Acts 1:1–14

He Ascended Into Heaven

Laura Miguélez Quay

Linebrook Church

May 28, 2017

 

This morning, as we do every Sunday, we recited the Apostles Creed, reminding ourselves of the key tenets of the Christian faith. When it comes to Jesus Christ, the second member of the Trinity, each week we confess that we believe: “in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried. He descended into hell. The third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from there he shall come to judge the living and the dead.” We’re going to focus on one portion of this creed in particular: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Why do we confess this each week? Why was Christ’s ascension deemed important enough to include in this succinct summary of the Christian faith? Why does the ascension matter?

It’s appropriate that we consider Jesus Christ’s ascension to heaven today for to in the church year calendar today is Ascension Sunday, which remembers Christ’s actual ascension over 2000 years ago this past Thursday, on the fortieth day after his resurrection from the dead. Dating as far back as the first century, Christians have celebrated Christ’s Ascension into heaven. During these 40 post-resurrection days, he not only appeared to his disciples on numerous occasions, but he also continued teaching them. And then, on the fortieth day, as his disciples watched from the Mount of Olives[1] he ascended to heaven.

So after being reminded by Jinsook last week of our kind God’s lovingkindness, this week we return to the beginning of the book of Acts. Again, the “acts” spoken of here are those of Jesus’ apostles. Luke has historically been accepted as the author of this book given similarities in style with the Gospel of Luke and portions in Acts that indicate Luke as its author. And in the opening itself Luke’s Gospel can be identified as the “my former book” being referred to in which Jesus’ life was written about from the time he “began to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven.” Luke’s Gospel begins with the birth of Jesus and moves quickly to his life and teaching. And if we turn to the end of Luke’s Gospel in chapter 24, it closes with Jesus’ ascension as he “lifted up his hands and blessed [the disciples] ” (v. 50) and then “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” (v. 51).

In the opening verses in the book of Acts, Luke covers this ground once more. In writing to a man named Theophilus, to whom the Gospel of Luke is also written,[2] as already noted Luke summarizes the contents of the former Gospel he had written which contained:

“all that Jesus began to do and to teach,” verse 1

“until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen,” verse 2.

After providing these bookends of Jesus’ life—from the beginning of his teaching ministry to his ascension—Luke then back-tracks, noting how Jesus, verse 3:

“After his suffering,

“he presented himself to them

“and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.”

In stating “after his suffering,” Luke has briefly changed the focus from Jesus’ ascension to his crucifixion on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday during which time he did indeed “[present] himself to them” continuously appearing to his disciples and letting them know by “many convincing proofs that he was alive.” Jesus wanted his disciples to know and be convinced that his resurrection from death was real. And Jesus didn’t simply appear to the disciples once. No, Luke goes on to note how Jesus

“appeared to them over a period of forty days

“and spoke about the kingdom of God.”

As I already shared in an e-mail I sent out Thursday, “after our kind and gracious Lord Jesus Christ rose from the dead (no doubt knowing that we are slow to believe) he spent the next 40 days on earth appearing to and continuing to teach his disciples.” And the focus of his teaching, as Luke tells us, was the kingdom of God. Jesus the Christ, Jesus the Messiah, being God’s promised and chosen King who in coming to earth in human form inaugurated his kingdom, naturally taught about his kingdom—that is, he taught about God’s kingdom—both before and after his death and resurrection. And, again, after his resurrection he did this teaching over a period of forty days.

In verses 4 and 5 Luke focuses upon “one occasion” in particular during which “while he was eating with them, he gave them this command:

“‘Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about” (v. 4).

“For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (v. 5).

Notice that even after his death and resurrection, Jesus didn’t become some kind of ghost or spirit but is fully human as he not only teaches his disciples but also eats with them—spirits and ghosts can’t eat. And he commands them to wait for the Father’s promised gift. Now what the Father had promised was the Holy Spirit so we see in Luke’s words another picture of the Trinity. At the end of Luke’s Gospel he similarly records how Jesus told his disciples, “I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”[3] In the progress of God’s revelation, in his increasingly clearer and greater communication from Old Testament times to New Testament, he begins to disclose his triune nature. What remains consistent with his self-disclosure in the Old Testament is that he is One as summarized in the Jewish shema—“Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One.”[4] But what develops as we come to the New Testament is that God’s oneness is now revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, probably expressed most exquisitely at Jesus’ baptism as he, the Son, is baptized; then the Holy Spirit descends upon him as a dove; and finally the Father acknowledges him as his beloved Son.[5] Thus the triune God, one God in three Persons—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—bears witness to Jesus Christ being the one through whom salvation would come to Adam’s sons who, having turned away from their Creator, were all equally in need of Messiah, of Christ, as their Redeemer.

