The Ascension and The Kingdom of God

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

There are a number of important things in this chapter, so I will highlight just one of them from our Sunday evening Bible Study.  Towards the end of the session I was asked about the nature of the Kingdom predicted by Jesus in this text, is this a spiritual kingdom (i.e., the Church) or is this a literal kingdom?  I believe that the disciples who asked the question were thinking of a literal kingdom and Jesus’ response does not correct that understanding.  Perhaps that kingdom is not exactly what the disciples expected, but whatever it is, it is the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as predicted in the prophets.

While in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus and the disciples gathered in their usual location on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:6-8).  Some disciples asked if Jesus was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at this time.  This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37 (cf., Mt 24-25).

In Luke 21 Jesus has offered a stinging critique of the Temple and its leadership and walked out of the Temple through the east gate to the Mount of Olives.  While walking through the beautiful buildings and gate, Jesus predicts they will be destroyed.  At least some of the disciples ask at that time about the timing of this event – is Jesus about to restore the kingdom, perhaps judge the current corrupt priesthood and replace it with a pure priesthood?  This is the same sort of question someone at Qumran might have asked, since they too thought the priesthood in Jerusalem was corrupt and would be replaced by a more pure priesthood (i.e., their sect!)

After the resurrection, it was only natural to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of the resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations.  Again, this was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity.  Beginning with the people of God themselves, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them (depending on their response or the attitude of the writer describing Messiah’s activities!)  Very often these enemies were within the nation itself.  Individual groups identified the primary enemy of a pure Jewish faith as corrupt priests, people who did not fully keep the law, etc.   The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted: Jeremiah 16:15, 23:8, 31:27-34, Isaiah 2:2-4, 49:6, Amos 9:11-15, as well as Tobit 13-14, 1 Enoch 24-25, PsSol 17-18, The Eighteen Benedictions 14.   Luke even began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (2:24-32).

Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored, but they are to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected.  The Holy Spirit will fall upon people and they will speak the Word of God in power in the Temple itself. On the other hand, that the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all.  These men are quite literally the most unlikely group of people to be commissioned with the task of announcing the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

How Are We to Use the Book of Acts?

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

One of the most important issues we need to sort out at the beginning of a series on Acts is how we ought to apply the book to the present church.  Some Christians will argue that the book of Acts ought to be normative for Christian life and practice.  For example, since the early church lived simply and held all things in common, we ought to live simply and care for the needs of others just like they did in Acts 2 and 3.  The recent writer Shane Claiborne has popularized this idea (and he lives it out as well), although the sense that the poverty of Jesus and the earliest forms of Christianity ought to be applied today has been a common thread throughout church history.

Another example is the presence of sign gifts (tongues) and healings as a clear manifestation of the Spirit of God.  If you have been saved, some argue, then you will speak in tongues, since that is what the earliest form of the church did. Denominations which do not practice these gifts must explain why there are sign gifts in Acts but not in our churches today.

Common wisdom often equates the earliest example of something with the most pure form. Things were best in the “good old days” and we need to get back to those good old days in the present church.   This is not always the case, since it is also true that ideas develop over time.  Sometimes the earliest form is the most simple, but that does not mean it is the best.  If we look at inventions such as the car or the computer, few would say that the “best” car was the Model T!  Typically, the argument that Acts ought to be normative only involves the practice of the early Christians, not doctrine.  Obviously doctrine develops later with the Pauline letters and other Christian thinking about who Jesus was and what Jesus did on the cross.

Acts certainly demonstrates development from an entirely Jewish messianic movement to an almost entirely gentile missionary movement later in Acts. There are distinct difference in practice between the Jews in Acts 2-3 and the Gentile churches Paul founds in Corinth or Ephesus.  No where does Paul suggest that people sell possessions and give the money to the common treasury of the church.   Certainly there are few people who consistently apply this sort of thinking to Acts (Ananias and Sapphira, for example!)

In addition, the book of Acts seems to indicate that the earliest form of Christian was far less unified than we sometimes imagine.

