In Jerusalem Christ, by his angel, had appointed his disciples to meet him in Galilee; there he appointed them to meet him in Jerusalem again, such a day. Thus he would try their obedience, and it was found ready and cheerful; they came together, as he appointed them, to be the witnesses of his ascension, of which we have here an account. Observe,
I. The question they asked him at this interview. They came together to him, as those that had consulted one another about it, and concurred in the question nemine contradicente—unanimously; they came in a body, and put it to him as the sense of the house, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? Two ways this may be taken:—
1. “Surely thou wilt not at all restore it to the present rulers of Israel, the chief priests and the elders, that put thee to death, and, to compass that design, tamely gave up the kingdom to Caesar, and owned themselves his subjects. What! Shall those that hate and persecute thee and us be trusted with power? This be far from thee.” Or rather,
2. “Surely thou wilt now restore it to the Jewish nation, as far as it will submit to thee as their king.” Now two things were amiss in this question:—
(1.) Their expectation of the thing itself. They thought Christ would restore the kingdom to Israel, that is, that he would make the nation of the Jews as great and considerable among the nations as it was in the days of David and Solomon, of Asa and Jehoshaphat; that, as Shiloh, he would restore the sceptre to Judah, and the lawgiver; whereas Christ came to set up his own kingdom, and that a kingdom of heaven, not to restore the kingdom to Israel, an earthly kingdom. See here, [1.] How apt even good men are to place the happiness of the church too much in external pomp and power; as if Israel could not be glorious unless the kingdom were restored to it, nor Christ’s disciples honoured unless they were peers of the realm; whereas we are told to expect the cross in this world, and to wait for the kingdom in the other world. [2.] How apt we are to retain what we have imbibed, and how hard it is to get over the prejudices of education. The disciples, having sucked in this notion with their milk that the Messiah was to be a temporal prince, were long before they could be brought to have any idea of his kingdom as spiritual. [3.] How naturally we are biassed in favour of our own people. They thought God would have no kingdom in the world unless it were restored to Israel; whereas the kingdoms of this world were to become his, in whom he would be glorified, whether Israel should sink or swim. [4.] How apt we are to misunderstand scripture—to understand that literally which is spoken figuratively, and to expound scripture by our schemes, whereas we ought to form our schemes by the scriptures. But, when the Spirit shall be poured out from on high, our mistakes will be rectified, as the apostles’ soon after were.
(2.) Their enquiry concerning the time of it: “Lord, wilt thou do it at this time? Now that thou hast called us together is it for this purpose, that proper measures may be concerted for the restoring of the kingdom to Israel? Surely there cannot be a more favourable juncture than this.” Now herein they missed their mark, [1.] That they were inquisitive into that which their Master had never directed nor encouraged them to enquire into. [2.] That they were impatient for the setting up of that kingdom in which they promised themselves so great a share, and would anticipate the divine counsels. Christ had told them that they should sit on thrones (Luke 22:30), and now nothing will serve them but they must be in the throne immediately, and cannot stay the time; whereas he that believeth doth not make haste, but is satisfied that God’s time is the best time.
II. The check which Christ gave to this question, like that which he had a little before given to Peter’s enquiry concerning John, What is that to thee? Acts 1:7; It is not for you to know the times and seasons. He does not contradict their expectation that the kingdom would be restored to Israel, because that mistake would soon be rectified by the pouring out of the Spirit, after which they never had any more thoughts of the temporal kingdom; and also because there is a sense of the expectation which is true, the setting up of the gospel kingdom in the world; and their mistake of the promise shall not make it of no effect; but he checks their enquiry after the time.
1. The knowledge of this is not allowed to them: It is not for you to know, and therefore it is not for you to ask. (1.) Christ is now parting from them, and parts in love; and yet he gives them this rebuke, which is intended for a caution to his church in all ages, to take heed of splitting upon the rock which was fatal to our first parents—an inordinate desire of forbidden knowledge, and intruding into things which we have not seen because God has not shown them. Nescire velle quae magister maximus docere non vult, erudita inscitia est—It is folly to covet to be wise above what is written, and wisdom to be content to be no wiser. (2.) Christ had given his disciples a great deal of knowledge above others (to you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God), and had promised them his Spirit, to teach them more; now, lest they should be puffed up with the abundance of the revelations, he here lets them understand that there were some things which it was not for them to know. We shall see how little reason we have to be proud of our knowledge when we consider how many things we are ignorant of. (3.) Christ had given his disciples instructions sufficient for the discharge of their duty, both before his death and since his resurrection, and in this knowledge he will have them to be satisfied; for it is enough for a Christian, in whom vain curiosity is a corrupt humour, to be mortified, and not gratified. (4.) Christ had himself told his disciples the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and had promised that the Spirit should show them things to come concerning it, John 16:13. He had likewise given them signs of the times, which it was their duty to observe, and a sin to overlook, Matt. 24:33; Matt. 16:3. But they must not expect nor desire to know either all the particulars of future events or the exact times of them. It is good for us to be kept in the dark, and left at uncertainty concerning the times and moments (as Dr. Hammond reads it) of future events concerning the church, as well as concerning ourselves,—concerning all the periods of time and the final period of it, as well as concerning the period of our own time.
