Text : Acts 1 :1-11
The teaching concerning the
return of the Lord Jesus Christ is very important and in order that we don’t
let it slip from our minds I took the decision right at the outset of my
ministry amongst you that I would preach on this vital subject on the first
Sunday of every New Year. That doesn’t mean we only ever think about this
doctrine once a year but it does mean that we think about it at least once a
year. And as today is the first Sunday of the New Year there are no prizes for
guessing what our subject is this morning. We’re going to be looking for a
while together at the promised return of our Lord and Saviour.
So let’s get to it. I want to
begin with Luke.
“Luke” is only mentioned by name
three times in the NT and yet he was the author of approximately one third of
it. In addition to the Gospel that carries his name he also wrote the Acts of
the Apostles and these two books can be thought of as two volumes of one larger
work for both focus on the importance of the person of Jesus Christ. This
historical narrative of Luke’s writings covered a span of some 60 years.
Even though he was an active and
valued participant in the growth of the early church that is described in the
Acts of the Apostles, Luke did not draw attention to himself. Most of what we
know about this, the only Gentile, author of Scripture comes from the pen of
the apostle Paul who referred to him as a “fellow worker” and the “beloved
physician”. The most important thing Luke wanted his readers to understand was
that salvation is in Christ.
Luke had not been present with
Jesus during his ministry and probably did not become a follower of Jesus
himself until after the resurrection. But he carried out careful research into
the material that was available which enabled him to write his gospel account. His
attention to detail along with his careful use of abundant eyewitness accounts
show him to be a credible and reliable historian for the life, death, and
resurrection of Christ. Indeed his is the longest of the four gospels and it is
the one that contains the most detailed account of Jesus’ birth as well as a
more descriptive account of his death and resurrection.
At the beginning of his gospel
Luke took care to explain why he had done what he did:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that
have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were
eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed
good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to
write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have
certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Then at the beginning of his
second volume there is more of the same:
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do
and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands
through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
Luke was an evangelist, a
historian, a physician, a pastor, a missionary, a companion, a brother, and a
theologian. His goal and purpose in writing was to write exact truth concerning
Jesus Christ and the plan of salvation, an infallible history and theology
inspired by the Spirit. And with God’s guidance that’s exactly what he did.
It is interesting and important
to note that Luke brought his first volume to a close with a brief account of
Jesus’ ascension into heaven and then began his second volume with the same
theme supplying us with some additional information and explanation.
The story of Jesus Christ – and we’re
thinking here about real history and not some fictional character with a made
up storyline – is like none other. Jesus really stands apart and above everyone
else who has ever lived. About who else could you possible write describing
what he had done on earth as simply what he had begun to do? But that is
exactly how Luke wrote about him.
Normal biographies will describe
the life and behaviour of people detailing what they did during their lifetime
and then they come to an end with the death and burial of their hero. Some
might include a further chapter about the ongoing influence of the deceased
person’s ideas or legacy but that’s about it. However with Jesus things are
very different, in fact it could hardly be more different. Yes, Jesus died but
he then conquered death and that means he is alive now. Death certainly wasn’t
the end as far as Jesus is concerned. And so when we talk about him being alive
and active we’re not talking about the ongoing influence of his teaching
important though that is, nor are we talking about his abiding presence in our
memories we’re talking about his genuine vital and living activity.
And so Luke began the Acts of the
Apostles with a description of the ascension of this living Lord Jesus into
heaven. The event he described was a real one, an event that occurred at a
specific time and place in history. But it is more than a simple description of
an event that took place a long time ago for this event provides us with a
model for a great event that is yet to happen in earth’s history, for this
Jesus, the same one, will come to earth again – the world has not seen the last
At the end of that forty day
period when Jesus gave his followers many proofs of his resurrection life and
issued them with his instructions and commands the time finally came for him to
return to heaven and he would so in bodily form. The ascension explains why it
is that Christians can and do maintain that Jesus is alive but not visibly
present with them on earth now – he is in heaven at the Father’s right hand.
When the time came it came as
something of a shock to his disciples; they were not at all expecting anything
like this to happen. It certainly wasn’t an idea that they had dreamed up but something
that forced itself upon their consciousness – they reacted to the reality of it
all, they had to. You see, one moment Jesus had been talking with them,
teaching them what they needed to know about the Kingdom of God and what their
role would be in spreading the good news about it throughout the world and the
next he was being taken up into a cloud and removed from their sight!
They weren’t prepared for this
and all they could think of doing was to stand gazing upwards to where they had
last seen him.
It was an extraordinary event.
In the Bible, clouds often figure
in accounts where God is specially active and present and here Jesus had just
left the earth to be taken from their sight by a cloud. What did it mean? Well
we don’t have to scratch our heads and try to come up with our own theories
because a divinely inspired explanation was about to be given. And it would be
given by a couple of unusual messengers who suddenly appear of the scene. Luke
refers to them as two men in white robes but we’re not to imagine these were
ordinary folk – they were angels.
