The Ascension

You may or may not be familar with the illusionist Criss Angel. He has a television program on A&E (Mindfreak) on which he is regular putting his illusionist skills on display for millions to see. Should you watch his show, you will see him perform illusions using cards, coins, and cans. He is famous, though, for his illusions where he walks on water, vanishes in plain day light, and levitations. While interesting and intriguing (one is left asking, “How’d he do that?”), with all due respect, Criss Angel “ain’t got nothing” on Jesus. The ascension of Jesus is not slight of hand or an illusion – He didn’t levitate and then float back down to earth. When He “was carried up to heaven” there were no special tricks; it was the final demonstration of the power of God in the life of Jesus. Luke records the ascension not only at the of his gospel account (24.50-53), but also in his second volume, Acts. He is the New Testament writer who gives the most attention and detail to this final event in the life of Jesus. In fact, Mark and John give only brief mention of it and Matthew does not devote any of his gospel narrative to the ascension. Conversely, Luke is also the writer who gives none of the meetings between Jesus and His disciples “in Galilee” which Matthew, Mark, and John give. Nevertheless,  here, at the close Luke’s gospel, is a very precious offering of sacred history concerning our Lord’s ascension back to the Father.

The Eulogy

It has been forty days since the resurrection (Acts 1.3). This is not Easter Sunday! This is forty days after that first Sunday when the tomb was found empty. First, Jesus takes His disciples to Bethany. “Bethany was on the eastern declivity of the Mount of Olives” (Barnes) and therefore, once the Lord was taken up, the disciples would return to Jerusalem “from the mount called Olivet” (Acts 1.12). Bethany means “house of sorrow” or “affliction.” This is a key villiage in the life of Jesus; He often frequented there since this was the hometown of his friends Lazarus, Mary, and Martha. One writer says it was probably from “the remoter uplands which lie above the city” from which Jesus, in full view of His disciples, made His depature.

Before the actual ascension, though, Jesus has one final thing He desires to do with and for His disciples: bless them. Like Jacob (and the other patriarchs) of old (Gen 48.8-20; 49), Jesus lifted up his hands to bless them. Like Aaron the high priest (Lev 9.22), Jesus, the High Priest of the new covenant, lifts His hands and blesses His people. Some commentators think that also inherent in the act of lifting the hands was the intent to lay them on their heads. Perhaps, but the text is silent concerning this. This blessing is the assurance of favor, even the favor of God. When Jesus blesses His disciples, that is what He is communicating to them.

The Embarkment

As He expressing the divine favor upon them, “he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” That is, He intentionally separated Himself from them and stood apart from them. Then he was taken up, lifted. The language is very passive, as if this were something being done to Him rather than by Him. In Acts, Luke further records that a cloud comes and acts as a chariot escorting the King into the throne room of God and out of the sight of men’s eyes.

One wonders what it was like once Jesus was gone. “And just like that he was gone.” That’s it? Now what? In Acts, Luke records the angelic testimony that one day, just He left, Jesus is coming back. And so the disciples will wait do what Jesus said to do (Luke 24.49; Acts 1.8) and wait in the city for the promise to be fulfilled.

The Exultation

In the meantime, life must go on. The first thing the disciples do is worship Jesus. Do not overlook this too quickly for its theological significance is huge. The only Being worthy of worship is God – this is the testimony of Scripture (Ex 20.3-4; Deut 5.8-10; 6.13-15), Jesus (Matt 4.10; Luke 4.8), and angels (Rev 19.10; 22.9). Only God is to be worshipped and yet Jesus is worshipped and it is acceptable. Why? Jesus Christ is God. Those who rob of Him of this do not serve the same Jesus the apostles knew. Everything they had experienced with the crucifixion, resurrection, and, now, the ascension testified to them that Jesus is God. And so they worship Him as God.

