We began our series of morning sermons on the Gospel of Luke on the 28th of August 2011. We conclude the series this morning with this, the ninety-second sermon. Remember, though we have largely avoided preaching twice on the same paragraph, Luke’s Gospel is the longest book in the New Testament, in fact considerably longer than any other. Even at one sermon per paragraph, it requires a great many sermons to cover its material. Its last few chapters illustrate just how much material the book contains: chapter 22 has 71 verses; chapter 23 has 56; and chapter 24 has 53, very long chapters by the standards of the New Testament.
The last few verses of the Gospel form a bridge to the opening verses of Luke’s second volume, the Book of Acts. In the first chapter of Acts he will give a more detailed account of the ascension, which here is simply mentioned. It is not impossible that Luke had simply run out of room on the scroll he was using and had to bring his Gospel to a somewhat abrupt end.
Luke here omits mention of the forty days that separated the Lord’s resurrection from his ascension. But in Acts 1:3-5 Luke explains that the Lord appeared to his disciples many times over the forty days that separated his resurrection from his ascension and that during that time he taught them about the kingdom of God and prepared them for the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, which Luke mentioned here in v. 49.
Bethany was on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives, the hill located to the immediate east of the city. So the ascension took place at some point on this hill but perhaps out of sight of the city itself.
The numerous paintings that depict Jesus ascending with his hands raised are efforts to depict the scene as Luke has described it here.
That these Jewish men worshipped him indicates that they now understood that Jesus was divine. This is, by the way, the first instance of anyone “worshipping” Jesus in the Gospel, which is to say the first instance of anyone ascribing deity to him. But the resurrection and the Lord’s teaching over the forty days had clarified his identity in their minds. For dyed-in-the-wool monotheists, the doctrine of the triple personality of God of God would have been no easy pill to swallow. But clearly they now understood both that Jesus was God himself and that, even in his divine nature, he was not the Father or the Spirit. What is more they also understood that as God the Son he had also become a true and authentic human being. The apostles were already Trinitarians before they began to write the books that make up the New Testament, as those writings make clear, and they already believed in the double nature of the Lord Jesus Christ.
“And they were continually in the temple blessing God” is something of an inclusio for the Gospel of Luke. We had a similar statement made about Anna in 2:37, but, more to the point, the Gospel, as you remember, began in the temple with Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, burning incense in the sanctuary, and now the Gospel ends in the same temple courts where it began. You will notice that they saw no need to depart the temple or to separate themselves from its worship. They would have said, had someone asked them, that only a follower of Jesus Christ could fully appreciate the meaning and manner of that worship.
This short paragraph is what is sometimes referred to as Janus material, after the Roman god Janus who had two faces and looked backward and forward at the same time. These verses look back over the entire account of the Lord’s life and ministry and forward to how that ministry will continue by the Holy Spirit. The ascension is, in this way, the connection between Christ’s work while he was in the world and his work as it will continue from heaven through the Spirit and the church.
Forty days after his resurrection and ten days before Pentecost — by my calculations a Thursday or a Friday — and after numerous appearances to his disciples both in Judea and Galilee, during which appearances he apparently taught his disciples at length how to understand what the Word of God had taught beforehand concerning his life and work, how to understand who he was and what he had done for the salvation of sinners, the Lord took the eleven — we don’t know whether others of his disciples, the women for example, were present as well — to Bethany, the village where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus lived and where so many sacred memories of the days of his ministry would have come to mind. Did they share a final meal with Mary and Martha serving? Who can say?
But when the time came, with the men standing around him, the Lord departed from them, rising into a cloud that eventually hid him from their sight. Two angels then appeared to tell the disciples that the Lord would return to earth the same way he left it. So we read in Acts 1. The verbs used to describe the ascension, here and in Acts 1, are sometimes active and sometimes passive, so it was an act of the Father, summoning his Son to heaven, and an act of the Son, returning to his Father. [Bavinck, RD, iii, 445]
In a striking finale to his Gospel, Luke tells us that the disciples returned to Jerusalem — a distance of some two miles — rejoicing all the way. What a walk that must have been! Down the hill along the road Jesus had taken in triumph seven weeks before. Near the bottom of the hill they passed Gethsemane — did they pause to recollect the night of his arrest? — and then across the Kidron Valley and up toward the gate of the city. What vivid scenes must have risen before their mind’s eye! What memories must have filled their conversation! What excited conjectures about what lay ahead! They had worshipped Jesus. They now knew the thrilling and utterly mysterious truth about their Master: he was none other than God himself and, at the same time,the very man they had come to know through the three years of their acquaintance.
