Ascension Day : Acts 1:1-11
When I was doing my 'O' level English you could buy 'Noddy books' to help you to understand books and plays. This was especially helpful with Shakespeare, as I used to find myself concentrating so much on the meaning of the old English that I used to lose sight of the plot.
At the start of Acts Luke gives us a summary of what had happened and what was going to happen as he tells us of Jesus' ascension to heaven.
We will be looking at three different stages in the unfolding of the gospel, like scenes in a play or chapters in a book : What had happened, verses 1-3; What was going to happen, verses 4-8; The Ascension, verses 9-11.
What had happened, verses 1-3;
In his gospel, the first book written for Theophilus, Luke had explained about the teaching and work of Jesus.
1 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.
Jesus invested a lot of time, energy, and prayer in training his apostles to carry on his ministry after he had ascended.
3 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.
More than 500 people saw the risen Jesus. We can, therefore, be confident that our faith is not wishful thinking or a delusion but a certain hope. Jesus is alive forever ! So, Jesus was not like a tycoon who had groomed his son to take over the family business when he died. He is more like a King who had left his sons in charge of a part of his kingdom, while he returned to another part to rule and have oversight over the whole kingdom.
Jesus spent about three years with his disciples before his crucifixion, and forty days after his resurrection before he ascended. Today is forty days after Easter Sunday.
This is what had happened before Luke wrote...
What was going to happen, verses 4-8;
The Acts of the Apostles is about how the kingdom, or rule, of God spread in accordance with Jesus words in verse 8, "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Chapters 2 to 8 of Acts refers to the spread of the gospel in Jerusalem; Chapters 8 to 11:18 detail the spread in Judea and Samaria; and from 11:19 we read of how the gospel started to spread through the whole earth.
However, Jesus was not going to let his disciples loose into a hostile world immediately after he had ascended. They were not ready. Their understanding of God's purposes were still incomplete. We see this from their question in verse 6, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
They clearly still had not understood that Jesus' Messiahship was not about defeating the Romans and bringing in a prosperous, earthly kingdom. This was despite the death and resurrection of Jesus and his teaching over a forty day period. That revelation would come from the Holy Spirit. John 14:26 But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.
In his reply to the disciples, Jesus encourages the disciples to consider what they are to do in helping to bring God's kingdom to earth, and how they will do this. 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."
So the power to live and witness for Jesus would come from the Holy Spirit who would be poured on the first disciples ten days later, at Pentecost. Until then all they had to do was wait in Jerusalem, verse 4.
Jesus said that the Holy Spirit was to be a gift, verse 4. A gift is not earned or deserved but given freely. Since Pentecost the Holy Spirit has been given to everyone who is a Christian. Indeed the mark of being a Christian is to have the Holy Spirit. This is a theme that runs through Acts, but Paul states this clearly in Romans 8:9 You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. ( c.f. 1 John 4:13, too).
God the Holy Spirit lives within every Christian to give us power to live and witness for Jesus, to make us more like Jesus, and to give us gifts to build up the body of believers.
What had happened, verses 1-3; What was going to happen, verses 4-8;
The Ascension, verses 9-11.
When I was in the sixth form at school I would always try and get a job in the summer. This was to keep me busy and to help me to continue running my motorcycle and to have a social life. One of my best friends at school was Mac, Martin MacCarthy. We played in the forward line of the school football team together and were part of a group of friends who used to go out together. Mac's dad owned a fruit and vegetable wholesalers who needed someone to provide cover for them during the summer period when their drivers were on holiday. I got the job because I could drive, but mainly because I knew the boss' son !
Having friends in high places can be useful.
Every Christian has a friend in the highest place possible. Jesus. He brings us enormous benefits.
Firstly, Jesus had to leave in order that the Holy Spirit could come. Jesus work on earth had been done for the moment, and he had prepared the way for the next Chapter in God's dealing with humankind. The era of the Holy Spirit.
This was what Jesus was talking about in John 16:17 But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. Jesus could only be in one place at one time. God the Holy Spirit is with all Christians, all of the time, wherever they are.
A second benefit is that God, in Jesus, understands what it is like to be human. This leads to him being able to identify with us. This allows us to approach him for mercy and help when we need it. Hebrews 4:15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are- yet was without sin. 16 Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.
Thirdly, Jesus can save us because, as the one who is supreme and has defeated death. His very presence in heaven at God's right hand is, in itself, a type of intercession for those he will save completely. This is what Hebrews 7:24 is referring to ...'because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.' This is not suggesting that Jesus is continually pleading with God for people's souls. He has already done enough to save people.
There is one other aspect of the ascension which is very important, Jesus will return to earth. Acts 1:11, "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 into heaven."
Jesus will return with the same resurrection body in the sky with power and glory ( see also Matthew 24:30 ). When he returns next time every knee will have to bow and every tongue confess that he is Lord.
Philippians 2: 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Those who have never voluntarily bowed their knees to Jesus before this will have their decision honoured by God, and be expelled from his presence, because Jesus return will involve him judging the living and the dead. The basis for this judgement will be people's response to God's grace in Jesus..
At the University of Chicago Divinity School each year they have what is called "Baptist Day". On this day each one is to bring a lunch to be eaten outdoors in a grassy picnic area.
Every "Baptist Day" the school invites one of the greatest minds to lecture in the theological education centre. One year they invited Dr. Paul Tillich. Dr. Tillich spoke for two and a half hours proving that the resurrection of Jesus was false. He quoted scholar after scholar and book after book. He concluded that since there was no such thing as the historical resurrection, the religious tradition of the church was groundless, emotional mumbo-jumbo, because it was based on a relationship with a risen Jesus, who, in fact, never rose from the dead in any literal sense. He then asked if there were any questions.
After about 30 seconds, an old, dark-skinned preacher with a head of short-cropped, woolly, white hair stood up in the back of the auditorium. "Docta Tillich, I got one question", he said as all eyes turned to him. He reached into his sack lunch and pulled out an apple and began eating it. "Docta Tillich... CRUNCH, MUNCH... My question is a simple question,... CRUNCH, MUNCH... Now, I never read them books you read... CRUNCH, MUNCH... and I can't recite the Scriptures in original Greek... CRUNCH, MUNCH... I don't know nothin' about Niebuhr and Heidegger... CRUNCH, MUNCH... " He finished the apple. "All I wanna know is, this apple I just ate, - was it bitter or sweet?" Dr. Tillich paused for a moment and answered in exemplary scholarly fashion, "I cannot possibly answer that question, for I haven't tasted your apple."
The white-haired preacher dropped the core of his apple into his crumpled paper bag, looked up at Dr. Tillich and said calmly, "Neither have you tasted my Jesus."
The 1,000 plus in attendance could not contain themselves. The auditorium erupted with applause and cheers. Dr. Tillich thanked his audience and promptly left the platform. Copyright 1999 Gibson Productions
As those who have tasted the risen, ascended, glorified Jesus we have the duty and joy of sharing this with a dying world in the power of the Spirit.