The Acts 1:6 Controversy
Was John Calvin right when he criticized Jesus’ Jewish disciples for expecting a literal Kingdom on Earth?
The book of Acts opens after the disciples had been learning about the Kingdom of God for 40 days from the King Himself, the resurrected Lord Jesus. Immediately before He ascended to heaven to sit at the right hand of the Father, Jesus led the men to the top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem. There they asked Him a question that has been debated within the church for centuries: “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
How people interpret that question and the Lord’s answer can influence the way they read the rest of the New Testament.
John Calvin, the famous 16th-century pastor and reformer, commented, “There are as many errors in this question as words. They ask him as concerning a kingdom; but they dream of an earthly kingdom. . . . They declared thereby how bad scholars they were under so good a Master.”
Calvin was certain the disciples’ question revealed their ignorance, showing how little they had gleaned walking with the risen Lord for 40 days. He was appalled the Jewish disciples would consider that God would restore an earthly Kingdom, as the Old Testament prophets had promised. Even modern scholars take umbrage with this question.
However, was it really as offensive as Calvin thought? I believe the disciples asked the right question at the right time—and in precisely the right place.
The Right Question
Israel’s restoration was a hot topic in the first century. The Jewish people knew from the prophets that God would liberate Israel from the oppressive empires that suffocated them. As the Romans occupied the land of Israel, Jewish people held fast to the hope that God would send a messiah to deliver them from their enemies.
The Jewish hope for a restored, physical, earthly kingdom dates back to the Jewish kingdom’s demise 700 years earlier, when Israel in the north and Judah in the south were taken captive by the Gentile kingdoms of Assyria (722 BC) and Babylon (586 BC) respectively.
As the original Israelite kingdom crumbled under God’s judgment, God promised through the prophet Amos that He would one day raise up, repair, and rebuild Israel: “On that day I will raise up the tabernacle of David, which has fallen down, and repair its damages; I will raise up its ruins, and rebuild it as in the days of old” (Amos 9:11). So, understandably, the Jewish people anxiously were waiting for God—who is faithful, just, and true—to fulfill His promises.
Israel’s Messiah was expected to restore Israel’s fortunes, and the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life and ministry reveal no deviation from this plan.
Jesus came to revive Israel spiritually and physically. In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus mourned Israel’s rejection: “If you had known, even you, especially in this your day, the things that make for your peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes” (19:42). Jesus implied that Israel’s disobedience impeded the ultimate peace that restoration would bring. Jesus didn’t alter the meaning of the Kingdom in the Gospels; He came as the anticipated King of the Kingdom. This is why the disciples asked the right question.
The Right Time
The question led Calvin to believe the disciples were “bad scholars.” However, Calvin appears to have judged the question by Jesus’ response: “It is not for you to know times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority” (Acts 1:7).
Calvin probably interpreted that answer as a hard no. Yet it wasn’t. In fact, Jesus’ response left the disciples with the same feeling of anticipation they already had because His answer was both yes (I will restore the Kingdom to Israel) and no (not right now).
Did the disciples jump the gun? Did they ask the question too early? No. They had been walking with the resurrected Messiah for more than a month. They formulated their question after learning about “things pertaining to the kingdom of God” from the resurrected King Himself (v. 3). Jesus had risen from the dead after three days in a tomb, validating all the claims He had made about Himself. With Israel’s glorified Messiah in their midst, it would have been only natural to ask, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
The question was timed perfectly, and the long-awaited Messiah was there to answer it.
The Right Place
The disciples even asked the question in the right location.
The end of Luke’s Gospel and the beginning of Acts overlap briefly in Bethany, a town atop the Mount of Olives. In fact, Luke’s Gospel implies Jesus led the disciples there: “And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven” (24:50–51).
Why didn’t the disciples ask the question 10 days earlier? Why now, on the Mount of Olives? Perhaps they weren’t as foolish as Calvin thought. The book of Zechariah ends with God declaring He will deliver, save, and restore Israel: “The LORD will go forth and fight against those nations, as He fights in the day of battle. And in that day His feet will stand on the Mount of Olives” (14:3–4).
The disciples probably were fully aware of their locale; they were standing on the bulls-eye of Zechariah’s restoration prophecy. Jesus’ feet were on the Mount of Olives, a fitting place to ask Him, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
We’re Still Waiting With Anticipation
Jesus didn’t dash the disciples’ hopes. Instead, He gave them a task to accomplish before the restoration. They were called to bring the gospel to Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and the ends of the earth. After giving them their marching orders, He ascended into heaven.
As the disciples stared into the sky in bewilderment, two angels appeared: “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven” (v. 11). The angels promised that Jesus will return. He will come back to that very mountain, touch down on the Mount of Olives, and restore the Kingdom to Israel.
The disciples’ question arouses in us today the same anticipation the Jewish people had then. The promised earthly Kingdom, which the risen Messiah spent 40 days teaching His disciples about, is yet to come. But come it will, when Jesus returns at His Second Advent—just as He promised.