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While the book of Acts and the Gospel of Luke are closely connected and written by the same author, Luke seems to have composed them separately.  Luke 24:50-53, for example, includes a brief synopsis of the Ascension, while Acts 1:1-3 equally briefly recounts the events of Luke 24.  The purpose of each book, however, is different.  In the Gospel, Jesus begins to work and teach, while in Acts, Jesus continues to work and teach through His Church.

The ascension, therefore, is not Jesus disappearing from the scene until the Second Coming.  Christ ascends so as to be nearer to His Church.  “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth:  it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send Him to you” (John 16:7).  The sending of the Holy Spirit closely follows, because Jesus sends His Church into the world to be His witnesses.

Christ ascending into heaven also figures as one of the most important events within the New Testament, ranking next to His death and resurrection.  Having gone up into heaven, He sits down at the right hand of God.  In this moment, Christ receives the glory and the reward for His work.  All things have been put under His feet (Ephesians 1:20-23; 1 Peter 3:22).  “He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).  Christ’s victory also consoles His Christians in the world.  Paul, for example, connects all three as proof that Christ intercedes for us (Romans 8:34).  Those who belong to Him seek the things which are above, because Christ is there at God’s right hand (Colossians 3:1).

It is, however, easy to misunderstand the purpose of Christ’s ascension.  The disciples, thinking in terms of the world, imagined that Christ’s enthronement meant that all things would be set in order immediately.  They did not understand that Christ reigns in the midst of His enemies (1 Corinthians 15:25).  While Christ’s reign is perfect, it still expands and grows through His work in the world.  When the fullness of the kingdom will come is not for His Church to know.  But how this will come to pass is the work of the Church in this age.  The power of the Holy Spirit sends the Church out to the very ends of the earth to bear witness about what has been seen and heard.

The angels who gently rebuke the apostles point toward this reality.  Christ disappearing behind a cloud is not the end of His work.  He “will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” when He returns to judge the living and the dead, an office given to Him as a consequence of His death and resurrection (Romans 14:9).  Prior to that judgment, however, Christ sends the Spirit to send His Church.  “And the word of God continued to increase, and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem, and a great many of the priests became obedient to the faith” (Acts 6:7).  “And when the Gentiles heard this, they began rejoicing and glorifying the word of the Lord, and as many as were appointed to eternal life believed. And the word of the Lord was spreading throughout the whole region” (Acts 13:48-49).  “So the word of the Lord continued to increase and prevail mightily” (Acts 19:20).  This mighty, living, active Word continues to grow in the world, because the ascended Jesus sits at God’s right hand.

2 Kings 2 opens an indefinite time after the last recorded act of Elijah.  Ahaziah, king of Israel, increased his great wickedness by inquiring of the false god Baal-zebub whether he would recover from his grievous injuries.  The Lord sends Elijah to pronounce judgment on Ahaziah (2 Kings 1:3), and Elijah also calls down fire upon those who presumed to order him about (2 Kings 1:9-12).  Ahaziah died, just as the Lord had said, and Jehoram reigned in his place, somewhere around the year 852 B.C.

However, though we are not told when Elijah’s translation occurred, it was not, at least, a surprise to anyone involved.  The chapter opens with the words:  “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:1).  This is not merely literary anticipation, because Elijah knows he will be taken (2 Kings 2:9).  The sons of the prophets whom they meet all know it (2 Kings 2:3, 5).  Elisha himself also knows it.  Elijah doubtless had received this revelation from the Lord, just as he is also told where the Spirit wants him to go (2 Kings 2:2, 4, 6).

Nevertheless, it is a sober occasion.  Elijah tries to persuade Elisha to stay behind, but Elisha refuses out of a faithfulness to his master (compare Ruth 1:16-18).  The sons of the prophets ask Elisha if he is aware of the coming event, and Elisha responds not in anger, but in the spirit of one who is troubled.  In the face of the Lord performing such a magnificent act, it is appropriate to be silent in holy fear (Zechariah 2:13; Habakkuk 2:20; Zephaniah 1:7).

