The preparation - Acts 1:12-26
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
It was the 2nd June 1953 when the historic event took place. What was the event? The Coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. However, it was not without its problems. First of all there was the typical English weather- it rained. Still, the street parties went ahead anyway. Then there was the carpet. The carpet in Westminster Abbey had been laid with pile running the wrong way, which meant that the queen’s robes had trouble gliding easily over the carpet. The metal fringe on the queen’s golden mantel caught in the pile of the carpet, and clawed her back when she tried to move forward. The queen had to actually tell the Archbishop of Canterbury, ‘Get me started’. Another problem was that the holy oil, with which the queen was to be anointed at the ceremony, and which had been used at her father’s Coronation, had been destroyed during a WW II bombing raid, and the firm who made it had gone out of business. But fortunately, an elderly relative of the firm had kept a few ounces of the original base, and a new batch was quickly made-up. But eventually the ancient crown of St Edward was placed upon the head of Princess Elizabeth and she was declared Queen of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and then she began to reign.
Now no such problems were encountered when the King of Kings began his reign as we have it recorded for us in the Book of Acts. Because that is what the ascension is all about. It is the historic event whereby God’s man, Jesus took his rightful place as the ruler of the universe at his Father’s side. In his first book Luke records the story of an empty cross and an empty tomb. In his second book he records the story of an occupied throne and Jesus’ reign from that throne through his subjects - the church. And the monarch had made a promise, that he will send God’s living presence into the lives of his followers so that they can carry out the task he has assigned them to do, namely be his witnesses 1: 8- ‘You will receive power (there is the promise) when the Holy Spirit comes upon you (there is the presence) and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth (there is the purpose).’
So what do you expect to find the church doing once the coronation ceremony has been completed which happened in v 9 , ‘After Jesus had said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud (that is the shekinah cloud of God’s presence and glory) hid him from their sight’? I can tell you what the church would probably do now- have a committee meeting. But that is not what we find this church doing. In fact there are three things which mark the church at the beginning of its new and vibrant life under the loving reign of King Jesus.
First and foremost there is prayer-v12, ‘Then they returned to Jerusalem (that is, they did as they were told) from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. They all joined together constantly in prayer along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.’
No sooner had Jesus taken his place as the absolute ruler of the universe that the Christians had a prayer meeting. Of course they did. Jesus had made the promise of sending the Holy Spirit and these people met to pray the promise down as it were. God’s sovereignty and prayer are not incompatible as some people seem to think. Such folk argue along these lines, ‘If God is in complete control and has a plan, he is going to do it any way whether I pray or not. How can my asking change his mind?’ Well, that is not the argument the Bible uses and it was obviously not in these disciple’s minds otherwise they wouldn’t be praying. In fact the logic is the exact opposite. Because the risen and ascended Jesus stands outside time, he, can hear all the prayers ever made, and ever will be made, in an eternal moment and use each one of them outside time to bring about his good purposes inside time. He is able to view the whole course of human history; past-present and future together in an eternal present and weave all our decisions freely made into a pattern which is his. And so we are called to pray- as these Christians prayed. And as a result of those prayers some things will happen which if we had not prayed would not have happened- and we are responsible for whether we pray or don’t pray. Because the one True God is a personal God as we encounter him in Jesus, he invites us to share in his work by praying. Because he is transcendent and infinite- he has the power and the wisdom to use those prayers as he sees fit to do things which we could never imagine. If he were not all powerful, then there would be little point in praying. If he were not all wise it would be dangerous to pray, who wants to ask of an all powerful but foolish Being to do things? That could be like letting a child play with a hand grenade-it would be disastrous. But God is both perfectly wise and infinitely powerful. So we pray. Pray each day as a Christian. Pray for those you love. Pray for those not yet converted. Pray for God to fulfil his promise, and -he will, as we see him doing in the next chapter- down comes the Spirit.
Just listen to these reassuring words by the founder of George Whitefield College in South Africa, Dr Broughton Knox: ‘The doctrine of God’s absolute and complete providence and control over every event is a ground for banishing fear from the hearts of the people of God. Thus Jesus reminded his disciples, “Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? And yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Do not fear; for you are of more value than many sparrows.” …. The creative power of God which brought all things into being is the guarantee that he is able to sustain us in every detail of life…. The infinite power and infinite mind of God, to which the marvels of creation bear witness, mean that he is able to give full attention, care and protection to every person in the world with the same intensity of concern that he would give if he were related to a single individual only. The infinity of God is not overwhelmed by numbers, nor stupefied by detail. God is able to comprehend, and provide for at the same time, the needs of the whole creation. Our heavenly Father gives each of us his undivided attention and his full friendship as though we were his only friend.’ (D. Broughton Knox- Selected Works, Vol 1, p 57). Isn’t that a wonderful thought? These folk knew that and so they prayed.
