Lectionary Commentaries for May 18, 2023
Ascension of Our Lord

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Greg Carey

Each Gospel presents Jesus’ resurrection in its own way. Luke provides a coterie of women who find the tomb empty, encounter two glorious “men,” and tell the other disciples—only to be disbelieved. Luke also lays out the Emmaus story, where two disciples recognize Jesus only in the breaking of the bread, along with Jesus’ embodied appearance to the eleven and others, who initially think they’ve seen a ghost. Finally, Luke relates the risen Jesus’ final words to the eleven, along with his glorious ascension. Luke will repeat this story, but a little differently, at the beginning of Acts.

Preachers do well to meditate on the implications of Jesus’ ascension for the church. If each Gospel has a distinctive interpretation of the resurrection, each also interprets its meaning for Jesus’ followers in unique ways. As Norman Perrin1 pointed out generations ago, Mark’s Jesus goes ahead of the disciples into an open-ended future, while Matthew’s Jesus remains present in the church and authorizes its ministry. Luke’s Jesus promises the Holy Spirit. We might add that John’s Jesus also provides the Spirit: on the night of his arrest Jesus promises his disciples that through the Spirit their ministry will surpass his own, and after the resurrection he breathes the Spirit upon them. (Although very different, John and Luke share remarkable points of contact, especially in the resurrection accounts. Recently scholars2 have come to appreciate that the authors of John likely knew the contents of the other three Gospels.)

Luke 24:44-53 epitomizes the larger message of Luke and Acts: through the power of the Holy Spirit, the church continues Jesus’ ministry and amplifies it. This motif is no less central to Acts than it should be to our understanding of the resurrection and ascension. This Sunday is the time to preach it. We will elaborate on this theme after we dwell on Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures as testifying to himself.

Jesus reads the Scriptures as predicting his passion, his resurrection, and the mission of the church. Moses, the prophets, and the psalms all speak directly about him, and he fulfills their message. Here Jesus is echoing his teaching from the Emmaus road encounter (24:27). He uses a verb, plēroō, which we translate “fulfilled,” that carries a range of meanings. It can connote “to fill up,” in the sense that early Christians could look back and find fuller meaning in the Scriptures by reading them in the light of Jesus. Maybe Matthew uses the term this way on occasion, and Luke 4:21 is friendly to this reading: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” But plēroō can also involve the fulfillment of a prediction. That is how Jesus uses the term in Luke 24:44. According to Luke, whether they knew it or not, Moses and the others predicted the crucifixion and resurrection, along with the mission of his followers.

Many Christians tell one another the Jewish Scriptures “predicted” Jesus in some straightforward way. This belief has edifying dimensions. It places Jesus within, not after, the long story of Israel. It also speaks to our basic sense that God has been working toward the ministry of Jesus all along, certainly in Israel but even, maybe, from before time. That is, the idea that Moses and the prophets foretold Jesus buttresses our assurance that God is faithful and that we are part of God’s story.

But this predictive interpretation of Israel’s Scriptures conveys a poison. It implies—and is often taken to mean—that Jews fail to understand their own Bible. The argument occurs frequently in early Christian discourse, as followers of Jesus, many of them Jewish, struggled to persuade their friends, neighbors, and family members. But the idea denigrates Judaism, and it treats our Old Testament like a divine game: would God give Israel a revelation it could not reasonably appreciate? After all, modern scholars cannot pinpoint the passages to which Jesus refers here, since nothing in the Scriptures predicts Jesus. Even Jesus’ disciples need to have their minds opened to this interpretation (24:45; see 24:31).

We find better news in the way Jesus’ interpretation of the Scriptures draws us ahead to Acts. Not only do Moses, the prophets, and the psalms proclaim Jesus’ death and resurrection, they declare “that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem” (24:47). It is unclear how the disciples have already witnessed this development (24:48), except when we consider that the words speak to Luke’s audience more directly than the disciples who hear Jesus within the story. It takes no great leap for us to say Jesus is speaking to us here as we identify with those first readers. We have read Acts.

We readers are witnesses “to these things.” We recall Jesus’ promise in Acts 1:8, how the Holy Spirit will empower the disciples and how their witness (same word) will move on from Jerusalem to Judea, Samaria, and far beyond. (Acts 8:1-3 reminds us of this sequence.) We recall how the disciples’ experiences repeat those of Jesus. Like Jesus, they bless and break bread, experience enmity from the authorities, heal persons with disabilities, cast out spirits, restore the dead to life, bless centurions, face trials, and even forgive their tormentors. In all these ways the disciples do not simply mimic Jesus’ ministry, but amplify it through the power of the Spirit. All this with no diminishment of power or authority.

Jesus’ ascension does not take him into some remote heavenly dwelling, hopefully to be discovered by the Webb Telescope. According to Luke, Jesus’ ascension fills the church with life and allows his ministry to flourish in ways it could not when restricted to one embodied individual. This is very good news on Ascension Sunday.


