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The Life of Jesus - Series 14: Episode 8

The Ascension of Jesus

| Martin Charlesworth
Acts 1:1-11
Luke 24:50-53
Mark 16:19-20

Jesus appears to James. His final appearance is to the disciples and ends with his ascension. He taught them about the Kingdom over 40 days and commissioned them to go to all the world.

Jesus appears to James. His final appearance is to the disciples and ends with his ascension. He taught them about the Kingdom over 40 days and commissioned them to go to all the world.


Welcome to Series 14 and Episode 8, 'the ascension of Jesus'. This is our last episode and we are going to be studying Luke 24: 50 - 53 and ending our studies in Acts 1: 1 - 11.

Introduction and Recap

It has been an amazing series, Series 14, looking at the accounts of the resurrection, and I hope that many of you will have joined us in earlier episodes, and have got a feeling for the amazing events that took place after Easter Sunday, when Jesus miraculously rose again from the dead quite suddenly, and began to appear to people. I have been saying that there are ten resurrection appearances identified in the New Testament and we have looked at eight of them. I will quickly remind you what those eight appearances are, and what significance they had, and then we are going to briefly comment on a ninth appearance which is mentioned in passing by Paul in 1 Corinthians. Then we are going to focus on the final appearance of Jesus, as described at the end of Luke's Gospel, and the beginning of Acts.

There were five appearances on Easter Sunday and this was the dramatic start to our story, as we saw in the earlier episodes of Series 14: Mary Magdalene, women disciples, Simon Peter, two disciples on the road to Emmaus, the disciples gathered in in the room in the house in Jerusalem, five appearances. Then a week later the eleven Apostles were gathered together, and John tells us that Jesus appeared again to them, this time including Thomas for the first time. Then we have two appearances in Galilee, which we have been looking at in recent episodes. First of all, in John 21, Jesus appeared by the Sea of Galilee to seven of his disciples, and then in the last episode, we saw Jesus appearing to the Eleven, and probably a wider gathering of brothers and sisters, according to 1 Corinthians 15, on a mountainside. He gave to his disciples what we have come to know as the Great Commission, calling them to go and evangelise, preach, baptise, teach and disciple all the nations of the earth.

Jesus Appears to James

That leads us to two more resurrection appearances. The one that is difficult to place in time is the one mentioned in 1 Corinthians 15: 7. If we go back to verse 6, and quote the verse that we looked at last time, 1 Corinthians 15: 6,

6'After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, and then to all the Apostles, 8 and last of all he appeared to me also'.

1 Corinthians 15:6, NIV

The appearance to James is ambiguous, in the sense that we don't know exactly when it happens in time; we don't even know exactly who that James is. It is likely that this James is the half-brother of Jesus, who wasn't in the original band of Apostles, and came to believe in Jesus at around this time and became a pillar of the Church, especially became the father figure and an elder in the church in Jerusalem, and was probably the author of the book of James. We can find out more about him in the book of Acts, especially chapter 15. There is not much more we can say about that, but we want to note that particular appearance.

Luke and Acts

Let us turn now back to Luke and Acts. We are going to look at the final few verses of Luke, Luke 24: 50 - 53, and turn over to the book of Acts. Let us remind ourselves that Luke and Acts are written by the same author, by Luke. We described Luke as an author at the very beginning of Series 1. We found out that he is a careful historian, and that he has written two books that are designed to be read together. They are both dedicated to a man called Theophilus. When we come to the end of Luke 24, we have to connect this directly to Acts 1, because it is two parts of the same story. What Luke does in Luke 24: 50 - 53 is somewhat compresses the story that he expands in Acts 1: 1 - 11. As we have gone through the Gospels, we noticed sometimes the technique in writing of compressing a narrative - writing a few headlines and giving us a few outline details, but not much substance beyond that. That is a literary technique of the time, and one that was used. Matthew often uses it for example.

In this case, Luke just tells a very outline story here and the reason he does it is that he wants to bring his Gospel to a conclusion in a meaningful way for those who are not necessarily going to read the book of Acts immediately. He has just told us about Jesus appearing to the disciples on that Easter Sunday evening in the house with the locked door, and we discussed this episode early on, and discussed all the other people who were present at that time. Then he concludes his Gospel with these words,

50 'When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the Temple, praising God.'

