And [this is what] he said to them:
“These words of mine are the words I spoke to you then when I was with you, [and I did so] in order that all the things written of me in the law of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms would be fulfilled.”
Then as he opened up the scriptures with them, so that they might understand, he said to them:
“So that is what is written concerning the Anointed, that he would suffer and be raised from the grave on the third day and that in his name repentance unto forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed. You are the witnesses of these things. And this is so that I can send you forth with the promise of my Father upon you. But you must sit [and wait] in the city until you are clothed with such power from above.”
And having led them out on the way to Bethany he lifted his hands in blessing to them. And that is when, while imparting his blessing upon them, he parted from them [and was transported away to heaven].
And they were to return to [their place in] Jerusalem with great joy and were continually seen in the temple praising God.
We have noted how there is some divergence in the ancient manuscripts with respect to Luke’s account of whether Peter ran to the tomb as it appears from 23:12. It seems that it is quite possible for a copyist to have entered a footnote or a marginal note which, in time, became part of the main Lukan text. There seems no reason to be unduly worried about this discrepancy; after all Luke would have come to know, from the Apostolic witness, if not the other evangelists, that this is indeed what happened. And no doubt Theophilus, having already been instructed in the Good News, would have also known this well enough already. There may be something similar we have to say about the discrepancy among the ancient manuscrupts we have bracketed:
[and was transported away to heaven]
in the second last sentence.
We, in the 21st century, are still beholden to the mythic and fundamentalistic imaginative reconstruction of mid-20th century film-makers who presumed to conclude their cinematic representation with their camera ascending into the clouds aboard a heli-copter or a balloon. In their pious efforts they seem to have ignored the fact that their film was suggesting that Jesus’ ascension was somehow to overcome and even deny the laws of gravity. The Bible is clear about Jesus’ ascension to the right-hand of his Father in heaven, namely to occupy the place of Lord over the entire creational project. On the other hand such imaginative cinematic representations move us away from what Luke is seeking to convey to Theophilus into a mythic realm of what is essentially technological speculation. A child seeing such films, and thinking about them will inevitably come to ask whether Jesus had booster rockets on his sandels.
The discrepancy among the texts seems to be an attempt to answer the question:
Where did he go?
by reference to what Luke records as the witness of the messengers in Acts:
And having said this, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, a cloud taking him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he departed from them, that was when two men stood there with them in their white robes, saying, “Men of Galilee, why stand looking into the heavens? This Jesus, who was taken up to be received from you into heaven, will come in the self-same way as you saw him depart into heaven (Acts 1:9-11).
Here, I am simply wanting to emphasise that we can be sure that Luke, in concluding his Gospel, is not wanting to answer speculative questions derived from aeronautics – in fact the discipline of the two men in their white robes is to redirect the concern of Jesus’ disciples to their earthly responsibilities. Luke is pointing out to Theophilus that that was it and what Theophilus has subsequently experienced of “the way” arose with the joyful and continual praise of the Lord God by Jesus’ disciples after he had left. Of course they had to ask or to answer when someone else who was not there asked them:
Where did he go?
But Luke seemingly has no interest in concluding his story, and confirming all that he has written in this sizeable Gospel, by trying to induce Theophilus to imagine an ascent into heaven as a rocket might speed through the clouds, riding an arrow fired into the heavenly realm. If we have been following his narrative this far, such a device does not appear as part of his stated authorial agenda.
It is indeed the case that in composing the Book of Acts, his second book, Luke had to continue to give an account of how Jesus had helped his disciples avoid being bamboozled. We read at this point how they were helped to overcome their gob-smacking bewilderment at his departure; but let us recall that Luke is fully occupied throughout his entire Gospel in confronting the lack of assurance with an account that encourages Theophilus to be certain and confident about his own belief in Christ:
… in order that you, my highly esteemed Theophilus, friend of God, might know the reliability of what you have been instructed, of what has been passed onto you by word of mouth (Luke 1:4).
Luke, now at the end of his narrative, tells us of the utter bemusement of Jesus’ disciples – even with their joy in the midst of this being so unbelievable for them (24:41) – but the disciples are those who found Jesus’ resurrection unbelievable, and when he was gasping his last breath on the cross they weren’t actually there taking it all in. And before that: what about their responsibility during his trial, and what were they expected to do when it was clear that one of their own number came to betray him?
And so we return to Luke’s theme throughout the Gospel. Those closest and dearest to Jesus – including nota bene his own pin-pointing of the serious misunderstanding of all of the disciples including John “the Apostle whom Jesus loved” (Luke 9:51-56) – were completely in the dark without Jesus’ own clarification of what his coming among them actually meant. And now that he had left them, Luke looks back on this time to tell us that they had the ten days until Pentecost to face up to the promises he had made to them and these he had given them as he spent those 40 days with them so that they, and those who believed because of their witness, would not remain ignorant and in the dark. They would live with a God-given sense of the reliability of the Good News.
