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PART ONE: "What Next?"

Meditation No. 1

Meditation Title: Continuation


Acts 1:1-3 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, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God .


Moving from the Gospels to the Acts, I always think, comes with a slightly strange feeling. There is a measure of continuation of the works of Jesus, but the person of Jesus is missing. The link between this book and the Gospel of Luke is quite clear in the first five words of chapter 1. This is clearly a follow-on book from a previous writing and the object or receiver of it, Theophilus, has to be beyond coincidence: Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4).


The continuation is also quite clear from the reference to Jesus being taken up into heaven, for in the closing verses of Luke's Gospel we read, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany , he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:50,51).


In this new series in the early chapters of Acts, we are calling this first part, “What Next?” because after the amazing accounts of Jesus' life and ministry in the Gospels, when we come to Acts there is this sense of continuation but at the same time there must have been a wondering in the minds of the disciples, what was coming next. In this first chapter of Acts, I think if we are able to step right inside it, there is a feeling of uncertainty. When we get to chapter 2 we'll see the launching of the Church but for the moment, there are big questions over everything that is happening.


In the first few verses of Acts, Luke almost seems to rush into recapping what had happened. Having done the link with Jesus ascending into heaven, he backtracks to the fact that Jesus had, after his resurrection, appeared to the disciples and taught them: after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” (v.3) In his Gospel Luke had told about how Jesus had appeared to the eleven (Lk 24:36-43) convincing them that he was who he said he was. In the Gospel he simply records that Jesus then taught them the background of what had happened from the Scriptures (Lk 24:44-49). It was Matthew who recorded in his Gospel the message from the angels and then from Jesus himself, that Jesus would be going up to Galilee and they were to meet him there (Mt 28:7,10). Mark also confirmed this (Mk 16:7). It is left to John in his Gospel, written many years later, to provide us with the details of how they had gone back up to Galilee and had the encounter with Jesus by the lake (Jn 21). Luke now makes good the omission from his Gospel: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God ,” (v.3) and ties the Gospel accounts together.


It is perhaps worth a little comment about the matter of the differing accounts. There are those antagonistic souls who make noises about discrepancies or, as they wrongly call the differences, contradictions. Several things can be said about this.


First, just what constitutes a contradiction? When four different people witness the same thing they will report it in different ways and with different emphases. It is only a contradiction when one person says “X did this” and another person says “X never did that.” If one person says “John wore brown trousers” and another person says “John wore a green tie,” that is not a contradiction but simply two pieces of presumably accurate information that do not conflict.


A second thing to note is that writers of that day did not seek to fill in all the details like a reporter today might. We are concerned with accuracy of details; they tended to often speak in generalities. From our perspective there often seems a gap between the two but that was not what bothered them.


A third thing that might be worth observing is that the events of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ were possibly the most confusing and emotionally upsetting, at least as viewed by the disciples, that have ever occurred in history. It is no wonder that different writers pick up on different bits because without doubt they would all have been traumatized by what went on in a measure that is almost beyond understanding by us who have not been through what they went through.


A fourth point to be born in mind is that the Gospels probably didn't start being written down until at least twenty years had passed. Neither this nor the previous point are made to suggest inaccuracies, merely that it is not surprising that different writers picked up on different parts of the story to tell, or expressed it in different ways.


We can never be sure that what we have is an absolutely accurate set of accounts, but then neither can we be sure that they aren't! Ultimately it is a matter of faith that says, “I believe that we have a credible record of what took place because it all fits, it all makes sense and Luke especially has given us prior grounds to trust his account when we find in his Gospel these words: “Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.” (Lk 1:3,4) The words I have put in bold suggest strongly that this man is a careful reporter. We can believe what we read. Let's read it carefully.







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Meditation No. 2


Meditation Title: We're going to Jerusalem !


Acts 1:4,5    On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem , but 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."


It seems like Luke had started off with this fast introduction and then paused up and reflected on where he was going. What should he include in this account of the early years of the life of the church? What was significant? What among the many things that had happened was key to what happened? And so he starts to write again, On one occasion.” In those early days, in the remaining few weeks that Jesus had been with them, there had been one occasion when Jesus had said something very significant which explained so much of what followed. There had been lots of other things, but this particular thing stood out.


Whether Luke had been there (probably fairly unlikely) or whether he had gleaned this memory from those he had questioned in his investigations is unclear, but this particular memory had stood out and it wasn't just any time it was a specific time “while he was eating with them.” Such mundane words but on this one occasion when they were sitting around eating, Jesus had shared this with them. Perhaps there had been other times of specific teaching when they had been aware that Jesus was in teacher-mode and had tried to listen carefully to what he had to say, but this was lunch-time or some other meal time, not a time when you might have been alert to key teachings. I wonder, are we alert to God speaking to us at any time? In the times of particular relaxation are we alert to hear Him. Do we have preconceived ideas as to when God can speak to us, or have we realized He can at any time?


