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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:Before leaving the battlefield, our Commander gave his final orders
Text:Acts 1:6-8 (View)
Occasion:Ascension Day
Topic:Our Calling
 
Preached:2021
Added:2021-07-21
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Hymn 41

Psalm 68:1,2

Hymn 40

Hymn 1

Psalm 67

Scripture readings: Ephesians 4:1-16, Acts 1:1-11

Text: Acts 1:6-8

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

In some places the Bible tells the story of our salvation with military language.  In Colossians 2, the cross is described as a military victory over the “rulers and authorities.”  In 1 Corinthians 15, the resurrection is a victory over death and sin.  Today we’re remembering the ascension of our Lord Jesus.  The Bible describes that too in military terms.  We read from Ephesians 4.  In verse 8, we have a quote from Psalm 68 which speaks about Christ ascending on high with a host of captives following.  The language of Psalm 68 portrays God as a victorious Warrior.  In Ephesians 4, we learn that this is fulfilled in Christ’s ascension. 

So Scripture teaches us to think of our Lord Jesus as a victorious battlefield commander.  He’s won the victories sealing the fate of his and our enemies.  Jesus has done this at the cross and at the empty tomb. The war with Satan that started in Genesis 3 has effectively been won – it’s been won single-handedly by our Commander.  Since victory has been secured, he can go to headquarters, so to speak.  Our Lord Jesus can commit the rest of the task to those who follow him and then ascend into heaven.

That’s what we see happening in our text from Acts 1:6-8.  The Commander gives his last words to his inner circle of soldiers.  He tells them what they need to know and do after he’s gone.  He’s speaking to the apostles and through them he’s speaking to his entire army, to all Christian soldiers.  The Commander is making his intentions known for his church of all ages and places, including us.  So on this Ascension Day, I preach to you God’s Word and this’ll be our theme for the sermon:  Before leaving the battlefield, our Commander gave his final orders.

We’ll see how he tells us to:

  1. Avoid distraction
  2. Trust his powerful Spirit
  3. Be his witnesses

Distraction during battle is a huge danger.  Imagine if you were in the army and you were engaged in a battle.  Bullets are flying.  Artillery is firing.  Armour is on the move.  Close air support is overhead.  Adrenalin is pumping.  It’s intense.  And then you look over at one of your fellow soldiers and he’s on his phone checking Instagram.  That kind of distraction is dangerous when you’re driving, but when you’re in battle, it’s stupid dangerous.  You’ve got to focus on the task at hand and if you don’t, bad stuff happens.

In our passage, the disciples were in danger of falling into that kind of distraction.  Meeting together with their Lord one last time, they asked him a question:  “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”  As the Reformer John Calvin said, “There are as many errors in this question as words.”  They were in danger of being distracted by their misconception of what the kingdom of God is about and how our Lord Jesus brings this kingdom.

Despite all the teaching Jesus had given them, they still weren’t thinking right about the kingdom of God.  It even says in verse 3 that during the 40 days prior to his ascension, Jesus was “speaking about the kingdom of God.”  But here the disciples still seem to be afflicted with the inability to get it. 

They still think the mission of Jesus is somehow political.  The disciples still have it in their minds that, as the Christ, Jesus is going to take the throne in Jerusalem.  Even more so now that he’s risen from the dead, he’s going to rule the Jews and lead them to political and military victory over their enemies.  Specifically, Jesus is going to restore the kingdom to Israel by pushing back against the Romans.  General Jesus is going to lead Jewish armies into battle against Rome.  The question they’re focussed on:  is this now the time for that?  Can we finally get to what we’ve all been waiting for?

The disciples failed to fully understand the character of the kingdom of God.  They thought it was political.  In reality, the kingdom of God is spiritual – God’s rule over human hearts.  The disciples failed to understand the membership of the kingdom of God.  They thought it was to be restricted to the Jews, to Israel.  In reality, the kingdom of God is going to consist of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation – an international kingdom.  The disciples failed to understand how the kingdom of God grows.  They thought it was a simple matter of Jesus taking the throne and tossing out the Romans.  In reality, the kingdom of God expands slowly over time, like a tiny mustard seed growing into a massive tree.

As he always was and still is, our Lord Jesus was patient with the shortcomings of his disciples.  He doesn’t lash out at them.  Instead, he gently teaches them to not get distracted by questions about “times or seasons,” questions driven by misunderstandings about the kingdom.  It’s not their business to know these things.  It’s not their calling to get distracted by these things. 

