The sermon text, largely as preached this morning at MacAlpine Presbyterian Church, is below. You will notice some differences if you listen to the sermon audio available here for I mentioned something that struck me in the moment of reading the passage yet again–for example. The sermon title borrows the question that the two dressed in white robes asked the apostles in Acts 1, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” The introduction retells the similar story of 2 Kings 2, which would be helpful background to read when trying to understand Acts 1. You might even start with my commentary called Elijah to Elisha. In any case, we will pick back up with Acts 2 in two weeks for Pentecost. The passages for next Sunday, which also happens to be Mother’s Day, will be Matthew 10:34-39, 12:46-50, and 1 Tim 5:1-2.
I’ve mentioned before the typology of Elijah for John the Baptist and Elisha for Jesus. This was certainly one of the lessons that the apostles heard again from Jesus during the forty days that He appeared to them after His resurrection. The risen Jesus also would have taught them that Elijah—often considered the greatest of the prophets—was a type of Himself. Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind, Elijah and Elisha were on their way from Gilgal and Elisha insisted that he would not leave this prophet who had become like a father to him. Then they came to the Jordan River and Elijah took his cloak and rolled it up and struck the water and the water parted to the one side and to the other until the two of them could go over on dry ground. When they had crossed, Elijah asked Elisha what Elisha wanted before he was taken away from Elisha. And Elisha asked to have on him a double portion of his spirit. Elijah then said, “If you see me as I am being taken from you, it shall be so for you.” “And as they still went on and talked, behold, chariots of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them. And Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven. And Elisha saw it and he cried, ‘My father, my father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!’ And he saw him no more” (2 Kings 2:11-12). And Elisha took Elijah’s cloak that had fallen from him and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan River and struck the water and it parted for him and he went back over. Now Elisha was not the only disciple of Elijah at the time. There were a number of other prophets who had stayed there on the other side of the Jordan—some knowing that Elijah would be taken away from them. And when they saw Elisha part the Jordan they said, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha” but then they suggested that fifty strong men with them should go seek for Elijah because the Spirit of the Lord may have caught him up and thrown him on some mountain or into some valley somewhere. And Elisha said no at first but eventually gave in and allowed them to do it and for three days they looked for Elijah and didn’t find him. The reason it was three days is to remind us that Elijah had been delivered from death. That is a pattern throughout the Bible and that pattern is the reason Jesus can say the Hebrew Scriptures teach that He would rise from the dead on the third day. Speaking of Jesus, our passage today is the opening of Acts and Jesus is about to be taken into heaven and He ordered His disciples to stay in Jerusalem until they are baptized with the Holy Spirit. And they should have known that they would receive that double portion of the Spirit and go in the spirit of Jesus as prophets mighty in deed and word before God and all the people from Jerusalem to the end of the earth because they saw Jesus ascend into heaven. But instead, they just stood there gazing into heaven as if watching for Him to be thrown on some mountain somewhere. Listen to how Luke tells it:
- The apostles were not just to stand there gazing into heaven.
- The two angels gently rebuked them for doing so for the same basic reason that Jesus had rebuked them for wanting to know when the kingdom would be restored to Israel. The apostles had asked Jesus, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And Jesus had answered that it was not for them to know the times or seasons when these things will take place. They were not to focus on when the end of the end times would come. It was not for them to know. The angels offer the assuring words that Jesus will come back in the same way that the apostles saw Him go into heaven. But they were not just to stand there gazing into heaven watching for Jesus to come back. The ascension of Jesus into heaven began a new phase in their interactions with Jesus because no longer would He appear to them from time to time as He had during the past forty days to present proofs to them and speak to them about the kingdom of God. No longer would they wait around for Jesus to appear again.