Prudens futuri temporis exitum Caliginosa nocte premit Deus-- But Jove, in goodness ever wise, Hath hid, in clouds of thickest night, All that in future prospect lies Beyond the ken of mortal sight.—HOR.As to the times and seasons of the year, we know, in general, there will be summer and winter counterchanged, but we know not particularly which day will be fair or which foul, either in summer or in winter; so, as to our affairs in this world, when it is a summer-time of prosperity, that we may not be secure, we are told there will come a wintertime of trouble; and in that winter, that we may not despond and despair, we are assured that summer will return; but what this or that particular day will bring forth we cannot tell, but must accommodate ourselves to it, whatever it is, and make the best of it.
2. The knowledge of it is reserved to God as his prerogative; it is what the Father hath put in his own power; it is hid with him. None besides can reveal the times and seasons to come. Known unto God are all his works, but not to us, Acts 15:18. It is in his power, and in his only, to declare the end from the beginning; and by this he proves himself to be God, Isa. 46:10. “And though he did think fit sometimes to let the Old-Testament prophets know the times and the seasons (as of the Israelites’ bondage in Egypt four hundred years, and in Babylon seventy years), yet he has not fit to let you know the times and seasons, no not just how long it shall be before Jerusalem be destroyed, though you be so well assured of the thing itself. He hath not said that he will not give you to know something more than you do of the times and seasons;” he did so afterwards to his servant John; “but he has put it in his own power to do it or not, as he thinks fit;” and what is in that New-Testament prophecy discovered concerning the times and the seasons is so dark, and hard to be understood, that, when we come to apply it, it concerns us to remember this work, that it is not for us to be positive in determining the times and the seasons. Buxtorf mentions a saying of the rabbin concerning the coming of the Messiah: Rumpatur spiritus eorum qui supputant tempora—Perish the men who calculate the time.
III. He appoints them their work, and with authority assures them of an ability to go on with it, and of success in it. “It is not for you to know the times and the seasons—this would do you no good; but know this (Acts 1:8) that you shall receive a spiritual power, by the descent of the Holy Ghost upon you, and shall not receive it in vain, for you shall be witnesses unto me and my glory; and your testimony shall not be in vain, for it shall be received here in Jerusalem, in the country about, and all the world over,” Acts 1:8. If Christ make us serviceable to his honour in our own day and generation, let this be enough for us, and let not us perplex ourselves about times and seasons to come. Christ here tells them,
1. That their work should be honourable and glorious: You shall be witnesses unto me. (1.) They shall proclaim him king, and publish those truths to the world by which his kingdom should be set up, and he would rule. They must openly and solemnly preach his gospel to the world. (2.) They shall prove this, shall confirm their testimony, not as witnesses do, with an oath, but with the divine seal of miracles and supernatural gifts: You shall be martyrs to me, or my martyrs, as some copies read it; for they attested the truth of the gospel with their sufferings, even unto death.
2. That their power for this work should be sufficient. They had not strength of their own for it, nor wisdom nor courage enough; they were naturally of the weak and foolish things of the world; they durst not appear as witnesses for Christ upon his trial, neither as yet were they able. “But you shall receive the power of the Holy Ghost coming upon you” (so it may be read), “shall be animated and actuated by a better spirit than your own; you shall have power to preach the gospel, and to prove it out of the scriptures of the Old Testament” (which, when they were filled with the Holy Ghost, they did to admiration, Acts 18:28), “and to confirm it both by miracles and by sufferings.” Note, Christ’s witnesses shall receive power for that work to which he calls them; those whom he employs in his service he will qualify for it, and will bear them out in it.
3. That their influence should be great and very extensive: “You shall be witnesses for Christ, and shall carry his cause,” (1.) “In Jerusalem; there you must begin, and many there will receive your testimony; and those that do not will be left inexcusable.” (2.) “Your light shall thence shine throughout all Judea, where before you have laboured in vain.” (3.) “Thence you shall proceed to Samaria, though at your first mission you were forbidden to preach in any of the cities of the Samaritans.” (4.) “Your usefulness shall reach to the uttermost part of the earth, and you shall be blessings to the whole world.”