Luke 24:50-53

This enables Luke to finish the story on a really positive note. Jesus has ascended to heaven; he has permanently left his people; the resurrection appearances have come to an end and they are filled with joy and return to the city of Jerusalem. That is satisfactory from Luke's point of view in terms of telling the story of Jesus in a Gospel. Everything has now been told about Jesus' earthly life.

An End and a Beginning

When it comes to the book of Acts, which we're going to turn to now, Acts 1: 1 - 11, he has a different focus. Here Luke is telling the story of the Early Church, and he is linking the beginning of the Early Church to the end of the life of Jesus. It is his purpose here to give a slightly more detailed account of the events just described in the last few verses of Luke 24. Luke gives a much fuller description of the final moments of contact between the Apostles and Jesus, what took place between them, and how that links to the launch of the Early Church. Let us read the first three verses,

1 'In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach 2 until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the Apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the Kingdom of God.'

Acts 1:1-3

This is an interesting summary of everything we have been discussing in Series 14 - all the resurrection appearances.

'He presented himself to them, and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive'.

You can see that element in Jesus' resurrection appearances very easily. He is trying to demonstrate to them unambiguously, that he was alive in a physical sense. I have emphasised frequently the fact that the resurrection is a physical event. This isn't a psychic inner feeling about the presence of somebody; this isn't a dream while you are asleep; this isn't a hallucination; this isn't the appearance of a ghost who doesn't have any physical substance. This is the appearance of a physical man who has died and been raised again from the dead. The physicality is evident in everything that happens - eating, walking, talking, moving around, human touch, the physical signs of his suffering on his body - his hands, and his feet - with nail marks, his side with the mark of the sword of the Roman soldier. In this way, he gave them 'many convincing proofs that he was alive' in a physical sense. That is really a summary of everything we have been looking at in Series 14.

Forty Days of Teaching

It says here that he appeared to them over a period of 40 days - about six weeks passed between the day of resurrection, Easter Sunday, and the day of Ascension, which we're going to look at in this episode, a six week period. That explains how Jesus can start appearing to his disciples in Jerusalem over a period of time which was at least a week. We know that from John's Gospel and probably longer, slightly longer; they were in Jerusalem together. Then there was a period of time in Galilee, where there are two recorded resurrection appearances, one by the lakeside of Galilee, one on a mountainside, and then we finally see Jesus back in Jerusalem, and the disciples back in Jerusalem. This period of 40 days gives enough time for them to spend a little time in Galilee, spend time in Jerusalem on the first occasion, and then on the second occasion, and also have enough time to travel between those two locations, which took several days of travel on each occasion. It was a 40-day period approximately.

Verse 3 tells us he spoke about the Kingdom of God. In other words, he is teaching them how God's Kingdom is going to advance in this next phase, the era of the Church. We are now moving on in God's salvation purposes. Jesus is going to shortly leave the earth. He is going to give full authority to his disciples, as we saw in the great commission in Matthew 28: 16 - 20. He is going to send them the Holy Spirit, and they are going to advance God's Kingdom. He taught them about the Kingdom of God. Verse 4 describes one occasion and this is the last recorded resurrection appearance, which takes the number of recorded resurrection appearances to ten. If we gather together all the obvious strands of Scripture from the four Gospels, from 1 Corinthians 15, and from Acts 1, these are our primary sources that describe these historical events, we have the tenth appearance. There could easily have been many other appearances. He actually says that, 'He appeared to them over a period of 40 days,' which could have been many more appearances, but ten appearances are recorded for us.

