Lectionary Commentaries for May 13, 2021
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Jin Young Choi

Christian churches celebrate Ascension Day on the fortieth day of Easter. 

Luke 24:51 describes that after Jesus’ appearance to his disciples, he blesses them and is taken up into heaven (see also Mark 16:19). Acts 1:2-9 retells this story, indicating that he appears to the apostles for forty days before ascension. Luke 24:44-53 consists of two parts: Jesus’ final words (verses 44-49) and his departure from earth and the disciples’ return to Jerusalem (verses 50-53).

Temporal continuity

Jesus’ words before his ascension highlight that everything written about Jesus in the scriptures (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings) must be fulfilled (verse 44). Jesus reminds them of what is written (verse 46): (1) the death and resurrection of the Messiah and (2) continued proclamation in his name. Jesus had spoken these words to the disciples before he died, and now he opens their minds and helps their understanding of the scriptures. Jesus does not mention his ascension but instead what will continue in his name: “repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (verse 47). 

Luke’s audience remembers that John the Baptizer proclaimed a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins (3:3). Jesus said that he came to call sinners to repentance (5:32; see also 15:7). Commentators observe that Luke understands salvation as a present reality or even in terms of liberation (“proclaim release [aphesin] to the captives,” 4:18). Forgiveness (aphesin) of sins presents such a reality. 

The fulfillment of the scriptures is still ongoing: what is written in the scriptures has been fulfilled in Jesus; and the disciples, witnesses to the Jesus event, will proclaim the same message of salvation in his name. There is continuity between God’s promises given to Israel and their fulfillment in Jesus the Messiah. Moreover, Jesus is sending upon the disciples the promise of God to be fulfilled in the church (verses 48-49). 

Spatial movement: from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth

In addition to the temporal continuity between Israel, Jesus, and the church, there is the spatial progression of proclamation, starting from Jerusalem to all nations. While other Gospels end with the story of the disciples’ return to Galilee where they (are supposed to) meet the risen Jesus (Mark 16:7; Matthew 28:10, 16; John 21:1), Luke’s geographical focus is in Jerusalem—the place where the Gospel starts and ends. Both Luke 24:49 and Acts 1:2 point out that the disciples (1) stay in Jerusalem; (2) until they receive the promise of God, that is, the Holy Spirit. When the Spirit has come upon them, they will receive power and be Jesus’ witnesses “in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). 

Spatial movement: Jesus’ ascension and the Spirit’s descent

The coming of the Holy Spirit is possible when Jesus departs. After his post-Easter appearance to the disciples in Jerusalem, Jesus blesses them in Bethany and departs (diestē  dia+hisēmi, “stand apart”) from them. Jesus’ departure is mentioned earlier in the Gospel. Luke depicts Moses and Elijah speaking to Jesus about his “departure (exodos), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem” (Luke 9:30-31). Moses and Elijah represent the Law and the Prophets, respectively. Whereas Moses led the exodus of the Israelites out of Egypt, Elijah was taken into heaven (2 Kings 2:11) and will be sent before the day of the Lord comes (Malachi 4:5-6). Luke visualizes Jesus as similarly carried up into heaven.

Luke’s emphasis on Jesus’ ascension into heaven underscores his physical absence from the earth. Instead, the exalted Christ is at the right hand of God in heaven (Acts 7:55-56). He must remain there until the time of restoration for all (Acts 3:20-21) and will come in the same way he went into heaven (Acts 1:11). In the time between his ascension and parousia, his witnesses proclaim the good news of salvation to all nations in his name. The empowerment of the Holy Spirit, made possible by Jesus’ departure, occurs ten days after his ascension.

As Jesus’ ascension is viewed as an exodus, his departure will bring the liberation of God’s people, which is not limited to the restoration of the kingdom to Israel (Acts 1:6). His ascension generates a movement that is not centripetal but centrifugal. Through the already effective power of the Holy Spirit “devout Jews from every nation under heaven” witness this eschatological event in Jerusalem, which is only its beginning (Acts 2:5). 


