Sunday Services: 9:00am & 10:45am

Worship and Witness

Preached by Benjamin Vrbicek

Next week I’ll be preaching a standalone message related to the gospel, baptism, and communion. Then we’ll begin the letters of 1 & 2 Thessalonians this summer. This morning is our final sermon in the gospel of Luke. If you’re like me, it just feels good to finish things. Some of you like this feeling so much you even add things to your to-do lists that you’ve already done just so you can check them off. Our first sermon was nearly three years ago! On September 11, 2016, I had the privilege of opening the sermon series, and I feel privileged to close it.  

We didn’t preach continuously through Luke’s gospel; we took breaks to preach 2 Samuel and Job and a few other topical series, like the one on the 5 Solas. But here we are: 89 sermons later finishing the gospel of Luke. Not that it was a competition, but Jason preached 43, I had 37, Ben Bechtel at 6, Scott Dunford 2, and our summer intern Noah Gwinn had 1. By the way, we’re thankful to have Noah around again this summer.  

Scripture Reading

Follow along with me as I read from Luke 24:50–53, and then we’ll pray that God would be our teacher.  

50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. 

Introduction

The months of May and June are graduation season. Some graduate from middle school to high school, some from high school to college, and some from college into, well, whatever is next. Yesterday, my youngest sister graduated from Liberty University with a degree in nursing. As I understand it, she’s had a few job offers from hospitals, and she’s making decisions soon about where she’ll be using her degree.  

And that’s what you want typically, isn’t it—to make use of all that knowledge and all that education and effort and time and money. We want to make use of the knowledge we gain. Recently my wife and I were asked if either of us used our college engineering degrees. The question came from a friend, so it was no big deal. But I do know more than once my wife has been asked about whether she was “using” her degree because now she is a stay-at-home mom. That hurt a bit. I’m not a mother or a woman, but watching things from the outside, it looks hard: simultaneously you’re told you must be pretty and make money and manage your house and have perfect children and so on. That’s hard. Mother’s Day can be hard. 

Regardless of whether you went to college, graduated from college, or you’re using your degree, I do know Luke wants us to not waste all the knowledge and effort we’ve put into studying his gospel. And to be clear, he does want us to gain certain, firm knowledge about Christ; that was his aim in writing. Look back with me at the beginning of Luke’s gospel.  

1:1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2 just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3 it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4 that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught. 

How would you summarize the opening of Luke’s gospel? I’d summarize it something like this: Mr. Theophilus, we’ve heard things about Jesus from eyewitnesses and apostles. I researched it all, and I present this volume to you so that you would have certain and firm knowledge about Jesus.  

The book of Acts is Luke’s second volume, which is also addressed to this man named Theophilus. We don’t know hardly anything about Theophilus. Perhaps he was a wealthy Gentile (meaning not Jewish) who bankrolled Luke’s research to write the gospel of Luke and the book of Acts. We know that Luke was a Gentile and a physician. We learn that from Colossians 4:10–14, which is a letter Paul wrote. This might surprise some of you, but Luke never met Jesus when Jesus was alive in his earthly ministry. Everything he learned and shares with us, he learned from research and interviews with early church leaders, perhaps with Jesus’s mother Mary, likely with Peter, and certainly with the Apostle Paul. We don’t know what the initial connection was, but Luke teams up with the Apostle Paul during Paul’s second missionary journey. We know this because in Acts 16:10, Luke, the narrator, begins using the word “we”—we did this; we did that. Luke traveled with Paul, perhaps as his friend and physician, which is a good thing to have if people often beat you up when you tell them about Jesus.  

After Luke’s introduction, what follows from Luke 1:5 all the way to Luke 24:53 is the good news of the person and work of the Messiah, Jesus Christ.  

1. A Fitting End: Worship  

If that’s where Luke begins—expressing his goal to give us knowledge—where does Luke end? A fitting end to the gospel of Luke is the disciples worshiping with great joy. Look at it again:  

50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. 

The gospel of Luke is the longest book in the New Testament. And his two-volume work of Luke-Acts makes up the largest contribution to the New Testament by any one author—more than Paul and Peter, and John and Matthew. But this ending is abrupt. We don’t have a farewell-blessing speech. We do read of Jesus, like a high priest, raising his hands and speaking blessings over his people, but then he’s gone. One scholar wrote,  

The account [of the ascension] is quite short. Luke has already written more than most papyrus rolls contained and he is clearly hastening to the end of this volume.” (Leon Morris, Tyndale New Testament Commentary: Luke, 344) 

I chuckled as I read that because it’s a funny image, isn’t it? Luke writing and writing and writing the longest book in the New Testament, and then he comes to the end, and he’s like, “Oh man, I’ve got to make the ending short to fit it on the scroll.” I’ve had sermons like that. I spent so much time on the beginning, I wrap it up in a sentence. 

