The Emerging Kingdom of God
The Sermon Text
My sermon on this passage was given as a 10-minute talk in the setting of an All Age service for which this was to be the adult content. Reflecting on this there are many things I was unable to pursue due to time constraints. The flip-side of this is that these constraints forced me to distil things down and focus on the most important things that Luke deals with here. Negatively I did rather cram the content in, but in the words of a member of the congregation this did give the service some "gravitas". Balance is hard to achieve.
As with any sermon at the start of a series it will be important to consider this passage in the context of the whole book to which it belongs, and in the case of Acts one must consider also the preceding volume that Luke writes to Theophilus. Expectation at this stage is a key factor and this determined my introduction. As we'll see later, this is also helpfully an element of what Luke writes about and thus the introduction is not merely a useful hook to grab the attention of the congregation but serves also to unveil the first theme of the book that we were to spend the next few months studying together. With this idea of expectation in mind I began with a personal illustration setting the scene:
Just over a week ago I woke up to see sunlight streaming through a gap in the curtains. Instantly I jumped to my feet, and was dressed and out of the house within two minutes. Why? I knew that it was supposed to be dark when I woke up that morning. Daylight meant that I'd overslept. Right expectations seriously improve our understanding of life.
What are your expectations as we approach Acts,... the second part of what we could call Luke-Acts, a carefully constructed account of the ministry of Jesus Christ and his earliest followers. Luke writes very carefully... what do we expect him to tell us? Are we expecting to gain an education in first century Mediterranean geography over the next three months? If so we may learn something but our expectations will also seriously impede our chances of catching what Luke wants us to understand.
To underline the gravity of this theme, of expectation, it is worth considering the fact that if we misunderstand this passage we don't merely misunderstand one passage of scripture, which is damaging enough, but we also risk missing the point of the rest of the book.
Approaching the passage, we find recorded here the events from the same period as those of Luke 24. Luke has some things to remind us of but also some matters to draw our attention to specifically as he begins this book. Having concluded part one of his documentary with the ascension of the Christ he would be well within his rights to begin at the Pentecost event. However he starts with a re-telling of the events he has just recorded. As a fan of the film trilogy Back to the Future I was able to appreciate this. We showed the pre-credits footage from the start of the third film in that trilogy just prior to the sermon to set the scene. This illustrates both the linkage between Luke & Acts, and demonstrates how the same events can be viewed from a different angle to convey a different message. (There is also a hint of the expectation theme in the Doc's surprise at Marty's return.)
What this passage is not about / false trails
There are a number of potential false trails for this passage. A classic is one which we did actually pursue in our planning for the service and indeed it was included as part of the children's talk. This is potentially harmless but also regretful since it does not communicate the true essence of this passage and thus sets a poor example.
1. Dumb Questions
Our first false trail then is the "Dumb Questions" approach. This picks up on the perplexing question of the apostles regarding whether the Kingdom will be restored now. The application conclusion being that since they were able to ask a really dumb question about the kingdom of God then we can do likewise. I.e. Any question goes with God. If you had just one question... what would it be? However, if it's true that we can ask God anything it is not Luke's intended application.
If we dwell on the incident for a moment we'll see that they got something crucial right. These uneducated men knew their Biblical Theology. They knew that when Jesus said the Holy Spirit would soon be poured out that that meant the Kingdom of God was being restored soon. They knew that Jesus was referring to the prophecy of Joel, and Peter proves this as he preaches from that text at the Pentecost event. Where they were found lacking was in terms of the means and timing of the coming Kingdom. This still left them one step ahead of us. I introduced the issue like this:
Jesus says.... You'll receive the Holy Spirit, and then the apostles say: is the kingdom being restored now? I suspect that's not the first question we would ask when the Holy Spirit is mentioned...here we find ourselves lacking in our understanding of the Bible, particularly what the Old Testament teaches about Jesus and God's kingdom.
What Jesus does is to recall the promise we find in John's gospel of the coming of the Spirit, but also, and more significantly he recalls the great promise of Joel. Joel spoke of the last days when God would pour out the Holy Spirit on his people, heralding the great restoration of the Kingdom of God, with great joy and judgment. (This is confirmed by Peter's preaching following the events of Pentecost). The apostles hear Jesus and know that he has just told them that these events in Joel are about to happen, and so, naturally, they ask - "Now?"
