You Will Be My Witnesses
Jesus’ mission on earth was finished. God soon would send the Holy Spirit, who—ratifying their efforts with many signs and wonders—would empower and lead the disciples on a mission that would reach the ends of the earth. Jesus could not stay with them forever in human flesh. Not only did His incarnation impose upon Him a physical limitation in the context of a worldwide mission, but His ascension and exaltation in heaven were necessary in order for the Spirit to come.
Until Jesus’ resurrection, however, the disciples did not clearly know these things. When they left everything to follow Him, they believed that He was a political liberator who would one day drive the Romans out of the land, reinstate David’s dynasty, and restore Israel to its past glory. It was not easy for them to think otherwise.
This is the primary issue of Jesus’ final instructions to the disciples in Acts 1. The promise of the Spirit comes in this context. The chapter also describes Jesus’ return to heaven and how the early church prepared itself for Pentecost.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, July 7.
There are two kinds of Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, one that anticipates a kingly Messiah who would rule forever (Ps. 89:3, 4, 35–37; Isa. 9:6, 7; Ezek. 37:25; Dan. 2:44; 7:13, 14), and one that predicts that the Messiah would die for the sins of the people (Isa. 52:13–53:12; Dan. 9:26). Such prophecies do not contradict each other. They just point to two consecutive phases of the Messiah’s ministry: first He would suffer, and then become King (Luke 17:24, 25; 24:25, 26).
The problem with first-century Jewish Messianic expectation, however, was that it was one-sided. The hope of a kingly Messiah who would bring political deliverance obscured the notion of a Messiah who would suffer and die.
At first, the disciples shared this hope of a kingly Messiah. They believed that Jesus was the Messiah (Matt. 16:16, 20) and were sometimes caught bickering among themselves about who would sit on either side of Him when He was enthroned (Mark 10:35–37, Luke 9:46). Despite Jesus’ warnings about the fate that awaited Him, they simply could not understand what He meant. So, when He died, they became confused and discouraged. In their own words, “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel” (Luke 24:21, NIV).
If Jesus’ death represented a fatal blow to the disciples’ hope, the resurrection revived it, raising their political expectations perhaps to an unprecedented level. It seemed natural to conceive of the resurrection as a strong indicator that the Messianic kingdom would finally be established.
In His reply to their question, however, Jesus gave no direct answer. He did not reject the premise behind the disciples’ question of an imminent kingdom, but neither did He accept it. He left the issue unsettled, while He reminded them that the timing of God’s actions belongs to God Himself, and as such it is inaccessible to humans.
There are four important elements in this passage concerning the disciples’ mission:
In the forty days He spent with the disciples after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), Jesus must have explained much truth to them about the kingdom of God, even if there was still much they didn’t understand, as their question in Acts 1:6 showed. They were familiar with the prophecies but could now see them in a new light, a light shed from the Cross and the empty tomb (see Acts 3:17–19).
Luke’s account of the ascension is rather brief. Jesus was with the disciples on the Mount of Olives, and while still blessing them (Luke 24:51), He was taken up to heaven. The language, of course, is phenomenological; that is, the scene is portrayed as it looked to human eyes, not as it really was. Jesus was leaving the earth, and there is no other way to do so in a visible form than by going up.
The ascension of Jesus was a supernatural act of God, one of many all through the Bible. This is implied by the way Luke describes it, with the passive ep- erth- e (“He was taken up,” Acts 1:9, NKJV). Though used only here in the New Testament, this verbal form is found several times in the Greek version of the Old Testament (the Septuagint), all of them describing actions of God, which suggests that God Himself was the One who took Jesus up to heaven, as He was the One who raised Him from the dead (Acts 2:24, 32; Rom. 6:4; 10:9).
After Jesus already had been hidden by a cloud, Luke reports—only in Acts—the episode of the two figures dressed in white who stood beside the disciples. The description coincides with that of angels in their bright robes (Acts 10:30, John 20:12). They came to assure the disciples that Jesus would come back the same way He had gone up, and it is also only Acts that informs us that Jesus went up “before their very eyes” (Acts 1:9, NIV).
Thus, the visible ascension became the guarantee of the visible return, which also will happen in a cloud, though “with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27), no longer as a private event, as “every eye will see Him” (Rev. 1:7, NKJV), and He will not be alone (Luke 9:26, 2 Thess. 1:7). The glory of the Second Coming will far exceed that of the ascension.