But I don’t think Luke simply ran out of space. His final account, while brief, is highly intentional. Luke is an excellent historian, a meticulous researcher, and a brilliant writer. Dozens of times over the last three years I had thought I knew the meaning of a passage in Luke well (so some saying or a parable or a miracle in the gospel of Luke), but the act of studying the passage in its context helped me understand the meaning in a deeper way. Luke is intentional about what he writes, how much he writes, and where he places what he writes. He didn’t just run out of space.  

Luke’s ending is the fitting end to where he began. He began saying I want you to have firm, certain knowledge of everything you’ve been taught; I’m going to give you, Theophilus, knowledge of Jesus that’s not fluffy and loose like clouds in the sky,1 but knowledge that’s fixed and firm like a building’s foundation that’s been poured with yards and yards of concrete around massive rods of rebar as think as your wrist. I want your foundation of knowledge, Theophilus, to be firm. 

So Luke begins in the temple with the announcement of the miraculous birth of John the Baptist, the cousin of Jesus. Then angels announce the birth of Jesus singing of “good news of great joy.” Then Jesus grows up and baffles the religious leaders with his questions as a young man. The public ministry of Jesus begins with his baptism where God the Father speaks a blessing over his boy as the Holy Spirit descends upon him: “You,” says the Father, “are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.” That’s the first three chapters. The shape of the foundation of the knowledge of Christ has been excavated. Now, Luke begins to fill it.  

Chapter 4 opens with Jesus doing battle with Satan in the wilderness, where three times Satan tempts Jesus to take the path of least resistance and avoid suffering. Jesus says, no, no, and no. Then he preaches in his home town of Nazareth saying that today the great hopes of the Old Testament believers were fulfilled in him. In chapter 5, he calls his first disciples after a huge catch of fish after they had previously caught nothing. Peter falls to his knees in holy fear before Jesus. In chapter 6, Jesus declares he is Lord of the Sabbath. In chapter 7, he raises the son of a widow, and a woman falls at his feet weeping and washing his feet with her hair. And the foundation of knowledge of Christ gets more firm.  

In chapters 8 through 15, he heals men, drives out demons, feeds 5,000, commissions followers to testify about him, and tells the most famous parable of all parables about a father’s love for his two sons, his love for a prodigal rule-breaker and his love for a religious rule-follower. He loves them both. And the foundation of knowledge of Christ becomes even more firm. 

In chapter 19 Jesus rides into Jerusalem hailed as King. Then he weeps over the city. Then he confronts the religious leaders telling them that he—the stone the builders have rejected—has become the cornerstone. Then he goes to the cross, where he takes the punishment we deserved for our sins, then rises on the third day. Then he appears to his followers, explains to them from the Bible the point of his mission to reach the nations with the gospel of forgiveness of sins. He promises his followers the sending of the Holy Spirit. And then—after all this—he’s taken back to heaven while uttering priestly blessings over his people. 

The ending to the gospel of Luke may be abrupt. But it’s intentional. With all that knowledge—the knowledge of the miracles, the knowledge of the parables, the knowledge of his sermons, and the knowledge of all the Father’s love and truth and mercy and grace for his people—what does Luke show us is the fitting result of that knowledge? Worship with great joy. The ending to the gospel of Luke may be abrupt. But it’s intentional: worship Jesus with great joy.  

The Christian life is not an easy life. If it’s always easy, you’re probably doing it wrong. The Christian life is discipleship that can often lead to suffering and sacrifice. There are heartaches and unmet longings in this world. Luke knows this. He experienced all that. But I believe Luke would want to look us in the eye and say, “Church, if you don’t have moments of joy and worship over the knowledge of who Jesus is for us in the gospel, then you might not have the knowledge of Jesus.” Your great joy doesn’t have to look the way it does in others. Some of us are more expressive and others less expressive. But if the sum of your Christian life is drudgery, then it might not be the Christian life. The gospel of Luke is God’s an invitation to enjoy good news of great joy now and forever. 

2. A New Beginning: Witness 

There’s another way to speak about the end of the gospel of Luke, and something true of all endings. One end is the beginning of something else.  

