“When Britain first, at Heaven’s command,
Arose from out the azure main,
This was the charter of the land,
And guardian angels sang this strain:
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.
The nations, not so blest as thee,
Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;
While thou shalt flourish great and free,
The dread and envy of them all.
Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves
Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves.
Tom Service, writing in the Guardian just before the vote on Scottish independence in 2014, observed:
“A time of dissent in the North, of rebellion sweeping down from Scotland, an attempt to unseat the King, to repeal the Union, and to return the rightful blood line to the throne. 1745 was a year of unrest and unease in Hanoverian London and England, as the crown belatedly realised that Charles Edward Stuart – Bonnie Prince Charlie – really was mounting his French- and Scottish-sponsored Jacobite campaign to overthrow the monarchy, and had real success, too, on the battlefield, marching as far south as Derby…
To help their cause, what the court needed was a popular expression of the new spirit of Britishness – as opposed to Scottishness, Welshness, or Irishness – which the admittedly somewhat German House of Hanover wanted to promote. And there’s nothing like a memorable ear-worm, a song, to do your promotional work for you. God Save the King had been adopted by both the Jacobites and the Hanoverians for their respective “kings”, but the tune and the lyric that appeared in London that year, and which went on to take the country by popular storm was Rule, Britannia! …[It] became the song that sounded out what Britons ought to feel as British citizens, to celebrate an aspirational naval dominance and Imperial confidence.”
So how do you feel when you hear those stirring words sung at the Last Night of the Proms? Do you join in or do you keep your lips tightly sealed? Patriotic or jingoistic? It depends on your nationality doesn’t it? And if you are British, how do you feel when you hear the French or the German, or Spanish, or Italian, or Russian equivalent national anthem being sung at the World Cup or played at the Olympics?
You see we all identify with a nationality, a country or a kingdom. And more so when its sovereignty or integrity is threatened verbally or militarily. Beside the British Empire, there have been many others through history: the Soviet, the French, the Prussian, Durch, Belgian, Austrio-Hungarian, Swedish, Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, Ottoman, Muslim, Crusader, Norman, Viking, Byzantium, Roman, Greek, Ming, Phoenician, Mongol, Mayan, Aztec, Inca, Babylonian, Persian, Assyrian, Hittite, Egyptian and I’m sure many more. History is the history of empire. History is also the history of “the clash of civilizations”, to use the phrase popularized by Samuel Huntington.
The Acts of the Apostles describes the clash of two kingdoms. A cosmic clash between the kingdom of light and the kingdom of darkness. The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Satan. Unlike the Caliphate being imposed by the Islamic State it is important to realise that this kingdom is not imposed by coercion but by conviction, not by force but by faith.
We discover how the Holy Spirit energized and empowered the loyal subjects of Jesus to proclaim the good news of his kingly rule. More and more people heard the good news of King Jesus and were rescued or defected to his side. We will see how his kingdom spread from Jerusalem to Rome, the very centre of the ancient world.
My prayer is that we shall also realize this is an unfinished book because the conflict between these two kingdoms is not over. Every single person on earth is either in one kingdom or the other, every soul is contested territory. I pray that we will increasingly identify with our brothers and sisters in Acts because we share the same calling to know Jesus and make Jesus known; We share the same Holy Spirit; We can have the same confidence in the promises and purposes of God revealed in Acts. It is an unfinished story because king Jesus has not yet returned to make his kingdom visible. Please turn with me to Acts 1 and observe the founding of the kingdom, the nature of the kingdom and the spread of the kingdom.
- The Founding of the Kingdom
The title of the Acts of the Apostles could just as easily be titled “The Acts of the Lord Jesus” or more accurately “The Continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus” for Acts 1:1 reads,
“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)
There is clearly continuity with the Gospel of Luke. Both begin with a greeting to Theophilus, (which means ‘friend of God’). The Acts of the Apostles is therefore the second part of Dr Luke’s account of the life of Jesus. And during the 40 days between the resurrection and the ascension of the Lord Jesus, what exactly did he speak about?
“He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:4).
When did Jesus found his kingdom (in terms of subjects)? Jesus had spoken of the Kingdom of God before his crucifixion. But as he predicted, his disciples all deserted him, denied him or disowned him. At his arrest in Gethsemane, Matthew tells us “Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.” (Matthew 26:56) Even Peter disowns Jesus when challenged (Luke 22:54-62). In his death, it may be said that the ‘remnant of Israel’ has been reduced to one man. As Isaiah anticipates,
“We all like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:6).
