If you were to record a kind of manifesto expressing your preoccupations that you knew would be publicised massively all around the world, what would it reveal about your purpose and motivation? That’s what Luke did.
We’re starting a new series called ‘To the ends of the earth’. We’ll be covering the book of Acts, and this term it’s chapters 1-4. This evening we begin at the beginning with Acts 1.1-11. That’s on p 1092 of the Bibles in the pews. Do please have that open in front of you. Except that this is not the beginning, because the Book of Acts is really a sequel. This is Book Two. We’ve had Jesus on Earth. That was Luke’s Gospel. Now this is Jesus in Heaven. So the Book begins (verses 1-2):
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
Now Theophilus has been mentioned before, and it’s worthwhile at this point to refer back to how Luke introduces this two volume set back in Luke 1.1-4. Turn back to that for a moment – to p 1025. This is how Luke explains what he’s doing:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.
What’s clear from that is that Luke’s concern is to strengthen faith in Christ, but he wants to do that by ensuring that faith is based on the facts about Jesus, through accounts that are themselves based on carefully researched eye-witness testimony. That’s his approach, and it’s important to remember that as we read Volume Two: the book of Acts.
So after Jesus, what then? That’s the obvious question as you get to the end of Luke’s Gospel. And here in Acts 1.1-11 is summed up what the church (and you and me as individual members of it) need to know (about the past, present and future), what we need to experience, and what we need to do. Here in this passage are the church’s marching orders. Here is the basis for JPC’s founding mission statement that this is to be a church maintaining and promulgating sound, scriptural and evangelical truth in a large and populous town. Here is the purpose statement for our lives. And what is summed up in these verses is what we see unfolding throughout the rest of the book of Acts.
I want us to look at these first 11 verses in four sections. I have a heading for each section. Those headings will come up on the screens as we reach them, if you want to jot them down or make a few notes.
First, THE APOSTLES NEEDED TO BE CONVINCED THAT JESUS WAS ALIVE – AND SO DO WE
This is verses 1-3. I’ve already read verses 1-2. Here’s verse 3:
After his suffering [this is speaking of Jesus, of course], 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.
It’s striking how in v 1 Luke says that in his Gospel he “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach”. The gospels record the start of Jesus’ ministry. He has not finished. But what is true is that his suffering is over – this is “after his suffering”. The victory has been won at the cross. The price for sin has been paid once for all. But the work of gathering God’s people from the ends of the earth through the preaching of the gospel is only just beginning at this point. Now Jesus will work through the apostles and through his people. So, having seen him die, they will need an unshakeable conviction that he is alive. And Jesus gives them, says Luke, “many convincing proofs” that he has indeed been raised from the dead. How does he do that?
Jesus appears to them on many occasions. He is seen not just once. He is seen over and over again, in all kinds of different contexts.
These appearances take place over a period of forty days – during the time between the Jewish festival of Passover, when Jesus was killed, and the festival of Pentecost, when, a few days after Jesus’ ascension, the Holy Spirit was poured out on the disciples, as Luke records in Acts 2. So the risen Jesus is seen over an extended period of time.
And he appears to many different people – this is not just the testimony of one, or even of a few. So for instance Paul tells in 1 Corinthians 15.5-6 how Jesus..
… appeared to Peter, then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep.
In other words, “if you don’t believe me, you can go and ask them yourselves – the eye-witnesses of the resurrection are still alive and there are lots of them.”
And we’re not talking about vague visions of a distant figure. The risen Jesus was seen and heard and touched. Matthew 28.9 says the women at the tomb “clasped the feet” of the risen Jesus and worshipped him.
And he ate and drank with the disciples. Luke 24.39-43 tells how the risen Jesus said to them:
“Look at my hands and feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.” When he said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
So here in Acts 1.4 Luke says:
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command…
They were utterly convinced of the reality of what they had seen, heard and touched. Jesus, once dead, had been raised from the dead to a new eternal but still physical existence. This was no disembodied spirit but a man of flesh and bones. Their doubts were swept away. They knew it to be true. They were certain.
