Sunday 24 February 2013

The ascension (Acts 1)

1. The appearing

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Acts 1:1-2

“All that Jesus began to do and to teach.” It is an amazing statement when you think about it. The author, Luke, in summarising the life and death of Jesus Christ, refers to it as all that Jesus began to do.

As if to say, “There’s more!” The book of Acts is a continuation to Luke’s gospel; a sequel, if you like, to Luke’s gospel, picking up from the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus, what verse 3 refers to as his “suffering”.

After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.
Acts 1:3

Wouldn’t it be awesome if instead of having a speaker stand up front every Sunday we could have Jesus telling us about the kingdom of God?

What if you could meet him? What if you could ask Jesus questions on suffering, evil, heaven and hell and get a straight answer?

Luke tells us that for forty days, that is what happened. Jesus was with the disciples teaching about kingdom of God, giving them convincing proofs that he was alive. More than that, Jesus sat down for lunch with his friends.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
Acts 1:4-5

This was not a theological seminar or business conference. Jesus spent the forty days hanging out with his friends, eating with them, telling them about the kingdom. Why? Because he was including them in his plan. These were eleven of his closest friends (Their names are listed for us in verse 13). The bible calls them his apostles.

On one particular occasion - over dinner, nonetheless - Luke mentions how Jesus gave clear instructions to stay in Jerusalem. “Don’t go anywhere. Something is going to happen here in Jerusalem,” Jesus says. “You are going to be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”

Now if you were thinking, “What does that mean - being baptised by the Holy Spirit?” you are not alone. The disciples were wondering the same thing. Look at their response in verse 6.

So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Acts 1:6

What’s going on? The disciples get the sense the something big is going to happen but what they expect is for Jesus to “restore the kingdom to Israel”. That is, they think, “Aha! Jesus is going public.” They think he is going to kick out the Roman government and start a new one with Jesus as President.

Notice that Jesus doesn’t say, “No, what a silly idea.” His answer isn’t no, but rather, not yet. “It is not for you to know the times and dates,” he says.

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Acts 1:7-8

Jesus says, “There’s a reason why I have spent these forty days with you. You are going to be my witnesses - here in Jerusalem, then in Judea and Samaria, finally to the ends of the earth!”

I think they were still confused: Why would Jesus ask them to be his witnesses? And they had no idea what was going to happen next: Jesus was going to be taken away.

2. The ascension

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Acts 1:9-11

“Where did Jesus go?”  They were thinking. “Is he coming back?” “Is he taking us with him?”

The eleven guys are standing on the mountain, staring into the sky, stunned by what they had just seen. Verse 10 says, they were looking intently into the sky, meaning all their attention was focussed upwards. “Do you see him? Maybe he’s hiding behind that cloud?”

To the extent that God has to send two angels to snap them back to their senses, “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” (I suspect these might be the same two angels at Jesus’ tomb after the resurrection, who said, “Why do you look for the living among the dead?” in Luke 24:5)

The event that’s just been described here in Acts 1 is what Christians call the Ascension. Jesus Christ ascends - that is, he goes up - into heaven. And a very important clue about what the Ascension means lies behind what the two angels say to the disciples, “This same Jesus, who was taken from you into heaven will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

It means that the same Jesus whom they just had lunch with is the same Jesus in heaven. It means that the same Jesus who died on the cross is the same Jesus who now reigns in heaven.

In other words, the Ascension is proof that Jesus really is who he says he is: He is Christ and he is Lord. In the same way an earthly king might ascend to the throne - think of a Queen Elizabeth going up to Westminster Abbey or President Obama being sworn in at Capitol Hill - so here, Jesus ascends to his throne. Only his throne is in heaven.

That means Jesus is more than king over Israel. He is Lord of heaven and earth; over all of creation.

Moreover, the Ascension means that Jesus is king right now. One day he will return to establish his kingdom here on earth in a visible and complete way, but right now, he is already king. At the end of Matthew’s gospel he says, “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me,” (Matthew 28:18) and that authority becomes the basis of the great commission - “Make disciples.”

So that’s the first implication of the Ascension: Jesus is King.

But the second important implication of the Ascension is this: Jesus is man. The angel describes him saying “this same Jesus” will come back in the same way.

This is the same Jesus who died in the cross who was raised to new life. He has a resurrected body, yes, but his is a resurrected human body. And that’s the same Jesus who is right now in heaven. He is 100% God. He is 100% man.

What that means is: he understands us in our humanity. He empathises with us in our weaknesses, our struggles, our temptations as human beings. Hebrews says, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15, ESV)

Just to drive home the point, notice how often the bible records Jesus eating something. It’s strange, but have you ever noticed that?

Luke tells us that right after his resurrection, he appears to his disciples and says, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him some fish and they all stared at Jesus while he had his lunch. In John’s gospel, the disciples come back from fishing and only to see Jesus cooking a barbeque by the seashore. Here in Acts again, we find Jesus eating with his disciples in verse 4.

