You Are My Witness
The Seventh Sunday of Easter/Ascension Sunday
May 24, 2020
When the apostles had come together, they asked Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set 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, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers.
Jesus looked up to heaven and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son so that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all people, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed.
”I have made your name known to those whom you gave me from the world. They were yours, and you gave them to me, and they have kept your word. Now they know that everything you have given me is from you; for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me. I am asking on their behalf; I am not asking on behalf of the world, but on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours. All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them. And now I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them in your name that you have given me, so that they may be one, as we are one.”
1 Peter 4:12-14; 5:6-11
Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you are sharing Christ’s sufferings, so that you may also be glad and shout for joy when his glory is revealed. If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the Spirit of God, is resting on you.
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, so that he may exalt you in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you. Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him, steadfast in your faith, for you know that your brothers and sisters in all the world are undergoing the same kinds of suffering. And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.
In the period of less than one week the disciples had witnessed the adulation of the crowd, crying “Hosanna!” on Palm Sunday, followed by the cry of “Crucify Him!” on the following Friday. They had hoped Jesus would be the Messiah, who would break the yoke of Roman rule, but His crucifixion dashed those hopes. After the resurrection their expectations were temporarily restored but then, after forty days, they would be challenged once again.
Our reading in Acts begins with a question the disciples had for Jesus – one that had also been on the minds of many of His followers: “Is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” The question was sincere given their expectations of a conquering hero. They recalled a time when Israel was a strong and independent nation – not a colony of a foreign power. They wanted a return to better times. Jesus understood their question but answers in a manner that revealed the misunderstanding of the kingdom of God. The kingdom would not be a place on the map; it would not be expanded by conquering armies, and it would be eternal.
In His two-fold response, Jesus tells the disciples that “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” Since the ascension, there has been much speculation about when Jesus would return as the Messianic King. So far all of the speculations have been imprecise. In the second part of His response, Jesus commissions the disciples to be witnesses: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8). To be commissioned is to be given authority. With the authority comes the power to execute the duties of the office. With the command, the disciples were commissioned and on the day of Pentecost they would receive the power to execute the duties of the office. That power would be given by the Holy Spirit, without whose assistance, our witness is ineffective. Verse 8 has been called the Table of Contents for Acts chapters 1-7. As you read those chapters you read how the disciples began to fulfill their commission of being witnesses to the ends of the earth.
After the commissioning, Jesus ascends to Heaven and the angels descend from Heaven with a message: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” The disciples were understandably dazed. The Ascension was not expected and they were unsure of how to react. The angels prompted the disciples to obey the command they had been given. John Stott describes the angelic message as one to stop stargazing and start being witnesses. We are to be anticipating Jesus’ return and we are also to be preparing for it through our witness.
Why is the Ascension important? We easily understand Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost but the Ascension causes bewilderment. Primarily, it marks the end of Christ’s post-resurrection ministry and His return to Heaven, which would inaugurate the era of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the Church. In 1953 when Queen Elizabeth II ascended the throne, she was coronated the Queen of the British Empire. With this, she was given the authority to rule the citizens of the British Empire. Using that image, we see that Jesus’ ascension was also His coronation as King of Kings. On the day of Pentecost, Peter quotes David’s words in Psalm 110:1 “The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, till I make thy enemies a stool for thy feet.” With His ascension, Jesus begins the next chapter in His ministry as King (enthronement) and as Priest (intercession). He is pleading our case to the Father by asking that our sins be forgiven because of His sacrificial death.
The setting of our reading in John 17 is the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion. Instead of being concerned about His impending death, He is concerned for His disciples. He prays that His followers would have eternal life. Eternal life is more than being born again. It includes our knowledge of God, which is gained through our study of the Bible and reflection upon what we are learning in our study and in our worship and fellowship with other Christians. This is living life to the fullest.
In his letter, Peter writes about the essential connection between witness and persecution. It is thought that Peter was writing to approximately ten churches that were enduring persecution that often resulted in death. This is how we commonly think of persecution; however, it also comes in other forms such as harassment and intimidation. In the early days of the Church, Jewish authorities persecuted many Christians. One of them became one of the first deacons: Stephen, who was bold in his witness. This brought him into conflict with the Jewish authorities, who would bring him before the Sanhedrin on charges of blasphemy (Acts 6-7). In his defense, Stephen offered a survey of the history of Israel. Nothing could have infuriated the Sanhedrin and the Jewish leaders more than to be reminded of their own history by a heretic. The verdict and punishment were foregone – Stephen was guilty and he was to be stoned. During his execution, he continued to be a witness. Inevitably persecution leads to suffering that takes many forms. Tim Keller says that God does not waste our suffering. The witness of the disciples was not hindered by Stephen’s suffering. One of the persecutors would later have a change of heart and would be a witness to the Person and Work of Christ. That persecutor was named Saul, who as the Apostle Paul, was a witness to the Gentiles.
How should we respond when we encounter persecution and suffering? Peter admonishes us to rejoice in our sufferings because of our identity with Christ. This is not a glib “this is not bothering me” but a deep-seeded realization that God is at work through our suffering. He is using the furnace of suffering to refine, purify and strengthen us. In suffering we reach the end of our rope and are forced to realize we are not self-sufficient. By nature I want to control everything. Through experience I have learned that I am not able to do so – but I keep trying. In reality at that moment, I am a witness to pride and not humility. Humility leads us to cast our cares upon God. J.B. Phillips translated verses 6 and 7 this way: “So, humble yourselves under God’s strong hand, and in his own good time he will lift you up. You can throw the whole weight of your anxieties upon him, for you are his personal concern. Suffering and persecution are disruptive. Our plans are changed and we have no clue why; yet the change is often a prelude to positive change. The coach causes pain and suffering in the lives of athletes. Their lives are disruptive through practices so that they will be prepared for peak performance in the game. The suffering at the hands of the coach leads to positive change.
Another example of suffering leading to positive change comes from the early days of World War II. The Royal Air Force (R.A.F.) was the key to Britain’s victory in the Battle of Britain. It was a costly victory as death was common and the morale of the pilots was sagging. Seeing this, the R.A.F. asked C.S. Lewis to give a series of talks to the pilots about the Christian faith. This prompted the B.B.C. to invite Lewis to deliver the talks on the radio. The talks would eventually be edited and published as Mere Christianity, considered to be one of the most influential Christian books of the 20th century. In the middle of the Battle of Britain, no one was thinking about a future book; they were thinking about present survival. Yet, out of that horrific time came a book that has been used to expand His witness to the uttermost parts of the earth. This is but one example of God being exalted in the midst of suffering and persecution.
Whether we are enduring persecution or a pandemic, the suffering is real, personal, and painful. When we suffer we are prone to ask “Why me?” That is natural and understandable. We must also learn to cast our cares on the Lord. He cared enough to suffer for us and He cares enough to bear our burdens. Let us be a witness to that gift and to carry that witness to the uttermost parts of the earth.