Forty days with the risen Lord, and that is the question they ask? The apostles say to Jesus: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” At first glance, when we hear the apostles’ question in our text it sounds like they are clueless. Jesus Christ has died on the cross and risen from the dead. He has defeated sin and death, and yet they are focused on Israel as a nation – Israel as it existed in the Old Testament.
It seems that they have their priorities all out of kilter and that they completely misunderstand Jesus. But actually, there is more going on here. For anyone who knows what the prophets of the Old Testament had said, their question actually rings true.
Luke tells us that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” A recurring theme in the resurrection accounts is that the encounter with the risen Lord was not a one-time event. It wasn’t even a one day event. Instead, it was something that happened again and again. The Lord presented himself alive to different groups of people, in different places over a long period of time – forty days. Why were the apostles and the other disciples willing to struggle, suffer and even die in sharing the Gospel? It was because Jesus Christ had left no doubt about the fact that he had risen from the dead.
Luke tells us that Jesus gave a very specific command. He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” The disciples understood that Jesus was the Christ – the Messiah promised by God. As we hear in our Gospel lesson, he had opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead,
and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.”
Jesus had just promised that they were about to be baptized with the Holy Spirit. In the prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel and Joel, the Davidic Messiah and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit were the key features that Yahweh had promised to Israel for her restoration. The Messiah reigning and Spirit poured out was the expectation of Israel’s promised future.
So when the disciples asked, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?”, they were simply expressing the expectation provided by the prophets. Like John the Baptist before them, when he sent the question about whether Jesus was the coming One, they weren’t entirely wrong. But they also didn’t truly understand things yet.
Jesus responded, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.
But 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.” Our Lord sidestepped their question about Israel. Instead, he focused on what the Spirit would do. He would give them power so that they could be Jesus’ witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.
They wanted to talk about Israel. Jesus spoke about the sending of the Spirit and the proclamation of the Gospel in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. The disciples did not yet understand that “Israel” was being transformed by God’s saving work. Through Christ, Israel was becoming the light to the nations she was always meant to be. In the Book of Acts we see how the Holy Spirit prompts … and sometimes forces the Church to understand that Gentiles are now fully included in the people of God through faith in Christ, and baptism.
The Israel of God was expanding to include all nations. This would take place through the work of the Holy Spirit – the Spirit who was yet to be sent for this particular manner of working. Jesus Christ was about to change that. Yet his doing so would be the result of a change for Christ.
We hear in our text: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” The Lord was taken up into the air until a cloud hid him from view. The ascension of Jesus Christ was the means by which he withdrew his visible presence from the disciples. For forty days the risen Lord had been in their midst, interacting with them. Yet now an event occurred that brought this to an end.
This fact was emphasized by what happened as the apostles looked up into heaven. Luke tells us: “Behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and 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.’” Jesus had visibly departed in the ascension. But the angels announced that he would also visibly return.
Our Lord Jesus has ascended, and our text does not explain what this means for Jesus and for us. But on the day of Pentecost – on the day of the outpouring of the Spirit that Jesus had promised – Peter did exactly that. He confronted his audience with the fact that they had killed Jesus. But then he declared, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.”
We learn that the resurrection and ascension are directly connected, and that the ascension is the exaltation of Christ. It is in fact the enthronement of Jesus at the right hand of God. Peter went on to say as he quoted Psalm 110: “For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
The ascended Lord now reigns through his Spirit. The rest of the Book of Acts is the story of how the Spirit of Christ moved the proclamation of the Gospel from Jerusalem to Samaria and Syria, to Asia Minor and Greece, and on to Rome. He continues his work of restoring and creating his Israel in these last days.
Israel is more than the apostles recognized, and they didn’t understand the timing of how God’s Spirit would work. That often describes us as well. We know how we want God’s kingdom to look like. We know how we want to see God’s reign through the Gospel advancing. But there are times when it just doesn’t seem to be happening as we want. There can be discouragement and doubt as we see the culture of the western world turn increasingly hostile to Christ’s Church. We grow frustrated with God in ways that pose a challenge to faith.
The Feast of the Ascension of Our Lord serves to snap us out of this because it fixes our attention squarely on the Lord – our Lord. Designated as the Messiah at his baptism, Jesus has been enthroned in his ascension. Jesus announced at his trial before the Sanhedrin, “But from now on the Son of Man shall be seated at the right hand of the power of God.”
In our text Jesus Christ is taken out of sight by a cloud, and we have heard how Peter said he has been seated at the right hand of the throne of God. The ascension shows us that Jesus is Son of Man of Daniel chapter seven. There, Daniel sees the Ancient of Days – God – seated on throne with a stream of fire issuing forth from before him, and multitudes of angels around him.
Then Daniel tells us: “I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him. And to him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.”
This is our Lord, and God has said that he is enthroned until God makes his enemies his footstool – until the Father makes every so called power in the world submit to him. This is the Lord we worship and serve. This is the risen and exalted One in whom we trust.
And the day is coming when all will have to recognize and submit to him. The angels told the disciples that he will return in the same way he ascended. Jesus said, “You also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.” For now, our Lord reigns through his Spirit as he works through the Means of Grace. These are means that can be resisted and rejected. But the ascension of our Lord declares that Jesus Christ who has been exalted will return in irresistible power. For now we greet him in the Sanctus as he comes to us in the Sacrament of the Altar. But on the Last Day we will know the joy of crying out: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord,” as we greet the risen and exalted Christ.