So here they are eating and Jesus drops this bombshell in their laps. Perhaps if it had come in the midst of a load of other teaching, it might have got lost, but it was dropped over a meal and it thus became memorable. It seemed to come out of the blue without any warning. We don't know what he taught them during those weeks up in Galilee together, because none of the Gospel writers tell us. There is almost an unearthly silence that hangs over that time – except this one bit!


“he gave them this command.” This wasn't just a bit of theoretical teaching or imparting a spiritual principle. This was a specific instruction, something they had to do and it meant a change of location in preparation of all that would follow. It is, in fact, a vital command. If they do not do this they will not be in the right place when the Father is going to move and if He moved on them on an isolated beach in Galilee , it would he virtually no impact and all that did happen would not happen. Oh yes, this is important!


"Do not leave Jerusalem.” Hold on, we are not in Jerusalem ; we're in Galilee . This means we are going to have to go back to the place of our worst nightmares, the place where we saw our Lord crucified, the place where we took shelter behind locked doors for fear of being arrested and maybe being killed ourselves – and you want us to go back there! And this doesn't sound like a fleeting visit; you are telling us to wait there until something happens – and we don't know how long that will be! You are asking us to wait there in that dangerous environment for an unspecified period of time!


It is only when you try to put yourself into their shoes that you begin to realize just how awful this might have seemed to the disciples. The only comforting thing is that Jesus is still with them, but at the moment this does not appear a happy future.


But hang on, there's something else about this: you are telling us to wait, as if you're not going to be there with us to make sure we do? Where will you be? That is as near as we can get to the thought that Jesus might have told them beforehand what was going to happen. One might expect Luke to have written it down before it happened and so we may suggest that Jesus didn't tell them what was coming next - but isn't that just how God works so often!


There are going to come a number of other times in Acts where it seems the followers of Jesus are being led into perilous times. A classic example is that of Philip: “Now an angel of the Lord said to Philip, "Go south to the road--the desert road--that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza ." (Acts 8:26) i.e. leave the tremendous blessing you are experiencing and disappear off down in the desert. In a few moments Jesus is going to say, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority .” (1:7) and therein is a principle. The Father knows what He is doing and has a clear plan – but often He doesn't spell it out. Often we are called (if only we'll hear it) to step out into what may appear strange circumstances, possibly fearful circumstances, simply trusting our Father's love and wisdom. May we have the courage to do it!






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Meditation No. 3

Meditation Title: Wait for the Spirit


Acts 1:4,5   On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem , but 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."


Once they have got past the shock of going back to Jerusalem , the disciples can focus on why they are going. Jesus speaks of a gift they are to receive, the gift of the Holy Spirit. Having taken in the basics we can then reflect on some of the other aspects of these verses. This was a gift that the Father had promised. So when had God spoken about His Spirit coming? It was there in what we now call the Old Testament documents. And afterward, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” (Joel 2:28) Now the power and the presence of the Holy Spirit was understood through the Old Testament.


There were numerous occasions when the Spirit came on people and they were endued with power, and then Joel in the latter days of the Old Testament period had spoken of God pouring out His Spirit on many people. Jesus had likewise spoken about the Spirit's coming e.g. Jn 14:26, 15:26,27 etc. yet one wonders just how much the disciples understood. I have lived as a Christian though the seventies, eighties and nineties of the twentieth century, a period which contained what is referred to as the charismatic renewal, and a period in which there was much teaching about the Holy Spirit and the baptism of the Spirit, but it was also a period of controversy about just what that means and when it happens. The truth is not always ultra clear to everyone (or anyone?).


Jesus tells his disciples that they will soon be baptized by his Holy Spirit and the only picture he gives them to give some meaning to that phrase is the parallel of John the Baptist baptizing people in water. The disciples are about to be immersed in the Spirit in the same way that John immersed people in water. When this happened as recorded by Luke in chapter 2 of Acts – for the events of Pentecost can be the only fulfillment of Jesus' words – he speaks there of them being “filled” with the Spirit. What is the link between being immersed and being filled? It is simple: if you immerse a cup in water it is filled.


The more I read Scripture, and I have read it for well over forty years, I am sure that for most of the time we only take in surface meaning and miss out on so much more. For example, I wonder what the disciples were feeling as Jesus was giving them these instructions. In the previous meditation I have suggested that they might feel upset at the thought of having to return to Jerusalem for an undefined period of time. But what, I wonder did they think about these references to the coming of the Holy Spirit. I mean they might have known the Old Testament teaching about what happened when the Spirit came upon a person (see the Judges for example) and had known that power and confidence seemed to come with the Spirit – but did they need that? I mean, we've been sent out at Jesus' direction before and preached and healed the sick and cast out demons, why should we need anything else? Surely we've got all we need?


