"Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" - An investigation of Acts 1 (Part 2)

Although regularly overlooked, it’s very significant how Luke sets the context for the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 by first summing up the content of Jesus’ 40-day stay with them after the resurrection, saying he spoke to them “of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God”. Also of great significance is the way he conveys Jesus’ concluding words from that kingdom teaching: “He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father... ‘You shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” According to Luke, it appears that Jesus retained the orthodox Jewish connection between the outpouring of the Spirit and the eschatological restoration of God's people, as the two had always been connected throughout the prophetic tradition and were crystallized in such passages as Isaiah 44, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and, most significantly for Luke’s own narrative, Joel 2.

Before we comment on this, however, we need to do some ground clearing and say a word about Luke’s intention. I assume that Luke intends for his introduction in Acts 1 to have a measure of coherence to it, and to actually have some theological relevance to the rest of the book. That assumption is a priori more likely than seeing that introduction as a random collection of sayings and events that have no bearing on each other or on the rest of the book. Luke is not just a historian trying to convey bare events, as in the tradition of the Enlightenment; rather he is a theologian, and he wishes to convey the meaning of those events, in the tradition of Jewish Monotheism.

That said, it is very likely that Luke is intentional in the sayings and traditions which he groups together in his telling of Jesus' ascension, and that he wishes to convey meaning through their relation to one another. As we observed, he first tells of the forty days after the resurrection in which Jesus spoke “of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (v. 3), and then he sums the relevant content of that teaching up through relaying Jesus’ concluding exhortation at the end of those days, in which he told the disciples to “wait for the promise of the Father... for you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (vv. 4-5). The point to grasp here, by the relationship of vv. 4-5 to v. 3, is that the coming of the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God are intimately connected in Jesus' mind, just as they were in all Jewish eschatology from the OT prophets to the Second Temple period.

Verse 6 then makes that connection explicit by showing that the disciples themselves understood it. How does it do this? Through connecting the disciples question about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel with what Jesus had just said by the conjunction οὖν: “Therefore, when they had come together, they asked him, saying ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” They knew what the prophets had foretold, what Isaiah 44, Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and Joel 2 all said, that when God poured out his Spirit upon his people he would deliver them from their enemies and begin his theocratic reign. So when Jesus spoke of their soon being baptized with the Spirit, they would of course understand that to mean that they would soon receive the kingdom, that they would be vindicated and restored as God's true covenant people.

We can say with confidence, then, that Jesus and the disciples both retained the hopes and longings of their forefathers, which saw the outpouring of the Spirit and the arrival of the kingdom coming together in history. And in case we are in doubt, Jesus’ two-pronged answer to the disciple’s question should reassure us. He tells them, first, that it is not for them to know precisely when they would receive the kingdom, but then goes on to say that they would receive power to accomplish God's worldwide plan of redemption when the Holy Spirit came upon them. The point of verse 8 is this: when the Spirit comes, as God has promised, then God’s people will be empowered to fulfill their calling to the nations as the light of the world, the city set on a hill. This was always how Israel’s future redemption was envisioned. When they were redeemed and forgiven, when the kingdom was restored to them, and when God poured out his Spirit upon them, then they would become heralds to the nations proclaiming God’s kingship.

As we can see, then, the Spirit is front and center throughout the opening chapter of Acts, in both the disciples question about the kingdom and in Jesus’ answer. One of the problems I find with the dispensational interpretation of this passage is that it has to disconnect the two parts of Jesus' reply in verses 7 and 8, effectively seeing verse 7 as a vague answer to the disciples question (vague enough to understand as an implied affirmation of the dispensational scheme), and verse 8 as a drastic change of subject, not directly related to their question as a continuation of his answer in verse 7. The reason for this is of course because of the lack of connection in such a scheme between the kingdom and the Spirit. But if we recognize the close relationship between the Spirit and the kingdom in Jewish expectation, then each verse fits with the other and the passage can be read as a whole. But then, when we recognize that relationship, we find that neither Luke nor Jesus affirms the dispensational scheme.

And, as I have indicated in earlier posts, that scheme cannot hide behind the claim that Jesus tacitly affirms the disciples' expectation for the restoration of the nation of Israel above the nations of the earth, for it is not at all clear that such a restoration was what the disciples expected or that that was what their question meant within the Jewish context in which they all spoke and understood one another. The meaning of the text here and of the disciples’ actual expectation has regularly been clouded by the presupposition that their first-century “Jewish expectation” was exactly the same as the expectation of Zionists today. I have tried to dispel some of those clouds in my introductory posts.