  1. Perrin, Norman. The Resurrection: According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Fortress Press, 1977)
  2. Barker, James W. John’s Use of Mathew. (Wipf and Stock, 2022)

First Reading

Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

Sharon Betsworth

Forty days after Easter in the liturgical calendar is a festival day, the Ascension of our Lord. I first learned that Ascension was a part of the Christian year when I was a college student studying abroad in Germany. We had a full week off from classes. Families and friendship groups gathered for hiking and picnics. I don’t know that much religious observance happened during that time, but it was great to have a week’s break before the end of the semester.

The author of the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles narrates two accounts of the Ascension of Jesus: Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-11. The version in Acts fills in the gaps left by the brief story Luke writes at the end of the Gospel. Acts opens with a prologue (verses 1-5), which parallels the Gospel’s prologue (Luke 1:1-4), including addressing an otherwise unknown person, Theophilus (either Luke’s benefactor or a shorthand term for any believer, since the name means “lover of God”). The respective prologues connect the two volumes, yet while the Gospel’s prologue gives an overview of what is to come, the prologue of Acts summarizes the Gospel even as it introduces the second volume of Luke’s story. Such prologues were a common literary technique in ancient Greek literature.

Acts 1:2 mentions the ascension of Jesus into heaven. This point is not entirely necessary, since Luke will provide a longer narration of the ascension, but it functions to connect the end of the Gospel with the beginning of Acts. While the Gospel of Luke depicts the ascension as taking place on the same day as the resurrection, in Acts the event transpires forty days later. If we believe that Luke was writing an historical account of the life of Jesus and the early church, this might be a difficult point to reconcile. However, Luke is not writing history, but a witness or testimony of the early Christ community designed to bring others to belief in Jesus as the Christ.

According to Acts, during these forty days, Jesus proved to the disciples that he was indeed alive and continued to teach them about the kingdom of God. Like Jesus’ forty days in the wilderness prior to the beginning of his public ministry (Luke 4:1-13), these forty days prepare the discipleship community for challenges which lie before them. Drawing attention to Jesus’ teaching about the kingdom of God connects the Acts prologue both to the core of Jesus’ teaching in the Gospel and creates a literary inclusio (Acts 1:3 and 28:31).

Jesus orders the disciples to stay in Jerusalem “to wait for the promise of the Father,” which is the outpouring of the Holy Spirit they will experience ten days later, on the day of Pentecost. As I discuss in the post for the Third Sunday of Easter, the Holy Spirit is a major theme throughout Luke–Acts. In Acts, the Holy Spirit ensures the continuity of Jesus’ ministry once Christ is no longer physically present among them.

Returning to the “kingdom” theme, the disciples question Jesus, “Lord, is this the time you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (verse 6). Their question expresses one aspect of Second Temple messianic expectations. However, Jesus insists that God’s redemption of Israel will not be according to human timelines or by political change, but through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Rather than following a specific timeline, this gift will propel them forward across the geographical landscape; they will become Christ’s witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the Earth. Indeed, the disciples will take their story of Jesus to Samaria (Acts 8:5), the seacoast (8:40), Damascus (9:10), Antioch (where disciples first called “Christians,” 11:26); Asia Minor (13:13); Europe (16:11), and finally, Rome—though Paul was on his way to the “ends of the Earth,” which for him was Spain.

If we were to think about how the disciples heard what Jesus was telling them, it would sound something like this:

  • Stay here in the big city you are visiting (Jerusalem), until God makes God’s presence known;
  • Then go from this city, to the outlying region (Judea)—the place where you are comfortable;
  • Then go to those people whom you despise, and who despise you (Samaria);
  • Then go to those people you don’t even know, who are probably very different from you (to the ends of the earth).

Jesus ascends into heaven and the disciples stand around looking up at the sky and wondering what he just said and what it all means. The words of the “two men in white robes” (where have we seen them before? Hint: Luke 24:4) probably don’t provide a lot of comfort.

Indeed, as the disciples return to Jerusalem, they initially must have had to grapple with their fear of all that had recently happened; they had to work through their grief and sense of abandonment that Jesus was gone (again!); and they had to deal with the reality that one of the twelve apostles had betrayed them and Jesus and then died a horrific death. They had to wait for God to act. We don’t usually think about Ascension as a time of waiting; that sounds more like Advent. But waiting is always a holy time, a time to empty ourselves, and be filled with new possibilities. Robert W. Wall states well what this time of waiting for God means:

“Waiting for God to act is … a community project. Waiting with others is an act of solidarity with friends. The apostles do not scatter and go their separate ways to await a private Spirit-filling or personal experience of divine faithfulness. They ‘were joined together’ in a specific place to await God’s action on them all.”1

This is Ascension … another time of waiting for the dawn from on high to break upon us.


  1. Robert W. Wall, “The Acts of the Apostles,” in New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary ed. Leander E. Keck (Nashville: Abingdon, 2002), 45.