When Jesus died on the cross he was the sole faithful remnant. During these 40 days Jesus restored his disciples, recommissioned them and empowered them to be the foundation for his church, his visible kingdom on earth. The Founding of the Kingdom.
- The Nature of the Kingdom
“Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:6-8)
The disciples were expecting Jesus to recreate the Jewish empire of King David and Solomon. In his commentary, John Calvin writes, ‘There are as many mistakes in this question as there are words.’
John Stott, in his commentary on the Acts of the Apostles, succinctly appraises errors made:
“The mistake they made was to misunderstand both the nature of the kingdom and the relation between the kingdom and the Spirit. Their question must have filled Jesus with dismay. Were they still so lacking in perception?… The verb, the noun and the adverb of their sentence all betray doctrinal confusion about the kingdom. For the verb restore shows they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment. In his reply (7-8) Jesus corrected their mistaken notions of the kingdom’s nature, extent and arrival.”
The disciples were expecting Jesus to liberate them from the brutal Empire of Rome. Had they been present at Jesus’ trial they might have understood things differently. Jesus explained to Pilate,
‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place’ (John 18:36).
And Jesus disciples have continued to misunderstand him since, equating the kingdom of God with their earthly nationalistic aspirations. Jesus repudiated the notion of an earthly and nationalistic kingdom on more than one occasion (see John 6:15). This is why, in reply to the disciples, Jesus says that he has another agenda for the Apostles:
“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:8)
The kingdom which Jesus inaugurated would, in contrast to their narrow nationalistic expectations, be spiritual in character, international in membership and gradual in expansion. And the expansion of his kingdom throughout the world would specifically require their exile from the land.
They must turn their backs on Jerusalem and their hopes of ruling there with Jesus in order to fulfill their new role as ambassadors of his kingdom (Matthew 20:20-28; 2 Corinthians 5:20-21). The founding of the kingdom. The nature of the kingdom.
- The Spread of the Kingdom
“you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? 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.” (Acts 1:8-11)
Acts 1:8 delineates the way in which the good news of Jesus and his Kingdom would spread from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth, as his Apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit and shared the good news. A careful reading of Acts makes it clear that Jesus remains the active, living, focus. In Acts 9:4, for example Jesus speaks directly to Saul and asks, “Why do you persecute me?” Later, in the same chapter, Peter says directly to Aeneas, “Jesus Christ heals you” (9:34). In Acts 10, Christ makes His will known to Peter concerning a ministry to the Gentiles. Just three examples of Jesus’ vital involvement in the spread of the gospel in Acts. Although Acts begins with the ascension of Jesus, there is no evidence anyone perceived Him as “gone” from their midst. He healed, spoke, and directed the work of His disciples.
Even when they preached, the disciples thought of Jesus as literally present. They asked their listeners, not merely to believe facts about Jesus, but to encounter Jesus who died, rose again, and lives forever. The ascension marked not Christ’s departure, but a change in the way he performs His acts of saving grace, unlimited by time and space. And that is why, as the angels insisted, until the day Jesus returns “in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” Acts is an unfinished book. We have the awesome privilege of sharing in the continuing Acts of the Lord Jesus. Building his kingdom today in Virginia Water, in Surrey, in England and to the ends of the earth.
Every new day is an opportunity to help bring more people into His kingdom, every new day an opportunity to be the answer to our prayer, “your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”
No, the guardian angels did not sing ‘Rule Britannia! Britannia rule the waves’ and more than for any other earthly empire. So what do the angels sing? Revelation 5 tells us:
“You are worthy … because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation. You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God, and they will reign on the earth… Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Revelation 5:9-10, 12)
Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying (so lets say together):
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13)
And ever and ever and ever and ever and ever and ever, Amen.
 “The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:4)
 “the foundation of the apostles and prophets” (Ephesians 2:20)
 John Calvin, The Acts of the Apostles 1-13 (Edinburgh, St Andrew’s Press, 1965), p. 29.
 John R. W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Leicester, Inter-Varsity Press, 1990), pp. 40-41.
 See Colossians 4:5 and Ephesians 5:16