Monday, June 24, 2013

Back on for kicking the Romans out?

... continued from Friday.
... Before Jesus ascends to heaven in Acts 1, the disciples ask a curious question. "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel."  This is a fascinating question because it gives us a real look into the disciples' heads and what they were thinking Jesus had come to do. [1]

For example, it reveals something we would know from studying the Jewish literature of the time as well.  The Jews were looking for the Messiah to be a political figure who would restore the nation of Israel to political independence. They were not expecting God to become human and take over the whole world, let alone the whole universe.  They were expecting a human individual to become Israel's king again and free it from Roman domination.  Notice that they don't say anything about Jesus taking over the world--only returning Israel to its political independence.

In this light, Jesus' answer is even more striking.  He doesn't say, "Good grief, don't you get it, even after the resurrection?"  His answer is rather, "Not yet."  He says, "It is not for you to know the times or dates" (Acts 1:7).  The implication is that there will indeed be a time when Israel will once more have its political kingdom restored to it.

These sorts of hints help us reconstruct both what the earliest disciples were initially thinking as well as Luke's theology of the end times. As we can see from the gospels, the disciples were not expecting Jesus to die on the cross.  That's not what messiahs did.  The messiah would be God's anointed king, through whom God would free Israel from the Romans and restore its political independence.  The disciples would not have expected the Messiah to die--that would actually be an indication that someone wasn't really the Messiah.

So Peter was probably ready to fight to the death for Jesus the Messiah. But he wasn't prepared for Jesus to surrender willingly to the Romans.  And he didn't expect Jesus to get crucified.  He expected God to kick the Romans out and for Jesus to become the earthly king.

We can see Peter's misunderstanding in a nutshell in his well-known conversation over who he thinks Jesus is in Mark 8:27-38.  Peter gets the fact that Jesus is the Christ (which is Greek for Messiah). But he doesn't get the idea that Jesus will die.  The two contradicted each other in his mind and expectations.

So the disciples probably didn't expect Jesus to die.  And then after he died they probably didn't expect him to rise again. Their question in Acts 1 amount to, "So, are we back on for the earthly kingdom?"

Jesus' answer is "not yet."  What they did not anticipate was what is sometimes called the "church age," the age we are in right now.  Luke calls it the "times of the Gentiles" in Luke 21:24).  We will return to talk about what Luke possibly thought about this current age in the last chapter of this book.

Jesus then goes on to tell his disciples what does come next.  It is, if you would, the great prediction, the prediction that they will do what Jesus commands them to do in the Great Commission of Matthew 28.  "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" (Acts 1:8).

This prediction is a blueprint for the book of Acts.  In Acts 2, the disciples receive the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost.  They receive the power of the Holy Spirit that John the Baptist foresaw way back before Jesus was even baptized (Luke 3:16). The rest of the book plays out the rest of the prediction.  Acts 2-7 give us the disciples being witnesses of the resurrection in Jerusalem.  Acts 8-12 give the disciples and others being witnesses in Judea and Samaria.  Acts 13-28 give us primarily Paul going to the ends of the earth.

Then Jesus ascends to the sky, and the angels predict that he will return again in the same way some day.  Where did Jesus go?  He presumably went to the heaven where God the Father is. [2]  It is interesting to imagine that the disciples probably thought of God's heaven as straight up through layers of sky (cf. 2 Cor. 12:2).  They did not know that the earth was a globe or that our solar system was just one of thousands in one of countless galaxies.

And if God made the world out of nothing, than the heaven where his essence is must not even be in this universe.  Is this not another great example of God stooping to our weakness?  Jesus ascends according to the view of the cosmos the disciples have.  Then once he is clear of the clouds, he goes to the real heaven...

[1] The fact that this is Luke's portrayal of the disciples, if anything, makes the question even more striking.  As the Gospel of John probably hints, the church increasingly spiritualized Jesus' mission ("My kingdom is not of this world" - John 18:36).  Yet Luke makes no effort to hide this question nor does he indicate in any way that it was misguided.

[2] Here we are talking about things we could not possibly understand.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lol. I do not see God as stooping to our weakness, I see God as meeting us at our level of faith (understanding) and growing us from there. We are not His imbecilic mistakes, we are His adopted sons and daughters; His beloved children. He has all of eternity -what does it matter to Him how long it takes for us to grow? Since heaven's invisible, God only know where it is. It could even be as close as inside of us. Susan