As we saw previously, the book of Acts records the transitional period between the close of the new covenant age and the full-blown commencement of the new covenant era. The temple was still in existence and would be for another 40 years. But increasingly the message would be understood by the early Christians that the times were changing. Everything to which they had been religiously accustomed was fading away and becoming obsolete. The book of Hebrews bears very clear testimony to this fact.
In many ways the new covenant people of God were facing a forty year “wilderness experience,” in which their faith in and commitment to the Lord was going to be severely tested. The 21st-century church is testimony to the fact that they passed the test!
As we read the book of Acts we want to keep before us the reality that the early disciples of the Lord Jesus faced some very trying times. They faced days of uncertainty. This is one of the valuable lessons we learn from this book: how to live for the Lord amidst uncertainty. In uncertain times, how do we remain faithful to the Lord? Our studies in Acts 1:9-26 will, I trust, give us some answers.
As we have seen, our Lord spent 40 days making these disciples saltier. He instructed them to go into all the world, while also telling them that He would be leaving. It was as if He said, “Disciples, go conquer the world; I’m out of here! Cheers!”
We will see in our studies of vv. 9-26 that there are at least four things that helped them cope with their uncertainty, and these same four things are gifts from God to help us cope with our own uncertainty. Those four things were (and are): believable assurance, brotherly assembly, bold authority and biblical affirmation. We begin in this study by considering the first two.
The Need for Believable Assurance
The disciples had spent 40 days on and off with the Lord Jesus Christ. For three years they had walked daily with Him, but after His resurrection He appeared to them more sporadically. Clearly, He spent a lot of time with them after the resurrection, but He was not with them all the time. They became accustomed to Him appearing and disappearing.
But in the account before us things were about to change. The Lord was about to leave them physically for the last time.
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
Over the years, many have mocked this account as being that of “the first cosmonaut.” Of course, such mockery stems from disbelief in the historicity if the event recorded, but as those who believe in the authority of sacred Scripture, we have no doubts as to the historicity of the ascension. The apostles were eyewitnesses of the event.
Luke tells us that the ascension occurred “while they watched.” The word “watched” means “to look intently.” These men were eyewitnesses of what Luke later recorded. Luke himself was not there at the ascension, but he received his information directly from the eyewitnesses.
As the disciples watched, the Lord “was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.” It was important for them to see this, because they needed to understand that the Lord would not be reappearing to them physically for a long time to come, as He had frequently done over the past 40 days. They needed to learn to get by without His physical presence.
Jesus ascended, according to this text, in a “cloud.” It is quite possible that this “cloud” was the shekinah glory so frequently representative of God’s presence in the Old Testament. The ascension itself was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy, recorded by Daniel in Babylon.
I was watching in the night visions, and behold, One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then 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 the one which shall not be destroyed.
This is clearly a prophecy of the ascension, for Daniel saw the Son of Man coming to the Ancient of Days. The Son of Man in Daniel’s vision was ascending on a cloud to heaven, not descending on a cloud to earth. And it was at that point that He was given “dominion and glory and a kingdom.”
The apostles, who witnessed this glorious ascension, “look steadfastly toward heaven as He went up.” They were transfixed by this sight. The phrase “looked steadfastly” means “to gaze” or “to stare.” It is used in Luke 22:56 of the servant girl who “looked intently” at Peter to be sure that He was in fact the man she had previously seen with the Lord. She studied his face closely to be sure. The disciples were fixated as they watched the ascending Lord. The significance of the ascension had surely hit them. The Lord was leaving again, and this time He was not coming back—at least in their lifetime.
Suddenly, “two men stood by them in white apparel.” Clearly, these “men” were angels. The “white apparel” makes this clear, for angels always appeared in white to the disciples after the resurrection (Matthew 28:3; Mark 16:5; John 20:12).
The book of Acts is replete with angelic activity. Angels were used by God to release the apostles from prison (Acts 5:19; 12:7), to direct evangelists in their mission (Acts 8:26), to instruct those seeking the truth where to find it (Acts 10:3ff) and to give encouragement to God’s servants in trying times (Acts 27:23ff).
