There is a Man in Heaven – Acts 1:2
By: Alistair Brown
(Part 2 of a study of Acts 1.)
In my lifetime I have heard many sermons. I confess though, not all of them are vivid in my memory now. But I do have good recall for the main subjects that were preached and what was not, and I know some important truths for me as a Christian were either never or hardly ever taught.
One of those truths comes in Acts 1:2. I will read both verses 1 and 2 to give the context.
1 In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen.
In just a few words, Luke summarizes here all that he wrote about in his gospel, finishing with Jesus returning to heaven. Luke did indeed finish the gospel that way. Luke 24:51 reads, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”
So, where Luke ended the gospel he begins here in Acts, and in this verse mentions two other facts which will soon become important in the story of God’s work through the church.
1. There is now a man in heaven and his name is Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I never heard a sentence like that. Any mention of Jesus going to heaven went like this: his time as a man is finished so he can throw off human flesh, and now, because he is really God, he can return to heaven.
That made Jesus seem like a spy in a strange country. I heard lots of wartime spy stories when I was a boy. The usual account followed this sort of pattern. The spy came ashore in a dinghy in a secret cove. His mission was to blend into the community so they thought he was one of them, and then he could discover their secrets or spread false information.
He wore their kinds of clothes, ate their food, spoke with the local accent, and followed the customs of the place. Everyone in the town thought the spy was one of them. But all the time he had a secret mission. When the spy’s work was all done, a plane would land on a remote air strip, and off he’d go back to his real homeland. The spy had seemed to be one of the people as he mixed with them, but actually he never was and now he’s returned to where he really belongs.
I was taught to think of Jesus almost like that – like a spy, someone who seemed like others but was never actually one of them because he had a secret mission. When it was over, his ascension to heaven was simply the practical matter of Jesus returning where he came from, the Son of God going back to be with his heavenly Father.
The truth is so much more. For the first time in my mid-twenties I heard a sentence which transformed my thinking, and it was this: “There is now a man in heaven and his name is Jesus Christ.” No-one had ever said that in my hearing before.
Yet it’s true, and it’s important. Jesus – divine and human – has gone to heaven. Not just Jesus who is God but also Jesus the man. Not one bit of his human nature was left behind. There wasn’t a pause before the ascension for Jesus to take off his human clothes, leaving only divinity. He took it all with him. Heaven has all his God-ness and all his human-ness. He became a man and still a man was taken up to glory. He has carried human nature – redeemed and perfected but still human – right into the presence of God.
In other words, now there is not only a place in heaven for the divine, but also for us – for men, women, and children caught up in Christ. He is there now, and, because he is, we know we can be too. This is wonderful news and important news.
Luke ended his gospel talking of Jesus’ ascension and he begins Acts mentioning it again in just the second verse. He’ll describe it one more time just seven verses later. When we get to Acts 1:9 we will look some more at what it means that the God-man, Jesus, has been taken into heaven.
2. Ordinary men and women are chosen for God’s work.
Luke describes the apostles as those Jesus had “chosen.” They did not decide to be Christian workers. It wasn’t their ambition. It wasn’t their volunteer service. It wasn’t their idea of pious devotion. Jesus made the decision. Jesus called them. Jesus appointed them.
In church life we admire those who take on busy roles. They teach, or counsel, or run the nursery, or care for the grounds, or oversee finance or administration. “Such a dedicated volunteer,” we say of someone who serves so well.
I agree, and yet I don’t wholly agree. The word “volunteer” is not really appropriate. It is a variation on the word “voluntary” which has a dictionary definition of something done “of one’s own accord” or “by free choice.” Is God’s work really a matter of our “own accord” or “free choice”? If it’s our free choice then we can refuse. That would make saying “no” to God’s call an acceptable option. Nothing in the New Testament supports that idea.
The initiative for Christian work does not lie with us. Those who serve God are “chosen.” Cleaning that church kitchen, handing out the church newsletters, serving the after-service coffee, running the youth program – none of these things are ours to do or not to do according to whether we feel like it. God called us, God chose us, and it is for us to obey.
