So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; James the son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and his brothers.
In volume one of Luke's two-volume work, the Gospel According to Luke, he told the story of all that Jesus began to do and to teach. Now in volume two, the Acts of the Apostles, Luke is going to tell the story of what the risen, living, reigning Christ continues to do and teach through his Spirit and his witnesses.
To prepare the apostles to be his instruments he does four things:
- he gives them a Spirit authenticated commandment (v. 2);
- he verifies his resurrection from the dead by appearing to them for 40 days (v. 3);
- he teaches them about the kingdom of God (v. 3); and
- he promises to baptize them with the Holy Spirit (vv. 4–5).
The Disciples Ask a Reasonable Question
Now when the apostles hear the promise of the baptism with the Holy Spirit, they ask in verse 6, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" In other words they knew that the Old Testament promise of the outpouring of God's Spirit was a promise for the last days when God would establish his kingdom on the earth and restore his people. For example, in Ezekiel 39 God says, "I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy on the whole house of Israel . . . I will not hide my face any more from them, when I pour out my Spirit upon the house of Israel, says the Lord God" (vv. 25, 29). So when Jesus says that the long awaited outpouring of the Spirit—the baptism with the Holy Spirit—is just a few days away, they would naturally ask for a clarification: "Do you mean the end is that close? The final kingdom is about to be established in just a matter of weeks or months?"
This was not a foolish question, even though verse 3 says that Jesus had been with them for 40 days talking about the kingdom of God. Because, you remember, back in Luke 22:29–30, at the Last Supper Jesus had said, "As my Father assigned a kingdom to me, so I assign to you, that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom, and sit on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel." In other words Jesus had told them that the kingdom would be restored to Israel—they themselves would sit on thrones as rulers along with the Son of Man over a renewed and believing Israel. And they knew from the Old Testament (Ezekiel 39:29; Isaiah 32:15; 44:3–5; Joel 2:28ff.; Zechariah 12:10) that this restoration was going to be the result of a great outpouring of God's Spirit. So it is not a foolish question to ask, "Do you mean the restoration is in this time—in our lifetime, or even in the next few months?"
Since it is not a foolish question, Jesus does not rebuke them. He does not correct their theology of restoration (which we will see more of in Acts 3:21). He corrects their assumption that they can deduce the timing of it. He says in verse 7, "It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority." In other words, don't assume that the long-awaited outpouring of the Spirit will immediately bring in the kingdom and restore the fortunes of Israel. God has appointed the times and the seasons for all things, and they are kept in the secret of his own wisdom. Such things are not for us to know. They would not be good for us to know—anymore than knowing the time of our own death would be good for us. They would be harmful, in fact.
But then Jesus goes on to tell them what the baptism with the Spirit will mean for them. It does not mean immediate restoration of Israel; it does not mean the immediate, full establishment of the kingdom. BUT—notice this strong word at the beginning of verse 8—BUT, here's what it does mean. "You shall receive power"—in other words, even though I may seem to have popped your balloon in saying it doesn't mean the end is tomorrow, even though you may think I have taken the wind out of your sails, hear me! Hear me! Though the baptism with the Spirit doesn't mean that, YET . . . BUT . . . it does mean this: "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth." Jesus doesn't want to minimize the wonder of what he is promising them. It is not tomorrow BUT it is power—to the end of the earth!
Four Parallels Between Acts 1 and Luke 24
Notice four things here. I want you to see them in Luke 24 as well, so that we can sense how utterly crucial they are for Luke as he tells this story.
- First, there is the goal of beginning at Jerusalem and reaching the end of the earth with the witness of Jesus.
- Second, there is the witness itself, the testimony to the truth of Christ.
- Third, there is the Holy Spirit that comes upon the disciples.
- And fourth, there is the power—power to be witnesses.
Now turn with me to Luke 24:47–49. You realize, don't you, that volume one and volume two overlap by 40 days? So Luke tells us about the last words and the Ascension of Jesus twice—at the end of the gospel and at the beginning of Acts. You can see this now as you compare Luke 24:47–49 to Acts 1:8. Picking up the words of Jesus in verse 47 he is telling the apostles that
. . . repentance and forgiveness of sins should be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high.
Now let's point out the four things we saw in Acts 1:8.
- First, we see the goal to begin at Jerusalem and reach the end of the earth in verse 47: "forgiveness of sins is to be to be preached in his name to all the nations [i.e., to the end of the earth] beginning from Jerusalem."
- Second, the apostles are called witnesses in verse 48: "You are witnesses of these things."
- Third, the Holy Spirit is promised in the words "the promise of my Father" in verse 49—these are the words in Acts 1:4 that refer to the coming baptism with the Holy Spirit.
- Finally, there is explicit reference in verse 49 to the power needed for this mission: "stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high."
Then in both Luke 24 and Acts 1 the very next thing that happened was the Ascension of Jesus: he was taken up from them and a cloud received him out of their sight. Acts tells us that two men in white robes—in other words, two angels in the form of men—said (in verse 11),
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. (See Luke 21:27.)
So the last words that Jesus said in Luke 24 and in Acts 1 are clearly meant to be words to guide his disciples in the time between his Ascension and his return. So let's go back now and ponder these things again. And then in conclusion we will look ahead to verse 14 to see how the disciples prepared to receive the power of God.
Is the Power Promised Then Available Now?
One crucial question we need to ask is whether the power promised in Acts 1:8 and Luke 24:49 was only for the first generation of Christians or whether it is something we should seek from Jesus today?
