The book of Acts begins by picking up for us the history that was left off in the Gospel of Luke. And just like Hannibal from the A-Team, “I love it when a plan comes together.” Luke plans to tie together what is recorded in the Gospel, “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (Acts 1:1) and Acts which begins with the end of the direct teaching ministry of Christ and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. It could be said that this marks the end of His earthly ministry and the start of His heavenly ministry. That event which we confess in the Apostle’s Creed, “he ascended into heaven.”
We are reminded that the apostles had been told to remain in Jerusalem and wait for the promise of the Father that Christ had given them. And Luke, stretching back to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, notes that John the Baptist’s ministry of pointing to Christ, saying that he was unworthy to untie His sandals, and that Christ must increase and John decrease is now being made fully clear. John baptized with water but now Christ would pour out the Holy Spirit. All that John’s ministry had been pointing to was now being fully realized as the promised Holy Spirit was about to be poured out.
The disciples are asking Jesus, who had been showing them many proofs of His resurrection (1:3), “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?” (1:6). The disciples continue to show their confusion. The kingdom of God which Jesus had spoken of repeatedly was not like any earthly kingdom. Jesus was not going to set up an earthly kingdom. Jesus also makes clear that the time of His return in glory was not to be revealed to them, they had something else that was to be revealed to them: The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
Now when we think of the Holy Spirit coming at Pentecost, it is good to remember that the Holy Spirit did not just come into being after the ascension. The Holy Spirit has always been and has been revealed to be at work in various points in the history of the world. But after the ascension as verse 8 promises, the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and empowered them to spread the Gospel from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. We can say that verse 8 gives us the historical and geographical spread of the Gospel and a basic outline of the whole book of Acts.
Did you note that wonderful word of Gospel in verse 8? Verse 8 is not a command to somehow obtain the Holy Spirit. It is also not a command to be witnesses. Luke writes future tense verbs stating the reality of what was to come. This is the promise of God for the apostles. There is no uncertainty in the words of Jesus. This is what will be.
The apostles were with Jesus and as He spoke of the Holy Spirit’s coming He was physically lifted up, ascending into heaven. The apostles continued looking up watching Christ and two angels appeared. The angels gave a promise as well that day. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11). It has been noted that at the great events of Jesus life angels have made announcements. At his birth, resurrection, and here at His ascension the angels clarify the significance of the event for the people there. His ascension means that His redemptive work is finished and He goes to sit at the right hand of God the Father.
During those “many proofs” Jesus had been appearing and disappearing. Now, without a doubt Jesus was making clear to the Apostles that they were not to expect to see Him again in this way. We should be aware that looking for an appearance of Jesus in this manner, short of the end of time, is not to be expected. In fact, after the ascension of Christ the Apostles themselves were not to see Jesus in this way. At the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost their vision, and also our vision, is taken from the heavens to the revealed Word of God provided to us as the Holy Spirit inspired the Apostles to write and teach. Article V of the Augsburg Confession condemns those who teach “through their own preparations and works the Holy Spirit comes to them without the external Word.” We look to Christ in the Word and Sacraments, nowhere else.
Chrysostom said, “Of Christ’s resurrection the disciples saw the final part, not the first part, but of the ascension they saw the first part not the final part.” In the book of Acts, we see the first part of how the Holy Spirit worked through the believers spreading the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Today, the ministry of the Holy Spirit continues where the Word of God is rightly preached and the Sacraments are rightly administered. The final part of that work of the Holy Spirit will come to an end when Jesus Himself returns. Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.