But when we put the Spirit where it belongs in Jewish expectation, as an integral symbol of the restored kingdom, then we can see how Luke sees the disciples’ question powerfully answered in the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost in the next chapter. Peter immediately associates that outpouring with the restoration for which they were longing, for he then quotes from one of the central OT passages which envisioned that restoration and proclaims that “this is what was spoken”. Joel 2:18-32 is all about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel, the time when God would take pity on them, vindicate and exalt them above their enemies, and empower them to carry out their covenantal calling to the nations.

Peter’s point is that this vindication has taken place through Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation to the right hand of God. In other words, he associates the resurrection and exaltation of the Messiah with the fulfillment of God’s promise to David that he would “set up” his seed after him and that he would “establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (Acts 2:30-36; cf. 2 Sam 7:12-13). In the vindication of Israel’s Messiah over his enemies, and in his receiving of the kingdom, God’s worldwide program is now going forth as he always said it would. Only now, since the majority of the nation has rejected their Messiah, the chosen people themselves stand with the pagan nations as still in need of redemption, while all of Jesus’ followers stand in the place of Israel, as the forgiven and restored people, carrying the good news of God’s salvation “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and to the end of the earth”. In other words, Peter now understands Jesus' meaning, that in his vindication and exaltation his people are vindicated and exalted, and having received from the Father the promise of the Spirit, he has given it to them so that they might go out to all the earth and preach the good news of the new king.

From this vantage point we can now see clearly why Luke includes the dialog between Jesus and the disciples concerning the Spirit and the kingdom in his story of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1. We have been accustomed to reading 1:4-8 as completely unrelated to 1:9-11, but by setting it all in its proper context we find that Luke is much more intentional and reflective than we usually give him credit. It is very probable that the story of the ascension in 1:9-11 owes a good deal to Daniel 7, at least in terms of how Luke has conveyed it: Jesus is exalted on a cloud, just like the “son of man” of Daniel’s vision, and by implication he is seated at the right hand of the Ancient of Days. As a result, he has received the kingdom, the world rulership for which Israel longed (cf. Acts 2:33; Dan 7:13; Ps 110:1-2).

And, as we have seen, this supplies the impetus for the “good news” which Jesus’ followers preach to both the Jewish and the Gentile worlds throughout Luke’s narrative. As Matthew also summarizes at the end of his gospel: Jesus has received all authority in heaven and on earth; therefore his followers, the forgiven and empowered people, should go and make disciples of all the nations. And just as he bore the role of the Servant, inaugurating the kingdom through his own suffering and death and not through a nationalistic triumphalism, so too his disciples become the Servant-people, advancing the kingdom through their own cross-bearing testimony and martyrdom. That is, in a sense, the whole message Luke wishes to convey. The Paul of Acts, at least, understands his own vocation in terms of the Servant-calling of Israel from such passages as Isaiah 40-55, the call to be a light to the Gentiles and to bring God’s salvation to the ends of the earth (e.g. Acts 13:47). And unless Paul was alone in his reading of Isaiah, this confirms my earlier point that the early church saw itself, in the Messiah, as the renewed and reconstituted Israel, pouring out its life unto death for the sake of the nations.

I could say so much more, but this is my conclusion about Acts 1:6-8 in light of what I have said thus far: that within Luke’s narrative world and for the purpose of the story he is telling, the first two chapters of Acts effectually constitute a transformed reading of prophecy whereby Israel’s eschatological expectation is reaffirmed but its interpretation altered. Yes, the kingdom will be restored to the remnant of Israel when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, as they always envisioned. But no, this will not look like the vindication and exaltation which they were expecting. It will look nothing like the manner in which the nations advance their own kingdoms, by lording their authority over their subjects and taking what isn’t rightfully theirs. Exactly the opposite: whoever desires to be great in God’s kingdom will become the servant of all, and the twelve mighty leaders who are given authority will look, at the beginning at least, like twelve weak men attempting to solve the inner disputes of God’s people about the daily distribution of food.

Now of course this is very subversive, counter-intuitive, and paradoxical to our sensibilities, just as it was to Israel’s—but weren’t all of Jesus’ sayings made up of such “inside out” and “upside down” wisdom? Only those who turn around and become like little children will enter the kingdom of heaven. If you want to be great, sell all that you have. If someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn and let him slap you on the left. The mighty tree grows only through a small seed being sown into the ground. This is, after all, the great offense of the cross: the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.