‘Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ (Acts 1.6).
This was the last question the disciples asked the Lord Jesus just before He ascended into heaven. How extraordinary that they should ask a question about Israel at such a time! I have a Thompson Chain Reference Bible which I find invaluable in the way it links verses throughout the Bible in chains according to themes. But I have to disagree with Mr Thompson over this verse which he links with ‘dumb questions’ asked to satisfy idle curiosity.
In fact this was not such a dumb question. As Jewish men awaiting the coming Messiah, and disciples of Jesus, the events of Jesus’ death and resurrection had caused some radical readjustment to their thinking on this issue. Jesus Himself had explained to them the significance of His crucifixion and resurrection: ‘‘These are the words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things must be fulfilled which are written in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms concerning Me.’ And He opened their understanding that they might comprehend the Scriptures. Then He said to them, ‘Thus it was necessary for the Messiah to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name to all nations, beginning in Jerusalem.’’ Luke 24.44-47.
He refers to the three sections of the Jewish Bible, the Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Chetuvim (Psalms / Writings) and shows how they all point to Himself as the Messiah. Speaking of the crucifixion He would no doubt have referred to such passages as Isaiah 53 which speak of the Servant of the Lord, who is identified by early Rabbinic writers as the Messiah, suffering and dying as a sacrifice for the sins of the world: ‘All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. … For He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people He was stricken.’ (Isaiah 53.6, 8). The resurrection is also implied in this passage: ‘He shall see His seed, He shall prolong His days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in His hand.’ (Isaiah 53.10).
This must have been a wonderful Bible study for the disciples who generally misunderstood Jesus when He told them He was going up to Jerusalem to be put to death and to rise again on the third day (Matthew 16.21-23). This did not fit in with the Jewish expectation of the Messianic King who would come as the Son of David to deliver Israel from Roman oppression and bring in the visible Kingdom of God, reigning in power from Jerusalem. When Jesus spoke of His coming death in John 12.31-3 the people listening responded: ‘We have heard from the Law that the Messiah remains forever: and how can you say the Son of Man must be lifted up? Who is this Son of Man?’ Jesus had told them the Son of Man being lifted up meant His death, so the implication of this question is that the crowd listening to Jesus could not relate to such a concept of Messiah and asked Him what He was talking about.
This was because they were looking for the Reigning King Messiah not the Suffering Servant Messiah of Isaiah 53. The Reigning King Messiah is prophesied in Isaiah 2.1-4 and this is the result of His ministry: ‘Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains and all nations shall flow to it. Many people shall come and say, ‘Come and let us go to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob: He will teach us His ways, and we shall walk in His paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and rebuke many people; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more.’
To this day Rabbinic Judaism is still pointing Jewish people to the Reigning King Messiah as the hope for the world, and for the most part has dismissed the Suffering Servant Messiah from the picture altogether. Since the time of Rashi, an 11th century Rabbi, the generally accepted view of Isaiah 53 in Judaism is that it refers to the sufferings of the Jewish people, not the sufferings of the Messiah, although there are significant Rabbis who deny this interpretation of Rashi and affirm that Isaiah 53 is a prophecy of Messiah. There is also a line of Rabbinic interpretation which sees two different Messiahs coming, one known as Messiah ben Joseph (son of Joseph), who suffers and is humiliated as Joseph did in Egypt and one known as Messiah ben David (son of David) who reigns victoriously as David did.
With this background the disciples’ question in Acts 1.6 makes sense. They were in effect saying, ‘OK Jesus, we understand now that you had to suffer and die and be resurrected to fulfil Isaiah 53 and other passages in the Bible. Will you right now complete the Messianic programme by fulfilling Isaiah 2.1-4? Will you drive out the Romans and establish the visible kingdom restored to Israel, bringing peace to the nations?’ Not such a dumb question after all!
Jesus’ response to the question is interesting. He could have solved in one sentence the question which is still a controversy amongst Christians – ‘Has the Church replaced Israel?’ He could have said, ‘Forget about Israel, that is finished now. God has made a new covenant with the Church and the prophecies about Israel are null and void and need to be re- interpreted as prophecies about the church.’ But He didn’t. The only issue He was really correcting the disciples about was the timing of the event. They wanted the kingdom restored ‘Now’, but Jesus said, ‘It is not for you to know the times or the seasons which the Father has put in His own authority’ (Acts 1.7).
