15. Return

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 15. Return

Acts 1:12   Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.

We noted this verse before, indicating how Jesus had led the disciples along this walk outside Jerusalem to the place of solitude and memories where he would leave them. Now he has gone, now they retrace their steps. They have just witnessed one of the strangest sights in Scripture (there are a number) and we are left wondering how they must have felt.

But we don’t need to wonder long but simply go back to Luke’s Gospel where we read, “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” (Lk 24:52) The sight of their Lord ascending evoked worship in them. They had witnessed him performing miracles, healing thousands, even raising people from the dead, they had experienced him returning from the dead and now they see this body that they know so well simply ascend before their very eyes – and they worship him. This is indeed the unique Son of God and he is returning home!

But then he’s gone and the angels pull them out of their worshipping reverie and they realise they have a world to return to. As they go their worship is no doubt eclipsed by chatter of what they have just witnessed and the wonder of it now evokes joy – no, great joy! For a moment, questions about the future are lost in the wonder and strangeness of what they have just witnessed.

Acts 1 records, “When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying.” (Acts 1:13) and then, “They all joined together constantly in prayer.”  (Acts 1:14) but when we return to the Gospel we find something strange: “And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”  (Lk 24:53) The reality seems to be that they split their time between praying together in the Upper Room and in the temple precincts. Initially the band who return to the upper room is fairly small but soon we find, “In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty)”. (Acts 1:15) Various of Jesus followers clearly banded together under the leadership of the eleven and it is probable that with such a number the most convenient place to gather was in the outer courts of the temple. Already their courage has started to return (nothing like it will be when the Spirit comes) as the effect of the ascension remains with them.

The ascension marked the end of one phase of God’s strategy and the beginning of an interim, short phase before the Spirit comes. But it is a crucial marker as Jesus changed his location to rule over the world (in the midst of his enemies Psa 110:1,2) beside his Father. There he remains until it is time for him to return. Remain alert!

14. Explanation

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 14. Explanation

Acts 1:11  “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.”

These accounts of Luke in his Gospel and then in the Acts have four parts: there is first the teaching that Jesus brings to his disciples to prepare them for the days ahead, then there is the ascension itself, then this explanation and finally the ongoing activity of the disciples.

The ascension has happened, Jesus has gone and the disciples are still standing there, possibly open-mouthed, still staring at the sky, when there comes this sudden angelic visitation to bring them back to earth.

Look at what they speak: “Men of Galilee.”  i.e. we know who you are and why you are here. In those words they remind them not only of their origins but where most of the action had taken place for the last three years, action they are now going to have to continue.

“Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” Don’t be daft, it’s obvious, we’ve just seen the Master go up there. Hold on, you miss the point. He told you what you’ve got to do so why are you standing around. Yes, it’s happened, he’s gone, now go and do what he told you to do. That’s what disciples do – what the Master tells them to do!

“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven.” Yes, we know all about what has just happened, we’ve been watching from heaven (implied perhaps?), we’ve seen the Son of God return home and it’s about him we need to talk to you. Are you listening?

“will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” This is highly significant. Do you see this? You saw him go up before your very eyes. He didn’t just disappear, he allowed you to witness his departure. Now, understand that he will come back in the ages to come and when he does it will be in exactly the same way – visibly so that those on the earth will be able to see him. The “Second Coming” will be a very visible event. 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! Jesus had said, “I will come back,” (Jn 14:3) and be seen (Mk 13:26, 14:62) and that message would be preached by the apostle Paul (1 Thess 1:10, 3:13, 4:16, 2 Thess 1:7, Phil 3:20, 1 Cor 11:26) as well as others (Heb 9:28). So disciples, be reassured, this is not the last time this world will see your Lord – he will come again!

13. Departure (3)

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 13. Departure (3)

Acts 1:10  They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.

