Unstoppable Mission

| Acts 1:4-14

The Point:  The Holy Spirit empowers us to spread the Gospel.

The Ascension:  Acts 1:4-14.

[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." [12]  Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. [13]  And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot and Judas the son of James. [14]  All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer, together with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.  [ESV]

[4-5]  “The ascension was the watershed between the two phases – earthly and heavenly – of the ministry of Jesus Christ. We need to note that 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 (whom he had chosen [2]). Jesus showed Himself to them (He presented himself [3]). Jesus commanded or commissioned them (he had given commands through the Holy Spirit [2]). Jesus promised them the Holy Spirit (wait for the promise of the Father … you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit [4-5]). 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 and supplement it with what He had not been able to teach them. Now Jesus commands them to wait in Jerusalem until the promised gift has been received [4]. It was His Father’s promise (presumably through such Old Testament prophecies as Joel 2:28ff., Is. 32:15 and Ezk. 36:27), and His own (since Jesus had Himself repeated it during His ministry). 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.

[6-8]  They received their commission.  During the forty days in which the risen Lord presented himself alive 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 Him and the Father. 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. It seems probable that He also related them to each other, for certainly the prophets had often associated them. When God establishes the kingdom of the Messiah, they said, He will pour out His Spirit; this generous effusion and universal enjoyment of the Spirit will be one of the major signs and blessings of His rule; and indeed the Spirit of God will make the rule of God a living and present reality to His people. So then the question which the apostles put to Jesus when they met together (Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?) was not altogether as out of place as it sounds. For if the Spirit was about to come, as He had said, did this not imply that the kingdom was about to come too? 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. Were they still so lacking in perception? 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. (1) 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. The apostles’ hope, however, had evidently been rekindled by the resurrection. 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. At the same time, in rejecting the politicizing of the kingdom, we must beware of the opposite extreme of super-spiritualizing it, as if God’s rule operates only in heaven and not on earth. The fact is that, although it must not be identified with any political ideology or program, it has 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. (2) 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, first to despised Samaria, and then far beyond Palestine to the Gentile nations, indeed to the end of the earth. (3) The kingdom of God is gradual in its expansion.  The apostles’ question included a specific reference to time: at this time. So the apostles asked if Jesus would do now after His resurrection what they had hoped He would do in His lifetime; and would He do it immediately? 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 [7]. The apostles’ question betrayed either curiosity or impatience or both. For the Father Himself had fixed the times by His own authority, and the Son had confessed that He did not know the day and hour of His return [Mark 13:32]. 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 (however long or short) 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. This is Luke’s next topic.

[9-12]  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. The visible, historical ascension had a readily intelligible purpose. In the transition from His earthly to His heavenly state, Jesus could perfectly well have vanished, as on other occasions, and gone to the Father secretly and invisibly. The reason for a public and visible ascension is surely that He wanted them to know that He had gone for good. During the forty days He had kept appearing, disappearing and reappearing. But now this interim period was over. This time His departure was final. So they were not to wait around for His next resurrection appearance. Instead, they were to wait for somebody else, the Holy Spirit [1:4]. For He would come only after Jesus had gone, and then they could get on with their mission in the power He would give them. At all events, the manner of His going (a visible ascension) had its desired effect. The apostles returned to Jerusalem and waited for the Spirit to come. We have seen what the visible ascension did for the apostles; what can it do for us? In order to understand Luke’s primary interest as he tells the ascension story, we shall need to pay attention to those two men stood by them in white robes [10]. 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. They announced and attended the birth of Jesus. An angel appeared in the garden of Gethsemane to strengthen Him [Luke 22:43]. And two men stood by them in dazzling apparel [24:4], later identified as angels [24:23], proclaimed His resurrection to the women. 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? [11]. 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 [11]. 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. 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. The vision they were to cultivate was not upwards in nostalgia to the heaven which had received Jesus, but outwards in compassion to a lost world which needed Him. 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.

[12-14]  They prayed for the Spirit to come.  Luke tells us how the apostles occupied the next ten days before Pentecost. In his Gospel he says they were continually in the temple blessing God [Luke 24:53]. And in the Acts that in the room where they were lodging, they with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer [14]. It was a healthy combination: continuous praise in the temple, and continuous prayer in the home. Luke tells us that their prayers had two characteristics which, Calvin comments, are two essentials for true prayer, namely that they persevered, and were of one mind. Their prayer was united.  Who were these people who met to pray? Luke says that they were a group numbering about a hundred and twenty, which included the eleven surviving apostles [13,15]. In addition to the eleven apostles are mentioned the women … and his brothers [14]. All of these 120 individuals with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer. They prayed with one mind or purpose or impulse. Their prayer was persevering. The verb translated devoting themselves means to be ‘busy’ or ‘persistent’ in all activity. Luke uses it later both of the new converts who devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching [2:42] and of the apostles who determined to give priority to prayer and preaching [6:4]. Here he uses it of perseverance in prayer, as Paul does several times [Rom. 12:12; Col. 4:2]. There can be little doubt that the grounds of this unity and perseverance in prayer were the command and promise of Jesus. He had promised to send them the Spirit soon [1:4,5,8]. He had commanded them to wait for him to come and then to begin their witness. We learn, therefore, that God’s promises do not render prayer superfluous. On the contrary, it is only His promises which give us the warrant to pray and the confidence that He will hear and answer.”  [Stott, pp. 32-54]. 

Questions for Discussion:

1.         Why did the disciples believe that, since Jesus had risen from the dead, ‘the kingdom’ was about to be restored to Israel? Are there parallels with the longings of Christians today? How did Jesus correct their understanding of the timing, dimensions, and power of the kingdom? How can His correction refocus our own perspective regarding His kingdom and the timing of His return?

2.         Does 1:8 apply to you? If not, why not? If so, what are some attitudes, priorities, or specific actions that this verse suggests for your life? How was it going to be possible for the apostles to fulfill their mission given them in 1:8? Why is this important for us to remember as we also seek to apply this mission to ourselves? What is involved in being a witness?

3.         During the ten days from the Ascension to the Pentecost, Jesus instructed His followers to wait for the promise of the Father [4]. What does it mean to wait upon the Lord? What two things did the apostles do while they waited [see Luke 24:53 and Acts 1:14]? What two essentials of true prayer does Luke use to describe the apostles’ prayer? What do you learn here concerning how to wait upon the Lord? Note here that the apostles were waiting for the Lord to fulfill His promise to them. The fulfillment of God’s promise to them was certain. Yet they spent the time in prayer. We learn here that God’s promises do not render prayer superfluous. What do you think the followers of Jesus were praying for during these ten days?

References:

Acts, Darrell Bock, BENT, Baker.

The Acts of the Apostles, David Peterson, Pillar, Eerdmans.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter Varsity.

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