As we still live in the time between Jesus’ ascension and his parousia, Luke’s understanding of Jesus’ absence and presence in temporal and spatial terms leads us to reimagine the reality of salvation here and now. First, as God fulfilled the promises given to Israel in Jesus Christ, and God’s promise is fulfilled again in the early Christian church through the Holy Spirit, we trust God’s faithfulness to the promises given to us. How and where do we see the work of the Holy Spirit that liberates people in bondage? 

Second, Jesus’ second coming has not occurred. Luke reorients the questions of time and space. Regarding the question of when he will come and restore everything: you do not know the times that God has set (Acts 1:6-7). As to where Jesus is: “why do you stand looking up toward heaven?” (Acts 1:11). Jesus’ ascension does not lead us to look for a supernatural realm but has generated a historically grounded and socially engaged faith movement on a global scale for over two thousand years. How does Jesus’ ascension redirect our focus from the otherworldly toward Christian witness in the world?

Last, we need to consider Luke’s claim of Jesus’ ascension and the expansion of Christian witness and mission in the Roman imperial context in which human emperors were divinized conquerors of all nations. The early Christians were among the defeated nations but envisioned a future of God’s reign. The belief that Jesus is present in the mission of the church through the Holy Spirit empowered them. Our worshipping the exalted Jesus never supports various manifestations of Christian superiority (for example, Constantinian Christianity and anti-Semitism) and the role of Christianity in Western colonization and civilization of the Other. How does Jesus’ exodus lead us to continue to do his liberating work on earth (Luke 4:18-19)?

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Gilberto Ruiz

The author of Acts also wrote the third Gospel and is traditionally associated with Luke the physician (Colossians 4:14; 2 Timothy 4:11; Philemon 24), though his true identity remains unknown. Acts 1:1-11 segues the story of Jesus as told in Luke’s Gospel to the story of the early church as told in Acts. It does so underscoring that transitions do not happen in a vacuum, disconnected from what came before, and that they often dispense power to a new generation.

The opening verses summarize the first book. Theophilus, also addressed in the prologue to Luke’s Gospel (1:1-4), probably commissioned the writing of Luke-Acts. But also possible is that the name, which means “lover of God” or “beloved of God,” refers symbolically to Luke’s reader. Tellingly, the literal translation of Acts 1:1 states that Luke’s first volume covered what Jesus “began both to do and teach,” suggesting that Jesus’ work continues in his apostles’ teaching and ministry.

Many links between the end of Luke’s Gospel and the start of Acts reinforce the connection between Jesus and his disciples. Acts 1:2 refers to instructions Jesus delivered to them in Luke 24:44-49. The risen Jesus’ appearances and proofs mentioned in verse 3 include those offered throughout Luke 24:13-49. The Holy Spirit—which empowers both the ministry of Jesus and of his disciples (Luke 3:21-22; 4:14, 18; Acts 1:2, 5; 2:1-4)—is spoken of as the “promise of the Father” in verse 4 as it had been in Luke 24:49. Just as the kingdom of God constituted the linchpin of Jesus’ teaching in Luke (for example, 4:43; 6:20; 7:28; 8:1; 11:2, 20; 17:20-21), so also does the risen Jesus speak to his disciples of God’s reign (Acts 1:3) which they, in turn, will continue to proclaim (8:12; 14:22; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31).

Forging this link between Jesus and the disciples at the start of Acts assumes considerable importance given the immediately following departure of Jesus in bodily form. In Luke’s theology, Jesus’ ascension hardly means that Jesus is absent from the church. As risen Lord, he provides the Spirit (Luke 3:16; Acts 2:32-33).

Verses 6-11 narrate the ascension (see also Luke 24:50-51). The question the disciples ask Jesus in verse 6 is reasonable, given that he had been teaching them about God’s kingdom in the forty days after his resurrection (verse 3). As risen Lord, surely Jesus can fulfill the messianic expectation of restoring Israel to the political sovereignty it once held (see also Jeremiah 23:5-6; Amos 9:11-12), can he not? Without denying a future restoration along these lines, Jesus tells them that they are not privy to God’s timetable (Acts 1:7). Instead, through the Holy Spirit they will soon receive power that transforms them from passive spectators awaiting the fulfillment of their nationalistic hopes to active witnesses to Jesus (see also Luke 24:48) on a global scale, beyond their familiar geopolitical boundaries (Acts 1:8; see also Isaiah 48:20; 49:6; 62:11). How often do our own preoccupations and concerns prevent us from expanding our horizons?