The Final Appearance

Verse 4, this is the last occasion, as we will see, as we read the text. Acts 1: 4 - 8,

4 'On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” 6 Then they gathered around him and asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the Kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you'll be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:4-8

He is encouraging them, and even commanding them, to wait in Jerusalem for the promised Holy Spirit. Already, in Luke 24: 45 - 49, we have Jesus giving a similar message, verse 49, 'but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.' This is not the first time that they have been given this message. They may have been back to Galilee for a period of time, but they are not to do it again; they are to wait in Jerusalem because the gift that God promised is about to be given. This is described as a baptism with the Holy Spirit. Jesus compares the coming of the Holy Spirit in this context with baptism in water. Baptism in water means complete immersion in water. John took people into the River Jordan and he immersed them completely, and they came up the other side. That happened to Jesus as well. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is a similar encounter, a powerful encounter of immersion, soaking, dipping, overwhelming or like the dyeing of a cloth - a full immersion in God's power. This very same Greek word was used for the dyeing of cloths in the ancient world, where the cloth was completely submerged in the dye, and it had to be completely submerged, otherwise the dye would not penetrate every part of the cloth. It is a useful analogy, a useful way of thinking about the power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus is talking about. It is clear that the coming of the Holy Spirit in special power - commissioning, anointing and empowering - is the key that is needed before these disciples can be turned into powerful evangelists who can build the Kingdom of God and build the Church. They are not yet fully equipped with divine power. They have been equipped with revelation, experience of the resurrected Jesus, and with teaching about the Kingdom of God, but now they need to be equipped with tremendous power so that supernatural activity may take place through them as they seek to build the Church. It is an exciting passage.

Restoration of Israel

One question is in the minds of the disciples that hasn't quite been answered by Jesus. 'Then they gathered around him and asked him', verse 6, "Lord, at this time, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” They have been talking about the Kingdom of God. We have seen that in verse 3, and they are trying to work out what is the connection between the coming Kingdom of God that Jesus initiated and will develop, and the existing nation of Israel. What is that connection? They hadn't quite understood it, because they knew from their study of the Old Testament and talking to Jesus, that Jesus was the successor of King David. He was the Son of David - a theme that we have looked at on a number of occasions. He was fulfilling the covenant of David, that God made with David, as recorded in 2 Samuel 7: 11 - 16, in which David was promised an eternal dynasty, a permanent kingship, and Jesus, as a biological descendant of David through his mother, is able to receive that kingship. If he is the king, like David was, is he going to be the king of the geographical Israel? Some people consider this question to be foolish, and for Jesus just to dismiss it. But if we look closely at the evidence, we will see it is not quite as foolish as you may think, because Jesus, on a number of occasions, has said interesting things to the disciples about Israel. For example, Matthew 19: 28,

28 "Truly I tell you, at the renewal of all things when the Son of Man sits on his glorious throne you who have followed me will also sit on twelve thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel.”

Matthew 19:28

We see a similar promise in Luke 22: 30. They anticipate that Israel, the Jewish people in the geographical land of Israel, are going to play a part in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus does not suggest otherwise. In fact he suggests that this will definitely be the case in the verses that I have just quoted, Matthew 19:28, Luke 22: 30, if you read them carefully. But that aspect of God working is clearly not going to happen at this particular stage in history; it is somewhere further in future. In fact, one of those verses refers to 'at the renewal of all things' suggesting that the incorporation of Israel, and the Jewish people as a nation, into the people of God - in the Church - is something that is going to happen much further down the line because at this particular point they have largely rejected Jesus as the Messiah from their leaders downwards, and we have emphasised this theme time and again as we have been teaching, because that is exactly how the Gospel is presented to us time and again. Jesus doesn't dismiss the question and say it is irrelevant, but he does say, "iti s not for you to know the times or dates the Father set by his own authority.” In other words, the mystery of where Israel will fit into the Kingdom of God is not being fully revealed to them. Their priority at that time is different:

"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Acts 1:8

They are going to start in Jerusalem and they are going to spread out. The focus is going to be all the nations of the earth. We saw this very clearly in Matthew 28: 16 - 20, where they are going to reach out to all the nations. The focus now is to go from Israel to the nations, but the implication of Jesus' earlier words to them, as I recounted earlier on, with those quotations from Matthew and Luke, is that there is going to come a time when the Jewish people as a national unit, and as an ethnic unit, are going to be brought back and come fully into God's Kingdom and become believers in the Jewish Messiah. This theme is taken up by Paul in Romans 11, and this is way beyond our study in the Gospels, but I will give you the reference - Romans 11: 25 - 32. We see clearly a prophetic indication that at some future time, Israel as a nation, the generality of the nation, are going to experience salvation. However, that is not the focus of this time; it is not the focus of the responsibility of the Apostles. They will start in Jerusalem, and go to Judea, but it won't be long before they are in Samaria, in semi-gentile territory, and then they are going to 'go to the ends of the earth'.

