The Last Instructions of Christ to His Disciples

Gold mosaic from Neamt Monastery, Romania

The Ascension of Christ. Gold mosaic from Neamt Monastery, Romania

In the first chapter of The Acts of the Apostles, Jesus gives his disciples their last instructions before his ascension into heaven (Acts 1:6-12).

The first chapter of Acts is one of the easiest chapters in the New Testament to gloss over. After all, the real action of Acts begins with the second chapter, which recounts the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

If the Gospels tell the story of the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus, then the Acts of the Apostles by contrast tells the story of the Holy Spirit and of the first dramatic years of the Church.

Jesus seems to have little more than a couple of cameo appearances, in chapter 1 and then during St. Paul’s mystical conversion on the Road to Damascus.

So given the overall story line of Acts, it’s all too easy to overlook the moment when Jesus gave his disciples what would be his final instructions. Just before the ascension, “he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. ‘This’, he said, ‘is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’” (Acts 1:4-5)

Wait for the promise of the father.

It’s all too easy — I’ve done it countless times — to focus on the Holy Spirit in this trinitarian quotation. Jesus seems to be saying, “In just a few days you’ll be baptized in the Holy Spirit.” But he doesn’t say “in just a few days” — all he says is wait. His final instructions — indeed, his final order, is open-ended: just to wait for the promise of the father.

Dare we speculate that at the end of his ministry, Jesus is telling his disciples to be contemplative?

I think it’s a reasonable interpretation. Contemplation, after all, is the prayer of waiting. Dumiyyah, the most evocatively contemplative word in the Hebrew language, means not only silence but waiting (see Psalm 62:1). And while Acts 1 does not record Jesus giving the disciples instructions about silence, or sitting in silence, or following your breath, anything like that, I think that just is evidence that Jesus was not one to bother with techniques or methods.

For Jesus, being a contemplative was not about a practice of meditating 20 minutes twice a day (although I don’t think Jesus would object to such a discipline). Rather, contemplation meant waiting for God. And waiting happens best in a spirit of silent expectancy.

Wait for the promise of the father: for the Spirit who gives life. Not only was this the last word from Jesus to his direct followers on that day in Israel so long ago, but it also speaks to us today. When we observe silence, we are not just “emptying our mind” — we wait. For God.

What do you do, to ensure that you have time in your life for silence every day? If you have any thoughts to share on this topic, please leave a comment here, or on social media.

N.B. Special thanks to the Rev. Nancy Baxter, SSAP, whose sermon on Acts 1:15-26 at St. Bartholomew’s Episcopal Church in Atlanta, GA on May 17, 2015, inspired this blog post.

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Author of Befriending Silence, Christian Mystics, The Big Book of Christian Mysticism, Answering the Contemplative Call, and other books. Catechist. Retreat leader. Speaker. Professed Lay Cistercian.

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15 thoughts on “The Last Instructions of Christ to His Disciples

  1. I love this article and agree that a call to “wait” invokes a feeling of slowing down, listening, being patient, opening in expectation…waiting. I think it’s a very contemplative thing to do.

    You asked “what do you do to ensure you have silence in your day.” This has been a challenge lately because I have so many things I’m trying to fit into my day, so I actually wrote up a schedule for myself. It’s working quite well. In essence, simply designating the time and sticking with it.

    I also try to incorporate more stillness, silence, and love into my life as I’m going about my day. I wrote a post about this just yesterday: http://contemplativetheology.com/stillness-silence-love/ Perhaps some of your readers will find it helpful.

    • Thanks, Kimberly. I think “going about our day” with attentiveness to silence and waiting is so important. I endorse a daily practice, yet even if we don’t or can’t find twenty minutes to sit in intentional silence, we can still tend to the “cloister of the heart,” the silence within us which is always available and always present.

  2. In Lamentations Ch.3 Jeremiah says to await on the Lord in silence.
    This may have been a practice of the ancient Hebrews.
    Jeremiah certainly experienced the presence of God.
    Jesus may have been saying something similar.

    • Michael, I’m assuming you mean Lamentations 3:26: “It is good to hope in silence for the LORD’s deliverance.”

      One of my favorite verses. 🙂

  3. Carl, I so enjoy your posts. In response to your question on how I ensure silence, there is the fact that the majority of my hours are lived in silence. I was fortunate to work out of my home and then retired this past fall and can control noise. In addition to my Centering Prayer, I try and carve out a day a week to go to the nearby state park to run and then sit overlooking the lake for spiritual reading and reflection. Yet, there’s another level of silence I’m trying to incorporate and that’s silencing the monkey mind not just during prayer, but during daily activities such as laundry and housework, mundane activities such as running errands. I draw my attention to the work rather than day dreaming or even spiritual reflection. I observe my body movement, the task at hand, letting go of thoughts as in prayer and I find the immediacy of the present moment life-giving. It helps me be aware of the Reality of which I’m a part and helps continue the grounding I find comes from centering prayer. Paying attention to my inner constrictions helps me “wait” in discernment as well as respond appropriately to others.