Biblical scenes of great prophets transferring authority to their successors influence Luke’s depiction of the ascension. After being assumed into heaven, Elijah grants Elisha his mantle and—notably, given the role of the Spirit in Acts—his spirit (2 Kings 2:9-15). When Joshua succeeds Moses, he becomes “full of the spirit of wisdom” after Moses lays hands on him (Deuteronomy 34:9). Indeed, though unnamed, the two men who appear after Jesus is taken up are likely to be understood to be Moses and Eljiah (Acts 1:10), as their white robes recall their appearance in Luke’s transfiguration scene (Luke 9:28-36; see also 24:4). The image of Jesus taken up in a cloud suggests his identity as the Son of Man of Daniel 7:13 who comes in a heavenly cloud (see also Luke 21:27) and links Jesus to the cloud theophanies in Exodus (19:16-20; 24:15-18; 13:21; 16:10). In line with the notice that Jesus will return “in the same way” as he departed (verse 11), cloud imagery features into early Christians’ expectation of Jesus’ second coming (Matthew 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; 1 Thessalonians 4:17; Revelation 14:14).

Transitional moments can be exciting and scary. They can also initiate new beginnings in the aftermath of trauma. The disciples have just undergone a whirlwind of events, from the crucifixion of their leader to their experiences with him as resurrected Lord, and now they await a new phase of relating to him not in body but through the Holy Spirit. In the wake of 2020 and the start of 2021, we find ourselves transitioned into a world beleaguered by pandemic, racial injustices, tumultuous political events, and even wider economic disparities and disparities in health care. Sermons based on this passage may ask, what is the church’s role in the midst of times like these? Luke, we saw, is intentional about connecting the work of the apostles to Jesus’ life and teachings. Acts 1:1-11 calls the church and its members to discern whether its responses to the challenges of today reflect Jesus’ teaching on the reign of God (verse 3).

Acts 1:1-11 also invites us to think about power, authority, and leadership. The disciples believe that the resurrected Lord Jesus can overthrow the Romans and re-establish God’s sovereignty in the land. Yet rather than wield this power in the short term, Jesus tells the disciples that he will imbue them with the divine power of the Holy Spirit for the long term. The succession narratives that lie behind Luke’s ascension scene feature a great prophet of Israel readily passing the baton to an “up-and-comer.” Moses transfers leadership to Joshua, and Elijah gives his mantle to Elisha. What models inform the way we think about power and leadership in our church communities? Are we ready and willing to distribute leadership responsibilities broadly, always with an eye to the Spirit’s presence in others’ contributions?


Commentary on Psalm 47

Jerome Creach

Psalm 47 is a hymn that celebrates God’s reign as king over the earth.1

The psalm also portrays a procession for the purpose of celebrating God’s kingship. This is most evident in the declaration that God has “gone up” with shouts and trumpet sound (verse 5) and now sits enthroned over the nations (verse 8). Such language makes the psalm appropriate for the Sunday the church celebrates Christ’s ascension. The church claims that “God rules the world and lovingly claims all the world’s peoples” through the work of Jesus Christ.2

Psalm 47 is often discussed in relation to other psalms that speak of God as king or of God reigning over the world. Psalms 93 and 95-99 all contain similar language. Scholars sometimes refer to these psalms as “enthronement psalms” because they speak of God taking a throne or assuming the place as king over the universe. Several points are important to clarify what these psalms are saying by this language.

First, divine kingship has to do with God’s sovereignty over both the created order (the non-human realm) and the forces of history (nations, peoples). Psalm 47 does not say explicitly that God controls the forces of nature. This idea, however, stands behind statements about God’s control of the nations. As king, God first put the forces of chaos in their place. The unruly waters produced fear for ancient people (see Genesis 1:6-10). The threat of enemies was often described as the threat of agents of chaos (Exodus 15:8).