Isn't this the same natural thinking that so often raises its head in the Church today? We've got the completed Scriptures, we've had really good teaching, we have established buildings and organizations, so what more could we want? It is a way of thinking that doesn't realise our frailty and the impossibility of dealing with the spiritual powers of darkness without the power and presence of the Lord. For the disciples at that moment, with Jesus still there with them, still full of life, still full of vitality, and still full of authority, it may have appeared the same. It doesn't seem that he has made it clear that he is going to leave them soon. They had been through that once and it had left them emotionally devastated; surely he wouldn't do that to them again? But how long can he stay with them? Five years, fifty years, five hundred years, or for ever?


There are two things here: first, if he stays they will leave it all up to him to do, and that isn't God's plan. Second, until he goes and until they feel their sense of loneliness and frailty and inability, their hearts are not going to be open so that the Father can fill them with His Spirit. When we are full of self and self-ability, we cannot be filled with Him.


No, they may not understand what this is all about at this stage but they are hearing God's will declared. How often, I wonder do we hear the Lord's will declared and not realise the fullness of it? Very often it is only when we have entered into it and are able to look back on what has happened, do we realise some of the greater dimensions of what the Lord had said previously. Yes, the Lord will speak it, but so often we'll only understand such a small part of it – but that won't stop us being used by Him. Thank goodness He doesn't wait until we have full understanding to use us!







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Meditation No. 4

Meditation Title: What about?


Acts 1:6-7   So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel ?" He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.


Now as much as we said previously that we don't know what Jesus taught in the period up in Galilee, we were given a clue: He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (v.3) On reflection though, that is not very helpful because many of his parables previously had been about the kingdom, so we don't know what more he was adding during this period. But it may be that which provides the link with the question here from the disciples, as they ask about the coming kingdom. Something of what Jesus had been saying during that time obviously raised a sense of expectation or anticipation within them. It may be that the simple instruction that we've already considered did that in them: “Do not leave Jerusalem , but 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.” (1:4,5) That would be quite understandable, with the time elements mentioned there.


Something is about to happen! So they start second guessing what that will be. It's like they are saying, “Well Lord, you've been talking a lot about your Father's kingdom being more fully expressed, is this what this is all about?” Now if that is a right interpretation of what they were asking, what is surprising is that Jesus doesn't say, “Well done, guys, spot on, for that is exactly what is about to happen!” The reason I say that is because that, surely, is exactly what the day of Pentecost was all about, about God's power being unleashed so that God's kingdom or reign is more fully expressed through His people!


So why does Jesus give them this negative response? We can only speculate. The heart of this, I suggest is the motivation for the question. We ask questions of God for a variety of reasons. Why is this happening to me? That is a question that says I want to understand what is going on so I can feel more secure. God, what are you doing? This is a question that can be asked so as to appear to be in the know. Each of these questions focuses on me, by the responses to them.


There are two similar questions in the Bible which have different thoughts behind them. First there is Zechariah: “Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (Lk 1:18) This is obviously a doubting question – how can I be sure of this. This is a man who is unsure of God and of His angel. But then there is Mary: “How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?" (Lk 1:34) This seems to be a question that says, “Am I the right one because, although I am willing for this, I can't see how it can be with me in my present state.” God was all right with that question.


So we come back to the disciples' question about what is about to happen. It's a right assessment but it seems to be born out of insecurity. We want to know what is going on. Jesus' apparently negative response is basically saying, Father isn't going to tell you everything. You're going to have to learn to trust Him, you're going to have to learn to live by faith. This is the challenge that comes whenever we have a question of God: is this an expression of my insecurity, of my being uncertain about God.


Throughout our lives, I have concluded, God is seeking to draw us into a deeper relationship with Him where we are able to come to a complete trust in Him, even though we may not understand what is going on. Two examples come to mind. The first is Abraham in old age who is asked by the Lord to sacrifice his son, Isaac (see Gen 22). This has got to be the supreme example of trust in God. The writer to the Hebrews declares, “Abraham reasoned that God could raise the dead.” (Heb 11:19) As he went to do it the Lord stopped him for He did not desire Isaac's death, only an indication of Abraham's trust.


The other, more simple example is that of Philip who has been conducting a very fruitful evangelistic ministry. An angel spoke to him and told him to leave and go down the desert road to Gaza (Acts 8:26). Philip could have decided this was wrong guidance for it seemed to go no where, but instead he trusted the word and went to what turned out to be his next evangelistic task.


So here it is: will we trust the Lord? Can we be at rest in His love, even when we are unsure of the future, knowing that He is looking after us and will be working in whatever happens to bring good in our lives (see Rom 8:28). Remember, We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Cor 5:7)







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Meditation No. 5

Meditation Title: Confusion of Prophecy


Acts 1:8 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."


Before I start in here, I think I need to make a statement for clarity sake. I have known the Lord for well over forty years and I'm sure I love Him more today than ever before. Moreover I am blessed by His word and am utterly convinced He is totally faithful and unchanging and His love for me is absolute and unchanging. Now I need to say those things for those who might read what follows and think that I am now doubting the Lord. I am not! I am certain of Him!


