“Ministry from Heaven“
Sermon for April 25, 2004
Texts: Luke 1:1-4, 2:29-32; Acts 1:1-14
Big Idea: Jesus works through us from heaven.
Purpose: Encourage righteousness and a fervent prayer life.
Interrogative: Diets are good, maintenance is better.
The work of maintaining a stone walkway is endless. The borders are always needing attention as stones get kicked out of the path. They need to be rebuilt over and over, rake in and smoothed. But there is no other way to keep it up than to keep it up. The Christian walk is very like that. If you want things in order, you need to keep them in order. While that is not the main event, of course, it is preliminary to the main event: a beautiful walkway for guests to enter in by. You can take and develop the analogy for yourselves--for instance, I haven’t even begun to explore the possibilities. What about the crisis of winter, the displacement occasioned by snowplowing? Buckets of stone get moved from the walkway to the lawn and lie there, strewn out and unsightly until you take the time to pick them up, carry them back to the walkway and replace them. Fortunately, you can pace the tasks, do a little daily and soon the disorder is beaten back and then it’s maintenance, maintenance. . .nothing too glorious, or spectacular, just doing what needs to be done.
Now there is a personal level of application to this business of keeping your walkways clear and orderly. Personal devotions, time in the word, home group and public worship are all means toward the same end--an inviting and beautiful spirituality. But the analogy also applies to our understanding of the truth of scripture--even there we need to clear away debris and rubble and rake the stones back in place. What happens when you don’t is you get a secularized state such as France or a post-Christian Germany and/or Europe. The bitter fruit of spiritual sloth includes such travesties as the Nazi event, persecution of the church--even to the contemporary slaughter of an Easter congregation in Vietnam by the Communist authorities. We are beginning a walk through Acts today and one of the first things we have to do is clear up some of the debris. I want to declare, at the outset that the book of Acts is historically accurate and worthy of your assent. You may say, well, of course. But the sad truth is that much doubt has been sown into our culture relating to the reliability of the Scriptures and we cannot simply act as if it hasn’t. The good news is that these objections, even the most serious, are all answerable. There are rewards for those who are willing to be skeptical of the skeptics--I hope to show you some. And learning from the earliest days of the church how to keep the pathways clean and clear is invaluable.
The book of Acts reads like a historical narrative. It’s a lively account of what Christ does next. We are looking at the cross-roads between Jesus’ ministry on earth and His continuing ministry from heaven. A lot is happening. The introduction to Acts is found in Luke 1, the “former book” because, as was the custom in those days, an introduction to a work in several volumes began with a comprehensive introduction.
Luke 1:1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile an account of the things accomplished among us, Luke 1:2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word have handed them down to us, Luke 1:3 it seemed fitting for me as well, having investigated everything carefully from the beginning, to write it out for you in consecutive order, most excellent Theophilus; Luke 1:4 so that you might know the exact truth about the things you have been taught.
Luke’s introduction is five-fold: 1. He records the events accomplished. 2. The witnesses are cited as the occurrences are transmitted to others. 3. He, Luke, investigates these reports. 4. He writes all this down. And, 5., readers are to find in all this ground of their assurance--it being the basis of their faith. There follows then Acts 1:1-4:
Acts 1:1 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, Acts 1:2 until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. Acts 1:3 To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. Acts 1:4 And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, "Which," He said, "you heard of from Me; Acts 1:5 for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."
We learn here that Luke has already covered Jesus’ life up to the Ascension, that watershed event which occurs between the ministry on earth and the ministry from heaven. But some very significant things are transpiring here. Luke notes the apostles were handpicked by Jesus. These men and their ministries are together foundational. They were to carry on the work Christ began and gave them to continue, and they were to do so through the power He would give continuously to them from heaven. He chose them, He made Himself known to them thoroughly, both sensibly and spiritually. He did so prior to and following His death and resurrection! He commissioned them as envoys, delegates or ambassadors to carry His message to the ends of the earth and to enlarge the kingdom. Finally, as we read here, He promised them the “baptism with the Holy Spirit.” The whole passage, vv.1-8 we have read from Acts 1 today frames the Ascension, that point in time when Jesus is “taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight” (v.9).
