A stranger arrives in New York, and he wants to have a great time. He jumps into a taxi and tells the driver, "take me somewhere were I can really enjoy myself. I want to be among happy people who'll make me feel good." Brothers and sisters what are the odds that he'll be driven to a church? Not high. Why, because Christians don't have a reputation for being people of infectious joy, and we should be.
Yet the second last verse of Luke's unique gospel (verse 52) says that these apostles were all filled with great joy as they returned to Jerusalem. They had probably never been happier. What makes that even more remarkable is the timing --- Jesus, the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords; the Anointed One; the Mighty Messiah; the Resurrected Christ had only just been taken from them.
If a soldier found himself left alone in the trenches to face the enemy, and all his comrades had deserted him, he wouldn't be rejoicing overmuch. But these disciples were joyful, even though their greatest and most powerful ally had disappeared. Why, at this of all times, did these Christians feel so good?
1) Because now they understood the gospel message.
These men had been with Jesus for some three years, yet during that time they had great difficulty grasping what His ministry was really about. At first they may have regarded He was much more. But even when Peter had the insight that Jesus was the Messiah (Matthew 16:16), he was probably expecting Jesus to become a warrior Saviour who would sweep the Roman oppressors from the land. When Jesus spoke instead of being put to death Peter rebuked him. In turn that brought from Jesus the sharpest reply He ever gave any man: "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men." (MATTHEW 16:23). Poor Peter didn't understand that Jesus "wanted" to die, and his confusion was shared by them all.
But now they did know. Luke records that in these last days with the disciples "he opened their minds so they could understand" (verse 45). He talked to them about His death and resurrection, and linked that with repentance and forgiveness of sins (verses 46-47). Perhaps for the first time they realised that Jesus had chosen to die in order to free them from sin. What they had thought to be the world's greatest tragedy, they saw now as the world's greatest act of love. Therefore they had joy.
2) Because now they had the promise of the Holy Spirit.
These men would have been devastated if they had thought they really were being abandoned. As well as feeling very vulnerable, they'd also have wondered how they could possibly do what Jesus was asking of them. There are few experiences more frustrating or frightening than having work to do but lacking the skill or tools to do it. Jesus' reference about preaching to all nations (verse 47) would have had those effects on them if they'd believed they were being left to get on with witnessing to the world in their own power.
But negative reactions were avoided because Jesus was guaranteeing them God's power. Speaking of the Holy Spirit, He told them, "I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high" (verse 49). His words must have thrilled them for three reasons:
a) God's promise had been given.
There were no "mights" or "maybes" here. God had said this gift of the Spirit would be their equipment. Because a promise is as good a the person who makes it, they knew this gift was for sure. God's Word was certain.
b) God's promise was power from on high.
That's the same power they had seen in Jesus. His miracles, life of prayer, self-discipline, and wise teaching - His whole character and ministry - came entirely from the Holy Spirit. That power would soon be on them. This made realistic everything they were being asked to do.
c) God's promise was to be clothed with power from on high.
The imagery of being clothed carries the sense of complete covering. These disciples would not have only a temporary touch of power which might wear off. Nor would just part of their lives be affected. Rather, they were to be wrapped round with the Spirit as a huge blanket envelopes a young child. Every part of their being and every part of their work would be different.
Jesus might be leaving them in respect of His physical person. But, in a more intimate way than ever, He would still be with them by the Spirit to make the new ministry possible. Therefore there was joy.
3) Because now they had Jesus' blessing.
He was giving that blessing as He was taken from their eyes (verses 50-51). Luke doesn't describe the blessing. There are no details of what Jesus said. However, to have received any blessing must at least have told these men they were in the will of God.
That's what they needed to know. Perhaps they guessed that great struggles lay ahead. They could have little naivety about the opposition they would face since only weeks before they had seen Jesus nailed to a cross. But even in the devastation of a tornado there is one place of dead calm: right in the middle. There may be havoc on all sides, but in the centre there is peace. These apostles knew now that the only place of peace for them was in the will of God. Ahead and around them would still lie trial and trouble, but if they were right with God they would be safe in respect of the things that really mattered. Christ's blessing convinced them they were in that will, and so they had joy.
The Holy Spirit's fruit in each Christian includes joy (Galatians 5:22). Those who have missed out on joy may have done so because they never realised the grounds they had for rejoicing through the gospel, the power of the Spirit, and the blessing of Jesus.
(Philippians 4: 4-9).