A few items of note before turning to Elijah’s translation.  First, they begin their journey in Gilgal, which, if it is the same as the one in Joshua 5:9, is where Israel demonstrated a renewed faithfulness upon entering Canaan.  More certain, however, is that Elijah and Elisha pass through two wicked places:  Bethel is the site of one of the golden calves of Jeroboam (1 Kings 12:28-29); and Jericho has been rebuilt in spite of the promised divine judgment (Joshua 6:26; 1 Kings 16:34).  Yet in the midst of these cities are the faithful sons of the prophets, those who are yet faithful to the living God.  Just as the Lord had said to Elijah, He has preserved for Himself those who have not bowed the knee to idols (1 Kings 19:18).

Further, when Elijah strikes the water and passes over the Jordan, he does so heading to the east.  Israel under Joshua had crossed the Jordan on dry ground, just like Elijah does now, but heading westward into Canaan (Joshua 3:14-17).  Because Israel passed over “opposite Jericho,” Elijah is effectively retracing this path in reverse.  This is also the land where Moses had been secretly buried (Deuteronomy 34:5-6).

Elijah asks Elisha when they were on the eastern side of the Jordan what he would have him do before he is taken.  Before, not after he is taken, because the time for asking for spiritual things from fellow believers is while they are still in the flesh.  Once Elijah is taken away, he can no longer do anything for Elisha; the only one in heaven who can is the Lord God (Isaiah 63:16; Matthew 6:7-8; Revelation 6:9-10).

Elisha asks for a “hard thing,” namely “a double portion of your spirit.”  This should not be understood as a literal doubling, as if Elisha is asking to do twice as much as Elijah or that the Holy Spirit can be measured, so to speak.  Rather, as Paul says, “earnestly desire the higher gifts” (1 Corinthians 12:31).  To the one who does not seek such gifts out of loveless self-interest, but for the sake of the Church, as Elisha certainly did, such a desire is a godly one.  “If a man aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task” (1 Timothy 3:1).  It is also possible that Elisha is asking for the right of the firstborn son (Deuteronomy 21:17), especially since he calls Elijah “my father.”

The Lord takes Elijah up in a fairly public display of power.  The first man to be so translated, Enoch, could not be found (Genesis 5:24).  Christ in His own ascension had more witnesses (Acts 1:9).  But in every case, the ascension is meant to be a comfort and a sign.  A comfort, because God is faithful in His promises, and those who walk with Him will receive His gifts.  Yet also a sign and a testimony of the coming of the Holy Spirit, to Elisha who saw Elijah taken and to the disciples who heard Jesus promise the coming Pentecost.  In the case of Elisha, he received the promised Holy Spirit and reentered Canaan, crossing again just as Elijah had done (2 Kings 2:13-15).  In the case of the disciples, the Father sent the promised Holy Spirit not many days later (Acts 2).

As a final note, Elisha cries out “My father, my father!  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!”  While it seems natural to assign this somewhat enigmatic phrase to the event itself, Joash the king of Israel will later use the exact same phrase at the death of Elisha (2 Kings 13:14).  The chariots of Israel and its horsemen therefore refers to Elijah.  It is perhaps best understood as an expression of grief from being separated from his master, which would also explain why he rips his clothes.  Israel’s “strength,” so to speak, is being taken away, yet Elisha will see that the Lord who takes away is also the Lord who gives.  As for the chariots themselves, the Lord can certainly do as He pleases.  But Elisha will later show his servant the chariots of fire which surround the city (2 Kings 6:17), and Psalm 68:17 states that “the chariots of God are twice ten thousand.”  It is possible, but only possible, that these fiery chariots are angels (consider also Luke 16:22).

