To the End of the Earth: Gazing Into Heaven: The Ascension of Jesus

Sermon by Derek Thomas on May 7, 2006

Acts 1:1-11

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The Lord’s Day
Evening

May 7, 2006

Acts 1:1-11

“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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