What Does the Ascension Mean?
Today is Ascension Sunday on the church calendar. It used to be that the church calendar drove the events of the Western world. This is not so any more. For many who call themselves Christians, including those who are pastors, this day comes and goes with little notice. This is especially so if it interferes with Mother’s Day or Memorial Day weekend. This isn’t the case this year, but it shows when it does conflict where the churchgoer’s priorities are. Yet this implications of the Ascension are immense and far more important than either of these two holidays.
Only Luke gives the details of Christ’s ascension. It is recorded in two places, here and in Acts. John hints at it when He tells Mary to stop clinging to Him as He had to return to the Father. What is called the “longer ending of Mark makes mention that He was taken up from their sight, but not all think this is original to Mark. Matthew does not mention it at all. We do know He got back to Heaven as Jesus is mentioned as being at the right hand of the Father.
Another issue with the two Lukan accounts of the Ascension are that on the surface they seem to differ on important details. If we read the account in Luke this morning, the context would indicate that He ascended back to heaven on Easter Sunday and on the account in Acts on the 40th day. But this is only an apparent discrepancy. Matthew and John record resurrection appearances after Easter Sunday as does Luke in Acts 1:3 where he says that Jesus presented Himself alive over the period of 40 days by many infallible proofs. Paul also mentions several other appearances not mentioned in the Gospel.
We must remember at the beginning of Luke that Luke mentions that he took special care to present an accurate and orderly account about Jesus. Everything he records in Luke and Acts have been scrutinized over and over again. A skeptic named William Ramsey in the 19th century and another lawyer took it upon themselves to once and for all disprove Christianity. The other lawyer tried to disprove the resurrection and Ramsey the accounts in Luke. Both of these lawyers thought this would be an easy task. But neither succeeded and became Christians instead. Luke proved himself so accurate that his accuracy as a historian is beyond dispute.
Luke wrote the gospel first and then Acts. He would have had opportunity to correct the account in Luke if the additional information provided in Acts had contradicted the account in Luke. So we must treat both accounts as accurate. It is best to take both of these accounts as happening on the 40th day, although He may have risen up to heaven temporarily in Easter Sunday and come back again as a prequel to the Ascension.
Another issue, then is where does the teaching of verses 45-49 occur? Was it on the appearance on Easter Sunday evening or on the 40th day? Either is possible. We know from John’s account of the appearance on Easter Sunday night that He breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” So these words in these verses show some affinity to the Gospel of John. But they are also similar and a summary of what Luke records Jesus as saying on the 40th day before His ascension. I think it is important to note “that” Jesus said these things. It would be nice to know the answer to this mystery. We may just have to wait to ask Jesus in person.
I am going to treat the two ascension accounts as being the same account, with the account in Luke being in summary form. It says that he led them out to Bethany, which is on the Mount of Olives. The Acts account gives a possible interesting detail. There is a Greek verb “Having assembled together” which may instead be the verb translated “having taken salt together” (i.e. lunch). The only difference in these verbs is an apostrophe, something which was left out of the original Greek texts as all punctuation marks were to conserve space. Paper was expensive. If the common translation is taken to assemble, it would be in the wrong voice. But this is not the case with the latter.
Did Jesus have one final meal with them, a last reminder of the Lord’s Supper several weeks earlier where Luke records that the Supper was not only a memorial of his upcoming death but also a promise of Resurrection and a future kingdom. As one of the questions asked in relation to the command to return to Jerusalem and await the power that was coming down from on high, the Holy Spirit, seems to support the eating of one final meal. They thought that this was going to be the coming of the Messianic Kingdom they had been awaiting for. Jesus had to rebuke them and tell them it was none of their business, but the Father’s. They were to go out into the world and be His witnesses.
From what is considered an intimate and informal meal comes the Ascension. What a contrast. But Luke is full of feasts, and this is the last one Jesus would have on earth with His disciples. But it is also a promise that the kingdom would come at the appointed time and means. There not just they, but all who believe on Jesus will partake. There is one meal left for us all.