But there is something else I have come to see – well two things really, two related things. The first is that so often when we read the Bible, we read it with such little thought and miss so much. The second is that when we read words like we find in verse 8 today, we just don't realise how confusing they probably were to the disciples. Now I am sure that there are some prophecies that are simple, clear cut and quickly fulfilled, but I'm going to suggest that these are the minority! I have no question about the Lord's truthfulness when he said through Amos, Surely the Sovereign LORD does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7). I think understanding the overall plan of God is a lot easier than understanding individual prophecies.


I'll start justifying what I've just said out of personal experience. I have operated in the prophetic role and watched a lot of others operating in it for many years, and as I have watched people receiving prophetic words I am utterly convinced that 99.9999% of them are not fully understood and the things that they will involve are just not thought about. So why does God speak these things if we are so clueless at understanding them? Because He loves us and wants to share His heart with us. Every prophetic word is an expression of His love, even if we don't fully understand it. If a father or mother says to their little child, I love you and forgive you, that child will only catch a glimmer of the reality of that love which, under certain circumstances would lay down its life for the child. So it is with God, and His ways are so complex that He doesn't tell us all the details of what He says is going to work out. Why? It's because we wouldn't understand what will be entailed in its fulfillment and we wouldn't understand His grace that would be there to see us along the path to fulfillment – and so we'd worry!


In the Old Testament the story of Joseph and his dreams (Gen 37-) is a classic illustration of this. If you had told Joseph that to become the Prime Minister of Egypt he was going to have to be sold into slavery and then put in prison with little hope of getting out, I don't think he would have been blessed.


So now we come to Jesus' words describing the future of the early church. “God's power is going to come on you.” Wow! We're going to be great individuals – maybe just like the Judges when the Spirit came on them and empowered them. Wow! “And you'll be my witnesses.” OK. “In Jerusalem.” Wow, hold on; not so OK! They'll be out to get us there! “And in all Judea .” Oh, thank goodness, away from Jerusalem ! “And in Samaria .” Hold on; they're aliens and we don't like them; they're a mixed race people, not real Jews. That's not so good! “And to the ends of the earth.” What? How is that going to happen?


Well, I'm not going to tell you now but I'm going to allow persecution to come and many of the church are going to flee from Jerusalem and will end up all over the place. Actually if you read the early chapters of Acts – after chapter 2 – it's not very comfortable. In fact it is downright hostile! Oh yes, all of this is going to be fulfilled but it's what he doesn't tell them that is the tough stuff because this is what it is often like being a believer in this Fallen World. !


Now do you see what I mean when I say we don't know half of it when we get a prophetic word? The Lord seems to delight in telling us ‘end products' but misses out the means to get there. Oh yes, His grace will always be there for us, but do you remember what we said in the previous meditation? He's working to teach us to trust Him even when we don't understand what is going on, and the truth of it is, that there's a lot of that! You're not going to learn to trust until you've been through circumstances that necessitate trust!


Supposing Jesus gave us a detailed itinerary for the next month – this is what is going to happen tomorrow, and then this on the next day…. and so on. Not a surprise on the horizon. We'd probably become a bunch of Jonah's and emigrate as fast as we could! Or once we'd settled to what was coming, we'd be able to say, “It's OK this is only going to last until Wednesday. I can handle it on my own until then.” But that defeats the object. The Lord is teaching us to stick close to Him and trust Him. If we knew what was coming in detail, we wouldn't need Him. So just relax; He's there and He's there for you and if He's said what is coming, rejoice in it, but still realise that you are still going to have to turn to Him for His grace along the way. That's what this is all about! Have fun!







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Meditation No. 6

Meditation Title: Ascended


Acts 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.


Life with Jesus was never boring. Forgive me if I refer again to the way we so often read God's word. For those of us who have been Christians many years there is the temptation to let God's word become ordinary; we lose the wonder of what is there. My wife, who is a Religious Studies teacher, was marking some essays and read out to me the question, “Why do Christians read their Bibles?” I flippantly replied, “Because it seemed a good idea at the time.” Now I replied like that because my heart cried, “If only they would!” The point I would make is that so often Christians don't read their Bibles because they have lost the sense of wonder of what is there in the book and are not wise enough to ask for God's help every time they read it.


Today's verse is almost embarrassing in its simplicity. It is embarrassing in the way it baldly states something that none of us have ever seen or are likely to see in our lifetime – a man lifting up from the ground with no assistance and drifting up into a low passing cloud and disappearing. Now we are given no warning in the text that this was about to happen. Luke doesn't tell us that Jesus had warned them that this was going to happen. Earlier at the Last Supper he had referred to going to his Father, but they would now have assumed that that had been a reference to his death.


In the closing words of his Gospel, Luke had recorded, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:51). Mark had recorded, “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19) but there is a question mark over whether it actually was Mark writing those words. Matthew and John are silent as to what happened. But Luke is the historian who, in his Gospel, had told us that he had gone to great trouble to check out the truth of what had happened – so he records it.