  • By Acts 6, there is some division between Hellenistic Jews and the Jews from Judea.
  • There seem to be some Christians who were Pharisees and taught that Gentiles ought to keep the law, so that by Acts 15 a “church council” must be called to deal with this issue.
  • We can talk about Paul, Peter, and James as leaders of the church, but quite different agendas.
  • Acts 18 there are some people who only knew that John the Baptist had come, not Jesus as the messiah, not had they received the Holy Spirit!

Rome appears to have had some form of Christianity before Paul or Peter arrived there, so that Paul is greeted by the brothers when he arrives in Acts 28.

This confusion is perhaps a result of the transitional nature of the book.  Luke-Acts is quite unique in that the story begins in one age (Jews under the Law) and ends in another age (the Body of Christ, Jews and Gentiles saved apart from the Law by the blood of Christ).   We are naturally drawn to the cross as the center of the history – certainly the work of Jesus on the Cross is the single most important event in history!  But it is not necessarily the theological shift from one age to the next because what Jesus did on the cross is the climax of the covenants of Abraham and Moses.

What is significant theologically is the experience of Paul and his reflection on the meaning of the cross for the present age.  Without the Pauline letters we would not have a fully developed view of the atonement, justification, sanctification, etc.   Paul’s calling to be the light to the Gentiles was unanticipated in the Hebrew Bible.  While it was clear that God’s work to redeem man from sin would include Gentiles, how that would happen is not particularly clear.  After Paul’s calling on the road to Damascus, things begin to become more clear.

We can read the rest of the Bible and observe that there are a handful of points in history where God advances his plan to redeem the world (after the Fall, Noah, Abraham, Moses), and in each case there is a significant body of revelation given which in some ways breaks with the previous age, although there is often some continuity as well.  For the present era, it appears that this revelation was given to Paul, as the light to the Gentiles.  Frequently it is observed that the full revelation of what the cross means was not made until Paul, both inside dispensational circles and without – often Jewish commentators say Paul “corrupted” the teaching of Jesus!

My goal in reading Acts, therefore, is to observe very carefully how the church as we know it developed over the thirty years covered by the book.  There is a distinct shift from Jewish messianic ministry to Gentile mission.

Why Acts?

Beginning September 14, 2008, Rush Creek Bible Church begins a Sunday evening Bible study series based on the book of Acts.  In some ways my plan for Acts is ambitious.   My plan is to teach through Acts, finishing in May or June of 2009.  Some people might describe this as a very long series, others  will say I am being extremely brief! That is the way it is with the book of Acts, since there is a great deal of information in the book about how we got from Jesus of Nazareth to Paul in Rome.

My goal for this blog is to post a “teaser” for Sunday night on the Thursday before, and a reflection from Sunday evening on the Monday after.  There is a link to the audio for the series on this page, as well as a link to the notes for the evening a in PDF file.  The comments section is open for your responses, questions, and observations. I look forward to any interaction that comes out of our study together.

The book of Acts is not a sequel.  Rather it is an continuation of the project Luke began in his Gospel.  The “whole story” is Luke-Acts, and if possible, we ought to read Luke-Acts as a single work.  There are themes which run through both books and there are elements in Acts which are anticipated by the gospel of Luke.  Rather than seeing Acts as a second thought (or worse, a sequel), Acts should be read as the second half of Luke’s explanation of how the Gospel went from Galilee, through Jerusalem, and then to the whole world, including Rome.

One example of the relationship between Luke and Acts is the coming of the Holy Spirit.  In Luke 3 John the Baptist says that the one who will come after him will baptize with “fire and the Holy Spirit.” This baptism of the Holy Spirit dos not occur until Acts 2 when the Spirit descends on the Apostles “like tongues of fire.”

So, why the book of Acts?  There are number of reasons, but a major motivation is the frequent mis-application of the book of Acts in the church today.  We really do not know what to make of the book, so we make it into what ever we choose, often running rough-shod over what Luke actually says in the book.  In some ways the book is about the “origin of the church,” but there is more going on in the book than this.  People often have the mistaken idea that the book of Acts portrays the primitive church as an ideal we ought to try to recreate in our congregations today.  In most cases people have a single issue in mind and do not apply Acts to all their practice, resulting in some serious difficulties.

So how are we to use the book of Acts?  We will work on this a bit on Sunday, see you there.