Ascension Day Sermon| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Acts 1:1-11| June 5, 2011
The former account I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which He was taken up, after He through the Holy Spirit had given commandments to the apostles whom He had chosen, to whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And being assembled together with them, He commanded them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the Promise of the Father, “which,” He said, “you have heard from Me; for John truly baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority. But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
They were gazing up into heaven. The angels told them not to gaze up into heaven. Just wait. He who ascended into heaven will return. He will return to judge the living and the dead. Or will he? Perhaps he will instead return to restore the kingdom to Israel. After all, that’s what his disciples asked of him. The last question they asked of him before he ascended into heaven was: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus didn’t say he would not restore the kingdom to Israel, did he? Instead he said it wasn’t up to them to know the times or seasons of things that were under the Father’s authority. But if Jesus had no intention of restoring the kingdom to Israel, wouldn’t he have told the disciples that?
Millions of Christians believe that before Judgment Day Jesus will establish in Israel his father David’s throne and rule on this earth with Jerusalem as the capital of his kingdom for a thousand years. This notion is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. The gospel is the message of full and free forgiveness of sins and eternal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ who died for our sins and rose again. This gospel is the golden thread of divine truth that binds together all of God’s word from Genesis to Revelation. The promises that God gave to the Old Testament nation of Israel have been fulfilled in Christ. The true Israel is the believers in Christ, that is, the Holy Christian Church. The true Israel is the spiritual Israel. It has always been so. Israel is the Church and the Church is Israel. All Christians share the faith of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The kingdom of Israel is not a political entity in the Middle East. It is rather a kingdom of grace scattered throughout the world to which all baptized believers in Christ belong.
Jesus said to the apostles,
But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
Wherever the apostolic teaching is taught there is the kingdom of Israel. The true Israel is the assembly of saints who believe and are baptized. Membership in Israel is not determined by race or ethnicity. Israel is the Holy Christian Church on earth, the gathering of God’s people out of every nation, tribe, tongue, and people. It relies, not on the power of the sword or the gun, but on the power of the Spirit, which is the word of God.
Jesus sent his disciples to preach the gospel to the whole world. Those who believe and are baptized are the new Israel. As St. Paul explains,
For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Galatians 3:26-29)
The true Israel has nothing to do political and military events in the Middle East. The true Israel is the Church and the Church has no political authority. Christ rules his Church without forcing her to do a thing. Instead of using coercion he uses the power of the Holy Spirit.
Ideologues of every description have dreamt dreams of a worldwide kingdom of peace and harmony in this world. Muslims believe that peace will come when everyone submits to the law of Allah as set forth by his prophet Muhammad. Communists believe that peace will come when the proletariat is finally in charge of the means of production and each person will give according to his ability and receive according to his need. And, sad to say, many confused and deluded Christians look to events in Europe and the secular state of Israel as signs that Jesus will soon return to establish a worldwide kingdom of peace and justice on this earth with Jerusalem as the capital city of this kingdom.
They are called dispensationalists. They believe that the entire history of the world is to be divided up into seven different dispensations. During each dispensation God tests mankind in a certain way. We are presently living in the church age, the sixth of seven dispensations. The test for this dispensation is the gospel. But the greatest dispensation is yet to come. That is the dispensation of the kingdom where Christ will rule from the throne of his father David for a thousand years. When he came the first time he came to establish this kingdom, but the Jews rejected him so he could not do so. When Jesus comes for the second time he will succeed in establishing this kingdom. But before he does so, he will come in the clouds and rapture the believers out of the world after which there will be a seven year tribulation. After that, he will descend to this earth and rule.
Millions and millions of people believe this fantasy though there is not one word in the Bible to support it. It does not come from the Bible. It is read into the Bible. Gullible Christians believe it. It is a harmful error because it diverts Christians from the truth that Jesus is reigning over his kingdom right now. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords right now. Jesus is in charge right now.