    • Thanks, Lee; several of your ideas are consistent with my own daily rule of life (which I will be blogging about soon). One thought: is it really about “silencing” the monkey, or simply not choosing to pay attention? I think the mind is programmed to generate thought, just like the heart is programmed to beat. The Cloud of Unknowing has this wonderful image of “looking over the shoulder” of distracting thoughts, that I personally find very helpful. I don’t want to kill the monkey, or drug it! But I do find that if I pay more attention to the silence and less to the monkey’s chatter, then it does seem to calm down a bit.

  4. Timeless wisdom. It’s always good to go back to Jesus for instruction. Too often, at church we’re told be a great leader leader leader!—Jesus said be a servant. At church we hear find your next level, grow, stretch, reach!—Jesus says “Wait on the Spirit” and God says “Be still and know that I Am God.”

    • Ryan, you’re raising a good point about the leader/servant paradox. A lot of folks are talking about “contemplative leadership” these days (and yes, I’m one of them). But perhaps we should be talking about “contemplative service” instead. Thanks for the reminder.

  5. Carl,
    Thanks for the take on Acts 1. You are right. It is a chapter easily overlooked, and even more easily overlooked is the verse about waiting on the Father. One thing I have been noticing: When I have nights that sleep eludes me (fortunately not real frequently) , I have gotten to the place where I do not toss and turn or get up in exasperation. I can lay quiet and still for long periods of time, and just observe my thoughts (whether monkey mind or obsession on something from the day) without judgment, without needing to change or fix the problem. I wait, because I know I am not in control. I am often able to either let it go and drift into quiet sleep, or find a constructive response to what is on my mind. Recently, in search of a quiet place I started going to a small Eucharistic Adoration chapel (seats about 10-12) nearby. I have been pleased to see that there are far more people who go to the chapel each day than I expected. I have also been disappointed for the same reason. I have been varying the time I go, hoping to find a time of day when the chapel is either empty or close to it, so far without success. I love the atmosphere there, but despite the fact that no one speaks in the chapel, the amount of noise when there is a half a dozen people in there is incredible. I can hear people whispering prayers, opening and closing zippers, manipulating rosary beads, coughing, clearing throats, rustling pages, opening and closing the door as they come and go. Yesterday I could even hear a phone vibrating in someone’s purse, and myself wondering why the person couldn’t have left it in the car. I am for sure getting to observe my judgmental self. One thing that I really appreciate, though, is the sign on the door to the chapel, which contains a quote that I have never seen, but greatly appreciate. It is from Sister Faustina, about whom I know almost nothing. If you haven’t seen it, I thought you would appreciate it as well. Here it is: ” . . . . I see one rule as most important. Although all the rules are important, I put this one in first place, and it is silence. Truly, if this rule were to be observed strictly, I would not worry about the others….. the Holy Spirit does not speak to a soul that is distracted and garrulous. He speaks by His quiet inspirations to a soul that is recollected, to a soul that knows how to keep silence. If silence were strictly observed, there would not be any grumbling, bitterness, slandering, or gossip, and charity would not be tarnished. In a word, many wrongs would not be done. Silent lips are pure gold and bear witness to holiness within.” (Notebooks, Book 2, paragraph 552)

    Thanks for your passion and your willingness to share.

    • Ed, that’s a great quote from Saint Faustina! Thanks for sharing it, now I’m off to find it in its original habitat.

  6. Regarding the St. Faustina quote: I gave it a cursory check before I posted it. It is from her personal diaries. She is writing about the rule in her convent. The gap … where the words are left out, she talks about how the women like to talk, which, obviously could easily misconstrued out of context. In the paragraph following the one I quoted, she writes about talking. I had never read anything by her, but I was impressed. I just realized I don’t know how to copy and paste a link on my IPad, but if you google Sister Faustina Diaries you will find a link to a PDF document of the diaries that you can print. The quote is in Book 2, Paragraph 552. There is also an intro giving the background of the Diaries. Enjoy.

  7. I make time for silence each day. Since June 1, 2014, the first thing I do before I start my day is a 20 minute sit in centering prayer. I also do a second sit either in my car in the afternoon at work or in the evening at home. Both times are very special to me. I have found that this is the best way to start each day.

  8. In order to make room for silence in my life, i do meditate and try to do this twice a day. Within the meditation i try to drop the mantra and rest in complete silence – no thoughts etc – very hard to do! but still practicing. I also turn off the tv, radio, computer, and just sit and enjoy the silence, as much as i can during the day. i also try to be silent with others, ie not rushing to help or comment for the sake of it. I often find in the silence that insights will come up although i don’t make this the goal. Thank you for your post on waiting – i have often wondered how is the best way to wait – perhaps the best way is to wait on God.
    Anne

    • Thanks, Anne. It sounds like you have a vibrant prayer practice. As the song goes, the waiting is the hardest part — the trick is learning to be gentle with ourselves, with the silence, with the chattering “monkey mind,” with the feelings of restlessness and boredom that sometimes arise. Yet when we simply allow this waiting, as you have noticed, often real insight or a sense of God’s presence will spontaneously emerge. Here’s to the wait!