And something we learn about this one God in three Persons is that each member of the Trinity is in agreement with every other member of the Trinity. So, for instance, the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by the Father was also spoken of by Jesus prior to his death and resurrection. In one account in the Gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples, “But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you.”[6] As God the Father spoke through the prophets in the Old Testament, and God the Son spoke through Christ Jesus and his disciples in the New Testament, so God the Holy Spirit would speak to his disciples in the Church age, helping them understand all that had been disclosed in his written and risen Word. In another account in John Jesus similarly promises, “26 When the Advocate comes, whom I will send to you from the Father—the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father—he will testify about me. 27 And you also must testify, for you have been with me from the beginning.”[7]

Now as we’ll see again next week, the Holy Spirit’s coming is often associated with power and fire. As early as when the angel Gabriel first appeared to Mary to let her know that she would bear Jesus, the Son of the Most High, in response to her inquiry as to how this would be possible given that she was a virgin, Gabriel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”[8] Gabriel equates the Holy Spirit with the power of the Most High. Similarly John the Baptist testified, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”[9] So John notes not only the power of Jesus Christ but also the fire of the Holy Spirit to come. Jesus references and affirms this teaching from John the Baptist in verse 5 of our passage this morning. Now whereas John’s baptism represented the need for humanity to be cleansed of their sin, Jesus’s baptism “with the Holy Spirit and fire,” would be not merely an external cleansing, but an internal one. His would be a moral cleansing, a holy cleansing by which God’s Holy Spirit would make us holy as God himself is holy. So negatively, Jesus’ disciples had experienced John’s baptism indicating their need to be cleansed of their sin; but positively they would experience an inner cleansing and empowering by Christ’s Spirit himself, by the Holy Spirit. So the baptism promised by John the Baptist at the beginning of his ministry had now drawn near. As stated in verse 5, before ascending to heaven Jesus told his disciples, “but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” And, true to his word, ten days after his ascension into heaven, Christ sent his Spirit to his disciples.

Now in Jesus speaking of the Kingdom of God over this post-resurrection forty-day period, initially his disciples didn’t understand what he meant. As we see in verse 6, after Jesus told them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit promised by his heavenly Father, about which Jesus had also spoken, “…they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’” Again, at one level, the response of the disciples makes sense because for forty days after he had risen from the dead, Jesus had been teaching them “about the kingdom of God” (v. 3). But the problem, not for the first time, is that the disciples took Jesus’ telling them about the kingdom of God in a political sense. They may have been hearkening back to the glory days of King David when for a brief time there was no divided northern versus southern kingdom in Israel, but the twelve tribes were all united. But the Kingdom of God Jesus spoke to them about was far greater than this. God’s Kingdom would unify and incorporate not only Israel but all nations and tribes under King Jesus’ kingship. And Christ Jesus’ Holy Spirit would be the means of continuing to establish his Kingdom on earth. What is so clear to us in hindsight was brand new to the disciples. We now pray, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” because we understand that by means of his Church, the Holy Spirit enables us to live and teach as Christ did. But they still understood this kingdom politically.

So Jesus responds in verses 7 and 8, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Jesus changed their focus from trying to predict when Israel’s kingdom would be restored—something only God knows—to the coming of the Holy Spirit who would enable and empower them to be witnesses to the risen Christ first in Israel but then “to the ends of the earth.” And as we’ll consider again next week, when the Holy Spirit comes he does indeed come to his disciples, his witnesses, in Jerusalem first. And the first seven chapters in the book of Acts tells this story. But next the disciples were to go both to those areas that were part of the northern kingdom of Israel in Judea as well as to those that were part of the southern kingdom of Israel in Samaria. And we see this being fulfilled in chapters 8–9 in Acts. And last, but certainly not least, though the disciples had been thinking politically about the Kingdom of God, they would come to learn how God by his Holy Spirit seeks to break into every culture. For by his Spirit Christ would send them beyond Israel “to the ends of the earth.” And this fulfillment is found in chapters 10–28 in Acts.

