We can understand the Apostles’ question about the kingdom here in Acts 1. Israel had been waiting a long time for their monarchy to be restored, centuries in fact. It had once been independent, prosperous and powerful under Kings like David and Solomon. While they obeyed God they prospered but when they turned to worldly idols things went downhill rapidly. The nation divided and was conquered first by Assyria and then Babylon. Jerusalem and its magnificent Temple were destroyed. While the city and Temple had since been resettled and rebuilt they had remained for centuries a tiny vassal state ruled by the emperors of Babylon, then Persia, Greece and now Rome.
But now the Messiah had come. Jesus of Nazareth had spoken and performed dramatic signs with divine authority, offered His life as an atonement for human sin and risen triumphant over death! So these Jewish disciples are naturally wondering, is this the time for our nation to be fully restored?
We’ll come back to that.
Meanwhile let’s rewind to 539 BC when a modest number of Israelites have returned to rebuild Jerusalem and the house of the Lord in preparation for their promised Messiah.
It was hard work. They faced constant opposition and discouragement. So God sent the prophets Zechariah and Haggai to motivate and encourage them. ‘Is this a time for you yourselves to be living in your panelled houses while this house remains a ruin?’ challenges Haggai, ‘Be strong all you people of the land and work for I am with you, declares the Lord, ’My Spirit remains among you. Do not fear.’ Here in Zechariah 4 the prophet assures them that despite many disappointments and setbacks the Temple will be completed with God’s help.
Let’s notice three things here.
Firstly this was ‘a day of small things’. Israel had been a numerous people living in a large territory. The Temple of Solomon had been epic in scale and adorned with the costliest treasures. Some elderly folk could remember those days and it seemed that the new temple was a poor shadow of the former one. These were a humbled people living in modest times. A day of ‘small things.’
Did that mean their work was insignificant? Not at all! The Lord is with them and He foresees success.
‘the seven eyes of the Lord that range throughout the earth will rejoice when they see the chosen capstone in the hand of Zerubbabel’. That needs a bit of explanation! In scripture the number seven represents God. Six is a human number, seven is a divine number. God’s ‘eyes’ are thought to be going throughout the world. In other words the Almighty Who sees and knows everything including the future is confident the Governor Zerubbabel will finish the restoration they have begun.
‘Days of small things’ can be discouraging even heart-breaking but we mustn’t abandon our faith. God is still working and He will bring about His purposes in His way and time.
We note secondly this was also a day of spiritual promise. The Governor was given a word of personal encouragement, ‘Not by might nor by power but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty. They had little might or power of their own. They weren’t allowed a king or an army. They were surrounded by hostiles. The odds were stacked against them humanly speaking but what human beings do is only part of the picture. It’s what the Holy Spirit can do in human hearts that brings about the greatest change.
Obstacles that seem like mountains are removed as the Lord builds His Church. People are liberated from cruel bondages, hearts and attitudes are changed by redeeming love, persecutors become apostles and enemies become friends as the Spirit works grace inside of us. Inspired by the example of Christ, guided, taught, empowered and equipped by the Spirit, God’s people discover courage to serve in all kinds of challenging circumstances.
Rebuilding this temple took Zerubbabel and his companions twenty years. It required patience and perseverance. They had to keep going even when they felt like giving up. Christians today need to keep practising our faith that Jesus will keep His promise and build His death-defeating Church using very ordinary people like us who seek to honour and obey Him.
A third thing we have here in Zechariah 4 is a vision of global witness. The prophets were often inspired to speak in picture language and many of these pictures are used again in the New Testament and applied to Jesus and the Church.
The prophet sees a menorah, a seven branched Jewish lamp stand fed by precious golden oil. Either side are olive trees. 530 years BC this was a picture to encourage those working on the rebuilding project. The new Temple would soon shine God’s light and truth again for all the world to see. The leaders of this small band of workers, Zerubbabel the Governor and Joshua the High Priest would be given a special anointing from God to serve in the propagation of this light. They would be witnesses, serving ‘the Lord of all the earth.’ This picture is used again in Revelation 11. It’s also echoed in our more familiar second reading today in Acts 1 and now we’re back with Jesus’ patriotic disciples and their concern for their homeland and people.
‘Lord are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’
In reply Jesus instructs them to leave the future of their nation in God’s safe hands. He has a bigger plan for them and for us!
Just as God’s Spirit helped Zerubbabel and Joshua overcome the challenges of their ‘day of small things’ He would now fill and empower the Apostles and all Jesus’ followers to be His witnesses at home, among our neighbours ‘and to the ends of the earth.’ We are to witness to Jesus, the Light of the world, throughout the world. In so doing we are building a spiritual ‘house’ of worship and obedience and preparing for His return in glory to the world!
‘You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you and you will be my witnesses,’ says Jesus the Saviour, the Son of God.
This is how His Church is built. This is how God’s Kingdom comes.
Praise and honour to His name.