August 19, 2013 by mattwilcoxen
The text begins with a reference to a previous work, the Gospel of Luke. In fact, it picks up right where Luke left off–with a risen Jesus Christ eating with his disciples and disappearing quite dramatically. Both the end of Luke’s gospel and the beginning of Acts tell the story of Jesus’ disappearance into the heavens and the disciples’ return to Jerusalem. In Luke we hear Jesus promise that the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49), and in Acts they are told that they will be “baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 1:5).
In Acts 1:6 the disciples ask whether their Lord will “restore the kingdom to Israel” immediately. Jesus responds to this question by deemphasizing knowledge and emphasizing power and witness. The disciples are not to speculate over such things as the full restoration of God’s kingdom blessings, but rather they are to receive the power of the Holy Spirit for the purpose of being Jesus’ witnesses.
Immediately following Jesus’ mild rebuke of the disciples, he is hidden from their sight–absorbed into some transcendent reality. It is hard to know how to talk about what happens here, so we may as well stick with the biblical and creedal language, provided we do not allow it to be interpreted simplistically–as if Jesus went to the far side of the universe. So, “he ascended into heaven, where he is seated at the right hand of God, the Father almighty”.
Given the report of the ascension (v. 9), it would make perfect sense for the text to pick up with the return to Jerusalem (vv. 12ff). However, in between is a report of an encounter with “two men dressed in white” (vv. 10-11). Given the overlap of much of vv. 1-9 with what occurs at the end of the Lukan narrative, vv. 10-11 are the unique contribution of the introduction of to the book of Acts. They are the climax of this first section.
If I am correct in isolating these two verses like this, then the book of Acts begins with a question, a rebuke even. These two men dressed in white–angels or whatever they are–put a question to the disciples. It is still the question that we should put to our churches today when we open the book of Acts. “People of _______, why have you been standing here looking into the heavens?”
What is the significance of standing around, looking into the sky? The rhetorical question is followed up with a declarative utterance. “This same Jesus who was being taken up from you into the heavens will return in the same manner in which he went into the heavens”. Well how was he taken up? The reference is not to the fact that he went with clouds–that is not the point. Rather, the verse points us back to the narrative of Luke’s gospel. The pivot verse of the entire gospel comes in Luke 9:51: “As the time approached for him to be taken up, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.” For Luke, as for John, the taking up of Jesus Christ is not something that happens apart from the cross. Rather, Jesus’ ascension is the movement to the cross.
So when the angels say that Jesus will come again in the same way as he has been “taken up”–we are directed back to the manner of Jesus’ earthly life. The disciples are being told to stop looking for a different Jesus from the Jesus who bore the cross. The entire book of Acts is a template describing the Holy Spirit’s work to bring Jesus’ followers into conformity with Christ’s cross–into cruciformity. The power from on high leads to a cruciform existence. This is what it means to participate in God.
If we want to find Jesus Christ–if we want to find God, we will find God in cruciform existence. We find God in lives of service and witness.