Christians have always been tempted to get distracted by “times or seasons.”  Some time ago, I had a phone conversation with such a Christian.  He wanted to tell me about all the signs of the times.  He asked me if I’d heard about what happened on September 23, 2017.  On that day, the sun was in the constellation Virgo and the moon was near Virgo’s feet.  The man told me this was a fulfillment of Revelation 12.  He told me the end was coming, in the next three years, and we have to get prepared for it.  If you know anything about history, then you know that this kind of date-setting has been done numerous times.  And numerous times it’s been proven wrong.  Not only that, but Christ himself told us not to do it.  He does this in Acts 1:7 too.  When it comes to dates that God has fixed by his own authority, he says it’s none of your business.  Don’t get distracted by such questions.  Don’t waste your time thinking about “times or seasons.”  Instead, focus on the gospel calling we do have as Christians in this world.                 

As Christ’s followers go about this calling, he gives them a tremendous promise.  He promises they will never go alone.  The Holy Spirit will go with them and he will give them power. 

Remember who these apostles were.  They weren’t impressive men.  Some of the apostles had been fishermen.  One of them had been a tax collector, not exactly a job that carried a lot of prestige.  None of them had been scribes or Pharisees.  They weren’t religious experts, highly trained in the Bible.  They had followed Jesus for three years, so undoubtedly they had learned some things from him.  But they were still weak, intellectually and spiritually. Then there’s that lofty calling placed on them later in verse 8.  They could very well have asked themselves, “How are we ever going to be able to do that?”  It’s one thing for Jesus to rise from the dead and “restore the kingdom to Israel.”  They obviously thought that was within the realm of possibility.  But the calling to be Christ’s witnesses even to the ends of the earth?  How was that ever going to happen? 

Our Lord Jesus pre-empts this kind of thinking with the promise he gives them in verse 8.  He assures them that the Holy Spirit will come upon them.  He will be poured out on them.  That’s referring ahead to what happens at Pentecost.  Does this mean that there at the moment of our text, right before Christ’s ascension, that the disciples didn’t yet have the Holy Spirit?  To answer that, you have to think about whether or not they had saving faith in Jesus.  No one can have faith in Jesus Christ as their Saviour apart from the Holy Spirit.  Every heart that has faith has faith because the Holy Spirit worked it.  This has always been true, even in the time of the Old Testament.  No sinner can produce faith from themselves.  And yes, even though they didn’t always properly understand everything about Jesus, the disciples did believe in Christ as their Saviour, and so yes, they already had the Holy Spirit with them in some sense.

So what does this promise in verse 8 mean then?  Jesus says the Holy Spirit will come upon them.  We have to look at some of the other ways Pentecost is described.  For example, in Acts 2, Peter quotes from the book of Joel.  In Joel there’s a prophecy about Pentecost.  It says that God will pour out his Spirit.  That kind of language speaks of abundance.  The Holy Spirit will come in greater measures.  Similarly, right before our passage, in verse 5 of chapter 1, Jesus was speaking about Pentecost and he told the apostles they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit.”  In this instance, the word “baptize” refers to either immersion in the Holy Spirit, or perhaps better, being doused with the Holy Spirit.  At any rate, the meaning is the same:  the Holy Spirit will come to the disciples in a way he hasn’t before, with far more abundance, far more power.  Before he enabled them to believe, now he’ll also enable them to witness.

And so, as they go forth after Christ’s ascension and after Pentecost, the disciples don’t go alone.  What a comfort and encouragement that would’ve been for them.  When I was a missionary, we were living in a really remote part of Canada.  It was just a tiny little village, about 100 people, about 100 kms from the nearest town.  It was so remote that we didn’t have regular telephone service, no mobile phone service.  There were no police nearby, no ambulance.  There were moments when I came to that village to do my work and I was afraid.  There were times when there were death threats.  I was afraid for my family.  But at times like that, I would think back to the charge I received when I was ordained.  In our Form for the Ordination of Missionaries, it says under the “Charge to the Missionary”:  “Beloved brother, go then in the power of the Holy Spirit to the work which God has called you…”  So I would think:  “I’m not alone.  I have the Holy Spirit with me.  I’m weak, but he is strong.  When I have the Holy Spirit with me, I need not be afraid of anyone or anything.”  That line of thinking gave me so much encouragement.  It fits perfectly with what our Commander told his followers right before his Ascension. 

