Desire for Fulfillment
My son looks up at me with envy. He sees the joy in my eyes as I watch the bacon start to sizzle in the pan. He sees the smile on my lips as I push the crackling goodness around with a fork, attempting to avoid the occasional splatter of grease.
“I want to do it!”
But he’s not old enough, not observant enough. If I let him try, the resulting burns could land him in the ER.
My daughter gets frustrated when she picks up a ‘grown-up book’ with its blocks of text and lack of picture-clues.
“How come I can’t read it?!”
She’s just not there yet. She’s too young.
My children have strong desires to do good things, but they can’t fulfill them. Not yet. There are years of development between where they are now and where they wish to be. Their loud frustrations bring them no closer.
“When will I be grow’d up?” my son asks mournfully. “Will it be a long, long time?”
It would be nice if time were the only factor keeping him from responsible adulthood. He has much work to do. Very little of it will be glamorous.
Has the Time Finally Come?
The Eleven Disciples, as we encounter them in Acts 1, have been through a three-year emotional roller-coaster. They live in a nation that has been subjugated by a foreign super-power. The glory that they desired, along with every good Israelite, was crushed by an idol worshiping Rome that prevented God honoring rulers and religious leaders from taking power. The Judean King Herod was a hedonistic pretender. The High Priest was a Roman appointee; compromise was a requirement of office.
Into this world came Jesus–the God-man, the Promised Messiah. The true king of Israel, he had unimaginable power. He healed the sick, triumphed over demons, and commanded the elements of nature. He promised a pure kingdom and the closeness of God for which so many yearned.
For three years these Eleven followed, served, and learned from him. They witnessed firsthand his purity and power. They knew that everything was about to change. Then the corrupt powers of the world killed him.
Jesus was crucified.
Though he had warned them of what was to come–though his teaching made it clear that his Kingdom would be established on the foundation of his own death, rather than on that of his enemies–they were surprised. Stricken.
Three long years of hope–and for what? While they hid in the upper room, the godless powers-that-be laughed.
When things were at their darkest, in the midst of tears and disillusion, Jesus appeared to them, alive and glorified. Though he was marked by the scars of his execution, his movements and words were filled with a renewed, otherworldly power. His death was only the beginning of his kingdom, not the end. The disciples could feel it–something earth-shattering had happened on the cross and in the tomb. The world was about to be turned upside-down.
And so they ask the question we see in Acts 1:6: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Surely now was the time. He could present himself to his murderers and with power either destroy them or demand their allegiance. He could muster a supernatural fighting-force and sweep across the world as fast as the winds at his command. But his kingdom would be different. It’s growth would not come violently.
“It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”
He says, in effect, “Don’t worry about that. There is something else you need to focus on.”
The Path to the Kingdom
The disciples wanted to be “all grown up”–to rule with Jesus and put an end to all injustice. But the Kingdom was still young, only now sprouting from the seed of Jesus’ sacrifice. Maturity would come, but only through hard work, most of which would not be very glamorous. He explained in Acts 1:8:
“But you will recieve 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.”
The kingdom would not be spread by an armored troop of soldiers, but by Holy Spirit empowered witnesses. Christ would rule with a message, not with a sword.
Jesus’ task for his disciples was not to spend their time chasing after their own vision of the kingdom, but to focus on a single task. Their work was not military strategy. They were not told to start a popular uprising. They were simply called to “spread the word” of who Jesus is, and what he had done. They would call those around them to repent of their sins and to follow Jesus as king of a spiritual kingdom.
Traditionally, empires are established through the threat of death and the promise of destruction. A power defeats its enemies in the field and then parks its armies in the midst of the survivors, saying “submit or suffer the consequences.” Jesus’ kingdom would grow by the offer of life.
From the richest ruler to the poorest refugee, all people eventually die and are put in the ground to rot into nothingness. Death is the punishment for, and the consequence of, sin. As Paul says elsewhere in the scripture: “death spread to all men, because all sinned.” But Jesus has power over death. Being the Son of God, he died a horrific death in order to atone for the sin and reconcile sinners to God. He is risen, and will raise up all who are his. Their witness was not the threat of death, but salvation from it.
“All who call on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Power from on High
Those of us who call ourselves Christians may have stopped finding Jesus’ charge to be witnesses, rather than revolutionaries, strange. After all, we know the result of these disciples’ ministry. The gospel has powerfully changed the world. The influence of Jesus’ teachings are felt everywhere, even among those who deny him. The super-power that crucified Jesus would one day bend the knee to him. This is astounding!