And they needed to be, if they were to turn the world upside down. The testimony of those few was to cost some of them their lives. The testimony of those few was to alter the course of history. They needed to know for sure. And Jesus made sure they did. He “showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”
If we in our turn are to lay down our lives in the service of Christ – if we are going to convince the world – then we too must be convinced. And Jesus does convince us – using the apostolic eye-witness testimony and by his living unseen presence. I have lost count of the number of times I have sat and listened to someone telling me how they have come to be certain that Jesus died for our sins, and was raised to life again. And this is well-grounded, certain knowledge.
That’s point one. The apostles needed to be convinced that Jesus was alive – and so do we.
Secondly, THE APOSTLES NEEDED TO BE EMPOWERED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT – AND SO DO WE
Take a look now at verses 4-5:
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, [Jesus] gave this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.”
They had to wait. They couldn’t act effectively to accomplish what Jesus wanted them to do without this work of the Holy Spirit in them. We too are useless to the kingdom of God without the Holy Spirit. Our commission as believers is to work to enable the kingdom to spread and grow. But this is no ordinary work. This is the work of God. This is eternal work. And we are useless to it unless we are first worked on by the Holy Spirit. We need the kind of power that only comes from the Holy Spirit.
And this empowering was a gift from God. “Wait for the gift…” commands Jesus. This is not and cannot be self-generated. The apostles had to receive it. It had to come from God. All they could do was pray. They could ask, but they couldn’t make it happen. We, too, are dependent on God to give us his Spirit.
But they could wait with confidence because this gift had been promised. Right from the start, this was on God’s agenda for Jesus. Luke has already told how, before the adult Jesus burst onto the scene, John the Baptist prophesied:
“I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
That’s Luke 3.16. Jesus reiterates that here. He says to the apostles that the time has come for the fulfilment of that promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit.
So the power that the apostles need will come from this experience of being baptised with the Holy Spirit. Now we do need to be clear that in one very important respect the experience of these what we might call ‘pre-pentecost’ believers was different from ours. This was a unique moment in history. At this stage they believed in Jesus, crucified and risen. But they hadn’t yet received the gift of the Holy Spirit. Post-pentecost – after the pouring out of the Spirit on the church recorded in Acts 2 – faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit go together. There isn’t now a two stage process, as some teach. We don’t first get converted to Christ, and then later undergo a ‘second blessing’, second stage experience of baptism with the Holy Spirit. The apostle Paul is clear that, I quote:
… no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
And mean it that is. No-one can submit to Christ as Lord and Saviour except by the work of the Holy Spirit within them. That’s 1 Corinthians 12.3. And he goes on (v 13):
For we were all baptised by one Spirit into one body… we were all given the one Spirit to drink.
So, post-Pentecost, the gift of the Spirit coincides with our conversion. But understanding that, as we need to do, must never lead us to complacency or to a sense of self-sufficiency. Without the Holy Spirit we are useless to the kingdom. And we always need more and more of him. We always need a deeper and deeper experience of the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. Paul urges believers – and us – to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5.18). And Jesus himself teaches that not only should we be asking God to give us his Spirit, but also we can be confident that this is one prayer that will always get the answer “yes”. Luke 11.11-13:
“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? … If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”
The apostles needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit – and so do we. If we want the Holy Spirit, and if we want more of the Holy Spirit, then we should ask, and keep on asking, and we will receive.
Thirdly, THE APOSTLES WERE TO BE JESUS’ WORLDWIDE WITNESSES – AND SO ARE WE
Read on to verses 6-8:
So when they met together, they 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.”
Here is the purpose of God’s empowering gift. We’re not given the Holy Spirit for our own gratification or satisfaction. We are given the Holy Spirit for the growth of the kingdom of God and for the glory of Jesus. The apostles were to be eye-witnesses belonging to, sent by, resourced by and speaking about Jesus. We too are to be witnesses. Not eye-witnesses. But witnesses to what we know by faith through their testimony. So we’re witnessing to the same things – but we are to pass on their eye-witness testimony. So, for instance, that’s why we’re looking together at this passage this evening. We’re going back to the eye-witness testimony.
