They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Ascension

See Mark 16:19, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:1-9

"Ascension", Rembrandt Harmensz

“Ascension”, Rembrandt Harmensz

After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared and spoke to His disciples and others for forty days, teaching them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3). On the fortieth day, Jesus took His disciples out to the vicinity of Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, and while they were watching, He was taken up to heaven in a cloud. Put yourself in the disciples sandals and take a moment to think about what just happened. In the last forty days they have seen their rabbi, Jesus, who they thought would be their earthly king, arrested, crucified, resurrected, and now taken up to heaven in a cloud! The disciples have now witnessed what could be argued as the most dramatic event in all Scripture, ascending to heaven! As far as a major miracle, it would have had to be as equally impressive as the resurrection. Going to heaven to sit at the right hand of God was also a fulfillment of prophecy just like Jesus’ death and resurrection was. Yet, have you ever thought or been taught that the ascension was a major theological event? We have a day on the church calendar, forty days after Easter Sunday to commemorate the ascension, but you never hear anyone preach or teach or give the weight to this event like you do Easter and the resurrection story. In the Acts narrative in Chapter 1, we hear sermons on waiting on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8) and the commission He gave the disciples in Acts 1:8, but we don’t hear anything about the ascension itself. We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection in a big way, but His ascension is every bit as important to His deity as His resurrection. There is bound to be more here than we’ve known at first glance and has to be more to the story.

The ascension is not mentioned in Matthew or John and there is only one sentence on it in Mark. From the last few verses in Luke and the first few verses of Acts, we can piece together the story – and what a story it is! Luke’s story of the gospel of Jesus Christ has quite a profound ending. Jesus gathered His disciples around Him near Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Scripture says, ”He lifted His hands and blessed them and while He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up to heaven.” When the disciples saw this, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. It is interesting to note that Luke begins His book by telling the story of an old priest, Zechariah, who was part of the line of Aaron and the official priesthood. This old priest is unable to bless because God took his voice after he didn’t believe the angel’s story of what was about to happen to him. The end of Luke’s book is a story of Jesus, who is not a member of the priesthood and was not supposed to be able to bless. However, Jesus raises His hands and blesses His disciples. In doing this, Jesus is claiming to be the promised Messiah who would be a prophet, priest, and king all rolled into one person. By lifting His hands to bless – which only priest were allowed and commissioned to do – Jesus was claiming the priesthood and displaying His divine nature as this triune being. This was why they returned to Jerusalem with such joy!

When the disciples saw Jesus ascending to heaven their Jewish minds would have quickly gone to the story of Daniel and the prophetic vision that he wrote down in Daniel 7 while in captivity in Babylon. In Daniel’s vision, four evil beasts came out of the abyss to bring chaos to the world. These four evil kingdoms of men misruled the earth and put it in shambles. Then in Daniel 7:13-14, Daniel sees, “one like a son of man”, coming with clouds to come and restore order to the chaos. This was taken by the Jewish minds as a reference to the Messiah who was to come and this is the first time in Scripture the Messiah was called the ”son of man”. Daniel’s vision then goes on to say that when this, ”son of man” went into heaven, He was led into the presence of God and was given authority over everything and that His rule and reign would be forever at the right hand of God. Interestingly, Jesus applied this title to himself several times and the disciples were definitely aware that Jesus called himself by this messianic term. In fact, the title “son of man”, is used for Jesus over one hundred times in the New Testament. Read Luke 9:21-22, Luke 9:26-27, Luke 11:29-32, Luke 18:31-34, and Luke 19:10 and also look at these passages in Matthew; Matthew 24:30-31, Matthew 25:31-33, and Matthew 26:64. From the Daniel story and by listening to what Jesus said about Himself, when they witnessed the ascension, they thought, ”He’s going to heaven now to sit at the right hand and rule with His father! He is the ‘Son of Man’ like He said He was!”

In Mark 16:19 it says that Jesus, ”was taken up to heaven and sat at the right hand of God.” This fulfills the prophetical verse in Psalm 110:1 where God declares the promised Messiah will sit at His right hand. Jesus says,”that’s me”, when He quotes that verse to the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-45. In conclusion, because of prophecy and Jesus’ words to them, the disciples knew exactly where He was going, where He would be sitting, and what He would be doing when He got to heaven. He would now have all authority over the earth. When they saw Jesus ascend to heaven, they realized in a huge way, “Our Rabbis is King of the Universe! He’s in Charge! He does have all authority!” Then an angel comes and tells them that He will be coming back the same way that He left.