The Ascension

Then, in the final verses, we have the story of the Ascension of Jesus, verses 9 to 11,

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

Acts 1:9-11

This is a physical event taking place near Jerusalem. Luke 24 describes it as 'in the area of Bethany,' and the Mount of Olives is in that area. This physical event is literally Jesus leaving the earth and allowing himself to be seen rising up from the earth physically. The men dressed in white, are angels. The cloud into which Jesus disappears, is not a natural cloud. This is a representation of the glory of God, which is often described in the Old Testament as a cloud, as for example, when the Tabernacle is set up in Exodus 40 and the cloud of God, the glory of God, comes over the Tabernacle. God's glory is revealed, and the angels say that this Jesus, who has been taken up in glory, is going to return in glory to the earth sometime in the future. There is going to be a Second Coming of Jesus. This merely reiterates what Jesus very clearly has taught in a number of different places, most notably in Matthew 24 and parallel passages in Luke 21 and Mark 13.

This brings us to the end of the story. There will be no more resurrection appearances in the normal sense of the word. There will be visions which will look like resurrection, but Jesus himself has departed the earth. The Apostles are not going to see him again as they have been seeing him during those forty days, that six week period. Now we have concluded our description of the ten clearly stated resurrection appearances: to Mary Magdalen, to the women by the tomb, to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus, to Simon Peter on Easter Sunday, to the disciples on Easter Sunday evening, to the similar group of disciples again a week later including Thomas, to a group of seven disciples by the Sea of Galilee, to the Eleven plus a great crowd on the mountainside in Galilee with the great commission, and then an appearance to James as recorded in 1 Corinthians 15: 7, and a final appearance to the Apostles here, and a departure by ascension into heaven. This is the great commission all over again.


My final reflections will be that what is stated in Matthew 28: 16 to 20, is restated here just a little later. In Matthew, the commission was given while Jesus was on a mountainside in Jerusalem, and here the commission is given as Jesus is just outside the city of Jerusalem, probably on the Mount of Olives. The great commission has been given, the gospel must go to every nation and culture. This is the heart of our project. This is the reason that we have brought you this teaching. Over 14 series and 184 episodes, we have traced the story from beginning to end of the life of Jesus, the wonderful story of Jesus, so that you can learn from it, so that you can find faith through it, so your faith can grow from it, and, if you are a church leader, so that you can find resources to help your people. These resources have been given to you, and brought to you, free of charge, so that this gospel will continue to spread throughout this world to all ethnic groups, to all nations.

A final reflection is this: as we think of Jesus now, it is good to have vivid images of him walking the roads of Galilee, travelling to Jerusalem, in his earthly suffering on the cross and his resurrection, and his miracles, and in his teaching. It is good that we focus on these things. But Jesus today is not in Galilee, not in Israel, not in Jerusalem. He has sent his Holy Spirit, who is operating all over the world. The Holy Spirit lives in the life of every true believer, but he himself is exalted, in a place of great honour, authority and power, in heaven. Hebrews 1: 3,

1 'The Son is the radiance of God's glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.'

Hebrews 3:1

That is where Jesus is today, at the right hand of his Father, in a place of authority in heaven. Philippians 2:6 - 11, an early Christian poem, or hymn, that Paul quotes, and with this we will end, Jesus,

6'Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; 7 rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness, 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross! 9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.'

Philippians 2:6-11

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. In what way is Jesus’ commission to his disciples actually happening?
  • Discipleship
    1. How do you connect with the Great Commission of taking the gospel into every nation and culture? Does it mean you should aspire to be a 'missionary' in the traditional sense?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Have you received the baptism of the Holy Spirit to give you power? If you have, do you regularly come back to receive it again and again? In what forms do you see the 'power' coming? What does it enable you to do?
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