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"Empowered for Witness."

MESSAGE for Sunday, November 1, 2009, Acts 1:6-11

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          This week, we move further into Luke’s historical account of the early church in the book of Acts.  Last week in our introduction to this book, we saw that Jesus continues his earthly ministry within the book of Acts through his apostles.  He does this through the Holy Spirit for whom he commanded the apostles to wait in Jerusalem.  Apart from the outpouring of the Spirit, there can be no authentic ministry of Jesus in the church.  As we move on, in our text for this morning, the narrative revolves around two encounters the apostles have—first with the soon-to-be-ascended Jesus in response to a question they ask him and second, with a pair of angels. It’s these two encounters, both of which result in the apostles being rebuked, that drive Luke’s account here.  I hope that helps us better understand Acts 1:6-11 where Luke records the following.

          6 So when they [Jesus and the apostles] had come together, they [the apostles] asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.  I think the main message for us from this text is:  We must by God’s grace remain truth-driven and undistracted as we live out a bold and vibrant witness for Jesus Christ here and to the end of the earth. 

Notice that Christ’s call for the apostles to be his witnesses in verse eight comes in response to a question they ask him in verse six.  That question reveals that the apostles still have much ignorance and many wrong assumptions about Jesus and their mission.  John Calvin says there are as many errors in the apostle’s question in verse six as there are words.[1]  The reason I say this text teaches that we must remain truth-driven and undistracted in our witness is because it’s clear from these verses that at this point in their lives, the apostles are driven by some very wrong assumptions.  They display a vulnerability to some common errors that have often kept the church today from being faithful to our mission. 

          I want us to see the truths in this text by citing three errors in the apostles’ understanding of their mission.  Most of the apostles’ ignorance is revealed in this first question in verse six, so let’s read that again.  Jesus has just ordered to wait for “the promise of the Father,” the Holy Spirit to come upon them before they can begin their ministry.  That command to wait for the Holy Spirit prompted the question in verse six, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  We might wonder, “How does Jesus’ command to wait for the Spirit trigger this question about whether Jesus will now “restore the kingdom.  The reason is--the Jews at this time, because of their understanding of the Old Testament prophets, saw the coming of the Spirit as a decisive indicator that the Messiah would initiate his reign and restore Israel to the supremacy she experienced under the reign of King David and Solomon.

          The Jews got that understanding from promises like Isaiah 32:14 where the prophet is speaking of Israel, specifically the king’s palace and says, “14 For the palace is forsaken, the populous city deserted; the hill and the watchtower will become dens forever, a joy of wild donkeys, a pasture of flocks; 15 until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high, and the wilderness becomes a fruitful field, and the fruitful field is deemed a forest. 16 Then justice will dwell in the wilderness, and righteousness abide in the fruitful field. 17 And the effect of righteousness will be peace, and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever. 18 My people will abide in a peaceful habitation, in secure dwellings, and in quiet resting places.” Notice the connection between the Spirit of God being poured out and all these other wonderful things that all are part of what will happen when the Messiah reigns on his throne.  When Jesus orders the apostles to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, they connected some dots and ask Jesus if he would at that time restore the kingdom to Israel.

          The good thing about their question is--they certainly believe Jesus is the Messiah and he will reign.  The bad thing is—as happens today, they were relying more on the popular understanding of end-times teaching to guide their thinking, than on what Jesus had explicitly told them.  Jesus had very recently told them that “repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”  This was clearly directed at the apostles.  He had also clearly taught them in the gospels—especially the Upper Room discourse in John, that God sending of the Spirit was to enable them to fulfill their mission.  They missed that and I find three errors in the apostles’ thinking.  The first is the error of misplaced responsibility, the second is the error of parochialism and the third is the error of skewed priorities.  These are three ways in which the apostles missed God’s agenda for them and for which they received correction from Jesus first, and then the angels. 

          Let’s look first at—The Error of Misplaced Responsibility.  In verse six, the first word revealing an error in the apostles’ thinking is the word, “you”—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus has just told them that they were to wait for the Spirit so they could in his name preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all nations.  But they ask Jesus—“Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Notice in his response how Jesus strongly directs the responsibility back to the apostles.  It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judaea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.  Jesus says in effect that the coming of the Spirit DID signal the beginning of a new age, but this age would not be marked by HIM doing the ministry with the apostles sitting sat back and watching.  That is largely the way it was BEFORE the Spirit’s coming.  Jesus did most of the ministry while the apostles watched him.  Now, in the age of the Spirit, God would use his people to do his ministry through them as his Spirit-empowered vessels.