This is the same message that Matthew records the risen Christ having given these same eleven disciples in what we’ve come to know as the Great Commission when “Jesus came to them and said, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20”—we have here triune God again—“and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’”[10] Christ’s coming was never primarily about the restoration of the kingdom to Israel. From as early as Abraham’s call, before the nation of Israel even existed, God had promised that one day all the peoples of the world would be blessed through him.[11] And though throughout Israel’s history, any people who accepted and worshipped Israel’s God was welcomed and embraced as part of God’s people—we saw this last week in Jinsook’s preaching on Ruth 1 and 2—it is when God pours out his Spirit upon the disciples, that this outreach proportionately increases.

So after the risen Christ Jesus promised his disciples that the Holy Spirit would come upon them so that they would be his witnesses to the ends of the earth, in verse 9 we have recorded for us his actual ascension to heaven: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Again, this ascension into heaven is part of what we profess each week when together we recite in the Apostles’ Creed: “He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” And immediately after he ascended, we’re told in verses 10 and 11, “10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 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.’” This is such an interesting thing for the two white-dressed men—no doubt angels—to say to them. Jesus had just disappeared into the sky above them—so of course they’re going to look up into the sky! Yet these two messengers of God reassure the disciples that one day Jesus will return in the same way that he left.

And with that, verse 12, “Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk[12] from the city.” As noted in verse 13, there were eleven apostles present: “Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James.” So all but Judas Iscariot, who after he betrayed Jesus hung himself, were present. These remaining 11 “went upstairs to the room where they were staying” in Jerusalem and, verse 14, “They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.” All told, there were around 120 gathered together and praying constantly (v. 15). And though Jesus had left them physically when he ascended to heaven, spiritually he would remain with his disciples upon sending them his Holy Spirit—again, which we’ll be considering next week. Christ’s Holy Spirit becomes the means by which Jesus fulfills his promise to them in the Great Commission when, as we’ve already noted, he tells them, “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”[13]

Returning to Jesus Christ’s ascension, why do we confess this each week? Why was it considered important enough by the early church to include in the Apostles Creed? I think there are a number of reasons. At one level just as this weekend our society has designated Monday as Memorial Day, a day to remember those who courageously and willingly gave up their lives to preserve the values and freedom we cherish in our country, Christ’s Church is called to remember him who gave up his life, taking upon himself our sins, that we, as the author of Hebrews states, might “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And….run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”[14] For Jesus Christ not only died in order to provide a way to our heavenly Father, but he also rose from the dead that we might know him as the only way to God. Too, his ascension to heaven reminds us that he wasn’t only human, he wasn’t only Jesus, but he was also God, he was also God’s Messiah, the Christ. And as he spent forty days after rising from death, eating with and teaching his disciples about the Kingdom of God, he did so in part that they might know and be convinced that he was alive. His resurrection was real. So on the fortieth day when he ascended to heaven, he took his proper place as King not only over Israel but over the entire cosmos and he is now ruling with, and at the right hand of God the Father. This ruling is known as his Session, pointing to his authority and power. And though we may long for a time when for all that is wrong in this world to be made right, we can rest assured that one day he will return and establish his shalom, his peace, once and for all. One day he will return and make things as he intended them to be. But in the meantime, he desires us to know him—and praise him—and honor him as the loving and kind and compassionate king that he is. And until he returns, he desires us to display that love and kindness and compassion to others; he desires us to be the means of displaying his Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven that others might know he is alive and that the salvation and eternal life he gave his life to bring is real and available to all who turn to him.

Let us pray.

 

 

[1] 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.

[2] Luke 1:1–4: 1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

[3] Luke 24:49.

[4] Deuteronomy 6:4, “Shema” is an English transliteration of the Hebrew word “Hear”.

[5] Jesus’ baptism is found in Matthew 3:13–17: 13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” 15 Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented. 16 As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” Mark 1:9–11: At that time Jesus came from Nazareth in Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. 10 Just as Jesus was coming up out of the water, he saw heaven being torn open and the Spirit descending on him like a dove. 11 And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” Luke 3:21–22: 21 When all the people were being baptized, Jesus was baptized too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened 22 and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

[6] John 14:26.

[7] John 15:26–27. See also: John 16:12–15: 12 “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. 13 But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all the truth. He will not speak on his own; he will speak only what he hears, and he will tell you what is yet to come. 14 He will glorify me because it is from me that he will receive what he will make known to you. 15 All that belongs to the Father is mine. That is why I said the Spirit will receive from me what he will make known to you.”

[8] Luke 1:35.

[9] Luke 3:16.

[10] Matthew 28:18–20.

[11] Genesis 12:2–3:“I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

[12] About 5/8th of a mile.

[13] Matthew 28:20.

[14] Hebrews 12:1.

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