Luke had been captured by the same message which was in the process of being fulfilled by the experiences of the young church. He reiterates at the conclusion of his Gospel what Jesus reiterated to his disciples in that period between his resurrection and his parting from them, what we now refer to as his ascension. This was the 40-day period in which the disciples were prepared for what the church has ever after referred to as “the great commission”. And then there was that other period of waiting – it would be ten days in Jerusalem until Pentecost.
As we carefully attend to this, it seems that Luke is indicating that in his meeting with his disciples after his resurrection, Jesus was instructing them about framing, or perhaps better re-framing, their reading of Moses, the prophets and the Psalms. What he gives them is the “nutshell” of how they were to understand what we call the Old Testament. It all comes down to this. What these ancient scriptures say of the grace of the Lord, of the covenant of mercy, is that the Anointed of the Lord, the servant-saviour who comes to maintain God’s purposes by redeeming his ever-beloved and specially chosen image-bearers, members of God’s own family, will suffer and be put to death but on the third day he will rise. It is as if he said:
This is actually what I have been teaching you ever since I began proclaming the Kingdom of God in Nazareth, just after John, my cousin, was arrested. Yes, after my resurrection I told you straight that you have been wilfully ignorant and so lethargic in your hearts. And I’m telling you that you will continue to doubt the prophets, those you continue to say you trust, without me here countering your unbelief. You even lack understanding about your lack of understanding. It is not just about your inability to have anticipated my resurrection which I’ve been trying to counter ever since I called you to join me. It’s a Kingdom of God consciousness that you can only be developed in God’s Kingdom! I am the one who opens the way for you to enter into that.
So the stories you’ve been telling among yourselves of your experience as my disciples are going to be told and as you do so you need to take this scriptural view of my mission, and thus also of your mission, fully into account.
All the nations and peoples of the earth, must come to hear this. They must be called to repentance for the forgiveness of sins that is available through my blood. And this proclamation should go on as long as the generations of humankind are called to fulfil the creational purposes given them by God from the outset and maintained to this day.
You are those who have shared with me in my sufferings and trial (Luke 22:28-30). You have the initial foretaste of the full glory of these events. And your task is to bear witness as you share in this fulfilment.
Jesus instructed them to remain in Jerusalem – to establish their community in Jerusalem. But they were to wait. To enable such a community to be established, a community with such a mission, with such a way of life, meant waiting – they were commanded to wait for what he would surely send them – and they could depend upon his assurance that this Spirit would be coming to them as this group of his disciples after his departure, because it was the same Spirit promised and then given to Jesus by his Father in order that he could do his work (ref. 22:24-27, 3:15-22). In effect:
And so stay, waiting patiently together, develop your community by waiting to be clothed with God’s own power.
In Acts, Luke records that the disciples put this question to Jesus:
Lord is this the time when you will finally be restoring the Kingdom to Israel? (Acts 1:6)
And so we surmise further that what Jesus is recorded to have said by Luke’s account at the conclusion of his Gospel deals with many questions, including this vital one, put by the disciples to their Teacher, their Resurrected Teacher, at this time. The report of Jesus staying with them for 40 days suggests that it was indeed an “intensive” time; would it not take 39 of those days to discuss what “restoring the Kingdom to Israel” should now mean?
And here too is why John the Baptist has come to have such an important part in Luke’s story. He prepared Israel for the coming of God’s spirit, the descending Dove’s outpouring upon God’s Anointed. And now that the Anointed has done his work, those united with him, by believing in him, will share in that same Spirit.
The repentance that John preached was so that the people whose way of life was given with God’s promise to dwell in their midst could prepare for the coming of the Lamb of God who, through his death and suffering, takes away the sins of the world. Repentance is the only possible preparation for his coming. It is thus the continuation of a prayerful way of life, a perpetual request that God will fulfill his promises, allowing the Anointed One to continue to do in us what he was called to do in his time among us. It was not a preparation for kicking out the Romans. And at this point recall Luke 7:1-10 – the healing of the Centurion’s servant – and the second Centurion at Jesus’ cross (23:47). Luke is clearly aware that the “zealot option” had been nipped in the bud by Jesus’ words and by his works. And as much as these two references, now read in context, signal the breaking down of the wall between Jew and Gentile, we also recall the ripping of the temple curtain (23:45). If that were not enough, there is also the apocalyptic teaching Jesus gave concerning the future destruction of the temple itself (21:6). Luke, in speaking of the continual praise of Jesus’ disciples in God’s temple, could not have been oblivious to the profound anticipation of his concluding words.
It was preparation for a way of life that he made possible for his disciples then, and still makes possible for us today. A way oriented by his death and suffering, motivated by the power of his resurrection, and looking forward to his coming again to announce that his creational work focused in his image-bearers, has been redeemed, regained and renewed and has finally reached its fulfillment.