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.
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.
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.
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.