Text: Acts 1:1-11
From the middle of the 2nd century onwards, the 5th book of the NT has been known as ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. And with good reason: this book tells us a great deal about the exploits of those first Christians leaders, especially Peter and Paul.
Then, about a century ago, someone suggested that the book might well be titled, ‘The Acts of the Holy Spirit’. To be sure, when you consider the central role of the Holy Spirit in this book, from the day of Pentecost onwards, it’s difficult to argue with that idea.
However, look at what the author himself says about the nature of his book. In 1:1 he says (referring to the Gospel of Luke), ‘In my former book I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach.’ The clear implication is that here in Acts he is writing about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach (through the apostles and through the Spirit). Perhaps the most accurate title, then, is ‘The Acts of Jesus Christ, Part II’.
So, what did Jesus continue to do and teach, as recorded in Acts 1:1-11? The most obvious thing that he did is, that having risen from the dead 40 days earlier and provided many convincing proofs that he was alive, he finally left this world and ascended into heaven. The ascension of Jesus is would provide and extremely fruitful area for study. But the passage itself spends less time on the fact that Jesus left his disciples, and more on the teaching that he left them with. So that’s what I’m going to focus on this morning.
Notice to begin with the general statement, v2, ‘He gave instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.’
Parents, about to go away for a few days, will leave instructions for their teenage children: ‘don’t forget to feed the guinea-pig, put the green box out on Tuesday morning, we’ve left a key with the neighbour in case you lock yourselves out, here’s a number to ring if the house burns down…’ – you know the sort of thing.
Now Jesus, about to go away for an indefinite period of time, left behind instructions for his disciples. The key instruction is found in v8, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
If we look more closely, we find that this commission is framed by some words of warning. V6f ‘When they met together, they kept asking [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.’
Notice also the words recorded in v11. Jesus has been taken up into heaven, and the disciples are left staring. “Men of Galilee,” say the two men in white, “why do you stand here looking into the sky?” There is a note of gentle rebuke in these words. They have just been told to go to the ends of the earth, but they are standing here, rooted to the spot, peering up to heaven.
Charles T. Russell, founder of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, predicted that the world would end in 1874, later revising the date to 1914. After this second date had passed, his successor, Judge J.F. Rutherford claimed that Christ had in fact returned on Oct 1st 1914, only in secret. The JWs had to fiddle the books again when in 1975 the world’s expected end once more failed to take place.
Orthodox Christians can fall into the trap. Remember Hal Lindsay’s The Late Great Planet Earth? Then in 1992 a Protestant minister in South Korea announced that the Rapture was going to take place in October of that year. Thousands around the world took his prediction seriously.
If ever we are tempted to speculate overmuch about future event, or to stand gazing when we should be up and doing, then we need to hear these warnings of our Lord. The famous 19th century preacher, C.H. Spurgeon, put it in the following slightly mischievous way:
‘Like the apostles, I hope our memorial will be our acts. There are good brethren in the world who are impractical. The grand doctrine of the Second Advent makes them stand with open mouths, peering into the skies, so that I am ready to say, “Ye men of Plymouth, why stand ye here gazing up into heaven?” The fact that Jesus Christ is to come again is not a reason for star-gazing, but for working in the power of the Holy Ghost.’
But the commission to be worldwide witnesses is not only framed with gentle warnings, it is also supported by gracious promises.
There is the promise of power. V8 “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you.”
This power is a divine enabling for the work of spreading the gospel. It is power to make witnesses bold and convincing and listeners open and receptive. It is the power by which Peter was changed from a man who denied that he ever knew Jesus to a pillar of the church and who would readily go to his death for the cause of the gospel. It is the power by which the Lord added three thousand people to his church in a single day. It is the power by which the heart of Lydia was gently opened, so that she responded to Paul’s message. It is the power by which millions have been brought from darkness into glorious light. It is the power that has touched each of us who is a true believer in Jesus Christ, for the Holy Spirit has done in us what human persuasion and personal effort could never have done on their own – opened our hearts to receive Jesus. Everything that we are, and possess and enjoy that is truly Christian we owe to the powerful agency of God the Holy Spirit.
That power is still at work. But the task is still unfinished. Question: What is 750,000 miles long, reaches around the earth 30 times, and grows 20 miles longer each day? Answer: The line of people who are without Christ. There are 1.8 billion professing Christians in the world, and suppose that just 1 in 10 of these is a true believer. If the Holy Spirit plus 11 believers were up to beginning the task, is there any reason why the Holy Spirit plus 180 million believers couldn’t make a fist of finishing it off?
Perhaps we need to confess before God that up until now we simply havn’t cared enough. Certainly we need to pray that his Spirit would fall afresh on us, and make us into powerful witnesses to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Then there is the promise of his return. v11 “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.”
History is heading towards its conclusion. The drama does have a climax. The Maker of earth and heaven will all bring things to their appointed destiny. Jesus will return.
What a day that will be! To see all wrongs righted. To see every tear wiped. To see no more death or mourning or crying or pain. To see death, the last enemy, finally killed off. Best of all, to see this same Jesus, and to be with him where he is. If the birth of a baby can give a spring in the step and a song in the heart, how much more the promised return of Jesus? Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King.
‘The night is nearly over; the day is almost here.’ And does this not give even more urgency to our missionary task?
Perhaps we need a little childlike impatience. Like the little girl came home from Sunday School: “We were taught to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations,” she said. “But we just sat there.”
Or maybe we can take to heart the words the late Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones once addressed to his fellow Christian leaders: ‘What are you doing? You are not simply imparting information, you are dealing with souls, you are dealing with pilgrims on the way to eternity, you are dealing with matters not only of life and death in this world, but with eternal destiny. Nothing can be so terribly urgent. I am reminded of the words spoken one afternoon by William Chalmers Burns…He one day put his hand of the shoulder of a fellow minister and said, “Brother, we must hurry.”‘
May God help us to heed the warnings, appropriate the promises, and engage in the urgent task that we all share, the task of joyfully witnessing in a needy world to our risen and ascended Saviour.