Surely the disciples of Jesus Christ were just beginning to get it forty days after his resurrection. They were probably just starting to feel comfortable with the idea that they’d totally mischaracterized the whole Messiah thing. But by now, after many appearances and times for teaching, they’d received from Jesus instruction about just what had really been going on as those three years they’d spent with him had come to an end. Tonight, he’s finalizing things with his closest earthly friends; making them ready as they could be for his departure. To do so, he bids them wait for his Holy Spirit and he opens their minds to understand. Could there be a more fitting prayer on this day for us then, who also have seen Jesus go and long to see him return? Tonight we pray, “Lord, open our minds to understand…”
The key thing to grasp is what it means to be in this place and time when Jesus has departed. Can you imagine? If you were Luke or John or James? For three years they’d walked miles and miles with Jesus. They’d stayed in disciples’ homes all over. They’d left behind careers. Left behind families for weeks/months at a time? They’d watched their master powerfully live – then tragically die – and unexpectedly rise again – and now he was going to leave? Wouldn’t you question a bit who you were? Or you’d at least wonder, with Jesus gone, what would you do now? Of course, Jesus was not ambiguous about it: “You are witnesses of these things,” he said.
What does it mean to be Jesus’ witnesses? I bet Peter could tell some great stories of what it was like to be with Jesus. What it felt like. The rush of standing on lake water or of seeing a dead girl sit up, alive. How fulfilled he felt or how it made him a better husband; how his life had purpose now. Or in the years and months after this, how hard it was to say sometimes what had happened; to live what it meant. Not to give in to the favor of the in-crowd, or to be afraid of the powerful; to not only be witness of those things that are benign or that would please.
You ask too, don’t you? What does it mean to witness about Jesus in this semi-hostile territory with Jesus seemingly far away? Where on reddit they argue how immoral it is not to abort children. What does it mean to witness when they’re angry about any part of what you’d say at all in a college classroom? Or when some of the things you might share could jeopardize your job or a friendship? Or, probably more frequently, when you want something to come out of your speaking – that will make your friend content or happy, will give your son peace, will bring someone purpose where they see none.
If you ask like that, then tonight pray like this: “Lord, open our minds to understand what it means to be witnesses.” Because sometimes we think witnessing means winning/fixing/converting – when it’s really just telling. It’s just letting people see Jesus. The Jesus who “fulfilled all the things written in the Law of Moses and the Psalms concerning [him]” – that is, the one who fulfilled prophecies made thousands/hundreds of years before – who is God’s Savior planned from before time. Being witnesses means telling that Jesus’ significance in life was doing all the things “necessary” in God’s plan; was being the Savior that Word describes – so that he could bear our sins and iniquities and make atonement before a righteous God. Therefore, witnessing is telling away the argument that we’re all great and fine – which is observably untrue by nature. It’s telling away the lie that God is unfair by sharing the gracious sacrifice of his own Son, God’s anointed one who died and paid for sins and rose to life so that, indiscriminately, “repentance and forgiveness of sins” might be preached to all your friends and every nation. Fittingly, since he has done this work, witnessing is understanding that in the call itself to believe in Jesus Christ there is something you do not have power over and cannot generate yourself. This miracle: that in spite of all the calls of the world and all the fears of the flesh and all the pride of the human mind, God will bring faith into hearts so that they turn away from confidence in all these sinful things and receive the forgiveness of sins Jesus won. Witnessing is understanding the Scriptures: that God’s Word tells this story and is meant to build men and women up in this faith the one in this Savior, who connects them to the grace and mercy of God.
When Jesus opens his disciples minds by faith, it’s so that we understand who we are now – in this way we’re his witnesses. Witnesses in a courtroom setting can only say what they’ve seen, legally. They aren’t in control of the outcome. And then they must trust that the system will bring justice. God’s witnesses trust that he will continue to work his salvation plan according in his good and gracious will until its final fulfillment when all Jesus’ glory, power, and rule are experienced firsthand at the judgment.
And that’s the other piece we must understand. Perhaps you still think about how this will work. You wonder how you can possibly make it to that day – all the weaknesses we have, all the fears that annoy, all the dangers and enemies that fret our ways. It’s so easy to be tempted with burnout and fatigue and sorrow and defeat – for Satan is strong and insidious. So pray… “Lord, open our minds to understand that your power gives us joy.”
Did you see that? Jesus’ comfort right away for these disciples as he goes? “You will be my witnesses,” he says. “And of this content…my saving work,” he points out. But then he doesn’t just leave. No, he says, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
That happened the first time at Pentecost – which we’ll celebrate in ten days. And those first disciples were filled with power like I think we sometimes desire – they could speak in tongues, they did miracles, they gathered 3,000 new believers into their church on just that day. They were on fire! But they were on fire with God’s Spirit.
You know what’s amazing though? We too are filled with this power – on fire with this Spirit. As we study and understand God’s Word more and more, believe his promises of faithful love and abiding mercy, pray for his blessing, and obey his Spirit – as we do these things by faith, this is the way God’s Word speaks about us. For example, in Ephesians 3:16 Paul prays that “out of his glorious riches [God] may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being . . . ” And in verse 19 he prays that we would be “filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” And in verse 20 he says that God “according to his power that is at work within us…is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”
In other words there is an extraordinary power at work in believers like you, a power that can accomplish far more than we ordinarily think or imagine. It comes by the Spirit. It accords with the riches of God’s glory. It is the very fullness of God, as unimaginable as that sounds. But it means that you are not alone in witness. You are not left to power out conversions and to change the world. You are left, as Jesus has ascended away, with all the power of God at work in you to witness for him just as those first disciples were.
And so also you have what those first disciples did. They spent every moment worshipping in the temple and praising God, literally, “with great joy”. Why? Not because their enemies had gone away. Not because they were suddenly superior witnesses, powerful rhetors. They were fishermen and doctors, mothers and accountants, friends, people – just men and women. Why joy? Where from?
Perhaps we should simply look where they did. How about we fix our eyes on this Jesus as he goes and hold this image in our hearts and minds as we witness and work and live? “Lifting up his hands he blessed them.” And, as the angels said, “This same Jesus will come back in the same way.” (Acts 1:11) And then reason: if he departed while blessing his disciples, and if he is coming again with blessing for his church, doesn’t it follow that even now, Jesus delights in being for his people a source of blessing? Also, that he wants to be a blessing through us to everyone with whom we come into contact? As your Savior ascends away you know that he’s blessing you, thinks fondly of you, cares for you – and everyone else too. That is reason for great joy.
And we have more, though it might seem otherwise. “He departed from them,” but he also said “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20) Jesus departed so that he could remain with his church – now more than ever, you might say. You 21st century believers have never been physically close to the 1st century Lord. But now he promises to be everywhere and with us always. You might say that he has departed from us in order to draw closer to us – to be with us wherever we go and in whatever circumstance we witness. And if Jesus is by my side, and he has completed his good work, and he look on me with good favor…is there any reason for sorrow or fear or doubt? To the contrary, by his great power I am filled with joy – to work, worship, witness, whatever…
As you go now and patiently wait for our Lord to return, there are certainly many concerns you will have, many things you will do, many enemies you may face, many questions you’ll have. So pray that God would give you his Spirit of wisdom and revelation so that you may know him better and better. And that the eyes of your hearts may be enlightened to know the hope to which he’s called you in Christ and the glorious riches you have as his saints. And that you understand his incomparably great power at work for you who believe. And that he is ruling all things for your good. And so many more things…we could go on and on. Or we could simply pray, “Lord, open our minds to understand what it means to be your witnesses and that it is your power that gives us joy to do it. Amen.”