Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. – Acts 1:1-3 (CEB)
It’s a new year, and I was trying to decide where I should read in my Bible. I decided Acts was a good place to start, since it’s also a beginning. Jesus has risen and is meeting and teaching with his disciples over a period of 40 days and then the Church begins. But as I began to read Acts 1, the disciples still don’t seem to get it.
So when [Jesus and the disciples] had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” – Acts 1:6 (NRSV)
Basically, the disciples are asking Jesus, “Are you the Messiah?” The disciples don’t seem to understand God’s Kingdom or who Jesus is. Even after the resurrection and all of Jesus’ teaching about God’s kingdom, they are still asking if he’s going to restore Israel. Maybe this is why Jesus ascends here (v. 9). Because as long as Jesus is with the disciples, they will look for God’s Kingdom on earth. They can only understand an equation that looks like this: Messiah = earthly king and earthly kingdom.
Do we do the same when we ask why there is so much evil in this world? Are we looking for God to fix this world? Or are we supposed to fix it? If we look to an eternal Kingdom, are we supposed to disregard this world? But what about the poor and the oppressed? What is the balanced between making disciples and working for justice – aren’t these both part of God’s Kingdom? And why, when there is so much about justice in Luke’s Gospel, is Jesus silent here in Acts (Luke’s Gospel is Book 1 of the Luke-Acts series)?
I didn’t find simple answers to these questions. Each brought forth different elements of Jesus’ earthly ministry. So I went back to the end before this beginning. What was the last thing Jesus said in the Gospels?
In Matthew’s Gospel, the disciples are called to disciple others (28:19 – “disciple” is the only active verb in the great commission). In Mark, they are told to go and tell about the resurrection (16:7 – I stopped here since verses 8-20 are seen as later additions to Mark, but even here they are told to go out and proclaim the Good News). In John, we have the long discourse with Peter where Peter is told to follow Jesus and feed his sheep (21:17, 19, 22). And in Luke, Jesus’ command is to be a witness to the resurrection and live a changed life in response (24:48).
If you’re keeping score, that’s one vote for disciple-making, one vote for being a disciple and caring for Jesus’ sheep, and two votes for being a witness. What does Jesus command the disciples in Acts?
He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But 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 1:7-8 (NRSV)
This made me wonder what it means to be Jesus’ witness. It seems like it must mean more than just testifying. I don’t think being a witness is a passive action as in “when people accuse you, be my witness” because going seems to be a part of being a witness. When Jesus tells the disciples to make disciples in Matthew, there is an indication that life looks different (obeying everything Jesus taught). And in John, following Jesus includes feeding his sheep.
Being Jesus’ witness requires more than our words – it also requires the witness of our actions. In Acts 1:8, Jesus literally says we will be his witnesses. Not, we will witness for Jesus or about Jesus. Jesus says disciple = witness.
That’s an identity change.
The Gospels do more than tell us about Jesus; they also tell us what it is we are witnessing to. I think the book of Acts is about what it sounds and looks like to be Jesus’ witnesses. This includes making disciples and working for justice, because Jesus did both of these things as well.
We don’t need a makeover in the new year, because we’ve already have one. Blessings to you in 2015 as we experience new ways to be Jesus’ witness in the world.