The angels addressed the apostles as “men of Galilee,” a deliberate reminder of their position. Galilee was a humble, despised region, and so the appellation served to remind them that their assignment (v. 8) could not be accomplished in their own strength. It is much the same as Jesus reminding Peter after his great confession that he was merely human—still “Simon Bar-jonah” (Simon, the son of Jonah) (Matthew 16:17).
These “men of Galilee,” however, were about to receive a glorious promise from the angels. “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
This is a clear prophecy of what we call “the second coming.” Technically, it’s not the second coming, for the New Testament addresses several “comings” of the Lord, and this is the last one. This prophecy does, however, concern the second visible, bodily coming of Jesus to earth.
I hold to the eschatological position known as preterism, which teaches that most of the prophecies in the New Testament have already been fulfilled. Texts such as Matthew 24-25 and Revelation were prophecies, not of the consummation of human history, but of the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 AD. It was at this time that the Jewish age effectively ended and the new covenant era began in its fullness. This event is often spoken of in figurative language, frequently employing “decreation” language (i.e. the sun darkening, the moon turning to blood, the stars falling from the skies, etc.). In 70 AD, Jesus “came” in judgement upon Jerusalem and religious Judaism when He allowed the Roman soldiers to sack the holy city.
Whilst I am entirely comfortable with that interpretation of Matthew 24 and Revelation, I must distance myself from those whom I would term hyperpreterists. Like any branch of theology, there are heretics who take matters too far. Hyperpreterists teach that all prophecy was fulfilled by 70 AD. They believe that all prophecies related to Jesus returning were fulfilled spiritually at that point, and that there is no more biblical prophecy to be fulfilled. We have no reason, they teach, to believe that Jesus is coming back physically in our future. We are currently living in the eternal state. They teach that Scripture nowhere portrays a physical return of Jesus to earth.
But I fail to see how such claims can stand the scrutiny of Scripture. It seems to me that the angels in this text very clearly taught the visible, bodily return of Jesus. They assured the disciples that He would return in the same way that He ascended. Did He not ascend visibly? Did He not ascend in a physical body? If He did (and He did!), and if He will return in the same way (and He will), how can we possibly deny that He will return in a visible, bodily manner? This has not yet happened, and we must therefore conclude that it is an event yet in our future.
They had witnessed His visible, bodily ascension, and the promise is that, whilst they would not see it, there would one day be witnesses to His visible, bodily return. And how they needed this knowledge!
You can imagine that there was a great deal of uncertainty in their hearts and this point. Their uncertainty would turn to joy (cf. Luke 24:50-53), but they needed the promise of His return in order for this change to occur. And this promise should similarly turn our uncertainties to joy as we reflect upon it.
The promise of Christ’s return gives us assurance that we have not been abandoned. Though Jesus is not with us physically at present, He has not left us entirely. In fact, the ascension testifies to the reality that He is indeed with us always (cf. Matthew 28:20).
At one point during his missionary service in the New Hebrides Islands, John Paton was hunted by the cannibals to whom he ministered. His autobiography relates the harrowing tale of his escape. To save his life, he climbed a tall tree and spent the entire night at the top of the tree while they cannibals hunted for him below. He recalls that that was the sweetest time of fellowship with God that he ever experienced. Jesus was not with him physically in that tree, but He was with Him nonetheless.
Jerome Savonarola was an Italian Reformer who was put to death by the Roman Catholic Church. It was customary for heretical clergy to be removed from their position by Roman Catholic representatives with the words, “I remove you from the church militant.” The bishop who was appointed to remove Savonarola, however, mistakenly said, “I remove you from the church triumphant.” Savonarola immediately picked up on the error and replied, “From the militant, but not from the triumphant; for that is not yours to do.”1
Our time on earth is a time of spiritual warfare, but the ascension—and the accompanying promise of Christ’s return—assures us that we are not alone.