Why on earth did the biblical authors bother to write down these instances of Jesus eating food? To give us a picture of resurrection. It’s physical. It’s material. And it’s real. We will have bodies (we will be eating food apparently) but more importantly that the resurrection at the end of the age is a real, physical renewal of all creation.

And what the Ascension does is place Jesus as King over this new physical reality. He is Lord of the universe, especially over the new heavens and the new earths.

At the same time, the Ascension teaches us that Jesus is the same Jesus. He is human. And because he is human, he is the perfect mediator for our sins.

When it comes to the incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection - these are important doctrines in the bible. We are reminded of these doctrines every Christmas and Easter.

But what about the Ascension? Do you get how important the Ascension is. Luke records it twice - at the end of his gospel in Luke Chapter 24 and here in the beginning of Acts. Why?

Because like the disciples, we live in this in-between period of the now and the not yet. Like the disciples don’t we sometimes feel stuck and say, “What are we supposed to do now?”

And maybe like these disciples, we need to be reminded of Jesus’ words preparing us to live in the in-between: Wait in Jerusalem. Be my witnesses.

If you understand what the Ascension means then the in-between times are not times of confusion but of great anticipation.

That’s what the angels were saying to the disciples. What are you still doing here? You are waiting in the wrong place for the wrong thing - you want the kingdom right here and right now. Don’t you remember? Jesus said wait in Jerusalem. Wait for the Spirit.

And that’s just what they did.

3. The appointment

Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
Acts 1:12-14

These names are important because they list out for us the names of the apostles Jesus had chosen (Acts 1:3). We have them in the gospels and we have them here in Acts to remind us that these men were hand-picked by Jesus. These men were separate from the crowds, separate from 120 believers (Acts 1:15), separate even from Jesus’ mother and his brothers. They were in a category of their own. They were the apostles (a word which means “sent ones” or “emissaries”) whom Jesus had chosen.

Yet one of them named Judas betrayed Jesus to his death.

In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus - he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.”
Acts 1:15-17

A thousand years earlier, a man named King David wrote two psalms in the Old Testament. And what Peter does is quote these words from David, written a thousand years ago to say that everything Judas did to betray Jesus was planned by God. It wasn’t a surprise. It was planned.

You might hear that and think, “That’s cool!” Or, you might be thinking, “Who cares?” Either way, have a listen to what Peter says next about Judas.

(With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called the field in their language Akeldama, that is Field of Blood.)
Acts 1:15-18

If this were a movie, this is point where you would have to take the kids out of the room. The description of Judas’ death is gross and grim but the reason why it’s there is because of verse 19. Peter is about to quote from the bible, from a passage a thousand years old, which foretells and even explains what happened to Judas. Verse 19 begins with “For.” Meaning, it’s an explanation.

“For,” said Peter, “it is written in the Book of Psalms, ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no-one to dwell in it,’ and, ‘May another take his place of leadership.’”
Acts 1:20

The first quotation comes from Psalm 69 where David calls out for help, “Save me, O God, for the waters have come up to my neck.” He is in trouble, having been abandoned by his friends, having been abandoned seemingly even by God, and David cries out for help and salvation. Jesus himself quoted from Psalm 69 to describe how he came into the world fully expecting to be rejected by the world: “They hated me without cause.” (John 15:25)

In other words, Psalm 69 is about suffering righteously for God. David is being faithful, yet his enemies overcome him, yet he is betrayed and yet he is in pain. But David remains faithful to God and trusts in his salvation.

Peter quotes from Psalm 69 saying that God answered that prayer of David when he raised Jesus from the dead. He saves the righteous sufferer who trusted fully in him. But God also answers that prayer in a second way: by pouring out his judgement on his enemies. This is where Judas comes in.

“May his place be deserted; let there be no-one to dwell in it.” Earlier on, the description of the death of Judas was pretty grim. Luke, the author, includes that detail for our benefit today. “Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this,” verse 19 reads, meaning it was common knowledge back then. They are enclosed in brackets because Luke, and not Peter, adds in this detail. Why? Because, what Peter was implying by quoting Psalm 69 was much, much worse.

Psalm 69 shows us that what happened to Judas was a pale shadow of what God has in store for his enemies. The psalm goes on to say, “Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous.” Meaning the gruesome fate of Judas - of spilling his guts in the Field of Blood - is but a pale shadow of the terrible judgement of God.

The second text that Peter quotes is Psalm 109, “May another take his place of leadership,” and it’s this second psalm that becomes the basis of what follows next: the appointment of Judas’ replacement.

Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.
Acts 1:21-22

Why is it necessary for them to find this replacement? Verse 22, “For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.”

There was an objectivity to being a witness to the resurrection. You had to have seen it. You had to have met Jesus and heard him teach and seen the miracles for yourself. You had to have been there from the beginning - “from John’s baptism.”

