I’ve been doing a bit of brushing up on resurrection and eschatology themes lately, and it’s brought me to Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1. You know the story. Prior to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit in chapter 2, the apostles get one last brief meeting with the visible Jesus before he disappears from view. It’s a curious conversation they have.
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “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 1:6-8, ESV)
With a bit of background, the disciples initial question seems straightforward enough. They had been wandering about Israel with Jesus for three years, expecting that he would, as Israel’s messiah, overthrow the nation’s Roman overlords and restore Israel to a place of political autonomy. This is what messiahs did. (Or, I should say, this is what other self-proclaimed messiahs attempted to do.) Alas, Jesus was crucified for just that. He was put to death as a potential threat to the Roman presence in Jerusalem. He claimed to be king of the Jews and to the cross he had to go. The disciples, for their part, were then driven into hiding or back to their old lives. The dream of being a part of a successful messianic movement was shattered.
But the resurrection changed everything. With Jesus back in action, their hopes were revived, and they asked with eager anticipation. Are you now, after all this, finally going to restore Israel to political prominence?
Jesus’ response gives a hint that the disciples, though they’re thinking the right direction, are thinking way too small. They needn’t worry, he says about “times and seasons.” Times and seasons for what? For the ascending and descending of world empires.
Jesus is likely alluding, once more, to Daniel 7 (I tell my students they should write “2 Sam 7” and “Dan 7” in the margin of every page in their New Testament). Remember that in Daniel 7 a vision comes to Daniel in which he sees several beasts ravaging the good peoples of the earth. He learns eventually that these are representative of wicked empires that oppress people rather than govern them righteously. In verses 9-10, Daniel sees in the midst of this terrible affair, the Ancient of Days take His place on the throne of heaven. Good news: the Creator is about to do something about these injustices. The one great beast is then destroyed (v. 11), while the other beasts are permitted to live “for a season and a time” (v. 12, ESV; chronou kai kairou, LXX). It is then that Daniel sees one like a son of man, engulfed in the clouds of heaven, coming to receive authority over the entire world from the Ancient of Days (vv. 13-14).
The disciples do not have to worry much about the duration of oppressive political powers, i.e., Rome. It may yet linger on for a season and a time. But rest assured, Jesus is saying, one like a son of man is about to enter God’s presence and there receive a kingdom that spans the entire globe. (And oh by the way, he’s about to be engulfed in a cloud in Acts 1:9.) And the disciples ought to concern themselves with the task of informing (or witnessing to) the world of this new state of affairs.