Do you not think that it is significant that the first characteristic of this church is that it is a praying church? Today people have their own criteria as to what makes a good church worthy of a reputation, there is even the ‘Good Church Guide’. And you look at the list people produce as to what constitutes a ‘good’ church: fantastic music, powerful preaching, terrific children’s work, outreach, interest in missions, accessible worship. None of them are bad things- but would it not be great if people were to say, ‘That is the church which prays’? This little picture we have of this embryonic church of some 120 members, is that of a church in prayer. Would it be so harsh to say that this is hardly the picture we have of the churches in the West today? Is it really a picture of the church at St John Newland? I am not sure that it is to be honest. I know I need to be careful here because a lot of praying does go on, prayer couples and triplets meeting here and there in the parish, prayer in the small groups- home groups, TNT, Christians praying at home, prayers we offer here every Sunday- all of that is, thanks to God, going on. But what is particularly striking in Acts 1 is the way they are all present together praying, shoe-horned into that upper room. I can tell you that even the so called big-churches in England with congregations of several hundred only get a relative handful at the central prayer meeting. There is something not quite right about that especially when it is the King himself who invites, indeed commands, his loyal subjects to come into his throne room to petition him so he can delight in showing his royal bounty. What is it that James, the Lord’s brother who is included here in verse 14 says, ‘You don’t receive because you don’t ask.’? Maybe that is what lies at the root of our spiritual problems as a church and as a nation; God’s people are not doing what they did at the beginning-prayer. So, let’s change our praying habits and get back to business.
Secondly the church was busy in preparation, which is what verse 15-26 is all about. Now we shall come back to the question of Judas in a minute, but just take a look in v20b and the following verses at the reason Peter gives for the need to choose a replacement, quoting Psalm 109 Peter the leading apostle says, ‘May another take his place of leadership (literally, oversight from which we get our word bishop) Therefore it was necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.’ This raises two questions. First, why did Judas, one of the original 12 have to be replaced? Why not stick with eleven, how will one more make much of a difference? Second, why was it a qualification for such a replacement that he had to have been with Jesus from the beginning to the end of his earthly public ministry?
So, why 12 apostles and not 11, what is the big deal? Well, just think for a moment of that number 12 and link it back to the question the disciples asked of Jesus before he left them in verse 6, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ That was not such a stupid question as some people think. Remember these disciples had had nearly six weeks of teaching from the risen Lord Jesus about the kingdom of God. They knew the Old Testament prophets linked the pouring out of God’s Spirit in the reign of the Messiah with a change in the fortunes of Israel, its ‘restoration.’ And so here are words spoken to the Jewish exiles in Isaiah 44:3, ‘For I will pour water on a thirsty land, and streams on dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring.’ Then Micah 4:8, ‘ the former dominion will be restored to you; kingship will come to the daughter of Jerusalem.’ Well, here is the King- Jesus, so where is the kingship and restoration of Israel? Now just think about this: in the Old Testament the complete number of God’s people was the 12 tribes. In the New Testament, it is the apostles which form the nucleus of God’s restored people- this is Israel. But the number is incomplete; there are 11 apostles rather than 12. And so there has to be a restoring of this Israel, bringing the number up to 12 before the Holy Spirit can be outpoured so that all the world can see that Jesus is the King and the church is his people Israel. So to fulfil Scripture as summarised by Psalm 109, a replacement for Judas has to be found. To you see?