Last week at church we announced pastor Jason’s transition. Later this summer, he and his family are going to a church in Chicago. I was already co-senior pastor, and I’ll be assuming the more traditional role of not co-senior pastor but just senior pastor. And since Jason is leaving us, it would probably be appropriate that I start mentioning Jason in my sermons in ways that pick on him and poke a little fun at him. He’s leaving us, right? We might as well get a few shots in before he goes.  

If you know Jason, you know doing that would bless him and speak his love language. So I do want to use Jason and his transition as a sermon illustration now, but unfortunately in this illustration he’s in parallel with Jesus. As Jason transitions to another church, a church that needs a good pastor, it’s an end to his pastorate here. But it’s the beginning of a new era there and here. And as Jesus leaves, so begins a new era. Again, I’m not sure why I’m putting Jason in parallel with Jesus, but if you can overlook that detail, you can see how one end is also a new beginning. As Luke ends his gospel with disciples worshiping the ascended Lord, this also launches a new beginning: the beginning of witnessing about Jesus.  

We don’t talk much about the ascension, though it is a pivotal moment in redemptive history. Earlier in the service we recited together the Apostles’ Creed. As I reread a part of it, notice the tense of the verbs. And just to be clear, verbs are “doing” and “action” words. And tense has to do with time, meaning past tense (I ran), present tense (I run), and future (I will run). So, we read,  

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, 
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and  
born of the Virgin Mary, 
he suffered under Pontius Pilate, 
was crucified, died, and was buried; 
he descended to hell. 
The third day he rose again from the dead; 
he ascended to heaven and, 
is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, 
from there he will come again to judge the living and the dead. 

Conceived: past tense. Born: past tense. Suffered: past tense. Crucified, died, buried, descended: all simple, past tense. Then he rose and then he ascended, which is past tense.  

Then what do we have? Is seated. “Is” is present tense. The ending of the ascension begins a new era, the era of Jesus sitting at the Father’s right hand. Conceived, born, lived, died, buried, rose, ascended, sits.  

In 1 Peter we read that Jesus is the one who “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). 

That’s good news. Jesus is sitting at the right hand of his father until all of his enemies are made a footstool for his feet (cf. Luke 20:41–44 and Psalm 110:1).  

And not only that, but from heaven, Jesus sends us the Holy Spirit to live inside believers and among believers so that we have the power we need to live the Christian life. And what is one significant part of the Christian life? Witnessing to others about the goodness of our God. Look again at the end of the book of Luke.  

“Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, 47 and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” 

50 And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. 51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, 53 and were continually in the temple blessing God. 

Luke ends his gospel with the ascension of Jesus while disciples worship God with great joy, which leads to witnessing disciples, that is, those who make much of Jesus to others: first in the temple, and then to the ends of the earth.  

I don’t know all that this transition of pastors will mean for us. But I know one thing God would want for us and for the Abbotts and for this church in Chicago. God wants us to be his glad and worshipful witnesses wherever he places us. I know that sermons where a pastor tells Christians to tell others about Jesus have become such an expected sermon application, that as a pastor, sometimes I’ve neglected from stressing it. I’m sorry for that neglect. If Jesus has changed you, if he has filled you with good news of great joy, tell somebody—tell a lot of somebodies.  

Conclusion 

While I was studying to be a pastor, dear friends of mine asked me about a controversial topic in Christianity—it doesn’t really matter which one because there are lots of them. At the time I didn’t have an answer for them, as the conversation ended, I asked if they would be okay if I could think about it for a while and send some thoughts to them.  

Well, that topic just got stuck in me. It was like God had put me on a mission to research and write about it. I read a stack of books I thought I agreed with and a stack I didn’t think I agreed with. My email response to my friends grew to the point that I asked a seminary professor if I could use my research, not for a single credit independent study, but a two-credit independent study. I eventually wrote a six-week Sunday school curriculum as the final project for the class, which I taught to a few churches. But my friends never read it. If they did, they didn’t tell me.  

Luke wrote to this man Theophilus. As I said before, though the book is written to him (or at least dedicated to him) we don’t know much about him. I’d like to think he read it and was changed by it, becoming a worship-filled witness, but we don’t know. 

I do know, however, that we’ve been reading it. We’ve been preaching it. Luke has taken us by the hand an showed us the sites around Israel where the Messiah walked and preached and lived and died and rose and ascended. And now he sits.  

The disciples had a difficult road ahead of them, but they knew their Lord was seated on the throne. And they knew the one who sits will also return, and every day between that day and this day, we are to be a worshiping and witnessing people. 


1 Cf. this sermon by John Piper, “Jesus the Son of God, the Son of Mary,” The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference, April 8, 2013, https://www.desiringgod.org/messages/jesus-the-son-of-god-the-son-of-mary

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