The ascension further gives us assurance of Christ’s authority. That is precisely the importance of the ascension: It proves that Jesus is enthroned. At the ascension the Father gave the Son the nations for His inheritance (Psalm 110). For nearly 2,000 years now, Jesus Christ has ruled the nations from the right hand of the Father. The ascension gives us this assurance.
Our church partners in prayer with missionaries around the world, one of whom recently went for the sake of the gospel to North Africa, presently infamous for its political unrest. As a missionary to a Muslim-dominated area, he understands the risks that he will face in his place of ministry. But he believes that the risks are worth it. You see, he believes that Jesus Christ is Lord even where Islam dominates and political unrest abounds. Christ’s present rule encourages his mission.
Persecution is not a thing of the past. In the Western world, which is dominated by religious pluralism, we do not face the same sort of persecution that many others face in our own day. Missionaries and Christians suffer and die for their faith all the time, but they persist faithfully because they believe that Jesus Christ reigns.
Of course, the present reign of Christ encourages us in our pluralistic society too. We are surrounded by secularism on every front—in the workplace, at university, in our families—and it is only the reign of Christ that will embolden us to preach the gospel in the face of such secularism.
The ascension should further give us assurance of our accountability. Jesus Christ will return and we will give an account of our activity. He has left us on earth with a purpose, and like the landowner in Matthew 25:14-30, He expects us to use what He has given to us in order to make a profit. Our life has purpose!
Before we move to the next session, let us just pause to consider the source of this assurance. I would suggest that our assurance will arrive from the same place that the disciples’ assurance came: from angels!
The English word “angels” is derived from a Greek term that literally means “messengers.” The word is sometimes applied to heavenly beings, and sometimes to earthly messengers. For example, the angels of the churches in Revelation 2-3 were most likely the pastors of those churches. And pastors are assigned the take of giving such assurance to their flock.
Consider, for example, Colossians 4:17, in which the church was to encourage Archippus, under Paul’s authority, “Take heed to the ministry which you have received in the Lord, that you may fulfil it.” Archippus had an assignment—to shepherd and encourage the flock with which he had been entrusted—and it was important that he fulfil this ministry.
If you need assurance in your walk with Christ, then listen to His message through His messengers. Be serious about your time in His Word, and be serious about gathering with His church to hear His messengers speak from Him Word. This is the source of our assurance. And it leads directly to our next consideration.
The Need for Brotherly Assembling
Assurance and assembly are inseparable. Apart from this it is doubtful that we will engage in certain activity. Luke tells us what happened once the apostles had witnessed the ascension.
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey. And when they had entered, they went up into the upper room where they were staying: Peter, James, John, and Andrew; Philip and Thomas; Bartholomew and Matthew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot; and Judas the son of James. These all continued with one accord in prayer and supplication, with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
The disciples, having heard the promise from the angels, “returned to Jerusalem.” Clearly, they were reassured, for Jerusalem—about one kilometre from Mount Olivet, was the heart of hostility to the followers of Christ. Again, as we noted above, the “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:50-53).
When they arrived in Jerusalem they immediate gathered together in “the upper room where they were staying.” This may well have been the same upper room where they had eaten the Passover, and if so, it is another indication that they were reassured, for the authorities knew of this upper room. It was perhaps a room supplied by the wealthy women, perhaps a room in John Mark’s mother’s house (for that is where they were gathered to pray in Acts 12).
They were “staying” in this upper room. The word means “to stay fully” or “to reside.” The picture is that they were settled here, and they were settled because they were assured.
They “continued” in this upper room. The word means “to be earnest toward.” It speaks of perseverance or persistence. It is translated in Acts 2:42 as “continued steadfastly” and is used again in 2:46 of the disciples “continuing” daily in the temple.
Our text also speaks of the disciples being “with one accord.” The phrase speaks of togetherness. It indicates that they were unanimous. They had one mind, one purpose. This is a picture frequently presented of the early disciples (2:1, 36; 4:24; 5:12; 8:6; 15:25). It is also used sometimes of the enemies of the gospel, united in their opposition to the early church.