- In the meantime, Jesus had given orders to the apostles. One of those commands was for them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the Holy Spirit to be poured out. This was not permission to be lazy. The ascension had taken place on Mount Olivet, near Jerusalem, Luke tells us it was about a Sabbath day’s journey away. So they were to travel back to Jerusalem and go up to the upper room and devote themselves to prayer. Indeed, not only did they do so after the angels’ rebuke but Peter noted the need for a disciple to take the place of Judas Iscariot among the twelve apostles and a new apostle was identified. So this was not a time of doing nothing like the fifty men who were foolishly searching for Elijah instead of actually being helpful. But in the verses we read this morning we also read the summary of what the apostles were to do after being baptized with the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” They were not to just stand there and do nothing waiting for Jesus to come back, Jesus was going to continue to act by His Spirit through them. This book is not so much the Acts of the Apostles as it is the Acts of Jesus Christ by His Spirit through His apostles. (No doubt if you or I were one of the apostles standing there as Jesus ascended into heaven we too would be tempted to linger and savor the moment. Only Elisha had seen something close to this kind of event before as he watched Elijah taken up in a whirlwind into heaven with chariots of fire and horses of fire between him and Elijah. Don’t forget that because Elisha saw this, a double portion of the spirit of Elijah fell on him. But the apostles were not just to stand there gazing into heaven until Jesus’ returned but to observe those commands Jesus had given them and then in a few days the Holy Spirit would be poured out upon them with power. Elijah with his new Exodus event, being taken into heaven and on the third day we know he was delivered from death was a type of Jesus and Elisha receiving a double portion of his spirit is a type of the apostles. And like the apostles…)
- We don’t just stand there gazing into heaven waiting for Jesus to return but rather we remember and observe the mighty acts and teachings of Jesus.
No doubt you have heard the criticism that some people are so heavenly-minded that they are of no earthly good. Of course, Scripture makes it clear that if we are heavenly-minded in the right way then we will be of great earthly good. When we sell our possessions and give to the needy, as Jesus tells us, we are storing up treasure in heaven (Matt 19:21, Mark 10:21, Luke 18:22). When we set our minds on things above, not on the things that are on the earth, we put to death what is earthly in us – as Paul lists in this regard: “sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Col 3:2-5). But there is a way to be heavenly-minded – to be just gazing into heaven – that we are of no earthly good. An example of this would be those who spend time and energy trying to discover the times and the seasons when Jesus will return. Every once in a while you will hear someone make a prediction about when the end will be and so far every one of those predictions has been wrong. But most Christians, knowing what Jesus has said about these things, do not fall for the speculation. Yet we can still spend a great deal of time and energy focused on what the precise sequence of events will be or speculating about various details. One of the most popular subjects for people to call and ask about on Ask the Pastor concerns this – what we might call the timing of the end of the end times. Rocky Munson liked to say to these kinds of questions that he was a “pan-millenialist; that is, it would all pan out in the end.” That was both a wise and funny way to answer those questions. But many people have spent a lot of time mining the Scriptures for hints. This should not be a surprise. The disciples of Jesus have always been curious about such things. But we might as well go up on a mountain and gaze into the heavens watching for Jesus to come back. Neither speculating on the timing of the end of the end times or gazing into the heavens watching for Jesus will do any good (pun intended; that is, it doesn’t help for you to do so nor are you doing good works for others).
- We don’t just gaze into heaven waiting for Jesus’ return but we remember and observe the mighty acts and teachings of Jesus. Like Theophilus we observe all that Jesus began to do and teach as it is recorded in the Gospels as well as what Jesus continued to do and teach through the apostles in Acts. In this book the apostles took the gospel as witnesses of Jesus to the people of Jerusalem, and then into all Judea and Samaria, and even to the capital of the end of the earth. And as you read through the book you discover that this meant that they took the gospel to their fellow Jewish people, as well as to those who were of mixed ancestry known as Samaritans, as well as even to the Gentiles in Rome. That was their particular task as apostles – as eyewitnesses to the risen Jesus who had seen Jesus ascend into heaven and were empowered by the Holy Spirit for that work. They did so as prophets mighty in deed and word before God and all the people. And like the apostles we don’t just stand and gaze into heaven, but we share the good news to which they testified. We share it with people who grew up in the church, those who may have a mixed religious background, and those completely outside church influence. We share it with those who look and/or think like us as well as with those who look and/or think differently. We testify to what God is doing in our own lives to anyone and everyone. Nor does that exhaust what we are doing instead of just gazing into heaven waiting for Jesus to return. Since we do not know when that will be, we feed the poor, we are good stewards of those things entrusted to us as individuals and as a church, and we fulfill our callings. I’m not being prescriptive here—telling you what you need to do, I’m being descriptive—describing what we Christians are doing in the world. Of course, God wants us to be of earthly good while we wait rather than to just gaze into the clouds. Thus Jesus does not give us more law to watch us fail—no Jesus has given us His Spirit so that we are all prophets mighty in deed and word before God and all the people—not prophets who need to perform signs and wonders like the apostles did when founding the church but prophets who still speak forth the word of God and who demonstrate that gospel by helping others. Thanks be to God. Amen.