Jesus does rebuke them but his answer also shows they are on the right lines. He speaks of the "How" rather than the "Now". It is a "put down to the date fixers" as Michael Green observes but far more it is a "thumbs up to the Biblical Theologians", even the uneducated fishermen of Galileee. This response sets us up for investigating Jesus instructions upon which I focused my sermon.
Another potential false trail is that of "Mission to the ends of the earth". This may sound ridiculous - surely this is actually the key theme of the whole of the book... And it is. The problem is more the way that the instruction of this passage finds its application today. "Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth." The most common application of this directive is to read the name of our own village, town or city as Jerusalem and then work our way outwards.
This approach totally overlooks the significance of Jesus words and is symptomatic of the way in which Acts is applied directly to us by an allegorical substitution of ourselves into the narrative. It also misses the point that we, on the whole, find ourselves not in Jerusalem, but at the ends of the earth already. Neglecting this misses the joy of what has already accomplished in the spread of the kingdom but also promotes a division today between domestic and overseas mission. Such that, the overseas missionary is gains the prayer support and profile whilst the domestic missionary in her workplace is given second-class status in the scheme of world mission. At the ends of the earth both are of equal worth.
What this passage is about - the difference Biblical Theology makes
With that said, what then is this passage about? As I've hinted the big idea is about the coming of the Kingdom of God with the focus on "How" rather than "Now". It isn't timing that is the issue - and the arrival isn't a sudden whiz bang affair, but it will be one of emergence through the apostolic witness, empowered by the Holy Spirit, crossing the cultural divides outwards from Jerusalem. How Jesus' teaching here applies to the apostles themselves is relatively clear and explains to us what is happening throughout Acts.
However, to understand this and grasp the significance of it does require us to consider the wider context. Without this it may seem that God is simply doing something exciting and idealistic in building the model church to which we should aspire with great sign and wonder. I was aware that many would hold this view as we approached Acts and thus tried to keep drawing people back to Joel's prophetic words. Just as Luke has previously told of Jesus' fulfillment of scripture now the apostles are to take their share in this role.
The key reference point for the passage is going to be Joel 2v28ff. The pouring out of the Holy Spirit is something that if we know the Old Testament at all should send lead us to tie Acts and Joel together in our minds. It is the last days, the time of joy and judgment that Jesus is inaugurating here and this knowledge must be foundational to all that we do. As the prophets have taught God will draw men to himself for eternity and turn many away, this is the foundation stone of the message that this messengers will find themselves announcing to the world. These men will surely prophesy.
They are given a fourfold instruction. In my sermon I reduced this to three for the sake of brevity but I regret this. Whilst in many ways it has little affect on the application of Jesus instruction to the apostles it is of much greater significance to us.
The reality is that Jesus has four instructions.
- Wait in Jerusalem till the Holy Spirit comes.
- Filled with the Holy Spirit
- Be witnesses
- From Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria and the ends of the earth
In neglecting the first of these I was minor enough but it is very significant in how we tend to apply Acts.
A Turning point in redemptive history
This passage marks both a key moment of redemptive history - the ascension - though this was outside the range of the specific passage I was given. It also announces crucially the arrival of the Spirit, which is accomplished at Pentecost. Between the cross and Pentecost we see a crucial paradigm shift in redemptive history. With his work, at the cross, accomplished Jesus departs from earth, leaving the Holy Spirit to empower his people until the work on earth is done. Much of the significance of this is easier explained from Acts 2 which followed my sermon in our series.
Here it is worth noting that passage I was given may have been better divided as 1v1-11 rather than 1v1-9. This would have led us to capture the first half of the paradigm shift which is Jesus departure after his resurrection. With these two verses in place the passage gains a different focus and perhaps better incorporates it's significance.
With an extended range the announcement of the Spirit's coming carries two implications rather than the one I focused on.