We might have thought that they would have been dejected to have seen the Lord, whose presence had been such an impossibly wonderful force in their lives and still more since his resurrection, disappear from their sight. We might have supposed that they would have felt alone, even deserted; unsure of themselves. But after the resurrection; after hearing him explain everything during the forty days; after being assured of his continued presence with them, even if in another way; after being told of the soon-coming of the Holy Spirit, realizing that they were about to embark on an exciting new chapter of their lives; the Lord’s ascension represented for them less an end than a beginning.
The ascension was that for Jesus, of course. It was not just a departure. It was an arrival. He had said that he was returning to his Father, that the Son of Man would soon be sitting at the Father’s right hand, and so it was. He left the world to return to heaven. In Acts 1:9-11 the words “into heaven” in Luke’s narrative of the ascension occur four times. The Lord left earth for heaven; he was going someplace, however difficult it is for us to imagine it, however impossible for us to locate it. He went, he told his disciples, as we read in John 14, back to his Father’s house. It is a wonderful thought. Imagine his welcome there! You know those scenes in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, as the travelers finally cross the river and walk up to the gates of the Celestial City, the golden city coming into view as the gates are opened for them. They don’t turn back to look behind, as if they regretted having to leave the world; they are mesmerized by what they see before them, enchanted by the beauty of the city and the glory that bathes her streets in warm and sparkling light. So it was, no doubt, for Jesus himself: coming home in a way, but as a man for the first time entering the city of God.
The disciples must have understood that; that they were saying farewell to Jesus but only in the confidence that 1) they would someday be reunited (they remembered the Lord’s words as we read them in John: “I go to prepare a place for you so that where I am you may be also.”); 2) that Christ had not really left them (they would have remembered his words “Behold I am with you always, to the end of the age”, words all the more striking because he said them after telling them that he was leaving to return to heaven); 3) great things lay in store for them upon the coming of the Holy Spirit and the beginning of their ministry to proclaim Christ to the world; and 4) it was this that had been the purpose of the Lord all along, to call the nations to himself. What is more, of course, they had just seen one more absolutely phenomenal event: Christ departing from the world. As part of that they had an encounter with two angels who spoke of his return in due time. It was an exciting time, not a gloomy time for these men! Conquest not defeat lay open to their view. These men fully appreciated, in other words, that the Lord Jesus “…did not vanish or miraculously disappear…but simply passed beyond the boundary of vision.” [J. A. Alexander, Acts, 14, cited in G. Fuller, “The Life of Jesus after the Ascension,” WTJ 56, 2 (Fall 1994) 392] He was still with them; they just couldn’t see him any longer.
It will not surprise you to learn that there have been many who have doubted that there ever was such an ascension to heaven as Luke describes here and in the first chapter of his second volume. Some years ago a professor of divinity at Vanderbilt in Nashville was quoted in the press as denying the ascension. His argument was that we now know that bodies, should they rise above the earth, would eventually go into orbit! Such is the quality of theological reflection you are likely to get at Vanderbilt! The creator of the universe, the healer of the sick, the ruler of storms, and the one who rose from the dead must have gone somewhere when his work was done! Where else but back to heaven? If it were God who came into the world to be a man for men, he could certainly leave it however he pleased!
We are much less interested in seeking to prove how reasonable the biblical account of the ascension is and for more interested in knowing what it means, how we are to understand it.
And though Luke does not give it to us here — space constrained him — the New Testament gives us an elaborate answer to that question. The ascension is not merely the final event in the Lord’s sojourn in this world, it is not merely his passage from earth to heaven, it is for several reasons an article of our Christian faith in the same way that the incarnation or the cross or the resurrection are articles of our faith; that is, the ascension is something that we are to believe. As in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord, who was born of the virgin Mary…who ascended into heaven…” Why does the ascension figure so largely, when so many other things — his teaching, his miracles, the example of his life — do not figure in the Creeds at all? Well let me at least begin an explanation.
- First, the ascension is the demonstration, even the guarantee of our own ascension to heaven in due time.
In this sense the ascension is part of the work of salvation our Savior performed for us. As we died on the cross, because we were united with him in his death; as we rose with him in the resurrection because he rose on our behalf; so we ascended to heaven with him: in principle and in anticipation.
