The word of the day is “better.” Sometimes, our Heavenly Father does not fulfill our petitions but bestows on us a better hope and a wiser answer to our prayers. For instance, on this day of the glorious Ascension of Our Lord, we hear the last conversation that the Risen Christ had with his apostles. We find in our reading of Acts 1:1-12 that their last words were, “Lord, will You at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (OSB vs. 6). But the Lord declines to answer. Rather, He gives them a better hope, the baptism of the Holy Spirit that will provide them with the power to fulfill the mission that He has in store for them (OSB vs. 5 and 8).
Today, we learn to trust the Lord for what is better for our souls than anything we could conceive or request in prayer.
The Last Question Before the Ascension
For us who know the rest of the story, the question that the disciples asked the Lord at His Ascension is amazing. After all of the Lord’s teaching, they still clung to the hope of the restoration of their country Israel’s fortunes. The Lord had spoken of the kingdom during His earthly ministry and the forty days of His appearance. But their question showed that they did not understand His teachings before His Crucifixion. And they did not comprehend them now.
The Prophecies About the Restoration of the Kingdom to Israel
The prophecies of the return of Israel to the golden age of David and Solomon resounded so loudly in their ears that they could not hear the Lord’s teachings–even after His resurrection. Jeremiah had said that all the world would recognize the Holy City of Jerusalem as the center of the rule of God. He wrote, “At that time Jerusalem shall be called The Throne of the Lord, and all the nations shall be gathered to it, to the name of the Lord, to Jerusalem” (NKJB Jeremiah 3:17). Isaiah had added that the temple mount would be exalted above all the mountains. Many would come to the temple to learn the ways of the Lord, “for out of Zion shall go forth the Law and the Word of the Lord from Jerusalem” (NKJV Isaiah 2:2-4).
Moreover, when the world comes to worship the one God, the God of Israel, the tribulations of the People of God would be vindicated. Isaiah puts it, “Also the sons of those who afflicted you shall come bowing to you, and all those who despised you shall fall prostrate at the soles of your feet” (NKJV Isaiah 60:14).
In other words, the nation of Israel would be delivered from its lowly state and be exalted above all the nations. The temple would be the center of the world, and many would come to it to learn “the ways of God.” Since “out of Zion shall come forth the Law” (Isaiah 2:3), many Jews must have thought that the Law of God would govern the world. Moreover, the Jews hoped that the children of their oppressors would bow in homage before those they once subjugated. Thus, the disciples mistook the Kingdom of God that Jesus preached for the Davidic rule that crowds proclaimed when Jesus entered Jerusalem: “Blessed is the kingdom of our father David That comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” It was the restoration of the sovereignty, glory, and prosperity of the Jewish nation.
What Does Restoration Mean?
With these hopes in mind, the disciples asked about the “restoration” of the kingdom to the People of God. In Greek, the basis of the term is the thought of the “reconstitution” of health, home, or organization (Strong’s #600, 35-36). The renewal of the nation is what the prophets seemed to promise. And so, when Jesus came near Jerusalem, “they [the people who followed him] thought the kingdom of God would appear immediately” (OSB Luke 19:11). In response, Jesus told the Parable of the Talents. And when the Lord appeared to the disciples on the road to Emmaus, they lamented His crucifixion. Nevertheless, they said, “We were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel” (NKJV Luke 24:21).
The hopes of the disciples were mistaken but not reprehensible. They hoped for a time in which all the world would worship God and follow His Law. It would be an era of peace and concord, for the People of God and an era that would bring blessings to the earth.
The Lord Had Something Better in Mind
However, the Lord had something better in mind. He would not bring them the glory they hoped for, but He would give them work to do. He would not relieve them of their tribulations, but He would be with them amid their trials. Thus, the Orthodox Study Bible comments, “Christ will not restore the kingdom to Israel, but will rather restore Israel and the world to the Kingdom (OSB note on vs. 1:6).
And His greatest promise was that they would be “baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (OSB vs. 5). The Holy Spirit will be “power from on high” (OSB Luke 24:29). The term power means more than strength or ability. It refers to miraculous forces that work miracles, wonders, and signs (Strong’s #1411, 73). It engenders moral virtue and empowers convincing. It, therefore, is “from on high,” and it is even strong enough to turn the human heart to repentance and faith.
The Holy Spirit is the might of the Almighty that will drive the mission of the apostles. He will free the apostles from fear, fill them with joy, and teach them the true nature of the Kingdom of God. Then, by the dynamic power of the Holy Spirit, they will be the Lord’s witnesses starting where they were in Jerusalem and going everywhere (OSB 11:8).
We are not saying that we should not ask the Lord for the desires of our hearts if those requests are not sinful. But we should be content with the way our gracious Heavenly Father answers them. He responds to them with mercy and kindness, but He does not always give us what we want when we want it. Rather He often grants us what is better.
His response may well teach us to have a better hope than we can imagine. What we ask for may be limited, even material, and for that reason, the Lord may not grant it. The Book of James puts it bluntly, “Yet you do not have because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive because you ask amiss, that you may spend it on your pleasures” (OSB James 4:3), that is, on what is enjoyable to your senses (Strong’s 2237, 111).
Pray for the Things of the Spirit
Rather, the Divine Liturgy teaches us to pray for things of the Spirit. The deacon prays in the “Litany of Supplication, “All things good and profitable for our souls, and peace for the world, let us ask the Lord” (St-Tikhon’s 1984, 61).
The Book of Ecclesiastes says, “All the rivers run into the sea, Yet the sea is not full” (Ecclesiastes 1:7). The Lord is faithful to supply our needs, but He does not always fulfill our desires. Our desires are endless and insatiable. They would never satisfy us even if God granted our prayers for all of them. So let us pray for what does satisfy–the Holy Spirit (OSB John 4:14 and John 7:38-39) and all things that pertain to the life of the Spirit. In other words, let us pray for a better hope.
St-Tikhon’s. 1984. Service Books of the Orthodox Church. Third ed. South Canaan, PA: St. Tikhon’s Monastery Press.