In other words He is saying, ‘Don’t bother yourselves with trying to work out the timing of this event because only the Father knows when it will happen.’ This implies that the event, the restoration of the kingdom to Israel will happen, but at a future unknown date which only the Father knows. He then goes on to tell them their programme for the here and now (which they had been told before, but not really understood): ‘You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be witnesses to Me in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.’ (Acts 1.8).
The reference to an unknown date should alert students of the Bible to the second coming of Jesus. In Matthew 24.36 Jesus says about His return: ‘But of that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, but My Father only.’ Therefore there is some connection between the restoration of the kingdom to Israel and the second coming of Jesus as Messiah. The fact that there would be a second coming was made absolutely clear to the disciples before the crucifixion (Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21), but as with many things they were slow to understand the meaning of His words. What Jesus is saying in Acts 1.7-8 is that in the present age the priority for His disciples should be world evangelism, although the kingdom would be restored to Israel after His second coming.
This conversation is followed immediately by the ascension of Jesus into heaven in which a ‘cloud received Him out of their sight’ (Acts 1.9). Does this mean it was a cloudy day at the time? No. The cloud refers to the glory cloud, known as the Shekinah (a Hebrew word derived from the verb ‘shaken’ to dwell, meaning the place where God dwells). At significant times in Israel’s history, notably the dedication of the Tabernacle and of the Temple (Exodus 40.34-38 and 1 Kings 8.10-11), the glory cloud came down to demonstrate the Lord’s presence with His people.
As the disciples watch Jesus depart they are told by the angel: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus whom you have seen go into heaven will so come in like manner as you have seen Him go into heaven.’ Acts 1.11.
Here they are told that the same Jesus is going to return, but not in the way He came the first time. When Jesus came the first time He came with His glory veiled, taking on the form of a servant (Philippians 2.5-11). This fulfilled Isaiah 53.2 which says: ‘He had no form or comeliness; and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him.’ This means that the outward appearance of the Messiah at His first coming would not be different from that of other men. You could pass Him by in the street and not realise there was anything remarkable about Him.
His power would be shown by His deeds and His teaching and above all by His resurrection from the dead, but not by how He looked outwardly. Therefore believing in Him would be something received by faith, not something obvious to everyone: ‘He was in the world and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own and His own did not receive Him. But as many as received Him to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name; who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.’ John 1.10-13.
The disciples did see His glory on one occasion on the Mount of Transfiguration when they saw Him with His face shining like the sun and His clothes as white as the light (Matthew 17.1-8). On this occasion they saw the Lord Jesus as He really is – the Holy One of Israel, the Son of God. For the rest of the time His glory was veiled. If He had been walking around Nazareth with His face shining like the sun it would have been hard not to recognise Him as the Messiah, which was not His purpose at His first coming. In that case no one would have dared to put Him to death, which was the purpose of the first coming.
Going back to Acts 1, Jesus is going to come in the same way He departed, in the glory cloud. In other words this time He is coming as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. He will come in fulfilment of the prophecy of Daniel 7.13: ‘I was watching in the night visions and behold One like the Son of Man, coming with the clouds of heaven! He came to the Ancient of Days, and they brought Him near before Him. Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away, and His kingdom the one which shall not be destroyed.’
Jesus applied this prophecy to Himself on two occasions. Firstly in the context of His own teaching on the second coming in Matthew 24.30 and secondly at His trial in Matthew 26.64. On the latter occasion He has been put under oath by the High Priest to answer the question whether He is the Messiah, the Son of God. He replies by quoting this verse of Daniel which is the reason the High Priest condemns Him to death for blasphemy. So there is no doubt the High Priest understood the significance of Jesus applying these words of Daniel to Himself.
In the context of Daniel’s prophecy the Son of Man coming in the clouds of heaven is connected to the ‘little horn’ speaking ‘pompous words’ and being given to the ‘burning flame’ (Daniel 7.8, 11). The little horn is the antichrist who according to this prophecy of Daniel will arise out of the fourth beast (Rome) and persecute the saints in the last days of this age. According to Revelation 19.20 at the second coming of Jesus the beast (antichrist) and the false prophet will be thrown straight into the lake of fire.
Following this victory over the allied forces of evil, the kingdom will be given visibly to Jesus as Lord and all nations will serve Him as prophesied in Isaiah 2.1-4. This will be the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, and Jerusalem will be the seat of His authority (Isaiah 2.3). That is why Jerusalem today is the focal point of world conflict, the ‘burdensome stone for all peoples’ according to the prophecy of Zechariah 12.3, as we shall see in our next edition when we will look at the significance of the place of the Lord’s return, the Mount of Olives, and its connection to the prophecy of Zechariah 14.