Date: May 14, 1931

And while they beheld, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.Acts 1:10

SOME of the most tragic of all human experiences have been the moments of farewell, the leavetakings of great leaders from their followers. We think of Socrates, philosopher and teacher, drinking the hemlock potion and then vainly endeavoring to banish the despair of his moaning disciples. We remember Alaric, the Goth, who sacked the city of Rome and utterly destroyed the power of that empire, only to be buried at dark midnight beneath a riverbed, while the screams of slaughtered slaves and the shrieks of sacrificed horses mingled with the funeral chants of his lamenting followers. We recall Savonarola, the lone monk who tried to stem the tide of worldliness in Italy, but who, crushed by the churchmen of his day, left his helpless adherents these last words, uttered on the gallows as his body broke in a convulsive snap, “Christ has suffered much for me.” Or, more recently, we are reminded of Lenin, dictator of Red Russia, piteously helpless in his last moments, bereft even of the power of speech, entangled in a network of intrigue, surrounded by jesting physicians, dying in a tortuous agony, as the reins of the godless power that he had created slipped from his nerveless grasp. We think of these and other valedictories to life given by leaders in human affairs whom men may revere or revile, and we agree that their farewells, tinged with failure as they all are, have left a numbing and depressing sorrow in the lives of their followers.

But today is the anniversary of the glorious ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ, and tonight, as we dedicate these moments to the memory of that marvelous exhibition of His divine power, we shall behold the most wonderful, the most blessed farewell in the teeming annals of history, a departure which brought joy instead of sorrow, hope instead of despair, victory instead of defeat.

It was not quite six weeks after His bodily resurrection on Easter that Jesus appeared to His disciples for the last time. Although their risen Lord had made nine distinct appearances to human eyes and had been touched by human hands; although some of the disciples had walked with Him and talked with Him, all this had not cured the Eleven of their doubt and unbelief. So, revealing Himself once more to strengthen their faith, He leads His wondering followers out of the city gates along the road to Bethany. Familiar scenes unfold themselves as they walk together for the last time. Now they are crossing the Kidron, the stream over which Jesus had passed on that memorable Thursday at the beginning of His suffering; now they are opposite Gethsemane, the olive-shaded garden, whose shadowed recesses beheld that agony too intense for human comprehension; now they are at the foot of the Mount of Olives, the little hill east of Jerusalem, immortalized in the reverent memories of Christendom by the long nocturnal vigils that Jesus held on its wooded slopes as He poured out His heart to His Father; and now they have ascended the slopes of Olivet, and the journey, the last journey, is ended. Gazing upon the world in the lingering glance of farewell, perhaps riveting His eyes for a moment in the direction of the Place of Skulls, Jesus utters His last words to His disciples. He lays upon their conscience the royal commission to go into all the world and “preach the Gospel to every creature”; He strengthens their questioning souls with the promise of everlasting companionship; He raises His hand in a last blessing, and even as He pronounces this benediction, He is taken up, silently, but gloriously, and a cloud receives Him out of their sight—a divine climax to a divine life.

Now, no one can thoughtfully read the account of this majestic departure without realizing that it exerted the most profound effect upon the life and the faith of the disciples. We read that these same eleven men, who after the death of their Lord had concealed themselves behind locked doors, the very men who in this hour of parting, asked in human ambition when Jesus would establish His kingdom on earth, were transformed and that “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Instead of hiding in dejected sorrow, they were, as St. Luke assures us, “continually in the Temple, praising and blessing God”; for the Savior’s departure is the only farewell in history that has been attended by such happiness and that has exerted such salutary effects.

Tonight, under the enlightening guidance of the Holy Spirit, I want to tell you that this ascension of Jesus must have the same effect in our modern lives. Although it occurred nineteen long centuries ago; although it took place in a small and politically insignificant country, separated by mighty oceans from our shores, that ascent to heaven and Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father has a most direct and decisive bearing upon every one of us in this 1931st year of grace.

