Commentary on Luke 24:44-53
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.
- Perrin, Norman. The Resurrection: According to Matthew, Mark, and Luke. (Fortress Press, 1977)
- Barker, James W. John’s Use of Mathew. (Wipf and Stock, 2022)
May 18, 2023