Acts 2. 5 – 13

I can tell you, it caused quite a stir.  Religious Jewish people had gathered in Jerusalem from all over the world for the Feast of Weeks. When they heard a hundred and twenty people praising God in many different languages, they dropped everything and stopped to listen.  As they listened, each one could hear his own language being spoken by uneducated peasants from an obscure region of the country, untutored labourers and fishermen speaking the languages of the Far East, of Persia and beyond, speaking Greek and Arabic, and the languages of Egypt and Libya.

There were visitors here who had been born Jewish, and others who had converted to Judaism, all hearing God eloquently praised in fluent speech delivered in languages that these unschooled country folk could scarcely be expected to have heard before, let alone learned.  They pressed in to see and hear this strange phenomenon, touching those who were speaking, pulling at their robes, even turning them round to see what was the source of this clever trick.  But no magician could be found controlling them.

“Even women!” murmured one elderly gentleman in wonder. For indeed, illiterate women were speaking as if they had great book learning and extensive travel under their belts, and yet everyone knew it was not possible.  And so the more the assembled crowd observed and pondered, the more their amazement grew.

Those who didn’t care to question it too deeply resorted to mocking, accusing them of being drunk. But meanwhile this torrent of praise, beyond their own words and needing new words to express it, continued to flow out of the followers of Jesus, and no curiosity or mocking could extinguish or even diminish their joy.

Acts 2. 1-4

Passover came and went, and then the Feast of Weeks.  That day dawned the same as any other.  They gathered together in one place to celebrate the harvest, as had been done every year since the time of Moses.

Suddenly, the whole air was filled with a sound like a hurricane, and yet not a leaf of a tree nor a hair of anyone’s head stirred.  They looked at each other wide-eyed, some of them trembling with fear, everyone on high alert, no one sure what was happening.  And then without warning flames appeared, licking above the heads of everyone present, and just stayed hovering above each one.

And to each one, something happened that they couldn’t exactly put into words.  It was a transformation somehow akin to Jesus’s transfiguration on the mountain, except that it wasn’t their appearance that changed, but rather something deep in the essence of who they were.

Each one felt it, a newness of life, like a spring of water bubbling up within, and each one saw it in the inexpressible joy radiating from the faces of all the others.  It was Jesus among them again, just not visible or tangible, and not only among them but within every one of them.  Never again would they have to wait for him, as they had done these past forty days.  From now on everywhere they went they would carry Him, His presence, with them.

Unable to contain themselves any longer, they raised their voices and began to overflow with joy and praise to God, and to their astonishment they found themselves doing so in other languages which they had never learned.  It was as though they had to break out of the limitations of their own vocabulary, because what they were experiencing was beyond anything their own words could express.

And so they sat looking at each other in wonder and ecstasy, raising their voices and giving praise to God in strange languages as this Holy Spirit of Jesus overflowed out of them.

Acts 1. 12-26

They descended the mountain slopes and walked the eight or ten minutes back to Jerusalem, although in truth they were still somewhat in shock from what they had just witnessed, and the yards vanished behind them as they talked it over.  It seemed He really had gone for now, and had left them to be His witnesses.  The task of spreading His message and His kingdom lay in their hands.  There wasn’t one among them who felt equal to it.

Back in the city centre, they made their way to the upper room.  The eleven disciples were there (minus Judas, of course) along with the women, and Mary, Jesus’ mother, and even His brothers, who had come to see the truth of who He really was.

All told, about a hundred and twenty people gathered together, and Peter spoke to them about the absence of Judas.  He’d been searching the Scriptures and realised that Judas’ betrayal, like everything else in Jesus’ life, had been foretold by the prophets, if only they’d had eyes to see and hearts to understand.  Even Judas’ tragic and gory death had resulted in Scripture being fulfilled – the Psalms which spoke of his home being desolate and deserted and his office given to another had come to pass.

So it was decided that they should appoint that other person to take his place, and that it must be one of those who had known Jesus from the outset of His ministry and had witnessed His resurrection.  They had no idea, of course, that God had another apostle lined up, the last person they would have expected, who would join them a year or two down the line.  But more of him later.

For now, they prayed for God to guide them, cast lots between Joseph and Matthias, and Matthias was chosen to be added to the eleven.  So once again there were twelve disciples to lead this fledgeling movement.

Acts 1. 9-11

There were more unimaginable things to come.  Not only did Messiah have His sights set on much bigger goals than restoring the Kingdom to Israel, but His methods were beyond anything anyone had conceived of.  After He’d finished His explanation and His instructions about carrying their testimony of Him to the farthest corners of the earth, He took off!  No one had been expecting that.  He just shot up into the air as if something were lifting Him, not like a bird, more like an arrow fired straight upwards.  He just ascended, growing smaller and smaller to the eyes until He was nothing but a distant speck and they squinted to see Him against the sunlight.  Finally even the speck disappeared as the clouds closed over Him.