That kind of encouragement is not only there for apostles in the past and for missionaries today.  Our Saviour extends that same encouraging promise to you.  Because the Holy Spirit has come upon you, because he has been poured out on the Church of Jesus Christ, you have received power.  You’ve received power to carry out the orders of our Commander. 

We can be so easily intimidated by the world.  I’ve often encouraged you to pray for opportunities to share the gospel.  I could imagine there’s someone here who doesn’t even dare to pray that, because they’re afraid of God answering that prayer.  They’re afraid even of the opportunity to tell the greatest news the earth has ever heard.  So they don’t even dare to pray about this.  Loved ones, remember:  the Holy Spirit is powerful.  He is greater than everything you’re afraid of.  The Holy Spirit who dwells among us, he can give you the power you need to say the right words at the right time.  When our Commander gives us this promise of the power of the Holy Spirit in our text, he’s calling us to trust his promise.  Trust that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on you.  Trust that the Holy Spirit has empowered and enabled you to carry out the final orders our Commander gave before his ascension.     

The heart of those final orders is at the end of verse 8 when Jesus says, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”  Words similar to these are found in each of the Gospels.  They’re often called the Great Commission.  Christ is commissioning his church to go out into the world with the good news of salvation through him.  This commission was not only meant for the apostles, it was meant for the church of all ages.  This commission is given to us too.  Let’s look a little closer at the Great Commission as we find it here in Acts.

Christ says his followers are to be witnesses.  The New Testament often refers to witnessing.  This idea of witnessing comes with a legal connotation.  A witness gives sound testimony to the truth of something.  This sound testimony can stand up under legal scrutiny.  A witness speaks about what he or she has seen and heard.  The followers of Christ were to witness about what they had seen and heard.  Some of them had seen his glory on the Mount of Transfiguration.  They’d seen the cross.  They’d seen the empty tomb.  They’d seen the Lord alive.  They’d heard his teaching.  In the power of the Holy Spirit, they were to go and speak the truth about everything they’d seen and heard in relation to Jesus.

That calling would progress in geographical terms.  It would be like a series of concentric circles, starting from the center and moving outward.  It would start in Jerusalem.  It would move outwards to Judea, then to Samaria.  Then, finally, it would go to the end of the earth.  The gospel witness of the church would eventually end up spreading all over the globe.

As you read through the book of Acts, this is exactly the picture we see of the early Christian church.  The church goes out from Jerusalem into the world.  The book starts in Jerusalem and ends with Paul boldly proclaiming Christ and the kingdom of God in far-off Rome.  Throughout the chapters in between, we see believers acting as witnesses for Jesus Christ, giving sound testimony that he is the Saviour of the whole world.  When we look at the church in Acts, there are certainly acts of mercy and kindness, but the emphasis always falls on verbal testimony.  The emphasis is always on testimony with words about the good news of Christ.  That was true with the apostles, but it was also true with those Christians who weren’t apostles.  You could think of Acts 8:4, “Now those who were scattered went about preaching [or evangelizing] the word.”  That’s about ordinary Christians being the witnesses of Jesus in the time of the early church.  That was a calling for the entire church, not just for the church leaders, not just for the apostles and pastors. 

It’s important that we see the connection here between the Sender and the sent.  We need to see the connection between the Commissioner and the commissioned, the Commander and the commanded.  If you look at the beginning of the book of Acts, Luke tells us that his first book, his gospel, was about what Jesus began to do and to teach.  There he implies that his second book, the book of Acts, is actually about what Jesus continued to do and to teach.  The book of Acts is about what Christ continued to do through his Church.  Or to put it another way, it’s about what the Commander continued to do through his army after he left the battlefield.

What he continued to do in the book of Acts, and what he continues to do today, is to finish off his enemies.  One of the key ways he does that is by gathering his church through the witness of his people.  Loved ones, that’s a task that continues to be our business, our concern.  Our Commander’s intent is to continue having us as his witnesses.    