Acts 1:9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. Acts 1:10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; Acts 1:11 and they also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven."
Did it actually happen? Perhaps, we find elements here quite offensive to the mind of the Enlighten-ment. In the 18th and 19th centuries: the “primitive mythology” of a pre-scientific age offended the Rational-ists, they rejected Jesus’ “lift-off“ and ascent into the sky. We know “heaven isn’t ‘up there’” so to speak. They argued , “Aren’t we better off without such stuff? Besides, only Luke actually records the event so we can’t verify its historicity--the others omit it, or seem to assimilate it to the resurrection proper.” Again, there is a lot of debris on the path. I must, as you must respond to such thinking when it re-appears. We do well to remind critics of our faith that miracles do not require precedent to be valid--indeed, nothing historical, no event in history has a precise precedent. Therefore our “experience” is a very poor guide to judging the validity of the ascension. Elisha might have been of some help, or perhaps the family of Enoch, but I am unaware of any theologians who have studied these biblical parallels in a serious quest to establish the factuality of the ascension.
As to the point that Luke alone reports the event, we must respond that the ascension is plainly assumed elsewhere even if the event is not described. Mary is asked to stop clinging because Jesus has not yet ascended (John 20:17) Peter’s Pentecost sermon alludes to Jesus being exalted to the right hand of the Father--the ascension is how He got there! (Acts 2:31ff) And Paul also separates Jesus’ exaltation from the resurrection. Thirdly we may note the plain, simplicity of Luke’s account; it lacks the elaboration commonly associated with emergent legend and fables. But the most powerful grounds for affirming the Ascension as a real event lies with the eye witnesses--we are dealing with the testimony of reliable witnesses, not some clever fiction. Five times we are draw back to the visibility of the event. And Luke is not alone in viewing the baptism and the ascension as the bookends of Jesus public ministry: Acts 1:21 "It is therefore necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us--Acts 1:22 beginning with the baptism of John, until the day that He was taken up from us-- one of these should become a witness with us of His resurrection." Because we have no alternative explanation, and because this event is presented to us as historical (the appearances stopped after forty days!), we should prefer the explanation given to silence. There are sound reasons why the Ascension needed to be witnessed--I can assure you that no one who witnessed would have considered it silly, or contrived!--it was to signal His final departure so that they could all begin to wait for the One who was to come, the Holy Spirit (v.4). And it had the desired effect: “The apostles returned to Jerusalem and waited for the Spirit to come.” (Stott, p.49) Now all of this is perfectly reasonable, our faith is in fact very reasonable, sensible--the very opposite of irrational. I suppose that it is even fair to call it primitive, but only if primitive is used outside the pejorative sense it appears to have acquired in some quarters of academia.
What follows, vv.10-14--and indeed the rest of chapter 1--deals with the interim, the time of transition between Jesus’ earthly ministry and the heavenly ministry which follows. As has been pointed out by John Stott, whereas most other founders of other religions complete their ministry during their lifetime, Jesus only began His!
Acts 1:10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; Acts 1:11 and they also said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven." Acts 1:12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day's journey away.
This passage completes a phase of instruction which began back in Acts 1:6 And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, "Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?" In order to explain this passage to you, I want to remind you of the old adage, “So heavenly minded as to be of no earthly use.“ And I want to add, my own twist, because we live in a age when people can be so earthly minded as to be of no heavenly use! What’s in the scope here are the paired excesses of pietism (PRIVATE religion) and utopianism (the deluded ambition of seeking to build heaven on earth). “So earthly minded as to be no heavenly use.” If Christ is operating from heaven, and He is, we certainly want to be of heavenly use! Here the apostles commit what I might call the “utopian fallacy.” They succumb to the social aspirations of their day in their embrace of the Kingdom of God, Christ’s reign. They want political power to make the world a better place. Jesus responds that this is none of their business; they are to carry His message to a needy world, empowered by the Holy Spirit, until He returns. Here in verse 11, we have the opposite extreme to utopianism dealt with and that is the “pietistic fallacy,” the fantasy of and absorption with heavenly states, and our future bliss which leaves both the mind vacuous, and a desperate world helpless. The pietist needs to hear and act upon Christ’s commands relating to two coats, hospitality and so on. A vibrant, Christ-centered faith, however, is neither utopian, nor pietistic although these errors persist to our day. If that sounds too airy, too theoretical, may I remind you that Jesus in His wilderness temptations turned decisively from false ends and means. We must do the same thing in our imitation of Him. False activism and false pietism are both answered by a compelling witness to the fullness of Christ who has called us to both earthly responsibility and heavenly empowerment.