So who qualifies as a replacement and why? It has to be someone who was with Jesus from the beginning and this is linked to their role of being a witness. That is what Jesus said the apostles had to be in verse 8, so these original men were the witnesses, not us. And by definition a witness had to be present in order to see and hear certain things. If there is a car crash at the end of Clough Road and I hear the loud bang while I am in my study, there is no point in me being called as a witness in court because I wasn’t there. However, if having been to the chip shop on Beverley Road I turn the corner and see a car shooting the red light, (as often happens) only to hit another car coming in the opposite direction, then I am the perfect witness because I will be able to relate just what had happened because I was there and had seen it. Similarly here. Folk were needed as apostles who could tell the story of Jesus first hand. They could say, ‘I was there when the Spirit came upon Jesus in the Jordan, I saw it with my own two eyes. I heard God’s voice say, ‘This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased’. I can tell you what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount for I was in the congregation at the time. I saw his amazing miracle and perfect life. I saw him strung up on a cross and laid in a tomb dead. I was there when he came into that room larger as life three days later. I was there when he ascended from the Mount of Olives returning to heaven to claim his kingdom- ask me any questions you want- and you know what ? I am so convinced of this I am willing to die for it.’ Now that is a witness! So that means that today we are witnesses only in a derived sense. We are not witnesses in an Acts of the Apostles sense- for only they are authentic witnesses in that they were there. The apostle Paul was an exception, but that is a different story. So our witness is to their witness about Jesus.
And it appears two men equally qualify- Barsabbas and Matthias. Now what do you do? Two candidates both of which fit the criteria to a ‘t’. Well, we have already seen that these folk have been active in prayer, so they have submitted to God’s sovereign rule. But there is no ‘voice from heaven’ no ‘leading’, so they toss a coin- heads it is Barsabbas and tails Matthias- that is what casting a lot effectively is- tossing a coin. It came up tails and everyone is happy. Why not? If there really no difference between the two so it makes little difference who gets the job, but we still don’t want to leave God out of the decision making process altogether, yet you believe he is sovereign over so called ‘chance’- toss the coin. ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD’ according to Proverbs 16:33. And it seems to me that is a reasonable way to come to a decision when you face two equal choices- toss a coin and trust God-it’s perfectly biblical. The result- there is the ‘restoration of Israel’ in the restoration of the apostles- here is God’s new community, his new nation with his special witnesses who are now set to get on with the business of taking the Gospel into the world. The preparation has been done.
But there is a third aspect to this fledgling church alongside the prayer and the preparation; it is what we can call the pathos. There is at the outset a pall of sadness and tragedy hanging over the nascent church as Peter speaks in verse 16, ‘Brothers the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus- he was one of our number who shared in this ministry.’ Those are chilling words. Whatever the divine plan, whatever the divine foreknowledge involved, one of Jesus closest friends, one of his most effective ministers, Judas, deliberately chose to betray him, and then went on to buy a field with the blood money and then killed himself with gross results and everybody in Jerusalem knew about it. Can you imagine having that scandal hanging around the church’s neck? But can you also imagine how they felt about it? This is someone who had been with Jesus from the beginning, who had preached the Gospel, who had cast out demons, who had healed the sick, who had sung hymns to God with Jesus and shared his last meal, who seemed to have everything going for him- the church treasurer no less, a position of responsibility and trust. He is the one who got rid of Jesus to his everlasting shame. Sometimes we have a rather rosy view of the early church, as if it was pure and pristine only later to lose its way and become corrupted with all the heresy and worldliness. The fact is the church was born with corruption in place. Judas was one of the 12! And I don’t think that there is any doubt that Judas is meant to serve as a warning to us all. It is possible to be close to Jesus without being one with Jesus. It is possible to perform the ministry of Jesus without being a true believer in Jesus. Don’t ask me how; it just seems to be the case that this happens. Jesus warns about it in the Sermon on the Mount and there he is speaking to his disciples-the 12 and a few more who were listening like Barsabbas and Matthias. And this is more common in the church than perhaps we would want to think and when it happens it is immensely sad. I can think of one of then most outstanding preachers of his generation from whom I learnt so much through his talks and books, a great conference speaker- who then packed it all in, left his wife and three children in order to live with a man in a homosexual relationship. His grown up children are now nowhere near the Christian faith and are still undergoing counselling. And it happens again and again. Satan is always on the lookout for church leaders especially- and to be frank it scares me spitless. We all know of former active church members who are now nowhere and we can only weep and take heed to ourselves and watch out for each other and listen to the advice and rebukes and warnings when they come. This pathos will remain with the church until she is consummated in glory-that is the sad reality and we need to be prepared for that.
Nonetheless God’s work still goes on. The setbacks are overcome, Judas is lost, Matthias is gained and the Gospel goes out to the ends of the world- Jesus is reigning and will reign. But please God may he reign in our hearts first.
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