You could think of what we confess from the Bible in our Heidelberg Catechism.  In Lord’s Day 12, we have that question, “Why are you called a Christian?”  The answer begins with our union with Christ, “Because I am a member of Christ and thus share in his anointing…”  Because I’m united to my Commander, his intent becomes my intent.  He wants me to be a witness for him in this world, to gather his church through my witness.  That’s what I want.  So our Catechism says that being a Christian means sharing in Christ’s anointing “so that I may as prophet confess his name.”  That’s something involving words.  Just like Christ used prophetic words to bring the gospel message while he was on earth, he wants us to use prophetic words to continue to bring the gospel message on his behalf.  As prophets, Christians are all called to be witnesses for Christ.  Again, that means more than just living like a Christian.  In the book of Acts, the early Christians didn’t just live like Christians.  No, they went out and told everyone they could about Jesus and what he’d done.  They used words from their mouths to witness to the gospel.  That’s what our Commander intends for us too.

There’s a sense in which we shouldn’t even have to be told to do this.  Look with me at Acts 4:20.  Peter and John had been witnessing to Christ in Jerusalem.  They had been arrested and placed in prison.  The next day they were before the Sanhedrin, the Jewish religious court.  They were told not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus anymore.  Then Peter and John answered starting in verse 19, “Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you rather than to God, you must judge, for we cannot but speak of what we have seen and heard.”  Notice that they “cannot but speak” of what they’ve witnessed.  They’re compelled to.  The Holy Spirit powerfully drives them to witness, no matter what the consequences.  They can’t help themselves.  This is the way it should be for us too – that we can’t help but witness about our Lord Jesus. 

Now this is the way it should be, but many times it’s not the way it is.  Many times we’re reluctant witnesses, unenthusiastic witnesses, and then maybe no witnesses at all.  What can we do about this?  First of all, we have to see that it’s contrary to the intent of our Commander.  Perhaps you’ve heard about the Battle of Stalingrad in World War Two.  The Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and besieged the city of Stalingrad in southern Russia.  The Soviet troops successfully pushed the Nazis back.  They could only do that because there was harsh discipline in the Red Army.  If you refused to follow the intent of your commanders, you could be shot on the spot.  The Red Army actually had units behind their front-line units and their job was to shoot anyone who straggled or tried to desert.  They were brutal.  Thankfully, our Commander isn’t like that, our Lord Jesus isn’t brutal.  He isn’t merciless and cruel.  Instead, our Commander is patient, kind, and forgiving with his followers.  Through what he’s done for us on the cross, we can be forgiven for our reluctance to be his witnesses or for our lack of witnessing.  Nevertheless, this reluctance is not what he wants and we do have to repent of it.  We must hate it.  As the Christian soldiers, this is something else we have to fight against – fight against our lack of enthusiasm about witnessing. 

Then this is something we can pray about.  Loved ones, we can pray that the powerful Holy Spirit will work in our hearts so that we have the same compulsion Peter and John did in Acts 4.  That we cannot but speak of our Saviour.  We can pray that the Holy Spirit will help us to joyfully and willingly be witnesses for our Lord Jesus Christ.  He will help us to do that.

Our Lord Jesus has ascended into heaven.  Our Commander has left the battlefield.  But from heaven, he continues to oversee the remaining battles to spread the gospel far and wide.  From heaven, he continues to equip those who are engaged in these battles.  From heaven, our Lord Jesus continues to win victories.  Every time someone hears the good news of who Christ is and what he’s done and believes it, that’s another victory for our Commander.  Every time we witness and someone comes to faith in Christ, that’s not a win for us, but for him.  It’s his doing and his victory.  So long as we live on this earth, we’re privileged to be involved with our Commander’s cause.  Let’s continue to fight the good fight until the day our Commander returns in glory.  AMEN.

PRAYER

Our Lord Jesus Christ,

You victoriously ascended into heaven and as you’re there at the Father’s right hand, we worship and adore you.  We praise you for working through the first disciples to spread the gospel all over the world, so that eventually it even came to us.  We love you, Lord and we want to follow you.  Because you first loved us, even unto death at the cross, we want to do your bidding.  But for that, we need your help.  We need your strength and power.  So please help us with your Holy Spirit.  Lord, help us to not get distracted by questions about times and seasons.  Please help us to focus on the task at hand, what you want your church to be doing in this age.  Please help us to trust the power of your Spirit.  We easily become afraid and we feel weak and inadequate.  Lord, constantly remind us that we’re not alone.  Reassure us with the presence and power of your Holy Spirit.  We pray that this would happen so we can be your witnesses in this world.  Let your Holy Spirit work in our hearts so we can’t help but speak of what we have seen and heard from you.  Let your Holy Spirit work in our hearts so we love the lost in our lives and that we share the gospel of hope with them.  Please give us willing hearts to do your will, to be your witnesses everywhere.        

                                                                      




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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