There have been occasions, when my husband or my kids were going away for an indefinite period of time, when I couldn’t stop watching them leave until they were completely out of my sight. When my oldest son left for college, I watched his VW bug disappear around the corner, then I ran inside to the back window to watch him drive down the main road. Once, when I had gone ahead of my husband and kids to a new town, they flew in to visit. It had been weeks since I had seen them, and when they left, we weren’t sure how long the arrangements would take for them to get back. My youngest one cried as my husband carried him through security, and my husband motioned to me to get out of sight. I hid behind a pillar, but I kept watching them go through the line and the scanners, and head down toward the terminal. I can’t exactly explain why I did this, but you have probably had a similar experience.
The first followers of Jesus had the same reaction when he left. The story of the Ascension in Acts 1:1-12 is a wonderful, encouraging story. Let’s look at a bit of what it can teach us.
Jesus often taught by telling stories, his parables. He designed stories that would make the message clear to those who wanted to understand. He also acted out stories. This wasn’t a new thing for the Hebrew people. Hosea acted out Israel’s betrayal of God through his unfortunate marriage. Ezekiel lay on his side in the middle of town for 40 days, Jeremiah bought a piece of land as his society was disintegrating around him. These are all great stories, and there are many more. If you don’t remember them, I encourage you to read them again.
But Jesus was the performance artist par excellence! He was an amazing teacher. He understood that people learn and understand better the more different ways the idea is presented to them. Educational experts have used various terms but basically, some of us learn best by doing, some by listening, some by seeing, and some by explaining to others. Educational research has consistenly shown that, regardless of your primary learning style, most people learn better if more than one approach is used. Jesus used all of these approaches. He spoke to people, he created pictures of ideas through his stories, he sent his disciples out to do what he had been doing and to teach as he had been teaching, and, if you pay attention, you’ll start to recognize times that he acted out things from prophecy and from the Hebrew Scriptures (the Old Testament) to help people understand who he was and what he was doing.
The actions of Jesus reported in this short passage are very rich in meaning! In fact, in order to keep this a reasonable length, I had to leave a lot of things out. He taught us so much – just by how he left!
So, let’s start to look at this passage from the beginning. You might find it helpful to follow along in your Bible.
Now, when you read a passage of Scripture, before you really "dig" into it, it’s a good idea to answer a few initial questions:
1. Who wrote it?
2. To whom is it written?
3. Why was it written?
The first book referred to here is the Gospel of Luke, which was also dedicated to Theophilus. Neither book specifically says that the author was Luke, however, other early Christian writers said that the author was a man named Luke, and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think they were mistaken. If the person the Luke wrote to was an actual person, no one knows who he was. The name "Theophilus" is made up of two Greek words, "theo" which means "God", and "philus" which comes from the Greek word "love", so putting these together, we have "One who loves God." It’s possible then, that Luke was saying something like to "you who love God." We know for certain why it was written because Luke tells us at the beginning of his Gospel. Luke says that he wanted to write an orderly account of the things he had learned from eyewitnesses to the events, so that those who were not there, and did not know people who were, would have an account they could be sure of. The Gospel of Luke ends with a rather brief description of Jesus being "taken up" and mentions that this occured at Bethany. The book of Acts, gives additional details of the events after Jesus’ resurrection, and tells the story of the spread of the Gospel message up to Paul’s house arrest in Rome.
So, in verse 3, we read that after dying and being raised, Jesus appeared to them periodically, and proved to them in many ways that he was definitely, actually alive. One way they knew it was him, was because of the way he taught about the kingdom of God. He wasn’t with them all the time, but when he was, he ate, he could be touched, and he did the things all living people do. What would convince you over a period of 40 days that a person you were seeing was a living person, and not a ghost or a vision? If he perspired? Yawned? Sneezed? Whatever, they were absolutely certain they were spending time with a living person. And they could be certain that he was not an imposter. Look ahead at verses 13 & 14. The group that was staying together, the group of people who were seeing him regularly included the 11 apostles, the women who had accompanied Jesus for three years, AND his own mother and brothers! They saw him in close quarters over a period of more than a month, and could talk to him and ask him anything.
To be precise, the passage tells us that Jesus spent 40 days on earth after his resurrection. The number 40 is significant in Scripture, especially when indicating a period of time. Moses and the Hebrew people spent 40 years in the desert. Jesus spent 40 days before he began his ministry fasting and praying in the desert. 40 is symbolic of a time of probation, or preparation for something new, a new land, a new ministry, etc.
In verses 4 and 5, Jesus tells his followers to remain in Jerusalem and that they will be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In Hebrew scripture, the pouring out of God’s Holy Spirit is associated with the coming of God’s kingdom so it made sense for them to wonder if the kingdom of Israel was about to be restored.
Between verse 5 and verse 6, it helps to go back to verse 50 from Chapter 24 of Luke’s Gospel, "He led them out as far as Bethany." Picture the group following him, people of different generations, some walking faster than others. Once they had all gathered together on the Mount of Olives (and we know from verse 12 that they were on Mount Olivet, the Mount of Olives, the site of God’s victory at the end of time) they must have been thinking of Zechariah chapter 14 and of Yom Yahweh, the day of the Lord, especially verse 4 "On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives, which lies before Jerusalem on the east; and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley; so that one half of the Mount shall withdraw northward, and the other half southward."
