Were the Disciples Stupid or will Jesus Restore Israel? Or . . .3
On June 18 of this year an article was posted on the Charisma news service blog with the intriguing title, “Were the Disciples Stupid or Will Jesus Restore Israel?” The discussion concerned the response of Jesus to a question asked by his disciples in Acts 1:6 – “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” Continue reading . . .
On June 18 of this year an article was posted on the Charisma news service blog with the intriguing title, “Were the Disciples Stupid or Will Jesus Restore Israel?” The discussion concerned the response of Jesus to a question asked by his disciples in Acts 1:6 – “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’” The author of the article (Ron Cantor) and probably the majority of evangelical Christians believe that Jesus chose not to answer the question, but instead said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7).
The conclusion that most draw from this is that it is indeed God’s purpose to regather “natural” or ethnic Israel and restore her to national prominence in fulfillment of the Old Covenant promises. If it weren’t, Jesus would have said something to the effect, “You idiots! Don't you know that I'm through with Israel? Don't you know that the church has replaced Israel? Have I been with you so long and you still don't get it?” Or at least, that’s what the author of this article thinks is implied by our Lord’s non-response response. “There is no hint,” writes this author, “that God's promises to natural Israel are mysteriously transformed into promises to the church, instead of Israel.”
So what are we to make of this? I have written extensively on this issue in my book, Kingdom Come: The Amillennial Alternative (Christian Focus Publishers). Allow me to cite what I said in hope that I might provide another, and I trust more biblical, way of understanding what Jesus meant.
As noted above, many believe that Jesus declined to answer their question. More than that, had they been wrong in their belief that the kingdom would be restored to Israel, Jesus would have corrected them. The fact that he did neither strongly indicates that he endorsed their prophetic perspective. Or so some say.
A closer look at the larger context of Acts 1 will indicate, on the other hand, that Jesus did in fact answer their question, but in a way that they did not anticipate. The place to begin isn’t with the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 but with the teaching of Jesus concerning the kingdom of God in Acts 1:3-5.
“He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, ‘you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now’” (Acts 1:3-5).
Here we see that in the time following his resurrection and prior to his ascension, Jesus had been speaking to them “about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). It would appear that a crucial dimension to this “kingdom” was the promise of the outpouring of and baptism in the Holy Spirit. Indeed, Luke tells us that he was speaking to them of his Father’s “promise”, as made known by John the Baptizer, that whereas the latter “baptized with water,” the Christian community “will be baptized with [more literally, “in”] the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (Acts 1:5). Although the connection between the two is not as explicit as one might hope, it is hard not to conclude that the coming of the kingdom is in some sense directly related to if not identified with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost and the globally expansive evangelistic work to which Jesus commissions them in Acts 1:8.
When the disciples asked their question in v. 6, the “kingdom” about which they were concerned was the very one to which Jesus had just referred in v. 3. “The fact that they spoke of its being ‘restored to Israel’ indicates that they were thinking of it as a national entity with its center located in Jerusalem and its domain encompassing the land of their fathers” (O. Palmer Robertson, The Israel of God: Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow [Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing, 2000], 130.).
But contrary to what many think, Jesus did not avoid answering their question. The disciples had not merely asked a question about the kingdom; they had asked specifically “when” its restoration would occur. Jesus answered by saying, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7a). Although it may appear from this that Jesus refused to address the issue of timing, that’s not entirely accurate, insofar as he told them in Acts 1:5b that the Spirit would come “not many days from now” (1:5b). This may well be at least a partial hint to them regarding their inquiry about “when” the kingdom would be restored.
Given the connection previously established between the “kingdom” and the coming of the Spirit (see Acts 1:3-5), I contend that Jesus did in fact answer their question about the restoration of the kingdom. When he immediately declares, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (1:8), he is telling them precisely the way in which the much anticipated kingdom of God would appear and make its presence known on the earth. Robertson explains:
“The domain of this kingdom, the realm of the Messiah’s rule, would indeed begin at Jerusalem, the focal point of Israel’s life for centuries. So, unquestionably, Israel would be a primary participant in the coming of the messianic kingdom. Jesus was not teaching a ‘replacement’ theology in which all connection with the promises given to the fathers is summarily settled, and the Israel of old is replaced by the church of the present day. At the same time, the domain of this kingdom cannot be contained within the Israel of the old covenant. Going even beyond Judea and Samaria, this kingdom would break through the bounds of Jewish political concern and extend to the farthest corners of the earth” (133).
