An Orienting Vocation for the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:8)
The book of Acts begins with a post-resurrection interaction between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus teaches his disciples about “the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). They respond with a question about establishing a sociopolitical kingdom, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). Jesus’ response relates closely to our lives as workers.
It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. (Acts 1:7-8)
First, Jesus closes down the disciples’ curiosity about the timeline of God’s plan. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). We are to live in anticipation of the fullness of God’s kingdom, but not in a way that wonders about the precise timing of God’s return in Christ. Second, Jesus does not deny that God will establish a sociopolitical kingdom, that is “to restore the kingdom to Israel,” as the disciples’ question put it.
Jesus’ disciples were all well versed in the Scriptures of Israel. They knew that the kingdom described by the prophets was no other-world reality, but that it was a real kingdom of peace and justice in a world renewed by the power of God. Jesus does not deny the reality of this coming kingdom, but he expands the boundaries of the disciples’ expectation by including all creation in the hoped-for kingdom. This is not merely a new kingdom for the territory of Israel, but “in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8).
The fulfillment of this kingdom is not yet (“at this time”) but it is here, in this world.
I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God ... And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals.” (Revelation 21:2-3)
The kingdom of heaven comes to earth, and God dwells here, in the redeemed world. Why is it not here yet? Jesus’ teaching suggests that part of the answer is because his disciples have work to do. Human work was needed to complete God’s creation even in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:5), but our work was crippled by the Fall. In Acts 1 and 2, God sends his spirit to empower human work. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses” (Acts 1:8a). Jesus is giving his followers a vocation—witnessing, in the sense of bearing witness to the Spirit’s power in every sphere of human activity—that is essential to the coming of the kingdom. God’s gift of the Holy Spirit fills the gap between the essential role that God assigned to human work and our ability to fulfill that role. For the first time since the Fall, our work has the power to contribute to fulfilling God’s kingdom at the return of Christ. Scholars, by and large, view Acts 1:8 as the programmatic statement for this second of Luke’s two volumes.
Indeed, the entire book of Acts can be taken as a (sometimes faltering) expression of the Christian vocation to bear witness to the risen Jesus. But bearing witness means far more than evangelizing. We must not fall into the mistake of thinking Jesus is talking only about the work of the individual sharing the gospel with an unbeliever through his or her words. Instead, bearing witness to the coming kingdom primarily means living now according to the principles and practices of God’s kingdom. We will come to see that the most effective form of Christian witness is often—even primarily—the shared life of the community as it goes about its work.
The shared Christian vocation of witness is possible only through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit transforms individuals and communities in ways that result in the sharing of the fruits of human labor—especially power, resources, and influence—with the community and the surrounding culture. The community witnesses when the strong aid the weak. The community witnesses when its members use their resources to benefit the wider culture. The community witnesses when those around see that working in the ways of justice, goodness, and beauty leads to fuller life.
The locations mentioned by Jesus reveal that the witness of the disciples puts them in social danger. Jesus’ group of Jewish disciples is commanded to speak for a man who has only recently been crucified as an enemy of the Roman Empire and a blasphemer of the God of Israel. They are called to take up this vocation in the city in which their teacher was killed, among the Samaritans—historic, ethnic enemies of the Jews—and in the broad reaches of the Roman Empire.
In summary, Acts begins with an orienting vocation that calls Jesus’ followers to the primary task of witness. Witness means, above all, living in accordance with the ways of God’s coming kingdom. As we will see momentarily, the most important element of this life is that we work primarily for the good of others. This vocation is made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit and is to be exercised with little regard for social barriers. This orienting vocation does not denigrate the value of human work or the working lives of Jesus’ disciples in favor of proclaiming Jesus by word alone. Quite the opposite, Acts will argue forcefully that all human work can be a fundamental expression of God’s kingdom.
Apokathistēmi, the restoration verb used by Luke, is used by the Septuagint and Josephus to describe Israel’s hope for national restoration (see Exodus 4:7; Hosea 11:11; Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 11.2, 14, interalia). See also David L. Tiede, “The Exaltation of Jesus and the Restoration of Israel in Acts 1,” Harvard Theological Review 79, no. 1 (1986): 278-286 and James D. G. Dunn, Acts of the Apostles, Epworth Commentaries (Peterborough, UK: Epworth Press, 1996), 4.
For references to antipathy between Samaritans and Jews, see Josephus Antiquities of the Jews 18:30; Jewish War 2:32ff. For the reference to the “ends of the earth” implying the full extent of peoples and places in the Roman Empire, see David W. Pao, Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 91-96.