Ascension of Our Lord

Their focus is to be outward, not upward

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May 9, 2024

First Reading
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Commentary on Acts 1:1-11

While other New Testament writings briefly refer to Jesus’ ascension (Ephesians 4:8‒10; Philippians 2:9‒11; 1 Timothy 3:16; 1 Peter 3:22), only Luke narrates the event. Moreover, Luke accords strategic importance to Jesus’ ascension by repeated reporting at the hinge between Luke’s two volumes: first, and most briefly, concluding Luke’s Gospel (24:50‒53); then, more fully, introducing Acts (1:1‒11).

Jesus’ ascension thus culminates the story of Jesus’ birth, life, death, and resurrection on a high note and commences a new heavenly chapter—with continuing effects on earth. In his “first book,” Luke “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles” (1:1‒2). Now, by implication, in his second volume Luke reports what the risen-ascended Jesus continues to do and teach through his Spirit-empowered emissaries across the world (1:8). This epic story of God’s saving global mission pivots around Jesus’ ascension.

Though we might wish for a fuller account of Jesus’ ascension, Luke offers considerable insight at the outset of Acts. The apostles themselves press for more information, longingly asking Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom of Israel?” (1:6). That’s a reasonable question. God has just raised Jesus Messiah from the dead—a world-shattering apocalyptic event if there ever was one. The time would seem ripe for the final restoration of God’s realm—yes? 

Partially, but not fully, as Jesus suggests in his less-than-satisfying, off-putting response: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority” (1:7). In other words, “None of your business,” which squelches all speculations about end-time schedules but also leaves gnawing “How long, O Lord?” lamentations hanging in the air.

But Luke and Jesus have more to say at this critical juncture about significant times that inform and inspire Christ’s progressing mission in the world. Notice three key markers:

  1. “Forty days” (1:3) – Luke uniquely specifies this 40-day span between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, during which he appears to his disciples, proves his identity, and “gives instructions” (enteilamenos)—more like “marching orders” or “commands”—for their service in the “kingdom of God” (1:3). “Staying [synalizomenos] with them” more particularly suggests “eating with them,” recalling significant moments when Jesus was “made known to them in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:28‒31, 35) and eating “a piece of broiled fish” (24:42‒43; see also Acts 10:41). Table fellowship and gospel ministry closely intertwine throughout Luke and Acts.

The 40-day time frame evokes the ancient Israelites’ sojourn at Mount Sinai when God gave Moses the Torah to guide God’s people through the wilderness (Moses had two 40-day fasting stints on the mountain [Deuteronomy 9:9‒10:10]). More immediately, it recalls the duration of Jesus’ testing in the wilderness before undertaking his earthly ministry—a 40-day stint of fasting, combatting the devil, affirming God’s law, and solidifying Jesus’ commitment to use his Spirit-power for others’ benefit, not personal gain (Luke 4:1‒13). 

This critical test-period has inspired the church’s Lenten tradition, a 40-day season of self-discipline and reflection on Jesus’ suffering before Easter. Notably, however, “after his suffering” on the cross (Acts 1:3), the risen Jesus concludes his earthly ministry with a 40-day session of preparing his followers to continue his work. But he does so, as it were, through a joyous banquet celebrating his new life, not a rigorous bootcamp.  

  1. “Not many days from now” (1:4) – Just before Jesus’ 40-day testing, he was filled with the Holy Spirit at his baptism (Luke 3:21‒22). In fact, it was this Spirit who led Jesus into the wilderness ordeal (4:1‒2). And before Jesus’ baptism in the Jordan, John the Baptizer announced that the more powerful Messiah would effect a Spirit-and-fire baptism (3:16). 

At the end of the risen Jesus’ 40-day seminar, he promises that this Spirit-outpouring will occur shortly but imprecisely, “not many days from now.” In the meantime, Jesus’ disciples must “wait there,” in Jerusalem (Acts 1:4‒5). Neither his heavenly Father nor Jesus himself is ready to provide the Spirit just yet, and Jesus gives the impression that he will not be physically present when it happens.

It is precisely because of Jesus’ impending absence that his followers need the Spirit’s endowment. They cannot hope to bear effective witness to the living Christ “to the ends of the earth” without the same Spirit that directed and energized Jesus’ ministry (1:8). Tellingly, the Acts of the Apostles begins with Christ’s order for his apostles not to act until they’re properly equipped. Which is not to encourage passivity or complacency: they must wait for the Spirit intentionally, diligently, prayerfully, communally (see 1:13‒14). They must not rush the “rush” of the Spirit (see also 2:2).   

  1. “The day he was taken up” (1:1, 11) – After Jesus assures his deputies of the Spirit’s imminent coming, a cloud ushers him into heaven “out of their sight,” leaving them gawking skyward in a frozen daze (1:9). This is not the waiting mode Jesus called for. Two special white-robed messengers (see also Luke 24:4) shake them out of their stupefied state: “Why do you stand looking up to heaven?” (Acts 1:10‒11). There’s waiting and witnessing to do in Jerusalem and beyond. Their focus is to be outward, not upward—until Jesus returns. 

Yes, “this Jesus … will come [back] in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (1:11). But there’s no ETA for this return flight. It may be a few or many days (or years or centuries). In the meantime, Christ’s followers are tasked with furthering his right-making mission on earth in the power of the Spirit, buoyed by the prospect of Christ’s climactic reappearance (parousia) and restoration of God’s whole world, the universal realm of heaven-and-earth (see also Luke 10:21; Acts 3:19‒21).

The ascension does not celebrate Jesus’ departure from a cruel, wicked world into a heavenly paradise where one day his beleaguered followers will join him. Rather, it signals the expansive horizon of God’s redemptive purpose in Christ—as far and wide as all creation.

The ascension does not fix Jesus in a remote heavenly outpost but, rather, gives him a cosmic platform for holistic outreach through his people, sustained by his pervasive Spirit and periodic personal visits back to earth (9:3‒6; 10:9‒16; 18:9‒10; 23:11) pending his final return.

The ascension of Jesus assures nothing less than a new, interconnected heaven-and-earth, even as it challenges us to participate in this vast, vital re-creative project.