So 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 towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards 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.’ (Acts 1:6-11, NRSV)
Now, that is drama! Forty days after his Resurrection—after making numerous appearances—the Risen Christ rises even higher, moving beyond the clouds as his friends watch in amazement. Saint Luke reports on the action right there in chapter one of the Book of Acts. He also mentions this event in the closing verses of his gospel.
Yet the gospel account of the Ascension is astonishingly brief. All it says is: “[Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53).
By comparison, that’s kind of anti-climactic, isn’t it? In Luke, Jesus hints about sending his disciples “what the Father promised”—but he doesn’t say they’re going to receive power from the Holy Spirit. He does talk about “it being written” that he would suffer and die, and that repentance and forgiveness are to be proclaimed—but there’s nothing like the grand, profoundly challenging commission given in the Book of Acts.
Listen to it again. Jesus says to them: “… you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
After saying that, Jesus is lifted up, and—before their very eyes—he disappears into the clouds.
The Book of Acts not only reports Jesus’ Ascension, but also gives us all the exciting details: Spirit baptism; God-given power to proclaim the Good News—not just in Roman Palestine, but “to the ends of the earth.” We even get to hear about two angelic visitors—“two men in white robes”—who appear while the disciples are still gazing up at the sky.
That’s kind of a cool detail, isn’t it? People who see UFOs get visited by “men in black” … but the disciples get … “men in white” … Maybe that’s a clue to telling those experiences apart … see if Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones show up!
So there are lots more interesting details in the first chapter of Acts. Oh … except for one. Did you notice? That very, very concise gospel account mentions a detail that’s missing from the Book of Acts.
In Acts, Jesus gives his disciples that wonderful—but intimidating—commission to travel to the ends of the earth to be his “witnesses.” He gives them their marching orders … which amount to: “Give everything up, leave your lives behind, and go preach the gospel to people who will want to kill you” … and then … “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Yeah. He lays all this heavy stuff on them, and then he just … leaves. Flies away without so much as a “toodle-loo.” That’s the way it’s reported in the Book of Acts.
But in The Gospel According to Saint Luke, it says: “… lifting up his hands, he blessed them [and] while he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven.”
In the Book of Acts, Luke doesn’t mention the blessing. In Acts, Jesus gives a commission—but no blessing. In the gospel, he gives a blessing, but no commission.
Is that just an irrelevant detail? I don’t think so. After all, we believe that Scripture is inspired. In one way or another, the Bible in its final form has been shaped and molded and influenced by the power of the Holy Spirit. And if the Spirit caused Luke to write two different versions of the same event—one with a blessing and one without—there must have been a reason.
What could the reason be? Maybe it’s this: we are meant to understand that the blessing is not contingent upon the commission. We don’t get blessed as a reward for doing the hard work of evangelism. The blessing—just like salvation itself—is freely given to those who believe.
There are no strings attached. We’re not being told, “If you are my witnesses in Jerusalem … if you tell people about me in Judea and Samaria … if you give up your security and travel to the ends of the earth to risk your lives for the sake of my message … then I will bless you.”
No. The blessing is already given to you. If you’re a believer, then—before you do anything, before you even think about doing anything—you have already received Christ’s blessing.
Now, this is exactly the kind of message you would expect to hear from Luke. The New Testament makes it clear that Luke was a companion and close colleague of the apostle Paul. And—Paul … Well, he is the original “saved by faith and not by works” guy. Travelling around the ancient world with Paul, Luke would have heard him say—over and over again—things like:
“… now we are released from the law … so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code … For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast … [For] if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.” 1
The blessing is given freely, independent of our good works. Not that works are unimportant. Neither Paul nor Luke would ever say that. The work of discipleship is not insignificant. Jesus calls us to do that work. That’s why the commission is given. However, your blessing—your membership in the household and family of God—that is not contingent upon your deeds.
Funny thing, though, about blessings … maybe it’s because they’re given in love … or maybe because they’re received in love … or both … blessings make a difference. To paraphrase the venerable reformer John Calvin, the blessings—the graces—available to us only become effective—and noticeable—once we let the Holy Spirit break into our hearts … and then break out again, into our lives.2
The grace of God—and all the blessings of God—are offered to us freely. They’re offered freely, by a God whose love for us “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things … [and] never ends” (1 Cor. 13:7-8, ESV). The question is: how do we receive this grace? Will we let it into our hearts?
Will we? Until we do that, it has no effect upon us. But, if we do let God’s love into our hearts—and any of you who’ve ever fallen in love with anybody will get this, I’m sure—if we let God in, our hearts begin to change. And we may find ourselves doing things we never imagined we could do. Perhaps things we never imagined we would want to do. Driven by this love, we may even find ourselves willing to go … to the ends of the earth.
I have a friend who used to be one of several pastors at a very large evangelical church in this city. It’s the kind of church where worship services finish with an “altar call”—an invitation for seekers to come forward and ask for prayer, and make a commitment to Christ. Now, those who in sincerity take this step discover that the experience is life-changing. Of course, that’s the whole idea! But not everybody realizes this, at first.
My friend was one of those folks who stand at the front of the church when the altar call goes out. She made herself available to anyone who wanted to give their life to Christ. Her job was to guide them through that, and lead them, personally, to faith.
She told me about one man she prayed with, whose response to the gift of grace startled her a bit. Because what he said to her, after he had made his commitment, was: “So, now I’m okay, right? There’s nothing else I have to do?”
In other words: “Now I’ve said my prayer, so I’m good with God, and I can go on my way.”
My friend was taken aback. But she’s a quick thinker. And right away, she knew what to say to this guy. She said: “No, there’s nothing else you have to do … but you will want to!”
There’s nothing else you must do—but there is much you will want to do.
The blessing of Christ is offered to us freely. God’s grace is unconditional. However—and this is a big “however”—if you truly accept what Jesus is offering, you cannot escape the major changes that will take place in your heart. Because Jesus is the sort of carpenter who wants to renovate your entire life. And the Holy Spirit is his subcontractor.
The active presence of God in your life is transformational. Under the Spirit’s influence, you begin to think and act differently. Some things you believed to be of supreme importance now count for almost nothing. And you find yourself caring deeply about things that, previously, were not even on your radar.
More than that, you find yourself able to accomplish things that you thought were beyond your capabilities … all because of a blessing, freely given.
Love has that kind of power. And the love of God has that power amplified to an infinite degree. It can take us places we never thought we’d go … even … “to the ends of the earth.”
What a commission! What an adventure! What a ride!
Don’t miss it.
1 Romans 7:6; Ephesians 2:8-9; and Romans 11:6—from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.
2 (see Calvin, Institutes, 4.14.9—p. 847, Hendrickson edition, 2008)