Given this background, isn’t the ascension every bit as important to God’s deity as His resurrection? The ascension proves that Jesus is the King; He is ruling and reigning over the universe now! Like the first disciples, we are also to be witnesses of His ascension. When He said to, “be my witnesses”, it was not only witness to the resurrection, it was witness to His ascension as well. We are to be witnesses that He is not only our Savior, but He is also our King! Evidently, the early disciples really believed that He was in charge of the world. Do we? By what we say and how we live, we also are witnesses to whether or not Jesus is in charge of the universe. Every time we choose to do what the King desires we are taking back a square foot of the Kingdom and are advancing the Kingdom of Heaven. Conversely, every time we choose not to do what the King desires and requires, we loose a square foot of the Kingdom. He didn’t say, “Just hang on till I get back”, He said to start advancing the Kingdom here on earth. We are to be expanding the Kingdom by the way we serve the ascended King. What square foot will you take today by living the way the ascend King wants?

The Cross and the Kingdom

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.
– Matthew 16:24

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, "Man of Sorrows"As I relived the events of Passion Week during this recent Easter season, I couldn’t help but think about the dichotomy that exists between modern disciples of Jesus and those that actually followed Him during His time on this earth. The triumphal entry, the Lord’s Supper, the events at Gethsemane that led to His arrest, His trial, crucifixion, and three days later His resurrection must have been a whirlwind of emotions for Jesus’ band of followers. These men (and women) had been with Him for three years. They had seen all His miracles and listened to Him as He said time and again that He was God’s son come to earth to live among men. They were convinced that He was the one that God had promised to come to Israel to be their Messiah, their new king over their nation.

Jesus’ disciples then definitely wanted His kingdom to come. They were desperately hoping that He would deliver them from the hands of the evil Romans and establish a new kingdom and rule and reign here on earth. Jesus would be in charge, evil would be in check, and they would be His right hand men in helping to bring the good news of the kingdom to their fellow Israelites. The disciples were ready to die for their leader and would have done anything to help establish His kingdom and defeat His enemies. They had already given up everything to follow Him up to this spot. They definitely did not want Jesus to die on the cross. That would have been the worst possible outcome because the chance to establish a kingdom would die with their leader. They knew what the results of the cross were. The cross would have been a complete defeat for their mission. The kingdom was paramount and the cross was unthinkable.

Here is the dichotomy: today’s disciples of Jesus seem to face the opposite scenario. We love and need the cross and celebrate Jesus’ willingness to die on it on our behalf. We are glad, not that He suffered, but that He paid for our sins by that act of selflessness. The cross to us is victory – victory over sin and God’s enemies. However, the idea of establishing His kingdom here on this earth is another matter. To be willing to die or suffer, or even give up our time on Christ’s behalf to bring His kingdom to this earth is not nearly as appealing as the idea of the cross. We have the cross and Christians tend to think of that as the end game. Jesus paid it all and praise God we are saved! But, bringing the kingdom is just an integral part of Christ’s message as the cross. We are to bring His kingdom here on earth regardless of the cost or consequences because He is our king and we are His subjects. He has left us here to be His right hand men to make sure everyone knows, understands and also obeys His will. It has never been just the kingdom or just the cross, it has always been both. May His kingdom come and His will be done on earth, just like it would be done in heaven!

To Remember and Forget

“For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more”
– Jeremiah 31:34 and Hebrews 8:12

The Hebrew word, “zakar” means, “to remember, to call to mind, make mention, recall past distress, remember sins, or remember the dealings of.” The word means more than just the mental act of recalling memories and is more about the actions that are taken because of remembering. For example, in Gen 8:1, “God remembered Noah and all the animals that were with him on the ark and He sent a wind over the earth and the waters receded.” God didn’t suddenly recall that there was a boat out there with Noah on it. By remembering them, He acted faithfully on the promise that He had made to Noah. Another biblical example of this is in Genesis 30:27, where the Text says that God remembered Rachel and she conceived. God wasn’t just thinking about Rachel; He acted on Rachel’s behalf because He remembered her in her distress.

