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  • Writer's pictureRev. Gerald (Jerry) Reiter, Emeritus

“Open Line To Heaven”

Seventh Sunday of Easter

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them 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. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”

Then they gathered around him and 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.”

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 said, “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.”

Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.

Acts 1:12-26

What’s often called “the birthday of the Church” took place on the Day of Pentecost, the celebration of the Spring harvest, 50 days after Passover. On that day Jesus performed His last work in His saving career (until His coming again) “pouring out” the Holy Spirit on His waiting people. His life, death, resurrection, and ascension all culminated in this great gift. Just as the Spirit came upon Jesus at His baptism to equip Him for His public ministry, so now the Spirit was to come upon His people to equip them for their ministry. The Holy Spirit would apply to them the salvation which Jesus had achieved by His death and resurrection and empower them to proclaim to the world the Good News of this salvation. Salvation is given to be shared!

But, before the giving of the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, there was to be a time of waiting: for 40 days between the resurrection and Jesus’ Ascension, and for 10 more days between the Ascension and Pentecost. Jesus’ instructions to His disciples were very clear, and Luke repeats them for emphasis, first at the end of his Gospel and then at the beginning of Acts. “Stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” And “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.”

During the 50-day waiting period they were pretty active, though. Luke tells us of 4 important events: First, they received their commission (1:6-8). Second, they saw Jesus ascend into Heaven (1:9-12). Third, they joined together in prayer (1:13,14). And fourth, they replaced Judas with Matthias as the twelfth Apostle (1:21-26).

First, they received their commission. He said to them, “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.”

During the 40 days in which the risen Lord “showed Himself” to the Apostles, Luke tells us He spoke to them “about the Kingdom of God,” and to wait for the gift of the Spirit. And He probably related them together; the prophets did. When God establishes the Kingdom of the Messiah, they said, He will pour out His Spirit – the Spirit of God would be one of the major signs and blessings of the Messiah’s rule.

But when the Apostles asked Jesus, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?”, they showed that they misunderstood both the nature of the Kingdom and the relation between the Kingdom and the Holy Spirit.

When people think of a “Kingdom” they usually mean a territory which can be located on a map. But the Kingdom of God is not a territory, though this is what the Apostles were thinking about, by confusing the Kingdom of God with the Kingdom of Israel. They were still dreaming of political dominion, of the re-establishment of the monarchy, of Israel’s liberation from the yoke of Rome.

The exercise of power is inherent in the concept of a kingdom. But power in God’s Kingdom is different from power in human kingdoms. The Kingdom of God is His rule in the lives of His people by the Holy Spirit. It’s spread by witnesses, not by soldiers; through a Gospel of peace, not a declaration of war; and by the work of the Spirit, not by force of arms.

But at the same time, while we reject the politicizing of the Kingdom, we have to be careful that we don’t super-spiritualize it either, as if God’s rule operates only in Heaven and not on Earth. The fact is, that although God’s Kingdom must not be identified with any political program or ideology, it does have radical political and social implications! Kingdom values often come into collision with secular values. And the citizens of God’s Kingdom then must deny to Caesar the supreme loyalty for which he hungers and insist on giving that loyalty only to Jesus! As Peter told the Sanhedrin, on two different occasions: “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29) and “Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God’s sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard.” (Acts 4:19,20)

As we read the Book of Acts we see Jesus’ mandate to mission begin to be fulfilled. As a matter of fact, His commission is a kind of “Table of Contents” for the book. The first seven chapters describe events in Jerusalem; Chapter 8 speaks of the scattering of the disciples “throughout Judea and Samaria”, while the conversion of Saul in Chapter 9 leads on in the rest of the book to his missionary expeditions, and finally to his journey to Rome. And when God’s Kingdom is consummated at the end, it will be drawn “from every nation, tribe, people, and language.” (Rev. 7:9)

The whole interim period between Pentecost and Jesus’ return is to be filled with the worldwide mission of the Church in the power of the Holy Spirit! Christ’s followers are to announce what He achieved at His first coming and call people to repent and believe in preparation for His second coming. We are to be witnesses “to the ends of the Earth” (1:8) and “to the very end of the age.” (Mt. 28:20) And we can’t stop until both ends have been reached! In fact, Jesus taught that the two “ends” would coincide – the end will come, only when the Gospel of the Kingdom has been preached in the whole world!

The second major event that occurred during the 50 days between Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost was Jesus’ ascension into Heaven. Luke says, “He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid Him from their sight.”

You know, Jesus didn’t have a need to take a journey in space. In the transition from His earthly state to His heavenly state, Jesus could perfectly well have just vanished, and “gone to the Father” secretly and invisibly. The reason for a public and visible ascension is surely that He wanted His disciples to know that He was gone for good. During the 40 days He had kept appearing, disappearing, and reappearing. But now this interim period was over. This time His departure was final. So, they weren’t to wait around for His next resurrection appearance.

Instead, they were to wait for someone else, the Holy Spirit (1:4). For He would come only after Jesus had gone, and then they could get on with their mission, in the power He would give them. And the Apostles returned to Jerusalem and waited for the Spirit to come.

That’s what the visible ascension did for the Apostles; what can it do for us? To answer that question, we need to pay attention to the two angels standing beside them. They asked the Apostles a good question: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here, looking into the sky?” The Apostles weren’t to be sky-scanners! “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.” In the meantime, until Christ comes again, His followers are to get on with their witness – that’s our mandate!

It is the Earth, not the sky, that’s to preoccupy us. We’re called to be witnesses, not stargazers. The vision the Apostles were to cultivate wasn’t upwards in nostalgia to the Heaven which had received Jesus, but outwards in compassion to a lost world which needed Jesus!

It's the same for us. Curiosity about Heaven and its occupants, speculation about prophecy and its fulfillment, an obsession with “times and seasons” – these things are interesting, but they can distract us from our God-given mission. Christ will come personally, visibly, gloriously. Of that we’ve been assured. Other details can wait. Meanwhile, we have work to do in the power of the Spirit.

Luke then tells how they spent the next 10 days before Pentecost. In his Gospel he says, “They stayed continually at the temple, praising God,” (Luke 24:53), and in Acts he says, “They all joined together constantly in prayer.” (vs. 14) That’s a good combination: continuous praise in the temple, and continuous prayer in the home!

And then they replaced Judas with Matthias as an Apostle.

The stage is now set for the Day of Pentecost. The Apostles have received Christ’s commission and seen His ascension. The apostolic team is complete again, ready to be Christ’s chosen witnesses. Only one thing is missing: the Spirit has not yet come. Though the place left vacant by Judas has been filled by Matthias, the place left vacant by Jesus has not yet been filled by the Spirit. So, we leave Luke’s first chapter of the Acts with 120 believers waiting in Jerusalem; persevering in prayer with one heart and mind; ready to fulfill Christ’s command just as soon as He has fulfilled His promise.

Next Sunday we’ll celebrate the birthday of the Church – the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost. And that’s the rest of the story!

Pastor Reiter… good day!

and Amen!

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