Once worship is over, they go back into Jerusalem to wait for the promised Holy Spirit to come. But the attitude and atmosphere is different. They are now joyous, full of joy because of what had just happened. This has been a common theme in Luke (1.4; 2.10; 8.13; 10.17; 15.7, 10; 24.41). There is no grief, though it might have been present inasmuch as Jesus, their friend and Teacher is gone. But whatever grief could have been is swallowed up in joy.

While in Jerusalem, they frequent the temple to engage in “blessing God.” Regularly, perhaps even daily, these disciples made trips to the temple to praise God. Fittingly, Luke concludes his narrative where it all began: in the temple. From Zechariah’s fearful encounter with an angel to the disciples faithful exulations to the Almighty, Luke brings us full circle concerning the “narrative” compiled from “eyewitnesses and ministers” of “the things [we] have been taught” concerning the man named Jesus.

Appearances, pt.2

It seems many Christians fail to grasp the great importance of the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus – we need the appearances of Jesus. Without them, we may have an empty tomb, but the question would linger: where’s the body? Where’s Jesus? The appearances of Jesus after the resurrection answer that question firmly: He’s alive! Christians do not serve a dead guru or wise man; Christians serve a risen Savior who reigns from heaven. His tomb was found empty and He was seen by multiple eyewitnesses who were so deeply affected by seeing Jesus dead and then alive again that they were never the same. InLuke 24.36-49, we find yet another account of an appearance of the risen Jesus. It is still resurrection (Easter) Sunday, perhaps even slipping into Monday (by the Jewish reckoning of time). On this occasion, you find the Eleven with some other unnamed disciples listening to the testimony brought by the two who travelled with Jesus on the road to Emmaus without realizing who it was that spoke with them.

The Uncanny Evidence from the Savior

To demonstrate that He is indeed raised from the dead and, therefore, Lord and Savior, Jesus presents the disciples with three proofs as evidence.

The first proof is that Jesus miraculously shows up. John gives a parallel account of this occasion and describes the setting as one behind locked doors (John 20.19). The disciples from Emmaus and the Eleven are talking amongst themselves about “these things” which have happened during the course of the day, namely, all of the appearances of Jesus: to Mary Magdalene, Peter, the women, the two on the road to Emmaus. Lo, and behold, as they are talking about all these appearances, “Jesus himself stood among them” (v.36). Out of nowhere, Jesus miraculously materializes with a message: “Peace to you!” I suppsose the disciples reaction is the same as anyone of us would have: shock, disbelief, terror and fear, and they think they’re seeing a ghost (lit. spirit).

The question Jesus asks is interesting. In essence, Jesus asks, “What’s the big deal?” First, why are you excited and sitrred up? Also, why are you doubting? So to address these questions and concerns, Jesus presents still another proof: The nail scarred hands. The Greek is emphatic: “It is me, I myself.” And the proof is He bears the marks of crucifixion. He offers for them to touch them. In eight days, Thomas will do the same thing. He wants them to be absolutely that He is there in the flesh. Perhaps Luke includes these words to combat the seeds of Docetic gnosticism which would evolve into the heretical teaching that Jesus was an immaterial being who only seemed to have a body of flesh. There can be no doubt – Jesus’ resurrection was physical and bodily. He had a body of flesh.

His disciples are still a state of “believing disbelief.” But this fed not by doubt but by joy and astonishment. It’s still hard to believe and so Jesus provides on more proof: Jesus eats supper. It doesn’t get much more bodily or human than eating. “Have you anything to eat?” They have some “broiled fish,” where they obtained this fish is uncertain, but it seems to have been leftovers from their dinner. Some manuscripts add, “and some honeycomb.” Indeed, Canaan was the “land flowing with milk and honey.” Whether just fish or fish and honey, eat would completely remove any notion among His disciples that a “ghost” or phantom or spirit was before them. It really was the bodily resurrected Jesus!