But his kingdom is not of this world. So he said to Pilate. When Jesus gave the keys of his kingdom to his Church on earth he did not give them the power of the sword. He gave his Church the authority to preach the gospel and administer the sacraments. Jesus rules in the kingdom of David his Father. He does so right now. We do not wait for a mythical kingdom yet to come. We pray, “Thy kingdom come,” and God answers our prayers.
He does so through the Holy Spirit. Jesus sent out his disciples through the Holy Spirit. He promised that they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit would be poured out on them and they would receive the power of the Holy Spirit. They would be witnesses to Jesus “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
Witnesses to what? They were there. They heard Jesus teach. They saw him do miraculous signs. They witnessed his betrayal, scourging, and crucifixion. And they saw him risen from the dead. As St. Luke records,
To whom He also presented Himself alive after His suffering by many infallible proofs, being seen by them during forty days and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.
When we talk about witnessing to Jesus today we use the word “witness” in a rather broad sense. We can talk about what we believe, but we weren’t there. We didn’t hear his voice. We didn’t see him die. We didn’t see him risen from the dead. The apostles did. They were witnesses in the strict and legal sense of the term. They saw proof of his resurrection. They touched him. They ate with him. He who had died was now risen from the dead. He is the one who taught them and he is the one who through them now teaches us.
It is a wonderful teaching that he teaches us. He who humbled himself is exalted above all powers of this word. He who took upon himself our human nature has exalted that nature up to the right hand of God. His exaltation is ours. His honor is ours. His power is ours. All that he has is ours. And it is ours here and now where we live and die.
Heaven and earth are not so far apart. He who fills all things became one of us. He assumed our nature. As one of us he lived the life of perfect humility and obedience. He wielded no sword. When Peter drew the sword he told him to put it away. He submitted to all lawful authority, even when those who held it were cynical and corrupt. He loved purely. When he loved and obeyed and suffered and died it was as our representative. Now that he is ascended into heaven and exalted at the right hand of God the Father almighty he exalts us with him and intercedes for us before God.
It is always a temptation to explain Christ’s rule over us in terms that fit into our way of thinking. So we have people putting God’s right hand and Christ’s session at his right hand in some geographical location. John Calvin, the father of the various Reformed churches, reasoned that since Jesus was bodily present at the right hand of the Father he could not be bodily present in the Lord’s Supper because a man’s body cannot be in more than one place at the same time. Those who teach that Jesus will rule over a political kingdom headquartered in that geographical area known as Palestine are of the same sort. They force Jesus into a box in which he doesn’t fit.
It goes beyond our understanding how Jesus can be present in all places at all times – but he is! He promised that he would be with us always to the very end of the world. The right hand of God is not a geographical location like Mayville or Fertile or Crookston. It is a position of power and authority. And the kingdom over which he rules is as real as we are, but it isn’t anything so mundane as a political realm bound by geographical borders and ruled by laws.
It is a kingdom of peace, joy, and genuine love. It is a kingdom where God’s authority is exercised for us, not against us, as he authoritatively dismisses our sins and commands the devil to be silent. It is a kingdom in which God rules over us by pure grace. It’s a kingdom in which our hearts and lives are transformed by a power greater than all of the weapons ever used to destroy. It’s the power of God’s love displayed on the cross of Jesus’ suffering. It finds us in our broken and contrite hearts and transports us to heaven where we are seated next to him who has conquered sin, death, and hell.
We find Jesus where we are baptized in his name by his authority. We find him where the apostolic testimony is proclaimed to us. We find him where he gives us to eat and to drink the same body and blood that are exalted to the right hand of God the Father almighty. Heaven joins earth and we claim here on earth our inheritance in heaven.
We have no need to gaze up into heaven to wonder when he’ll come back. He’ll come back when the time has come for him to return. That’s not for us to know or to pry into. Date setters are false prophets. But he will return. He will not return to set up a temporal political kingdom. He will return to judge this world and to take his Church home. He who believes and is baptized will be saved. He who does not believe will be damned. Meanwhile, Jesus rules in his kingdom, the Holy Christian Church. She is the apple of God’s eye. The Church – not a mythical state invented by Zionist imagination – is the kingdom of Israel in this world and Jesus reigns over this kingdom now and forever. Amen