The writer, Luke, refers back to the Ascension of Jesus as a decisive point of change in the Apostles' spiritual journey.
The writer, Luke, refers back to the Ascension of Jesus as a decisive point of change in the Apostles' spiritual journey.
Hello. Welcome to Word Online and ‘The Book of Acts’. Maybe you studied ‘The Life of Jesus’ with Word Online, or maybe you haven’t. This is a continuation of our teaching through the New Testament and it is great to have you with us and great to have the audience with us today as we are recording this series, which I have entitled ‘The Spreading Flame’.
We come to the incredible story of the way the Church develops after Jesus has died and been raised again. The final moments of his life are recorded in this first episode where we look at the Ascension of Jesus. This is the moment when he departs this earth and finally completes his ministry, making a very decisive marker for his Apostles to know - “This is the end of my earthly ministry and the beginning of the work of the Church”.
We are in the book of Acts, which is connected to the Gospels in a wonderful way. The Gospels were written by four different people - Matthew, probably the Apostle; Mark, probably the friend of Simon Peter, one of the Apostles; Luke who wrote his Gospel; and John the Apostle who wrote the final Gospel and he wrote last.
Who is the author of our book? The author is not stated or named, but by common agreement in the Early Church this is Luke. He doesn’t want to name himself but he appears in the book, and we realise at different times that he is an actual eyewitness for events later on when he is travelling with Paul the Apostle. He is a convert of the faith who is not from a Jewish background. We see references to him in Paul’s letters, for example, in Colossians 4: 14, where he is described as a friend and also as a doctor. He is obviously an historian because he loves researching. He says in Luke’s Gospel how he sought out eye witness testimony in order to establish the accuracy of the facts that he is recording. This is our author - Luke the historian, and this is his second book. He deliberately wrote a two-volume history, ‘The Life of Jesus’ and ‘The Beginnings of the Early Church’. It is the only book that tells us this story. So, it is an incredibly important book for us.
Let us begin to read the passage by reading Acts 1: 1 - 3
1 ‘In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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: 1 - 3: NIV
Luke refers to his former book, the Gospel of Luke, and he also refers to the person he is sending the book to, a man called Theophilus. Who is Theophilus? We looked at that briefly in the very Series 1 Episode 1 in The Life of Jesus, where he is mentioned at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. We don’t know who this man is. Was he an inquirer finding out about the faith? Was he a believer, or a disciple? Was he someone who was a friend of Paul who appears later on in the story? Was he a lawyer who helped Paul when he got to Rome? There are so many different possibilities as to who he is, but I think the most likely is that Theophilus was the patron of Luke. The man, as a believer, who financed him and helped him research and write these two books. Whoever he was, he appears at the beginning of the story.
As do the Apostles. Jesus is with the Apostles, but how many Apostles are there now? Originally, as you will remember, there were twelve. By this time there are eleven. Judas Iscariot betrayed Jesus and then committed suicide, filled with remorse in tragic circumstances which we will look at in the next episode. There are only eleven Apostles left. That becomes quite a big issue, and we will see Luke describing how they resolved that issue. There was one missing.
It appears here that Jesus, over a forty day period from his resurrection on Easter Sunday, (a six-week period) made a number of resurrection appearances to his Apostles. If we go through the Gospels and then the information in the book of Acts, and some other information we get from 1 Corinthians 15, we find that on Easter Sunday, there were probably five different resurrection appearances in different contexts. In the next forty days, we have six other appearances referenced - at least. There were probably many others and some of them are referred to here. The eleven Apostles are waiting, and Jesus sometimes comes among them physically. It says here that he gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. The very physical being of Jesus was amongst them. This wasn’t some kind of spiritual experience, or a dream, or a hallucination, or a vision in the middle of the night. We are talking about meeting Jesus regularly in a physical sense, that was so physical that it convinced the Apostles unmistakably that Jesus was alive. He taught them, it says here, about the Kingdom of God. There were many things that he had not yet told his Apostles before he died because they were in such a stressful situation, coping with his impending death and resurrection, which they never really understood until after it had happened. But now he is speaking to them about how the Kingdom is going to advance. I suspect that Jesus is beginning to teach them how to build the Church: how it is going to be led; how it is going to be organised; how it is going to be taught; how they were going to evangelise; how they were going to introduce people into the Church; what is the role of communion; and what is the role of baptism? I imagine all these things were involved in Jesus’ communication.