In contrast the Hebrew words for forget are, ”shakach” and “nashah” and they mean to ignore, neglect, forsake, or to act in disregard. Again, the words imply action – to act as if you have forgotten and to ignore, not just lose the memory of something. To forget in Hebrew is to act as if you don’t recall or treat as if you don’t remember. So how do these Hebrew words apply to us in our sinful state in the verses in Jeremiah and Hebrews quoted above?

"Like it never even happened"

“Like it never even happened”

When God says that he will forgive our wickedness and remember our sins no more, it means that He is not going to act. He is going to treat our sins as if He can’t recall them. God is not excusing our sin, He is just acting as if He can’t recall them. This is an important concept for us as sinners. God simply chooses to set our sins aside and treat them like He can’t remember them and He won’t bring them up again. Out of God’ great love for us, He chooses not to act and seek justice for our sins against Him. God treats our sins like the slogan in the SERVPRO® commercials, “Like it never even happened.”

In turn, though, God expects us to do the same with those who have sinned against us. We are to forgive those who sin against us just as God does for us. Colossians 3:13 says, ”Forgive as the Lord forgave you.” We have to choose not to remember what people have done to us. It’ s not that we can just forget what has happened to us or lose the memory, but we have to act and treat it like it never happened, remembering it no more. Furthermore, the Text says this is the key to our sins being forgiven. Jesus taught us how to pray in the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 and told us to say, “forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors.” Then, Jesus goes on to say in verse 14, ”For if you forgive men when they sin against you, your Heavenly Father will forgive you. But, if you do not forgive men their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins.” We have to choose not to “remember” just like God does. What a wonderful promise from Scripture that God will treat our sins “Like they never even happened!” Our challenge is to adopt that same slogan and pass that act of forgetfulness on to those who are in debt to us.

The Gospel

How beautiful on the mountains
    are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
    who bring good tidings,
    who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
    “Your God reigns!”
– Isaiah 52:7

crossThe word gospel means, ”good news”. According to Isaiah 52:7, the gospel (the good news) is that the God of the Jews reigns. Contrary to our Christian slogans, the good news is not just, “Jesus saves”. God does save, but He also is reigning and taking charge over the universe. Our message as Christians should not be reduced to just, “Jesus saves” but that He is reigning and ruling in our lives and is King over the whole universe.

As our previous post stated, God told the Israelites at Mt. Sinai to be a ”Kingdom of Priests”; to represent our God. We learned that a priest is a mediator; he goes between God and the people to demonstrate what God is really like. Our job is not limited to just praying for others, it is to demonstrate what His character is like. A priest is to also be Holy (kadosh), set apart. Priests were uniquely set apart by God and were to live holy and righteous lives. The Gentiles (us) received this same mission as evidenced in 1 Peter 2:9-12:

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.

Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and exiles, to abstain from sinful desires, which wage war against your soul. Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

How are we doing in this regard? Do we want people to judge our God by what they see in us? Do our lives reflect the fact that He is ruling and reigning?

The church today often acts like their only mission is to proclaim that Jesus saves, that He gives salvation. There is no mention of or emphasis on the mission that God gave the Israelites and us today to live holy and separated lives. Yes, Jesus died to save us, but He also called us to bring the good news to the people around us that He is Lord over the way we live our lives. Their mission at Sinai and ours today is to be set apart and holy (wear the blue tassels) and to be the message that God is reigning in our lives.

He didn’t ask us just to bring the message, but to “be” the message. That is the Gospel.

A Kingdom of Priests

kingdom-priests

‘You yourselves have seen what I did to Egypt, and how I carried you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself. Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possession. Although the whole earth is mine, you will be for me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words you are to speak to the Israelites.”
–Exodus 19:4-6

When God made a covenant with his chosen people at Mt. Sinai, he told them that he wanted them to be a “kingdom of priests”. That phrase sounds very poetic and significant, but we tend to read right over the phrase because the words, “kingdom” and “priest” are so foreign to our modern thinking. In America we certainly don’t identify with Kings or Kingdoms and our Protestant faith contains little contact with priests. What was God saying? The answer comes out of the culture of that day and it is very revealing as to what our responsibilities are as partakers in that same covenental promise. Let’s look at the words, “kingdom” and “priest” to see what they meant in that ancient culture.