How could mere words do this? Jesus wielded real power, the disciples could plainly see, but they watched him go into heaven to return at an undisclosed, far-off date. For the preaching of the disciples to have any real impact, they would need the power promised at the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Our Own World
The world we live in is rapidly changing. As Christianity became more and more accepted among the powerful, it came to be more and more used by them. Over time, the Roman Empire fell and was replaced by the Holy Roman Empire. Somewhere along the way, the people of God seemed to forget that the Kingdom was to grow through the power of the gospel, not through the might of human kings. Christianity became the norm in the western world but was gutted of its true power.
The attitudes of our place and time increasingly mirrors that of the 1st century. Religion is often seen as corrupt, Jesus is made mockery of in the public square, and believers are seen as foolish. In our nation, hedonistic lifestyles are the norm. We live to feel pleasure and to be entertained. If we accept the possibility of a God, we deny that he would call us to submit our desires to his. Herod could be our king, and we would happily join his court.
A million and more gods are worshiped. Money, sex, comfort, and power are among the most influential. Death still visits all people–we’re buried and we rot away. It consumes entire people groups in war and visits communities in disease and injustice. Yet in spite of all of this, God’s kingdom still grows. Jesus is still coming back the same way he left.
Do you feel the tension? Do you not desire the same resolution the disciples sought? They witnessed Jesus, full of power and glory. They preached a lord whose might holds the stars in their course and the bonds our flesh in place. They understood. We breathe at his mercy. He could put an end to every war, bloody the evil of every nation with a word. Do you not desire that he would come in power and make things right? He has promised to return.
Friends, his words to the Eleven are true for us as well. It’s not for us to know the times and the seasons. We should watch for his return, yes, but our focus should be on our task–we too are called to be witnesses.
Being a Witness
Like the Eleven, our witnessing must be empowered by the Holy Spirit if it is to be effective. Our efforts alone are worth very little. When we become Christians, the Bible teaches us that we are filled with the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit that empowered the disciples lives in us. He enables us.
He enables us to live rightly. No witness can be considered credible that lives the life of a liar. So he crafts in us desires to serve and obey the God we worship. He calls us to pleasures deeper than those found in hedonistic lifestyles. As we grow in maturity, he enables us to put the sin that remains in us to death. In doing so, we testify to the power of God.
As we live in obedience to God, in the love of God and love of our neighbor, we are his witnesses.
The Holy Spirit also enables us to witness through our words. This is the primary form that Jesus had in mind when he commissioned the disciples to go. For people to hear the gospel, we must speak it. Though it can be difficult to face rejection in the proclamation of the gospel, we are promised help. The Holy Spirit will give us words to speak and the boldness to speak them. We need only ask him for help. The Holy Spirit will also go out in power with the words of the gospel, convicting those who hear.
There is power in our words when we preach the gospel–the same power that calmed the seas and healed the sick–the power to turn the world upside-down once again.
To the Ends of the Earth
Again our call is similar to the disciples’, not only in the what, but in the where. We are called not just to a general witness, but to testify in particular places.
Our work starts at home, with our family, in our city. This is our Jerusalem–the people who are most nearby. Parents, are you telling your children about Jesus? If you yearn to see his kingdom grow, surely it starts with them? Children, brothers, and sisters: do those in your household know the reason for the hope that is in you? Can they pinpoint the source of the change that they’ve seen in you, if they’ve seen it at all? This is your first opportunity.
Are you out among your neighbors, in your community, and serving your city? Do those around you see the love that you have for them? Again, your home and your city are your Jerusalem. You are called there to be a witness.
As we make an impact in our city, opportunity will come to serve elsewhere, to be and send witnesses to ever widening circles. One church plants another in a neighboring community. Little by little, the gospel moves forward throughout our state–our Judea is reached. Others begin to move even farther away into the surrounding states, places with different cultures, different rhythms, and different idols. There they see the same ultimate needs. Our Samarias begin to hear the good news.
Some farther still. Cultures are found to be drastically different; languages change completely; ways of life are beyond foreign. Death still reigns, the gospel is still relevant. In Brazil, Japan, and India Jesus is preached–lives are changed at the ends of the earth. All of this because of the witness first found in some small church on the other side of the world.
Friends, our calling is not only to lament the world we live in. Jesus calls us to do the hard work of witnesses. Just like my children will never experience a sudden transition to adulthood, we will not see the perfect transformation of the world in an instant. God’s plan was never to grow his kingdom through one violent explosion, but in billions of small acts of love performed by millions of disciples. The work is slow, but the result is assured. If we would focus on the task at hand, faithful with our testimony in the day to day, we will one day be found with Jesus, in the fullness of his perfect Kingdom.