Stay in Jerusalem
4 ‘On one occasion, while he was eating with them,’ (notice a very physical appearance again, he’s actually eating a meal 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. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”’Acts 1:4-5 NIV
This turns out to be the last teaching occasion, the last discussion, that Jesus has with his Apostles. They are in the city of Jerusalem, the capital city, the place where Jesus was crucified and raised from the dead. Jesus gives them a very clear command, “Don’t leave Jerusalem,” which of course they could easily be tempted to do, because they didn’t live there; they lived in Galilee, in the north of the country, a long way away. They were far from home, but he said, “Wait here, something’s going to happen to you here in the city of Jerusalem,” which he describes as a “baptism with the Holy Spirit”. That is a powerful encounter with God through the Spirit, that is going to trigger the process of the birth of the Church. That gave them a lot to think about. How is that going to happen? When is it going to happen? What are we going to feel? What are we going to do next? So many questions come to mind.
The Kingdom to be restored
6 ‘Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 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 1:6-8 NIV
This is an interesting discussion. Why did they ask this question? It seems to us a little bit odd that the disciples, the Apostles, should say, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” What were they thinking? Some people dismiss this as a question of ignorance. But I don’t think it was. They remembered something. They remembered that Jesus was known, and called himself, the Son of David. David was God’s anointed king of Israel, the greatest king of Israel. Jesus designated himself as the Son of David, the successor, and that means a king of Israel. They also knew that from 2 Samuel 7: 16, God had promised to David:
“Your house”, that’s your dynasty, your monarchy, your kingship, “Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.”
The Apostles knew that God was going to restore some kind of kingship in Israel, through a successor of David that would be permanent. This was a covenant that God made with David. This was in their mind. They knew that Jesus was going to be, in one sense, the king over the people of Israel, the Jews, and they wondered, “Is this the time that he is going to become that king and rule that country?” Interestingly enough, Jesus does not dismiss this question as irrelevant or stupid. Far from it. His answer tells us that they ask a good question but they have got the timing wrong. If we go further into the New Testament, we find Paul predicts, in Romans 11: 25 - 27, that one day in the future, the Jewish people, Israel, will in large numbers across the whole ethnic group, turn to believe in Jesus the Messiah. At some future time. It certainly didn’t happen in the New Testament era and it hasn’t happened any time in Church history. In fact, it is only in the last hundred years that we have begun to see a very significant turning of Jewish people to believe in Jesus, and become what they call themselves ‘Messianic Believers’. Paul predicted that there was a time when the Jews would come to believe the Messiah in large numbers. In that time perhaps this question will be answered. Sometime in the future, Jesus will be personally seen to rule over the Jews as a believing community. But, in verse 7, he says, “It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority.” In other words, that is sometime in the future but it is not your issue and it is not now. In fact, verse 8 tells us that the priority of the present is the exact opposite. It is not the Jewish people in Israel only; it is the Gospel getting right across all the nations of the world.
Into all the world
One of the most famous verses of the book of Acts is Acts 1: 8: NIV
8 “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea….”Acts 1: 8 NIV
Judea is the immediate area surrounding Jerusalem in the southern part of the country, then Samaria, the next district north which is occupied by another ethnic group, the Samaritans. We are beyond the Jewish population and then “and to the ends of the earth”. In other words, to every nation. Whatever God is going to do with the Jews, the priority at this point is to spread the word among the nations. If we study Early Church history beyond the New Testament, and look at the records of the traditions about where the Apostles went, (these are not stated in the Bible, they come from later tradition in the Early Church), we find some remarkable traditions considering this verse, “the ends of the earth.” Thomas traditionally is reported to have travelled to the area that we now call Iran and Iraq, and preached there. Andrew is traditionally considered to have travelled to Central Asia. John went to an area we now know as modern-day Turkey, and Peter went to Rome, in modern day Italy. Those are just some information we pick up from the Early Church. Isn’t that interesting? If we connect that to this statement, we see that this actually did happen. They spread out - not immediately; it took some time. The Apostles were sent, literally, to many different nations.
