Ascension of Our Lord

A centrifugal missionary movement

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May 9, 2024

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Commentary on Luke 24:44-53

Jesus interpreted the Scriptures in three parts: the Messiah must suffer, rise from the dead, and proclaim repentance for forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:45–47). This slogan aims to show how God’s purpose changes social norms by rejecting values of power and competition for humility, service, and love.

Suppose the prophecies mentioned in the Scriptures and by Jesus himself were fulfilled in his crucifixion. Shouldn’t his disciples also expect the repeated prophecy of his resurrection on the third day to be realized? If this is the case, why do the disciples consider him a ghost and react to him with fear and disbelief?

It is challenging to locate texts that explicitly predict messianic suffering and resurrection. However, attempting to do so would be missing the point of Jesus’ words. The truth that all Scriptures point toward has now been realized. 

Luke provides direct hints for the scriptural basis of the reversal Jesus experienced in his life, death, and resurrection. He draws mainly on the Psalms and Isaiah to present Jesus’ passion. The proclamation of repentance for forgiveness of sins to all nations is also scripturally based.

The words of Jesus, “beginning from Jerusalem,” mark a significant shift in perspective (24:47). Jerusalem was commonly seen as the center point to which all nations would come. However, Jesus’ missionary vision is different and envisions a centrifugal missionary movement instead. The tearing of the temple veil at Jesus’ death is already beginning to have an impact (23:45).

This passage connects Jesus’ words to earlier material in the Gospel and points toward the Acts of the Apostles. The disciples’ work of “proclaiming” is bound to the work Jesus was Spirit-anointed for in his mission. Forgiveness is central to the content and experience of salvation. Doing things “in the name of Jesus” becomes an essential motif in Acts. Christians in Acts heal, preach, and are baptized in the name of Jesus, suffer for his name, and call upon the name of Jesus.

The role of the disciples in spreading the message of Jesus can be summed up in the sentence “You are witnesses of these things” (24:48). In this context, the phrase “these things” refers to the suffering and resurrection of Jesus and their significance to the early church’s ongoing proclamation (24:44–47). In Acts, the followers of Jesus serve this exact purpose.

First, Luke underscores that they have been transformed (“their eyes opened”) in their understanding of God’s purposes, centered on Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Second, Luke notes that they will be “clothed with power from on high.” Luke thus draws a direct connection between their service as “witnesses” and their reception of the Holy Spirit.

Jesus empowers his followers with “power and authority” for their missionary work. He promises they will receive the Holy Spirit, enabling them to carry out their role. Jesus portrays God as a generous Lord who gives the Spirit to his people. Interestingly, Jesus himself, not the Father, will grant the Spirit. This is in keeping with John the Baptist’s prophecy in Luke 3:16, which we see in Acts 1:5 and 11:16.

Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension is closely linked to the preceding scenes, but the timing is uncertain. The disciples recognize Jesus’ true identity and respond appropriately. The author has been preparing the audience for Jesus’ departure since the transfiguration scene. The account’s chronology here is less precise than in previous encounters. The ascension occurs at an unspecified time, leaving the possibility of other timings open, which Luke explores more fully in Acts 1:1–11.

Jesus led a community that included three named women, the eleven apostles, and others. Bethany, located on the Mount of Olives, was where Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem began and where he was exalted in Acts 1:9–12.

Jesus’ final act is similar to that of priests in Leviticus and Sirach. While some see this as portraying Jesus as a priest, Luke must demonstrate interest. Instead, Jesus blesses his disciples, echoing the leave-taking of Moses and Abraham. The echoes of Sirach emphasize the significance of Jesus, assuring the disciples of divine favor.

Jesus’ final instructions to his followers are to spread his message to all nations, and only through obedience to him can they fulfill their mission as witnesses to the world.

Jesus ascends into heaven, signifying the completion of his mission with his “return into heaven” denoting his departure’s finality and glorified status. The ascension symbolizes Jesus’ elevated status visibly and tangibly. It proves that his humility and suffering did not disqualify him from fulfilling his mission, and God fully embraced it.

In this part of the story, the ascension of Jesus serves two purposes. First, Luke establishes a connection between the departure of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. As Jesus is now in a royal and exalted position, he can give the Holy Spirit to his followers (Luke 24:49; Acts 2:32–33). For Luke, the ascension marks the beginning of the outpouring of the Spirit and the church’s mission. 

Luke’s ascension shows coherence between Jesus of Nazareth, the Lord, and Christ. The disciples worship Jesus, unprecedented in the Gospel of Luke, recognizing him for who he is. Luke–Acts denies worship to images, the devil, and mere mortals, allowing it only in the case of God.

After Jesus’ ascension, his followers return to Jerusalem and stay in the temple, following Jesus’ instructions to wait until they are “clothed with power from on high.” Their constant presence in the temple is reminiscent of Anna, who exhibited exemplary piety by worshiping there day and night. This behavior demonstrates the disciples’ recognition of the importance of following Jesus’ teachings.

Luke’s Gospel highlights divine redemption through the disciples’ initial shock, joy, and steadfast faith. Jesus’ birth brought praise, and the faithful hoped for redemption. The Holy Spirit’s arrival will empower them to serve as messengers of salvation.