          Jesus basically answers their question, “No, the reason you are to wait for the Spirit to be poured out is so YOU can have the power to be my witnesses in Jerusalem and all over the world.  This is not a brand new teaching from Jesus to the apostles.  Jesus tells the apostles on the night he was betrayed in John 15:26-27, “26 But when the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me. 27 And you also will bear witness, because you have been with me from the beginning.”  Jesus says that the Helper will come, not to relieve them of their mission to witness to the world who Jesus is.  No, the Holy Spirit will join them in their witness to Jesus.[2]  The Spirit will provide the power to transform hearts through the message, the guidance as to how to declare the message of truth, and the boldness to speak the message to people who are hostile to the message.  As we’ll see, the apostles saw the Spirit as a sign that Jesus would restore God’s national kingdom. Jesus says in effect, “No, the Spirit’s ministry means that you will be bringing God’s spiritual kingdom to earth through the preaching of the gospel.”

          This is not a contradiction with what we said last week about Jesus’ emphatic position that HE will do the ministry.  Jesus does the ministry as he works by the Holy Spirit, through his apostles.  We must understand that it has always been God’s plan for him to work through his human servants to accomplish his will on earth.  Before the fall, he charged Adam and Eve to be his Vice Regents to manifest his rule over this world.  Likewise, when the kingdom of God is fully consummated at the return of Christ, he promises those who are part of his faithful church “to [them] I will give authority over the nations, and [they] will rule them with a rod of iron, as when I myself have received authority from my Father.” [Rev. 2:26]  In the beginning, God gave authority in the garden for Adam and Eve to rule over this earth.  At the end of this age after Jesus returns, he will give authority to his church to rule over the nations.  And now during this age of the Spirit, as Christ is spreading his kingdom to the nations through the gospel, we exercise Christ’s authority to make disciples of all nations as we witness to him in the power of the Spirit.

          The apostles saw the Holy Spirit as the sign that they could sit back and watch Jesus do the ministry, when in fact the Spirit’s outpouring meant that they would now be the active human agents bringing Christ’s rule to this world through the gospel.  Even though we have a much better understanding of these things than the apostles did, we can be guilty of this same error of misplaced responsibility.  We see someone in our neighborhood, or a friend at school, or a co-worker who may or may not go to church, but who doesn’t know God in a personal relationship—is still lost in their sins.  What do we do?  Do we just “sic” the Holy Spirit on them through prayer?  God, move in their life—release the Holy Spirit in their lives—cause them to see their sin—cause them to see that their church going isn’t enough.  Convict them of the fact that they don’t know you personally—Go get ‘em, God.”  There’s nothing wrong with those kinds of prayers, but often they are prayed under this umbrella of misplaced responsibility.

          What I mean by that is—we pray this way and may be very fervent and sincere in our prayers, but we seldom take the next step.  That is--seek to discover if God wants US to be the one to speak the life-changing truth of the gospel into their life—if God wants US to tell them that going to church isn’t enough—to be used of God to show them that they don’t know God.  Ask yourself this question, “How would my praying for people’s salvation change if I only prayed for those I was genuinely willing to share the gospel with?”  Sometimes, we seem under the impression that the primary way God works in these people’s lives is that he mystically exposes them to the truth about their souls without the aid of another person—perhaps through a vision or a dream.  Maybe, they’ll wake up in the middle of the night and are mysteriously drawn to an open Bible they haven’t touched in 10 years that just happens to be open to Romans chapter one where they read that they are under the wrath of God.  Next, perhaps without anyone else to help them, the Holy Spirit leads them as they miraculously turn, in just the right sequence, to those other passages in Romans they need to read to savingly trust in Christ.

          That’s possible.  But if God was going to do all that, why did he bother putting you in their life as a commissioned witness?  Why did he cause a relationship with a witness like you to develop? Why did he put a witness like you in their neighborhood or office?  You have the truth—you have the power of the Spirit that will embolden you.  Doesn’t it make more sense that you, as an officially commissioned, Spirit-indwelt witness for Christ share the truth with them, than for God to use some other means?   We can and must pray energetically, but in many cases, if that is all we do, we are not being responsible—we are making this same error of misplaced responsibility—expecting Jesus to do it, even when we know we have been told to give out the gospel.  God has made us his witnesses. Everyone that is genuinely in Christ is a witness--the question is whether we are faithful witnesses or unfaithful.  But this we know—we have the power to witness—that is the promise of Acts 1:8.

