The Lord's Day Evening
May 7, 2006
“Gazing into Heaven: The Ascension of Jesus””
Dr. Derek W. H. Thomas
Today we begin a new series on The Acts of the Apostles, and, as you can imagine, this will take us a little while to get through the 28 chapters of The Acts of the Apostles. We’re going to look this evening at the opening, the first eleven verses of Acts, chapter one. And before we read the passage together, let's come before God in prayer.
Our Father in heaven, we thank You now for the Scriptures. We thank You for this wonderful gift that You have given to us of a word that is infallible and inerrant, able to make us wise unto salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord. We ask now, Holy Spirit, that You would come down and help us once again to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest. Open up the word to us, we pray, for Jesus’ sake. Amen.
This is God's holy and infallible word:
“The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’
“So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.’ And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; they also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.’”
Amen. May God bless to us the reading of His holy and inerrant word.
Now turn with me right to the very end of The Acts of the Apostles, and to the very closing verses. This is Paul; he's under house arrest in Rome. He is allowed to live in a house of some kind, in a domicile of some kind. He has a prison guard there with him so he can't leave the house, but he can receive visitors, and many Jews have come to the apostle, and he has been preaching and teaching. And in verse 30 we read that
“He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God, and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness, and without hindrance.”
Now, you’ll just have to take my word for it, but in the Greek text that word boldness is actually the last word. And there seems to be a contrast that's being drawn, a very deliberate contrast that's being drawn between the beginning of Acts and the end of Acts. At the end of Acts, you have Paul and the apostles, and they’re preaching the gospel and the kingdom of God and the things about Christ, and they’re doing so with boldness. But that's not how The Acts of the Apostles begins.
It begins with a band of eleven men and a few women, and later we’ll learn that there are actually 120 of them, but in these opening verses you get the impression that at this point there are not even 120 of them. And they’re frightened, and they’re confused, and they’re disorientated, and they’re not thinking about preaching the gospel with boldness. There's a great contrast between the beginning and the end of The Acts of the Apostles.
This is a road trip. It's summer, so we're going to take a road trip, and it goes from Jerusalem all the way to the magnificent city of Rome. It begins in Jerusalem, but it ends in Rome with the eyes firmly set on expansion to the ends of the earth.
These disciples have been urged to wait. They have been urged to wait — Luke has already told the story at the end of Luke's Gospel. He is repeating it here in the opening verses of The Acts of the Apostles. They are to wait for what Jesus has called “the promise of the Father,” and that during this forty-day interval from Passover to Pentecost they are to wait for the promise of the Father. Jesus at the very beginning of His ministry had spoken of “the promise of the Father.” John the Baptist had baptized with water, but He will baptize with the Holy Spirit.
These days are days of preparation, and they’re days of anticipation of the coming of Pentecost, the coming of the Holy Spirit as a result of the ascension of Jesus Christ. And the great question that arises as we look at the beginning and these disciples, this small confused company of disciples waiting for something, they’re not sure what, and the glorious end of The Acts of the Apostles, the question arises, how did all this come about? How did the church expand from its small beginnings in Jerusalem to a church that is encompassing the ends of the earth at the end of The Acts of the Apostles?
You’ll notice that in verse 8 part of the directive that Jesus gives to His disciples is that they are to receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon them, and that they will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And that's like the “Contents” page of the book of The Acts of the Apostles. Because the book of The Acts of the Apostles begins in Jerusalem, it expands to Judea, it expands to Samaria, and it expands to the ends of the earth.
And how did all of that come about? And the answer to that is two-fold. Part of the answer to that is a human answer. It has to do with apostles. It has to do with men like Peter and Paul. It has to do with preaching and teaching, that these Christians went and they preached and proclaimed the gospel of Jesus Christ. They spoke and witnessed the evangel. They spoke about Christ. They spoke about faith, they spoke about repentance. They took the message and they proclaimed that message. Part of the answer lies in mission and evangelism, and the strategy that they employed in the expansion of the church. But there's a far greater answer, of course, and that is, a divine power is at work here.
The sovereign power, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that this is in many respects Part II of a two-part work by Luke, the first part being his Gospel. He dedicates his Gospel to Theophilus, and he dedicates The Acts of the Apostles to Theophilus; and this is a continuation of the story. The story doesn't end with the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. The story continues, and it continues to Pentecost, and it continues beyond Pentecost, and it continues in the expansion of the church. But The Acts of the Apostles could be called The Acts of the Holy Spirit, or it could be called The Acts of the Risen, Ascended, Conquering, Lord Jesus Christ.