The primary impact of and evidence for the baptism of the Holy Spirit in someone’s life is that they are consistently and boldly involved with communicating the message of Jesus to the world. Not that everyone has to be like Peter on the Day of Pentecost, who stood up and raised his voice and began to preach to the crowds. Not even all the apostles did that on that day – though they all spoke about Jesus. Communicating the message is a collective work of the body of Christ and we all have a different contribution to make. But if we have the Holy Spirit, we will be involved. That is the difference the Holy Spirit makes.
Acts 1.8 is the key to the whole book of Acts:
“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.”
The message of Jesus will spread in their home city. It will spread throughout their region. It will spread cross-culturally – the Samaritans were culturally different from the Jews and traditionally there was great hostility between Samaritans and Jews. And the message will spread internationally until it has reached the ends of the earth. That’s what we see taking place as the story of these early believers unfolds. Why not make time to read through the whole book – it’s only 35 pages – and watch Acts 1.8 happening as the word spreads? I remember doing that as a student, and I trace my own enduring passion for church growth back to that experience.
But the book of Acts, in a sense, is just the introduction. Acts 1.8 is still happening, and we’re caught up in the action by the Holy Spirit. The new church we’re launching in Gateshead, for instance, is no accident. It is a work of the Holy Spirit in fulfilment of Acts 1.8 in our time and place. And the same sort of thing is going on in a million different ways all over the world. The apostles were to be Jesus’ worldwide witnesses – and so are we.
Fourthly, THE APOSTLES NEEDED TO KNOW THAT JESUS HAD GONE TO HEAVEN AND WOULD RETURN – AND SO DO WE
Here’s the final section of the passage – verses 9-11:
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 asked, “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.”
So Jesus ascended to heaven. He was ‘taken from them into heaven’ as the angels explained. Now we shouldn’t think of this account of the ascension as describing some sort of Apollo rocket zooming Jesus up into space and up and up until he reaches the final frontier and enters heaven. The enveloping cloud is very significant. ‘A cloud hid him from their sight,’ says Luke. Throughout the Bible the cloud is the symbol of God’s presence and glory. There is a kind of merging of time and eternity going on here. Jesus is entering a supernatural realm. Heaven is where God the Father is.
And that is where Jesus is now. He is with us – we experience his real presence – by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. The doctrine of the Trinity is important here – remember that God is three- in-one and one-in three. Where the Spirit is, there is the Son. But the God-man Jesus, body and soul, is now with God the Father in heaven.
What is the primary significance of this ascension? What difference does this make to us now? The ascension has two key lessons for us.
First, Jesus is on the throne. He is reigning now. His rule is unseen, but it is real. The ascension is, if you like, the completion of the resurrection. Jesus was raised by his Father not just to life, but to the throne of heaven. So Peter says in 1Peter 3.22:
[Jesus] has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
And Paul says in Philippians 2.8-11:
[Jesus] humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
And on the Day of Pentecost Peter told the astonished crowd:
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of that fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.”
Think of Iraq, for instance. Think of whatever struggles you are going through in your own life. And remember the first lesson of the ascension: Jesus is now all-powerful and active. His rule is unseen for a while longer but it is real. That is a challenge to faith and service, and it’s a profound comfort in suffering and perplexity. Jesus is on the throne. That’s lesson one.
Lesson two is that Jesus will return visibly as judge and saviour to bring in the new heaven and the new earth. We don’t know when. Verse 7:
“It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
But this is the great hope for creation and for the church. Jesus has promised it. These angels reaffirmed it: “Jesus will come back.” The apostles need to know that Jesus had gone to heaven and would return – and so do we.
What, then, is the purpose and motivating power of our lives? As we finish, here are four encouragements for us to take from these four points.
Take to heart the witness of the apostles with ever-deepening conviction.
Thank God for the gift of his Holy Spirit, and keep on asking for more and more.
Set your heart on a lifetime of involvement in worldwide witness to Jesus and rejoice as you see Acts 1.8 unfolding around you.
And develop a confident faith that Christ is Lord and there is hope for the world in his anticipated return one day.