They must have hoped that it was all about to happen. But when they asked Jesus, he basically told them (verse 7) that they misunderstood the sense in which this was going to happen. Jesus’ response let them know that they didn’t have it figured out – and wouldn’t.
Verse 8 explains their mission --- and ours. They were not to figure out the future, but to witness to what they did know - to what they had seen and experienced. The progression of how and where they should witness is interesting. They were to start right where they were. They were staying in Jerusalem, so they were to start witnessing in Jerusalem, then to the rest of their small country, Judea, then to the neighboring country, Samaria, and then to "the end of the earth." This idea of being witnesses to the end of the earth was also something they would have recognized, from Isaiah 49:6 "... I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth."
And then, in verse 9 Jesus was lifted up, and they watched until he was hidden by a cloud. They kept watching, perhaps hoping they would get another glimpse of him probably in awe of what they had just seen and experienced, they were probably overwhelmed by what Jesus had just called them to do, and sad because they were realizing that he wasn’t going to be dropping in on them regularly.
When you read this/hear this story, do you wonder why Jesus went up? Why a cloud? Why is he supposed to come back on a cloud? Heaven is not in the sky. You’re not going to find it if you just go far enough out into space. But that isn’t what it said. It said he went up and then disappeared. This is more symbolism, more teaching. Throughout the Old Testament, God had "appeared" in a cloud. (Think of Moses on the mountain, the pillar of cloud by day that led the Hebrews through the desert, Elijah taken up into clouds, etc.) Being taken up into a cloud symbolized going to heaven, going to God, and Jesus vanished into the cloud. In terms of symbolism and meaning, it was the best way possible, and all those with Jesus on the mountain would have understood the significance. They knew where he had gone.
And then, in verse 10, we see the group looking up into the sky until verse 11, two men in white robes are suddenly standing with them. Perhaps these were the same two who were at the tomb to tell Mary Magdelene and the other women that Jesus had risen, as he said he would. And like the "men in white" at the tomb, they clarify things for the group on Mount Olivet and reminded them of what Jesus had told them. In Luke 21:27, Jesus says, "Then they will see ‘the Son of Man coming in a cloud’ with power and great glory." The "men in white" ask,"why do you stand looking up? Jesus will return the same way you saw him go."
This reminds me of a song that was popular on Christian radio a few years ago. The song was about how the singer was constantly looking up for Jesus’ return, unable to think about hardly anything else. This is not what we are supposed to spend our time doing. It isn't wrong to long for Jesus’ return, but it is not how we should spend our time, especially if it keeps us from the work Jesus commanded us to do.
We need to remember that Jesus told us that his leaving would be a good thing! 'Heaven must receive Christ until the time of restoring all things' (Acts 3:21). Christ’s ministry on earth is now followed by his ministry in heaven. Heb. 6:20 tells us that from now on the entrance into heaven is open for those born on earth, where Jesus has gone as a Forerunner on our behalf. He is there for us, 'I go to prepare a place for you' (John 14:2). But Jesus is not confined to heaven. His ascension allows him to be everywhere, not bound by our three dimensional space or by our time.
God uses incarnation in both the Gospels and in Acts. Just as God became embodied in Jesus Christ in order to establish his realm on earth, God is embodied in us, the church, through his Holy Spirit. It is our mission to continue the ministry of Jesus, and to work for God’s kingdom. Our ministry in this life is the same as the first followers of Christ in Acts. God changes the world through us. God’s life and God’s mission is manifested through God’s people.
We see all this in Ephesians 1:19-23 where Paul prayed that we would understand "… the incredible greatness of God’s power for us who believe him. This is the same mighty power 20 that raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else—not only in this world but also in the world to come. God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church. And the church is his body; it is made full and complete by Christ, who fills all things everywhere with himself."
Sure, in one sense, Christ’s body is no longer on the earth, but in another sense, through his church, he is even more more present now. Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, "The body of Christ takes up space on the earth. That is, the Body of Christ makes footprints. A truth, a doctrine, or a religion need no space for themselves. They are disembodied entities, that is all. But the incarnate Christ needs not only ears or hearts, but living people who will follow him."
The visible presence of Jesus on earth ended, but the two men in white reminded the little group on Mount Olivet that the "not yet" fulfillment of God’s kingdom would come. They needed to stop looking up and get on with the work Jesus gave them. What is this mission that he gave?
In the last chapter of the gospel of Matthew, chapter 28, halfway through verse 18, (I’m going to paraphrase) Jesus says "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore, get going, get out there, make disciples, people who follow me and learn from me, of all people from every nation and of all ethnicities, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you, and remember that I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Through Paul’s preaching and journeys, he made disciples. Paul’s letters are one of the ways that he continued to teach these new disciples how to follow all that Jesus had commanded. We need to know how to follow Jesus ourselves in order to teach others. But we can’t use any lack of understanding as an excuse to slow us down. We are commanded to keep growing in our love of and obedience to Jesus, and we will never be finished. But as we go along, we are to teach and proclaim what we know. And what we know is our own relationship with Jesus Christ. As we grow, and as we go, we have been commanded to tell others (everyone we can) what Jesus has done in our lives and what he means to us – starting now, right where we are!