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The Jesus RevolutionLearning from Christ's First Followers
By Leith Anderson
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 The United Methodist Publishing House
All right reserved.
Chapter OneMoving Forward (ACTS 1:1-11)
For the eleven remaining disciples, a golden era had come abruptly to an end. During the past three-and-a-half years, their teacher, Jesus, had walked with them through countryside, desert, and city, getting his feet as dusty and calloused as their own. He had laughed with them. He had spoken of deep spiritual issues that challenged their assumptions, opened their eyes, and altered their behavior. He had prayed with and for them. And now, suddenly, he was gone.
Jesus had already surprised them once. After hours of brutal torture and a long, lingering death by crucifixion, their teacher had—after three days—risen from death. Stretching out his hands, with nail holes still evident, he had appeared to them while they were locked away in stunned mourning. I imagine the disciples weeping with joy, hugging one another. Their rabbi was alive.
For forty glorious days it was as if he had never left. Acts 1:3 says he continued to serve as their teacher, speaking about the kingdom of God. This had been a central theme through the years, but his disciples still didn't get it. They thought "kingdom" meant an earthly government with a border, capital city, army, and laws, but that wasn't it at all. Jesus' "kingdom of God" referred to people living out God's will on earth. Jesus was calling his followers to a radically different way of living—one of love instead of hate, salvation instead of condemnation, forgiveness instead of revenge. He issued this radical call one last time, wanting them to understand that they were to pursue the kingdom of God—not the kingdoms of earth.
One day he shared a meal with them and instructed them not to leave Jerusalem. Instead, they were to "wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit" (1:4b).
These were new ideas for the men.
Not long after this bewildering pronouncement, Jesus called the group together again. There was something in the air. Anticipation. Urgency. Jesus told them they couldn't know God's timetable for the future of political Israel but they could depend on receiving the Holy Spirit very soon—in just ten more days.
"It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority," he said. "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth" (1:7-8).
The Holy Spirit would give them supernatural power to live out the Christian life. The Spirit would reside inside of them, guiding, encouraging, instructing, and blessing them. But they would be given a job to do with the Spirit's help. They would become the messengers of God.
Acts 1:8 contains one of the most important statements by Jesus in the New Testament: "you will be my witnesses." Being a Christian has responsibilities as well as privileges. Being a witness means telling what we have experienced as followers of Jesus the Christ. Being a witness may be difficult and come at a high price. (The Greek word for witness is martus, from which comes the English word "martyr.") Christians would be international in relationships—no longer identified by citizenship in a specific nation but part of the family of God in the whole world.
This is the blueprint for Christians to change the world for God—from their hometown to province to neighbor nation to the whole globe. From the moment Jesus gave instructions to his disciples, the gospel of the Christ would begin spreading from Jerusalem to the rest of the world. It would be possible because of the Holy Spirit, not armies, laws, politics, power, fame, or money. The power of Jesus' cause would be spiritual and supernatural.
Then something amazing happened. While his followers watched, Jesus physically lifted from the ground, was encompassed in a cloud, and disappeared. There were no protracted good-byes and no time to adjust to this new reality before it occurred. He had returned to heaven and his disciples were alone.
Picture those devoted men standing with their heads tilted back, watching the spot where their Lord and trusted rabbi had vanished into a mist of white. What were they thinking? Jesus had given them very specific instructions for their future work and they were filled with joy that they now understood his purpose, but they must have felt a deep sense of loss—their best friend had been taken away. Again.
Here's what they knew: the Son of God had become human and lived a sin-free life among them. He had died, and through this death he had paid for all human sin—past, present, and future. He had risen from death to live again. And now he had returned to heaven. His job on earth was done. Complete. Jesus' life and ministry on earth were over.
Yet first-century historian and physician Luke explodes that assumption with the first startling words of his second book, the book of Acts: "In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven" (1:1-2).
"Began to do and to teach." What does that mean? Is Luke saying that the stories of Jesus—from his birth in the most humble of settings to the passionate teaching to the miracles to his ascension—are only the beginning?
To make certain the disciples comprehended the meaning of the event they had witnessed, two angels suddenly materialized, most certainly startling and paralyzing even these men who had seen countless supernatural events during their time with Jesus.
"Men of Galilee, ... why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven" (1:11).
Jesus was not abandoning his followers. He was leaving them for an indeterminate amount of time with a job to accomplish. He promised to return. So Acts is the book that tells us what happened after the disciples left that hilltop. No longer were Jesus' followers staring upward, they were looking forward. It is the book where Jesus' work continues through his followers.
Acts is also the book that carries us—his current believers—into our future. It is where we learn that Jesus cannot be contained in a history of thirty-three years on an ancient strip of land along the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. Acts helps us see that he is still at work in our world.
This is a breathtaking revelation because it includes us. Have you ever wished that you could have followed Jesus? Seen him walk on water? Watched as he healed people's bodies with a touch or a word? Luke's writings in Acts tell us that even as twenty-first-century believers we can experience the presence and power, teaching and ministry of Jesus. Jesus is just getting started. He has much more to accomplish. More miracles. More transformed lives. More of everything he started.
How does this apply to you and me? Like the disciples, we have to get on board. We have to grasp the power and potential that Jesus puts in our hands through the help of the Holy Spirit. We have to accept the call. The book of Acts is a historical record of the early church but it is also a challenge to modern-day Christians. By reading about the activities, worship, beliefs, and behavior of the earliest followers of Jesus recorded in Acts, we see how the church changed the world and how we can be changed, too.
After leaving his disciples, Jesus returned to a place we can only imagine, heaven. There he could represent us to God, build future residences for his followers to live, and command his worldwide endeavor. While living on earth as a human being, Jesus was in only one place at a time. Now the Spirit could be everywhere at once. It was God's excellent plan and it has everything to do with us.
Reflect and Discuss
1. What are your assumptions about the early believers? How were they different from present-day Christians?
2. "No longer were they staring upward, they were looking forward." How does this statement about the first Jesus followers apply to Christians today?
3. How is your view of being a witness similar to or different from that of the first followers?
Excerpted from The Jesus Revolution by Leith Anderson Copyright © 2009 by The United Methodist Publishing House. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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