The Ascension

Before launching into a verse-by-verse study of Acts it is good to remember a couple of principles.  First, we must see what God’s Word says before we can understand what it means.  Preachers, authors and teachers have a tendency to inculcate into their students what they think it means, inadvertently training their students to skip seeing what it says.  That is why we are so focused on what men say the Bible says, instead of focusing more simply on what the Bible says.

Second, Luke gives high praise to the believers in Berea, describing them as more noble because they didn’t just swallow what Paul preached hook, line and sinker.  They searched the Scriptures daily to put what he said to the test.  We must do the same.

Third, God commands us to study His Word, rightly dividing it (lit. “properly slicing” it), so that we will be adequately prepared workmen (master craftsmen?) who have no reason to be ashamed concerning our knowledge or use of the Scriptures.  (II Timothy 2:15)

Ready?  Here we go…

Acts 1:1-2 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen.  This verse refers, obviously, to Luke’s gospel (the first account).  The time span of that account ranges, according to this verse, from the beginning of Jesus ministry through His ascension.  During that time span, He had given orders to the eleven disciples, specifically the “Great Commission”.

But is this accurate?  Luke’s gospel covered the entire period from the prenatal announcement to John the Baptist’s parents of his birth, through the Annunciation (to Mary), Jesus’ birth, Jesus’ childhood, John the Baptist’s preaching, and Jesus’ baptism and temptation.  It’s clear that Luke’s statement in vv1-2 is a generalization, and as such, the statement that his first gospel covered through the Ascension is part of that generalization.  Furthermore, if the conclusion of Luke’s gospel covered the Ascension, there would be no need to cover it again here, as he does in the next nine verses!  So, once again, it is my understanding that the events Luke describes in Acts 1:1-11 are not a reiteration or a “fleshing out” of what he described at the close of his previous volume.

Acts 1:3  To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.  (Please, dear reader — what does this verse say?)

  • “To these” refers to the eleven apostles.  Paul later informs us that He appeared to more than five hundred believers on a single occasion, having already appeared to Peter, “the twelve”, to James, to all the apostles, and finally (after His ascension) to Paul himself.  (I Corinthians 15:5-8)  But this verse is about appearances to “the eleven”.
  • The period of time described by Luke is after His suffering (death, burial and resurrection) for a span of forty days.
  • These appearances provide convincing proofs –eyewitness reports that would stand up in court, and demonstrations that He was alive in body, and not just a disembodied spirit.  He had truly conquered death completely.
  • His purpose in doing so was to teach the eleven more about the kingdom of God.  What would this expression have meant to the eleven?  We are not told by Luke exactly what He taught them over these forty days.  Did He teach them that this “kingdom” wasn’t the one they were expecting, but was much broader now — a spiritual kingdom in the hearts of men?  Only the context of the events that follow, especially v6, can answer the question of whether or not this post-resurrection, pre-ascension instructional period dispelled the apostles’ notion of the restored Davidic Kingdom and replaced it with the concept of the Church Age.  A quick forward look at v6 now suggests that it did nothing of the sort.  That, of course, is in keeping with the fact that the mystery hidden in God in ages past is still hidden at this point in the narrative.

Acts 1:4-5  And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”  What do these verses say?

  • All eleven disciples were present with Him by His direction
  • He commanded them to stay in Jerusalem to wait for the promised Holy Spirit
  • He reminds them that He told them this before (this is not the first time He has told them about this)
  • He contrasts John’s baptism with water to the baptism they are soon to experience

Most of this verse is easy to observe for what it says.  The last point above, however, raises some interesting issues.  (1) The fact that Christ contrasts the two baptisms is important.  To compare two things is to point out their similarities; to contrast two things is to point out their differences.  We know this is a contrast because He used the word but between them.  Their upcoming baptism will be different from John’s baptism.  How?  It won’t be with water, and therefore won’t be for cleansing.  (John’s baptism, like all OT washings, was for cleansing — purification — in preparation for the coming of The King.)  Why not?  In John 15:3 we read, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.”  The baptism of the Holy Spirit is not for cleansing, it is for empowerment — for the eleven and for us.  (2) It was to be conferred on them without water.  We will have more to say about this later, but for now bear in mind that receiving the Holy Spirit will be associated with baptism in water for the next several chapters, and which must come first is important.

Acts 1:6-8  And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?”  He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”  Look carefully at the structure of this passage:

  • The disciples ask if the kingdom promised to Abraham and David will be immediately restored
  • Christ gives a two-fold reply:
    • I’m not going to tell you, but
    • just work with what I’ve already told you

Hmmmm!  Has Christ ever told you “Don’t worry about it — just work with what you’ve got so far?”  There’s a great application here if we extrapolate Christ’s instructions to His disciples into our own walk with Him.  But let’s be careful.  Extrapolation is predicting future behavior on the basis of past behavior, and is always presumptuous.  We must be careful to not treat that presumptuous future behavior as if it is fact.  It isn’t!  This is a perfect example of the principle that all of the Bible is for us but it is not all addressed directly to us.

Doesn’t it strike you as odd that Christ didn’t give them a simple yes or no answer?  Why didn’t He do that?  Essentially He was saying that the time wasn’t right for them to know everything.  He wanted them to carry out the very thing He had trained them for — to spread the news that the Kindom promised to Israel was at hand, and that repentance was the order of the day.  Did God know something else was waiting in the wings?  It is my belief that He did, and the time was not yet right to reveal it to the apostles in particular and mankind in general.  God was keeping a secret from them at this point in time, a mystery hidden in God.  At this point in the narrative the focus is still entirely on Israel’s expectation of the restoration of David’s kingdom as the disciples had just asked.  Christ did not scold or correct them for asking this!  He didn’t say, “Don’t you remember I told you that this kingdom stuff has been replaced with the idea of a broader kingdom in the hearts of men?”  In fact, His command to them is to continue with what they have been trained for — which is clearly the restoration of David’s Kingdom, Israel’s hope and expectation.

These three verses clearly demonstrate that the eleven were expecting the Millennial Kingdom, were commissioned for the Millennial Kingdom, and that Christ insisted that they pursue the Millennial Kingdom!  To insist that this passage marks the origin of the Church Age is to ignore every word written in these three verses through inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  To say that the disciples’ commission is our commission is to fail to rightly divide the Word of God.

The remaining verses, vv9-11, are straightforward and factual, and we have already written about them at length when describing the differences between this event and the one described by Luke at the end of his first volume.  We’ll not take the time to expound them further here.  Suffice it to note that what these verses describe left the eleven standing there with their mouths hanging open — so fascinated that they didn’t notice the presence of two angels standing right next to them until they spoke.  How would you have reacted to such a sight?  According to the angels, men will be equally awe-struck when Christ returns, and the impression given to the disciples by the angels was that He would do so in a matter of days — as the King of Israel and the King of the World.  If that’s the case, where do the intervening 2,000 years of the church fit into God’s plan?

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