In other words, as Gary Burge has pointed out, our Lord’s response “should not be taken to mean that Jesus acknowledges the old Jewish worldview and that its timing is now hidden from the apostles” (Jesus and the Land, 61). Rather, he is declaring that he will indeed restore Israel, but by a means and in a way that they cannot begin to imagine. Most people hear our Lord’s response and think he has failed to respond to their inquiry. But might it be that his answer is actually found in v. 8 and the impending impartation of spiritual power that will enable them to carry the gospel of the kingdom to the ends of the earth? In other words, Jesus’ answer to the question of how and when God will “restore the kingdom to Israel” is wrapped up in the reality of his resurrection, his ascension to the right hand of the Father, and the much anticipated outpouring of the Holy Spirit that will result in the progressive ingathering of the Christian community through gospel proclamation, together with the spread of the gospel beyond the boundaries of Jerusalem, Judea, and Samaria, to the uttermost parts of the earth! Or, as Alan J. Thompson puts it in his book The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus: Luke’s Account of God’s Unfolding Plan (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011), “the inauguration of God’s kingdom, or the fulfillment of God’s saving promises for his people, are about to be worked out in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and the declaration of Jesus’ reign in Jerusalem, Israel and beyond!”!
Peter Walker contends, and I am in agreement with him on this point, that Jesus was seeking to turn the disciples’ attention away from the socio-political concerns that shaped their understanding of the coming kingdom. He was also indicating
“that their forthcoming mission to the ‘ends of the earth’ would itself be an indication of Israel’s restoration and the means whereby the truths of that restoration would be implemented upon the world-stage. Israel was being restored through the resurrection of its Messiah and the forthcoming gift of the Spirit. The way in which Israel would then exert its hegemony over the world would not be through its own political independence, but rather through the rule and authority of Israel’s Messiah. The chosen method of this Messiah’s rule was through the apostles’ proclamation of his gospel throughout the world bringing people into the ‘obedience of faith’ (cf. Rom. 1:5). Jesus’ concern, now as before, was not for a political ‘kingdom of Israel,’ rather for the ‘kingdom of God’ (Acts 1:3)” (Jesus and the Holy City [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996], 292).”
It’s important to note, however, as Alan Thompson points out, that “Israel is in fact mentioned in Jesus’ reply. When Jesus refers to Jerusalem as well as to ‘all Judea and Samaria’, he is of course referring to Israel. Jerusalem was the religious capital of Israel, and the phrase ‘all Judea and Samaria’ was representative of the southern and northern kingdoms of Israel respectively” (106).
There are other indications in our passage that the OT promise of Israel’s restoration is to be identified with the creation and growth of a Spirit-baptized church and its expansion through gospel proclamation. Consider, for example, three phrases in Acts 1:8, each of which reflects the wording in Isaiah that looks forward to a future salvation and restoration of Israel.
The phrase “when the Holy Spirit has come upon you” (Acts 1:8a) alludes to Isaiah 32:15 where the prophet describes how the desolation of God’s people will continue “until the Spirit is poured upon us from on high” (cf. Isa. 44:3-5). The connection between these texts is strengthened when we observe that Luke describes the promise of Pentecost as a time when the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high” (a clear reference to Isa. 32:15; emphasis mine).
The phrase “you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8b) reflects the wording of Isaiah 43:12 where “the people of God will be transformed and become witnesses to the salvation of God when the new age arrives” (Thompson, 107). Finally, the phrase “to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8c) recalls Isaiah 49:6, “I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” In view of the “clear parallel in Isaiah 49:6 between ‘a light for the Gentiles’ and ‘salvation to the ends of the earth’, and the use of Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47 to refer to ministry among Gentiles (cf. 13:46, 48), the phrase ‘to the ends of the earth’ in 1:8 refers also to the inclusion of Gentiles in this restoration program. What Jesus does then in his reply to the disciples is affirm that God’s promises of restoration are about to be fulfilled” (Thompson, 107).
In a nutshell, “the kingdom of God would be restored to Israel in the rule of the Messiah, which would be realized by the working of the Holy Spirit through the disciples of Christ as they extended their witness to the ends of the earth” (Robertson, 134). The restoration of the kingdom is even now occurring as the church extends the influence of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Jesus is not endorsing their anticipation of a geo-political restoration of the nation Israel to earthly preeminence (either now or in an alleged future millennium). He is declaring rather that the way in which God will bring his kingdom purposes to prophetic consummation is through the Spirit-empowered growth and expansion of a multi-ethnic spiritual body, the Church, the true Israel of God.
[Space does not allow me to unpack how this principle is found elsewhere in Acts, but Thompson provides an excellent summary of how the language of Acts 2 (the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost), Acts 8:1-25 (the spread of the gospel into Samaria), Acts 8:26-40 (the inclusion of “outcasts” among God’s people), and Acts 13:47 (inclusion of the Gentiles), among others, indicates that God’s restoration of “Israel” has been inaugurated with the death, resurrection, and enthronement of Jesus in the present age (see The Acts of the Risen Lord Jesus, 109-120). Thompson’s summation of the significance of Acts 2 and Peter’s response to the question, “what does this mean?” (Acts 2:12), must suffice. What it “means” is “that Jesus is Lord and his enthronement as the Davidic King has ushered in the last days, the new age of the Spirit, in fulfillment of God’s ancient promises for his people. Israel is being restored, the exiles are returning to God and the promised age of the Spirit is here because Jesus is Lord and is reigning even now from the right hand of the Father!” (ibid., 112).]