Jesus' Instructions to the Church
In the last lesson we looked at the instructions Jesus gave His disciples after His resurrection. He wanted them to understand their future work of evangelizing the whole world. Since each Gospel writer gives a different portion of the instructions, we had to combine them to get a full picture of what Jesus said. We found that Matthew gives the program (Matt. 28:18-20). The disciples' task was to go everywhere, teach (literally, "make disciples of") all nations, baptize new believers, and teach them Jesus' commandments. Mark gives the promises (Mark 16:15-18), including Jesus' assurances to the disciples that their message would have an importance worthy of their hard labors. How people responded would determine whether they would live or die. Another promise was that God would verify their message by enabling them to perform supernatural signs. The portion of Jesus' instructions we find in John concerns the power that would enable the disciples to carry out their task. John remembers when Jesus breathed on the disciples and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost" (John 20:22). We said that this was not the moment when the Holy Spirit actually came to indwell them.
We have considered Jesus' last instructions as we find them in three Gospel writers. Lastly, we will consider what Luke says. He gives the places where the gospel should be carried (Acts 1:8). Beginning in Jerusalem, the church should move outward in its work of evangelism until it reaches the uttermost parts of the earth. Luke is obviously defining a corporate rather than an individual responsibility. Only the church as a whole can take the gospel everywhere. Yet if an obligation falls on the whole church, each believer must bear some of the weight. The whole world will not hear the gospel unless each believer proclaims it within his small corner of the world.
The disciples listened with eager attention until the Lord finished instructing them. It is doubtful that they had any notion of what was going to happen next. As the disciples watched Jesus intently, He suddenly began to rise in the air. The account suggests that He moved upward gradually, remaining in view until He disappeared behind a cloud. Jesus' ascent to heaven as His disciples watched is known as the Ascension. The onlookers must have been breathless. The amazing sight left them staring upward in the hope of catching another glimpse of their beloved Master.
Then another amazing sight caught their attention. Two angels who looked like men in white clothing appeared on the ground nearby. The angels chided the disciples for continuing to gaze into the sky. They implied that it was foolish to go on looking for Jesus when He had departed from them. Perhaps they were hinting that the disciples would not see Jesus again.
Jesus' Future Return in Like Manner
Yet the angels immediately added words of encouragement, for us as well as for the disciples. They said that Jesus would someday come back to this world. Although nearly two thousand years have gone by since the Ascension, we dare not doubt that Jesus will come again.
As the angels said, Jesus will return in the same manner as He ascended two thousand years ago. Just as He went up gradually into the clouds, so He will descend gradually from the clouds. "They shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory" (Matt. 24:30). He will first set foot on the Mount of Olives, the last place He stood before leaving. "Then shall the LORD go forth, and fight against those nations, as when he fought in the day of battle. And his feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east" (Zech. 14:3-4).
Waiting in the Upper Room
Immediately after Jesus' departure, the whole company that had seen Him go returned to Jerusalem. They went to "an upper room," no doubt the same place where Jesus shared the Last Supper with them. There, about 120 adults waited for the Holy Spirit.
The assembled people included the mother and brothers of Jesus. During His lifetime, His brothers had rejected His claim to be the Christ, the Son of God. But by the time Jesus returned to heaven, they had become His followers. The event shattering their unbelief was Jesus' victory over death. One who saw the risen Christ was James, his oldest brother (1 Cor. 15:7).
Tragic End of Judas
Only eleven of the original twelve disciples were in the upper room. The traitor, Judas, was missing. In a speech before the gathering, Peter retold the tragedy of Judas. Although he enjoyed the wonderful privilege of walking with Jesus day by day and sharing in the work of the Twelve, Judas had betrayed Jesus out of greed for a few pieces of silver. Yet what did he gain from "the reward of iniquity"? Nothing at all. When he realized the enormity of his wickedness, he went to the priests and cast the money at their feet. Then he "went and hanged himself" (Matt. 27:5). The priests, unwilling to put blood money into the treasury, used it to buy a field where they might bury strangers. The field became known as the field of blood. To resolve the different accounts of Judas' death, we must assume that he hanged himself from a cliff overlooking the same field. The rope must have broken, for his body tumbled down upon the rocks and split open, causing his bowels to spill out.
When Peter stood up to speak, he said that Christ's betrayal was not an accident of history, but a fulfillment of prophecy, and he reminded everyone that prophecy must be fulfilled.
From the book of Psalms, Peter showed that Judas' terrible fate was just. David pronounced a terrible sentence on the future betrayer of Christ: "Let his habitation be desolate." In other words, let the man die, and let nothing be left of his family or belongings, so that his dwelling place will be found empty.
Choosing a Twelfth Disciple
David had also said, "His bishopric let another take." Peter understood this saying to mean that the disciples should choose a replacement for Judas.
As leader of the Twelve, Peter ruled that the new member must be a man who had followed Jesus from the very beginning of His ministry, when He was baptized by John. The company found two eligible men: Joseph (also called Barsabas) and Matthias. Rather than choose the twelfth by ballot, they submitted the decision to God. They prayed that when they cast lots, the lot would fall on the right man. The result was that Matthias took Judas' place.
Parable of the Mustard Seed
The company in the upper room numbered about 120 adults. How could so few evangelize the world? But in the days ahead the church quickly grew to include thousands more. A few years later there were believers in every corner of the Roman world. The church continued to expand at a tremendous rate for the next several centuries.
© 2009, 2012 Stanley Edgar Rickard (Ed Rickard, the author). All rights reserved.