The Gift of Being Proven Wrong: The Ascension and Israelizing the World

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In their last Q&A with Jesus, the disciples ask, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" I used to think that was a dumb question by confused disciples. I was wrong. In his response, Jesus teaches them--and us--what the restoration of Israel's kingdom really looks like.

Being proven wrong is a gift. It’s one of the benefits we derive from the ongoing study of any subject. It doesn’t matter if the subject is molecular biology, motorcycle repair, or child development, we all approach our particular fields of study with certain assumptions. And we often think we already know the right answers.

Being proven wrong about one or more of these assumptions is a gift because it advances us on the road to greater and more accurate knowledge.

Recently, I received the gift of being proven wrong about a key Q&A that Jesus had with his disciples immediately before his ascension.

Restoring the Kingdom?

In the opening chapter of Acts, Jesus has gathered his disciples. It’s been forty days since his resurrection. He’s just told them to stay in Jerusalem for soon they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit (vv. 4-5).

Then they ask him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).

What a dumb question! Those dimwitted disciples always seem to get “D’s” and “F’s” in Understanding Jesus 101. Even after the resurrection, they’re still confused!

But I was the one confused, not the disciples. Why? I made a typical mistake: I didn’t pay attention to the context. I just focused on (what I thought was) the dumb question and didn’t focus on the response that Jesus gave. He doesn’t put his palm to his face, shake his head and say, “No, no, no! Do you still not get it? Are you still so muddle-headed as to misunderstand my mission?”

Rather, Jesus gives them a No/Yes answer. He uses their question to gently redirect them in a different direction to a broader mission in which the restoration of the kingdom to Israel truly happens in the way God intends.

Their good question looks for a “when” answer and Jesus gives them a “here’s how” response.

Not a “When” But “Here’s How”

They ask, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” and he answers, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed 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 and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).

Notice: Jesus does not say, “What are you talking about? I’m not restoring the kingdom to Israel!” Rather, he says, “Don’t you worry about timetables. That’s the Father’s business.” That’s the No half of his answer. Then comes the Yes half of his answer: “Here is what has been given to you—to receive my Holy Spirit and to bear witness of me, locally and universally.”

The kingdom will indeed be restored to Israel but in a greater way than the disciples imagined. In the very next verse, Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (v. 9). He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. As the prophet Daniel had witnessed centuries before in a vision, “One like a son of man…came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (7:13-14).

The Messiah, the Son of Man, came to his Father, the Ancient of Days, having accomplished the salvation of humanity. And to him was given a kingdom that was to span the whole world—a world to which his disciples will now bear witness as they are clothed with the Holy Spirit.

Mt. Zion in New York City

To understand the mission of Jesus, we must simultaneously think specifically and universally. The kingdom of the Messiah is both Israel and the world—at the same time.

Here’s what I mean. To Abraham, the father of Israel, God said, “In your seed [specifically] shall all the nations of the earth [universally] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18). This promise to Abraham is fulfilled in his Seed, the Messiah of Israel (Gal. 3:8, 16).

In Jesus all—not some but all—the hopes of Abraham and Israel are fulfilled. Every single promise of God is Yes in Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). And this “yes” is for Jews and Gentiles alike, so that “all the nations of the earth be blessed.” There is no Salvation Plan A for Gentiles and Salvation Plan B for Jews, for “there is neither Jew nor Greek…for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Jesus reconstitutes, restores, and recreates Israel in himself. He is Israel-reduced-to-one. This is the specificity of the Gospel. The kingdom has already been restored to Israel in the Messiah because by his death and resurrection and ascension, the Son of David has defeated every foe, liberated God’s people, and now reigns as king of Israel.

But the Father’s not done yet! Now we come to the universality of the Gospel. He is using the witnesses of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, to take this message to the whole world. The borders of the holy land are no longer the Jordan on the east and the Mediterranean on the west, but balloon outward “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). They are to “make disciples of all the [Gentile] nations” (Matt. 28:19).

And this is crucial: Israel is not left behind—no!—but rather the whole world is to be “Israelized.” I don’t mean geopolitically. I’m not referring at all to the modern state of Israel. I mean that wherever the Father is worshiped in Spirit and Truth, there is the true Israel, there is the kingdom, there is the holy land, there the Messiah is reigning by grace (John 4:23). In Texas, Iceland, China, or Cuba, wherever God’s people gather around the gifts of word and baptism and meal, that place has been Israelized by the Spirit of Christ.

When we come to worship, we come “to Mount Zion…and the heavenly Jerusalem” (Heb. 12:22), even if GPS tells us we’re in New York City.

In this way, the kingly reign of the Messiah of Israel finally begins to resemble what the prophets had only dreamed of. You see, it was “too small a thing” for the Servant of God to just restore “the tribes of Jacob” (Isa. 49:6). Rather, God says, “I will make you as a light for the [Gentile] nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.” The Greek translation of “to the end of the earth” in Isaiah 49:6 (ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς) matches the Greek of what Jesus tells his disciples in Acts 1:8 (“be my witnesses…to the end of the earth [ἐσχάτου τῆς γῆς]”).

Rather than restoring just the Jewish tribes—that’s “too small a thing”—the restoration will encompass the whole world.

The Israel of God

Therefore, rather than a silly question by misguided disciples, their query, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” is a good question, if only too narrowly focused. Jesus told them, in essence, “Oh, don’t you worry yourself about the calendar and clock. Rather, take the message of my resurrection from here, to your northern neighbors, to the entire world. As you do, the restoration of Israel—already completed in me—will continue until I come again.”

As we celebrate the Ascension this Thursday, let’s think back to this Q&A between Jesus and his disciples. As for me, I’ll thank God once more for the gift of being proven wrong. And I’ll thank God, too, that he has included me and all my fellow believers in his kingdom. And, together with those disciples, I will continue to bear witness of the resurrection, that more and more people will be included in the church, the body of Christ, which is—what Paul calls— “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16).

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