The only other time in the Bible that anything like this happens was the case of Elijah being taken up – but that had been in a chariot of fire by angels, as he was carried up in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). His young followers thought he would come down and went to search for him but found nothing. But this account, telling us of Jesus departure from the earth, seems almost ordinary by comparison. There is no whirlwind, no great sounds, nothing out of the ordinary recorded. Jesus simply ascended!


How would you have responded if you were one of the disciples? I suspect we would have stood there with open mouths and tears running down our faces as Jesus disappeared from sight. It was only the appearance of two angels that broke into their reverie and gave them something to rejoice about. They were just standing there, “They were looking intently up into the sky.” (v.10) It was as if they couldn't tear their eyes away from the spot where he had vanished from sight.


Now we have suggested that the historian, Luke, baldly recounts the facts of what happened but it is then fair to ask, but why did it happen in this way? Why didn't Jesus just quietly vanish one day? There seem to be various clues. Look at the language of the verses surrounding this event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee ," they said, "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.” (v.9-11) Five times there is reference to the fact that the disciples SAW Jesus leave. There is surely significance to this. It is as if Jesus wanted there to be a number of witnesses to his departure. He wanted them to be able to say, he has definitely gone – we saw him go!


There is a second thought that follows on from this. It is the fact of him going up into the sky away from the earth. Now of course we would say that heaven is not “up there” but another dimension, but the fact of him “leaving the earth” says his time on the earth has come to an end and so don't ever go looking for him. He's not an eternal, ageless man who continually walks the earth. He has left and gone back to heaven. In other words, the period or time for his earthly ministry has finally come to an end. His activity on earth will continue, but now by his Spirit in his followers. His person now exists in heaven as many references in the New Testament testify to.


For the moment the disciples may be feeling devastated, utterly bereft at the loss – the final loss – of the One who has brought such light and love and hope to their lives, but it will be only a temporary sense of being bereft because, before a fortnight is out, things will be happening that will sweep them on into the excitement of the rest of their lives.









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Meditation No. 7

Meditation Title: His Return


Acts 1:10,11 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee ," they said, "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."


If we have been Christians a long time, it is probable that at some time or other we have heard a sermon on Jesus' return or ‘Second Coming' and therefore it is possible that, yet again, we lose the mystique of these verses. They say something remarkable, something that would leave future generations of Christians wondering.


We noted previously that the disciples were standing there, awe-struck by what they were witnessing. The one they have followed for three years, the man they have travelled with, the one they have seen as very much a man, yes, the man who died and came back, this man now simply rises up in their presence and vanishes in a cloud. Was it a high cloud? Did it take a while? Was it s low cloud so he vanished quickly? These are all valid questions when you are talking about something that happened in time-space history in this material world. Valid they may be, but we have no answers because Luke doesn't tell us. He doesn't want us to get bogged down in details; he's got a lot more to tell us in this book.


But then something else happens. One minute they were there, out in the open with Jesus, alone, and the next moment there are two men dressed in white standing next to them. We aren't told how they came and we aren't told how they went. We assume they were angelic messengers. Why there were two of them and not just one, we aren't told. The Bible often leaves us with lots of questions, but it gives us just enough on which faith can be built. What is important is not so much how they arrived or went or who they were, but the message they conveyed which is amazing.


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. i.e. he is coming back again one day! That is the first incredible thing. God's plan involves his Son leaving heaven again and coming back to earth sometime in the future. The second incredible thing is that when he does come, he won't be arriving in the same way, being born on the earth again; he is going to come in the same visible way that he has just left. Now that allows no space for any would-be pretenders to come and masquerade as him. There is NO ROOM for false Christ's, men pretending to be him or manifestations of him. No, when he returns it will be visibly from the sky. Now as incredible as this may seem, we must suggest that it is for the same reasons that we gave when we considered why he had left in this manner. First so that he is clearly seen, second he is seen as coming from outside of the earth's environment and, third, that he is seen to bring an end to the present era.


Now a third amazing thing about the words of the angels is that they don't tell us WHY he will return, simply the manner of his return. In the book of Revelation, the apostle John has a vision in which he sees Jesus returning as a conquering king, coming to bring judgment on the earth (Rev 19:11-18). When Jesus returns it will be for judgment of the whole earth in order to bring a new earth (Rev 21:1). Again this leaves no room for false Christ's who come with mere words.


There is yet a fourth amazing thing about the words of the angels: they don't tell us WHEN this will happen. Now both these last two things are amazing because you might expect God to make it quite clear why and when Jesus is returning. The absence of a time has meant that Christians throughout the ages have expected Jesus to come at any moment. The early church expected it and the church through the last two thousand years has expected it. The best that we can say is that the list of ‘signs' that we can expect to see before he returns, as spelt out in the Gospels, seem more visible today than at any previous time of history. But that is the best we can say. It may be tomorrow or it may be twenty years time or two thousand years time. God knows and He simply tells the church in every age to be ready.


