Summary: God changes those who count on Jesus.
The Bible contains four books (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John), called together, “The Gospels.” These describe the work of Jesus while he was on earth. Virtually unknown at birth, by the end of his thirty-three years, Jesus assembled a following of men and women who believed in him.
The change from unknown Jew to trusted Messiah was neither simple nor quick. All were at first skeptical (to some degree); and after Jesus is executed, we find the disciples huddled behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (John 20.19). Their friend was dead, and hope for the future was crushed with his broken body.
After “The Gospels,” the next book of the Bible is entitled, “The Acts of the Apostles,” or “Acts,” for short. This historical narrative also tells of the work of Jesus, but while he is in heaven through the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, in the lives of the Apostles and the churches they pastored. The change in the Apostles (between the end of the Gospels and the beginning of Acts) is dramatic. One Sunday they hide in fear; fifty days later they begin turning the world “upside down.” Something convinced them that they could count on Jesus, and that changed everything. [Read Acts 1.1-11. Pray.]
The disciples change from cowering doubters to courageous believers in a few days because of the resurrection and ascension. Christians know the first is important, but we may not see the significance of the second. Yet as John Stott notes, the ascension the watershed event between the earthly and heavenly phases of the ministry of Jesus.
John Stott: “Luke does not think of his two-volume work on the origins of Christianity…as one volume on the story of Jesus Christ from his birth through his sufferings and death to his triumphant resurrection and ascension, and volume two as the story of the church from its birth in Jerusalem through its sufferings by persecution to its triumphant conquest of Rome some thirty years later. The contrasting parallel he draws is between two stages of the ministry of the same Christ…. Thus Jesus’ ministry on earth, exercised personally and publically, was followed by his ministry from heaven, exercised through his Holy Spirit by his apostles. Moreover, the watershed between the two was the ascension. Not only did it conclude Luke’s first book [Luke 24.51] and introduce his second (Acts 1.9), but it terminated Jesus’ earthly ministry and inaugurated his heavenly one.” (The Spirit, the Church and the World, 32).
Most of you know the resurrection is vital to salvation. The Bible explains (in Romans 4) that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” The resurrection proves God’s acceptance of Jesus’ work on the cross; it assures forgiveness; it is essential to the faith.
But the work of Christ did not end at the resurrection. It continues now through his reign and rule at the right hand of the Father until he brings every last enemy into submission. Then will be the end and he will return with his reward.
I do not really enjoy traveling out of town on long business trips, and I am glad to do so rarely as a pastor. It is also hard on the family. My travel disrupts their normal schedule and everyone feels the stress. But returning can be so wonderful as to make it almost worthwhile. Helen and the kids make special treats; they sometimes decorate the house; and at the airport, as I walk past the security checkpoints and finally turn the corner to freedom, they await, cheering! My family counts on me to return and counts that as a reward. And, as a result of that confidence, they act a certain way.
It was a bit like that for the disciples. Jesus spends forty days between his resurrection and ascension explaining that he must go away to do his work, but he will return. Then in Acts 1.9, it happens, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” They seem to be in shock, feet glued to the ground, mouths gaping open and eyes gazing into the sky. So Jesus sends two angels: “Why are you standing here staring? He is coming back; so get ready for his return.” And with that push, Acts reveals what it looks like when people count on Jesus to return and reward.
Americans still profess to believe the Christian faith. The vast majority, somewhere between 60% and 80% of us, say that we are certain that Jesus rose physically from the dead. The profession remains strong, but the practice wanes. It is as if people “believe” in the resurrection and forgiveness of sins, but assume the story ends there. As if there were no ascension and no confidence that Jesus will return. So what does it look like to truly count on Jesus to return and reward? Acts 1 begins to answer that question.