This verse, Acts 1: 8, is a key verse to interpret the whole book of Acts, because it describes what we see happening. It is like a theme verse for the whole book, because we do see the Gospel starting in Jerusalem and in Judea. We see a record later on in Acts 8, of the Gospel going to Samaria, and some other surrounding areas and then by the end of the book, the Gospel has reached Rome, and has travelled through many different provinces of the Roman Empire, and gone beyond the Roman Empire.
This episode is entitled ‘The Ascension’ and we haven’t got there yet! These are the last recorded words of Jesus then we have the brief, but very significant, statement about Jesus’ ascension to heaven.
9 ‘After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 10 They were looking up intently into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “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 to heaven.”’Acts 1:9 - 11 NIV
This event, which we call the Ascension, is often not much discussed in churches, but it is a very important event. Obviously, it was important to the Apostles because how would they know that Jesus’ ministry on earth had ended unless they saw something dramatic like this? For 40 days he had been appearing to them and then disappearing. He does a resurrection appearance and then he would disappear off somewhere else. He came back again and then he left, and then he came back again - on many occasions. How do they know when that process is ending? This is how they know because this is something different.
He goes back into heavenly glory. It says here, ‘a cloud hid him from their sight’. This is probably not a reference to a cloud as we would understand it. The word ‘cloud’, and the concept of a cloud, is used in Scripture on many occasions to denote how the presence of God is seen by people - when the presence of God is in an intense form in a particular place - a cloud of glory. If you think through what you might know of the Bible from the Old Testament to the New Testament, you will probably think of instances. For example, when the Jews set up the tabernacle - or the big worship tent structure, in the wilderness, which was what they had before they had a physical Temple in Jerusalem - there was like a visible cloud that they could see above the centre. They could actually see it with their eyes and it moved from place to place, indicating where they should go. The Apostles themselves had had previous experiences where the very powerful presence of God had been so clear that it came like a cloud. The greatest example is the Transfiguration, recorded in Matthew 17, and other passages in the Gospels, and which we studied when we went through the Life of Jesus. In this story of the Transfiguration, Jesus goes up a very high mountain with three of his disciples, Peter, James and John.
Matthew 17: 2 it says:
2 ‘There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light.’Matthew 17: 2 NIV
And then moving down a little bit to verse 5:
5 ‘While he was still speaking, a bright cloud covered them,’ and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”’Matthew 17: 5 NIV
Matthew describes this intense experience of God’s presence as being perceived as if it’s a cloud. We have the same experience here: ‘a cloud hid him from their sight’.
Two men dressed in white are introduced into the story. These are angels. Angels often appear in a form like human men. That is the common appearance of angels in the biblical text. The ‘dressed in white’ is an indication of their glory, their holiness, and their power. They speak to the Apostles. Their message is incredibly important. This is the final thing we come to in this first episode that we are looking at.
The Angels’ Message
11 “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 1:11 NIV
This is an incredibly important message for the Apostles, because the departure of Jesus from the earth is actually a temporary departure. Now is the time that the Kingdom of God is expanding; now is the time of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, as referred to in verse 5; now is the time of the power of the Holy Spirit; now is the time the Church needs to move forward. But that time will also come to an end. It will come to an end when Jesus returns to the earth. We call this ‘the Second Coming’. This is a central doctrine of the Church which is taught about on many occasions in the Gospels by Jesus, and also by the Apostles. It is a central theme of the book of Revelation.