First, the word kingdom in English implies a territory or a piece of land. To the Hebrews, the word kingdom is much more encompassing. The kingdom was not only the territory, but it was also a place in time where the King of the kingdom was ruling or reigning. The kingdom was where the king was “kinging”, where his will was being done and people were obeying him and making him king. It was not just the boundary lines, it was what was happening withing the boundaries. The kingdom comes and is evident when the king’s will is being done. The kingdom can be any place that the king (God) is in charge (e.g. Luke 17:21).

Now that we’ve established what the kingdom is, then what does it mean to be a kingdom of priests? Priests during the time of the Hebrew Testament were representatives of the God they served. All the nations had priests that served their various deities. This was a concept that was very familiar to the Israelites because every god of wood and stone was represented by a priesthood. What was the function of these priests? First of all, they dressed very differently than the normal lay person. They were set apart for their service to their god and had very high standards of conduct. Their number one mission was to put their god on display. If you wanted to know what the god was like, you just looked at the priests. They were also the mediator between the god and the people. They were to meet the people’s needs on the god’s behalf and show them how compassionate he was and his concern for the poor. All welfare was done through the temple and the priests.

In light of these qualities and responsibilities, how are we as a community of believers to be a kingdom of priests? We must be noticeably different; set apart from the people around us that don’t know our King. We have to live under higher moral standards, live holy lives that are different and that set us apart. Our mission as priests is also to demonstrate what God is like. Think about the display God could have put together to show himself, but instead he picked us. “You want to see what I’m like , look at my priests that represent me”, God says. Will the people you meet this week know what God is like by the way your represent him?

Like the priests, we are also to be the mediator between God and the people that don’t know him. We are to be sensitive to the poor and disenfranchised and are to meet human need on God’s behalf. We can’t do that by just praying for people; it has to be a hands on process of meeting those needs.

If we go back to Exodus 19, we will see that God called the whole nation of Israel to be priests to represent him. Although He separately established the Aaronic priesthood, He wanted everyone to think of themselves as priests. To remind them to do this He gave them a command in Numbers 15:37-40:

The Lord said to Moses, “Speak to the Israelites and say to them: ‘Throughout the generations to come you are to make tassels on the corners of your garments, with a blue cord on each tassel. You will have these tassels to look at and so you will remember all the commands of the Lord, that you may obey them and not prostitute yourselves by chasing after the lusts of your own hearts and eyes. Then you will remember to obey all my commands and will be consecrated to your God.

The Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on the corners of their garments. Why? When they looked at the tassels they would be reminded of their role and position and would remember to keep His commands. The tassels were a visual aid to them that they were set apart. There is much more to say about the tassels (see “Of Wool and Linen” and Jewish Dress and Custom) that reminded them that they were priests.

Was this command only for the Old Testament time period? Are we under a different set of rules? 1 Peter 2:9-12 says exactly what God was saying to the Israelites at Sinai. We are to be a kingdom of priests and are to live such good lives among out pagan neighbors that they will experience our good deeds and give glory to our God (also see Philippians 2:15-16). Revelation 1:5-6, speaking of Jesus, also says that He has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve His Father. The Bible is all one story and the mission is the same from Genesis to Revelation – ”make my name known”.

In summary, the concept of being a kingdom of priests is a huge and daunting responsibility. He has sent us, His followers, to represent Him to the people that don’t know about Him and to tell them what the King and the kingdom is like. They will know what He is like by the way we act and the way we treat them. We represent the God of the universe! He is sending us out to a hurting and broken world that desperately needs to know about His love and His compassion towards them. Will we go? Will we live our lives in such a way that they will know without a shadow of a doubt how great and loving our God is?

M’Sharet: God’s Assistant

Moses & JoshuaOn our last trip to Israel we learned a very rich word in Hebrew, a new concept, that really impacted us and gave us a deeper understanding of what our mission as believers in Jesus should look like. The word in Hebrew is m’sharet (mesharet) and is translated in English as assistant or aide. However, this word, as it related to the Hebrew culture of that day, went much deeper than a single word in English could capture.