That is, the basis of the message of the gospel is the objective witness to the historical and verifiable words and works of Jesus Christ - with a particular view to the resurrection. If you remember, that’s what Jesus did during the forty days, as described in verse 3, “Jesus gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”

But there was also a spiritual dimension to the role of the apostles. Here we see the symbolism of the twelve apostles. Why did Jesus choose twelve guys? Not because they were the twelve most talented, religious individuals in all Israel (after all look at Judas). No, the reason for twelve guys - twelve apostles - is because they represented something. The twelve apostles represented the foundation for a new Israel.

In the same way that the twelve sons of Israel became the twelve tribes of the people of God, the twelve apostles were the foundation of a new people of God - a new community which we know more commonly as the church. In Ephesians 2:20, Paul describes the church as built on the foundation of the “apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.”

Peter understood that. That’s why it was important to find the twelfth guy, because he understood that when Jesus said in Matthew 16:18, “I will build my church,” Jesus wasn’t talking about a new building or a new charitable organisation. Jesus was talking about a new gathering of God’s people. That’s the church - a new people transformed by Jesus’ word.

“You will be my witnesses,” Jesus said to them back in verse 8, “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth.” As the gospel goes out from Jerusalem into the whole world, what happens is people from the whole world are brought in by the gospel.

Two things are happening. The gospel goes out - Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, the world - it radiates out from this one spot, centering on the events of the cross. People hear about Jesus and understand who he is and what he has accomplished in God’s plan of salvation as the gospel goes out.

But at the same time, people come in. They hear the gospel, they respond in repentance and faith, and they are brought into a new community. They are brought into the kingdom of God.

So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over the apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots and the lot fell to Matthias, so he was added to the eleven apostles.
Acts 1:23-26

The thing that causes most controversy in this last bit is the casting of lots. The question is asked, “Should we cast lots today?” In choosing a new pastor, in deciding a new direction in life - should we toss the dice and say to God, “Thy will be done?”

Remember that there were 120 people in their group that day and out of that 120, only two names were put forward. This wasn’t random. They didn’t make the 120 people sit in a circle with a bottle spinning in the middle. No, Peter already outlined a strict criteria - he must have been with us the whole time, he must have seen, heard, known Jesus in person right from the beginning of John’s ministry. Only two names fit that criteria.

But more importantly, did you notice the prayer just before casting the lots? “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen.” Who were they praying to?

Do you realise they were praying to Jesus? Remember, this is the same Jesus they were hanging out with for 40 days. But now they are praying to him, calling him Lord, asking him to choose his apostle the same way he chose the eleven other apostles when he was on earth.

What has happened? They understood the Ascension. Do you see? This is an amazing turn of events. They finally understood that Jesus is reigning in heaven and that he hears their prayer and that it’s right to address his in prayer as God.

About the issue of casting lots, I just want to add a footnote that this is not commanded in the bible. Please don’t do this in electing your leaders. I think it’s irresponsible especially in light of the clear instructions in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 on choosing elders and deacons.

But in terms of trusting Jesus who knows all our hearts, who hears us from heaven, and calling him Lord - Do you see that this is not random chance but submission to his will, not our own? In fact, their prayer even hints of submission to his judgement, not our own. Is that what you are doing when you pray to Jesus, “I have sought you in your word. Please enable me to be faithful to your will.”

All that Jesus began to teach and do

The Ascension. That’s Luke’s focus here in Acts Chapter 1. Jesus ascends to heaven in power and authority as Lord over heaven and earth. But it’s made me think as well, why doesn’t Luke skip from the Ascension straight to Chapter 2, the baptism of the Holy Spirit? Why tell us about the disciples gathering together and electing this twelfth guy, Matthias, whom we never hear about anywhere else in the bible?

I think Luke records these events because they give us a picture of what it means to wait for Jesus. Luke wants us to see the in-between period, to understand what it means to wait for Jesus.

Some people are going to read the Acts 1 and think, “If only Jesus were here, things would be different. I don’t want apostles. I don’t want pastors. I just want Jesus.”

We might even say, “I wish I was there during those forty days when Jesus was the pastor. That’s the church I want to be a part of, the one with Jesus in it!”

But don’t you see, that’s what the apostles wanted when they said, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel.” They wanted something real. And Jesus responds by saying, “It’s coming, but it’s not for you to know when. Until then, waiting for me means witnessing to the gospel.”

Are you like the apostles staring up into the sky saying, “Lord, do something. We don’t know what, but do something.”? Or are you like the apostles bowing down on your knees saying, “Lord, do something. Help us to preach the gospel”?

“Ah, but those apostles are different,” you say, “They spent forty days with Jesus.”

What if they wrote down what Jesus told them those forty days? What if God gave you his Spirit such that you could understand his Word not just with Jesus next to you, but with his Spirit living inside you, guiding your very thoughts and actions.

That is what we have in the New Covenant, or rather, what is commonly known in our bibles as the New Testament. It is the witness of the apostles. It is the word and testimony of Jesus Christ - in the gospels, in the letters, here in the bible, God continues to speak to us of his Son calling us to turn to him and call him Lord.

And when Luke says, “In my former book, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do,” what he was saying to us is, “Do you see what Jesus is doing today? Read this book and you will.”

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