Second, it is important to recognize that all people of the ancient Near East spoke of their chief deities as kings. So, when Psalm 47 speaks of God this way it is saying indirectly that God reigns over the world, but Baal, Marduk, and other gods do not. Furthermore, Israel’s neighbors all had stories about their deities becoming king through battles with other gods. The poetry of these other nations (like Israel’s psalms) often depicted the god’s enthronement, their becoming king. Psalm 47 and similar psalms in the book of Psalms, however, rest on the assumption that Israel’s God always was king.

The psalm twice summons worshippers to praise (verses 1 and 6). Following both calls to worship are sections that give the content of the praise called for (verses 2-5 and 7-10). The particular focus of God’s kingship, and the reason for praise is God’s control over the nations and God’s special care for Israel. God’s care for Israel, however, is for the purpose of including the nations also in God’s grace. Indeed, verses 1-4 declare God’s sovereignty over all the earth by calling all peoples (NRSV) or nations (NIV) to praise God (47:1).

Verses 3-4 speak particularly about how God acted on behalf of Israel; God “subdued peoples” under Israel. Here the special place of humankind is summed up in Israel. Just as God placed all living things “under the feet” of humans (Psalm 8:7), so God placed all nations under Israel’s feet. In other words, God in God’s sovereignty made Israel sovereign over other nations. The “pride of Jacob” seems to refer to the gift of the land (see Amos 6:8). God gave a special territory to Israel as its inheritance.

The point of Psalm 47:4, however, is not really that Israel is superior to other nations or that Israel has rights to the land of Canaan. Rather, the point is that Israel did nothing to earn its “heritage” or any of the blessings it enjoys. God gave these privileges to Israel. Therefore, Israel cannot boast of anything.

The word selah comes between verses 4 and 5 and is not really part of either verse. No one knows exactly what this term means. It is not even certain which Hebrew root gives rise to the word. When the psalm was performed selah may have signaled the people to bow down, shout, clap or otherwise express joyful praise. Or the word may have been a key to the musicians, meaning essentially “hit it!”

Whatever the word selah meant to those who first heard it, in Psalm 47 the term sets verse 5 off from the previous verses. It marks a transition and highlights verse 5 as the climax of the first section of the psalm. Verses 2-4 praise God as king and recall what God has done in the past. Verse five also speaks about God’s kingship, but it highlights something that likely occurred at the time the verse was spoken in worship.

“God has gone up” probably has in mind a ceremony in which the ark of the covenant was taken into the temple or sanctuary (see the statement in 2 Chron 36:23 regarding the return of God and worshipers to Jerusalem, “let him go up”). Many other psalms likely have such a ceremony in mind. For example, Psalm 24 speaks of a procession into Zion and the temple that was probably like the ceremony that stands behind Psalm 47.

Verses 6 and 7 say five times “sing praise,” each occurrence using the same Hebrew word. The term used here is from same root as the word most commonly translated “psalm” (though the word at the end of Psalm 47:7, translated “psalm” is a different word in this case!). The reason for praise (and the content of praise) is stated in first half of verse 7: “God is the king of all the earth.”

Those who belong to God include the foreign nations and their leaders. The “shields of the earth” essentially refers to the same people as the term “princes” (47:9). Although there is some disagreement about the meaning of verse 9 it seems to make the remarkable statement that these leaders and their people gather with Israel and are identified also as “the people of the God of Abraham.”


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 29, 2014.
  2. J. Clinton McCann, Jr. “The Book of Psalms,” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, Vol. IV (Ed. Leander E. Keck; Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996), p. 870.

Second Reading

Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

John Frederick

The knowledge of the risen and ascended Jesus involves more than adopting a baseless belief in an assortment of factoids about a mythical Messiah who makes his grand exit from earth by floating away into the clouds forever to play his harp next to weird winged baby angels, wielding inexplicable bows and arrows. 

