In Acts 1:1-8, Luke tells of his purpose in writing the book of Acts, and then gives us an account of Jesus’ conversation with his disciples after his resurrection:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times and seasons the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.”
In these verses Jesus gives his disciples a mild correction for what God’s kingdom would look like. Notice the three phrases that the disciples use: “at this time”; “restore the kingdom”; “to Israel”? Their immediate expectation was that since Jesus had risen, he must have quick intentions of bringing restoration to the people of Israel. In the disciples’ minds that would have meant an era of protection from their enemies, a sense of national and ethnic pride, freedom of temple worship without an occupying Roman army, as well as a continuation of the healings and miracles of compassion Jesus performed. As far as their assumptions, remember that not too long before, a couple disciples had asked to be sitting at Jesus’ right hand and his left hand when he established his kingdom.
But Jesus reminds his disciples first of all, that God’s kingdom does not operate on our timetable. When we ask, “God, will you now do this, please?” the answer we receive is often a simple, “Wait.” After the disciples asked, “Will you at this time…?” they were told to go to Jerusalem and wait for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Having the Holy Spirit now, we Christians need to wait on the prompting of the Holy Spirit before moving in a new direction. Pastors or leaders often have ministry ideas that are in line with God’s kingdom plan, but God will not bring those plans to completion until his time is right. Similarly, in our nation today, as followers of Christ we desire revival, but we cannot pray for revival to take place on our timetable. We are simply to “keep asking, keep knocking, and keep seeking.” In our personal lives, we desire the immediate satisfaction (or recognition) of a certain step of obedience we have taken. Or, in the midst of serving Christ, we become convinced that a certain ministry should yield fast results or immediate fruit. “After all,” we say to ourselves, “a ministry that is growing and healthy should look like THIS, right?” God sometimes show us signs of immediate fruit, and sometimes he does not. We serve Christ because he has called us to serve, and because we love our Savior. We serve in the power of the Holy Spirit and with the support of other believers, under supervision of leaders, elders, or ministry staff. And in the end, we must hold our service with an open hand and leave the results to God.
Second, Jesus reminds his disciples that God’s kingdom cannot be reduced to national pride, ethnic heritage, or a previous “golden era” in Israel’s history. Notice the phrase, “restore the kingdom to Israel?” In Jesus’ day there were lots of different parties vying for power and influence. The Sadduccees were more liberal in their theology; the Pharisees were more conservative. The Zealots were the ones who wanted to take up arms and overthrow the Romans. The tax collector Matthew was a Jewish person who was viewed as a traitor by his fellow Jews, since he was making a living off of the oppressive Roman government, lining his own pockets at the same time. The result of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost–enabling the disciples to speak in tongues–was so that Jews from every nation could hear the message of salvation and respond. But it did not take long for the gospel message to reach people who were Gentiles: Philip proclaims Christ in Samaria, Simon the Magician believes, then Philip goes towards Gaza and the Ethiopian eunuch becomes a follower of Christ. Peter is sent to Cornelius’ house (Acts 10), and by the end of that chapter it is clear that the Gentiles (non-Jews) have come to faith in Christ. The disciples who heard Peter’s testimony proclaimed:
In today’s hyper-fragmented society and culture, many of us subconsciously want a church where people “think like me, act like me, vote like me, and don’t do anything that might offend most of my sensibilities.” Part of this desire is a genuine need to feel safe. We want to attend church and feel that we can “be ourselves” without being questioned. For the most part, that is a healthy desire. But the gospel pushes us beyond our regular categories. Very soon, Chistians in the book of Acts had to deal with the question of whether or not to have the Gentile converts continue to follow the Jewish law of circumcision. (Acts 15) After Paul and Barnabas relate to the council how God did signs and wonders among the Gentiles, James then speaks and cites Amos and Jeremiah, saying essentially that “in restoring David fallen tent” God will draw Gentiles who seek the Lord and bring them to faith in the Jewish Messiah.
Since Americans are products of our time and place, with a specific history and heritage, we tend to view the expansion of God’s kingdom with certain filters: ethnic filters, political filters, economic filters, or sociological filters. It becomes all too easy–and reductionistic–to equate, or conflate, the expansion of God’s kingdom with certain markers of American “success”. The expansion of God’s kingdom does not always mean that the church, or Christians in general, have increasing influence in culture. I too, yearn for America to return to its “moral foundation” of Judeo-Christian ethics. However, a larger percentage of people with a certain stated morality does not guarantee or prevent the sins of pride, greed, gossip, sexual immorality, and violence in the general population, and even less so within the church itself!
Jesus broke up the disciples’ normal categories when he talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, when he ate with tax collectors and sinners, and when he went to the house of a Gentile. Eventually, the disciples realized that their vision of “success” in God’s kingdom was very limited, and that Jesus is the one and only Savior for all who repent and trust in Him, no matter their background, ethnicity, education, or personal history.
As an aside, this multiethnic aspect of the kingdom of God does not mean that those who are of the majority culture in America or anywhere else should think of themselves as less important, but it does require humility. The extremely myopic spirit of the age declares that anyone who is in the majority culture–whether by religion, race, economics, education, gender, or sexuality–“those persons or system must be the problem, no questions asked.” But rather than railing against those who would identify “Evangelicals” as the problem, Christians of all backgrounds should be marked by the cross and by an attitude of humility that seeks to love individual people as Jesus loved them: sympathizing with their pain, and at the same time speaking truth where truth is needed, urging people to follow our perfect Savior.
Lastly, Jesus reminds his disciples that their important role is to be witnesses. Only in the power of the Holy Spirit can we as Christians be effective witnesses. Notice the expansion of the gospel that goes beyond their hometown: to all Judea (culturally similar and geographically close), Samaria (geographically close but culturally and ethnically different), and the end of the earth (geographically and culturally different). The word in Greek for witnesses is “martyres” from which we get the English word martyr. Not all the disciples would lose their lives by testifying for Jesus, but many would, first of all Stephen in Acts chapter seven. The call to be Christ’s witnesses is daunting, especially if we have a mindset that wants to hold on to a safe, comfortable, and relatively prosperous life. But if we have a mindset that Jesus is worth everything, that he is the only Savior this world can know, and that every second of every day there are people dying and going to hell without the hope of Christ–if we have that mindset–then what should our lives be worth to us? We would have the same mindset as the Apostle Paul in Acts 20:24
What a privilege and blessing to be called his witnesses! How humbling, and at the same time gratifying that he uses simple people, broken people, frail people, to powerfully testify that Jesus is the Savior of the world.
You have a role in Christ’s kingdom. Witnesses for Christ are not just prophets, teachers, evangelists, or pastors. Every Christian–the New Testament calls them saints–is a witness for Christ. The gospel message spreads from person to person, house to house, city to city. You have a unique personality, background, past experiences, gifts, and talents. God uses all of those to place you in front of people who need Jesus. Whom can you tell about the grace of God today?