Updated: May 26, 2020
by Samantha Shrauner
In stories, a good cliffhanger is simultaneously frustrating and very exciting.
It is thrilling to think about and theorise what will come next, and we wait with impatience and anticipation for the conclusion of the tension. When cliffhangers appear in real life, however, our response is more likely to be fear than excitement for the future. Good things in our lives come to an end, and we wonder if anything will fill the void left behind. A big change looms on the horizon, and there’s no guarantee that things will work out the way we hope.
In the midst of life’s uncertainties, what do we do when we find ourselves at a cliffhanger wondering what comes next?
After Easter, Jesus appeared to his disciples for forty days. The disciples have seen and spent time with their Lord who was crucified and raised to life again. Now their time with Jesus on earth is coming to an end, and an uncertain future stands ahead of them. What will the disciples do when Jesus is no longer with them? Is God still at work after the resurrection?
Luke answers that question with a resounding yes. Having previously written one of the Gospels, Luke writes a sequel to show how the church begins in the book of Acts. In this way, Luke shows what comes next after Jesus’ ministry on earth has been completed. In Acts 1:1-11, Luke details the preparation that God has given the apostles, the power that God will give them to fulfil God’s commands, and the promise that God gives the apostles about Christ’s future return. As we consider these points, we can learn how to deal with the endings and beginnings that we come across in life, and remember the promises of God that stand when we feel uncertain about the future.
God has prepared the apostles to do his work
1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” Acts 1:1-5
Much like a television show that begins an episode with the words, ‘Previously on…”, Luke opens the book of Acts with a reference to his earlier Gospel. The first section of Acts will be a recap of what has previously happened, so that readers understand the setting, the characters, and the events that have already taken place. Darrell Bock says that “without Jesus and his work, one cannot make sense of the church’s existence and activity.” (1)
In these first verses, we can see how God has prepared the apostles for the work that he has given them to do.
First, the apostles have eyewitness experience of the risen Christ. They have seen him in person and have spent time with him. The importance of the historical resurrection of Jesus cannot be overstated, so it is imperative that the men who will carry the message of salvation are absolutely certain that Jesus has been raised from the dead. As Paul Mumo Kisau states, “without a historical resurrection the Christian faith is baseless.” (2) Second, Jesus speaks with them and gives them teaching about the kingdom of God. Jesus does not send them into the world ignorant, but tells them what they need to know in order to effectively teach and lead others. Third, Jesus tells them that they will receive the baptism of the Holy Spirit. This will happen in dramatic fashion on Pentecost. Jesus will not leave the disciples without his divine help. They are not going out into the world alone; Jesus will be with them through his Spirit.
Our circumstances are not the same as the first apostles, but we can be certain that God has prepared us for the places and people where he will send us.
We have not seen the risen Christ in person, but we have access to his Word the Bible, which contains the testimony those apostles wrote. We have not been taught in person by Jesus Christ, but we can read the Scriptures and learn everything we need to know about the kingdom of God and the salvation that God offers to all who believe. We were not present on Pentecost when the church was born, but the same Holy Spirit who baptised the apostles lives inside every person who has trusted in Christ for salvation from their sins. When the road ahead feels uncertain and you wonder if God goes with you, remember that God will provide everything you need to do the work that he given you to do. Trust God’s provision in order to accomplish God’s work.
God will give the apostles power to do what he commands
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” Acts 1:6-8
The stage is set for total victory over every enemy. God’s promised Messiah has come, and his triumph is so complete that even death has been laid waste. The Holy Spirit has been promised, the same power that was present with mighty kings and judges in the Old Testament. The outcome is certain: the enemies and oppressors of God’s people will be defeated forever. The disciples ask Jesus about the restoration of Israel, because “with Jesus alive and the Holy Spirit coming in power, what possible reason could there be for any further delay?” (3) The apostles misunderstood the purpose and scope of Jesus’ rescue plan. Jesus did not come to oppress but to serve. Jesus’ victory over sin and death was not meant for Israel alone, but for the whole world.