Surely it is a remarkable fact, one we ought to contemplate more than we do, that, difficult as it may be for us to imagine precisely how it is so, there is now a complete human being in heaven, wherever heaven is within or without this vast cosmos. We don’t know, of course, exactly what we are to believe about Enoch and Elijah, who also went to heaven directly from earth — but so far as we are told, Jesus is the only authentic man — body and soul in perfect integrity — who is now, or has ever been in heaven. Neither Enoch’s body nor Elijah’s has yet experienced the resurrection.
In a world of spirits — God himself, the angels, and the church triumphant — there stands a human being made fit for eternal life as a human being. Amidst all of those spirits there stands a body. The dust of the earth has been made perfect and now sits on the throne of the Majesty on high! That is the beautiful thought of the author of the letter to the Hebrews:
“We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf…” [6:19-20]
Just as the captain of a ship drops anchor to hold his ship firmly in place, so the Lord’s ascension is an anchor for our lives, holding us steady in the storms of life. Our anchor chain, however, does not run down to the bottom of the sea, but up to heaven itself. How do you know that you are someday soon going to set your feet, these feet, on the dirt, the soil, the grass, the streets of the heavenly country? How do you know that you’re going to open your eyes, these eyes made perfect, on the glory of that place and hear with your ears, these ears, the beautiful and captivating sounds of the city of God? How do you know that you are right to stand firm in your faith in Jesus no matter the difficulties, the sacrifices, and the wearying work that following him may require? I’ll tell you how you’ll know. Because Jesus is already there and he went there to prepare a place for you. That is what Paul means when he makes bold to say that true Christians are already as much as “seated with [Christ] in the heavenly places.” This is what it means to be united to Christ, to be “in Christ” as Christians are so often said to be in the New Testament. What happened to him has happened to us because he did it for us; and what he has done we will eventually do as well. Paul usually puts statements like these in the past tense. We have been raised with Christ. We have been seated with him in heaven. The deed is done; the future is so certain it can be spoken of in the past tense as if it had already occurred. It has occurred. Our forerunner is already there!
Think of it: we are not only going to heaven, we are going there through the air as Jesus did, as Paul reminds us in 1 Thessalonians. That is how precisely we are going to follow Jesus to heaven! Man! What a day that will be!
- Second, the ascension is the precondition of the Lord’s heavenly ministry.
If you were to look in my library or the church library for a book on the life of Christ, a biography of Christ if you will — there are a great many such books — you would find that I have five such “lives” on my shelves. I could have many more. Virtually all such books will begin with his birth and end with his resurrection, or, perhaps, with the ascension. I finished a biography of President Calvin Coolidge last night and like most biographies it began with the circumstances of his birth and finished, rather abruptly, with his death by sudden heart attack in January 1933. But there is something profoundly misleading about a so-called “Life of Christ” that ends with the ascension, as if the subject of the biography had died at that point. Christ is still very much alive and his life and work continue in just as dramatic and important a way as they did when he was among his disciples during the three years of his public ministry and the forty days that followed.
In Christian theology, all that the Lord Jesus is doing now in heaven to further his purposes and his Father’s purposes in the world is referred to as the session, or, in Latin, the sessio. The words mean “sitting,” but sitting in the official sense, as in the sitting of a court or a legislative body, which sittings we still refer to as “sessions” today. “Court is in session,” we say, or “This bill will be taken up in the current session.” To sit in this sense means “to preside” or “to fulfill the functions of an office.”
In Hebrews 1:3 we read:
“After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…”
He sat down, that is, not to rest, but to rule and to continue to fulfill his office as Mediator between God and man. As we read in Hebrews 10:12-13:
“…he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet.”
Peter tells us that Jesus went to heaven, sits at God’s right hand, with angels, authorities, and powers in submission to him. [1 Pet. 3:22] The world doesn’t know this. We understand that. They cannot see the Lord Christ in his glory at the Right Hand. They cannot tell that what is happening in the world is the out-working of his will to bring this world eventually to final judgment and salvation. They do not grasp that history is progressing inexorably to a climax and a consummation that Jesus himself has ordered and will bring to pass at his Second Coming. The terrible troubles in Afghanistan or Syria, terrorist attack in Lebanon, the typhoon in the Philippines, the tornadoes in the mid-west, the political mess we are in America today, the progress of the gospel so dramatic and powerful in Asia and Africa, economic booms and busts, new cures for old diseases, and new diseases appearing, bumper crops and famines, life and death; these are not accidents, these are the blessings and judgments of Christ, sent down from heaven, and moving history along the path that has been marked out for it by the one who is king and head of all things for the church.