WE MUST SEEK THOSE THINGS WHICH ARE ABOVE.

We read the words of our text, “And while they beheld, He was taken up”; and we see that in accordance with the plain prophecies of the Old Testament and in harmony with the repeated predictions of Jesus Himself the resurrected Christ did not remain on earth. The religion that He gave to the world, the grace that was offered to men by His resurrection, finds its glorious culmination,—not on earth, not in the temporal affairs of men, not in the institution of an earthly reign, which would remove sorrow and want and sickness and all the other ills to which the flesh is heir,—but in heaven, in the spiritual joy of an everlasting life that lives beyond the grave.

It is this truth, that Jesus is enthroned in the glories of heaven, that needs frequent and emphatic repetition in our materialistic age, when men try to despiritualize religion, to remove it from the realm of the soul, and to make it serve the body. Christ’s last and sacred commission to His followers is to preach the Gospel, to tell all men in all lands and in all ages that Jesus died on the cross,—not to give them social distinction nor to assure them of success in their business nor to offer culture and cleanliness,—but, thank God, to take away their sins and to bestow upon them Heaven’s blessings.

But when American churches feature sermons on such topics as: “Is Mussolini the Man of Destiny?” “The Meaning of Dimension,” “The London Naval Treaty,” “Psychometric Reading”; when people go to church to hear addresses on the minimum wage, the adequate housing of the poor, the regulations of moving pictures and dance­halls, the benefits or the defects of the Volstead Act; when Sunday-school children have the few moments of each Sunday which should be devoted to their spiritual life taken up with lessons that tell them how to keep the streets clean, how to avoid forest fires, and how to become junior traffic policemen,—you will agree with me when I say that the tragedy of modern American church-life is this, that too frequently it gives the body preference over the soul, that too often it has permitted the priceless spiritual privilege of saving souls to be side-tracked and vitiated by political activities, by social ambitions, by industrial programs.

To counteract all this, Ascension Day comes to remind us that Christ has been taken up from the earth, that His is a spiritual kingdom with a spiritual program and a spiritual blessing. He who in the days of His flesh refused to accept earthly power has left temporal dominion and civil authority to no Church and to no individual or group of individuals within any Church. He who told His disciple, “Put up thy sword,” teaches us by His victorious ascent that the weapons for the spreading and the protection of His kingdom are heavenly—His Word and His Sacraments. He who refused to yield to popular clamor and be crowned as king tells His Church today that “the kingdom of God cometh not with outward observation,” so that we can say, “Here it is,” or, “There it is,” as one points to the boundaries delineated on a map and says, “Here is Canada, and there is Mexico.” No, He who answered Pilate’s cynicism with the uncompromising “My kingdom is not of this world” tells us, “The kingdom of God is within you,” in the soul that has been convicted of its sin, that has heard and believed and trusted the Gospel of God’s boundless grace in Christ.

The message of Ascension Day, then, especially to you who have permitted your soul life to be dwarfed by care and worry, is the appeal of the great apostle: “Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on the earth.” And the remarkable blessing which ensues is this, that, when men humbly and reverently thus keep first things first by seeking the kingdom of God and His righteousness, all else is added to them. All the fine and ennobling forces that improve the outward aspects of life and make the world a better place in which to live and to die, all the civilizing and cultural influences, which are the by-products of Christianity, all these are offered to men by Christ as they are offered by no human agencies.

WE MUST FIND A PLEDGE OF GOLDEN PROMISE.

