YOU HAVE A MISSION

 

Week of April 23, 2006

 

Bible Passage:  Acts 1:1-14.

 

Biblical Truth:  Jesus commanded His followers to continue His work by being on mission as His witnesses throughout the world.

 

Jesus’ Mission: 1:1-3.

 

[1] The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, [2] until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. [3] To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.  [NASU]

 

[1] Throughout his two volumes Luke uses the word “all” as a general expression that the context in each case must define. So we cannot assume he meant his Gospel to be any more exhaustive than Acts. The contrasting parallel Luke draws between his two volumes was not between Christ and His church, but between two stages of the ministry of the same Christ. Luke implies that, in this second book, he will write about what Jesus continued to do and to teach after His ascension, especially through the apostles whose sermons and authenticating signs and wonders Luke will faithfully record. Thus Jesus’ ministry on earth, exercised personally and publicly, was followed by His ministry from heaven, exercised through His Holy Spirit by His apostles. Moreover, the watershed between the two was the ascension. After His resurrection, ascension and gift of the Spirit, Christ continued His work, first and foremost through the unique foundation ministry of His chosen apostles and subsequently through the post-apostolic church of every period and place.

 

[2] Luke wanted to show that Jesus’ mandate to witness was given to the apostles, who acted through the power of the Holy Spirit, whose coming was a direct result of our Lord’s ascension. Each of these four factors – the witness mandate, the apostles, the Holy Spirit, the ascended Lord – is a major emphasis that runs throughout Acts; each receives special attention in chapters 1 and 2. Luke emphasized that all the apostles were neither self-appointed, nor appointed by any human being, committee, synod or church, but were directly and personally chosen and appointed by Jesus Christ Himself.

 

[3] Having stated the relation of his present book to its predecessor and shown his interest in the four factors named above, which comprise the necessary elements of the Christian mission, Luke turns back to the time before the ascension. He will recapitulate and expand upon certain features in Jesus’ ministry crucial to the advance of the gospel as he will present it in Acts. Like Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:5-7, Luke’s emphasis is on the living Christ. Over a period of forty days implies that during that time the risen Lord showed Himself at intervals, not continuously. When He did so, He spoke about the Kingdom of God, which is a theme common in both the Old and New Testaments. Primarily it refers to God’s sovereign rule in human life and the affairs of history, and secondarily to the realm where that rule reigns. God’s sovereignty is universal. But it was specially manifested in the life of the nation Israel and among Jesus’ disciples; it is expressed progressively in the church and through the lives of Christians; and it will be fully revealed throughout eternity. In the Gospels the kingdom is presented as having been inaugurated in time and space by Jesus’ presence and ministry. In Acts the phrase the kingdom of God usually appears as a convenient way of summarizing the early Christian proclamation [cf. 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23,31]. The things concerning the kingdom of God at the beginning of Acts are identical with the things concerning the Lord Jesus Christ at the end of the book [28:31]. At Christ’s first coming the age to come invaded this present age; at His second coming the age to come will have altogether superseded this present age. Between the two comings the two ages overlap; Christians live temporally in this present age while spiritually they belong to the heavenly kingdom and enjoy the life of the age to come.

 

We may infer that Jesus’ teaching during the forty days dealt in essence with (1) the validation and nature of His messiahship, (2) the interpretation of the Old Testament from the perspective of His resurrection, and (3) the responsibility of His disciples to bear witness to what had happened among them in fulfillment of Israel’s hope. This is what Luke 24:25-27, 44-49 reveals as the content of Jesus’ post-resurrection teaching, and this is what Acts elaborates in what follows.

 

My Mission: 1:4-8.

 

[4] Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of 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 were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” [7] He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; [8] but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”   [NASU]

[4-5] In these verses Luke parallels his emphasis on the living Christ by stressing the coming and baptism of the Holy Spirit as essential to the advance of the gospel. Luke gives us an individualized scene of Jesus and His disciples eating together at the time when He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who had been promised by God the Father and spoken of by Jesus. What the Father had promised repeats Luke 24:49 and is defined in verse 5. The statement appears to come from Mark 1:8, with parallels in Matthew 3:11 and Luke 3:16, where it is part of the message of John the Baptist. It’s parallel is in Acts 11:16. Not until God has fulfilled His promise and they have been clothed with power from on high, can they fulfill their commission.