So here we have this amazing proclamation to the disciples as they stand there wondering just after Jesus has vanished. Did they fully take it in? Probably not. Probably they would discuss it again and again in the years to come, but as we've just seen, it is sufficiently open ended that no firm declarations can be made. As we noted above, the best we can do is make sure we are in a good place before God so that if Jesus returns, we'll have nothing to be ashamed about! May it be so!









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Series Theme: Meditations in Acts

Meditation No. 8

Meditation Title: Now What?


Acts 1:12,13 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives , a Sabbath day's walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying.


I think the title we've given to this meditation – “Now What?” could almost be used as a title over the whole of the book of Acts, because possibly more than any other book in the Bible, it has to be an account which rolls out with question marks over it. Yes, we might say, this is true of all history, we don't know what is coming next, but if that is true of life generally, it is doubly true of Acts because it is a book of transition – transition from the ministry of Jesus to ministry of the Spirit through the new body of Christ, the Church. It is about how events unroll that are partly empowered and thus brought about, by the presence and working of the Holy Spirit. But we aren't there yet!


Do you ever have that “after-the-holiday” feeling? You come back perhaps from a fortnight (if you are lucky) away on holiday somewhere and you come back to the empty house and suddenly you are back to utter normality – and wish you weren't. The disciples walk back the three quarters of a mile distance back into Jerusalem and they come back to the house where they have been staying (suggesting they had been there more than a day or so?) and walk back into the room alone. Well, not alone because there are still at least eleven of them, and possibly a number more - but they are without Jesus. They have just witnessed an act of finality. As we observed earlier, there was a finality about his leaving in the manner they have just witnessed. He has gone. They are alone. All they have are the memories – and the teaching and instructions.


They are to wait here. That's it. Nothing else except the promise that when they do wait they will receive something of power that God has promised. Once when I took a small team of four into Malaysia to teach there, we were given a fortnight's itinerary by the denomination we had gone to, together with plane tickets to get around the interior. On one occasion we were picked up at the small airport by a man with a pick-up truck and taken into the nearby town. He didn't speak English and so simply signed to us. In the middle of the town, he pulled up, jumped out and unloaded our baggage on the pavement and indicated we should get out. He promptly drove off!


The team of young people with me, turned to me and asked, “What next?” “I haven't a clue,” I replied, “we just wait here until something happens.” Ten minutes later another vehicle pulled up and an English-speaking local picked us up and took us to the church where we were next speaking. For those ten minutes we were utterly helpless. We couldn't speak the language and it was a part of the world where few would have spoken English. I suspect that the disciples had a similar sort of feeling at this point in their lives. Now what? What have we let ourselves in for? How long do we have to wait?


Today we are living in a very controlling world. We have created a great sense of ‘being in control'. For most of us, the day ahead is unlikely to bring surprises. We may not know exactly how some things at work are going to work out, but apart from the details, life is pretty much laid out in order. We know the time of the train or bus we catch to work, or the time we have to get the children to school. We know the things that need to be done today, and we rarely have doubts about them. If we have to go shopping for food, we know it will be there. If we go to school or college we have timetables that decree at exactly what time we will be where and doing what lesson. If we go on holidays we get all the details worked out before we go, even down to booking plane seats on line before we leave home. Oh yes, in a large measure we are living in a very controlled world and so we don't like being ‘out of control'. The younger generation with their mobile phones feel even more locked in to this world and many feel bereft if they cannot constantly keep contact with their friends by text messages.


None of this helps faith, because faith involves stepping out on God's word and trusting Him to move. Or sometimes, like now with the disciples, it just means sitting still and waiting for the Lord to turn up, and that we find even harder to do. Inactivity is not part of modern life, and yet the Lord calls us to it from time to time. Sometimes it is simply so that we can take stock afresh of where we are in life. Sometimes, like now in the case of the disciples, it means waiting until a significant time arrives. Sometimes it is waiting until people or circumstances come into place to enable you to walk forward on the path God has for you. It's like life is made up of moveable lengths of path and we have to wait until the next bit swings round to align itself with the bit you are standing on. Only then can you walk forward. Because it is a life of faith, of course, much of the future is hidden from us. Yes, remember it is a life of ‘faith' and ‘trust' and both those things come into play when all is not clear ahead – but that's the sort of life the Lord calls us to – but you can be utterly secure in the knowledge that He knows what is to happen and when it is to happen and also the part He wants you to play in it! Rest and rejoice in that!











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Series Theme: Meditations in Acts


Meditation No. 9

Meditation Title: The United Family


Acts 1:13,14 Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.


A little later we are going to hear that there are at least a hundred and twenty believers around (v.15) but for the moment it is just the eleven, ‘the women' and Jesus' family. What strange groupings.


