A Commentary by John Stott
Acts 1:6-26. 1). Waiting for Pentecost (continued).
a. The kingdom of God is spiritual in its character.
In the English language, of course, a ‘kingdom’ is usually a territorial sphere which can be located on a map, like the Hashemite kingdom of Jordan, the Hindu kingdom of Nepal, the Buddhist kingdom of Thailand, or the United Kingdom. But the kingdom of God is not a territorial concept. It does not – and cannot – figure on any map. Yet this is what the apostles were still envisaging by confusing the kingdom of God with the kingdom of Israel. They were like the members of Israel’s righteous remnant whom Luke mentions in his Gospel as ‘waiting for the kingdom of God’ or ‘the consolation of Israel’ (Lk. 23:51; cf. 2:25, 38), and like the Emmaus couple who ‘had hoped that he [Jesus] was the one who was going to redeem Israel’ (Lk.24:21), but had become disillusioned because of the cross. The apostles’ hope, however, had evidently been rekindled by the resurrection. They were still dreaming of political dominion, of the re-establishment of the monarchy, of Israel’s liberation from the colonial yoke of Rome.
In his reply Jesus reverted to the topic of the Holy Spirit. He spoke of the Spirit coming upon them and giving them power to be his witnesses (8). In Charles Williams’ notable words, he departed ‘scattering promises of power’. It is important to remember that his promise that they would *receive power* was part of his reply to their question about the kingdom. For the exercise of power is inherent in the concept of a kingdom. But power in God’s kingdom is different from power in human kingdoms. The reference to the Holy Spirit defines its nature. The kingdom of God is his rule set up in the lives of his people by the Holy Spirit. It is spread by witnesses, not by soldiers, through a gospel of peace, not a declaration of war, and by the work of the Spirit, not by force of arms, political intrigue or revolutionary violence. At the same time, in rejecting the politicizing of the kingdom, we must beware of the opposite extreme of super-spiritualizing it, as if God’s rule operates only in heaven and not on earth. The fact is that, although it must not be identified with any political ideology or programme, it has radical political and social implications. Kingdom values come into collision with secular values. And the citizens of God’s kingdom steadfastly deny to Caesar the supreme loyalty for which he hungers, but which they insist on giving to Jesus alone.
b. The kingdom of God is international in its membership.
The apostles still cherished narrow, nationalistic aspirations. They asked Jesus if he was about to restore to Israel her national independence, which the Maccabees had regained in the second century BC for a brief intoxicating period, only to lose it again.
In his reply Jesus broadened their horizons. He promised that the Holy Spirit would empower them to be his witnesses. They would begin indeed in Jerusalem, the National capital in which he had been condemned and crucified, and which they were not to leave before the Spirit came. They would continue in the immediate environs of Judea. But then the Christian mission would radiate out from that centre, in accordance with the ancient prophecy that ‘the law will go out from Zion, the word of the Lord from Jerusalem’ (Is.2:3=Mi.4:2), first to despised Samaria, and then far beyond Palestine to the Gentile nations, indeed *to the ends of the earth*. The thesis of Johannes Blauw in his book *The missionary Nature of the Church* is that the Old Testament perspective was one of concern for the nations (God made them, and they will come and bow down to him), but not of mission to the nations (going out to win them). Even the Old Testament vision of the latter days is of a ‘pilgrimage of the nations’ to Mount Zion: ‘all nations will stream to it.’ (Is.2:2-3). Only in the New Testament Blauw adds, is a ‘centripetal missionary consciousness’ replaced by a ‘centrifugal missionary activity’, and ‘the great turning point is the Resurrection, after which Jesus receives universal authority and gives his people a universal commission to go and disciple the nations’.
The risen Lord’s mandate to mission begins to be fulfilled in the Acts. Indeed, as many commentators have pointed out, Acts 1:8 is a kind of ‘Table of contents’ for the book. Chapters 1-7 describe events in Jerusalem, chapter 8 mentions the scattering of the disciples ‘throughout Judea and Samaria’ (8:1), and goes on to record the evangelization of a Samarian city by Philip (8:5-24) and of ‘many Samaritan villages’ by the apostles Peter and John (8:25), while the conversion of Saul in chapter 9 leads on in the rest of the book to his missionary expeditions, and finally to his journey to Rome. For Christ’s kingdom, while not incompatible with patriotism, tolerates no narrow nationalisms. He rules over an international community in which race, nation, rank and sex are no barriers to fellowship. And when his kingdom is consummated at the end, the countless redeemed company will be seen to be drawn ‘from every nation, tribe, people and language’.
Tomorrow: Acts 2:42-47. 3. The church’s life: the effect of Pentecost (continued).
The John Stott Bible Study is taken from The Message of Acts. The Bible Speaks Today John Stott. Used by permission of Inter-Varsity Press UK, Nottingham. All rights reserved.