In the Gospel we just had the bald statement, “he left them and was taken up into heaven,” but now as Luke writes in Acts, sometime later and has time to ponder some more on just what happened, he remembers and includes some of the expressions of those who from the first were eyewitnesses”, (Lk 1:2) and who perhaps remembered with something like, “It was incredible, we could hardly believe our eyes, we just stood there looking up, staring at the cloud, willing it to disperse so we could see him still, see what was happening to him, not understanding it, hoping he would come back down.” Who knows?

Now what is beautiful about this verse is something we so often see in Scripture, a blend between the ordinary and the divinely supernatural. We have been observing the ‘ordinary’, the very human disciples standing there looking up, gazing at a physical human body, one of which John would one day write, “which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched,” (1 Jn 1:1) a physical human body that they had interacted with for three years, and now it rises up before them and keeps on going up like a hot air balloon and eventually disappears into a cloud. Yes, all the features of ordinary material life running amok! Staggeringly difficult for the human mind to comprehend, even for the believer to believe, and yet it is as much part of the canon of Scripture as anything else!

But then in the very midst of all this suddenly – and note that suddenness which indicates they appeared from nowhere – these two men in white appeared beside them to convey a message from heaven. And then presumably they disappear as suddenly as they appeared because there is no further mention of them. Men who appear and disappear like this, men who come bringing wisdom from heaven, have got to be angels.

So there we have it, the human ordinary gone extraordinarily, mixed in with the divinely supernatural, both of which challenge the belief of the cynic, but the cynic so often misses so much because of their self-centred limitations. Yes, this is ‘out of this world’ but so is the Son of God coming from heaven, so are miracles, healings, deliverances, raisings from the dead, but the more you think of this enormous swathe of information brought to us in the Gospels, the more you have to wonder why a number of clearly intelligent human beings would bother to write such things, so extensively and in so much detail – ordinary and supernatural – if it wasn’t true? Their behaviour describes exactly what ours would have been if we’d been there.

12. Departure (2)

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 12. Departure (2)

Acts 1:9  After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

We move from the Gospel to Acts for a few studies to pick up some other aspects of this event that Luke covers in both documents. As we hinted in the previous study, 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. Yes, life Had been pretty uncertain following Jesus, never quite being sure what was coming next and that was no more true than in this present experience as they watch Jesus ascend.

Yet there is something surprising in the verses 9 to 11 of Acts 1: it is full of language to do with sight and observation. See, ““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 must be great 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!

And yet, as there so often is with spiritual experiences, there is a slight element of doubt or question because our present verses says, “and a cloud hid him from their sight.” He could have just evaporated into a blue sky but, no, he passes up into a cloud, not to be seen again. The presence of clouds, on one hand is very ordinary and yet linked to an experience like this creates a slight feeling of otherness, of heavenly mystery. Has he gone above the clouds or has he passed from this material existence into another completely different dimension? All will become clear, I suspect, when we see him face to face.

There is a sense, perhaps, that the mystery of the experience so takes up their minds that for a moment at least they don’t have any space to worry about themselves, what will happen to them now he is gone. But then, again, there is an ordinary element about this that denies that it is just an imaginary ‘spiritual’ experience – he has bodily, physically, ascended and gone into a cloud, just like a plane today might do. That anchors it into present reality, this is not a dream but the real world in which they now have to live. We live in such a world where material and spiritual weave together, this is our normality.

11. Departure

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 11. Departure

Lk 24:51b  he left them and was taken up into heaven.  

And we eventually come to the fact of Jesus going up into the sky away from the earth. I wonder how many times we have read these few words in this verse and then just passed them by with little further thought. There is a profundity of meaning in them.

Now we have to observe that Luke, baldly recounts the facts of what happened that really challenge the intellect, but it is then fair to ask, but why did it happen in this way? Why didn’t Jesus just quietly vanish one day?

Now of course we would say that heaven is not “up there” but another dimension, but the fact of him “leaving the earth” and being “taken up into heaven” says his time on the earth has come to an end and so it says to the disciple, don’t ever go looking for him. Elijah’s followers couldn’t believe this when he was taken to heaven (2 Kings 2:16-18) but when someone goes to heaven, they are not coming back (now).

