Previous article in this series: December 15, 2013, p. 139.
“Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”
That was the question of the Eleven with which we concluded our previous article in this series.
We might, on first thought, be surprised by that question. After all, had not Christ “breathed on them” and said to them “Receive ye the Holy Ghost” ()? Had He not “opened their understanding” that they might “understand the scriptures” ( )? And had He not “expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” ( )? In light of that, I say, we might wonder how it could be possible that they still have not abandoned their notion that Christ’s kingdom is somehow earthly in its manifestation and political in its nature.
F.F. Bruce, in his commentary on the book of Acts, says concerning their question, that it “appears to have been the last flicker of their burning expectation of an imminent political theocracy with themselves as its chief executives.” Perhaps so—if the emphasis is on “last flicker.” For the truth is, I think, that very little remained of the carnality that had characterized the thinking of the disciples for the duration of Christ’s public ministry. Earlier, in their vying amongst themselves for positions of prominence in Christ’s kingdom, they had simply assumed the ‘imminence’ of that ‘political theocracy.’ Clearly, that is no longer the case. But they do still wonder about that kingdom. They did not doubt for a moment that Christ was indeed King. But, not yet reckoning with an ascension of their Lord, they imagined a rule of the risen Christ confined somehow to this earth. And, thinking still in terms of the type, they imagined a restoration of the theocracy, under the Kingship of Israel’s Messiah. Hence their question: “Lord, wilt thou at this time…?”
It’s in that light that, on second thought, we ought to find the disciples’ question not at all surprising. We find in it, in fact, confirmation of what we have learned thus far in our searching of the Scriptures in this series. What did the prophets of old understand of the wonder of salvation? Exactly as much as the Holy Spirit revealed to them. No more, no less. There were the “prescribed limits” of which Calvin spoke, the “veil” between the Law and the Gospel that kept the saints of old from seeing “more closely the things that are revealed to our eyes.”
And all according to a divinely prescribed method of instruction—the method of a gradual unfolding of the truth. Like a bud. Embosomed in the bud, from the very beginning, were all the truths of the economy of redemption. One truth, really—existing first in a lower, then in higher stages of development. A truth not fully revealed until the fullness of time, when the gospel was brought into full view. It is the prerogative of the church of the new dispensation to behold the truth in full bloom.
The disciples lived in the time of transition. They were born into the old. Before their very eyes the dimness of the shadows of the old dispensation was being lifted. Yes, being lifted. Though the types of the old dispensation were indeed brushed aside in one sweep, as it were, with the death of Christ, the lifting of the shadows was a process, not an event. At the moment that Christ breathed on the disciples on Easter evening, there was a definite advance in the Spirit’s work. Through the Spirit they came to understand the cross and resurrection. But their knowledge of the work of Christ was not yet complete. Nor could it be. For the Spirit would not apply to them the truth of the ascension until Christ ascended and received all power in earth and in heaven.
That explains the Mount of Olives. Notice, if you will, what the question of the disciples was not. It was not, “What about the cross?” Though Pentecost would surely give them deeper insights into that question, the cross was no longer a problem for them. The Spirit of Christ, breathed on them, had taken care of that, forty days earlier. But the kingdom—that remained a problem.
The disciples had not gone with Jesus to the Mount of Olives that day to bid farewell to their Master. In fact, they would very likely have found any thought of His leaving them to be unsettling. How could they do without Him? And, for that matter, what must they, in light of their new knowledge of His death and resurrection, do with Him—that is, with, as they mistakenly imagined, His continued presence among them?
Then, there on the Mount, they heard Him speak of their being soon “endued with power from on high” (), when they would be “baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence” ( ). Ah, yes, power from on high. What could that mean? Understandably (not surprisingly) their minds revert to the type. Understandable because for all the years of its existence the people of Israel had been bound to the types—prominent among which was the nation itself. And its kings. Having been conditioned, so to speak, to the types for hundreds of years, it was difficult for the Jews to comprehend that those types were only shadows, shadows that had no special significance in and of themselves. Hence the disciples’ question: “Lord, wilt thou at this time [that is, at the time of the gift of the Spirit] restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Self-aggrandizement? Desire for positions of prominence in a political theocracy? Hardly a flicker of that remained. A fruit of the “opening” of their understanding by Jesus must have been that they understood, better than they ever had before, that they were being privileged to behold the types of 4,000 years of Old Testament history find their fulfillment in Christ. The cross? They could see it now in light of the Old Testament Scriptures that were opened up to them by their Lord. But the kingdom—that was the one ‘piece of the puzzle’ that did not yet fit. It did not fit because Jesus had not yet addressed it. And He had not addressed it because it had everything to do with His ascension—which the disciples would witness momentarily. What, then, was their question? Though it was expressed in the language of the type, which was all that they were capable of at the moment, it amounted to a request: “Lord, help us understand the kingdom.” They were, like the prophets of old, searching (cf.). Calvin says concerning them (the prophets) that, “though of necessity they had to confine themselves within the prescribed limits, yet it was no superstition to sigh with the desire to have a closer view.” That’s what the disciples were doing here: sighing for a closer view.