This meal that the Apostles partook with Jesus was not the last meal of the condemned, but the promise of the heavenly banquet.
The book of Zechariah predicts the coming of the Messiah from heaven to the Mount of Olives. So it was necessary that Jesus also ascend from there as well. He was taken up from the Apostles in glorious fashion. The angel explained to them that Jesus would come back in the same manner. So we are not looking for a secret return of Jesus to Brooklyn which the Jehovah’s witnesses assert happened in 1914 when he came to the Watchtower Society headquarters invisibly so that they would not be found to be false prophets. The Scripture clearly says that Jesus would return in glorious splendor.
Stephen at his trial in the seventh chapter of Acts says He saw Jesus standing at the Father’s right hand, something which absolutely enraged the Jews. This was seen as a claim of Jesus’ divinity. In this they were right. The implication is that the Jews had not just crucified a mere man, they had crucified God. This seemed utter blasphemy. They stopped their ears, rushed Stephen and stoned him to death.
The standing of Jesus means He rose up from His throne at the right hand of God to receive Stephen home. The Book of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High. This means that the work of redemption was finished. There was no further need of animal or any other sacrifices for sin. There were no seats in the Temple in Jerusalem. The work of the priests there were never done. Nor could they ever be done. But now they would no longer be necessary. It was an old garment, torn and waiting for the trash to be burned. The ascension of Jesus tells us this important fact.
One other important point needs to be made here. The man they saw ascend was considered by the Romans to be a crucified slave. However the Romans believed a story said about the former emperor, Julius Caesar who upon his assassination by the Roman Senate in 44 BC was reportedly seen in the form of a comet ascending to the right hand of Zeus. This was supposedly proof that Julius Caesar was the Son of God. A similar myth was constructed for Augustus as well. Can you imagine what a challenge to Rome that the claim of the Apostles that they saw a Jew who was crucified for treason was the one who truly rose to the right hand of God? They were to go throughout the Roman Empire with this proclamation that it was King Jesus who was “King of Kings and Lord of Lords” and not Caesar. When one sees this, then one must realize that the Romans would be as offended by this message as were the Jews. The Jews stoned Stephen, but the Romans beheaded Paul and crucified Peter. Most, it not all of the Apostles suffered a like fate ad have countless others since.
Bonhoeffer challenges the Christian to “Come and die” rather than “come and dine.” But the church is happy to do the latter. But the dinner appointment with Jesus in the Kingdom of God is on the other side of the cross, not His, but the one Jesus commands us carry. Jesus tells His disciples at the end of Matthew that “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth. This means to follow Jesus is to recognize this fact. We must count the cost of the cross in our calculations. The Gospel which Jesus commanded the Apostles to proclaim is just as offensive today. If we preach to the world what the Apostles preached, then we must expect a similar reception. This is not a pleasant promise, but Paul tells us that all who will live in Christ Jesus shall suffer persecution. He also tells us that if we first suffer with Him, we shall also share later in His glory.
The Ascension indeed has implications, implications which make us uncomfortable. But Jesus did not send His Apostles into hostile territory just to have them suffer and die. Rather He sent them with a message of life, the only hope for the world which was is lost. Paul tells us that while we were enemies of God that Christ died for us to reconcile us. There would be no hope for us apart from the cross of Jesus and God’s vindication of Him through the Resurrection and Ascension. Somehow through the real Apostolic Succession, that is the work of evangelists over 2000 years, the saving word of Christ came to us. Many in the church have paid for this witness to us by the shedding of their blood. We must remember at what cost this treasure has been given to us. When we enter into the labor, let us realize the preciousness of the seed we carry.
At least here in America, we have not yet resisted unto blood. If we are timid now in an age of scoffers, fearing being marginalized and put down by them, what will we do if real persecution comes? Part of the reason the church has not suffered to death in this country is also that the church has watered down the gospel rather than boldly proclaiming that Jesus and His Apostles taught.
Finally, brethren, let us remember who it is that sits at God’s right hand. If we suffer, He will stand up to receive us. If we have sinned, we realize that He is there to make intercession for us. Jesus is alive! He has risen! He is coming!