IV. Having left these instructions with them, he leaves them (Acts 1:9): When he had spoken these things, and had said all that he had to say, he blessed them (so we were told, Luke 24:50); and while they beheld him, and had their eye fixed upon him, receiving his blessing, he was gradually taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. We have here Christ’s ascending on high; not fetched away, as Elijah was, with a chariot of fire and horses of fire, but rising to heaven, as he rose from the grave, purely by his own power, his body being now, as the bodies of the saints will be at the resurrection, a spiritual body, and raised in power and incorruption. Observe, 1. He began his ascension in the sight of his disciples, even while they beheld. They did not see him come up out of the grave, because they might see him after he had risen, which would be satisfaction enough; but they saw him go up towards heaven, and had actually their eye upon him with so much care and earnestness of mind that they could not be deceived. It is probable that he did not fly swiftly up, but moved upwards gently, for the further satisfaction of his disciples. 2. He vanished out of their sight, in a cloud, either a thick cloud, for God said that he would dwell in the thick darkness; or a bright cloud, to signify the splendour of his glorious body. It was a bright cloud that overshadowed him in his transfiguration, and most probably this was so, Matt. 17:5. This cloud received him, it is probable, when he had gone about as far from the earth as the clouds generally are; yet it was not such a spreading cloud as we commonly see, but such as just served to enclose him. Now he made the clouds his chariot, Ps. 104:3. God had often come down in a cloud; now he went up in one. Dr. Hammond thinks that the clouds receiving him here were the angels receiving him; for the appearance of angels is ordinarily described by a cloud, comparing Exod. 25:22; Lev. 16:2. By the clouds there is a sort of communication kept up between the upper and lower world; in them the vapours are sent up from the earth, and the dews sent down from heaven. Fitly therefore does he ascend in a cloud who is the Mediator between God and man, by whom God’s mercies come down upon us and our prayers come up to him. This was the last that was seen of him. The eyes of a great many witnesses followed him into the cloud; and, if we would know what became of him then, we may find (Dan. 7:13), That one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him in the clouds as he came near before him.
V. The disciples, when he had gone out of their sight, yet still continued looking up stedfastly to heaven (Acts 1:10), and this longer than it was fit they should; and why so? 1. Perhaps they hoped that Christ would presently come back to them again, to restore the kingdom to Israel, and were loth to believe they should now part with him for good and all; so much did they still dote upon his bodily presence, though he had told them that it was expedient for them that he should go away. or, they looked after him, as doubting whether he might not be dropped, as the sons of the prophets thought concerning Elijah (2 Kgs. 2:16), and so they might have him again. 2. Perhaps they expected to see some change in the visible heavens now upon Christ’s ascension, that either the sun should be ashamed or the moon confounded (Isa. 24:23), as being out-shone by his lustre; or, rather, that they should show some sign of joy and triumph; or perhaps they promised themselves a sight of the glory of the invisible heavens, upon their opening to receive him. Christ had told them that hereafter they should see heaven opened (John 1:51), and why should not they expect it now?
VI. Two angels appeared to them, and delivered them a seasonable message from God. There was a world of angels ready to receive our Redeemer, now that he made his public entry into the Jerusalem above: we may suppose these two loth to be absent then; yet, to show how much Christ had at heart the concerns of his church on earth, he sent back to his disciples two of those that came to meet him, who appear as two men in white apparel, bright and glittering; for they know, according to the duty of their place, that they are really serving Christ when they are ministering to his servants on earth. Now we are told what the angels said to them, 1. To check their curiosity: You men of Galilee, why stand you gazing up into heaven? He calls them men of Galilee, to put them in mind of the rock out of which they were hewn. Christ had put a great honour upon them, in making them his ambassadors; but they must remember that they are men, earthen vessels, and men of Galilee, illiterate men, looked upon with disdain. Now, say they, “Why stand you here, like Galileans, rude and unpolished men, gazing up into heaven? What would you see? You have seen all that you were called together to see, and why do you look any further? Why stand you gazing, as men frightened and perplexed, as men astonished and at their wits’ end?” Christ’s disciples should never stand at a gaze, because they have a sure rule to go by, and a sure foundation to build upon. 2. To confirm their faith concerning Christ’s second coming. Their Master had often told them of this, and the angels are sent at this time seasonably to put them in mind of it: “This same Jesus, who is taken up from you into heaven, and whom you are looking thus long after, wishing you had him with you again, is not gone for ever; for there is a day appointed in which he will come in like manner thence, as you have seen him go thither, and you must not expect him back till that appointed day.” (1.) “This same Jesus shall come again in his own person, clothed with a glorious body; this same Jesus, who came once to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself, will appear a second time without sin (Heb. 9:26, 28), who came once in disgrace to be judged, will come again in glory to judge. The same Jesus who has given you your charge will come again to call you to an account how you have performed your trust; he, and not another,” Job 19:27. (2.) “He shall come in like manner. He is gone away in a cloud, and attended with angels; and, behold, he comes in the clouds, and with him an innumerable company of angels! He is gone up with a shout and with the sound of a trumpet (Ps. 47:5), and he will descend from heaven with a shout and with the trump of God, 1 Thess. 4:16. You have now lost the sight of him in the clouds and in the air; and whither he is gone you cannot follow him now, but shall then, when you shall be caught up in the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air.” When we stand gazing and trifling, the consideration of our Master’s second coming should quicken and awaken us; and, when we stand gazing and trembling, the consideration of it should comfort and encourage us.