These disciples were united in “prayer” and “supplication.” “Prayer” literally means “to wish towards,” and “supplication” speaks of a request or petition. These disciples assembled—unanimously—to worshipfully petition God. Surely this helped to decrease uncertainty! This is the value of assembling with fellow believers.
What characterises such an assuring assembly? Let me suggest three characteristics.
First, the assuring assembly was a community. According to v. 15, there were about 120 disciples gathered together in the upper room. It was a small community. It was a family. Significantly, “Mary the mother of Jesus” and “His brothers” were part of this community. At one point, His brothers did not believe (John 7:1-5), but after the resurrection they came to faith, and now they—with their mother—were part of the community.
This is the last time we read in Scripture of Mary. She was simply a part of the community. She did not consider herself to have an elevated position in the early church. She was a humble servant in the church. Her Son was her Saviour too. She understood that “whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother” (Matthew 12:46-50).
Clearly, this was a diverse community of disciples, but diversity strengthens such a community.
Second, the assuring assembly was in communion. They were gathered with “one accord.” They had a single mind, a single purpose. As noted, the enemies of the gospel are singleminded in their opposition (7:57; 18:12; 19:29), and so it is vital that the disciples of the Lord also be singleminded.
This does not mean that everyone is in perfect agreement, or that all like each other equally. On the contrary, there may be strong differences but, like an army, the community must have a single purpose. The diversity, difference and disagreements that exist cannot divide us. Sadly, this is not always the case in the church, but if we will conquer with the gospel for the glory of God we must be singleminded in our purpose, despite the obvious differences that exist within the community. We must “with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:6).
A church in one accord is united in the same goal. The showbread in the tabernacle pictured this. There were twelve individual loaves, representing twelve individual tribes, but they were all together on the same table with the same purpose. The golden lampstand likewise reflected this truth. Six branches stemmed from a central branch, all connected to it. The entire lampstand gave light to the priests who went about their work in the holy place. Likewise, the church must work together to reflect Christ’s light to the world.
The eldership and diaconate of a church need not have a mushy unanimity! In fact, it may at times be a very messy one! Nevertheless, they must realise who the real enemy is and unite against that enemy despite the differences.
Third, and finally, the assuring assembly was in conversation with God. They were united “in prayer and supplication.” It is often said that “the family that prays together stays together” and this is as true of church families as it is of biological families. The upper room—assuming it was the same upper room where the Passover had been celebrated—was known to the authorities and was therefore not a safe place. But the unified community of faith persevered in prayer in the midst of hostile territory.
It is important to note what they were praying for. They were not praying for the coming of the Holy Spirit, for He had been promised. No doubt, they were praying for effectiveness through the ministry of the Holy Spirit as well as for faithfulness with this privileged power.
Note that though they believed in the sovereignty of God—they believed that the Spirit would come and do what was promised—this did not produce a lethargy concerning their own responsibility. We, like these early disciples, must stay connected to our ascended Lord through continual communication. This is vital for our commission.
Will you be committed to joining your own local church family in prayer? In our church, Sunday prayer meetings are held each Lord’s Day at 8:15 AM and 5:30 PM. Though the meetings are by no means sparsely attended, they could be far better attended. It often grieves me to wonder where people are at 5:30 PM when they could be gathered in the “upper room” for prayer. Surely we must come to realise the importance of corporate prayer.
We should note also that it is God’s promises that fuel our prayers. These disciples were gathered in Jerusalem to “wait for the Promise of the Father.” They believed that the Spirit would come and empower them in their commission, and this belief drove them to prayer. It is only as we truly embrace the promises of Scripture that we will be driven to our knees as a local church. We have great promises of gospel conquest from God. We know, for example, that the knowledge of the glory of the Lord will one day cover the earth as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2:14). It should be precisely these types of promises that drive us to prayer for the glory of our Father.
Let us be faithful to obey God’s revealed will. This is most certainly the way to face the uncertainties of life that will most certainly cross our path as we follow Christ, our risen and ascended Lord and Saviour.