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.”
Acts 1:1-11 NIV
Next Sunday is Pentecost, a celebration of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the church. Our scripture this week is about setting the stage. We see in this passage how unprepared the disciples were and how Jesus was preparing them for an event that would be almost as earth-shaking as the resurrection itself.
It starts by securing faith in the physical resurrection. Jesus “gave them many convincing proofs that he was alive.” Appearing, teaching, even eating, and for 40 days. Moses was 40 days on Mount Sinai receiving the Law. Jesus was 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism. And now the post-resurrection Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples.
“Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Without the Holy Spirit, the disciples were still looking for some political or financial benefit to everything they had been through. They still didn’t understand that Jesus’ kingdom was not of this world, as He said to Pilot (John 18:36). Today, we’re still looking for Jesus to restore the kingdom to Israel.
Jesus wanted the disciples to keep their eyes on the ball, which was spiritual, not political. “It is not for you to know,” He said, “… 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.” This sentence is an outline of the whole book of Acts.
Some people want to call it “The Acts of the Holy Spirit.” That doesn’t work for me. It tells about the Actions of the Apostles in establishing the early church. Their work is done, but the Acts of the Holy Spirit continue to this day.
As an aside, let’s consider what they did after Jesus ascended into heaven but before the Holy Spirit came down. They decided to name a replacement for Judas, rolled the dice and picked Matthias – and that’s the first and last we hear about Matthias. Did you ever think maybe Paul was supposed to be the replacement? It doesn’t matter, but I think it’s important to remember that the Bible reports things that happened even if they weren’t supposed to happen like that.
Let’s not forget the meaning of the word “Acts” It is about things done, and it doesn’t sugar-coat the story. What are the Acts of the Apostles? Peter goes to the Gentiles, against every religious principal he has been taught, but Paul tells us later that Peter still had not gotten over his tendency to look down on them. (Galatians 2:12-13) The early church fought over which widows deserve church charity, and who would do the visitation. (Acts 6:1) Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark. (Acts 16:37-39) Paul gave a sermon so long that a young man fell asleep and fell out the window. (Acts 20:9-10) There’s a lesson for all of us there. Yours is, “Don’t fall asleep during the sermon.” Mine is,” Try to stop talking before they start nodding off.”
I do notice the mistakes and wrong turns that people make in the Bible, and here in the book of Acts. It matters to me because I know that if God can use them, God can use us, too. I also know that if you try, you will make mistakes, but God will find a way to bless those mistakes. Peter didn’t like Gentiles, but he did go to the Gentiles. They fought over widows and shut-ins, but they did take care of widows. Paul and Barnabas split up over John Mark, but they covered twice as much ground that way, and Paul did take Mark back into his good graces. (2 Timothy 4:11) Yes, Paul did preach too long, but at least he was preaching!
The ending of our passage today should give us a lot to think about. First, Jesus was taken out of their sight. And for us, it is not important what Jesus looked like, how tall He was, what his complexion was like. These are things we will never know and don’t need to know. But the disciples kept looking, trying to get one last glimpse, when the angels 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 … “
Jesus is coming back, but that doesn’t mean we should spend our time looking into the sky, trying to figure out the times and seasons. Our job is to act! Until we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to prepare, pray, and gather together, just like they did in the Book. Then, when we receive the Holy Spirit, we are to get on with the business of building the church. We are to go and make disciples, go and care for widows and shut-ins, go and preach.
Jesus told many parables about the Landowner leaving town and coming back. Good things happened when He caught the tenants working and taking care of His business. God is the landowner, and we are the tenants. It isn’t enough to adore the landowner, to say good things about the landowner, to watch for the landowner coming home. The task is to take care of the Landowner’s business!
You know how I love bouncing around in Bible translations. The Message translation is not my favorite – but Eugene Peterson, who wrote The Message, is first a pastor, then a Bible scholar. His introduction to the book of acts is a good summary of what I’m trying to say:
“Because the story of Jesus is so impressive … there is a danger that we will be impressed, but only impressed. As the spectacular dimensions of this story slowly (or suddenly) dawn upon us, we could easily become enthusiastic spectators, and then let it go at that. … The story of Jesus doesn’t end with Jesus. It continues in the lives of those who believe in him.”
The key word is “Acts,” which is doing the work of God. There is not a lot in the book about worshipping Jesus, but there is a lot about working in the power of the Holy Spirit. Next Sunday is Pentecost, celebrating the descent of the Holy Spirit. We will know that Spirit is in us, that the power is turned on, when we see ourselves doing taking care of the Landowner’s business, daring to do things that we know we can’t do except by the power of the Holy Spirit.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, pray for that Spirit to turn on the power in our lives. Amen.