an objective experience of the risen Lord was an indispensable qualification of an apostle. (3) Jesus commanded or commissioned them. In addition to speaking to them about the kingdom of God [3] and the Holy Spirit [4-5], He gave them certain commands through the Holy Spirit [2] (who inspired all His teaching). What were these commands or instructions? It is likely that these instructions were His great commission that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations [Luke 24:47]. Jesus then repeats these instructions in Acts 1:8: you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth. This, then, adds a further feature to the portrait of an apostle. He was an envoy, delegate or ambassador, sent out with a message and carrying the authority of the sender. Thus Jesus chose His apostles, and showed Himself to them after the resurrection, as preliminaries to sending them out to preach and teach in His name. (4) Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit. In the Upper Room, according to John, Jesus had already promised the apostles that the Spirit of truth would both remind them of what He had taught them [John 14:26] and supplement it with what He had not been able to teach them [John 16:12ff.]. Now Jesus commands them to wait in Jerusalem until the promised gift has been received [4]. So they must wait. Not till God has fulfilled His promise and they have been clothed with power from on high [Luke 24:49], can they fulfil their commission. Here, then, was the fourfold equipment of the apostles of Christ. Of course in a secondary sense all the disciples of Jesus can claim that He has chosen us, revealed Himself to us, commissioned us as His witnesses, and both promised and given us His Spirit. Nevertheless, it is not to these general privileges that Luke is referring here, but to the special qualifications of an apostle – a personal appointment as an apostle by Jesus, and eyewitness experience of the historical Jesus, and authorizing and commissioning by Jesus to speak in His name, and the empowering Spirit of Jesus to inspire their teaching. It was primarily these uniquely qualified men through whom Jesus continued to do and to teach, and to whom Luke intends to introduce us in the Acts.

[6-8]  They received their commission. During the forty days in which the risen Lord showed Himself to the apostles, and gave many convincing proofs that He was alive [3], Luke indicates what He taught them. First, He spoke to them about the kingdom of God [3], which had been the burden of His message during His public ministry and indeed continued to be after His resurrection. Secondly, He told them to wait for the gift or baptism of the Spirit, which had been promised by the Father, and which they would now receive not many days from now [5]. It appears, then, that Jesus’ two main topics of conversation between His resurrection and His ascension were the kingdom of God and the Spirit of God. The apostles’ question in verse 6 shows their understanding that if the Spirit was coming, this meant that the kingdom would also come in its fullness. The mistake they made was to misunderstand both the nature of the kingdom and the relation between the kingdom and the Spirit. Their question must have filled Jesus with dismay. As Calvin commented, ‘there are as many errors in this question as words’. The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom, and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In His reply [7-8] Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival. (A). The kingdom of God is spiritual in its character. In the English language, of course, a kingdom is usually a territorial sphere which can be located on a map. But the kingdom of God is not a territorial concept. It does not, and cannot, figure on any map. Yet this is what the apostles were still envisaging by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Israel. They were still dreaming of political dominion, of the re-establishment of the monarchy, of Israel’s liberation from the colonial yoke of Rome. In His reply Jesus reverted to the topic of the Holy Spirit. He spoke of the Spirit coming upon them and giving them power to be His witnesses [8]. It is important to remember that His promise that they would receive power was part of His reply to their question about the kingdom. For the exercise of power is inherent in the concept of a kingdom. But power in God’s kingdom is different from power in human kingdoms. The reference to the Holy Spirit defines its nature. The kingdom of God is His rule set up in the lives of His people by the Holy Spirit. It is spread by witnesses, not by soldiers, through a gospel of peace, not a declaration of war, and by the work of the Spirit, not by force of arms, political intrigue or revolutionary violence. Although it must not be identified with any political ideology or program, it has radical political and social implications. Kingdom values come into collision with secular values. And the citizens of God’s kingdom steadfastly deny to Caesar the supreme loyalty for which he hungers, but which they insist on giving to Jesus alone. (B) The kingdom of God is international in its membership. The apostles still cherished narrow, nationalistic aspirations. They asked Jesus if He was about to restore to Israel her national independence. In His reply, Jesus broadened their horizons. He promised that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be His witnesses. They would begin indeed in Jerusalem, the national capital in which He had been condemned and crucified, and which they were not to leave before the Spirit came. They would continue in the immediate environs of Judea, But then the Christian mission would radiate out from that center. The risen Lord’s mandate to mission begins to be fulfilled in the Acts. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, Acts 1:8 is a kind of Table of Contents for the book. (C) The kingdom of God is gradual in its expansion. The apostles’ question included a specific reference to time: will you at this time restore the kingdom. The immediate restoration of the kingdom had been the expectation of many during Jesus’ public ministry. The Lord’s reply was twofold. First, it is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. The apostles’ question betrayed either curiosity or impatience or both. For the Father Himself had fixed the times by His own authority. So they must curb their inquisitiveness and be willing to be left in ignorance. It is not only in relation to the fulfilment of prophecy, but to many other undisclosed truths as well, that Jesus still says to us it is not for you to know. The secret things belong to God, and we should not pry into them; it is the revealed things which belong to us, and with these we should rest content [Deut. 29:29]. Secondly, although they were not to know the times or dates, what they should know was that they would receive power so that, between the Spirit’s coming and the Son’s coming again, they were to be His witnesses in ever-widening circles. In fact, the whole interim period between Pentecost and the Parousia is to be filled with the world-wide mission of the church in the power of the Spirit. Christ’s followers were both to announce what He had achieved at His first coming and to summon people to repent and believe in preparation for His second coming. They were to be His witnesses to the end of the earth [8] and to the end of the age [Matt. 28:20]. We have no liberty to stop until both ends have been reached. Indeed the two ends, Jesus taught, would coincide, since only when the gospel of the kingdom has been preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, only then the end will come [Matt. 24:14]. So this was the substance of the Lord’s teaching during the forty days between the resurrection and the ascension: when the Spirit came in power, the long promised reign of God, which Jesus had Himself inaugurated and proclaimed, would begin to spread. It would be spiritual in its character (transforming the lives and values of its citizens), international in its membership (including Gentiles as well as Jews) and gradual in its expansion (beginning at once in Jerusalem, and then growing until it reaches the end of both time and earthly space). This vision and commission must have given clear direction to the disciples’ prayers during their ten days of waiting for Pentecost. But before the Spirit could come, the Son must go.

