Focus on Christ Meditations: 51. The Mystery of the Ascension
Acts 1:9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
Jesus has risen and goes with the disciples north to Galilee again. He had told them all of this previously (Mt 26:32), the women were told by an angel (Mt 28:7), Jesus reiterated it to the woman (28:10), and they all went (Mt 28:16), and John gives details of the encounter (Jn 21:1-24), and now Luke records it in Acts: “He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3) There he warns them he will leave them again but tells them of the power that will be theirs if they wait in Jerusalem. After forty days it appears they all return to Jerusalem and on the Mount of Olives this event occurs (Acts 1:12).
(Now I have written about this before and it so impacted me then that I am going to simply repeat much of what I wrote then.)
Our verse above is almost embarrassing in its simplicity. It is embarrassing in the way it baldly states something that none of us have ever seen or are likely to see in our lifetime – a man lifting up from the ground with no assistance and drifting up into a low passing cloud and disappearing. Now we are given no warning in the text that this was about to happen. Luke, writing in Acts, doesn’t tell us that Jesus had warned them that this was going to happen. Earlier at the Last Supper he had referred to going to his Father, but they would now have assumed that that had been a reference to his death.
In the closing words of his Gospel, Luke had recorded, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (Lk 24:51). Mark had recorded, “After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God.” (Mk 16:19) (but there is a question mark over whether it actually was Mark writing those words or was something another had added.) Matthew and John are silent as to what happened. But Luke is the historian who, in his Gospel, had told us that he had gone to great trouble to check out the truth of what had happened – so he records it.
The only other time in the Bible that anything like this happens was the case of Elijah being taken up – but that had been in a chariot of fire by angels, as he was carried up in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). His young followers thought he would come down and went to search for him but found nothing. But this account, telling us of Jesus’ departure from the earth, seems almost ordinary by comparison. There is no whirlwind, no great sounds, nothing out of the ordinary recorded. Jesus simply ascended!
How would you have responded if you were one of the disciples? I suspect we would have stood there with open mouths and tears running down our faces as Jesus disappeared from sight. It was only the appearance of two angels that broke into their reverie and gave them something to rejoice about. They were just standing there, “They were looking intently up into the sky.” (v.10) It was as if they couldn’t tear their eyes away from the spot where he had vanished from sight.
Now we have suggested that the historian, Luke, baldly recounts the facts of what happened but it is then fair to ask, but why did it happen in this way? Why didn’t Jesus just quietly vanish one day? It seems it is yet another of these mysteries surrounding the records of Jesus. However, there seem to be various clues.
Visible Ascension: Look at the language of the verses surrounding this event: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” (v.9-11) Five times there is reference to the fact that the disciples SAW Jesus leave. There is surely significance to this. It is as if Jesus wanted there to be a number of witnesses to his departure. He wanted them to be able to say, he has definitely gone – we saw him go!
Leaving the Earth: There is a second thought that follows on from this. It is the fact of him going up into the sky away from the earth. Now of course we would say that heaven is not “up there” but another dimension, but the fact of him “leaving the earth” says his time on the earth has come to an end and so don’t ever go looking for him. He’s not an eternal, ageless man who continually walks the earth. He has left and gone back to heaven. In other words, the period or time for his earthly ministry has finally come to an end. His activity on earth will continue, but now by his Spirit in his followers. His person now exists in heaven as many references in the New Testament testify to.
A Door to the Next Stage: For the moment the disciples may be feeling devastated, utterly bereft at the loss – the final loss – of the One who has brought such light and love and hope to their lives, but it will be only a temporary sense of being bereft because, before a fortnight is out, things will be happening that will sweep them on into the excitement of the rest of their lives, but we’ll leave that for the next study. However, for the moment see his ascension as the next essential step in God’s agenda. He has to go so they will be on their own, waiting for his words to be fulfilled and for power to come.
A Pattern for his Return: Sometime in the future (see Rev 19) Jesus will return in power. He will not come in ordinary human form and so we need to remember his warnings about false Christs (Mt 24:44). People who simply talk the words are not him! When he comes every eye will see him (Rev 1:7). Even as he ascended, so he will descend – but in great power!
Ascended to the Father’s Right Hand: Before we leave this study, we should note that not only was the Ascension about leaving the earth, it was also about arriving back in heaven, where we are told a number of times Jesus sat down at his Father’s right hand, and in subsequent studies we will see what he is doing there today. But first, let’s note that there are 13 mentions of this fact: Mk 16:19 / Acts 2:33 / Acts 5:31 / Acts 7:55 / Rom 8:34 / Eph 1:20 / Phil 2:9 / Col. 3:1 / Heb 1:3 / Heb 8:1 / Heb 10:12 / Heb 12:2 / 1 Pet 3:22 Note the things these verses say about Jesus in heaven. He:
– has a place of honour at the Father’s right hand
– he is there as Prince and Saviour
– he pleads for us there
– he’s been given a name above all others
– all angels and authorities bow before him
These are things into which we need to delve more deeply and we’ll consider more in the coming studies.