Missional Eschatology in Acts 1-4: Why are you standing there staring toward Heaven?

The introduction of Acts (1:1-5) summarizes the end of Luke and reminds Theophilus about “the promise of the Father.” Luke undoubtedly focuses the reader on that promise, which is the Spirit. The proofs, the appearances, and the continued kingdom teaching all hang in a cloud of unmet expectation. God has proven himself faithful in Jesus, and so the unfulfilled promise presses in on the continuing story with a sense of urgency.

The coming of the Spirit is, of course, an eschatological event. It is a moment of consummation, the inauguration of the new era that will culminate with the final day. Because the Apostles continue to struggle with preconceptions about what God intends to achieve through all of this, they misconstrue once more what the kingdom is about. Tellingly, they ask whether it is time for the “restoration” (1:6) of Israel. This language tells us that they are sorting out prophetic texts—and quite logically, as the coming of the Spirit was associated with the restoration of God’s people (not least in Joel 2, which is quoted in Acts 2). But they have not in this moment grasped the real end game, even though their point of reference is the right one.

Christian missions has often turned to Acts 1:8 in order to articulate the broadening horizon of the church’s proclamation, and rightly so. But if we observe the passage’s connections, there is perhaps more present than merely a proof text for outward orientation. Keep in mind that 1:8 is the direct response to the question about the restoration of Israel. The eschatological arrival of the Spirit, which is the main concern of the section, serves to empower testimony to the ends of the earth. The arrival of the Spirit does in fact constitute the restoration of Israel, but only in order to give powerful witness to the kingdom of God (not the kingdom of Israel). Jesus will not let them have their eschatological dreams fulfilled without God’s teleological priorities front and center (cf. Isa 49:6).

Then as Jesus ascends, Luke quite overtly offsets the Apostles’ anemic eschatology with an ironic angelic admonition, even as that eschatology takes on new dimensions with the enthronement of Jesus. Whatever is unfulfilled must now await his return. But the angels will not let the apostles fixate upon that eventuality—upon Heaven. Rather, before the backdrop of Jesus’ commissioning final words, the angels say, “Why are you standing there staring toward Heaven?” Yes, he’s coming back just as he went, but you’ve got work to do! And although Luke’s concerns must have been very different than those of the 21st century church, the connection seems amazingly direct. Western Christianity’s eschatology, if it were personified, is a group of sent, empowered disciples, standing staring at Heaven. So here’s the eschatological corrective: Do not fix your eyes on Heaven. If that surprises you, then Luke is having success.

It is false Christianity that stands around staring toward Heaven. That is a Christianity that fails to grasp its purpose. It is a common kind of spirituality, but it is not true religion. We do not stand longing for his return, contemplating his absence, watching the sky. That is selfish faith. No, we work toward “the coming of the Lord’s great and glorious day” (2:20), so that “everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved” (2:21). The power of the Spirit is for testimony, for work, for purpose: “the definite plan” of God (2:23).

The Spirit’s power leads others to “stare” (atenizō; same word in 1:10) in the wrong direction as well, but the Apostles understand their role as witnesses, not focal points (3:12). His glory (3:13), his name (3:16), is all. Faith in his name, then, will bring some to repentance. They will turn to God because of Jesus—this is the witness that the Twelve give everywhere from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. And what is the result of that repentance? Forgiveness of sins (3:19), replies the reader quickly. But the subsequent clause teaches us that such an answer is eschatologically nearsighted. Although that answer couples nicely with the individualistic, Heaven-fixated posture of the late Western church, it fails to see the real relationship between forgiveness and God’s purpose. Thus, 3:20-21 are critical for understanding the angel’s words in chapter 1. In the first place, v. 20 mentions two eschatological outcomes, both of which refer to the same thing. “The presence of the Lord” and the sending of the Messiah both refer to the return that the angels mentioned. “Times of refreshing” refers to the Messianic age that that return will bring about. It is a particular reality to be (re)created. We also call it the consummated kingdom of God. Then v. 21 brings us full circle to the exchange at the beginning of the book. Peter is now aware and able to articulate that it is necessary for Jesus to remain in Heaven until “the restoration (apokatastase?s; same lexeme in 1:6) of all things.” He is no longer staring toward Heaven but working toward Heaven’s arrival on earth.

Moreover, the restoration of the kingdom of Israel is no longer Peter’s concern. It is the restoration of all things, the kingdom of God, that matters. The actualization of the kingdom is dependent upon the return of the king, and the return of the king is, according to Peter, contingent upon proclamation that results in faith and repentance. It is in this sense that we participate in establishing the kingdom of God. There is no delusion of control. It is not even for us to know times (1:7), much less to control outcomes. Yet, Peter believes that the Apostles’ testimony in all places is headed toward the restoration of all things; there is a causal “in order that” involved (3:20). He is not staring toward Heaven but serving on earth, because it is to earth that the Messiah will return, and in heaven and on earth where restoration and refreshing will take place.

The notion that God has chosen to involve the church in the realization of his telos (purpose) is at the heart of missional eschatology. It is necessary these days to reorient the church away from escaping to be with Jesus in Heaven, toward the restoration of all things with his coming. But in fact the best way to accomplish that is, rather than standing around staring toward Heaven, to get on with participating in the inbreaking of the kingdom. The angels did not attempt to instruct the Apostles once more on what the kingdom of God is really about. They just said, “Get on with it!” Through participation in what God is doing now, we come to realize that he is not about what we thought. Sometimes those lessons are shocking, as they were for Peter in ch. 10—he had not really grasped the meaning of “all things.” By participating in the mission of God, in hastening the day of his coming, we come to understand more fully the end to which God is working.

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