Don’t Look Backwards When You’re Going Forwards – Acts 1:10-11
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 8 in a series on Acts 1.)
When I was about eight years of age, I was walking home one evening and realized the sky was sparkling with stars. They were shining more brightly than I had ever seen before, and maybe for the first time I picked out some of the famous formations such as the Milky Way or the Great Bear or the Plough and the North Star above the Plough.
I stopped where I was and stared at the sky. So many stars, some very clear, others dimmer because they were obviously very far distant. I was mesmerized by the myriads and myriads of bright and beautiful stars. It was all-absorbing.
But I also realized I had to get home. Yet how do you stop looking at something so wonderful? The section of sky I wanted to watch was behind me, so I walked forwards while facing backwards, transfixed by the amazing sky overhead.
Suddenly – crash, and an excruciating pain! My head had collided with something very solid, and I saw stars that were not in the sky. By facing backwards, I had walked head first right into the concrete post of a tall street light. That hurt! I was seriously dazed by the impact, and it took several minutes until the dizziness cleared. I have never forgotten that moment, and its lesson: don’t look backwards when you’re going forwards.
In a psychological or spiritual sense, that could have been the danger for the apostles after Jesus was taken up to heaven. They might have always looked back to the ‘good old days’ with Jesus instead of focusing on what lay ahead of them. They got an immediate angelic warning not to do that.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
It must have been an amazing spectacle to watch Jesus ascending and then disappearing in a cloud, and the stunned apostles just stood there gazing into the sky even though he’d gone. Luke almost says they were staring. He uses the Greek word atenizō which means to look intently. They were not giving casual glances at the sky; their gaze was concentrated.
But suddenly their intense focus was broken. Someone who had not been there just one moment before spoke to them. The apostles turned quickly, and right beside them were two men both dressed in white.
Luke certainly means his readers to know these were angels, and probably the apostles understood that too. But they could not have taken that calmly. Seeing angels and hearing angels was no more an everyday experience for them than for us!
Those angels asked the apostles a question and made them a promise.
First, the question: Why stare into the sky?
It is as if the angels are saying, “Don’t you understand he has gone?” Maybe they didn’t understand it. Maybe at least some of them thought the cloud would dissolve, and they would see him again. Maybe some thought he had disappeared only for a moment, that he would quickly return, so they were waiting, expecting that to happen any second. Surely the days of walking and talking with Jesus could continue?
If they thought that, they were wrong. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” the angels asked. The force of their question is “Why are you still standing here now that Jesus has gone into heaven?” There were other things for them to be doing.
Most of us have been through a period in life when we’ve found it hard to let go of something or someone that mattered a great deal to us, and move on into the future.
I left home and my small county town for the big city of Edinburgh when I was still sixteen. I had been given an amazing opportunity to train as a journalist with Scotland’s most prestigious newspaper, and Edinburgh was a marvelous city to be in. I should have been so positive about all that lay ahead. I was, except that for many months I was seriously home sick. I missed my family, I missed my friends, I missed everything that was familiar and comforting for me.
Before I ever left home, my Mom and Dad had told me of someone who had become so home sick they had stood at the bus station just to watch the bus leave for their home town. I had laughed, and assured my parents I would never be doing that. I did do that. More than once I found myself just standing near where the buses exited the bus station to see ‘my bus’ going on its way, and wishing I could be on it. It was so hard to accept the new reality. I just wanted everything to be the way it had been.
So did these disciples. Just to be with Jesus: to watch him, to listen to him, to be taught by him, to devour his wisdom, to see his power at work. That is what they wanted.
But that was over. They had to move forward.
This was not the first time God had given that message to his people.
When Israel was leaving slavery in Egypt the people became trapped between the Red Sea in front and the pursuing Egyptian army behind. They were terrified. God’s word to Moses? “Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on” (Exodus 14:15). Elijah had a great victory over false prophets, but just afterwards he was gripped by a mixture of fear, exhaustion, stress, depression, and maybe doubt, and he retreated away. God’s challenge to him was “What are you doing here, Elijah?” (1 Kings 19:9).
We’re tempted too. Staring intently at the last wonderful experience of our lives is very comforting. But God’s word to us is: “What are you doing here? Why are you still doing this? It’s time to move on.” Forwards, not backwards. There are new things for us to do.
Second, the promise: Jesus will return.
The angels said: “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
There are three elements here. Jesus’ return will be visible – he’ll be clearly seen. Jesus’ return will be unmistakable – this will be the same Jesus. Jesus’ return will be with great power and glory – before him every knee will bow.
Visible – he was seen going and he will be seen returning. Only a few saw his first coming to this earth; when he returns, all eyes will see him.
Unmistakable – clearly the same Jesus – not some other Messiah but the Jesus they had known. The one with whom they had walked the hills of Galilee: that Jesus would come back again.
With power and glory – as he had been caught up in the cloud of God’s glory on that day, so he would return with honor and kingly status one day. On this earth, though he had transformed lives, done remarkable miracles, brought God’s goodness and grace to many, yet he had also been spat upon, abused, and ultimately crucified. But the King would return in power, return with authority to rule, return to call his people home to himself.
All this Jesus himself had prophesied:
Matthew 24:30: “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory.”
Mark 13:26-27: “At that time people will see the Son of Man coming in clouds with great power and glory. And he will send his angels and gather his elect from the four winds, from the ends of the earth to the ends of the heavens.”
Visible, unmistakable, with power and glory.
These men staring into the sky feared his going to heaven was the end. It was far from the end. One day Jesus would come back just as obviously but far more gloriously than he had left, and meantime there was much to do so that many would believe and would therefore be ready for that return.
There was a question – why are you standing looking into the sky?
There was a promise – Jesus will return.
Between the day of the question and the fulfillment of the promise lay the Great Commission’s work, to make disciples of all nations (Matt. 28:19). Millions needed to hear the gospel and become Jesus’ disciples. That was their calling, and it is still our calling. If it is ever to be finished, we must not be looking backwards when we are meant to be going forwards.