The Ascension of Jesus
In the previous passage, we have a record of the last earthly meeting of his disciples which came at the end of a forty day period after the resurrection. There were many appearances of Jesus during this time in both Galilee and Jerusalem. At one time there were 500 people at one time which witnessed that Jesus was alive according to Paul in 1 Corinthians 15. These appearances included allowing the disciples to touch Jesus and see that he was really alive and not a ghost. He ate with them as well. Obviously, there was something different about this in that he appeared to them in the midst of a locked room. But it was a body, nevertheless. This gives us a clue as to what life in heaven will be like. As Paul notes, it will be in a glorified body. It also appears that we will eat and drink with Jesus. The resurrection is not some sort of soulish existence apart from a body.
We also saw that Jesus probably has one more lunch with his disciples before the ascension. It may have been a reminder of the first communion in which He promised that he would sup with them once more in the Kingdom of God. He used this last occasion to teach them one more time before He left. The church had to be sure of the reality of Jesus’ resurrection and ascension as well as to have confidence that He would come back for them when the Father was ready.
Teaching the kingdom of God was Jesus’ primary activity on earth, not His miracles and healings. He wanted the disciples to understand that the Old Testament promises of Christ were the first proof of the reality of the Kingdom. This is not to say that the miracles and other proofs are not important. But the disciples needed to know that God is sovereign and had this whole matter planned well in advance as well as that He perfectly executed this plan. This ability of God to deliver on His promises is the sure foundation of faith. The disciples were going to face much hostility. They needed to be sure.
Jesus’ last words were those of commission. After telling the disciples to put their trust in God’s provision to bring the Kingdom according to the timing and means He had set, Jesus told them that they were to go everywhere to tell people about Him, to continue Jesus’ mission of doing and teaching. The first fruit of true faith is to obey the gospel.
Exposition of the Text
The text says that after He had charged the disciples that He was taken up into heaven. There was great brightness, clouds, and the appearance of two shining men (angels). This should have reminded Peter, James and John of the transfiguration as well as the two angels who appeared to Mary at the tomb. In the transfiguration, it was Moses and Elijah who appeared and witnessed to the “exodus” Jesus was about to encounter in Jerusalem. The two angels at the tomb witnessed to Mark the good news of the resurrection which they were to proclaim to the unbelieving disciples. This time, it is the apostles who are called to continue in this mission of witness.
Instead of falling asleep like they did at the transfiguration, they continued to gaze upward at the spectacle. While it was Jesus’ time to return to the Father, it was not the apostle’s time. Instead, they were about to get to work proclaiming what they had seen and heard to an unbelieving world. The angels at each side of Jesus told them to stop gazing upward. All would be OK. Jesus would come back at the end of time in the same way they witnessed His ascension. They were instead to return to Jerusalem and await further orders and the promise of the Holy Spirit.
The Ascension is pretty much a forgotten event in today’s evangelical church. Some of the “high” churches still celebrate the Ascension as a Christian Holy Day, but the Evangelicals tend to think it of only minor importance. This is a big mistake. If we understand Luke and Acts belonging together, then the Ascension is at the very center of Luke and Acts. In ancient literature, a technique called chiasm is often used. The most important point occurs at the middle, not the end of the document. In Luke, the transfiguration is at the center which is a special preview of the kingdom to Peter, James, and John. So the Kingdom of God is at center of the gospel. The fact that it tells of Jesus’ coming passion shows that this is also center of the message. The Kingdom of God is as brilliantly displayed on the cross as much as it is in the glorious splendor we see at the Ascension. The center of the Book of Acts is in chapter 15, which is the Jerusalem Council in which Gentile Christians were formally welcomed alongside Jewish believers in Christ. So each of these books have a central point in and of themselves. But when taken together, it is the Ascension, not the resurrection which is front and center. As important as Good Friday and Easter are, it is the Ascension which is actually the central event. The Word who had become flesh was not returning to the Father from whom He came.
If the Ascension is at the literary center of Luke and Acts, then the question arises is what makes it so important. This is certainly a good question to ask. There are several reasons it is so important. First of all, it is proof that we shall one day be glorified and be with him. This serves as encouragement to continue the journey in a world which seems anything but glorious to the Christian. An even to the unbelievers, the glory the world seems to display shows itself eventually to be a lie. The optimism of youth is replaced by the cynicism of old age.
We also read to Jesus’s work as an intercessor for the brethren. We will see this when Jesus goes from being in a seated posture at the Father’s right hand to standing to assist the dying Stephen who was being stoned. The work of atonement for our sins. In this respect, Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand. But He still does the work of a priest in interceding for us. For this, He stands up for us. Jesus is no idle spectator to the drams of salvation as if He were saying: “I’ve done my part; now you do yours. Jesus works through the agency of the Holy Spirit filled church rather than the church working for Jesus.
From heaven, Jesus has a higher perspective than when He was on earth. The earthly Jesus, even though He was fully God the Son was limited by His mission and humanity to seeing what earthly eyes can see. He was in His human nature bound to the limitations of time and space. He even allowed Himself to be led by the Holy Spirit and to remain obedient to the will of the Father, even though He is in every way equal to both. This indeed is a great mystery to us.
From heaven, the glorified Son of Man has an unlimited view of things. The human who is on the plain has a limited view of things. He is one of the trees in the forest. From there, one cannot see the forest from the trees. If the same person were to climb a mountain, the entire forest becomes visible. So Jesus is aware of all that is going on in heaven. His view is not limited to the dusty roads of ancient Palestine.
