Connections 06.02.2019: More Important than Knowing the End

Acts 1:1-11

People have always wanted to know when “the end” will be. How much longer will the earth last? What age will I be when I die? When will God solve this problem for me? What’s the date of Jesus’ return? How much longer do I have to wait?

The desire to know the timing of the end makes sense. It’s hard to plan when we’re not sure how long we have. It’s hard to know the next step to take when we’re not sure how many more steps we’ll get. It’s hard to know how to live 2,000-plus years after Jesus’ time on earth when we’re sometimes not sure if he’s really coming back.

Someone I care about has found the certainty she craves in what amounts to a religiopolitical cult. Her Facebook feed is full of memes and Scriptures that predict the imminent end. The leader of this cult connects small segments of Scripture, mathematical formulas derived from biblical numbers, and troubling current events to determine when and how the end will come. My loved one declares that the Messiah will return within the next few weeks, and she is madly preparing: fasting, praying, staying awake. She is often isolated from family and friends. She is seeing visions. And she is making last-ditch efforts to get in touch with those she loves to try to convince them of “the truth.”

I have done what I know to do to try to show her a different way. I have reminded her that God is a God of love and that Jesus repeatedly said no one knows the day of his return—not even himself. I have pointed out that there seems to be scarce hope in her new belief system.

Maybe world events are not any more terrible than they have ever been, but the one big change is our instant access to information of all kinds. The level of horror we see, of human atrocities, is rarely matched by equal evidence of kindness, compassion, and love. It’s easy to feel despair and desperation, so when someone promises relief and gives us a way to reach it, I suppose I can understand the urge to jump on board.

The problem is that my loved one is trusting the wrong person. In our lesson text, the followers of Jesus are desperate to know the timing of God’s plan: “Lord,” they ask, “is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). And Jesus answers this question the way he always answers it in Scripture. He replies, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (v. 7, emphasis mine). But there’s more. Jesus also promises, “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” (v. 8).

When will all things end? When will Jesus come back? We do not know. We cannot know. But we can be certain that he has given us his presence in the form of the Holy Spirit, and we can keep learning how to be his witnesses to all people. How do we learn that? By living the way he lived: loving God with all our hearts, minds, soul, and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:36-40). If something doesn’t look or feel like love, then it isn’t love. And if it isn’t love, then it’s not from God, for God is love (1 John 4:7-8).

Discussion

• What are your thoughts about Jesus’ return? What do you believe about it? How often does it cross your mind?

• Have you ever wished Jesus would come back right now? If so, why? What excites you the most about his return?

• What do you think attracts people to end-time cults? How could these groups be comforting? How might they be dangerous?

• What does it mean to you that Jesus never directly answered the question about when he would return? How then should we live?

• How does the Holy Spirit touch your life each day? What place does love have in your life as a Christian?

Reference Shelf

[The disciples ask,] “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Restoration of the kingdom (= sovereignty) to Israel is something promised in the Scriptures (Jer 23:1-8; Ezek 17; 34; Sir 36:1-17) and for which Jews regularly prayed in the Eighteen Benedictions. Psalms of Solomon 17 speaks of the Son of David who will shatter unrighteous rulers and destroy godless nations, who will gather together a holy people, and who will judge the tribes of the people and the nations. Roman writers like Tacitus (History 5.13) and Suetonius (Vespasian 5.6) attributed the outbreak of the war of AD 66–70 to such Jewish expectations of world domination by their nation under the Messiah (cf. Josephus, War 4.3 §§ 121-223). It is against the background of such hopes that the disciples’ question is to be understood.

The third part of the paragraph is Jesus’ response in two parts (vv. 7-8). First, there is reproof: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has fixed by his own authority” (v. 7). The risen Christ continues the emphasis of his pre-Easter instruction (cf. Luke 17:20-37). In this regard, moreover, the Lukan Jesus speaks with the same sentiments as certain rabbis: “No one knows . . . when the kingdom of the house of David will be put back in its place, and when the evil kingdom will be wiped out” (Mekilta on Exod 16.32 [59b]). This reproof negates any attempt to calculate the time of the End. Apocalyptic speculation is ruled out for Jesus’ disciples.

Second, there is a promise: “You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the end of the earth” (v.8; cf. Luke 24:47-48). This is not a demand; it is a promise or prophecy! The promise has two parts: first, the disciples will be empowered by the Spirit (remember Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4-5), and second, they will be witnesses far and wide because of their empowering (remember Luke 4:16-21; 5:1-11). Isaiah had spoken of God’s desire that His people be a light to the nations (Isa 49:6). Now Jesus’ disciples will fulfill that hope in their universal outreach (Luke 2:29-32; 3:6; 4:24-26, 27; 10:1; 17:11-19; 24:47). Their witness will start in Jerusalem but it will extend to the “end of the earth.”

The expression “the end of the earth” has various meanings in the literature of the time: Babylon (Deut 28:49), Rome (Psalms of Solomon 18:15 [16]), Spain (Strabo, Geography 3.1.2, 8; 3.5.5; 2.5.14; 2.4.3), everywhere (1 Macc 3:9; Jer 16:19). Dio Chrysostom, Oration 13.9, tells how when he decided to consult the Delphic oracle about his mission in life, Apollo told him to keep on doing with all zeal the very thing in which he was engaged “until thou comest to the uttermost parts of the earth.” In 13.10 Dio Chrysostom reflects, “Should I not follow his [Odysseus’s] example if God so bade?” So he says, “I proceeded to roam everywhere.” This seems to be the best of the alternatives in the reading of Acts 1:8. Jesus promises that the disciples will be witnesses everywhere, but only after they have been empowered by the Holy Spirit.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Acts (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys Publishing, 2005) 8–9.

Kelley Land, a graduate of Mercer University, has been an assistant editor of Smyth & Helwys curriculum and books since 2001. She is also the office administrator for Jay’s HOPE, a nonprofit serving families of children with cancer. Kelley enjoys spending time with her daughters, Samantha (14) and Natalie (12), and her husband John. Occasionally, she appears onstage in community theater productions and can sometimes be found playing board games with a group of rowdy friends. She loves Marvel movies and Doctor Who, and she’s still trying to write a young adult novel that her girls will enjoy.

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