In the Bible angels sometimes appear
in the form of men. Joshua once met the commander of the army of the LORD –
surely an important role to be carried out by an important and impressive
person and yet we’re told that Joshua saw him as a man standing. In the Book of
Daniel the angel Gabriel put in an appearance, we’re told he flew but to Daniel
he had the appearance of a man. And we have the same phenomena here in Acts
ch.1. The angelic identity of these two men is highlighted by both the
clothes they wear and the message they bring. Their garments were white robes –
we maybe don’t think much of this as we are so used to people wearing white shirts
or blouses but in Bible times white garments were not the norm they were rather
a token of rare and excellent dignity. The message that these “men” had to pass
on was no ordinary message either. It was a message which had a spiritual
content that had no earthly origin – what they had to say was a divine
revelation - these were no ordinary men.
A Question and an Explanation
The disciples were there. They
had really seen something that had really happened. They hadn’t dreamt it up
nor were they hallucinating. It was a
genuine experience and at the same time it was a spiritual experience unlike
any they had quite known before. They didn’t know what to do next. And so they
just stood there gazing heavenwards. It was then that the angels spoke to them:
Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?” v.11a
I suppose the disciples could
have responded with a counter question: What else do you expect us to do? We’ve
just seen our Lord ascend into that cloud up there and we can’t see him any
I wonder, did the disciples
expect to see Jesus re-emerge from the cloud and return to them? Did they
perhaps hope to see him land somewhere nearby? Or were they just stunned by it
all? Whatever the reason they stood there gawping unproductively into the sky –
they were effectively wasting their time and achieving nothing.
How we need God to shine light
into our lives! Even genuine spiritual experiences need to be explained to us
if we are to react to them in a proper manner. Without such instruction we too
are very likely to act in inappropriate and unproductive ways.
The question posed by the angels
provided a springboard for the instruction that would send the disciples on
their way rejoicing. How much information the angels managed to cram into a few
words! This is what they said next:
“This Jesus, who was taken up from you into
heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” v.11b
Let us look more closely at this.
- The first thing for us to
notice is that the angels explain just what has happened to Jesus and where he
has gone. He had been taken up into heaven.
In the OT the prophet Elijah had been caught up to
heaven in a whirlwind without having to pass through death. When Elisha, who
had witnessed the scene as it unfolded, seeing the heavenly chariots collect
his master, reported to others what had happened they were all reluctant to
believe him and insisted on organising a search party to see if they could find
Elijah’s body, perhaps it was lying somewhere in the nearby hills. Elisha gave
way under this pressure even though he knew such a search would prove to be
utterly futile. And of course it was: they couldn’t find Elijah’s body because
God had taken Elijah.
And now Jesus’ disciples didn’t need to stand gazing
hoping to see Jesus come out of the cloud again. Nor did they need to search
for him on the nearby hills for God had taken him too! God had taken up his Son
Jesus into heaven again!
And that is where our Jesus is now. He is in heaven
occupying the place of supreme honour and authority at the Father’s right hand.
There he possesses all power and authority to rule over all of God’s creation.
There he represents his people and continues to take an intimate and detailed
interest in them. A little later in Acts Luke will show us again that Jesus is
in heaven. Stephen was on trial because of his faith in Jesus and for his
proclamation of the gospel. Like his master’s before him Stephen’s trial was
not going to end well. After giving a clear explanation of God’s plan and
purposes down through the centuries Stephen realised his hearers weren’t
prepared to heed what he had to say. Explanation gave way to application and
Stephen issued a serious challenge to all those who were listening to him. The
challenge went unheeded, it served only to infuriate those who listened to him
speak. With the tension rising we read that Stephen:
“full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and
Jesus standing at the right hand of God.” Acts 7:55
These were nearly the last words Stephen would ever
speak for the crowd turned on him and dragged him out to stone him. But he had
seen Jesus and Jesus was in heaven! And Jesus was taking a close interest in
- The second thing the angels
had to say to the disciples concerned “this same Jesus”. He would come again.
The same Jesus they knew and not another would come. Just think about it. The
Jesus that they had known for three years as they had followed him. The Jesus
they had learnt from him as he had taught them. The Jesus who had carried out
numerous miracles in their presence. The Jesus whom they had seen arrested and
known to be crucified. The Jesus who had astounded them by coming through
locked doors to speak words of peace to them when they had thought their world
had come to an end. The Jesus who had proved over and over again to them that
he had conquered death and was alive. This same Jesus, this loving, tender,
compassionate, faithful and trustworthy Jesus was going to return to earth! It
was astonishing but it was also so, so encouraging: what terrific news it was!
But could it really be true? How could this be? And
this too the angels wanted to say something about.
- “this Jesus... will come in
the same way as you saw him go into heaven” v.11b
And so we must ask how did the disciples see him go
into heaven? What characterised his ascension? It’s important for the details
of the ascension provide a pattern for his return.
Well it was a visible departure and it was a personal
departure and it was a physical departure.