[6-8] After the disciples ask Jesus their question concerning the kingdom, Luke indicates that Jesus taught them two things. First, He spoke to them about the kingdom of God which had been the burden of His message during His public ministry and indeed (judging from the present participle, speaking [3]) continued to be after His resurrection. Secondly, He told them to wait for the promised gift or baptism of the Spirit, which they would now receive in a few days. It appears that Jesus related these two things to each other, for certainly the Old Testament prophets had often associated them. The mistake the apostles made with their question in verse 6 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? 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 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, a kingdom is usually a territorial sphere which can be located on a map. But the kingdom of God is not a territorial concept. Yet this is what the apostles were still envisaging by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Israel. The apostles’ hope had evidently been rekindled by the resurrection. They were still dreaming of political dominion, of the re-establishment of the monarchy. 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 or 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, 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. (2) The kingdom of God is international in its membership. The apostles still cherished narrow, nationalistic aspirations. In His reply Jesus broadened their horizons. He promised that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be His witnesses even to the remotest part 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. The Lord’s reply was twofold. First, it is not for you to know times or epochs, which together make up God’s plan. The apostles’ question betrayed either curiosity or impatience or both. But 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. 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.

Here the mandate to witness that stands as the theme for the whole of Acts is explicitly set out. It comes as a direct commission from Jesus himself – in fact, as Jesus’ last word before His ascension and, therefore, as one that is final and conclusive. This commission lays an obligation on all Christians and comes to us as a gift with a promise. It concerns a person, a power, and a program – the person of Jesus, on whose authority the church acts and who is the object of its witness; the power of the Holy Spirit, which is the sine qua non for the mission; and a program that begins at Jerusalem, moves out to all Judea and Samaria, and extends to the ends of the earth. The Christian church, according to Acts, is a missionary church that responds obediently to Jesus’ commission, acts on Jesus’ behalf in the extension of His ministry, focuses its proclamation on the kingdom of God in its witness to Jesus, is guided and empowered by the self-same Spirit that directed and supported Jesus’ ministry, and follows a program whose guidelines for outreach have been set by Jesus Himself. Jesus’ mandate to witness not only gives us the theme of Acts but also a basic table of contents by the threefold reference to Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth. In what follows Luke shows through a series of vignettes how the mission of the church in its witness to Jesus fared at Jerusalem [2:42-8:3], throughout Judea and Samaria [8:4-12:24], and as it progressed until it finally reached the imperial capital city of Rome [12:25-28:31].

 

Preparing for My Mission: 1:9-14.

 

[9] And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. [10] And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. [11] They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched 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] When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, 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] These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.   [NASU]

[9-12] 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. In order to understand Luke’s primary interest as he tells the ascension story, we need to pay attention to those two men in white clothing who stood beside them and spoke to them. 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 asked the apostles a searching question: Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? The expression into the sky (or 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. 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.

But we must be cautious in our interpretation of this same Jesus and in 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 it indicates that His coming will also be visible and glorious. They had seen him go; they would see him come. Luke recorded Jesus as saying so Himself [Luke 21:27]. The same cloud which had hidden Him from their sight [1:9], which had previously enveloped Him and the three intimate apostles on the Mount of Transfiguration [Luke 9:34], and which throughout the Old Testament was the symbol of Yahweh’s glorious presence, would be the chariot of His coming as it had been of His going. 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 [Rev. 1:7]. Instead of returning alone, the heavenly hosts will accompany His return [Luke 9:26; 2 Thess. 1:7]. And in place of a localized coming, it will be just like the lightning, when it flashes out of one part of the sky, shines to the other part of the sky, so will the Son of Man be in His day [Luke 17:24].

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 contradictory 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. It is the same for us. Curiosity about heaven and its occupants, speculation about prophecy and its fulfillment, 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. Luke gives us here 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 world-wide, Spirit-empowered witness to Him.

[12-14] A Sabbath day’s journey was a distance of two thousand cubits or about two-thirds of a mile, ingeniously reckoned by interpreting Exodus 16:29 in the light of Numbers 35:5. The disciples returned to the upper room and prayed for the Spirit to come. Their prayers had two characteristics which, Calvin comments, are two essentials for true prayer, namely that they persevered, and were of one mind. 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. 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.

The brothers of Jesus did not acknowledge Him as Messiah before His death [John 7:5], but after His resurrection they are found among His followers. The most prominent figure among these brothers, James, was one of the individuals to whom Christ appeared in resurrection [1 Cor. 15:7]. Together with the other members of this considerable company of believers in Jesus, His brothers are now recorded as faithfully observing the appointed seasons of united prayer. As Jesus is represented as praying before the descent of the Spirit on Him in Luke 3:21, so the apostles and their companions are here represented as praying before the descent of the Spirit on them.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.     What did Jesus teach the disciples during His forty days on earth between His resurrection and ascension? Why do you think He concentrated on these truths?

 

2.     What did Jesus teach about the Kingdom of God? 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 for history. Why is it so important that we keep these events in the right sequence?

 

References:

Commentary on the Book of the Acts, F. F. Bruce, Eerdmans.

The Acts of the Apostles, John Calvin, Eerdmans.

The Acts of the Apostles, Richard Longenecker, EBC, Zondervan.

The Message of Acts, John Stott, Inter-Varsity Press.