The two angels say to the Apostles, “He’s coming back and he’s coming back in the same way.” In other words, in glory, in authority. He is not coming back a second time as an infant, the child in the womb of Mary. He is coming back in glory.
Some reflections as we come to the end of this episode. I think this is a wonderful start to the book and Luke is setting the scene in a fantastic way for us, and helping us to understand that final moment so clearly, that great commission that the Apostles are given, which they’ve already been given in different form, but it is reiterated in Acts 1: 8 - power is coming and you are going from here to the surrounding countries and to the nations of the earth. Then the Ascension indicates the final point where Jesus has left them to move forward, without his presence, but with the presence of the Holy Spirit.
What are our reflections? My first reflection is concerning this power of the Holy Spirit, which becomes a major theme of the book of Acts. There is an application for you and me because this baptism with the Holy Spirit here, which they received on the day of Pentecost, was a gift of the presence and power of the Spirit, not just for them, not just for that occasion; the power of the Spirit is for every generation of the Church. As we read through the book of Acts, one reflection is that the powerful acts of the Holy Spirit, and engagement with the Holy Spirit that they experience, can be our experience too. This is a theme that we’ll come back to on many occasions as we go through the book of Acts.
My second reflection is concerning mission. Jesus is commissioning them. There is going to be movement, sharing, church planting and mission to other nations. As we read the book of Acts, you and I, whichever country we are in, whichever type of church, find ourselves realising again and again, we are on the same mission. Our lives are a continuation of what started in these days 2000 years ago. That mission hasn’t changed. My question to you is, “Are you on a mission? Are there people you are reaching? Are there places you are going - in your friendship group? - in your family? - in your workplace? - the mission of your local church, wherever you are in church, in whichever nation of the world? This book of Acts is for you because it stirs you up, and it stirs me up in terms of reaching out with the Gospel.
My final reflection is concerning the Ascension of Jesus. I wonder what image of Jesus is the most important image in your mind. There are many images that come to mind; Jesus in the womb of Mary; Jesus the new-born infant in Bethlehem; Jesus the young teenager going up to the Temple in Jerusalem; Jesus being baptised by John; Jesus in the carpenter’s workshop with his stepfather and the rest of his family in Nazareth; Jesus in public ministry for three years healing the sick and teaching, and reaching the marginalised people; Jesus on the cross suffering for us; Jesus in the tomb; Jesus resurrected and appearing to all his disciples and others. These are all images of Jesus. I am sure you have several of these images in your mind. But we are introduced here to another image of Jesus, which is very important for us as Christians because this is Jesus as he is today. Now. Jesus, in the presence of God the Father, in authority in heaven, having left the earth and returned to his place of authority and glory. This is described quite a number of times by the biblical writers and an expression that is often used is, ‘seated at the right hand of God the Father’. Hebrews 1: 3 is an example:
3 ‘The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’Hebrews 1: 3 NIV
‘The right hand’ is a symbol of great authority and the closest possible access to God the Father, the supreme authority himself. Jesus is now in a position of incredible glory. This is explained to us very clearly in Revelation 1:12 - 18, where John has a vision of the ascended Christ in glory. This is the place where we need to use our imagination to understand who Jesus is, and in faith, when we are praying, we’re praying to Jesus who is right there at the right hand of the Father, with supreme power. This is the Jesus that Luke is portraying for us, as he leaves the earth in the final moments of his earthly ministry.
That brings our first episode to an end. We will be continuing the story of how the Apostles resolve the question of Judas Iscariot’s suicide, and the lack of the twelfth Apostle when we look at our next episode. Thanks for joining us for this first episode of our study in Acts, the Spreading Flame.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What image of Jesus do you have now? (baby, earthly life, cross, risen and ascended)
- Are you on a mission? Where are you called to witness, to whom, and how?
- Re-read revelation 1:12 - 18. Spend time worshipping the risen and ascended Lord.
- Explore the work of the Holy Spirit. Use tagging to help