The disciples need to realize that Jesus was not an eternal, ageless man who would now continually walk 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.

When Jesus ascended it wasn’t just to terminate his earthly ministry, it was to return to heaven to sit beside his Father, and in a few earth weeks pour out his Holy Spirit, and then through Him administer the coming of the kingdom through his body, the Church, for as long as the Father decreed until the end.

Without the ascension we have the great uncertainty – how did the story finish on earth, where did he go, what did he do? No, we have none of that uncertainty because we know he returned to heaven to continue his work from there, but in and through us by his Spirit.

We each of us tend to have a feeling of wanting to hold on to the familiar, that great experience we’ve had, or the comfort we’ve come to know. We see it perhaps in the way that Peter wanted to build dwellings for Jesus, Moses and Elijah (Mt 17:4) on the Mount of Transfiguration, perhaps wanting to hang on to this incredible time, but the truth is that such times are always to be of limited duration, there is an ordinary world ‘down there’ we’ve got to go back to, a life we’ve got to live that isn’t an ongoing spiritual high. No, the ascension must have been a shocking experience in some ways, making it very clear to the disciples, that the period of Jesus’ ministry on earth had ended. It would continue through them though – and us!

10. The Final Act

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 10. The Final Act

Lk 24:51a  While he was blessing them 

In the previous study we noted the specific act of Jesus blessing his disciples before he left them, but now observe the word, ‘while’ which suggests, ‘as he was’, and it goes on to say that he ascended. Have you ever seen this before?  As he is blessing them he starts to rise up and leave them. It is not only the last thing he did before he left them, it was the thing he was still doing as he left them. This is monumental! What was the last memory they had of Jesus? Of him going up, yes, but going up blessing them!

Why is that so significant? It is so important because it pictures Jesus, the one who perfectly expressed his Father’s will, decreeing good for his followers as, not only as his intent for that moment, but indicating that it was what he intended to happen in all the years before he would return again in triumph.

We are living in the era of blessing and we so often forget this. The apostle Paul was to write,  For the Son of God, Jesus Christ…was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes.” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ.” (2 Cor 1:19,20) The Living Bible puts it, I have been telling you about Jesus Christ the Son of God. He isn’t one to say yes when he means no. He always does exactly what he says. He carries out and fulfils all of God’s promises, no matter how many of them there are.”

No wonder when Jesus started his ministry he purposefully applied the Isaiah prophecy to himself that concludes, he has anointed me…  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.” (Lk 4:19,20 quoting Isa 61:1,2) This is the era of God’s favour, of His blessings that are brought to us through the finished work of Christ on the Cross. This is the time when every person who turns to Him will receive His goodness and ONLY His goodness.

The apostle Paul declared this again and again, for example, Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” (Eph 1:3) This goodness starts with forgiveness: Blessed are those whose transgressions are forgiven; whose sins are covered,” (Rom 4:7) and flows on through this life of obedience: “not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.” (Jas 1:25)

So here we are, just about to witness one of the strangest things concerning Jesus, his ascension, but the event itself reveals something quite amazing because it happens while he continue to declare the loving decree of the Lord, the loving decree from heaven – blessing on all his followers, goodness for all believers. Hallelujah!

9. Blessed

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 9. Blessed

 Lk 24:50b  he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  

 There is something remarkable here, so remarkable that we will take two days to consider it. First of all the act, and second tomorrow, the implication. A ‘blessing’ is not a tool of manipulation but should be an inspired declaration of the will of God, the will for good. It is a prophetic decree from heaven that we express, that releases good on the earth. The very first blessings – decrees for good – come from the Lord when He created the world, blessing all living creatures (Gen 1:22), human beings (1:28), the day of rest (2:3), human sexuality (5:2). He also blessed Noah (Gen 9:1) and promised blessing for Abram (Gen 12:2) and all those who would be people of faith (12:3). All of these are God expressing His intention of good.

