Acts (Week 1)
The Ascension (Acts 1:1-11)
Why does the church exist? What is our reason for existing? And I don’t just mean Faith Community Church, but I mean “The Church.” Does the church exist, like that video humorously suggests, ultimately to serve us? Is the point simply to find a church that works with our preferences in worship music, preaching style, programs, and ministries? Or is there something more to the church?
This week we’re starting a new series looking at the book of Acts and as we go through Acts that’s the dominant question that I want us to explore: Why does the church exist? And my hope and my prayer for us this morning and throughout this series are that, as we explore why the church as a whole exists, we would hear a fresh word from God as to why we as Faith Community Church exist.
If you have a Bible with you or a Bible app on your phone, go ahead and open to Acts chapter 1. We’re going to explore verse 1 through 11 together this morning. If you don’t have a Bible, all the Scripture and quotes we use will be up on the screen behind me. Additionally, if you don’t have a Bible of your own that you can read at home, we would love to give you one. You can come up and see me after the service and I’ll make sure you get one.
Luke 1:1-11 says this, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 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. 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 baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’
“Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
“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.’
“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.’”
Okay, so this is a fascinating passage of scripture. There’s a lot going on here. In order to understand it all, it’s going to be best if we work backward through the text. So let’s start in verses 9 through 11. They finish this text by saying,
“After he said this, he [Jesus] was taken 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.”
After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to his 11 apostles and he spent a lot of time with them. Earlier in the text, we’re told he spent 40 days with them. But eventually, it was time for him to go. And as Luke records it, he was taken up into the sky and hidden from them in the clouds.
Now it’s important to remember that the authors of Scripture, especially in the Gospels and Acts are not simply trying to write a history of everything that happened exactly as it happened. There is an editing process that’s required. They don’t record every detail. So the details they do record are important. They’re in there for a reason. Luke could have just said, “Jesus was with them for 40 days and then… he wasn’t.” But Luke intentionally references the fact that he ascends into heaven in the clouds. Luke is simultaneously making two references, which would have been obvious to his original audience.
The first reference is to Daniel chapter 7. In verses 13 and 14, Daniel writes this, “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
This passage from Daniel comes right on the heels of a vision of four beasts, which represent the forces of evil and chaos in the world. The idea is that some human has overcome the forces of evil and now is being brought on the clouds into the very presence of God to rule and reign with him forever. Jews in the first century would have been familiar with the messianic undertones of this passage.
So what Luke is doing by recording that Jesus ascended into heaven through the clouds is referencing this idea from Daniel 7. He’s intentionally letting his readers know that he believes Jesus is the Son of Man Daniel was talking about. The implication of that is that Jesus, being the Son of Man of Daniel 7, has been given authority, glory and sovereign power. That his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
Furthermore, Luke is also referencing the Imperial cult of Rome. Ever since 44 BCE, when Julius Caesar died, it was believed that the spirit of each Caesar ascended into heaven and became divine. That meant that their successor would be the son of a god. However, it was always just the spirit of the caesar that ascended into heaven. No one could actually see this ascension, rather it was taken on faith. But Luke makes a point of that fact that it wasn’t just a spiritual ascension into heaven, but a literal, physical ascension. Luke is intentionally poking at the Imperial cult here. “Oh, Caesar’s spirit ascended into heaven? That’s nice. So did Jesus, alive and well in his physical body did. We saw it. There’s proof.”
It’s as if Luke is trying to say that the Imperial Cult of Rome is the parody of which Jesus is the real thing. Jesus, not Caesar, is the real king of the world. Jesus, not Caesar, has overcome the powers of evil and chaos from Daniel 7. Jesus, not Caesar, is the one whose kingdom will never be destroyed.
Luke’s entire point in this passage is that Jesus is inaugurating his kingdom here on earth. Which leads us back to verse 6 and the apostle's question about the kingdom. “Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” 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.”
“Are you now going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” This is the question that has been on the Apostles mind from the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. They have always assumed that Jesus came to re-establish the geopolitical kingdom of Israel with its physical borders, its currency, its military and Jesus on the throne. When Jesus was crucified, they assumed it was all over and they had picked the wrong Messiah. Now that he was back from the dead, they assumed the plan was back on track.