In many ways this is the answer to the statement in the second Psalm, when Jesus is told by His Father in heaven, “Ask of Me, and I will give You the uttermost parts of the world for Your inheritance.” And that's what we see in The Acts of the Apostles: the beginning of the fulfillment of that promise of the Father to His Son. The Acts of the Apostles is the answer to Jesus’ statement in Caesarea Philippi when He said, “I will build My church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.”
It begins with a dedication, as I have said, to this man Theophilus. And he's called elsewhere in the beginning of Luke 1, “most excellent Theophilus.” Now Festus and Felix are also given that title, and that has led some to the conjecture that perhaps this man, like Festus and Felix, is a man of some political importance, someone who may be of help to Luke and to Paul in their respective trials. Some have conjectured that he may be the literary agent of Luke (I don't think that for one minute, but that's what some have thought). We are told that in the prologue to Luke's Gospel that this man Theophilus is a Gentile. He has been taught and instructed and catechized in the faith, and now Luke is providing him with yet another book to further instruct him, to give him many proofs, as it were, of the reality and the foundation and the nuts and bolts of the Christian gospel. He's writing a history book.
And how important that is, that our faith should be rooted and grounded in history; that we do not follow “cunningly devised fables”; that we follow tonight the teachings and the life and the ministry of one who lived and breathed in Palestine, and who died on a cross at Calvary, and who rose literally from the dead, and who ascended literally up into a cloud. And the church, First Presbyterian Church of Jackson, Mississippi, grows out of the roots that go all the way back to The Acts of the Apostles. In this Post-Modern age, The Acts of the Apostles comes into its own. These are our roots.
I know that you Americans love to tell me that you’re tenth generation this or that, and that you can trace your lineage to this dynasty or that family name. Well, you can trace your spiritual roots right back to Samaria and Judea, and right back to Jerusalem. This is your history. These are your roots. This is your family tree, and it begins here in this pitiful sight of these forlorn, confused, fearful disciples. Isn't it interesting that Luke (and he's probably writing a good bit of time after the event here) doesn't try to gloss over the small beginnings of the church? He doesn't try to portray the church like some Superman figure. No, if it hadn't been for the power of the Holy Spirit, the church would have been snuffed out at its very beginnings.
Now there are three things I want us to see, and in verses 2-5 we see Luke's description of the presence of Jesus Christ for this period of forty days. In verses 6-8 we see Luke's description of the perplexity of the disciples and the questions that they ask. Thirdly, we see in verses 9-11 Luke's description of the promise of the angel as the disciples gazed into heaven.
I. Luke's description of the presence of Jesus Christ for this period of forty days.
First of all, we see Luke's description of the presence of Jesus Christ for this period of forty days, and three things now come to the surface in verses 2-5.
First of all, Luke tells us that Jesus gave proof (verse 4) that He was alive. He appeared in resurrection appearance. As you see, this is a connecting point. This is a linchpin, as it were. This linked The Acts with the closing of the Gospel of Luke. And Jesus has risen from the dead, and for a period of forty days He would appear, and then He would disappear again. And those appearances were in fulfillment of a promise that He had given to His disciples that eventually, he said, “I will go away. And if I go away, I will come to you again.” And in part, He was speaking of the Day of Pentecost, but He doesn't disappear suddenly without warning. But there are these glorious and astonishing resurrection appearances, proofs that He was alive. To the eleven, to the twelve, to Peter, to Mary Magdalene, to some of the women, to the two on the Emmaus Road. He appeared up in Galilee, eating fish for breakfast beside the Sea of Galilee, affirming His victory over death, declaring that every word and every syllable that He had ever uttered was true; assuring us, you see, of the Father's “Well done, Thou good and faithful Servant”, that He had met every demand of the Law; that sin can no longer come back and haunt us now, because Jesus has dealt with the problem of sin. He has borne its guilt and shame in His own body upon the tree.
The resurrection of course was a first-fruit, wasn't it, of those that sleep. And how many of us tonight can think of dear, dear, loved ones who have been taken from us...one dear friend of ours even this very week, a minister in this very Presbytery taken away from us. And the resurrection says he will rise again, that Jesus is the first-fruit of those that sleep, and in that train and in that wake will come the multitude of the Lord's people on resurrection morning. Jesus giving proof that He was alive....