          I think we see much the same error in the apostles’ confrontation with the angels.  After Jesus ascends to the Father on this cloud manifesting the glory of God, two men in white robes (who are almost certainly angels) say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up form you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”  This is a word of rebuke from the angels and the rebuke is simply this—“What are you doing focusing on Jesus’ exit?  He told you what to do and he will come back in just this way—visibly, gloriously and personally but now—as John Stott puts it, “your job is to be witnesses, not star gazers.”[3]  Our lazy and fearful flesh is sinfully inclined to want to watch Jesus (or for that matter, anyone else) do the ministry, when we are supposed to be doing something.  God wants to do the ministry of Christ through us and he’s given us the Spirit to enable us to do that.

          A second error the apostles make here is the Error of Parochialism.  Parochialism is the tendency to see things too narrowly.  The root word is “parish” like a church parish.  Parochialism is the tendency to see things as only applying narrowly, to your local situation or “parish.”  The apostles were very parochial and we see that in this question in verse six. “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?  When Jesus commanded them to wait for the Spirit, not only were the apostles wrong in thinking that meant that Jesus would be doing all the work, they were also wrong about the scope of that work.  They saw the Spirit’s outpouring signaling the return of national Israel to a place of preeminence.  As loyal Israelite patriots, they were very excited to think about Jesus restoring the nation of Israel to the greatness it enjoyed in the days of King David and Solomon.  Do you hear how narrow that concern is?  Again, they had somehow missed what Jesus had just told them--that they were to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in Jesus’ name to all nations. 

          More than that, they had missed the entire direction of redemptive history since the call of Abraham.  In Genesis chapter 12, God promises Abram “3 I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.  In Galatians chapter three, Paul argues that this blessing of Abraham to the families or nations of the earth had come through Christ—the offspring or “seed” of Abraham.  When Jesus calls the apostles to preach repentance and forgiveness of sins to all the nations in Luke 24, that mission is to fulfill the promise God made to Abraham.  This blessing of Abraham to all the nations is fulfilled as the gospel is preached and people from all nations or people groups repent and are forgiven through Christ.  The apostles had missed that connection to Abraham.  The Old Testament often announces that all the nations—not just the Jews, but all the Gentile peoples of this earth will one day worship the God of Israel.

          We see this in texts like Psalm 96:3, 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!”  Psalm 117:1 1 Praise the Lord, all nations! Extol him, all peoples!”  Psalm 86:9, “9 All the nations you have made shall come and worship before you, O Lord, and shall glorify your name.” Psalm 72:1111 May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!  That was written by Jews in the Old Testament when God’s people were almost exclusively national, ethnic Israelites.  The apostles had not yet understood their role in bringing about God’s global redemptive plan to fulfillment as they preached the gospel to the nations.  If they had, they would never have limited their concerns to only national Israel.  They were parochial and the same can be true of us.  So often, we are very concerned that our family members know Christ and that is certainly understandable.  But the Holy Spirit is given to embolden us to reach people well beyond our immediate family or people who are just like us.  The Spirit wants Jesus to be seen and worshipped and obeyed by all kinds of people everywhere.  As our heart is more in sync with the Holy Spirit, we will want to reach, not only our immediate family, but also those with whom we have very little in common--our coworkers, our classmates and people who live at the other end of the world.  The Holy Spirit is a globally-empowering Spirit.  We mustn’t repeat the parochial errors of the apostles.

          A third and final error is--the Error of Skewed Kingdom Priorities.  We know one of the reasons why the apostles were more likely to think in terms of national Israel than the nations is because their personal priorities were self-oriented at this time.  That is--they were guilty at times of seeing Jesus as their ticket to political power and influence.  Think about it.  In their minds, Jesus is going to be the King of Israel and they were in his inner circle—members of his cabinet, if you will.  We know they struggled with these political ambitions because in Mark 10, James and John came up to Jesus and said, “37…Grant us to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your glory.”   This is raw political ambition at work.  Lurking behind the apostles’ curiosity about Jesus restoring the kingdom is a concern for their own political standing in this new kingdom.  In light of the gospel accounts of their political aspiration, part of their question to Jesus was, “…will you at this time give us the prestige and political power we crave by restoring your kingdom?”  Jesus wants his name to be known throughout the earth—he wants his ministry extended and his name magnified as people repent of their sins and trust in him for their forgiveness. By contrast, the apostles are at times more concerned about the advancement of their own status.