When we ask again, “Why did Jesus ascend to the Father?” He tells us in His own words, “In My Father’s house are many mansions,” beautiful, spacious havens of joy and rest and peace, the unnumbered dwellings of a blessed eternity. Remember, he adds, “I go to prepare a place for you.” And when in soul-deep yearning for the unspeakable blessing of that new Jerusalem we venture to ask, “For whom?” He repeats, “For you”; for “where I am, there shall also my servant be.” This pledge gives me the privilege tonight to send broadcast through the confines of this mighty nation that golden, glorious, supreme promise of the ages, that Christ today ascended to the highest heavens to prepare a place for you who serve Him in love and gratitude; for you who believe in Him as the Beauty of God incarnate, as your Redeemer; for you who trust in Him as the “Friend that never faileth.” Here is the promise of Heaven’s truth, “I go to prepare a place for you”; and in these words Jesus speaks to you for whom life otherwise holds little happiness; to you who feel yourselves crushed by poverty and loss; to you who linger on in the wearisome siege of incurable diseases; to you at whom men point the finger of scorn; to you who write me that the barriers and obstacles in your lives are so overpowering that you wonder how much longer you can really carry on. To every weary and heavy-laden soul in my audience tonight Christ gives this promise,—and never let any powers of earth or hell tear it out of your hearts,—“I go to prepare a place for you.”

Think of what this means for your own farewell to life. Instead of sinking down into the fatalistic delusion of annihilation after death; instead of accepting the destructive theories of modern Spiritism, which paint the hereafter as a place of dark, depressing surroundings and influences; instead of facing eternity with the blank question-mark of modern philosophy and modern skepticism,—after nineteen long centuries you can be strengthened by the divine assurance that Jesus, victoriously and everlastingly enthroned in eternity, will vitalize in your life after death His rich promise of eternity, “Because I live, ye shall live also.” To you who in faith can understand and believe the spiritual meaning of the visible ascension of Christ which the Church celebrates (or should thankfully celebrate) throughout the world today, life, instead of ending in a shriek of unholy despair, will close with the peaceful anticipation of the immeasurable blessings that await you in the happy reunion with the ascended Christ in paradise.

We are told in our text that a cloud received our Lord out of the sight of His apostles; and in our lives there may be many and varied clouds that would interpose themselves between our Savior and us to obscure the foregleams of the heavenly mansions. There is the haze of doubt and uncertainty that rises from the unbelief so rampant in our day; there is the smoke-screen of modernistic delusion by which the verities of our faith disappear in the black barrage of human speculation. There is the heavy pall of sorrow and personal misfortune that prevents tearful eyes from directing their gaze upward to the hills whence cometh their help. There are the storm clouds of sin, heavy with their rumbling thunders, flashing with the lightning that stabs our conscience. But the eyes of faith can penetrate all this enshrouding gloom; and for you who pray, as the blind man on the Jericho road, “Lord, open thou my eyes,” there is the divine promise that your vision will be strengthened, that the Sun of resplendent glory, the everlasting Word of promise, will dissipate these misty clouds. And with St. Stephen we shall behold the heavens opened by Christ’s redemption and see Him, the Son of Man and the Son of God, sitting at the right hand of the Father, enthroned in the immeasurable majesty of unlimited eternity—our God and Savior.

Did you ever stop to realize that Christ could have remained on earth, that He could have continued His visible presence among men to lead the victorious forces of His Church on from triumph to triumph and to employ the miracles of His divine power to extend the Kingdom? But what a tremendous challenge there is in the fact that Christ has ascended and that we have the privilege of perpetuating the work for the salvation of immortal souls in His name, in His stead, and with the assurance of His abiding presence! For, though Christ has ascended, yet—wonder of wonders!—He is with us in His Word and with His power, not only for three years, as during His ministry on earth, not only for thirty-three years, as in all the days of His flesh, but, by His sacred promise given in the hour of His departure, “unto the end of the world.” Through all the storm and strife below, through all the pain and anguish on earth, through all the disappointments and anxieties here in time, Christ is with us. His presence—praise be to God!—shall abide until He returns to take His children (among whom, pray God, every sin-born soul listening in tonight may be numbered) to the realms of that happy homeland of the soul where in a higher and nobler light we shall see Him face to face. Amen.

Published with the permission of The Maier Center, Concordia University, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48105.