In their growing enthusiasm for establishing the kingdom of God, the disciples of Jesus ask a very natural question: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6, NKJV). Jesus had come preaching an upside-down, other-centered kingdom focused on serving others and is now preparing to leave them. They want to know when the kingdom will start. Jesus tells them to wait to receive power from on high. They are not to achieve power or authority at the expense of the Spirit of God.
After Jesus speaks, the disciples witness Him being taken into heaven, disappearing from their sight into the clouds. Two angels ask them why they are “standing and gazing up into the sky” and then tell the disciples, “This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11, NKJV).
For the disciples, hope of reuniting with Jesus must have filled each moment. Times had been better with the Savior, and their hearts ache for Him. However, they are looking into heaven instead of out. The problem isn’t one of longing but of gaze. The disciples are not ready to move on to what Jesus has called them to do. They want what used to be. They want to have Jesus back. Frankly speaking, this sin-ravaged earth is unsettling, so there’s always temptation to look toward the future with longing eyes, thinking about the comforting reality of heaven and forgetting that we are called to face the world.
Although it’s comforting to catch a glimpse of a heaven-bound Savior, it does little to motivate us forward. We may just stand there gazing and talking about the event because it’s more comforting and exciting than walking among and enduring the difficult places of this world. After all, heaven is easier to look at than this earth. The story of the disciples, however, seeks to grab our attention, focusing us on a much better way to look for Jesus. The angels redirect our attention to His person and character, making clear who Jesus is. He transforms our understanding of what God is like. His character is one of unselfish love, which reorientates us to how we should perceive the second coming.
How we view Jesus matters more than anything else, for an incorrect view will seriously impair the way we relate to Him and those around us. We sometimes think we can have Jesus as we want Him to be, forgetting the person that He is—exalted at God’s right hand. In our failure to embody the love of God, we often incorporate our desires into our image of Jesus. Like the disciples, we think that He must take a violent or political route to become the savior of the world. Such distorted interpretations of Jesus and His kingdom, however, will only foster hopelessness in perilous times. We face multiple crises today, but Jesus has not deferred Himself to our versions of saving the world. Jesus has His own vision based upon His own person and work. Our hope remains in the one person who can reveal God’s true character and power on earth.
We are often tempted to want Jesus for the wrong reasons, treating Him like a mere team mascot that represents our beliefs and values—what we stand for rather than who He is. If we think that Jesus has no say in the matter, we should remind ourselves that it will be “this same Jesus” who returns. Instead of linking God’s kingdom to overthrowing our opposition, we should seek a kinder God who wins by serving, one who does not promote our self-importance or aggressively attack our enemies. When we focus on the person who is coming, we will no longer feel fear and distrust of the future. When we realize that Jesus is more than adequate to completely fulfill us, we will not be overwhelmed or alarmed by the events and outcomes that may lie ahead. We come to realize that Jesus’ coming is not dependent upon natural disasters, the world economy, political outcomes, or a bunch of reckless sinners. It’s about the person of Jesus.
I think it’s also important to emphasize the manner of Jesus’ coming. The angels remind us that He is coming in the same manner as the disciples saw Him going into heaven. It will be real, visible, and powerful. Jesus will come “with clouds; and every eye will see Him” (Revelation 1:7, NKJV). Rapture theories in which God snatches people from this earth prior to disaster presents a faulty picture of God. They encourage a dreadful theology that celebrates the world’s destruction and supplants the coming of Jesus with an extraction of believers prior to this suffering. They cause us to neglect others and to consider this earth and its creatures disposable. God’s presence will protect His people during times of difficulty, not by taking them from the world but by preserving them as a testimony of His love and faithfulness.
I believe that God desires to save all people and the world itself, not just a few believers who offer tokens of faith to escape into another realm. Jesus wants His disciples to become empowered for the world. The disciples must receive God’s empowering love to expand His loving reign—bringing all people into knowledge of Him. The angels break up the disciples’ small huddle, and they return together, placing full confidence in God and letting Him be in charge of their lives. They are devoted, wrapping themselves in His empowerment to see God’s will fulfilled on earth.
In the stories of the Bible, Jesus is associated with a small marginal crew of insignificant followers. He tries time and again to focus them on His mission rather than on their own national framework or political agendas. It isn’t easy, but they finally come to understand the way of the kingdom through Jesus. Once they have this vision and God’s Spirit gets ahold of them, the little band of forgiven sinners grows into thousands of men and women working for Jesus’ selfless kingdom, making them a formidable and effective movement that changes the world. This is not because they are different from modern people. The power comes not from who they are but from their refocused gaze on who Jesus is; with this image of Jesus, they become empowered by God to face the world.
God does not want people to inform Him about all the things they are doing in the world to save Christianity; He wants people to long to become more like Him. We can’t strong-arm God into doing our will on earth by saving our agendas or causing particular outcomes. The world needs a glimpse of Jesus, not whatever we believe will save the world. The world does not need our doctrinal propositions or religious agendas to bring about God’s purposes on earth. It’s not about changing the world or saving our versions of Christianity. Don’t get me wrong; God certainly wants us to care about our nations and the people in our communities. Yes, He wants us to have a true moral framework for following Him, but that’s not enough!
God wants to empower regular people like you and me to influence our world by piercing the darkness with the marvelous light of His incredible love, but He can’t do that if we have the wrong gaze. God wants to refocus our attention on Him, so we can be like Jesus in this world and live in His power. What if we asserted ourselves less, instead seeking ways to exalt “this same Jesus” to encourage a watching world to see Him as He really is and spread His fame across the earth? The story of God’s early work portrays Him empowering regular, broken, and fallible people to reach the world. His work to save the world today must be told in the same way. If more followers of Jesus would present a clearer picture of God and live in His power, the world would see Jesus and find hope in this deeply unsettling world. That makes looking forward to the second coming of Jesus good news.
Craig Ashton Jr.