However, Jesus responds with, “It's not for you to know how everything will play out. But you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the very ends of the earth.” It can be easy for us to read Jesus’ response here and assume he’s saying “no”. No, it’s not yet time for me to restore the Kingdom to Israel. That will happen later. However, that’s not what he’s getting at. Rather, what Jesus is saying is that the physical Kingdom of Israel is too small. His kingdom is much bigger than that. His kingdom is the entire world; the entire cosmos.
While he has already been enthroned, while he’s already been given power and authority, he’s now undergoing the process of bringing all things together under his rule. This is what theologians call the already-but-not-yet kingdom of God. The kingdom of God is already here, it’s already among us, but it’s not yet completely and fully realized. Jesus says that, while he’s in the process of bringing everything together under his rule and reign, it’s our job as his disciples, to bear witness to that fact. Not just in Jerusalem, the epicentre of Jewish life, but in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the very ends of the earth.
The apostles ask if Jesus is going to restore the Kingdom of Israel and Jesus responds by saying that the Kingdom of Israel is far too small. The apostles ask if Jesus will now restore the Kingdom of Israel and Jesus responds by telling them to go and be witnesses to the rest of the world. The church is first and foremost to be a community bearing witness to the resurrection and to the kingdom of Jesus. This is the ultimate answer to the question “why does the church exist?” The church exists to be a witness. To be heralds telling the world that the true king is already seated on the throne.
We get to go out and declare that because Jesus has been given all power and authority, that marriages can be fixed, addictions can be overcome, relationships can be restored and sins can be forgiven.
Of course, we’re not expected to bear witness to the power of the resurrection under our own power. Going back to verse 4 & 5 we read, “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 baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.’”
Jesus tells the apostles that they will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria and to the very ends of the earth. But he says, “Don’t leave Jerusalem until the Father sends you the Holy Spirit.” As Christians, we are not called to witness under our own power. We are given the Holy Spirit, who lives in us. The Spirit of God works to heal and restore us. It works to change our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, as Ezekiel says. The Spirit of God convicts us when we need to be convicted and comforts us when we need to be comforted. The Holy Spirit produces in us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control. The Spirit teaches us and guides us into all truth. We’re going to look at some examples of that in the coming weeks. So Jesus calls us to be his witnesses and at the same time, he empowers us in that process. He both calls us to witness and he equips us to do just that.
Now if we go back once again, we read in verse 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.” He gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.
The gospel writers go out of their way to reinforce this idea. That the resurrection was not a metaphor, it wasn’t a euphemism, it wasn’t simply a spiritual resurrection or a corporeal resurrection. This is a physical, tangible resurrection to a real flesh-and-blood body. Jesus was and is very much alive.
And once again, this is what we're called to bear witness to. This is what we’re called to announce to the world. Not that Jesus had some good ideas or that he was a great moral or spiritual teacher. Our job is to share the good news that Jesus kingdom will never end because Jesus himself is alive and well.
And in fact, if we go back one last time, to the beginning of this chapter that’s what Luke starts with in verse 1 and 2, “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.” Acts is Luke’s second book. It’s his follow-up to his Gospel of Luke. And in the Gospel of Luke, he wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach. The implication is that Acts is the continuation of everything that Jesus is doing and teaching, this time through the Church.
I had a professor in university who used to say that called this book Acts or The Acts of the Apostles was inaccurate. It would be more accurate to call this books The Acts of Jesus Christ through Holy Spirit Filled Apostles. That title is a little bit longer and clunkier, so I understand why we don’t use it.
But the reality is that Acts is the continuation of Jesus doing and teaching, this time through the apostles. And Jesus didn’t stop doing or stop teaching just because Luke stopped writing Acts.
Jesus is still active in the world, teaching the church and teaching the world through the church. He is still active in bringing all things together under himself. Jesus is alive. The resurrection physically, tangibly occurred and that means that Jesus is now the rightful king of the universe and is in the process of putting everything back together. We, as the church, through the power of the Holy Spirit, have the job of going and announcing that good news to anyone and everyone we see.
Let’s close in prayer.