Certainly questions arise about this resurrection body. Of what nature and sort is it. It must be noted that we know very little about it. Further, I would note that the resurrection body Jesus possessed during the final forty days He was here on earth is not the glorious body He now possesses as He sits at the right hand of God. To borrow the language of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15, we shall be “changed.” Inasmuch as Jesus had not yet ascended to the Father, He had yet to put on the glory He possessed before the creation of the world (cf. John 17.5). This world cannot contain that kind of glory. But once back in the high halls of heaven, having assumed His position at the right hand of the Father, He “changed” from the resurrection body He had during the forty days for the glorified body He now possesses.

The Understandable Expositon of the Scriptures

 Having supplied convincing proofs that He is really raised, Jesus turns His attention to the disciples ignorance of the Scriptures. Jesus explains that He had told them that these things would happen, and indeed He had on multiple occasions predicted His suffering and resurrection. But ultimately, His suffering, His three days in the tomb, and His subsequent resurrection from the dead were all to take place so that the Scriptures (Law, Prophets, and Psalms) might be fulfilled. God had spoken and men had recorded in Scripture these prophecies of Messiah. Jesus says He is the fulfillment of those prophecies.

In verse 45, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures.” Most want to jump to the conclusion that the way Christ did this was through the Holy Spirit. In fact, Matthew Poole writes, that Jesus “knew the Scriptures would not sufficiently give them a knowledge of him, and the things of God, without the influence and illumination of his Spirit.” It is curious, though, that in verse 49, Jesus promises the Spirit (promise and power from God) was yet to come. Either Jesus opened their mind for a purpose or He did it with a result. That is, He opened their collective mind in order to understand Scripture or He opened their mind so that they could understand the Scriptures. This is the same kind of language used by Luke about Lydia (Acts 16.14): “The Lord opened her heart to pay attention to what was said by Paul.” A veil is dropped and their hearts are ready and open to “understand the Scriptures.” Previously, Jesus has asked His disciples, “Are you also still without understand?” (Matt 15.16; Mark 7.18) They were darkened, as it were, in their understanding. Now, in light of the death, burial, and resurrection, their minds are ready for Christ to instruct them in the Scriptures. The same kind of language is used by Luke in Acts with Paul’s teaching and preaching ministry also (Acts 17.2-3; 26.17-18).

Their minds now open, He opens up the Word of God to them. “Thus it is written…” and Jesus highlights three prophetic points: 1) the suffering of Christ, 2) the resurrection of Christ, and 3) the preching of Christ. Jesus the Christ suffered mentally, emotionally, physically, psychologically, and spiritually for every man so that sin might be atoned for and forgiveness and redemption made available to those who might seek Him. Three days later, Jesus the Christ was resurrected from the dead by the power of God. And now, fulfilling the prophetic mandate, Jesus would commission and send forth His disciples to preach “repentance and forgiveness of sins…to all nations.” Luke closes a circle he began with near the beginning of his gospel narrative and has addressed throughout, namely, the universality of the gospel. “The gospel is for all.” All nations; all enthic groups. This is the exact same language used by Matthew in the Great Commission (Matt 28.19). But this has a starting point: Jerusalem. Just ten days following the ascension of Jesus (24.51; Acts 1.9), the Twelve, empowered by the “power from on high” (the Holy Spirit), will preach this message of repentance and forgiveness (Acts 2, esp. v.38). They are the witnesses of the fulfillment of prophetic utterance and will bear their testimony “to all nations.”

They are not alone nor do they rely upon their own power to accomplish this mission. The Father has promised to send help. John particularly highlights this promise in chs. 14-16 of his gospel account. Contextually, though, Jesus appears to be talking about a promise made through the prophetic word. In Acts, Luke gives us the rest of the story when Peter on Pentecost explains that the miraculous empowering of the Spirit is fulfillment of prophetic promise made through the prophet Joel (Acts 2.16-21; cf. Joel 2.28-32). It seems that is when the Father made the promise to “pour out His Spirit on all flesh.” Jesus says that prophetic promise will be kept, but they must “stay in the city” of Jerusalem until the “power from on high” is put on (cf. Luke 1.35 for similar language). A similar reminder will be made just before Jesus ascends to heaven (Acts 1.4).