More Than Ordinary Christian Living
Before I answer that, let me emphasize that this power, this experience of the "coming upon" or "being clothed" by the Holy Spirit was something beyond ordinary, happy Christian living. In the Old Testament "being clothed" with the Spirit referred to extraordinary times of empowerment and prophecy as in the lives of Gideon and Amasai and Zechariah (Judges 6:34; 1 Chronicles 12:18; 2 Chronicles 24:20). But it is most obvious from what happened on the day of Pentecost—wind and sound and tongues of fire and miraculous languages and prophecy and exuberant praise and 3,000 conversions.
An Illustration from Lloyd-Jones
Let me use an illustration from Martin Lloyd-Jones in his book Joy Unspeakable to describe the difference between common Christian living and what happens when the Holy Spirit "clothes" a person with power or "comes upon" a person with this unusual power.
He says it is like a child walking along holding his father's hand. All is well. The child is happy. He feels secure. His father loves him. He believes that his father loves him but there is no unusual urge to talk about this or sing about it. It is true and it is pleasant.
Then suddenly the father startles the child by reaching down and sweeping him up into his arms and hugging him tightly and kissing him on the neck and whispering, "I love you so much!" And then holding the stunned child back so that he can look into his face and saying with all his heart, "I am so glad you are mine." Then hugging him once more with unspeakable warmth and affection. Then he puts the child down and they continue their walk.
This, Lloyd-Jones says, is what happens when a person is baptized with the Holy Spirit. A pleasant and happy walk with God is swept up into an unspeakable new level of joy and love and assurance and reality that leaves the Christian so utterly certain of the immediate reality of Jesus that he is overflowing in praise and more free and bold in witness than he ever imagined he could be.
The child is simply stunned. He doesn't know whether to cry or shout or fall down or run, he is so happy. The fuses of love are so overloaded they almost blow out. The subconscious doubts—that he wasn't thinking about at the time, but that pop up every now and then—are gone! And in their place is utter and indestructible assurance, so that you know that you know that you know that God is real and that Jesus lives and that you are loved, and that to be saved is the greatest thing in the world. And as you walk on down the street you can scarcely contain yourself, and you want to cry out, "My father loves me! My father loves me! O, what a great father I have! What a father! What a father!"
What Happened at Pentecost
I think this is basically what happened at Pentecost. And has happened again and again in the life of the church. They were so filled with the fullness of God—they were overwhelmed with the length and breadth and height and depth of the love of Christ—that they began (as Acts 2:11 says) to speak "the greatnesses of God." Their mind was full of a fresh, new, breathtaking vision of God and their mouth overflowed with prophetic praise—sons and daughters, old and young, slave and free.
I believe that this kind of experience is what Jesus meant by the "witnessing" in Acts 1:8 that will be able to extend the gospel to the end of the earth. "You will receive this power . . . and you will be my witnesses." You will no longer be merely advocates who can prove like a good lawyer that Jesus rose from the dead. But under the influence of this power—this experience of the Spirit of the risen Christ—you will speak with the unwavering assurance of one who has tasted and knows the reality so immediately that all doubt is gone. You move from being an advocate of Christianity to being a witness of the living Christ. You move from simply deducing Christian truths from valid premises to proclaiming them boldly as experienced realities. This is the power and the witness that will take Christ to the end of the earth.
The Promise Is for Us Too
So I ask in closing, is it for us or just for the first generation that Jesus was talking to? And my answer is that it is for us. And the one argument I will give is simply this. The promise of this extraordinary power—this extraordinary experience of the fullness of God—is given, Jesus says, to enable his witnesses to take the gospel to the end of the earth (Acts 1:8), or, as Luke 24:47 says, to all the nations. But we have not completed that assignment yet. Therefore I do not think he has withdrawn the promise yet either. If the promise was given to empower the church to complete the Great Commission, then the promise is valid till the Great Commission is complete, and the witness to Christ has been planted among all the unreached people groups of the world.
Therefore, I conclude that the power promised here—the extraordinary experience of being "clothed with power"—is for us. And if we love the glory of God, and if we long for his kingdom to advance, and if we have compassion on the lost and hurting people of the world, we will increasingly want this power and we will seek this power. Which means very simply that we will cry out for it like the woman in the parable who wanted the judge to vindicate her cause (Luke 18:1–8). This is what Acts 1:14 says that the disciples did until Pentecost came: "they devoted themselves to prayer." So should we.
What If You Have Not Had Such an Experience?
That leaves one last question. Are you leading a valid, worthwhile Christian life and ministry if you have not had this experience but are seeking to honor the Lord daily in your life? The answer is yes. Let's call that solid steady-state Christianity. It is faithful, honest, obedient, loving, persevering service to Christ and his kingdom. Remember the child walking with his father.
I do not want us to minimize the blessings God has brought to us in our steady-state life together. They have been many and wonderful. But I ask you, can you not imagine what it might be like if our Father swept us up into his arms? It is not either-or. It is both-and. In the history of the church the steady-state, obedient, faithful, persevering years of life have preserved and nurtured the fruit of the times of extraordinary power. And, to put it the other way around, the times of steady-state, faithful, obedient life have prepared the soil, and extraordinary outpourings of God's Spirit have taken the work of the kingdom forward in a quantum leap, accomplishing overnight, as it were, what people have been laboring years to see.
It is not either-or. It is both-and. I pray that the Lord will give us a double grace: the grace to walk joyfully and obediently in the wonderful mercy of steady-state Christianity, holding our Father's hand; but also the grace to yearn and pray more and more that we might be clothed with power from on high and swept up into our Father's arms, that all the world might know that God is real.