Jesus answers the disciples’ question by reminding them of God the Father’s authority. God has sovereign control over time and history. At precisely the right time God will come to judge evil and restore fallen creation, but the date and time is not for us to know. When the world is in a sorry state we do not have to worry that things are spiralling out of control. We need not despair that things are broken beyond repair.
We do not know when restoration will come, but we know who will come to restore what is broken.
Instead of power to conquer oppressors, the Holy Spirit will come with a different kind of power. This power will enable the apostles to be witnesses about who Jesus is and what he has done. In Acts 1:8 Jesus tells the apostles the mission they have been given and the means by which they will be able to fulfil it. The mission is to witness near and far about Jesus. The means is the power of the Holy Spirit.
God’s sovereign plan does not begin and end with Israel, rather God’s plan begins in Israel and looks outward to the whole world. The apostles will witness first in Jerusalem, then expand out to Judea and Samaria, and from there explode outward to the ends of the earth. As the book of Acts progresses, readers will see how God’s mission follows the pattern that he has set out here. It is a mission that continues as people in every century have faithfully shared the witness that Jesus died to pay for sin and was raised from death on the third day. In our sermon on Sunday we heard how these four locations provide a blueprint for witnessing in our own time and place. We are to bring the gospel to our friends and neighbours, to the least in our communities, to those we look down on and despise, to those who oppress and mock us, and to the unknown people in the farthest places on earth. Jesus does not send us to conquer people; Jesus sends us with a message for all people that he has forever conquered sin and death.
There will be times when we feel uncertain and fearful about the future. We long to know how problems will be resolved and what is coming next.
When uncertainty tempts you to wonder if God is in control, take courage. In Christ you have not been left alone.
God’s authority stands forever and all of time is in his sovereign care. You may not receive the answers that you seek, but God will provide you with everything you need to do the work that he has set before you. The apostles didn’t get a time and date for God’s visible reign on earth, but they received power from God’s Spirit to tell the whole world that Jesus won victory over sin and death. The mission of the apostles carries on, and all those who have trusted in Christ are called to further the same witness. When questions go unanswered and strength grows thin, trust in God’s provision to accomplish God’s work.
God gives the apostles a promise for the future
9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” Acts 1:9-11
Jesus’ earthly ministry ends somewhat abruptly. While the apostles are watching, Jesus ascends into heaven until a cloud blocks their view. The apostles have not been left in the dark, they know that the Holy Spirit will come to them soon. But it’s easy to imagine that there’s a sense of uncertainty about the future. Their Lord and teacher, who has taught them about God, served them faithfully, and demonstrated his power in their presence, has left them. Jesus has told them that it will be better for them when he leaves, because the Helper will come (John 16:7). But in between the present and that future promise, it can be easy for faith to waver.
Messengers from God appear, and these two men in white deliver a promise for the future. Jesus is not gone forever, and his return will happen in the same way that he left. There may be uncertainty in their immediate future, but the apostles can be certain that Jesus will return to the world that he has created and redeemed. Jesus is no longer physically present, but his work of salvation in the world has only just begun. This is work that the apostles have been sent to do in the power of the coming Holy Spirit. It is absolutely right to long for Jesus’ return and the restoration of this fallen earth. But we must not fix our eyes on the sky while there is work that God has set for us on earth. (4) Christ will return; we can be certain that God is faithful and will keep all of his promises. The best way to demonstrate our faith in God’s promises is to do the work that he has given us with the power that he has provided.
Don’t despair when the future looks bleak; we know how the story ends. We can rest our hope in Christ’s return, and between now and then we can accomplish God’s work by trusting in God’s provision.
Uncertainties in life don’t feel like our favourite stories. It can be immensely difficult to trust God with an unknown future. The first verses in the book of Acts provide an example for us when we look with fear toward the future. God’s character has not changed from the first century through the present. We can be certain that God will prepare us for the work that he sends us to do, that God will give us power in the Holy Spirit to do what he commands, and that God will be faithful to keep his promise that Christ will return. When cliffhangers of life tempt you toward fear and worry, trust in God’s provision to accomplish God’s work.
(1) Darrell Bock, Acts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2007), 53.
(2) Paul Mumo Kisau, “Acts,” in Africa Bible Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 1326.
(3) Kisau, 1326.
(4) Bock, 69