Welcome to this Word on Wednesday for Ascension Day. It is great to have you with us.
In his article in The Spectator (UK), ‘The China model: Why is the West imitating Beijing?’ (May 8, 2021), Niall Ferguson writes: ‘In a revealing essay published last year, the Chinese political theorist Jiang Shi-gong, a professor at Peking University Law School, spelled out the corollary of American decline. ‘The history of humanity is surely the history of competition for imperial hegemony,’ Jiang wrote, ‘which has gradually propelled the form of empires from their original local nature toward the current tendency toward global empires, and finally toward a single world empire.’
‘The globalisation of our time, according to Jiang, is the “single world empire” 1.0, the model of world empire established by England and the United States. But that Anglo-American empire is ‘unravelling’ internally, because of ‘three great unsolvable problems: the ever-increasing inequality created by the liberal economy… ineffective governance caused by political liberalism, and decadence and nihilism created by cultural liberalism’. Moreover, the western empire is under external attack from ‘Russian resistance and Chinese competition’. This is not a bid to create an alternative Eurasian empire, but ‘a struggle to become the heart of the world empire’.’
It is not my purpose to explore these issues, but rather to touch on the significance of Jesus’ physical departure from the world recorded in Acts chapter 1. In verses 9-11 we read: While Jesus (he) was going and the disciples were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
It reads like sci-fi. In his book Miracles CS Lewis asks, ‘… what precisely should we expect the onlookers to see? Perhaps mere instantaneous vanishing would make us feel most comfortable. A sudden break between the perceptible and the imperceptible would worry us less than any kind of joint. But if the spectators say they saw first a short vertical movement and then a vague luminosity (… ‘cloud’) and then nothing – have we any reason to object?’ (pp.177f).
Clearly Christ moved from the space and time dimensions that we know into another beyond our comprehension. Further references in the New Testament help us understand. Philippians 2:9f tell us that God the Father has highly exalted Jesus and given him the name which is above every name. And Colossians 3:1 speaks of Christ as seated at the right hand of God. And, back in the opening lines of Acts chapter 1, Luke tells us that during the forty days between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, Jesus spoke of the kingdom of God (1:3). The age of God’s Messiah had dawned.
From their question, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” the disciples were excited and thought that at last Jesus was going to reveal his true power and position as Israel’s true king. They were thinking in political and nationalistic categories.
And through the ages many have thought in similar terms. But it’s important that we focus on Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority (1:7). ‘You’re not to worry about times and end-times,’ Jesus is saying. ‘I’ve got something much more important for you to do with your time and energy: “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Jesus had a very specific agenda for his disciples.
Witnesses. In commissioning his disciples as witnesses, Jesus wants us to know that what they passed on is nothing but the truth. This is so important because the Bible makes it plain that Christianity is not a religion, involving rules, rituals, and regulations. At its heart is a relationship with Jesus Christ. And because meaningful and lasting relationships can only be built on truth, we need to know the truth. Relationships within families are only meaningful where there is truth and honesty. Without truth there can be no trust.
Now, it’s important to make a distinction here. Jesus is not saying that his followers down through the ages are witnesses as were the original disciples. We can’t be. We weren’t there. But we are called upon to testify to the good news he brings.
Two kingdoms. For the present God’s kingdom, the rule of the Messiah remains hidden. Indeed, in his Letter to the Colossians Paul the Apostle tells us that the new age of God’s rule co-exists with the old – which the New Testament speaks of as the world. Currently a door is open, allowing people to pass from the old age to the new. So, while we see around us the movement of human kingdoms and powers, God, in his mercy is rescuing people throughout the world from the dominion of darkness, transferring us into the kingdom of the Son he loves… (Colossians 1:13).
We live in an uncertain and troubled world. We need to pray for the leaders of the nations and play our part in contributing to the welfare of people in need around us. Above all, let’s pray that God in his mercy will use the good examples of our lives and our testimony to draw many to the Lord Jesus Christ. His physical resurrection and the angels’ words at his ascension assure us that his return is certain.
But there’s something else we need – which we’ll talk about next week!