That means these things:
1) What we do is not about our likes and dislikes but about God’s call. Someone at church tells Kate she’s marvelous because she leads a Bible study, organizes pot luck suppers, visits church members in hospital, and chairs the outreach committee, and then asks her: “Kate, do you enjoy doing all that?”
I’m sure Kate would be polite, but in theory she could say the question is irrelevant. Whether Kate enjoys these things or not isn’t the point. She does what she does because it’s what she has been led to do. Service for God is not about our pleasure or our comfort. It’s about the role God has chosen for us.
2) What we do may be deeply challenging. I preached the sermons, but I always felt the person who cleaned the toilets had a more challenging role in church life! But difficult though toilet cleaning can be, it doesn’t rank with what these first apostles were called to do. For them to be chosen by God meant leaving their homes and families, giving up comfort and income, accepting ridicule and persecution, risking their lives and ultimately, for most of them, losing their earthly lives for Jesus.
There is a song line, “Here I am, wholly available. As for me, I will serve the Lord.” That is the right prayer for every one of us, but we should know these words have deep consequences.
3) What we do is for as long as God determines. In other words, because God chooses roles for us it’s not for us to un-choose them when we’ve had enough.
In a remote village in a country very far from her own, I sat down one day with a disappointed missionary. Those she went to evangelize listened but didn’t believe. Those she helped took all her humanitarian care and always wanted more. She felt she was getting nowhere. Her face looked so sad. As gently as I could I asked, “What is the most fundamental reason you came here?” She thought for a long time. Finally she said, “Because Jesus called me here.” “And,” I asked, “is he still calling you, no matter how people respond, no matter how ungrateful they seem?” There was a long pause, and then her head lifted and eyes lit up. “Yes he is!” she said. There was new strength in her voice.
The rightness of being there was not measured by results and not by gratitude, but by her obedience to God’s will. It was his work, and he knew what he was doing. As long as he called her there, she’d stay there.
That is the bottom line for anything we are given to do. We can’t let go of our Christian work because it is more difficult or less fulfilling than we expected. We do what we do because Jesus chose us to do it. That’s the foundation of it all.
3. Those God calls to serve him need to be well prepared
Luke writes in Acts 1:2 that Jesus was taken up to heaven “after giving instructions” to the apostles. They were not just chosen and sent; they were chosen, taught, and sent.
Some things they needed to learn. Other things they needed in their hearts as well as their heads, to transform their doubts, their fears, and their understanding of what their lives were for. It all mattered. I am sure they thought the work was urgent but Jesus would not let them go uninstructed. Without time and without preparation they would never be effective.
Just weeks after I surrendered to Christ I knew God had a different purpose for my life than the career in journalism I had planned. I was being re-directed towards Christian ministry. I loved what I had been doing in journalism, but that new calling thrilled my heart. I wanted to get on with it as soon as possible. I wanted no more than a couple of years in seminary, and then I’d be off to conquer the world for Jesus.
I wrote off to the seminary, and the seminary’s president wrote back. I did not like his letter. I had never done any higher education, and he told me I needed first to go to university and get a general degree. After that I should come and study at the seminary for a theology degree. In all, he outlined seven years of study. My heart fell as I read his letter.
The seminary president was a wise man, and must have sensed I would react like that. The final sentence of his letter I have never forgotten. He wrote: “I realize all this will seem daunting to a young man, but never forget that the work and the Master are worthy of your best.” I wished he had not said that, but I knew he was right. In the end I studied for about eleven years, and every year was a vital investment. The work and the Master really are worthy of our best.
So, here is what Luke packed into one verse early in Acts:
- Jesus took our humanity to heaven, the first of all of us who will one day find a place with our Heavenly Father.
- But his work was not finished on earth, so to this day he chooses men and women just like us as he reaches out to the lost and cares for the needy.
- Those he sends need to be well-prepared because the work and the Master are worth our best.
That last phrase – so personal to me – may explain why today I am president of a seminary. Now it’s my turn to help people become the best they can be for God’s service. Often I smile about that, and I never cease to be amazed at God’s choice for my life!