          We can be guilty of a form of this error as well.  There are those within evangelicalism who are far more concerned about and who spend more time and energy working to achieve a national political climate that is friendly to their world view, than they do spreading the gospel to sinners in the power of the Spirit.  This is not to say that we shouldn’t be good citizens and it is a good thing to be politically active and work for righteousness in all spheres of public life.  But we must make certain that our priorities are God’s priorities.  And God is far more concerned with the growth of his blood-bought church through new converts who will worship him, than he is with the national political influence of his children.  The power of the Spirit is given first and foremost to empower us to be witnesses to Christ here and to the nations.  The fact that our mission is global in nature means that Christ’s ultimate aim is far broader than improving the North American political climate for evangelicals.  That is a skewed priority.

          Likewise, we see this skewed priority in the first part of the apostle’s question in verse six where they ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The apostles were very curious about the time of the Lord’s final triumph over his enemies.  Jesus completely shuts them down on that concern.  He says in verse seven, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.  But, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses…  It is a good thing to read the prophecies of Revelation or Daniel.  There can be profit in studying end-times prophecy--as there can be in studying any area of Biblical truth.  But when we see Jesus’ priority here, it makes us wonder how much time has been wasted trying to arrive at a precise, detailed understanding of those prophetic texts as it pertains to the return of Christ and the events that precede it?  Jesus makes clear that trying to ascertain the time of his return is NOT a kingdom priority—it’s not even possible.  According to Luke’s gospel, even the King himself does not know the time!  That means, among other things, the time of Christ’s return is not even close to as important as what Jesus bled and died for on Calvary.  I wonder how many more people could have been reached with the gospel in the last century, if all the time invested in figuring out when Jesus will return, could have instead been spent where God’s heart is—bringing the gospel to the nations.  I wonder if we wouldn’t already be in heaven.

          I can ask that question because Jesus clearly ties the timing of his return to the proclamation of the gospel to all these peoples.  In Matthew 24:14 he says, “14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.”  How ironic it is that so many believers have tried to figure out the time of Jesus’ return, on the basis of what are ambiguous and unclear texts, when this one unambiguous marker in Matthew 24 seems to have fallen on so many deaf ears among those who are concerned with the timing of Christ’s return.  He will return when all these peoples that are promised to receive the blessing of Abraham through Christ are reached with the gospel.  If we know that truth, then show me someone who is genuinely yearning for the return of Christ and I will show you someone with a heart to reach the nations for Christ.  We must keep our kingdom priorities in line with Christ and that means that we must take the time we may now spend on advancing an evangelical political agenda and the time we spend trying to figure out end-times calendars and put it where Jesus does.  The Holy Spirit was sent to make us witnesses to Christ and ironically, as we are faithful to do that, the world around us may just increasingly change to reflect Christ.  Also, as we pray and go and send people to the unreached peoples and those peoples are won to Christ, the time of the return of Christ will be expedited as the gospel is preached to all the nations.  But our heart must be where God’s heart is—on being faithful witnesses to Jesus to a lost and dying world.

          Where are our priorities today?  Does God’s priority to reach, not just our family, but also those who are not like us in our neighborhoods, our places of work and around the world burn in our hearts?  As we live the Christian life, do we do so with a sense of our own responsibility to be faithful to the call of Christ here in Acts 1:8?  As we pray for the Holy Spirit to move in an unbeliever’s life, do we also willingly accept that Jesus may very well call us to boldly speak the words of life that will bring Holy Spirit conviction of sin into their life?  This is our call here… and to the nations.  Unlike the apostles in Acts 1:8, we have the Holy Spirit.  What a change the Holy Spirit made in their lives.  After Pentecost, instead of trying to duck their responsibility to carry the message of the gospel, they felt it a great privilege, not only to preach Jesus, but even to suffer for doing his name.  They eventually went as Acts 1:8 says—past Jerusalem, to Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth with the gospel—to people who were not at all like them.  We must learn from their example that they did not work to advance a national, political kingdom in what Augustine calls the “city of man” because they were too busy working to advance the spiritual kingdom of Jesus—building the “city of God” that will never end.  Finally, they were far more concerned that they be found faithful in their witness at the return of Christ, than they were in trying to discover its exact day and hour.  May God give us the grace to remain truth-driven and undistracted as we live out a bold and vibrant witness for Jesus Christ here and to the end of the earth. 


[1] Calvin, John, Acts of the Apostles, Vol. I., p29, as quoted in John Stott, The Spirit, the Church and the World, p. 41.

[2] Carson, Pillar Commentary on The Gospel According to John, p.528.

[3] Stott, The Spirit, the Church and the World, p. 51.

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