In November of 1943, the USS Iowa carried President Franklin D. Roosevelt to a meeting with Joseph Stalin and Winston Churchill to discuss future plans regarding WW II. The crew of a nearby ship, the USS William D. Porter, somehow mistook the USS Iowa for a German ship and fired a torpedo at it. Fortunately, the missile missed its target and the President continued safely to his summit. Although we do not know all the factors that led to this error, we are still left wondering, “What were they thinking?”
In the 1984 NBA draft, the owners of the Portland Trailblazers chose 7’1” Sam Bowie over 6’6” Michael Jordan. Bowie slowly faded into obscurity while Michael Jordan led the Chicago Bulls to six world championships. Although it’s easy to judge with 20/20 hindsight, we still wonder, “What were they thinking?”
At first glance, we might also ask this question in regard to a question the disciples posed to Jesus just moments before He ascended into heaven, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Why Would the Disciples Ask Such a Question?
The confidence of the disciples regarding a restored future kingdom for Israel instantly raises questions in my mind. After watching the Jewish rulers demand Christ’s crucifixion, what made them so confident the Lord might soon restore a kingdom to Israel that could possibly benefit these same leaders? Why did they think Jesus would initiate a glorious restoration for the same Israelites whose rejection of Him had led to His being mocked, scourged, whipped, and nailed to a cross?
Many in the history of the church have used Israel’s rejection of Jesus to justify their belief that God has forever excluded the Israelites from His covenant promises. But not the disciples, the ones who listened to the Jews demand Christ’s death.
In spite of all they saw and heard, the disciples remained confident of the Lord’s intention to restore Israel to a place of great glory. But what did Jesus think about their inquiry?
Jesus did not respond to the question of the disciples in a way one might expect. He simply said, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority” (Acts 1:7). Many today believe the Savior mocked His followers with this answer. However, I do not see it this way.
First, notice that Jesus does not refute their underlying assumption of a restored kingdom, but merely tells them their timing was wrong. He does not say it will never happen; in fact, He leaves them with the hope that this day will come at a time designated by God the Father.
Second, Lord points them to their immediate task of being His “witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). I do not see this as a rebuke, but rather a redirection of their focus to the immediate task at hand, that of preaching the Gospel. “The Father will take care of the timing of Israel’s restoration,” he tells them, “you take the good news to the nations.”
Third, if the disciples had woefully missed the point of Jesus’ teaching regarding the kingdom during the weeks after His resurrection (see Acts 1:3), the Lord might have responded to them in a way similar to how he did with Philip in the upper room. Do you remember His answer to this misguided question, “Lord show us the Father, and it is enough for us” (John 14:8)? In the next verse we read Jesus’ rebuke, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip?”
Jesus always let His disciples know when they had missed the obvious. If they had been wrong about the future restoration of a kingdom for Israel, the Lord surely would have let them know rather then send them out on a mission with a false hope.
So, What Were They Thinking?
So if the disciples were not bumbling novices for asking such a question, what were they thinking?
I believe their assurance of a future for Israel came directly from what Jesus taught them after His resurrection. Beginning with the two on the road to Emmaus and later with all the disciples, Jesus explained how He fulfilled all the Old Testament Scriptures (Luke 24:25-27; 44-47). This certainly would have included future as well as fulfilled prophecies, would it not? Notice what Luke 24:27 says, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”
In addition to Christ’s teaching right after His resurrection, Acts 1:3 tells us that during the 40 days after that Jesus spoke to them “about the kingdom of God.” Either His disciples were terribly confused and had totally misunderstood Jesus’ recent teaching about the kingdom or else they based their question on what He had just recently told them.
Based on Jesus’ response, I believe it’s the latter. Rather than admonish them for their missing the main point of His teaching over the past several weeks, Jesus simply corrected their mistake about the “when” of the kingdom and redirected their focus to proclaiming the Gospel to the world.
What Old Testament Prophecies Could Have Sparked Their Question?
If not mistaken or befuddled, then the disciples’ hope of a restored Israel must have come directly from the Lord’s teaching on the Old Testament in the days after His resurrection.
Perhaps they remembered Jesus’ reference to Jeremiah 30:1-3, where the prophet says this about the future restoration of Israel, “The word that came to Jeremiah from the Lord: “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you. For behold, days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their fathers, and they shall take possession of it.” Since the time that the prophet wrote Jeremiah 30-32, Israel has never experienced the restoration described in these chapters.
The disciples could also have recalled the Lord’s teaching on other passages where God repeatedly spoke through His prophets promising He would someday “restore the fortunes” of His people, the Israelites (Jer. 31:35-36; Zeph. 3:20; Joel 3:17, 20; Isa. 62).
I believe the confidence of the disciples regarding the future restoration of Israel stemmed directly from the Lord’s teaching after His resurrection. Jesus’ response to them in no way contradicts the basic assumption of their question that someday He would restore the glory of Israel.
Why, you might ask, does this matter to us beyond helping us understand the Israel still has a future?
It matters because it tells us that when God makes a promise, He keeps it! Although the Lord’s promise regarding Israel’s enjoyment of the land was conditional upon their behavior, His promise of the land was not based on their faithfulness.
Once in Christ, Scripture teaches that our hope of eternity depends totally on Jesus and His righteousness, not our behavior.
Our hope of Jesus’ appearing to take us to His Father’s house and of a glorious eternity (see Rev. 21:4) depends upon God’s faithfulness, not ours.
Oh, what a wonderful expectation we have! Maranatha!