The ascension refers to the real event of the assumption of the physically risen Lord from the dead into his place of power, rule, and reign in heaven, seated at the right hand of God. It is the fulfillment of the God who has “gone up with a shout” (Psalm 47:5; Acts 1:9) to reign over all nations as king from the holy throne (Psalms 47:7-8; 93:3). But, if we’re honest, to the contemporary reader in a post-Christian culture—a culture which, even in the Church, is prone to skepticism and the demythologization of the miraculous in search of a timeless kernel of generic religious truth—the real version of the ascension is almost as difficult to grasp onto as the cloud-riding, flying-child cherub version of pop culture Christian art. And, today’s reading in Ephesians actually affirms this tension, even as it provides us with the inspired apostolic instruction through which we can affirm the—humanly speaking— unbelievable events of the ascension by means of the revelatory and relational apocalypse of Jesus Christ. 

Let me explain what I mean by the phrase “revelatory and relational apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” In Ephesians 1:17, Paul, encouraged by the faith and love of the Christians at Ephesus, prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, might give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Paul’s prayer is that the hope of the gospel, and the glory and power of the ascended Lord might come to light in the experience of the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:18-23). This prayer is revelatory and relational; it is rooted in the apocalyptic work of the Spirit in believers as the eyes of their hearts are enlightened by the wisdom and relational knowledge that is provided for human beings by God alone. 

There is, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has argued, an “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and every other object of knowing. This is why we cannot simply provide “evidence” from Scripture and expect a post-Christian society that is (in many ways, justifiably) skeptical of institutional Christianity to simply believe on the basis of reason’s response to the testimony of the word of God. According to human reason, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection, and the ascension are nonsense. They are, as Paul has said in 1 Corinthians 1-2, “foolishness” to those who are perishing because “[t]he person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). 

What is required, then, to tap into the formative potential of the truth of the real event of the ascension is not a higher human IQ or a more comprehensive and creative form of demythologization. Both the ivory tower academic and the best student of Bultmann cannot bridge the chasm caused by the infinite qualitative distinction between the spiritual knowledge of God and the epistemological apprehension of every other knowable object. We cannot apprehend God; we must be apprehended by God. The glory, power, and hope of the gospel comes to us not by natural reasoning but by supernatural revelation, not by acquisition but by apocalypse. 

This is what Paul means when he prays that God might give us a spirit of “revelation in the knowledge of him.” The word rendered “revelation” is apokalypsis in the original Greek, from which we get the well-known word ‘apocalypse’ in English. But, while this word is often associated with the end of the world (for example, “the apocalypse is coming”), it more literally refers to a secret which is being unveiled and a truth which shines into us from the outside. The knowledge of God’s truth cannot be reached by human effort; it must break in from above through a divine revelation. Elsewhere, in Galatians, Paul reveals that this is the way the gospel came to him. Paul the pre-Christian Pharisee did not desire to worship Christ. He was not genuinely seeking to exercise faith in Christ; rather, he was persecuting the church and zealously seeking to execute Christians. Paul recounts his conversion, noting that he did not receive the gospel “from any man” nor was he “taught it” but that he received it “through a revelation [or “apocalypse”] of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). 

Paul continues in verse 17, noting that this apocalyptic revelation invades the recalcitrant and so-called reasonable human heart “in the knowledge of him.” While the translation “in” is a fine rendering of the Greek preposition en, it is rather generic, and doesn’t yield much illuminating information. It makes it seem like Paul is praying that we’d gain an assortment of facts about Jesus by means of which our hope will be deepened. Yet, while theological education is essential, Paul views factual knowledge as penultimate in the quest for spiritual growth. The ultimate purpose of that kind of knowing is, by the Spirit, to bridge the chasm of the infinite qualitative distinction, and to grow in the relational knowledge of Christ himself. Thus, a better gloss (albeit a paraphrase) for the phrase en epignōsei autou is “by means of relationally coming to know him personally.” Our faith is confirmed and strengthened, not merely by knowing about him, but by using that knowledge as a trampoline to leap over the chasm of unknowing and unbelief into the authenticating embrace and personal, familial knowledge and presence of God. And, as we leap, we recognise that on the other side, the fullness of our faith, confidence, hope, desires, and future is founded upon our inclusion in Christ’s body, the Church, which is the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).