The first human blessing was by Melchizedek who blessed Abram (Gen 14:19) but in some ways it was a declaration of God’s intent, what He had already done (see v.20) and would continue to do  – do good for Abram! Next God declared He would bless Sarah and the result would be she would be pregnant (Gen 17:16), a very practical outworking of goodness. When He reiterated His blessing it would be that Abraham’s family would be very numerous (Gen 22:17) an extension of that goodness. But it wasn’t a limited goodness (Gen 24:1)  for the Lord has “blessed him in every way”. His whole life reflected the goodness of God brought to him.

After Abraham, the Lord blessed Isaac (Gen 25:11). In Gen 27 we have the story of Rebekah and Jacob tricking Isaac into blessing the younger son, Jacob but the Lord had already decreed that blessing (Gen 25:23) and once Isaac had pronounced it, he knew he could not withdraw it (Gen 27-37-) and in fact pronounced a different truth over Esau. Isaac is a picture of a man who understood blessings.

And so now we come to Jesus departure and the last thing he does before he leaves them is bless them. We’ll see more of this tomorrow but for now we anchor this thought that the Son of God blesses his disciples as he leaves them. He has already prayed for them (see Jn 17:6-) so what might he have been decreeing now?

Well, the apostle Paul made a statement that is all-encompassing and must surely have applied to the apostles as it does to us: God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work.” (2 Cor 9:8) i.e. provision all the time, meeting every need, in order to enable us to do everything that He has on His heart for us (Eph 2:10). When I pray today I ask for a sense of His presence, the experience of His power, His provision and His protection. Surely it can be nothing less than this.

8. Led to Location

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 8. Led to Location

Lk 24:50a  When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany,

As Luke winds up his Gospel, these verses are really summary verses. Continuing and recapping the story in Acts 1, after the ascension Luke records, Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.” (Acts 1:12). A footnote signifies it was about a kilometre or five eighths of a mile. They have returned to Jerusalem from the weeks of teaching in Galilee (Acts 1:3-, Mk 16:7, Mt 28:16, Jn 21:1-) but now the time for Jesus’ departure has arrived. In other words, Jesus knows that his time of teaching his disciples has come to an end.

We have been observing his teaching in summary form in the verses we have been considering, but now that has come to an end. I wonder if you were Jesus what you would have been feeling as you prepared to leave this group of disciples who have been with you for three years, have seen and heard all you have said and done, and who have been commissioned by you to go and carry on doing the same things? (Jn 14:12) Now it is down to them – after they have received the Spirit in ten days’ time.

Jesus knows these people, knows their frailties and fragilities and past and potential failures, but now it is time to let them get on with it. Leaders train, equip, enable, empower, and then have to step back and let their people get on with it. We may do the same with our children and there comes a time when we have to step back and give them space to go and live their lives out as they will, trusting that God will go with them and oversee them.

So he knows it is time to leave. He doesn’t just walk out of the door in the room where they are staying (Acts 1:13) – Jesus has obviously resettled them back there in Jerusalem – and doesn’t just disappear mysteriously. No, this has to be public – at least to them – but not to all the world. In the same way as they have been observers for three years and now been called to be ongoing witnesses, so they alone must observe his departure, and so he takes them to that familiar site of the Mount of Olives where they had often stayed overnight (Jn 8:1, Lk 21:37) a place where he had taught them (Mt 24:3, 26:30-) where the Garden of Gethsemane is and where he had prayed (Lk 22:39-). It is a place with many memories that must be faced, a place of special significance with this little group, and it is here that Jesus must leave them, and when he goes, in this place they will be left with many familiar memories that will say to them, no, this was not a dream, this was real, it all happened and you must never forget that. But here is the starting place for the rest of your life.

7. A Need to Wait

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 7. A Need to Wait

Lk 24:49b  but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”

I think there is something behind this instruction that is profound. “stay in the city”.  The city is Jerusalem and as we suggested earlier, that was a place that had bad memories for the disciples. For Peter in particular, it was the place of absolute failure with his three-times denial. For the rest of the disciples it had been a time of failure as they had fled and hidden when Jesus had been arrested (Mt 26:56). They had gone through the awful hours of Saturday, the mind shattering hours of Sunday and then the days of wondering and uncertainty that followed, and it all happened in Jerusalem.

