The first thing to observe in this section is that the apostles still don’t understand the scope and depth of what Jesus came to do. Their question reveals the narrowness of their understanding of Jesus mission: “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” The apostles are still thinking about Jesus as the one who will remove the occupying Romans and restore the land of Israel to the Jewish people. As the story of Acts unfolds, we will see several moments wherein followers of Jesus are made aware that Jesus’ mission of redemption is wider and deeper and longer than they previously thought. See, for example, Acts 10:45, which recounts the Jewish believers being amazed that the Spirit was poured out even on the gentiles.
Notice that Jesus doesn’t answer their question. He sidesteps the issue of restoring the kingdom to Israel, basically telling them that it is none of their business. Jesus merely says that it is not for us to know times and seasons the Father has fixed by his own authority. It seems on first glance like Jesus is simply telling them that only the Father knows the time of the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. But Jesus never addresses restoring the kingdom to Israel at all. At the end of the Gospel according to John, John reminds us to listen carefully to Jesus’ words:
John 21:18–23 (ESV) Truly, truly, I say to you, when you were young, you used to dress yourself and walk wherever you wanted, but when you are old, you will stretch out your hands, and another will dress you and carry you where you do not want to go.” (This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.”
Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” So the saying spread abroad among the brothers that this disciple was not to die; yet Jesus did not say to him that he was not to die, but, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you?”
In verse 23, John cautions us to listen carefully to what Jesus says. He never said that John wouldn’t die. He only said, “What is it to you if I want John to remain alive?” Read Acts 1:6-7 with the same precision and you will see that Jesus does not even address the time when he will “restore the kingdom to Israel.” He directs them away from things that are not their concern to things that are their concern: the job he is giving them to do. Jesus neither confirms nor denies the premise of their original question about restoring the kingdom to Israel.
The size, scope and boundary-destroying impact of this verse cannot be overstated. Jesus tells his apostles that something big will happen to them then they will do something big.
The big thing that will happen to them is that the Holy Spirit will come on them. This is the same Spirit that we read about in Genesis 1:2 that was “hovering” over the face of the waters. “Hovering” doesn’t convey the energy of the Hebrew word for the activity of the Spirit or Wind of God at the beginning. “Hovering” feels peaceful. But in reality, hovering takes a lot of energy. The Hebrew word translated as “hovering” is used to convey trembling, shaking, fluttering, swooping or brandishing. The sense at the beginning of creation feels like humming with potential energy.
It’s worth noting that the Spirit is given many times and on many occasions, not just once. In one post-resurrection instance, Jesus blew on the disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.” (John 20:22)
This same Spirit is going to come on the disciples. The Wind of God is going to blow through the disciples giving them power. We will see that power at work in many places in the book of Acts, sometimes where we expect it, sometimes where we don’t expect it. There will be times when we wonder why the power of God doesn’t act as well.
The big thing they will do is be Jesus’ witnesses on a much wider scale than they had been thinking. The first place Jesus mentions is perfectly natural: Jerusalem. That Jesus would want them to be his witnesses in the capital city of historic Israel, of the kingdom of David, is no surprise. But Jesus doesn’t stop there.
Jesus next tells them that they will be witnesses in “all Judea and Samaria.” There is an interesting little thing going on here: Judea and Samaria are linked together. The Greek text reads in a more literal way, “also in all the Judea and Samaria.” The way this works is that the “the” carries across the “and” and indicates a unity of Judea and Samaria.
If you are familiar with the the Holy Land during the time of Jesus, you will notice that Jesus is doing a very unorthodox thing linking Judea and Samaria this closely, since the Jewish people did not associate with the Samaritans. The Samaritans are of Jewish descent but claim that the place to worship God is Mount Gerazim while the Jews of Jesus’ day asserted that Jerusalem was the place to worship God. In John 4:23, Jesus tells the Samaritan woman that this division between Jerusalem and Gerazim will end. Jesus tells her, “…the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him.” (John 4:23 (ESV))
By linking Judea and Samaria, Jesus is telling his disciples that the walls that have arisen that separate the Judeans and the Samaritans are to be ignored.
This is one of myriad instances of Jesus ignoring societal boundaries and teaching others to do the same. Jesus spoke to a Samaritan Woman who was probably of poor reputation since she came to draw her water at the time of day when, generally speaking, there would be few others drawing water. (sse John 4) Jesus touches dead bodies and lepers. He eats with tax collectors and prostitutes. And, of course, he also interacts with people of higher reputation, such as pharisees, scribes and priests. In short, Jesus tells them that there are no untouchables, no groups of people with whom they should not associate.
Then Jesus further expands the mission to where? The ends of the earth. No boundaries for the Gospel. It goes to Greeks, Parthians, Medes, Egyptians, everyone.
Christians should also take note that Jesus does not tell the disciples that they will be his salesmen. They are witnesses. They will tell the story — the ever-expanding story of God’s work in the world. This is a story with the death and resurrection of Jesus at the center, but it is a longer story than that. It starts out with the words, “In the beginning…” and it doesn’t end. You can tell the story of God’s work up until now.
Here we witness Jesus rising into the clouds. But what for? Is he going into heaven? In the disciples’ worldview, the answer is, “yes.” The worldview at the time of Christ can be pictured as layers. Sheol, the place of the dead, was below us. Earth is where we stand. Heaven is above us. So Jesus ascended toward where the disciples considered heaven to be. But, we have not only looked above the clouds with telescopes, we have flown above the clouds in airplanes and rockets. Mankind has stepped on the moon and sent probes beyond the edge of our solar system. The Hubble Deep Field Telescope can see 10-15 billion light years away. That is quite a distance. Our worldview has changed with new information.
Assuming Jesus didn’t physically zoom upward to heaven, what is going on? Jesus engages in what might be called a “parting ceremony.” He has appeared to the disciples at several times over the past 40 days. Paul lists several of these appearances in 1 Corinthians 15:3-8. Jesus could have simply went to heaven, but he would have left the disciples possibly wondering when he would appear next. This ceremonial uplifting of Jesus into the clouds is done for the same reason Jesus does everything he does: love. The disciples needed a clear demonstration that Jesus would not be appearing physically to them again. He would not be saying, “Touch my palms. Place your hand on my side.” He would not be eating with them to reassure them that he was not simply a spirit.
This is it. This is the big hand off. Jesus has transferred the responsibility for the spreading of the kingdom of God to the disciples. Soon they will receive power from the Holy Spirit to do the job which Jesus has just handed off to them.
Why were the disciples standing there looking up? Did they expect Jesus to come back immediately after a quick trip to heaven? I don’t know. But two angels appear to shoe them along.