(A) Introduction.   (Read the passage)

The disciples were given a daunting task. It was not one that seemed likely to succeed. Jesus told them: "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." v8. If they and their successors were to succeed in bearing world-wide witness to the Saviour, it was of vital importance to begin well. Every gardener knows how crucial it is for plants to get a good start if they are to thrive. My runner beans struggle to recover if I allow the slugs to get at the first leaves to appear. The Christian church did get off to a magnificent start because the early witnesses were thoroughly equipped for the great commission.

They were prepared in three ways:

(B) Instruction.

Jesus was a wonderful teacher and he spent three years talking to his disciples about the kingdom. After his resurrection he appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. v3. Luke describes the main thrust of what Jesus had to say at the end of his gospel: Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, "This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations..." Luke24v45to47.

This instruction was very necessary. Right up until the ascension the disciples still clung to their old misconceptions about the kingdom. As they met for the very last time the disciples asked: "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?" They seemed unable to accept that Jesus would not rule on earth and establish Israel's supremacy amongst the nations.

There are three lessons for us to learn:

    (a) Sound teaching is very important. Jesus would not have kept teaching, teaching, teaching - to the very end - if it was not hugely important. It is just so easy to underestimate the value of good Bible teaching. The fact remains that people are prepared to pay huge sums for medical and legal advice but expect spiritual instruction to be free. Indeed, a lot of folk who attend church look on the sermon as something of a penance. People in Britain don't like being, 'preached at.' They object to being told what to do. A relatively young man with whom I play hockey had a look at my website. He wasn't impressed. He said to me, "You're telling us all what to do, JR." It is easy to lose your nerve in such circumstance. Some churches have! Teaching plays a small part in their services. Paul says to Timothy: Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to preaching and to teaching. 1Tim4v13. This is good advice for all church leaders.

    (b) The very best teachers have only limited success. Error is remarkably persistent and difficult to eradicate. I find it remarkable that Christians who accept the authority of Scripture should hold such divergent views on baptism. We cannot all be right! Most Christians do not accept what the Bible says about baptism but adopt the traditional view of their churches. I have dealt in my article on hell with the extraordinary survival of a pagan concept in mainstream Christianity. It is almost impossible to use God's word to persuade Bible believing Christians that they are wrong. They don't want to be wrong! Very many sincere and godly believers cannot bear to lose face. Error is as difficult to eradicate as the old nature - as pride itself. Year on year I try to rid my garden of two troublesome weeds. They are bindweed and ground elder and both are great survivors. I have not succeeded yet! However, I know that if I give up trying both would overrun the garden.

    (c) Good teaching does bear fruit. The disciples remembered many things that Jesus said and eventually the Gospels were written. The apostles passed on Jesus teaching to Paul the dynamic missionary to the Gentiles. The words of Jesus informed the life of the early church and subsequently the church throughout the ages. The great commission has been accomplished.

    Christian parents, Sunday school teachers and ministers must keep sowing the seed. My old friend Louisa Pawsey used to say, "My father taught me, 'You mustn't steal a pin;' I've never forgotten it." I can safely say that Louisa was a scrupulously honest person who throughout her 93 years never stole a pin.

    In Christina Lamb's book, 'Africa House,' Stewart Gore Brown pleaded with his aunt, with whom he was very much in love, to leave her invalid husband and go to live with him in what is now Zambia. She wrote back: Didn't they teach you anything at Harrow, young Stewart. Don't you remember your Seventh Commandment. One promises to be faithful and if one is not one is a liar and breaks one's word. I think we all know how we feel about that. That is what she was taught and it was a guiding influence in her life.

    The basic truths of Christian conduct need hammering home. We do need to be told over and over again that Jesus expects us to be honest, to have integrity and to exercise self-control. The media is all pervasive and largely does the devil's work to undermine Christian values.

(C) Experience.

The disciples had two experiences that were crucial to the successful achievement of their task:

(a) The resurrection. v3: After his suffering he showed himsef to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.

The disciples needed a lot of convincing. We read in Mk16v14: Later Jesus appeared to the eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

The disciples were devout, orthodox and nationalistic Jews who would never have broken from Judaism if Jesus had not convinced them of his supreme authority by rising from the dead. In spite of what Jesus had said about the irrelevance of the Jewish dietary laws Peter still needed a vision before he would go and eat with Cornelius. Furthermore he was criticised by his fellow Christians in Jerusalem for doing so.

It remains true that men and women need to break from their old life if they are to be Christians. This will only happen if they are convinced that Jesus is alive Sometimes a person will experience the living Christ in a believer. I became a Christian because Jesus was alive in my parents. Other will discover his living presence in a church. It is possible for the spirit of Jesus to be very evident in a church - so evident that visitors seek out the inspiration behind the prevailing love. A few, like Saul of Tarsus, have a more direct encounter with the risen Lord. I rejoiced to hear the testimony of a former football hooligan on Songs of Praise. He went with his friends to Sweden for an England fixture. While he was there his mates attacked a Swedish supporter, knocked him to the ground and began to put the boot in. He thought, 'I cannot keep going on like this.' Now the man knew very little about Jesus but he cried out in desperation, "Jesus, if you are there - please change me." He was thrown off his feet and enveloped in a cocoon of warmth that assured him of God's love. Jesus heard his prayer and changed him.