In His reply in Acts 1:7, 8, Jesus made no commitment with regard to time. Yet, the natural implication of His words was that right after the Spirit came and the disciples completed their mission, He would return (see also Matt. 24:14). The angels’ remark (Acts 1:11) also did not answer the question as to when the kingdom would come, but it could be understood as if it would not be long. This seems to explain why the disciples “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52). The promise of Jesus’ second coming at an unspecified time, which should give them extra encouragement for their mission, was taken to mean that the end was close at hand. Further developments in Acts will demonstrate this idea.
Having returned from the Mount of Olives, the disciples gathered in the upper guest room (in Latin, cenaculum) of a two-story private house in Jerusalem. Some women followers (Luke 8:1–3, 23:49, 24:1–12), as well as Jesus’ mother and brothers, were there with the disciples.
Jesus’ brothers (Mark 6:3) were either younger sons of Joseph and Mary (Matt. 1:25, Luke 2:7) or, more likely, sons of Joseph’s first marriage, in which case Joseph would be widowed when he took Mary for his wife. Their presence among the disciples comes as a surprise, as they had always been rather skeptical toward Jesus (Mark 3:21, John 7:5). Yet, the resurrection and Jesus’ special appearance to James (1 Cor. 15:7) seem to have made all the difference. Later on James apparently would even replace Peter in the leadership of the Christian community (Acts 12:17; 15:13; 21:18; Gal. 2:9, 12).
Constantly in prayer (Acts 1:14), and constantly in the temple praising God (Luke 24:53), they all were no doubt involved in a time of confession, repentance, and the putting away of sin. Even if in their minds the coming of the Spirit would immediately lead to Jesus’ return, their spiritual attitude was in full harmony with what was about to happen, as the Holy Spirit comes in response to prayer.
The first administrative action of the early Christian community, which numbered about 120 believers (Acts 1:15), was to choose a successor to Judas.
The need was for a witness of Jesus’ resurrection (compare with Acts 4:33); this is crucial because time and again the resurrection is viewed as powerful evidence for the Messiahship of Jesus and the truth of the whole Christian faith.
The choice, however, was to be made from among those who had accompanied the apostles throughout Jesus’ ministry. Paul would later insist that, despite not having been with the earthly Jesus, he was nevertheless entitled to the apostolic office because his encounter with Jesus on the road to Damascus qualified him to bear witness to His resurrection (1 Cor. 9:1). Though admitting to be as “one untimely born” (1 Cor. 15:8, ESV), Paul refused to consider himself less qualified than the other apostles (1 Cor. 9:2, Gal. 2:6–9). Only the Twelve and Paul, then, were “apostles” in the technical, authoritative sense (Acts 1:25, 26); yet, in its basic, general sense as envoys or messengers, the term also could be used for other gospel workers (Acts 14:4, 14; Gal. 1:19).
The method they used to choose Matthias may seem strange, but the casting of lots was a long-established way of making decisions (for example, Lev. 16:5–10, Num. 26:55). In addition, the choice was between two previously recognized candidates of equal qualifications, not a step into the unknown. The believers also prayed to God, believing that the result would reflect His will (compare with Prov. 16:33). There is no evidence that the decision was ever challenged. After Pentecost, the casting of lots became no longer necessary due to the direct guidance of the Spirit (Acts 5:3, 11:15–18, 13:2, 16:6–9).
Further Thought: “The whole interim period between Pentecost and the Parousia [Second Coming] (however long or short) is to be filled with the world-wide mission of the church in the power of the Spirit. Christ’s followers were both to announce what he had achieved at his first coming and to summon people to repent and believe in preparation for his second coming.
They were to be his witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8) and ‘to the very end of the age.’ . . . We have no liberty to stop until both ends have been reached.”—John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts: The Spirit, the Church & the World (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1990), p. 44. “The Saviour’s commission to the disciples included all the believers.
It includes all believers in Christ to the end of time. It is a fatal mistake to suppose that the work of saving souls depends alone on the ordained minister. All to whom the heavenly inspiration has come are put in trust with the gospel. All who receive the life of Christ are ordained to work for the salvation of their fellow men. For this work the church was established, and all who take upon themselves its sacred vows are thereby pledged to be co-workers with Christ.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 822.