And they were given it. After telling them simply that it was not for them “to know the times or the seasons,” Jesus explained that the power of which He had spoken will enable them to be His witnesses, not only in Jerusalem but to “the uttermost part of the earth” (). The implication was that the kingdom in which they will serve is essentially spiritual, and that the task for which they will be equipped by the Holy Spirit is far superior to that of any holder of mere political office. And as for Christ’s rule? Hardly would it be limited to a restored kingdom of Israel. “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth” ( ).
And with that, Jesus was “taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight” ().
Few words, it seems, had been spoken. But little needed to be said. Jesus told them enough so that they could know that, with His ascension, He would begin to exercise all power in heaven and in earth, and that from heaven He would send His Spirit, by whom He would be present with them more effectually than He had ever been when they still had His bodily presence. “Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (). They had not ‘lost’ their Master.
Like that night forty days earlier when Jesus breathed on them and said, “Receive ye the Holy Ghost,” the disciples here on the Mount of Olives must have sensed again that spiritual discernment had just been been given them by Him who not only spoke the word but also “reached into their minds with a hidden power” (Calvin).
The disciples must have watched with wide-eyed wonder as Jesus ascended heavenward. They must have strained to follow that cloud with their eyes as it gradually faded from view. And then there stood by them two angels in white apparel ().
“Ye men of Galilee,” they asked, “why stand ye gazing up into heaven”—a question intended perhaps, as Calvin suggests, “to recall the disciples from desiring the bodily presence of Christ.” And then, from the angels, there’s this added detail concerning the astounding truth of the ascension: “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” Now they have it all. And that they ‘got it’ is evident from this, that they “returned to Jerusalem with great joy” ().
A most remarkable transformation! These were the same men who, when Jesus predicted impending death, tried to persuade Him that He must surely be mistaken. These were the same men who, when Jesus surrendered to the mob in the Garden, forsook Him and fled. And these were the same men who, after Jesus was dead, considered all to be over, the cause to be lost.
And now? Now, though Jesus has left them for what they know will be the last time, they rejoice. They return to Jerusalem “not bereaved,” says Lenski, “but enriched.”
Not yet did they preach. For that they must wait to be endued with power from on high. But while they waited, they praised (), for already they had a song in their hearts.
And all this, by the power of the Spirit.
But…what about those other days? Think: “And Peter took him, and began to rebuke him, saying, Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall not be unto thee.” Jesus’ stern rebuke of Peter on that occasion exposed the disciples’ thinking for the carnality that it surely was. “Thou art an offense unto me: for thou savorest not the things that be of God, but those that be of men” ( ). Thou savorest the things that be of men—that was the disciples’ problem at that time. They were so carried away by earthly, carnal views of the establishment of the Messiah’s kingdom, and they were so convinced that their view was correct, that they were unable, then, to fit into their scheme of things what Jesus declared to be the divinely appointed way.
What do you think, was that carnality in the thinking of the disciples the kind of “robbing Christ of His honor” of which Calvin spoke?
Decidedly not. That’s because, with respect to the disciples, and, by extension, with respect to all of the believers in the old dispensation, there was more there than carnality. Did they connect the promise of a Messiah with the shedding of the blood of sacrificial animals? That is, did they see the Messiah in the lamb? No. The disciples made it clear, in fact, that they did not want that. Nevertheless, as Rev. Ophoff put it, the view “that the expectation of the disciples of the Lord was indicative of sheer carnality is wrong. The disciples—all of them—were, as to the heart of their disposition, true believers. What they yearned for in the final instance was not the earthly but God.”
Which was the point of this article. Carnality—yes. But, at the same time, “prescribed limits” to their understanding. And then this, a yearning that was not, in the final instance, for the earthly, but for God.
At the risk of belaboring what might appear to be the obvious, I’d like to return briefly, next time, to the “veil” of which Calvin spoke and the “hiding” of. It remains also, still, to identify the “robbing Christ of His honor” in the old dispensation. Which should bring this series to its conclusion.
… to be continued.