There is much about this Christian faith that is entirely unreasonable. Christians are asked to believe certain things that are hard to believe. For examples, virgins do not conceive and have babies. Crucified men who have had a spear plunged into their heart don’t rise from the dead as fit as a fiddle three days later. And human beings don’t fly without the aid of wings or propellers or jet engines.
The unbeliever laughs. And who can blame them really? But every Sunday and at lots of other times, you and I say, “I believe it.” “I believe in Jesus Christ… born of the virgin Mary… He rose again according to the Scriptures… and ascended into heaven…and comes again to judge…”
What kind of mind hears stuff like this and says, “I believe it?” It is the mind that the Scriptures call the “renewed mind.” The unbeliever calls it a crazy mind. But we say, “Thanks be to God that He has renewed my mind so that I may believe the unbelievable and find real hope in such incredible claims.”
Martin Luther says, “The more reason dwells on [the ascension], the more it seems that it is not true. For human reason cannot grasp it; that a man of flesh and blood has gone up into heaven and become a Lord over all creatures and has equal power with God. Many barely believe such things of God not to mention a human being. Therefore, in matters of faith, which treat the divine nature and will and our salvation, close your eyes and ears and all your senses and only hear and diligently pay attention to what and how the Scriptures speak of it.”
In other words, it’s perfectly okay to relax and believe the unbelievable about Jesus Christ simply because “the bible tells me so.” Don’t worry if this sounds childish or even naïve. Jesus has so completely turned the wisdom of this age on its head, that it is the little child who sets the standard for us all to emulate.
We begin our thoughts about the Ascension of our Lord in this way because we understand that if we are to be blessed by crucial doctrine of the Christian faith, we must begin with repentance. We dare not come to this text with the old, unbelieving mind that places what we can ‘see with our eyes and understand with our mind,’ above what the bible says. We ask the Holy Spirit to give us a renewed mind that simply trusts in His Word, so that we may believe the unbelievable and share in the joy of the disciples who were eyewitnesses of the Ascension of our Lord.
It happened 40 days after Easter, just as He had said it would. “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” (John 16:28).
On that day, “…he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them.” In his gospel, Luke places the ‘beatitudes’ immediately after his list of the 12 apostles, as if to say, the first thing that Jesus does with these 12 is to bless them. “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you shall be satisfied…” And so on.
Now, as He is about to depart from them in the flesh, He “blessed them.”
In the beginning of His ministry with the 12, Luke writes that “he lifted up his EYES on his disciples” and blessed them. Here Luke writes, “he lifted up his HANDS and blessed them.” Unlike the beatitudes at the beginning of their ministry where the blessings are spelled out in detail, here they are not. Unless we understand that they are spelled out in such wonderful detail in those uplifted hands of His.
With these hands, He touched the eyes of the blind and the tongue of the mute and gave sight and speech. With these hands, He reached out to touch the lifeless hand of a little girl and a mother’s only son and turned back death.
We remember that moving scene when, after a full and busy day, Luke reports that “when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many.” (Luke 4:40).
These are the hands that reached out to grab hold of Peter as he was drowning in the stormy sea. With these hands, He took bread, gave thanks and broke it and fed 5000 and 4000. He held these hands out to Thomas and dissolved all his doubt.
And of course there were those holes where the nails had pierced Him. By those hands uplifted and nailed to the cross, He took the punishment that was ours upon Himself. By those hands, He received the wrath of God so that we would not. He died so we would not. He justified us before the Father because we could not justify ourselves.
All of this was written large on those hands that He lifted up as He blessed them.
“And while He blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up to heaven.” In other words, His ‘blessing them’ and His ‘parting from them’ was all one action. The last words they hear from His lips are words of blessing.
So maybe that helps us to understand why the apostles react to His leaving them as they do. We might expect that they would be sad and teary eyed. But instead we read, “They worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with GREAT JOY, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
When Jesus blessed them, He pronounced God’s divine favor upon them. When they ‘blessed God,’ as we do when we say ‘let us bless the Lord,’ they were pronouncing man’s favor with God, which sounds a whole lot like thanksgiving, as in ‘thanks be to God.’
This “great joy” that the disciples returned to Jerusalem with is attributable to at least to one more thing. St. In his Acts of the Apostles, Luke tells us that “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
He could have simply ascended to such a height that He disappeared in the distance as a missile does when it’s launched into outer-space. But “a cloud took him out of their sight.” And we realize that we’ve seen this cloud before.
There was a cloud that was with Israel in the desert as they made their way to the promised land. And God was in the cloud. And the cloud led them. As long as Israel saw the cloud they knew that God was present with them because God was truly present in the cloud – not symbolically or spiritually present as if the cloud represented the presence of God. He was in the cloud and they could see His glory. And God would continue to lead them.
If there is one thing that Luke wants to make very clear, it is that Jesus has not left His apostles on their own just because He was “taken out of their sight.” He remains very present with His apostles and with His ‘apostolic church,’ just as He was present with Israel. He continues to lead and guide His people in the way that leads to salvation and eternal life.
Our Lord has ascended in both body and spirit where “He is seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And [the Father] has put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Eph. 1:20-23)
Luke tells us where and how He ascended. Paul tells us what He is doing at the right hand of the Father.
The Creator of the world rules over His whole creation from heaven and as Paul tells us, rules over ALL THINGS for the benefit of His own body which is the church – you and me and all believers throughout all time and in every place.
We may often wonder why things happen the way that they do and if there is any rhyme or reason to what seems to us to be chaos on chaos. We humans can only see so far and understand so much. But we believers do not need to understand ‘why’ or even ‘how’ He is working ‘all things together for good’ for His people.
As they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold two men stood by them in white robes and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” It took the help of angels to explain things to these men – just as it had at His conception and birth and resurrection.
The ‘ascension of our Lord’ is closely connected to the second coming of our Lord. As He ascended BODILY, so He come again BODILY. “He will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” As one of the early church fathers taught, “We preach not one advent of Christ only, but a second also, far more glorious than the first.” (Cyril of Jerusalem)
Jesus will come again, in the body that was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, buried and raised again on the 3rd day and with which He ascended into heaven, even as He comes to us BODILY in Holy Communion.
But the ‘coming again’ that He has promised is for the purpose of a final judgment of both the living and dead. Paul addresses the Areopagus in Athens saying, “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will jdge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31).
That the judge of all things is Jesus Christ, is surely good news for all those who “worship Him and bless Him.” It is also the critical and wonderful message that the apostles are commissioned to take to a world whose minds are still set on the old order of things. The one who will judge both the living and the dead is the one who has died and who now lives for those who are dead in their sins. This is the critical and wonderful message that the ‘apostolic church’ continues to bring to a world that sees no other way out except the totally unrealistic hope that there will not be any judgment for sin at all.
A better way is the way of repentance that is based on faith in the goodness and grace of God in His Son, Jesus Christ. By faith in Him, we make Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians our own, that “the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened, that we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe…”