And then in verse 3, further teaching on the kingdom of God. Isn't it interesting that Luke describes the stress of the teaching and preaching of Jesus in that period between resurrection and ascension? The stress of His preaching and teaching was on the kingdom of God, on the rule and reign of God. It was on the sovereignty of God. It was Jesus saying to His disciples that this world and history and the future is in the palms of His hands; that things fall out because He decrees them, that things don't happen by chance, they don't happen because of luck; that there is a kingdom and there is a ruler and there is a king who sits in heaven to preach to them the kingdom of God, the rule of God, the reign of God.
And thirdly, in verses 4 and 5, the promise of the Holy Spirit: that Jesus, as the Book of Hebrews in chapter 3 describes Him, as an apostle...that Jesus as an apostle now gives His disciples through the Holy Spirit the promise of the Father, namely the Holy Spirit of God; that same Spirit that had encouraged Him, and energized Him, and equipped Him in His earthly ministry, now He bestows and sends and bequeaths to His disciples: the paraclete, the comforter, the advocate, the one who comes and represents Jesus to us and indwells us, and witnesses with our spirits that we are the children of God, and if children, then heirs - heirs of God and joint heirs with Jesus Christ.
In the first place, then, we see Luke's description of the presence of Christ in these forty days between resurrection and Pentecost.
II. The perplexity of the disciples in the questions that they ask
But secondly, we see the perplexity of the disciples in the questions that they ask. And do you notice in verse 6 that when they had come together they were asking Him [and this is the question they were asking Him], “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”
Now, Calvin, in a very famous comment in his commentary on The Acts of the Apostles, says that there are as many errors in this question as there are words. They were wrong as to the sense of victory that Jesus had accomplished. They were wrong as to the constitution of the kingdom that Jesus was building. They were wrong as to the power of God that builds it. There was a misunderstanding, first of all, on their part. And isn't that interesting, by the way [let me pause for a second], that they even misunderstood the teachings of Jesus? You’d think that Jesus’ teaching and preaching would have been understood by everybody. You’d think, wouldn't you, you’d think that Jesus wouldn't get e-mails and He wouldn't get letters saying, “I don't understand what You’re talking about”? They misunderstood His teaching! They were slow, and oh! how patient He is with them, going over the principles again and again and again.
Look at the question that they ask: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” You see, they’re still focused on Israel. They’re still focused on their ethnicity. They’re still focused on their nationality as Jews. They’re still focused on Jerusalem. And, you understand, Acts is saying “It begins in Jerusalem, but it goes to Judea, and then it goes to Samaria, and then it goes to the ends of the earth.” And the gospel is not a gospel for the Jews only; it's not a gospel that says that the center of God's purpose and activity is Israel. The middle wall of partition between Jew and Gentile has now been broken down, and this gospel of Jesus Christ, this kingdom of God was no longer to be thought of purely in terms of the nation of Israel and the city of Jerusalem, and all of the paraphernalia of religion that accompanied that under the old dispensation. No! This kingdom is now to go to the ends of the earth. They were still looking for the return of some kind of Solomonic glory, and Jesus is saying no, it's to the ends of the earth.
My grandfather on my father's side lived on a small farm — oh, 20-25 acres or so. He kept a few sheep and a few dairy cows, killed his own pigs, made his own bacon. I remember telling him, when I was 17 Ѕ, I was about to go off to university. I remember going to visit him. He lived just across two fields from where we lived. I lived on a farm, he lived on a neighboring farm. At one time it had all been the same farm. I remember going to say to him I was going off to university. And he said, “Where are you going to university, Derek?” And I said, “I'm going to Aberystwyth.” And he said, “Oooh!” He said, “I hope you’ll come back and visit me.” Now, Aberystwyth was 35 miles away! That was the farthest he had ever been in his entire life, and he’d only been to Aberystwyth one time. He had lived — and he lived until he was 96 — he had lived his entire life in this village, in this house, on this farm. And one time he had made this “long” journey, 35 miles.
And, in a sense, I was thinking about this this afternoon, these disciples — they can't think further than the borders of Israel. And Jesus is saying to them, you must catch a vision of the greatness and grandness of the kingdom of God.
And they made another mistake. “Is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom of Israel?” And the answer that Jesus said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority.”
