If I ever get the chance, by God’s grace, to sit down in heaven and talk with Luke, who wrote not only the gospel but also the book of Acts, I am going to point out that he caused – inadvertently, I’m sure – a whole lot of trouble when he included one little detail in his account of Jesus’ ascension. It appears in Acts, but not in Luke.
“While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” [Acts 1:10-11]
That has fed into a ridiculous branch of pseudo-scholarship that really took off in the nineteenth century, where people get totally hung up on trying to figure out when Jesus will return.
There was an Irishman named John Nelson Darby who takes the credit for developing an itinerary for the Lord to follow, by grabbing a verse from Daniel here and a passage from I Thessalonians there, pouring on a few cups of Revelation, heating it over fire and brimstone until it turned into a system called Dispensationalism. It was popularized by Cyrus Scofield, the founder of what we used to call the Philadelphia College of Bible, currently Cairn University. The Scofield Reference Bible was a regular King James Version, but with marginal notes referring to Darby’s theories. All of that has been continued, first on radio, then on television, and all over the internet, by people who will tell you (whether you ask them or not) that they have discovered a secret code that unlocks the mysteries of Jesus’ plans.
I guess they never read the passage at the start of Acts where Jesus’ disciples ask him about when and how God’s kingdom will come in its fullness, and Jesus tells them not to bother about that.
“So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He replied, ‘It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.’” [Acts 1:6-7]
We can be sure that God does have his plans and does have the ultimate end of things under control. Trust him with that, as with everything else. The process is underway already. It’s not something future to plan for. It’s something present, to experience.
The fact that God sent his Son as a Savior who cherishes each of his children, even going to the cross for us, rather than sending him as a tyrant or as a cosmic policeman to arrest us, who have all broken God’s law – that shows us that God’s will is not to destroy, but to redeem. There is nothing hidden about that. It’s not a puzzle to figure out. Ephesians says that
“With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” [Ephesians 1:8-10]
In the fullness of time that will happen. Redemption has already begun, and will come to completion in God’s time. You cannot rush the appearance of cherry blossoms in the spring or the cherries in the summer. In God’s time, they appear. You cannot force the tide to come in early, or to stay longer than it ever does. You cannot rush it. Neither can you stop it.
As Jesus went into heaven, he prepared his followers to expect that moment. On the one hand, it’s possible to look at that moment with fear. I get that feeling whenever I hear someone say that “we’re living in the last days”. Maybe it’s just me. But when I read this part of Acts, I hear him say to wait less for his return than to be ready for the presence of the Spirit in the meantime, and to wait like a racer waits at the starting line, not like a runner looking for the race finally to be over. He said,
“you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
And they did just that.
So, how do we – who are also disciples – know when the moment is right? It isn’t by calculating years from obscure verses, but by listening to the living Word. We don’t always get the unmistakable signs that the first disciples got, as when at Pentecost
“there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them.” [Acts 2:3]
Sometimes what we get are gentler hints, sort of Spirit-nudges. I’ll just speak for myself here, since that’s how it works for me. I confess that I ignore them sometimes, thinking I’m just being silly or imagining something, and later on find out that I should have paid attention. On the whole, though, when I do pay attention to that little voice that says, “So-and-so sounded a little quiet the other day,” or maybe, “Why don’t you go down this block instead?” or “Send a copy of this cartoon to So-and-So”, it may very well open the door to a moment when God’s grace enters unexpectedly into some situation. Jesus told Nicodemus,
“The wind blows where it chooses” or “The spirit blows where it chooses”
(the word is the same in New Testament Greek). Let’s go with
“The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” [John 3:8]
We may not know, and are not meant to know, the great and overarching plans of which our own lives are just one small (but necessary) part. We can know, and deep down I think we do know, when there are moments that matter more than others, when one word fitly spoken or one deed of kindness or courage is asked of us, that we may be
“witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” [Acts 1:8]
If we faithfully attend to those, the rest will be in God’s hands, who knows better than any of us do with the big stuff.
“Be still, my soul. The Lord doth undertake
To guide the future, as he has the past.
Your hope, your confidence let nothing shake.
All now mysterious shall be bright at last.
Be still, my soul. The wind and waves still know
His voice who ruled them while he dwelt below.”