Ascension of Our Lord

From passive spectators to active witnesses

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May 13, 2021

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

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?