Everyone was mystified.  What was He doing? Where was He going?  When would He be back?  Was He going to descend again?  They had been told to await the promise of the Father, the Holy Spirit.  Maybe He had gone to fetch this Spirit and would be back in a moment.  They stood peering into the sky, watching for signs of Him descending again and bringing the promise with Him.  They watched and waited in vain.  No trace of Him could be seen.

They were gazing so intently, they didn’t see or hear anyone approaching.  When someone suddenly asked, “Why are you all just standing there, staring into the sky?” everyone nearly jumped out of their skin.  They looked round and saw two men in white looking at them with a half-smile of amusement.  “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you not just into the sky but into heaven itself, will return in the same way that you’ve seen Him go into heaven.”  They turned and began to walk away, pausing occasionally to look back at the waiting group, shaking their heads with that same look of kindly amusement.

And so it began to dawn on everyone that His return, certain though it was, would not be imminent.  With that they left, to do what He had instructed them, which was not to leave Jerusalem but to wait until the Father sent them what He had promised.

Acts 1. 6-8

All this was, of course, before I joined them.  I have spoken to many of them, gathered their stories, and they ring true.  Their expectations of Messiah ring true – I shared them myself, the preoccupation with what Messiah’s coming would mean.  Somewhere down the centuries we had all lost sight of the Grand Plan.  We had lost Ezekiel’s vision of a throne at the centre of an eternal Kingdom, and were thinking only of the kingdom of Israel.  Surely the cruel oppression under the Romans was not part of the divine plan?  Surely Messiah’s coming would restore the kingdom to Israel?

And so we narrowed down even Messiah Himself to a sort of mega-Herod who would kick out the Romans, so that even after His resurrection, when they gathered in that upper room to await the as yet inconceivable promise of the Father, their preoccupation was with the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. “Is it now that You will restore it, Lord?”

He didn’t correct their error, or tell them their thinking was too mundane.  He simply replied that it was not for them to know the timings of God’s great schemes.  Their role was to wait until they received power, the power that would surge through them when the Holy Spirit came upon them, after which they would be His witnesses, the living embodiment of His message throughout the region and even to the remotest corners of earth.

I chuckle now when I look back at our petty fixations.  When the Spirit did come, all thought of Israel’s place in the world vanished entirely from our thinking.  We had seen, felt, experienced a greater Kingdom, one whose boundaries lay beyond the farthest reaches of human imagination, and our passion was to bring as many people as we could within its borders, enfolded by its benign rule, spurred on by a King whose transcendent glory we had all underestimated when He walked among us.

Acts 1. 3-5

After Jesus’ cruel death, things took an unexpected turn.  I’ve interviewed so many of them, those who were there.  Their stories add up – so many details match, so many elements in common.  They have the ring of truth.  Tales of profound grief at the loss of the one they dearly loved, of deepest disappointment and disillusionment – and suddenly, all of it swallowed up by His reappearance.  So many of them with a similar tale to tell, details unique to each one’s story and yet this common thread – they saw Him, heard Him, touched Him again, recognised Him – some of them alone and some in the presence of witnesses.  I’ve examined the evidence and am convinced.  He carried on from where He had left off, talking to them about the coming of God’s kingdom.

He gathered them together.  You might have thought there would be thousands of them, given how many He had healed and how many others had witnessed or been affected by His miracles. Yet it was not thousands but the faithful remnant, just as many as could be crammed into an upper room, who watched expectantly for His promise.  No one knew how it would look, this baptism that would not be with water but with the Spirit of God Himself.  Still they waited, confident.  For He who had come back from the dead, would He not fulfil every word He had spoken to them?

Acts 1. 1-2

A physician and a writer, that’s me. And what combination could be more fitting? For who writes, except to heal the souls of men? And what more worthy recipient of my writing than dear Theophilus, the lover of God who taught me never to stop at the surface but to dig deeper and find the truth of what really is, the art of questioning to elicit the deeper reality?

That’s why, for my first book, I interviewed Mary and learned from her the details of Jesus’ infancy that His disciples could not tell me.  It’s why I travelled with Paul, observing for myself at first hand and recording for future generations how Jesus continued to live among us and work His wonders, even when we could no longer see Him.  It shows, I trust, how He will do so long after those who, in dear John’s words, saw with their eyes, heard, looked intently, touched and held Him, are no longer here to tell their story.

For He lives on, not merely with but in us, and somehow our hands become His, and through us He works  His wonders still.