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

Sarah Henrich

The earlier preaching studies for this passage gathered here in Working Preacher surely offer us part of the “wisdom and revelation” given by the Spirit (Ephesians 1:17) to help the “eyes of our hearts” be opened more fully to both the immanent and heavenly presence of God in Christ throughout the cosmos.1

I highly commend all the thoughtful and passionate work of those who have written on this Ascension passage. On the one hand, the sheer variety of emphases suggests the richness of the passage itself. On the other, that variety of informed and faithful exegesis has a theological basis: the riches of our inheritance are constituted by God’s yearning to be fully among us, each and all of us, at every time and place. The “immeasurable (verse 19) fullness of God encompasses all our concerns and questions because God is living and so are we, God’s people. The richness of the ways to hear and understand the gifts of God, the varieties of ways in which wisdom and revelation enable us to know God, can be a theme for preaching in its own right.

I wonder if our text from Ephesians might have been greeted with a little sigh of relief by those original hearers. The first section of chapter one is lush with images of our unshakeable connection with God through Christ. We hear several times of the inheritance as God’s own, marked by the seal of God’s promise, the Holy Spirit. It is a generous description of what God has already done and the wonders that await when all things in heaven and on earth are gathered up in Christ. These are exalted words, uplifting, powerful, and almost too much to take in.

In Ephesians 1:15, the writer turns to a series of I-statements that bring the truth about whose we are into the lives of his hearers. Although the writer expresses great gratitude for the faith of the believers and honors them as witnesses to their love of the Lord and one another, the writer prays that they may continue to be filled with wisdom and revelation for the sake of greater enlightenment, joy, and confidence in God. It is precisely the “immeasurable greatness” of God’s power, the mystery (verse 9) of God’s gracious will and generous benevolence, the sheer gratuitous, incomprehensible grace of God that offers believers opportunity for every deepening appreciation of the great gift they have received.

This is a wonderful message for Christians of every age and every gift. There is always more of God than we knew or could imagine. What we thought we had learned about faith and the love of God come home to us new and with more power as we move through the joys and struggles of our lives. It may be the case that “all I really needed to know I learned in kindergarten”2 but we are far beyond “need” in this passage. This writer speaks to people of faith for whom the blessing of rich relationship is a gift they will never fully plumb as long as they live. That’s good news.

In C.S. Lewis’ final book in the Narnia series,3 many of the characters move toward “heaven” in a remarkable run that becomes more thrilling and freeing as they are running—not the typical result of our earthly runs! “Further up and further in,” the runners cry to each other. In another evocative example of growth in the mystery of love, the lyrics of Greg Brown’s song “Further In” are remarkable. The final verse could be addressed to the Lord Jesus, whose life for us is, at his ascension, the very life of God:

further in, O my love, take me further in
past the place where love hides its face and down to where we begin
so deep in this mystery, my tears on yours depend
and they like some wild river flow as we go further in.4

This is not a song about internal focus versus external, anymore than the writer of Ephesians is focusing on celestial geographic directions, up and down. Its again about the mystery of love, graciously poured out on us, even more graciously beckoning us to know more and more the One to whom we belong and to whom our sisters and brothers in faith likewise belong.

A believer dares to rest secure in the promises of an invisible God for reasons that are poetically described in Ephesians 1:20-23. The writer lists all the kinds of power which might lay heavy on the lives of most inhabitants of the Roman world (rule, authority, power, dominion) and declares that Jesus has been raised so far beyond these powers that they cannot touch him. How important a word of reassurance that would be for followers of one who had been crucified by the Roman imperial powers. Being raised from death meant that all earthly powers had been rendered powerless, foolish even. Secondly, quite unlike the constant shifting of powers in this age (that is, this time of earth’s life), Jesus is united with God in purpose and beneficence now and in the future.

Finally in these verses we come to the mystery of our connection to God in Christ. Jesus Christ has been made the “head” or kephale of all things “for” the church. This use of kephale can well be understood as “source” rather than authority. Rather than “head of staff” or “headmaster,” kephale makes more sense as the head in headwaters. It is the source from which flows all that he is, his “body,” the “fullness of him” which fills all in all. Jesus raised to God’s presence is like the headwaters of the Mississippi that now expands to fill, shape, even become his people.

We are the people of the flood in a very different way from Noah and his family. Jesus has broken the levees, the dykes, and he has overflowed all things for the life of his church which may live “in praise of his glory.” (Ephesians 1:14). This is a dangerous image for many of those who come to church on Sunday morning. Perhaps a more accessible image is that of a spring that flows into and becomes a river. The spring water is still there, still part of that larger stream and not separable from it. It is the spring that is the source and substance of the river.

We can sympathize with the writer who so passionately wanted the letter’s recipients to realize and become ever more imbued with their new reality, their being flooded with the love of God to press a metaphor a little too hard. We are not always a people much inclined to poetry which is almost demanded for expression of such great mysteries. We are a people who love music and know some few moments of inexpressible clarity about gratitude and joy. Perhaps either of those can help open up the incredible reality of our inheritance that we most often domesticate and tame.


  1. Commentary first published on this site on May 6, 2016.
  2. Robert Fulghum, All I Really Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, New York: Random House Publishing, 1986.
  3. C. S. Lewis, The Last Battle, 1956.
  4. Greg Brown, “Further In,” http://www.gregbrown.org/gbfurth1.html#further [accessed February 12, 2016].