No one who beholds the tragic aspect of human life with any sense of proportion will understand it aright unless and until he lifts his eyes to heaven and sees, sitting at the Right Hand, the King of Kings, whose judgments are true and righteous altogether, and whose sovereign rule embraces everything that happens in this world.
But from heaven he not only rules, he also intercedes for his people. More than once in the New Testament we are reminded that Jesus, as our high priest, is praying for us, that he helps us in our weakness and sympathizes with us in our trials. We even read that Jesus always lives to intercede for us. [Heb. 7:25] Augustus Toplady caught the implication of this continuing ministry of Jesus in a verse:
Be mindful of Jesus and me!
My pardon he suffered to buy;
And what he procured on the tree,
For me he demands in the sky.
And who knows better how to pray for us than the one who suffered all the temptations of our life, yet without sin.
Not even the tenderest heart, and next our own
Knows half the reasons why we smile or sigh.
Thou knowest our loneliness,
No stranger thou to all our solitude.
Who is asking for what you most need, for what your true happiness requires, for the provision of what you lack, strength to endure what you face, for the conquest of your sins and for sunshine in your heart? Who is it who is asking most sincerely, most ardently, most faithfully and constantly? It is the King of Kings himself, the Son of God, the crucified and risen Savior who now sits at the Right Hand. If we believe this, really believe it, and we are taught to believe it in the Word of God by the very men who saw him leave this world, we cannot doubt that our lives are taking the path that is best, however difficult, however mysterious. It is the path our Savior’s prayers have opened before us.
There is so much else to say about the Lord’s ministry on our behalf as he exercises it from heaven. But I hurry on; like Luke I am coming to the end of my scroll and have to wrap things up.
- Third and finally the ascension is an article of our faith as Christians because it is the prelude of the Lord’s next appearance in the world.
One cannot return to a place until first he has left it. This is the point that the two angels made to the disciples as we read in Acts 1:11. The Lord Jesus would return in the way in which he left. Without the ascension there could be no Second Coming. It is the precondition of the Lord’s return. When he comes again, as we read in Hebrews 9::28, it will not be to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” Nothing in our faith means anything at all if Jesus is not coming back to judge the living and the dead and to take his people to heaven. The entire edifice of Christian faith rests on the foundation of a certain future, of eternal life to be granted in its fullness at the end of time upon the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. And that is what the ascension is: a leaving with the intention to return. As Paul once put it:
“Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him to subject all things to himself.” [Phil. 3:20-21]
I think this may have been one of the reasons the apostles left the place of the Lord’s ascension so happy. His ascension was a large and decisive step toward his return. You can’t start counting down the days to the wedding, until first you are engaged! In the same way, you can’t start looking for the Lord’s return until he has left.
In all these ways the Lord’s ascension is a vital article of our faith as Christians. Think of it this way. A great deal that sustains your life every moment, every day you are most of the time utterly unaware of. You do not tell your heart to beat or your lungs to breathe. You are hardly even aware that they do so. You do not have to make a decision in order for your digestive system to turn the food you eat into energy. You pay no attention to your neurological system. They work constantly but without your conscious oversight. It is all essential to your life, but you rarely give such things a thought. Indeed, if you had to think about them, you couldn’t think about anything else. If you had to command your heart and lungs and other biological systems you would be entirely preoccupied with them; they would be your daily life in its entirety.
Well so it is with your spiritual life. While there is much to think about and many decisions to make, still most of it is imperceptible to you. The foundations of your Christian existence lie very deep. They reach down to where the Lord Jesus is carrying on his work in you and for you; or, better, they reach up to heaven where that work is being done. Every day, all day long, vast loads of sin are carried away to be buried in the deepest sea; every day the purest and most powerful prayers are offered on your behalf — prayers that you hadn’t the wit or the conviction to pray for yourself but prayers that make all the difference between you living and dying as a child of God. And all the while the world is being ruled on your behalf with a view to your eternal life and a place is being prepared for you in the city that has foundations. You have an advocate, a priest, a king who is constantly at work on your behalf. And some day, you will see that God/Man face to face, and be overwhelmed by the recognition of all that he did for you when you were utterly unaware. Your life is speeding toward him. Or, better, he is speeding toward you!
If you really believe that, and every Christian should, then you too should go home with a spring in your step!