With Great Joy
In the previous passage we learned that the Ascension of Jesus into glory to sit at the right hand of the Father is the central point of Luke and Acts which makes the Ascension the most important event of the two books. We discussed the reasons why. The Jesus’ return made the procession of the Holy Spirit possible to the church. Jesus continues to do and teach through the agency of a Spirit filled church from a heavenly vantage point. The Ascension is the proof that Jesus’ work on earth was a complete success and Jesus was returning home. The promise of His return for His church is signified to the Apostles which will be the fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah which says the Messiah would come in glory to the Mount of Olives at the end of time. It was a revelation to the Apostles of Jesus’ divinity and power which would sustain them through the difficulties of witnessing in a hostile world.
We have seen that obedience to the King of the Kingdom is part of the DNA of the church. God’s church is to obey the commands of the Triune God. In this passage, this obedience is demonstrated by their returning to the upper room in Jerusalem to await further orders. This is probably the same upper room which Jesus had the last supper with the Apostles. The importance of obedience to one’s master cannot be understated. Servants in the ancient world were expected to be completely subject to the will of their master. This is still true of the church today. The Kingdom of God is not a democracy but an absolute monarchy. The church must get its marching orders from the Spirit and not innovate and get ahead of God. After the disobedience of the Children of Israel in not believing the report of the spies, God told them they would have to wander in the wilderness for forty years before they would be able to enter Canaan. They presumed to now obey what they should have obeyed at first, to enter the Promised Land. But God said they would have to wait. They got ahead of God and went up. Many died in the battle, and Israel was utterly defeated. The same will hold true for a church which tries to get ahead of God. The Apostles wanted the glory of the Kingdom now, but God said wait instead in Jerusalem for the Spirit. The time was not yet for entering into the heavenly promise for the disciples. It was Jesus’ time, but not theirs.
The church obeyed and returned. It says that they spent the time in prayer and supplication. They were not passive in their waiting. They spent time in prayer and supplication as well. The Book of Acts shows that the DNA of the apostolic church is that it is a praying and interceding church. And if this is the DNA of the early church, should it not be the DNA of the church today?
The numbers of the early believers would swell to about 120 in the next ten days before Pentecost. Besides the eleven, women including the mother of Jesus and Jesus’ brothers were there. There may have been others at first as well. This is the last mention of Mother Mary in the Scripture which seems to indicate that the veneration given her is somewhat overstated. She is an important figure in the drama, of course, but no more so than anyone else in that room. Mary Magdalene had already disappeared. So had Lazarus and Mary of Bethany. The Bible is not about the people per se, it is about God. God is the hero of Scripture and God alone. The Bible is very honest about the faults of its human participants, even of those we call saints. We know about the sins of David. Mary came with Jesus’ brothers at one point in His ministry to take Jesus away because if we read the Gospel of Mark, they thought Jesus was out of His mind and needed to be removed from public view as an embarrassment. We certainly know from John that Jesus’ own brother did not believe in Him before the resurrection. Now they are here as believers, but the glory of their conversion belongs to God. Peter the denier and the cowardly apostles were there. They were men and women just like us with similar passions. They has good and bad points about them. We are not to worship them. Instead, we are to give glory to God for showing such extraordinary grace to such undeserving people. The same is true for our own conversion.
Another strand of DNA is revealed here in this passage. It says that they were united in prayer. This means that they were all working on the same page. This is only possible if they are reading God’s playbook. The trouble with innovation is that individuals compete with their ideas of how to grow God’s church. Everyone wants their ideas to set the rule. The result of this is worship wars in the church. Should we have liturgy, traditional worship, or modern worship? The old are divided against the young. The church is segregated by politics, race, and economic status. Someone has noted that the Sunday morning worship service is the most segregated hour in America. Is this the church that God wants?
The divisions in our church today are nothing short of disgraceful. I haven’t even mentioned the doctrinal divisions in God’s church. The “all one body we” we sing in Onward Christian Soldiers is a fraud in our actions. We are not one. It says the early church was united in prayer. This is why it is so vitally important for the church to examine God’s blueprint and do it God’s way. Perhaps we need to lock ourselves up in a conclave until we can work our differences out. We need to seek God in prayer for His direction. We need to intercede for one another.