(b) The Ascension.
This was a very important experience in three ways:

    (1) It marked the end of Jesus' earthly ministry. From then on the disciples would have to cope without Christ's bodily presence. They obviously regretted Jesus' departure because Luke records that they stood staring into the sky. The angels rebuked them: "Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?" v11. They needed to get on with the work of evangelism without any more help from Jesus in the flesh.

    There does come a time when a disciple has to cope without the physical presence of the teacher. This happens at school. I used to say to my pupils before they departed on study leave, "It is up to you now. My work is finished." This did not appeal to some. They would say, "Can't you do revision with us at lunch times or after school." I refused - it was time for them to take responsibility for their exam success.

    The aim of a teacher is to set students free to operate independently. A good pastor is not one who creates a culture of dependence but one who fosters a church that could manage very well without him. Jesus had to leave his disciples because that is the only way they would mature and grow into leaders.

    (2) Jesus departure did not mark the end of his influence. When my pupils leave school it does mark the end of my influence. I make no further contribution to their lives. It is the saddest thing about being a teacher. Jesus ascended bodily to sit at God's right hand. He does not sit there passively. The writer to the Hebrews assures us: because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Heb7v26. (See exposition on Jesus as an unique High Priest.) I find it very encouraging that Jesus takes an active interest in my welfare and discusses my well- being with his Father.

    (3) The ascension was a good ending. It is not so easy to make a good ending. I have just retired from playing cricket for the Brockley first team. It hasn't been a glorious ending! I was at my best 30 years ago! If I had left the club then, there would at least have been expressions of regret. Now I get the feeling everyone is relieved that the sad old codger in the brown trilby is hanging up his boots. It can be the same when we end our careers - worn out like an ancient doormat. The powers that be are just longing for a replacement! Sadly, the last stages of our journey through life can take us through mean streets. I do not have happy memories of my poor father's last two years on life - his body and mind ravaged by years of Parkinson's disease.

    The last memories the disciples had of Jesus were not of his agonies on the cross; they were not of a squalid, sordid, crucifixion - but of their risen Lord blessing them even as he was taken up before their eyes into heaven. When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Luke24v50to51.

    The disciples also received two promises in the vicinity of Bethany: the promise of power from the Holy Spirit and the assurance that Jesus would return. The angels said, "This same Jesus who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." This cheered the disciples up. We read that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Lk24v52.

    In dark, difficult and perplexing times the disciples could always look back with happiness to those wonderful forty days in the company of the risen Christ, to his glorious ascension and the blessing they received and the promises they were given - especially the promise of his return.

God does prepare us for the work he wants us to do. The Old Testament records how Moses, Joseph, David, Daniel and Esther were prepared for their appointed tasks. The disciples were equipped for theirs as I have been for mine.

(D) Power. v8:"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.

What is it that empowers us to accomplish a particular task:

    (a) A superior product. For centuries cattle had been subject to age old diseases like husk and scour for which there was no real cure. After the Second World War it was not long before veterinary surgeons were equipped with sulphonamides. These antibiotics were a wonder cure for bacterial infections. Husk and scour no longer held any terrors for the vets.

    The disciples had a tremendous product for sinful men - the gospel. They were able to tell men and women about the saving work of Jesus. Everyone who believed on Jesus would have their sins forgiven, be reconciled to God and receive eternal life.

    (b) A strong conviction in the rightness of our cause. This helped the British people resist the Nazis in 1940. It was a conviction enhanced by Churchill's bulldog spirit. His indomitable spirit raised the spirits of his countrymen.

    In much the same way the Holy Spirit magnified the disciple's conviction that: "Salvation is found in no-one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved." Acts4v12. By this means the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to convince others of the truth of the gospel.

    (c) Soaring confidence in ultimate success. This is something that great commanders are able to give their men in battle. Sparticus imbued his men with such confidence that they carried all before them.

    The Holy Spirit made the disciples bold. The members of the Sanhedrin were astonished at the courage and assurance of Peter and John. After they forbad Peter and John to speak in the name of Jesus the apostles replied, "Judge for yourselves whether it is right in God's sight to obey you rather than God. For we cannot help speaking about what we have seen and heard." Acts4v19to20 The outpoured Spirit at Pentecost turned a group of apprehensive, uncertain men into fervent ambassadors of Christ.

    (d) Favourable conditions. After Jesus finished talking to the Samaritan women at the well he said to his disciples: "I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest...... I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labour." John4v35to38. If the fields are not ready it doesn't matter how fired up the reapers are - there will be no harvest. The Holy Spirit only empowers the reapers when the conditions are right. This might necessitate a long period of preparation by those who never experience a Pentecostal blessing and who never reap the benefits of their labour. A lot of Christians pray for revival but it will never come until people are ready for the gospel.

    This is true even for single conversions. It is not often that I am instrumental in bringing someone into the Kingdom but I was this particular Sunday morning. I struggled terribly to prepare my message. Satan must have been aware that two ladies were ready for the reaping. The husband of one of the women had been converted earlier. He talked to his wife about his experience for several weeks. The wife resisted all his efforts to get her saved. None the less the husband's witness prepared the way for the message she received from me that Sunday morning. The Holy Spirit acted when the women was in a responsive frame of mind.

    It is no good praying for Pentecostal power if the conditions are unfavourable. Revival power will only come when the fields are ripe for harvest. Until such a time arrives we need to be among that number who work hard for others to reap the benefit.