The disciples saw with their own eyes the Lord Jesus
being taken up into a cloud until they could see him no longer. When one of our
believing friends dies we know that their spirit has gone to heaven to be with
the Lord but we don’t see it as it goes and the body of our dead friend remains
behind, an empty shell for their spirit has gone.
But when Jesus was taken up to heaven he didn’t leave
a body behind. He went physically as well as spiritually to heaven. And they
saw him go. They saw him being received into a cloud that points to the glory
of God. There is now the physical body of a man in heaven, at the Father’s
right hand, and this is proof that one day all those who believe in him will
one day be there with him with their own resurrection bodies.
Jesus’ ascension was real in every possible way
imaginable – the disciples had observed it – but perhaps the more glorious
truth is that just as the Jesus they knew had ascended into heaven so he, the
same Jesus that they knew and loved, would himself return visibly, personally
The angels’ message concerns
Jesus return to earth and the return that is envisaged is the real return of a
real person. The same Jesus who once died on the cross of Calvary will
personally and physically return to the earth he came to save. And men will see
it for it will be visible! Received into a cloud of God’s glory at his
ascension the Son of Man will return in glory coming on the clouds again.
Jesus advent was a relatively
quiet affair as he accepted the humiliation of a stable birth but his second
coming will be significantly different. His visible return will be accompanied
by the loud and glorious public sounding forth of an archangel’s trumpet.
The fact that Jesus’ return will
be a personal return of the same person is in perfect harmony with other
aspects of the Bible’s clear teaching.
- It is in
perfect harmony for example with the teaching that Jesus was genuinely raised
from the dead and is alive! In fact he has been ever since the third day when
he was raised from the dead.
- It is in
harmony with the promises that Jesus made while on earth. Then he promised that
he would raise his followers on the last day and his real physical and personal
return points to his intention of keeping his promise.
- It is in
harmony with the Bible’s declaration that a Day of Judgment will come about.
The one into whose hands that judgment has been committed is none other than
this same Jesus whom God raised from the dead. His return will usher in that
great and awesome day.
The angels’ message gives the
Christian a wonderful hope. It might well be nice for the Christian believer to
witness the triumph of Christian principles in the world, to see the resurgence
of Christian ideas and to celebrate the perpetuation of Jesus’ teaching. But
our hope is far greater than that! Our Lord will return in person and receive
the honour and glory he most richly deserves!
Now for those disciples who
watched Jesus ascend into heaven this was tremendously good news. For all those
who have put their faith and trust in the Lord Jesus in the many years since
this is tremendously good news. But it is not good news for everyone
Just as there were people who did
not benefit from Christ’s first coming there will be many for whom his second
coming will bring no joy either. Those who rejected him and opposed him when he
first came and all of those who since then have rejected and opposed him will
find that this is the same Jesus who returns. This is the man who called a
spade a spade and told men and women to go and sin no more. This is the same
man who made extraordinary claims declaring that he was the only one who could
secure forgiveness of sins and the only way whereby men and women might be
reconciled to God.
Extraordinary claims, exclusive
claims, totally politically incorrect claims and yet they were claims that were
backed up. You see, this is the same man who said that he would be rejected and
betrayed by his own people and he was. This is the same man who said that he
would be handed over to Gentile powers who would cause him to suffer and to die
– and he was. This is the same man who said that after being put to death by
that horrible and cruel death of crucifixion he would rise from the dead. And
he did! His truthfulness has been vindicated over and over again.
And it is this same Jesus who is the returning one. He was
truthful and upright before and he hasn’t changed. He promised to save his own
and to raise them at the last day and he will – but he will not recognise and
own those who don’t belong to him. In returning he will say to false followers
as well as to outright enemies “Depart from me for I never knew you.”
We have lived through 2020 which
has been a most unusual year for all of us. We stand now at the start of a New
Year and we don’t know exactly what this year holds in store for us. On the one
hand the vaccination programme is ramping up offering hope that the pandemic
might be brought under control and on the other hand the infection rates
continue to escalate. Our new relationships with Europe and the rest of the
world are now up for grabs with the completion of Brexit. What can we be sure
of as we move ahead into the future?
Let me tell you.
We can be sure of the
faithfulness of our God. We can be sure of the help of the Holy Spirit – the
Son’s gift to the church. And we can be sure that in the determined plan of God
Jesus will return. The future is in his hands. I don’t know whether he will
come in 2021 but he will come.
Are you ready?
Heaven has received him until the
time for the restoration of all things about which God has spoken by the mouth
of his holy prophets long ago – but when that time arrives he will come again.
And you can, you must be ready for him. He has been appointed for you:
3:19-20 “Repent therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted
out (and) that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.”
And as we look forward, well aware
that it is not for us to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by
his own authority, we can put our trust in the one who holds the future. In the
words of a well-known chorus:
“I know Who holds the future, And
He'll guide me with his hand.
With God things don't just happen; Everything by Him is planned.
So as I face tomorrow, With its problems large and small,
I'll trust the God of miracles, Give to Him my all.”
And to God be the Glory