For the earliest Christians, a tangible relationship with Jesus was not a problem. If He said, “Let's go to Jerusalem,” they went to Jerusalem. If Peter needed to ask Him something, he could say, “Lord, can we talk?” The disciples could sit down with Him and talk, face to face, and know immediately what He wanted them to know.
But after Jesus was resurrected and spent forty days walking and talking with the disciples, teaching and doing all sorts of signs and miracles, He was taken up into heaven. He just disappeared straight up into the clouds. From that point on, His disciples couldn't speak with Him, hear Him teach, or observe Him as they had before.
That's our situation, too. We can't walk along the beach with Jesus like Peter and John did. We can't ask Him for a few minutes of His time to talk face to face. Yet we know that God has told this world, “Draw near to Me, and I will draw near to you. If you seek Me, you will find Me.” (see James 4:8 and Jeremiah 29:13).
How can we have this personal, intimate relationship with Jesus that He promised His disciples? How can we draw near to Him? When we need to know who to marry, where to live, what to do with our lives, how to raise children, how to solve this or that problem, or how to live joyfully, how can we hear from Him? How does a relationship work with a Lord Who ascended into heaven and is no longer physically present for us to relate to?
If we do a quick survey of what happened after Jesus went to heaven, we'll find the secret of a close, personal relationship with God. We'll discover what it means for us when He sent His Spirit to dwell inside human bodies and manifest the presence and person of Jesus.
A New Kind of Harvest
Acts 1 records Jesus' instructions for His disciples to remain in Jerusalem after He ascended. They were told simply to wait. They didn't know what was going to happen. For about a week, 120 of them gathered to pray and to wait. They even figured that with all the teaching Jesus had given about twelve apostles ruling twelve tribes of Israel when the kingdom comes, they would need to replace Judas. So they picked a replacement, the old-fashioned, Old Testament way: by casting lots. That was the extent of the guidance they had.
A few days later, the feast of Pentecost came. Pentecost was the third major Jewish festival, always coming fifty days after the Feast of Firstfruits, which immediately followed Passover. That festival of firstfruits celebrated the first wheat or barley of the season. The priest would take the sheaf and wave it before the Lord in the temple, saying in effect, “We want to bring the first and best of everything to You, because You're the only One who can make things grow. We worship You and honor You for that.” Then at Pentecost, seven weeks and a day later, when the grain had ripened and was harvested, they would bring two loaves to the temple and offer them to God with a sacrifice. Pentecost, along with Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread, was one of three times the Israelites were commanded to assemble each year.
That celebration - the time when firstfruits had been offered and the harvest had come - was when God chose to send His Spirit to dwell in His people. Because of the festival going on, Jews from all over Israel and the Roman empire had gathered in Jerusalem. Little did they know they were about to witness a different kind of firstfruits and a new sort of harvest.
At Pentecost, the 120 disciples were still gathered, praying and waiting, as Jesus had instructed. Luke, the writer of Acts, described what happened next: a sound like the blowing wind came from heaven, and a vision of what seemed like tongues of fire rested on each of the disciples. They began to speak in other languages.
This, of course, drew the attention of the people gathered from the nations for the feast of Pentecost. They, too, had heard the wind and the diversity of languages spoken by this group of Galileans. Some wondered how the disciples were able to speak the tongues of distant lands, and others simply assumed they were drunk. What was going on? Jesus' promise was being fulfilled. The very Spirit of God was coming to dwell in human hearts.
Four Keys to the New Relationship
From that point on, the church was different. We read no more stories in the New Testament of people casting lots for the Lord's guidance. We see a different character in people like Peter - intimidated by a maid a few weeks earlier, now boldly confronting the Jews with their sin at the crucifixion and telling them to repent. And immediately after Peter's first sermon, at which 3,000 people believed, we're given the keys to having the kind of intimate relationship with Jesus that we wonder about and that Jesus promised before He ascended.
There are four practical elements from Acts 2:42 that describe how to have this kind of relationship with Him:
1. The first people filled with the Spirit devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching. Today, that's the Scriptures. Our New Testament is the apostles' teaching. The first disciples heard it orally, but it has been preserved for us in Scripture. When we devote ourselves to the Bible, we are devoting ourselves to the apostles' teaching.
2. They devoted themselves to fellowship. That doesn't mean they got together for coffee frequently. They weren't devoted to fellowship itself, but to the fellowship: the group as a whole. They realized that if Christ lives in each person, then each has something both to give and to receive from the others. They understood that they could be Christ to one another.
3. They were devoted to the breaking of bread. That doesn't mean simply that they shared a lot of meals together, but that through communion they made Christ central to their fellowship. No personality or charismatic leader would get them off track, because when they came together on a regular basis, it was His body, His blood, His work on the cross, and His resurrection that defined them.
4. They were devoted to prayer. Coming together as an organic unity, they were committed to falling on their knees when problems came, saying, "Holy God in heaven, show us what to do." They were committed to sitting quietly before the Lord - listening, confessing their sins, offering Him moldable, teachable hearts, and asking Him to provide godly thoughts and relevant Scripture passages to instruct them.
How did God respond to their devotion to these four things? Everyone was filled with a sense of awe, signs and wonders authenticated their message, and they sold their goods to take care of those who were being disinherited for their new faith.
That kind of radical love, that kind of departure from a materialistic culture, made people marvel at their love for each other. They continued to meet together in open, vulnerable, accountable relationships. They didn't just come to meetings. This was life. God spoke through His Word, through other believers, through the sacraments, and through prayer.
If we devote ourselves to these four things, we can have the kind of relationship with Jesus that is as emotionally real and intellectually plausible as if we sat down with Him and said, “Can we talk about how I'm feeling right now? Will You tell me Your thoughts and help me through this?”
The Spirit of Christ will work through His Word, His people, His sacraments, and our prayers, twenty-four hours a day, to answer those questions as vividly and clearly as if Jesus were sitting across the table from us.