Most of all, we need to wait for the Spirit. The work of unity in the church is impossible without the Holy Spirit. The same Spirit who worked out the differences between Simon the Zealot and Matthew the tax collector can work out our differences today. For nothing is impossible to God. Would it not be better to remain silent in our witness to the world until such time as we can get it together? Instead, we appear to the world as weak, faithless, and divided against one another. If this is what Christianity is, who would want to be a Christian at all? Thankfully, God has revealed to us in Acts what the church is. Can we not just follow His plan? This church was united in prayer and supplication. They cared for each other.
We shall see that even the early church was not free of problems. Not at all. But it does show that when the church was obedient to God’s will, it was strong and united. When the church struggled, such as with the fair distribution of charity to the widows or with the selfishness of Ananias and Sapphira, it was a trouble that needed to be addressed, sometimes quite severely. They had to work it out, just as we need to work it out. This can be very hard and painful work. However the result is a return of health to the church.
Finally, even though Luke does not mention it here but rather at the end of Luke, it says that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with “great joy.” The obedient and united church is a joyful church. Ezra in the Book of Nehemiah reminds us that this “joy of the Lord is our strength.” But too many of our churches seem more like funeral homes. The color of the church service is a dismal grey. There is no power in such a church. The witness such a church gives to the world is a very negative one. They see Christians as one poet says it, people who “scorn delights and live laborious days.” We are actually expressing unbelief when we come together is such a spirit. We need to remember we are Resurrection People, people who belief that God through our Lord Jesus Christ will ultimately triumph, and we with Him. If we do not believe this, then we will not escape the hellish gloom in so many churches today.
A lot of people have noticed this somber and sour spirit in the church. Such a church sees coming to church as a tedious duty. If they did not have this sense of duty and obligation, they would not come to church at all. Why not golf or fish instead and refresh oneself in something enjoyable. The return to difficulties of life will come soon enough.
As a result, many in the church have tried to restore a spirit of joy in worship. The tempo of the music nd its beat get an uplift. The preacher preaches comedy and stories that humor people. The service is a “come as you are” event. God is reduced to a cosmic buddy, a giant Santa Claus whose message is “ho! Ho! Ho!” The importance of Scripture is diminished or at least cherry picked to make the scene more merry.
But is this the joy the apostolic church had. Is church just a temporary escape from reality? Is it just a short Sabbath to refresh us from the difficulties of life? Some would like this to be the case, but Luke and Acts say differently. The joy that is revealed here is unconditional. This type of joy can also be found throughout the New Testament. It does not need to be coached or worked up. It flows naturally from a believing and thankful heart. It is the fruit of the Spirit. Anyone can be joyful when times are good. But it is hard to be joyful in bad circumstances unless on is full of the Spirit or else is an utter Sadist or Masochist. The former is true of the early church. They had a joy that could sing hymns of praise in prison after beating and being placed in stocks in the inner prison. These apostles and martyrs of the early church were not mad. They just knew the security of how their trials would ultimately end.
A portrait of this is seen in Hebrews 12. The church to whom Hebrews was written had no earthly cause for joy. Quite the contrary, it appears as though some had their homes confiscated because they were Christians. Some of them who were craftsman and could not do homage to the patron god or goddess of the guild lost their jobs as well. They were as they as ones wandering in what was to them a modern wilderness.
The writer of Hebrews had to remind these Christians of the Sabbath rest that awaited the people of God at the end of the journey. This would be a permanent rest, not the Sunday morning “happy hour” of escape from the world. It was a rest that had to be labored for, though. He reminded them that Jesus saw the joy at the end of the journey and was therefore able to endure the shame and pain of the cross. He tells these Christians that none of them had yet paid the ultimate price for being a witness of Christ, even though it was hinted that it would be coming soon. This joy at the end of the race is the strength the Christian needs to endure the hardship of life rather than some temporary fix which ultimately solves nothing. In other words, the church is reminded of its eschatology, its final destination. Without this type of joy, there is no hope for the decline of the church today. There is no human fix that will work.
But we can take joy in the fact that the Bible tells us we will ultimately triumph in Christ. God’s promises cannot fail and neither can His church. If it were up to us, the church would certainly fail. But the triumph of the church is the promise of God who cannot lie or fail. So let us return to the upper room in prayer and supplication. Let us be the church which says “maranatha”, “Come Lord Jesus” once again. Jesus is the head of the church body. The only hope for unity is in Him. I can promise you this, when the church stands upon the promises of God, it will be a powerful church, even if it is weak and impoverished by worldly eyes. This powerful demonstration of the Spirit of God is something that will truly draw out God’s elect. Away with human humbug and wisdom! The glory is God’s and God’s alone.