1. The Kingdom coming, as Joel prophesied
2. Jesus departure, as foretold by Jesus in John's gospel.
This angle further expands our understanding of what this emerging kingdom will look like and the hope it carries of Jesus return at its consummation. In terms of capturing the big picture at the start of the series there must be some mileage in an overview of the book of Acts prior to tackling Luke's record in more detail. Key points to consider then include:
- That Jesus is alive
- The Spirit will be poured out
- The kingdom will emerge with the spirit empowered witnesses
- Jesus departs before the Spirit comes
- The spirit comes - fulfillment from Joel
- The Kingdom emerges from Jerusalem, to Judea, Samaria and to the ends of the earth through the testimony of the witnesses.
- Even at the end of Luke's record in Acts 28 this continues
- And it will continue until Jesus return in the same way that he left
One day Jesus will return. This is the promise from page one of Acts. And this is the hope that drives the witnesses onwards and outwards. And it is the key note for their sermons - (acts 3v21, 17v21). The day is coming when Jesus will return and the kingdom will come in completeness - until then it emerges through the witnesses testimony. That is what we see in Acts.
A sermon on Acts 1v1-11 gives an easier way to share more broadly the context and the more of the big picture is gained the less erroneous conclusions will be drawn. It should be noted that such errors are well-meaning searches for application but nonetheless erroneous in a place where there is huge truth and application to be found.
Taking the shorter passage meant that we could focus on the first implication of the emergence of the Kingdom in the gift of the Spirit to empower Jesus' witnesses - this was particularly helpful given the short period of time that had to deliver the message.
Sermon shape and structure
I began the sermon with some introductory remarks on expectations, which set the scene for studying a new book. This led us through the dumb questions issue - dispensing with fact that they asked a dumb question at all, and naturally set us in a Biblical Theology context by linking Acts to Joel. With the scene set I proceeded to structure my main point about the emerging of the Kingdom around Jesus instructions to the apostles.
My outline was as follows.
Acts 1v1-9 : The emerging Kingdom of God.
Setting the scene - the dumb question & the prophet Joel
Joel tells of when the Holy Spirit will be poured out and the Kingdom of God will be restored in judgment and joy
Not WHEN but HOW will this happen
1. They will be Spirit empowered
2. Eyewitnesses of Jesus, equipped with the testimony of scripture (link Luke 24) about King Jesus and his kingdom.
3. To the ends of the earth
I spent some time expanding these three key points for the apostles new ministry looking at what this would look like and how we could expect to see this in the book of Acts. This set the scene for what Jesus teaching looked like for those receiving it first.
Back to my sermon:
They'll receive the power from the Holy Spirit and they will be witnesses of King Jesus and his kingdom to the ends of the earth. What does this mean?
Firstly, God will begin to dwell with his people in power, in just a few days - from Pentecost onwards. These apostles (messengers) will receive the Holy Spirit and become the start of the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy. God will give them power to be witnesses. They will be Spirit-empowered.
Secondly, Spirit-empowered WITNESSES. We recall that Jesus has opened the scriptures to them to see how they are about him both at the end of Luke and here in Acts chapter one... they need a deep conviction about who Jesus is. They must know why he suffered and died and rose if they are to be his witnesses to the world. The message of judgment and joy in Joel is crucial here. Jesus is the one who stands as judge over us all. All people face his judgment. In him alone can that judgment be averted from us to fall instead upon him. At the cross the way to the glorious kingdom Joel speaks of is opened. They have to know the witness statements about Jesus if they are to be equipped witnesses in the emergence of the Kingdom.
Thirdly, totally against the national mindset of these first century Jews they are being sent out to spread the message of Jesus far and wide as the kingdom reaches out to have a universal scope.
So, HOW WILL THE KINGDOM ADVANCE?
Spirit empowered people (Joel 2)
Witnesses of the good news of Jesus Christ found in all scriptures (OT+NT
To the ends of the earth, crossing every division anyone can now enter the glorious kingdom of God
I hinted earlier that a problem with Acts is the way in which it is so often applied so directly (albeit selectively) to us in the church of the 21st Century. I wanted to make a clear distinction. My applications were three-fold, linked to the instructions to the apostles but carefully worded to show the difference between us and them, marking that Luke had purposes of instruction for Theophilus that continue for us.
Let's return to my sermon text:
So that was Jesus teaching to the apostles, but what would Luke have us learn from this teaching. It has been recorded for a reason. Firstly it will aid our understanding of what happens in Acts - we'll understand what it is that the apostles are actually doing as they travel throughout the Mediterranean. But there is also a mandate to us.