Acts 1:13 And when they had entered, they went up to the upper room, where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. Acts 1:14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers.
In addition to the clear thinking outlined above, we urgently need the kind of praying that is described here. We have a tradition of taking prayer seriously. For years we held Wednesday night prayer meetings and only recently did we decide as a church to move that work into the home group meetings where the numbers of those devoted to prayer have dramatically increased. So the early church was a praying community of 120 members, the number required to exist as a Jewish legal entity, to call an official council. The believers were socially united, united in prayer and decision; prayer was an expression of their togetherness. They prayed with one mind, purpose, or impulse for the coming of the Spirit and for the advancement of the Kingdom. Furthermore, they persevered in prayer, it was a persistent, or constant quality of their lives. They were persistent stone rakers. They kept their walkways clear of debris and rubble, clear of sin and clear of confusion. They dealt, each one of them, with their own hearts and loved and served each other gladly.
James 5:13 Is anyone among you suffering? Let him pray. Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praises. James 5:14 Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord; James 5:15 and the prayer offered in faith will restore the one who is sick, and the Lord will raise him up, and if he has committed sins, they will be forgiven him. James 5:16 Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The effective prayer of a righteous man can accomplish much. James 5:17 Elijah was a man with a nature like ours, and he prayed earnestly that it might not rain; and it did not rain on the earth for three years and six months. James 5:18 And he prayed again, and the sky poured rain, and the earth produced its fruit.
We would do well to imitate them. Let us continually devote ourselves to prayer with one mind so that the watching world may know that the Father sent the Son, and so that the world may see the difference Christ in us makes amongst us.
 The destructive criticism of the modernists (the so-called “higher criticism”) lies like a fallen tree across the walkway of our spiritual assessment of Acts. Luke‘s reputation as historian did not fare well in the hands of these “critics,” particularly the German school known as the Tubingen School. This school of thought prevailed in the mid-19th century and set the stage for the paganization of Germany because what they achieved negatively was the discrediting of Christianity. In their view, Luke was no historian. This view is unhappy as well as untrue. What would have been more honest is for them to have argued that Luke was not their kind of historian. In brief, Luke was no Hegelian. Luke understood history on the level of facts and eye witnesses who attested to what really happened. Adherents of the Tubingen School maintained that history was about ideas, about the so-called dialectic. History to this mind was about a thesis (the Messiah is coming sometime) and about an antithesis (the Messiah has come in the person of Jesus now) and what was interesting to them, of course, was the synthesis (if Jesus has come as Messiah, we must understand ourselves afresh as living in the final age now). My point: the German scholars were more interested in ideas about religion (all we have) than they were in truth (which we cannot have). So the tree that lay across the path was simply this: the dominance of an idea (the dialectic) prevalent in the culture. Other ideas like evolution, progress, racial supremacy, similarly, can become barriers to the truth if we are not careful. And with these ideas come the branches of dominant affects: negativity, pessimism and skepticism--until the whole enterprise seems either hopeless, pointless, or both. And people walk away from the pathway discouraged and are distracted into seeking other pathways to explore.
 I noticed this time that the words of the angels in v. 11 may have encouraged belief in the imminent return of Christ This coupled with Jesus’ predictions of judgment of Jerusalem (in 70 A.D). led to some misunderstanding among early Christians as to the Parousia--that moment when Christ shall return “as He was seen to have gone away.” They earnestly believed that it would all transpire in their lifetime. That was not the plan.