The importance of the Ascension to the modern person is made unclear, especially here in America. We have no monarch and patronage system here. So we have a fuzzy conception of what “Lord” means. We say with good intentions that we need to choose to make Jesus “the Lord of your life.” This is the mistake the 5,000 made in John 6:15. They came to seize Jesus and “make Him king.” The truth of the matter is that Jesus is already your Lord and King, of the saved and the lost, whether we acknowledge His lordship or not. He does not need to be made “Lord” by anyone. He is Lord of all. When we try to make Jesus Lord, what we are really doing is making Jesus fit our earthbound expectations. It is a subtle form of idolatry. The Jesus the 5000 wanted to seize (arrest) and make King was an earthly Messiah who would overthrow the Romans and restore the Davidic kingdom. This is the Jesus who was greeted with palm branches on Palm Sunday. The palm branch was a symbol of Jewish independence and was on their coins when they were last independent more than 100 years earlier under the Hasmoneans. When Jesus failed to meet this expectation, they chose Barabbas and crucified Jesus. Barabbas was the one who could be molded. His name interestingly means “Son of the Father.” And his given name according to some manuscripts Matthew may have been Joshua or Jesus. All this is to say that the church does not set Jesus’ agenda; rather it is the other way around. What the church needs to do is pray to seek the will of God and follow instructions.
When, in 44BC, Julius Caesar was murdered by the Senate, a comet appeared in the sky. Witnesses and theologians interpreted this as the spirit of Caesar returning to God (Jupiter or Zeus the Father). This was used as a proof that Julius Caesar was the “Son of God” and worthy of divine worship. From that time, the Caesars of Rome were considered to be the “king of kings and lord of lords” as well.
Imagine what a confrontation the message that a Jew who had been crucified by Rome for treason was actually “King of Kings and Lord of Lords!” What a dangerous message to boldly proclaim to the Gentile world! This is a proclamation that would lead to the execution of most if not all of the Apostles as well as countless others. This does not mean that they, and more than Jesus led a violent revolution against Rome. Christianity did not conquer Rome by military force. They did not ascend by the infliction of suffering, but rather than by patient endurance. But the Apostles saw this last revelation of the person of Jesus as a group. They had just eaten with Him. They once more witnessed the Son of Man’s humanity as one who had been raised from the dead. Now they witnessed His ascension. There was no turning back for them any longer. They knew the truth and were willing to die for it.
What about us? Are we willing to endure rejection and patiently suffering for Jesus. Or do we rather want a political Jesus. It seems to me that many in America today think that the church should resort to political intrigue. If only the right people could be elected to office. Then we can turn the country around. But if we read the original blueprint from the book of Acts, we will realize that as well-intentioned as this might be, it is not God’s way of doing things. God’s rule is an absolute monarchy, not a democracy. Democracy means “rule of the people.” This means that people call the shots, in theory at least. This is essentially what the devil offered Eve in the Garden when he states, “you shall be like God, knowing good and evil. It was a promise of liberty from the rule of God. People could make their own moral decisions. Of course, this was a lie. Humankind has been in total slavery to sin and death until this day. And even the veneer of democracy is fading in America as the government in Washington led by the rich elite seize more and more control. This means that there will be increasing persecution of the true Christians who dare to proclaim that Jesus is Lord, even of Washington.
I, for one, do not relish the idea of persecution. But the Book of Acts tells us to expect it. So does the entire New Testament for that matter. One of the church father’s said that the “blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.” Even Paul’s murderous pre-Christian persecution of the early church only led to the scattering of the Gospel to many of the villages in Judaea and Samaria. The church of Jesus will emerge triumphant. Some day, inglorious manner, Jesus will return and rule in power. But for now, He rules in our weakness. The human weakness of the church is actually her strength if it relies on God and His promises.
The church is not to attempt a political conquest of the state. The state is ordained by God to maintain law and order. This does not mean that the state is righteous or “Christian.” Rather it means that the Christian is to be law-abiding and show proper respect to the state, not because the state is the absolute power. We know that Jesus tells Pilate in John that he had no direct authority over Jesus. It was given to Him from above. This does not refer to Pilate’s being given authority by Tiberius Caesar. From above in Hebrew thought always means “from God.” Therefore, our obedience to earthly authority is indirect. Because the ascended Jesus is Lord over all including the political institutions of this world, we are actually submitting to the rule of Jesus when we are obedient citizens of the state.
Of course, one may and even should ask this question: “What about submitting to people like Hitler? Shouldn’t we like Bonhoeffer resist such evil?” The Bible clearly seems to nix the idea of active resistance of arms against the state. However, in this same book of Acts, Peter would tell the Sanhedrin when the Apostles were charged not to preach and teach in Jesus’ name that they had to obey the will of God rather than man. Here, the will of God expressly superseded the dictates of the government. God the Son commanded them to preach and teach in Jesus’ name, regardless of what the state thought about it. We are of course to do likewise as the church is under the same commandment. But at the same time, we must be willing to suffer the consequences of our actions when we do get arrested for following Jesus and suffer patiently, even unto death if necessary. This is already true in much of the world and may become so here in America as well.
We can endure suffering because the Holy Spirit is in His church and comforts us and strengthens us for this task. This is why the Apostles had to return to Jerusalem and wait for it. We could never endure this in our own strength. But if we are sure like the Apostles were of the reality of Jesus glorious ascension after His sacrificial death on a cross for our sins and resurrection on the third day, then we can endure any hardship while we wait the glorious return of Jesus Christ. Whether we are alive on this earth when this happens or not does not matter. We are going to rule and reign with Him forever. Let us give thanks!