Picture yourself in the scene in Acts 1:11, approximately 40 days post-Resurrection. Glance at the mist-covered mountains as the sun rises into the blue Jerusalem skies. See the disciples waiting in anticipation. They were expecting something, for with Jesus, there was always something about to happen. But they were not ready for what would take place. It would be the most amazing thing they would ever witness as the Savior would make His way to the splendor of heaven, escorted by attending angels. Acts 1:8 states,
“‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth’ ” (NIV). The Gospel writer Luke, depicting the occasion, indicates that Jesus had given to the disciples both a command and the encouragement of the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Bible now says that while He spoke to them, suddenly He withdrew from their midst in a cloud.
This astonishing and awe-inspiring occurrence was so stunning that the disciples stood spellbound, “gazing” even after He disappeared from their sight. The word translated “gazing” indicates that it was more than a casual staring. They intensely fixed their eyes on the place where they last saw Him. It was then that two men described as wearing white robes appeared and asked the profound and penetrating question, “Why stand ye gazing?” (v. 11, KJV).
Who knows how long these disciples would have continued to stare into the sky if the two beings had not tapped them on their shoulders and asked them the question. How long? We do not know. But what we do know is that this question brings us face-to-face with some compelling realities that challenge us as we seek to share the love of God in these last days. The first reality is a reminder of our discipleship privilege.
Notice the reference: “Ye men of Galilee” (v. 11, KJV). If we look at this declaration from a geo-sociological standpoint and a genealogical-spiritual perspective, we will recognize why those words warrant our attention.
First, when we analyze the back-ground of the disciples geographically and sociologically, it is very evident that Jesus had really given them a special privilege. He had chosen them from Galilee. Densely populated, the region was one of mixed cultures and races. Because of this, it was sometimes called “Galilee of the nations.”1
Allen D. Callahan suggests that although Galilee often gets portrayed as a countrified, bucolic territory or a quiet, peaceful backwater, it was actually known for political unrest, banditry, and tax revolts.2 Michael White suggests that the term Galilean often meant “an outsider, or someone who’s not really an old Jew of the traditional sort. . . . ‘Galilean’ also took on the coloration of being rebellious, or insurrectionist.”3 So, to be classified by the angels as “ye men of Galilee” in a sense could, as a reminder of their place of origin, help us recognize that the call by Jesus to discipleship was, in fact, an honor. He took them from their simple, unassuming lifestyle and brought them to a place of apostleship. Jesus could have selected individuals from elsewhere, but He picked them. In doing so, He gave them a vision of hope to proclaim to the world. Although Galilee was messed up, Jesus still took them from there. It should remind each of us who have already discovered the way of salvation that it was Jesus who brought us from our own Galilees. We need to be thankful for the privileged commission on our lives.
Second, we find also a genealogical-spiritual identification in the words of the angels. For the disciples, to be called “men of Galilee” was a reminder of a strong and long genealogical and spiritual identification. Historically, Galilee was a part of the territory of Naphtali. The tribe of Naphtali had been allocated territories in the northern part of Canaan.4 Known to be skilled with their hands, they were master builders and proud of their heritage.5
Somehow this speaks to the particular role of God’s people in the present time with its great spiritual identity crisis. The reminder of their historical identification ought to be a lesson for us. We must keep in focus at all times that our Christian distinctiveness is grounded in a deep theological heritage. This respect for heritage ought not to lead to worship of tradition. Christian identity and responsibility must never morph into shallow protectionism of traditional liturgical forms or an inflexible, self-preserving interpretation of Scriptures as a way of safeguarding political turf.
With stirring voices, the angels seek to remind us that, as frustrating as it can be at times to function within some church structures; as annoying as it can be to feel confined within outdated models and past-their-prime paradigms, there is still a great work to do in pro-claiming a timeless and irreplaceable message. Therefore, “gazing,” as a result of frustration, will not get the job done. We must accept the biblical fact of our identity as part of “a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people” (1 Peter 2:9, KJV) and get on with our divine mission. “We are ambassadors for Christ” (2 Cor. 5:20, KJV).
The second reality is a refocus on our discipleship mission.
The angels asked the disciples, “Why stand ye gazing?” (Acts 1:11, KJV). The question involves two verbs indicating their negative actions: they were both standing and gazing. Furthermore, it was not just one person gazing. It is quite obvious that they all were standing there spellbound. The mission, as expressed from the lips of Jesus, was to “ ‘Go and make disciples’ ” (Matt. 28:19, NIV). And even if they were to argue that He had instructed them to wait in Jerusalem for the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49; Acts 1:4), their current posture was not the recommended stance. Their eyes faced the right direction, but their feet were in the wrong position. Now was a time for them to be conscious of themselves as leaders of the “Jesus movement.” No longer to be passive, they must become active. Between the ascending and the descending of the Messiah, between the going and the coming of Jesus, there is a mighty work to do. Said the angels, “Your command was to go to Jerusalem and wait. Your work is witnessing, not watching. So why stand ye gazing?”
In hindsight, we might find logical reasons why gazing would have turned out easier for the disciples. Had they continued to gaze, Matthew would not have suffered martyrdom in Ethiopia. Mark would not have died in Alexandria. Luke would not have been hung in Greece. John would not have faced martyrdom in Ephesus. Peter would not have been crucified upside down. James the Greater would not have been beheaded at Jerusalem. James the Less would not have been thrown from the southeast pinnacle of the temple. Bartholomew would not have been flayed to death by a whip. Andrew would not have been crucified in Patras. Thomas would not have been stabbed with a spear in India. Jude would not have been killed with arrows. Matthias would not have been stoned and then beheaded. Barnabas would not have been stoned to death at Salonica.6 We can avoid much trouble and trial if we only gaze.
But as with the disciples, so it is with us. Their call was not a summons just to gaze. Nor is ours. They gained the eternal victory because they were willing to involve themselves in the earthly fight, in the struggles of God’s children all around us. And because they heeded the words of the angels and went back to Jerusalem and waited for the Spirit, they were empowered. Pentecost came, and three thousand were baptized. The early church formed and took the gospel to the then-known world. And we, too, when we determine to cease gazing and seek the power of the Holy Spirit, will find that there is no limit to the great feats we can accomplish for God.
The final reality is a reassurance of our discipleship promise.
This is not a promise made by us, but a promise made to us. Our promises mean little. When a husband says, “I take you to be my lawful wedded wife, to have and to hold till death do us part,” it may make her feel good, but it is not our promises to each other that make the difference, it is God’s promise to us when He says, “ ‘I will never leave you nor forsake you’ ” (Josh. 1:5, NIV). So it is the angel who promises, “ ‘This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’ ” (Acts 1:11, NIV).
The fact of His second coming and the manner of it are described unequivocally. Famines, pestilences, and earthquakes will not obliterate Him, political tensions will not overwhelm Him, economic anxieties will not obscure Him, and terroristic threats will not obstruct Him. They simply proclaim the fact, promulgate the inevitable, and publicize the reality that Jesus is coming soon. Trouble won’t last always. Jesus is coming back. He will come personally. He will not send a representative; this same Jesus. He will come literally. He will descend just like He ascended; this same Jesus. He will come definitively. He will so come. He who knew no sin and became sin for us, this same Jesus. He who became flesh and dwelt among us, this same Jesus. He, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, this same Jesus. He is coming. He is coming Himself! He that shall come will come and will not tarry.
So don’t just stand here. Execute the mission. Fulfill your calling. Go and let the world know—Jesus is coming back.