First, the eleven. Eleven, not twelve! There is that constant reminder of the awfulness of what had happened in the form of the absence of Judas Iscariot. When you have traveled with a close band for three years, you get to know people; you get to know their mannerisms, the things you like and the things you don't like – but now he's gone and the shadow of his suicide is there in the background at least. But the rest are still there and that is a small miracle really. Peter has been restored by the Master up in Galilee , restored from the guilt and the shame of having let his master down three times on that terrible night of betrayal and desertion. Yes, this is likely to be a more humble Peter than the one we saw in the Gospels, but he is still a leader. Now he's not the leader who constantly opened his mouth and put his feet in it; now he is a leader because Jesus had appointed him so. He is a work of mercy and grace.


Then there were the ‘Sons of Thunder', James and John, the two who had wanted to call fire down on others. But they have walked through the fire of those awful days and they have been purged and are no longer so eager to condemn others. And the others are all there as well, yes including Thomas who had doubted. But perhaps his public doubting had been what many of the others had felt but never had the courage to voice. But no, they are no longer doubting. No, they have seen and heard and touched, lived with, walked with, the risen Lord. Not one of these men is the man he was six months earlier.


There is apparently a new dimension of spirituality about these men, for we are told “they joined together constantly in prayer.” Constantly! Now perhaps that wasn't so much a sign of spirituality as desperation. They are alone. Jesus has gone. Almost everywhere else in the Bible where prayers are recorded, they are prayers of desperation. We pray best when we are desperate. These, I suggest, are desperate men. They don't go out and about, challenging the authorities. Not for them is preaching to the crowds. No, none of them feel like that. None of them has that confidence. No, these men stay together praying. Throughout the Gospels it was Jesus who did all the praying. We never find the disciples praying although no doubt they did, but now it is them constantly praying. Oh yes, this is a sign of desperation. When you can do nothing else, you pray.


And then there were ‘the women'. We find various of their names in the Gospels, these women who traveled with Jesus, even providing material support for the apostolic band. They were there at the Cross and they are still there now. They are not going to be the future leaders of the church – for Jesus had given that to men – but they are still there, and they display an example of faithfulness that was not demonstrated by the men. The men can get all the glory, but it is the women who are the backbone of this embryonic church.


And then there is Jesus' family. There is no mention of Joseph. Scholars believe he had died years before. But there is his mother and his brothers, these ones who once had believed he was mad and came to take control of him. Yes, this is a far cry from that time. They too had watched the terrible drama unfolding in Jerusalem , they too witnessed the terrible things that had taken place and they too, it seems, had witnessed the glory of his resurrection. These too were transformed. No longer were they just ‘family'; now they were believers, now they were followers.


So there are these three groups and they are united like a single family, joined together to do nothing else but wait and pray. They all have different histories, they all have different stories to tell, some glorious, some not so glorious. But now they are one – believers who are helpless and so they pray.


Do we have to wait for adverse circumstances, persecution of the church, before we will come together in unity and in prayer? But, I wonder, do we realise our helplessness in the face of a hostile unbelieving world? Do we realise that unless our Lord turns up in power we have no future? That is how serious this is!










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Meditation No. 10

Meditation Title: Do Something


Acts 1:15,16 In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said….


There are different things conveyed in Scripture. Sometimes there is teaching, direct words from Jesus for example, or from the apostles in the letters of the New Testament. Teaching is fairly simple and straight forward, even though you may have to really think about it to get understanding. But then there is historical narrative. I describe it as historical because it happened in time-space history, things that actually occurred, things we would have seen if we had been there. These are not fictional things, they actually happened. Our two verses above are like this, they tell (hence my word ‘narrative') of something that happened. Now the problem that arises with narrative is that so often we are not told the motivation behind what took place or whether it was right or wrong, good or bad.


Now elsewhere in Acts we find reference to people being moved or energized by the Holy Spirit to act or speak in certain ways, but here there is no indication of this. Peter just gets up and takes the initiative to bring about an administrative change. He justifies it by reference to Scripture (v.20) but there is no indication that he is God-prompted. The basis of his words and action is that there were twelve, there are now eleven and so we ought to make up the twelve by appointing a replacement for Judas who has died.


When you try to look at the big picture and consider ‘the twelfth man' one has to acknowledge that the man they end up appointing was never heard of again in the record of Acts. You might say that that is true of a number of the others of the twelve but we might expect the Holy Spirit to confirm somehow that they have taken the right course of action here, but nothing happens. Indeed looking at the bigger picture we might observe that the apostle Paul more fitted the role of ‘twelfth man'. He was a man who encountered Jesus, could testify to his resurrection and was clearly used in a major apostolic way.


The slightly reluctant conclusion that we draw from this, therefore, is that Peter acted more out of what he thought OUGHT to happen, rather than any prompting of the Spirit. That he was prompted by the Spirit on a number of occasions after Pentecost is quite obvious, but for this moment, there is a question mark. Well, he may be a changed man because of the death and resurrection of his Lord, but until the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, he may still be a man-directed man! He is still operating on the basis of what ought to happen or what seems like should happen.


There is a distinct difference here between this and a Spirit-energised man. It is perhaps something that many of us would be reluctant to acknowledge because we like to think that we have got it all together even if we haven't clearly been filled with the Spirit in accordance with the New Testament picture. It is a challenge to pride to suggest we are not firing on all cylinders unless we have been filled with the Spirit, yet here is Peter doing what seems to be the right thing and even quoting Scripture to justify it.


