TODAY WE BEGIN reading the Acts of the Apostles in Morning Prayer. I hope these few reflections on today’s reading will provide a context for the readings to follow.
Luke 1:1–4 (ESV): 1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 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, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.
So begins the Gospel according to St. Luke. John’s Gospel comes next in order in our New Testaments since it is the magisterial summary and interpretation of the synoptic Gospels gone before. Then we come to the Acts of the Apostles, which begins with these words:
Acts 1:1–5 (ESV): 1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
Far be it from me to question the hallowed arrangement of the books of the Bible, but clearly, the Gospel of John notwithstanding, Luke and Acts belong together; they comprise a two-volume set by the same author, to the same patron, with the same theme: the Kingdom of God — inaugurated by Jesus and proclaimed and enacted by his followers empowered by the Holy Spirit.
The central act in this story is the passion and victory of Christ — the crucifixion and resurrection — in which Jesus defeated all the powers and rival kingdoms that opposed the coming of God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. That is the central act in the story. But, in literary, historical, and theological senses, there is a pivotal act in the two-volume Luke-Acts narrative also. It appears twice; it closes the Gospel of Luke, and it opens the Acts of the Apostles. It is pivotal because it marks not only a point of continuity between the accounts, but also because it marks a point of transition. It is the ascension of our Lord Jesus.
The account in Luke is quite simple:
Luke 24:50–53 (ESV): 50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God.
The narrative in Acts adds some important details.
Acts 1:6–11 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they 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.”
There are many details here worth exploring: the promise of the Holy Spirit, the commissioning of the Apostles for their evangelistic mission, the presence of two men/angels linking this account to the resurrection narrative. But this ascension narrative begins with perhaps the most interesting and important detail of all as matter of context; the disciples were asking about the Kingdom of God. They wrongly assumed, as they most surely always had, that God’s Kingdom would be made manifest in and through Israel. Though wrong about this important detail, they were still right to be looking toward the Kingdom.
Acts 1:6 (ESV): 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Jesus reorients their thinking, though it still will be a few days before they work it all out. He says: (1) God’s timing is his own and it is not given you to know it; (2) you will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to be Gospel witnesses not just to the Jews, but to the ends of the earth. What he means becomes clearer later: Jesus has already inaugurated the Kingdom of God, and the Spirit filled and empowered disciples will begin to realize and enact the Kingdom by their witness to the Gospel. This is the way the kingdom will be restored, starting just a few days hence and progressing along God’s timeframe.
It is in the context of this Kingdom discourse that Luke places the ascension here in Acts. Why is that important? Because you can’t very well have a Kingdom without a King. And the ascension is precisely the enthronement of Jesus as King of all things in heaven and on earth. Matthew’s Gospel ends with the Great Commission. It begins with these words: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been give to me” (Mt 28:18b). The ascension is the visible realization of that claim of authority. The problem is that we see it only from the earthly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ departure. What we need is a view from the heavenly perspective, from the vantage point of Jesus’ arrival. And that is exactly what Daniel provides us.
The first of Daniel’s great visions is recorded in Daniel 7. It is a strange affair with a wind disturbing the sea, with four beasts rising from the waves, with successive beastly dominions over the earth, with a beastly horn with eyes and a mouth speaking boastful things. And then:
Daniel 7:9–12 (ESV): 9 “As I looked,
thrones were placed,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat;
his clothing was white as snow,
and the hair of his head like pure wool;
his throne was fiery flames;
its wheels were burning fire.
10 A stream of fire issued
and came out from before him;
a thousand thousands served him,
and ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him;
the court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened.
11 “I looked then because of the sound of the great words that the horn was speaking. And as I looked, the beast was killed, and its body destroyed and given over to be burned with fire. 12 As for the rest of the beasts, their dominion was taken away, but their lives were prolonged for a season and a time.
Yes, the beasts — earthly powers and kingdoms backed by dark, spiritual powers — get to strut their few moments on the earthly stage pretending/presuming to be something, until God, the Ancient of Days, sits upon his throne and convenes his court for judgment. And in that judgment, the beasts are defeated — not totally destroyed, but defeated and shown to be impotent usurpers, trampled underfoot. May I suggest that we celebrate that reality at each Eucharist when the priest prays: By his resurrection he broke the bonds of death, trampling Hell and Satan under his feet. The resurrection is the great judgment of the beasts, of all the spiritual powers of Sin, Death, and Hell and of all their earthly representatives.
And after the resurrection? The ascension, which is why Daniel’s vision immediately continues:
Daniel 7:13–14 (ESV): 13 “I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
14 And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
This is the ascension from the heavenly perspective. It is the return of the Son of Man to the Ancient of Days, to the courts of heaven. It is the enthronement of the Lord Jesus Christ. He is given an everlasting dominion — and glory and a kingdom — so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
Though they don’t know it, this is the larger and true context for the disciples’ questions about the coming of the Kingdom. Yes, it is coming. But first, the King must be crowned. And then the Kingdom will come to all peoples, nations, and languages as you, the Spirit filled and empowered heralds of the king, take your witness to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. It is not through force that the Kingdom will come, but through proclamation, and through weakness and suffering and love.
This is a pivotal moment in the Luke-Acts saga, not just from a literary standpoint, but from a theological standpoint. In Jesus death and through his blood, he purified a people for himself. Through his resurrection he defeated all the spiritual power who stood athwart God’s good purposes for creation. Through his ascension he received all authority and dominion over all creation. But the world is still a wasteland, still fouled by beasts and powers and by human co-conspirators. It is, in a sense, as it was in the beginning, formless and void, as it was when God gave Adam and Eve their marching orders:
Genesis 1:28 (ESV): 28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
God had created Eden a paradise. But the world outside was still a work in progress, a work for Adam and Eve. They were to take God’s divine presence into that world — they were his image bearers, remember — to fill that world with the knowledge of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea, to bring God’s righteous rule to bear over all the earth. And the wheels of this vocation came off and the whole project was derailed. Until now. Until the ascension. The rightful King has assumed the throne in the ascension. In just ten days, he will fully restore his image bearer by filling them with divine life, with the Holy Spirit. And then he will send them out as his image bearers to take God’s presence and God’s rule into a world that had been devastated by the enemy, to a world that was spiritually formless and voice. God’s creation project and his image bearers’ role in it has been put back on track at last.
So, when the disciples ask — right before the ascension — if it is time for the kingdom to be restored to Israel, the answer is yes and no, now and later. Yes, the king has been enthroned — is about to be enthroned from their standpoint, but no his rule will not be immediately recognized. It will spread bit by bit as the disciples themselves do the kingdom work of proclamation. And the kingdom won’t be restricted to or manifest solely through Israel. That’s too small a thing. It will be good news for all the people.
This is the way we should read the Acts of the Apostles over the next few days of Morning Prayer: the renewal of the human vocation to take the righteous rule of God — the Kingdom of God — to the whole earth under the authority of our King, crowned at his ascension. Amen.