The Kingdom in the Opening of Acts

We have already seen how Luke lays a heavy stress upon the Kingdom of God.  Although it does not receive half as much notice as it deserves to, Luke is very interested in the matter of continuity between the OT and the Apostolic writings that would become the NT. 

            This continuity is quickly seen in the opening of the first chapter of Acts.  There we see the Risen Lord teaching His disciples over the course of forty days.  Luke tells us that the main burden of Jesus’ teaching was “speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3).  In the absence of any qualifying definition, what the phrase “kingdom of God” means in Acts 1 ought to be determined via reference to the Gospel of Luke; the first volume of Luke’s two volume history.  As my study of Luke’s Gospel has shown, Luke employs the term purposefully to refer in the main to the eschatological kingdom promised in the covenants.  Aside from reading the NT retrogressively there is no reason to think his use of “the kingdom of God” had changed in Acts. 

            With this assumption in hand I venture to say that the “kingdom” that Jesus was teaching the disciples about during the forty days after His resurrection was the covenanted kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by the faithful in Jesus’ day.

The Disciples’ Question About the Restoration of the Kingdom

            This understanding of the meaning of the kingdom of God in Acts 1:3 is given more encouragement by the interchange we encounter a few verses later:

Therefore, when they had come together, they asked Him, saying, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” And He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.  But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me1 in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Act 1:7-8.

            Jesus had just reminded them of the ministry of John the Baptist (Acts 1:4-5), which must have stirred in them hopes of the coming “kingdom” about which John had preached (Matt. 3:1-2).  Therefore, their question in verse 6 was natural.  After so much instruction about the kingdom of God from the Master Teacher, we cannot be so narrow-minded as Calvin and believe that the disciples didn’t grasp Jesus’ meaning.  No, their inquiry, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6), was based on the teaching they had been receiving both before and after Christ’s resurrection (cf. Matt. 19:28).  It was not a pitiable misconstrual of it.  The disciples’ question to Jesus was loaded with anticipation:

“Now that He was alive again, having just demonstrated His power to overcome death itself, surely the time to restore the Jewish kingdom…on earth in all its glory must be close at hand.  Their question was simply one of timing.”[1] 

            Burgraff is right; the question of the disciples, which they seem to have repeated, was about “when” the expected kingdom would be restored, not about its character.  They certainly had that understanding down pat after all the time they had spent with Jesus!

            How did Jesus respond to the inquiry?  Did He immediately take it upon Himself to correct their deeply ingrained yet erroneous understanding of the kingdom?  Did He, – as on other occasions[2] – confounded by their dilatoriness, ask them “How can you still think the kingdom concerns just Israel?”  He did not do that because their expectation was anchored not only in His teachings but also in the Davidic covenant.  Let us remind ourselves of His answer:

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.  But you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me1 in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” – Acts 1:7-8.

            There is no trace of a rebuke in these words.  He was telling them that the “when” of the restoration of the kingdom to Israel was not for them (or us) to know.[3]  That restoration will come.  Indeed it must, for God has covenanted to do it.  Whatever we do with that information from our historical vantage-point, we had better make peace with the fact that the covenants will not bend to our theological preferences.

The Ascension of Jesus

            The ascension of Jesus Christ back to where He was before (Jn. 6:62) was not simply a return from the wars as it were.  We must remember that the eternal Logos (Jn. 1:1-3) came to our fallen world and grew up and lived in it as a human being; like one of his creatures; like one of those who so imperfectly reflected His image.  His ascension into heaven was as a man, the TheosAner.  He had succumbed to the full cruelty of His creature and He had been taken by Death.  He was changed.  His arrival in Glory was the arrival of the great Savior of the Creation Project; the Man who put it all right.  Victory was not claimed, but it was and is assured.  Jesus entered “the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is, not of this creation.” (Heb. 9:11), and there, in some mystical way that I cannot explain He came into the Most Holy Place with His own blood and expiated our sins (Heb. 9:12).

            In Acts 1:9-11 is the record of the ascension:

He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”

            This took place at the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12), which is the very mountain that will be wrenched apart when He comes again in great power and majesty according to Zechariah 14:4.  The touch of the Risen Christ’s feet upon this mountain will set off a chain-reaction that will envelop the entire world.  It will eventuate in the world not opposing but projecting the will of the Father, through the reign of the Son.  He will come bodily, in the clouds, to lay claim to what was first given to Him by His Father (cf. Col. 1:16).  And He comes as the Mediator of His New covenant to fulfill all the unconditional covenants that God made in the OT with Noah, Abraham, Phinehas, and David.           

[1] David L. Burgraff, “Augustine: From the ‘Not Yet’ to the ‘Already,’” in Forsaking Israel: How It Happened and Why It Matters, second edition, edited by Larry D. Pettegrew, The Woodlands, TX: Kress Biblical Resources, 2021, 42 (Emphasis his). Cf. also James D. G. Dunn, Beginning From Jerusalem, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009, 144.

[2] E.g., Matthew 16:11; Mark 4:40; 8:21. 

[3] Rightly Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Thematic Approach, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 205, also 133.

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