If you look up the word in the Hebrew concordance, (Strong’s 8334), it is defined as, “to minister, to serve as an attendant, to wait upon someone as a squire waits on a knight.”  It is used to describe someone who believes so passionately in their master’s mission that they would do any task or anything to assist in what their master was doing.  A m’sharet went everywhere with their master and did all the manual labor and the menial tasks in order to help their master through the day and served as an apprentice to him.

The word is used in the Hebrew Testament in Exodus 24:13 to describe this relationship between Moses and Joshua. In this set of verses, Moses takes his m’sharet, Joshua,and takes him up Mt. Sinai with him to meet God. Although the text doesn’t specifically say it, the implication is that Joshua was the porter for the trip up the mountain. Exodus 33:11 again calls Joshua Moses’ attendant and says that Moses used him to guard the tent of meeting. Previously, in Exodus 17:9 Moses orders Joshua, his right hand man, to fight the Amalekites. In Deuteronomy 1:38 God tells Moses to encourage his assistant Joshua and teach him what he knows, because Joshua will eventually become the new leader of all Israel. Numbers 11:28 says that Joshua had been Moses’ aide since his youth.

Later, in Joshua 1:3 and 3:7, after the death of Moses, the Lord speaks to Joshua and identifies him as Moses attendant (mesharet Moshe). Because of this relationship with Moses, God makes Joshua the new leader and charges him with taking the Israelites across the Jordan into the land that they had been promised. The sages from early times, in discussing this passage, noted that God called Joshua “m’sharet” instead of “talmid” (disciple), for a reason. Joshua wasn’t a great leader because he knew his Torah, but because he had been with Moses and had watched him in action for all those years. He learned from Moses experiences and had practiced the art of leadership before he had to use it. He had carried Moses pack, he had waited on him hand and foot, slept and ate in the same tent, and had even gone to battle for him. He had done his apprenticeship directly under the eyes of the master.

Elijah calls ElishaAs another example, 1 Kings 19:21 says,”Then he (Elisha) set out to follow Elijah and became his attendant (m’sharet).”  In this story in 1 Kings, Elisha said goodbye to his comfortable home and well off family to become Elijah’s personal servant. Again, the word m’sharet is used instead of talmid. He was his apprentice, his servant.  Later in 2 Kings 3:11, Elisha is identified as a prophet and someone worthy for King Jeshophat to talk to by describing him as “the one who used to pour water on Elijah’s hand“ (he waited on him). Again, the sages noted that what qualified Elisha was not that he was book smart but that he served (his master).

There are many other examples of m’sharet in scripture. Elsiha also had a mesharet (2 Kings 4:43 and 6:15). Samuel was Eli’s m’sharet (1 Samuel 2:11). The point is that certain educational experiences can only be learned through apprenticeship. Book knowledge is insufficient. It is necessary to learn by practicing, getting your hands dirty, and learning directly under the eyes of the master.

What about the New Testament? Did Jesus have m’sharet? If you will think about it, Jesus never rowed the boat, carried his pack, kept up with the money, prepared the upper room, went in to town to buy food, or took care of feeding his followers. The disciples did all the menial work! They believed so passionately in his mission that they were willing to do anything and go anywhere just to be in his company and in on the action. They were anxious to show him that they believed in his mission. They didn’t just sit around and discuss the scriptures as his peers, they were apprentices in every phase of life.

Should we be thinking more of ourselves as Jesus’ m’sharet than just his student or convert? Much of the emphasis in modern Christianity is focused on “me”; my walk, my happiness, my quiet time. We really buy into the cross and the fact that Jesus saved us, but we are not as anxious to buy into the mission and the hard work it requires.  It is definitely not our mission just to be saved and the mission is really not about us. Do you buy into the mission to do whatever it takes to model and please the rabbi? Are you willing to do the hard and sometimes menial work that is required to be an attendant?  The word mission implies a journey and every journey requires effort. Jesus is looking for some m’sharet to follow him and learn from him on the journey.  Are you willing to buy in as his attendant?

P.S. Another example of m’sharet in the New Testament would be Timothy to Paul.

P.S.S. Some scriptures to read to bring this point home are as follows:

  • Luke 22:24-27
  • Matthew 25:21
  • Matthew 20:26
  • John 14:1-17