The texts of the New Testament, in addition to all of the other wonderful things they do, teach the reader new ways to read the Old Testament at every turn, making moves that point to what theologians call a sensus plenior, a fuller sense of the text that does not nullify the readings that made sense before the advent of Christ but certainly adds potentially-intelligible readings and opens up possibilities for homiletic and devotional encounters with the text that simply did not exist before Christ and Christ’s resurrection.
The ascension of Christ in the first chapter of Acts has become so familiar and has so often been appropriated by modern missionaries’ readings that some of the echoes from the Old Testament, a set of texts asking questions of the world that sometimes seem quite distant from the modern missionary movement, don’t sound like Old Testament references. For instance, the famous fourfold witness in Acts 1:8 is not the beginning of a sermon on why people need to give money to missionary agencies; it’s the answer to a question, the question of Israel’s restoration. And it’s a segue to an answer, one whose question often gets obscured.
In Daniel 7, the prophet has an apocalyptic vision of the Son of Man rising to the Ancient of Days on a cloud. That brief image gives shape to so much of the New Testament that I won’t even attempt to catalog the echoes here, but the upshot of the image in Daniel is that, when the Son of Man approaches the throne, his mission is to make the case for justice in Heaven and to initiate the end of the age. When the text of Acts names “a cloud” as Jesus’s vehicle into the sky in Acts 1:9, therefore, the implication is not merely that Jesus is going to a “better place,” as folks say about the dead in funeral homes, but that the age of divine justice, the restoration of Israel, is at hand. What makes Acts so vastly different from much of the Old Testament is that the disciples of Jesus are not to proclaim this coming justice only to the tribes of Israel but to Samaritans as well, those almost-Jews who stand as a constant reminder of the Babylonian exile; and to the ends of the earth, encompassing all of those people who have been mortal threats to Israel and who might some day become mortal threats again. Jesus, in telling them to go to the ends of the earth and then rising on a cloud, signals that the restoration of Israel also means that Israel now stretches as far as the earth does, that anyone who hears the testimony of the disciples and repents and lives faithfully to Jesus now stands to be among those called “Israel” in these last days.
Therefore, to paraphrase N.T. Wright, if one seeks first the Kingdom of God and its apocalyptic righteousness, all these things, the modern missionary movement included, will be added. But in terms of the visual and spoken symbolism of the passage, what we do when we pass the missionary’s hat can’t be other than one of the “things” that come along: the Kingdom is established by the Son of Man and the Ancient of Days. The job of the witness is not to establish but to seek it.
And that’s precisely what the disciples do at the end of today’s Acts reading: rather than running for consular offices or organizing advocacy groups, they pray. A Sabbath Day’s journey from that place, they gather and they pray. Later on they also start new forms of life, gathering for common meals and giving so freely that there is not one needy among them and all sorts of other things, but none of it happens apart from or prior to prayer.
May our own lives as those sent continue under the auspices of dedicated prayer, and may Israel indeed come to the fullness that Christ has promised.