Firstly, Today, we need to know that Pentecost has happened. The Holy Spirit has been poured out.. the last days that Joel spoke of have truly begun. We, like them, have received power. The revolution has already begun. It's important that we realize what we have. Let us not forget - we have the Holy Spirit in us and with us. We are Spirit-people.
Secondly, Today, these first Jesus-witnesses are long gone and we are just the latest in a long line. We may not share their eyewitness experience of Jesus but we have their testimony in the New Testament and the knowledge that Jesus is also the subject of the Old Testament. As we read the Bible we can look for the glorious vision of the King and his kingdom that it paints. The task that is set out by Jesus has no best-before date, all we read is that in v11 he will one day return - that is our hope and our spur in the task of witnessing in the power of the Spirit. Spirit empowered we have a testimony, a witness, to deliver to the world.
Thirdly, Today, the task continues, day in day out wherever we are. The gospel has reached beyond Samaria to the ends of the earth and that is where we find ourselves today. The task lies ahead of us where-ever we are, whether that is Bible translating in North Africa or working with WEC in Spain. Whether we're students at the University or working in an office, school, or like myself a bank. The ends of the earth are everywhere and Jesus must be proclaimed. King Jesus must be proclaimed by us. And this task must continue whether we see great fruitfulness or not. Whether we are the last generation or just the middle men of history... the task must continue. The promises of Joel will be fulfilled. Judgment and joy are ahead. Jesus will return one day. Til then action is required. And none are exempt.
I realize in hindsight that my short-cutting and brevity earlier cost me clarity in the final applications. Having discarded the instruction to wait in Jerusalem it was a lately introduced idea that our situation is not quite the same as that of the apostles.
This may have masked somewhat understanding of the fact that Pentecost is in the past not the future. Many still look for this to be in the future and yet this history is a joy for it tells us of what we have already, whilst Christ's return in what lies ahead and that for which we wait - busy as we do so. The fire is already alight and we need not wait for the great experience that will empower us to be witnesses - we need only obey and we'll know God's power with us. Instructions like that to the apostles are used to give the idea that we must wait its gravity. What occurs then is that the narrative is read as:
- The apostles waited and prayed
- God empowered them
This totally flattens the events and takes no note of the Biblical Theology of the event of Pentecost. In hindsight I could have clarified this easily by stating earlier that the apostles had to wait for Pentecost to happen whereas we find ourselves on the other-side of this event already empowered. This difference is crucial in our application. It will affect how we read the rest of Acts and measure events to be unique or normal.
The point in terms of witnessing required only slight clarification in terms of the testimony we have as witnesses, which is now the whole of scripture. This provides a nice tool to informing ourselves of the use of all scripture for evangelism as the testimony about the Christ. And here we see also the significance of the New Testament as scriptural since it is the testimony of the witnesses Jesus commissioned.
And with all this said I concluded with an exhortation to take hold of these applications:
Maybe we are just expecting God to click his fingers and make the kingdom appear - and perhaps he could do that - but these introductory words that Luke has written to us in Acts suggest otherwise - his way is to use us his people to spread his Kingdom far and wide.
Our journey through Acts will shows us the early days of the advancing of the kingdom of Jesus-witnesses, that journey will inspire and instruct us as we take on the task today as we look forward with those before us to Jesus' return. We will be encouraged and our expectations about the kingdom of God will be raised. Are we expectant?
Resources & Recommended Reading
John Stott. The Bible Speaks Today: The Message of Acts. A most helpful resource.
Michael Green. 30 Years That Changed the world. Recently published this book is built on a normatising approach to Acts which tends to neglect Biblical Theology. It is however helpful in terms of historical background and in some of it's insights.
David Peterson. Acts, in The New Dictionary of Biblical Theology. An informative resource to set Acts in it's broader context. Thought it provides little in the way of detailed analysis for any specific passage it will ably assist to think about the work as a whole.
- 1 Corinthians
- 1 John
- 1 Samuel
- 1 Timothy
- 2 John
- 2 Kings
- 2 Samuel
- 3 John
- Biblical Theology
- New Testament
- Old Testament
- Old Testament Theology
- Song of Songs
- Wisdom Literature