Isn't it interesting, by the way, how often the church has got this very instruction wrong? Was it 1996, or was it 1994, I think Harold Camping said that the return of Jesus would take place? Twelve years ago, now. And others...isn't it interesting? The last thing Jesus said before He ascended was — whatever else you get wrong, don't get this wrong. Don't try and predict the Second Coming. Don't try and predict the fulfillment of all of the prophecies, because you don't know all of the details. It's not for you to know. It's not even for Jesus in His earthly nature, in His human nature, to know, but only for the Father.
It's catching a great vision, isn't it? It's catching that vision of William Carey. “Attempt great things for God,” he said, “expect great things from God.” That's the vision. This young man, a cobbler with virtually no education, and goes off to India and translates the Scriptures into many, many languages, and saying to this Board of mission folk...and they say to him, “Sit down, young man. If God intends to do such a thing, He’ll do it without your help or mine.” And here's Jesus in this opening chapter saying, ‘Here's the vision. Here's the vision: the ends of the earth....Egypt...the ends of the earth.”
III. The promise of the angel.
Well, there's a third thing in this chapter, and that is the promise of the angel. The promise of the angel...there's a marvelous picture here. The disciples see Jesus. And you notice in verses 9 and 10 (and you can count them), there are four words, all of them to do with visibility and sight. Luke is saying this is no fable. This is not just some made-up story. Four times he uses a word that says this is something that they saw. This is something that they witnessed. He rose into the sky.
I can't explain it. I can't give you a scientific explanation as to what was taking place, but if that can't happen for you, then your God is too small. Jesus rose into the sky and disappeared into a cloud; and the cloud, of course, is redolent of the presence of God. Remember the pillar of cloud that led the people of Israel during the wilderness, the pillar of cloud that descended on the temple in Solomon's time, the cloud that descended in the transfiguration of Jesus witnessed by Peter and James and John. And you know, I can't help but think that as they were watching Jesus ascend up into the sky — and I'm sure their jaws were open! They were staring at this cloud, Peter and James and John, and then — I guarantee you it was Peter! — turned to the other disciples and said, “We've seen this before! He’ll come back again! You know, He disappeared on us one time before, but He came back again.” And they’re still standing there gazing into heaven, and an angel says to them, “Why do you stand here gazing into heaven?”
You see, that's not where Christians are meant to be. Do you see? It's not about just gazing into heaven. Now, times when we gaze into heaven are wonderful times, but that's not where we're meant to be, because there's work to do. There's work to do. There's mission to be involved in. There are churches to be planted, there's a gospel to be preached. It has to go to the ends of the world.
There are three quick things, and all I can do now is mention them, about the ascension of Jesus. It gives to us, first of all, an explanation as to why Jesus never appeared again. You know, if they hadn't seen Jesus ascend into the cloud, they might have always been waiting for Him to appear again. It was a very public statement that this now was the final thing that He was going to do until His Second Coming.
Secondly, it explains in a visible way that in a sense, He was being “promoted.” He was being lifted up. He was taking His humanity to the throne of God, so that, as John Owen says, the dust of the earth is at the right hand of God.
And thirdly, it gave to the disciples and to you and me a little glimpse of what the next great redemptive event will be. And you know what the next great redemptive event will be? You see, it's not Israel. It's not anything to do with Jerusalem. It's the Second Coming of Jesus. And how will that Second Coming occur? On a cloud. With the angels. With the trumpet of God. And the dead will rise.
And in that period between the first disappearing of Jesus at His ascension and His reappearing at His Second Coming, He's saying to you and He's saying to me, ‘Catch the vision. Catch the vision of world mission, and world evangelism, to the end of the ages.’
You know, around the year 200 or so, Tertullian wrote a very famous treatise. It was called A True Christian. He's giving a defense of the Christian church, and he's giving to his own people an explanation as to what has happened in that 150 years:
“We are but of yesterday, yet have we filled all places among your cities, islands, citadels, burroughs, assemblies, your very camp, your tribes of the common people, the councils, the judges, the palace, the senate, the judiciaries. We only leave to you your temples. For what more are not we fit and ready, though we were fewer in number, who so willingly are put to death?”
It's a marvelous, marvelous treatment that he gives us, and he's saying ‘Look. You see what has happened. The church has grown, it has expanded, and it has done so by the power of God.’
May God help us to catch that vision.
Let's pray together.
Father, we thank You now as we begin this journey in The Acts of the Apostles. And as we trace this journey, minister to us, instruct us, teach us; help us to see Christ, and to see His risen glory and to live out and out for Him. For Jesus’ sake we ask it. Amen.
Please stand and receive the Lord's benediction.
Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
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