Jerusalem was, therefore, I suggest, the place of nightmares, the place of fear and although Jesus has come back and spent weeks with them, teaching them, and redirecting them, nevertheless when he went they surely must have felt frail and vulnerable. The fact that he had come back could be testified to, but the fact that he had gone again could not be hidden – he was just not there! Would the authorities move against them, arrest and imprison them? Yes, weeks have passed but this band is still a threat to the stability of Judaism as the authorities would have seen it.

I have a question that I have never heard asked: why did Jesus leave them ten days before the Day of Pentecost? If God was making a point pouring out His Spirit at this Harvest Feast, why didn’t Jesus wait until say two days before then, so as to reduce the period of waiting, the period of tension and anxiety? Perhaps the answer has to be to watch what actually happened, what the disciples did. We have to wait until Luke’s second writing, The Acts, to see it: They all joined together constantly in prayer.” (Acts 1:14)  We so often say it, if in doubt, pray!

I suggest that Jesus left them with ten days to wait (and of course they hadn’t been told what day the Spirit would come and there is no indication they guessed it would be Pentecost) so that they had time to reflect on all that had gone on, realize their helplessness without Jesus (after all, had he not taught, “apart from me you can do nothing,”? Jn 15:5) and realize they truly need this Spirit, this power, that Jesus had spoken about.

I suspect that many of us today do not know the power and revelation and equipping of the Spirit because we have not come to this place of helplessness, we are still too confident of our own abilities. We can plan services, even prepare sermons and worship times, Bible studies etc. without the Spirit. Does God need to show us our inabilities, our ineffectiveness in the modern world until we wait and pray?

6. A Gift Promised

Short Meditations on the Ascension: 6. A Gift Promised

Lk 24:49a  I am going to send you what my Father has promised  

When a birthday or Christmas approaches, many of us will have an anticipation that a loved one will be giving us a present. It is a pleasant anticipation. Now Jesus has referred a number of times to the coming of the Holy Spirit: “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever …. he lives with you and will be in you.” (Jn 14:16,17) and “the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things.” (Jn 14:26)

It is one thing to hear the words, it is another to experience the reality. How many I wonder, speak the words ‘Holy Spirit’ and yet have little experience or practical knowledge of Him?

I am sure that at this point in time the disciples really didn’t have a clue about the significance of this statement, which is about to be supplemented by the words, “power from on high” (later in the verse); they could not have anticipated the things that happened on the Day of Pentecost. I suspect it was their sense of helplessness once Jesus has left them that drove them to the upper room to pray and wait, not so much the anticipation of what was coming.

The mystery and uncertainty of the coming of the Spirit is what makes many believers nervous. Yes, it is as Jesus said, He is like the wind: “You hear its sound, but you cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going,” (Jn 3:8) and in a day when everything teaches us to be in control of our lives, we feel uneasy when it comes to the Spirit who moves sovereignly. He comes when He sees hungry and thirsty hearts, hearts that are open to Him, dependent on God. However, we cannot make Him come, we can only ask Him to come.

But His coming was definitely part of the divine agenda. He didn’t come because the disciples were begging Him to come, He came because it was part of the divine plan decided before the foundation of the world, that once Jesus had come, revealed the Father, died for our sins, risen from the dead and then ascended back to heaven, the only way to equip the needy, waiting disciples would be for the Spirit to come from heaven and fill them and empower them.

To those who would argue about whether He comes when we are born again (certainly to indwell us) or He comes later to empower us for service, the simple question has to be, do you know His empowering, do you know His equipping, do you know His gifting for service? If the answer is no, then we need to be reminded of Jesus’ teaching: “If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!”  (Lk 11:12,13) Ask, believe, and receive.