There is a tendency in many of us that feels we ‘ought' to be doing something and unless we are we are likely to be lesser beings or, at least, lesser Christians. The lesson we have to learn is to listen to the Lord and then obey what he says. That is THE important lesson to learn. After all, Jesus had only said, “Do not leave Jerusalem , but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about.” (v.4) He hadn't said, sort the administration of the church out, sort out a new layout for the church, sort out a new evangelistic programme, sort out a new youth programme, or sort out a new teaching programme for the church. He had simply said, wait for the Spirit to come.


Sitting doing nothing is like a nightmare for some of us. Doing something, anything, is better than nothing! Well, no it's not! It is a case of what has the Father said or what has Jesus or the Holy Spirit said? What does God want to happen? That is the crucial question, for He knows what is best. He knows that on a certain day He has got a certain thing planned and He knows that before that is too early and after it is too late. So stop planning what we can do to help Him out and sit still and listen to Him!


We cannot help God out, we can only make ourselves available to Him so He can move through us when He wants – and that requires our obedience. May that be something we really take on board, and when we do that we might find we are far more fruitful than we have been in the past. May it be so!












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Series Theme: Meditations in Acts


Meditation No. 11

Meditation Title: Spin a Coin


Acts 1:24-26 Then they prayed, "Lord, you know everyone's heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs." Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.


Perhaps we don't get the significance of these verses until we line them up with say what happened in the church at Damascus a few years on: “While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, "Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them." So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.” (Acts 13:2,3) Do you see the difference?


In today's verses we have prayer plus spinning a coin (well that would almost be the modern equivalent, although of course we do still draw lots). I mean, to be fair to them, this does seem similar to the practice of the Urim & Thummin of the Old Testament period but that is still very different from what we find in the church period, which is after Pentecost. Spinning a coin, drawing cards or whatever other method you use is very impersonal and requires no direct contact with God. It almost forces God to act in its thinking, i.e. we are going to do this so God will you add your bit to this by determining which named card will come up.


This is where this between Christ and the Spirit, interim-period that the disciples are in at the moment, is so different from pre-ascension and post-Pentecost. With Christ they could talk directly to him and get their guidance. Once the Spirit came, they had another Counsellor who could speak to them directly.


Please note that they had what we call the Old Testament Scriptures and indeed they made reference to them (and the Gospels are full of such references) but they could only be used for general guidance. It still needed the Holy Spirit to impress on them the significance of the particular Scripture but that wasn't so good as the Spirit imparting a prophetic word that directly applied to a specific situation and made clear the intent of God for them. This is the difference between being in the period of the Spirit (post-Pentecost) or before it.


We really do need to emphasise this difference because it is crucial in modern church life. It is the difference between relying upon the written word (in this case in the Old Testament only) or on the word plus the Spirit. It should never be one or the other but always, both! Now the danger here is that some of us who are Christians may feel defensive here and shout, “Sola Scripture,” the word alone, which tends to be our cry when we seek to oppose beliefs in part of the Church that relies upon Tradition plus Scripture, when appealing to matters of authority.


Now we must be quite clear that Scripture IS our ultimate authority and anything that goes contrary to it must be considered error – whether it be preaching or prophecy or words individually received. Anything that leads us to think or live lives that are contrary to the teaching of Scripture is error and is to be rejected.


However, we have only got to study the pages of the Acts of the Apostles to realise that the guidance and direction of the Spirit is essential for some specific guidance situations. First of all, in simple power or boldness cases, in the new era, it is the Spirit who empower and directs God's servants, e.g. Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them….” (Acts 4:8) Later on when they prayed, they used the Scriptures as the basis for their praying (see Acts 4:25,26) but it was when the Spirit came on them that they spoke boldly (4:31). So much for empowering, how about guidance?


It was an angel that directed Philip to leave his evangelistic campaign and go south (8:26) and then the Spirit who directed him to the Ethiopian (8:29). It was in a vision that the Lord directed Ananias to go to Saul (Acts 9:10). Similarly it was in a vision that Peter was prepared to meet Gentiles (Acts 10:10-) and it was the Spirit who prompted him to go to speak to them (10:19). It was by the Spirit that Agabus prophesied and warned of a coming famine (Acts 10:29). It was the Spirit that directed the church at Antioch to send out missionaries (Acts13:2). It was the Spirit who directed Paul where not to go (Acts 16:6,7).


Thus we see from these many examples, that the life of the church and its guidance should be a flow of the Spirit. This in no way denigrates the Scriptures, but simply means that we are living in a period of grace where the Spirit has been imparted to every believer and as such, we now have a means of communicating with God where, if we are living in harmony with Him, and are being obedient to Him, God will direct us personally and directly. This is, I believe, THE challenge for the church today. Will we be a church of the Word AND the Spirit?