It is not for you to know the time.

Acts chapter 1 is often used as a reason why we cannot know the dates surrounding the return of Jesus. Jesus told the disciples it wasn’t for them to know the times. This charge does not exclude a later generation from knowing. Jesus also included one of the signs that would identify his soon return.

Background

Acts chapter 1 is often quoted by folks trying to dismiss out of hand the study of time in the Bible. In this passage Jesus is asked a question. Is he, at that time, going to restore the kingdom to Israel?

1In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. 3After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. 4On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."

6So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"

7He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8But 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."

9After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

10They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11"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 1:1-11 NIV

1The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,not sure about τον μεν at the beginning 2Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen:wow, εντειλαμενος got a big split. Is that right? 3To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days, and speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God: 4And, being assembled together with them, commanded them that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which, saith he, ye have heard of me. 5For John truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence. 6When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? 7And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. 8But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judæa, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. 9And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. 10And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; 11Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven. Acts 1:1-11 KJV

This question was important to ask, since this is what the angels had told Mary before he was born. This is also what John the Baptist had preached about Jesus. Now they ask the question, "When are you going to do what all these others have said you are going to do?"

Jesus’ Answer

The answer Jesus gives is long, with several components. Lets look at it in detail. He says first, that they will receive the Holy Spirit. This is the first part of his answer to the question. He is saying that the Holy Spirit is where the final answer will come from. Then he says that the Gospel will be preached, in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This answer is in fact the answer to when will he take over the kingdom. After, and only after, Christians have witnessed of him and his resurrection in every nation on earth. Then he will restore the kingdom to Israel. Like the fig tree in Matthew and Luke, the world wide proclamation of the Gospel is the sign used by the writer of Acts to signal Jesus’ soon return.

Why would the writer of Acts choose this sign? Because the book of Acts documents the beginning of this process, the movement of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Judea and then to Samaria and from there to the ends of the earth. Curiously the Gospel, Christianity, did not move much beyond the borders of Europe until the last 300 years or so. Only now are we seeing national conversions on a scale not seen since Europeans adopted Christianity 1700 years ago. Why? Because it is only now that the Gospel is headed for the ends of the earth. This is the sign that the author of Acts wants us to use, not the fig tree of Matthew and Luke. (OK, Luke and Acts have the same author, his focus has now changed.)

Until very recently Acts chapter 1 was a legitimate reason why we today, could not know when Jesus was returning. Now, in the mid 1990s, Acts chapter 1 is prophecy about Jesus’ soon return. The reason? Because the Gospel is now being preached in the uttermost parts of the world. Is this the same as 1700 years ago in Europe? No, because now there are no parts of the world that are farther away. We really are at the last most distant corners of the world.

Interestingly, until about 1990, nobody even knew who the uttermost parts of the world were. Now we have missionary movements attempting to share the Gospel with every people group over about 10,000 people. By the end of the first decade of the 21st century most people on the planet will have met know or know of a Christian somewhere in their lives. The events of late 2002 will put witnesses of Jesus’ power and greatness in every hamlet round the globe. Then the world will have achieved this event described in Acts. The sign given in Acts will then be complete, and for the general purposes of that sign he can return.

It is interesting to note that until the decade of the 1990s we did not even know who these people groups were. What a difference just a few years can make.

Does Acts chapter 1 tell us when Jesus is coming back? No, but it certainly does not tell us that it cannot be known. Only that those alive in the first century could not know it. The signs Jesus then proceeds to give point at our century, in fact they point at the first decade of the twenty first century as the main sign of his return.