33. A New Uncertainty – Ascension

‘Living with Uncertainty’ Meditations: 33. A New Uncertainty – Ascension

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

Whaaat?  I don’t know if it’s just my imagination but the ascension of Christ rarely seems to be preached today, but that is a shame because it says something vitally important. Is it because the thought of a human body going up into the sky to disappear in a low cloud seems to stretch modern credulity to breaking point? It shouldn’t any more than Christ’s resurrection or any miracle for that matter.

Historically Accepted: It is strange if we seem to be unhappy with proclaiming it because historically Creeds, Catechisms and Confessions all made a point of including it: The Apostles Creed – “who ascended into heaven”, the Nicene Creed – “he ascended into heaven”, the Athanasian Creed – “rose again from the dead, ascended into heaven”, the Heidelberg Catechism Q49 “Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?”, the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q28: “Wherein consists Christ’s exaltation? A28: Christ’s exaltation consists in his rising again from the dead on the third day, in ascending up into heaven,” and even the wordy Westminster Confession of Faith, “which also he ascended into heaven “. There it is declared again and again.

But Scripture? Our key verse here must be out starter verse in Acts 1 but note how each Gospel writer concludes their Gospel.  Matthew, we noted previously, in his kingdom-focused Gospel concluded with the Great Commission and went no further. For him, that was the important point with which to finish. In Mark, the add-on we’ve seen before, included, “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) Luke concludes his Gospel with, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God,” (Lk 24:50-53) and then picks it up in his continuation in Acts. John makes no mention of it, obviously feeling the others had covered it adequately and he didn’t need to confirm the points he was making about Jesus ministry time, that this aspect added to it.

In Acts, in his sermon on the day of Pentecost, the nearest Peter gets to it is, “Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.” (Acts 2:33) In this and subsequent preaching his big emphasis is on the resurrection that vindicates the work of Christ. The apostle Paul speaks of how God, “raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.” (Eph 1:20) but numerous times speaks of how Christ is seated at the Father’s right hand in heaven (e.g. Rom 8:34, Phil 2:9, Col 3:1)implying he has ascended there. But it is the writer to the Hebrews who spells it out most clearly: Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.” (Heb 4:14) He also refers to Christ beside the Father – Heb 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2 – and Peter makes a similar declaration in his letter – 1 Pet 3:22. We’ll expand on this in a moment.

The 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.” (Acts 1:9-11)  From these verses observe the following: i) Jesus ascended bodily, ii) the angels declared that this would be the same way he will return – seen in the sky. But why did it happen like this? Forgive me if I take three paragraphs from a previous series, “Focus on Christ”:

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.

Ascended to the Father’s Right Hand:  We should also 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. 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

To Conclude: I would also add as a summary that he is there to oversee and administer the kingdom. One of my favourite set of verses that I believe clarifies the day in which we live is, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:24-26) See it clearly: he IS reigning in heaven over the earth and will continue to reign until he has finished his present work that is to rid the earth of everything that was not there when the Father and he first created it, i.e. all forms of sin and its effects. I always link this with the prophetic Psa 110:1,2 – “The Lord says to my lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The Lord will extend your mighty sceptre from Zion, saying,  “Rule in the midst of your enemies!”

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. How amazing! Worship him and rejoice in your part in all this.

6. Ascended

Meditations in Acts : 6 :  Ascended

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

Life with Jesus was never boring. Forgive me if I refer again to the way we so often read God’s word. For those of us who have been Christians many years there is the temptation to let God’s word become ordinary; we lose the wonder of what is there.  My wife, who is a Religious Studies teacher, was marking some essays and read out to me the question, “Why do Christians read their Bibles?” I flippantly replied, “Because it seemed a good idea at the time.” Now I replied like that because my heart cried, “If only they would!” The point I would make is that so often Christians don’t read their Bibles because they have lost the sense of wonder of what is there in the book and are not wise enough to ask for God’s help every time they read it.

Today’s verse 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 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. 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? There seem to be various clues.  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!

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.

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.