Looking Forward with Confidence
One day is very like the next and yet we invest certain days with more meaning and significance than we do for others. And so many of us will celebrate birthdays and anniversaries. The movement from Dec.31 st to Jan.1 st is another of these occasions that we chose to accord a special importance. We mark the end of an old year and the start of a new.
For those who make something of this date the evening is supposed to be a joyous one – a number of us gathered here to be together and to "see in the new year" and, yes, we had a good time.
Things turned out very differently for some of those who gathered on the streets of Shanghai in China. They were expecting to have a fun time too but it was a night that ended in unexpected tragedy for 36 people who lost their lives and for a further 47 who were injured.
Each year as Dec. 31 st approaches we are encouraged to cast a look backwards and to review the events that have taken place and then we are encouraged to look ahead to what might take place in the new year that is about to begin. It is the time for new year's resolutions to be made (and shortly to be broken); it is a time perhaps to think about what lies ahead and to dream dreams. But we all know that we mustn't allow ourselves to get carried away with unrealistic expectations – we need to season our forward thinking with a healthy does of realism.
The Bible has much to teach us about every area of our lives and it teaches us too about the future.
A New Era
The NT contains two books written by a man called Luke: we call these books the Gospel according to Luke and the Acts of the Apostles. These two books form part of a single work to which we might attribute the title: "The Life and Works of Jesus Christ".
Luke dedicated both volumes to an official called Theophilus. Vol. 1 dealt with Jesus life and ministry up until his return into heaven while Vol.2 carries that story further forward. Luke wants us to understand that Jesus' ministry did not end with his leaving the earth but rather he carried it forward in a different manner in a new era. Jesus would accomplish his purposes in this new era through the agency of his followers knit together in the church, enabled and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
Acts 1 is the opening chapter of this Vol. Two and sits at this crucial hinge moment. Luke reminds Theophilus what he has already written about in his Gospel, Vol.1:
Jesus' being "taken up" is what we know as the ascension and it signaled the start of a new era for his followers.
(It is interesting to note that by the time Luke wrote the Acts of the Apostles the church already knew so well what had happened to her Lord and where he had gone that he can simply refer to this ascension by the simple words "he was taken up" and expect to be understood. He will not actually explain that this "being taken up" actually meant "being taken up to heaven" until vv.9-
At this critical juncture Luke briefly casts his eyes backwards summarizing what has already taken place and then moves on to consider the future and how the church is to conduct herself. As his work is a work of history he will tells us not only what the church was to do but also what the church actually did do.
Part One -
But then more specifically Luke refers to what Jesus did at the very end of his time on earth and how important this turns out to be!
He proved the fact of his resurrection by appearing, on multiple occasions, to his apostles and also to a wider group of his followers and disciples. These appearances took place over an extended period of some 40 days during which time he also gave further instruction to his apostles.
The apostles, we are told, were taught commands by Jesus "through the Holy Spirit" and these commands they would be responsible as his representatives for passing on to the wider church. In time their teaching would be brought even to us that we might firstly come to believe in the risen Lord Jesus Christ and then having come to him in faith we might know how we too are to live our lives as Christians while Christ is in heaven.
Luke summarizes the teaching that Jesus gave to his apostles as he prepared to be "taken up" as teaching about the Kingdom of God. This expression signifies the rule and reign of God in the heart and life of the believer. The believer is made a citizen of the Kingdom and receives both the remission of his sins and the eternal life. This Kingdom would grow and expand as the apostles preached the good news to all who would listen.
A Limited Vision is Exploded
But for the moment the apostles don't grasp very much about the universal significance of what Jesus has done. Their vision is still a small one and needs to be expanded.
If you are slow to grasp the greatness of Jesus and the greatness of the gospel message you're in good company! The apostles although they had grasped some truths about Jesus still had a very restricted appreciation of him and his work! And so they ask him:
Acts 1:6 "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?"
Jesus replies to them with two very important truths that we would do well to take on board:
His disciples were not to worry themselves about the times and seasons that had been fixed by the Father!
Acts 1:7 "It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority."
How often we do long to try to work out when things will happen and take place! Instead of being prepared to simply trust what God does tell us we want to ferret out further details even though the Bible tells us in no uncertain terms that "The secret things belong to the LORD our God, (and it is) the things that are revealed (that) belong to us and to our children forever".
We are not as Christian disciples to worry ourselves about when this or that will happen in the purposes of God when he hasn't chosen to reveal those details to us. What we are to concern ourselves with are those matters that he has made plain and clear for us!