[9-11]  They saw Jesus go into heaven. It is certainly appropriate that Luke should conclude his first volume and introduce his second with the same event, the ascension of Jesus, since it was both the end of His earthly ministry and the prelude to His continuing ministry from heaven through the Spirit. It is true that in his Gospel, Luke makes no mention of the forty days. But it is gratuitous to suggest that he must therefore have forgotten them, or that he thought that the resurrection and the ascension occurred on the same day. No, in the Gospel he is simply giving a condensed account of the resurrection appearances, without feeling the need to note their different times and circumstances. It is also true that each account includes details which the other omits, the Acts version being fuller than that in the Gospel. For example, at the end of the Gospel the ascending Christ raised His hands to bless them, and they worshipped Him [Luke 24:50ff.]. Luke omits these actions at the beginning of his second volume, but adds there the cloud which hid Him from their sight, and the appearance and message of the two men … in white robes, presumed to be angels. Yet these features of the story supplement, and do not contradict, each other. What is the permanent value of the ascension story?  We have seen what the visible ascension did for the apostles; what can it do for us? If we were to give a thorough answer to this question, we would need to bring different strands of teaching together from all the New Testament authors, including the completed sacrifice and continuing intercession of our Great High Priest described in Hebrews, the glorification of the Son of man taught by John, the cosmic lordship emphasized by Paul and the final triumph when His enemies will become His footstool, foretold by Psalm 110:1, and endorsed by those who quote it. But it is not with these truths that Luke is concerned. In order to understand his primary interest as he tells the ascension story, we shall need to pay attention to those two men … in white robes [10] who stood by the apostles and spoke to them. Luke calls them men because that is how they appeared, but their shining dress and authoritative tone indicate that they were angels. In his Gospel, Luke has recorded the ministry of angels at several crucial moments in his story. So it was entirely appropriate that angels should now appear to interpret His ascension. They asked the apostles a searching question: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? The expression into heaven occurs four times in verses 10 and 11; its repetition, especially in the angels’ implied reproof, emphasizes that the apostles were not to be sky-scanners. Two reasons are given. First, Jesus will come again. This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven. The implication seems to be that they will not bring Him back by gazing up into the sky. He has gone, and they must let him go; He will return in His own good time, and in the same way. To this angelic assurance of the Parousia we must attach full weight. But we must also be cautious in our interpretation of this (same) Jesus and the same way. We should not press these words into meaning that the Parousia will be like a film of the ascension played backwards, or that He will return to exactly the same spot on the Mount of Olives and will be wearing the same clothes. It is only by letting Scripture interpret Scripture that we shall discern the similarities and dissimilarities between the ascension and the Parousia. ‘This same Jesus’ certainly indicates that His coming will be personal, the Eternal Son still possessing His glorified human nature and body. And in the same way indicates that His coming will also be visible and glorious. They had seen Him go; they would see Him come. Yet there will also be important differences between His going and His coming. Although His coming will be personal, it will not be private like His ascension. Only the eleven apostles saw Him go, but when He comes every eye will see him [Rev. 1:7]. In place of a localized coming, it will be as the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other [Luke 17:23-24]. Secondly, the angels implied, until Christ comes again, the apostles must get on with their witness, for that was their mandate. There was something fundamentally anomalous about their gazing up into the sky when they had been commissioned to go to the ends of the earth. It was the earth not the sky which was to be their preoccupation. Their calling was to be witnesses not stargazers. It is the same for us. Curiosity about heaven and its occupants, speculation about prophecy and its fulfilment, an obsession with times and seasons – these are aberrations which distract us from our God-given mission. Christ will come personally, visibly, gloriously. Of that we have been assured. Other details can wait. Meanwhile, we have work to do in the power of the Spirit. The remedy for unprofitable spiritual stargazing lies in a Christian theology of history, an understanding of the order of events in the divine program. First, Jesus returned to heaven (Ascension). Secondly, the Holy Spirit came (Pentecost). Thirdly, the church goes out to witness (Mission). Fourthly, Jesus will come back (Parousia). Whenever we forget one of these events, or put them in the wrong sequence, confusion reigns. We need especially to remember that between the ascension and the Parousia, the disappearance and the reappearance of Jesus, there stretches a period of unknown length which is to be filled with the church’s worldwide, Spirit-empowered witness to Him.”  [Stott, pp. 34-51]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         What did Jesus teach the disciples during His forty days on earth between His resurrection and ascension (Kingdom of God and Spirit of God)? Why do you think He concentrated on these truths? How does the apostles’ question in verse 6 show their complete misunderstanding of these two crucial truths?

2.         What did Jesus teach concerning the kingdom of God in verses 7 and 8? What role should this teaching play in our being witnesses for Christ?

3.         What do we need to know about the time of Jesus’ return? What do we not need to know? Why is this distinction important for us to remember?

4.         Luke gives us a fourfold order of events in God’s program of history? Why is it so important that we keep these events in the right sequence?

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Eerdmans.

Acts, Derek Thomas, REC, P&R Publishing.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.