6So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
In Acts 1:6-11, Luke tells the story of the Ascension of Jesus, which he’d already told in Luke 24:50-53.
Why did Luke include the story of the Jesus’ Ascension in Luke and Acts when the writers of the other gospels did not include it?
I want to explore three possible answers and tell which I find the most convincing.
Option 1: Our Curiosity
Most of the times I have read Acts or taught Acts, I thought the story of the Ascension was included to satisfy our curiosity about how he returned to heaven.
I no longer believe this. Here are two reasons:
- The other gospels do not tell the story. If the main reason this story is included is to satisfy our curiosity, then why would the other gospels not include it?
- A lot of stories are left out of the gospels. For example, there is a lot of information about Jesus’ childhood that we would like to know. But it is not included. If Luke’s motivation was to satisfy our curiosity, he would have included a lot more stories.
Option 2: Jesus’ Exaltation
According to Mark Dever, the reason Luke includes the Ascension is to show that Jesus was exalted to heaven as Lord. Readers would then know that Jesus is enthroned in heaven.
But Luke makes no mention of Jesus being enthroned in the story. He ends the story with Jesus vanishing out of the disciples’ view and the disciples gawking at the place of ascension.
As I’ll make clear in surveying the third option, I think the interaction between the angels and Jesus’s disciples is about what they need to do now. Perhaps the exaltation is being intimated through the Ascension, but there is probably more to it than just the exaltation. The event of the Ascension has to make sense of what the angels tell the men.
Option 3: The Passing of Authority and Power
In Ben Witherington’s commentary on Acts, The Acts of the Apostles: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary, he connects the story with 2 Kings 2, the account of how Elijah is taken into heaven and Elisha succeeds him in his role. Before God takes Elijah into heaven with a whirlwind, Elijah tries to convince Elisha that he needs to stay while Elijah himself needs to leave.
Elisha struggles with this. But Elijah gives him a double portion of his spirit.
On the way to the place where Elijah is taken up, he performs the miracle of parting the waters of the Jordan. He does this by striking it with his cloak. After Elijah is taken up, Elisha takes his cloak, goes to the banks of the Jordan, and parts the water.
This shows that Elijah’s power and authority as the prophet of God has been passed on to Elisha. This is the purpose of Elijah’s Ascension.
There are parallels between this story and the Ascension of Jesus. The Apostles are apprehensive about Jesus’s departing. They will receive the Spirit. They will perform miracles like Jesus had while he was on earth.
If Witherington is right, and I believe that he is, the story of Jesus’ Ascension shows that Jesus’ power and authority has passed to the church.
The Ascension as a Sending
That’s why Luke tells it at the beginning of Acts. Everything that Luke had written about Jesus and His mission was now transferred to the ragged band of disciples gawking at the heavens. These people would carry on the mission of Jesus in his authority.
(This is why I want to be careful about rejecting Option 2. The Ascension in Acts might teach that Jesus has been exalted, but it’s through His position as Lord that He now sends the church out with His power and authority.)
So the church’s job in the absence of Jesus is to continue (through His power) his mission of spreading the Kingdom of God. This is what the Ascension in Acts teaches us.
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