The Kingdom is no small thing to be restricted to a single nation or a single group. The apostles looked for a blessing for Israel but Jesus had come as the Saviour of the World, the fruits of his ministry could not be limited but were to be preached throughout the world!
Centuries earlier Isaiah had prophesied concerning the coming Messiah and underlined how special and how worthy he would be in God's estimation:
Is.49:6 "he says: "It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.""
And not unsurprisingly we find that Jesus' own understanding of his significance and the fruitfulness of his work is similarly global in scope:
Acts 1:8 "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth."
Once again the Holy Spirit is to be involved. It is the Spirit who would come to enable them and to equip them to carry out this most monumental of tasks. We are probably familiar with the idea of the world-
As Jesus finished speaking of these things to his disciples a most extraordinary event took place.
Jesus was lifted up from the earth until a cloud hid him completely from view and his disciples could see him no longer!
What were they to make of it all? What did it mean? The disciples were left alone and all they could do was to continue to gaze heavenwards.
During the preceding 40 days Jesus had appeared to them and then disappeared before reappearing in another setting. But now there was something different, this was a definitive departure – Jesus would not be coming back to his apostles as he had regularly been doing – he was returning to heaven, to the presence of his Father. When he was safely there it would not be long before the Spirit – that 'other' comforter – would be poured out as the love gift of the Father upon the infant church. And so this time as Jesus left his apostles his departure was unlike any other.
As they stayed gazing upwards two angels came and spoke to them. The substance of what the angels had to say was that it was inappropriate for them to go on doing that – they gave one reason but others are not hard to find in the passage.
The reason why they were not to go on gazing wistfully after a disappearing Jesus was that there was no reason for sadness or dismay, no room for a nostalgic longing for what they had known hitherto, because this departure would, in the Father's fullness of time, be followed by a similar coming. But this sure and certain literal physical return was not for the immediate future and in the interim the apostles had other things to be getting on with!
Jesus before leaving had giving his marching orders to his followers and now they were expected to get ready to carry out the charge they had given to him.
In a few days time they could expect the Spirit to come upon them and to equip them for service. In the event they would have to wait for just a week and a half and then the task of being witnesses in Jerusalem, in Samaria and then throughout the world could be undertaken.
The apostles were to be active as they followed their Master – they would not prove to be faithful by passively waiting contemplating the heavens however pious such a stance might at first sight appear.
Part Two – And so to action
Evidently the disciples heeded the words of the angelic messengers for the next thing we hear is that they went back into the city of Jerusalem.
And now they are to live their Christian lives in a new era, Jesus would no longer be with them as he had been up till then. What were they to do? How would they live in these new circumstances?
A quick look at the second half of the chapter gives us the answer to our questions.
Having returned to Jerusalem they did in fact stay there until the Day of Pentecost when the Spirit did come just as Jesus said he would.
They had listened to the last words Jesus had shared with them and they heeded them; the first mark of these Christians in their new era, in their new year, was obedience.
They met together with other disciples, they didn't separate from each other but met regularly. We are told that their chief aim in this was to pray and this did gave themselves to diligently.
They were spiritual in their interests and concerns.
Obedience and prayerfulness go well together and were surely accompanied by an expectation that the promises that had been made to them would be duly fulfilled.
But that was not all. We also see that they considered what the written Scriptures taught. They didn't do this just out of some sense of religious curiosity they wanted to know what to do next. When Peter addressed the matter of finding a replacement for Judas who having betrayed Jesus had abandoned them and taken his own life, the others were ready to act.
Again they chose to obey and to do what their Bible taught them to do.
These are the ways in which these early Christians responded to their new situation.
2000 years on
And what has changed as the years have passed by?
Jesus is still in heaven where he reigns and rules. There he intercedes on behalf of his people telling the Father exactly what it is that his people need. The Spirit having come has not been withdrawn from the church and he continues to equip and enable. The promise of Jesus' return remains valid – if we're not to worry ourselves about just when this will happen what difference does it make if 2,000 years have gone by? Indeed during that time we have learned that God's delay is not indifference or inability but the patient forbearance of a loving God who is not willing that any should perish but who wishes to bring men and women to repentance:
So in the light of all this what should be our attitude as Christians as we begin this New Year which for some of us may be our last? It may be the year in which Jesus returns as promised?
Let us press forward with confident joyful expectation – our Lord reigns in heaven!
Let us press forward with confident joyful expectation – our Lord has promised to return!
Let us press forward with confident joyful expectation – the Gospel is to be preached throughout the world!
Let us press forward with confident joyful expectation – prayerfully mindful that we need the Holy Spirit to enable us to do anything that has any worth or value.
Let us press forward with confident joyful expectation – obediently heeding the Word of our Lord