Luke is the only Gospel writer who gives us a literary introduction to his work. He begins by acknowledging that “many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us.” He adds that the things reported about Jesus in these writings are “just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us.” And then he adds: “it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.”
Luke tells us that the eyewitnesses who had become ministers of the word – the apostles – had delivered Jesus’ words and deeds. Luke himself had been able to look into these things closely and provide a well ordered account – an account that begins at the beginning with the incarnation of the Son of God. He wrote the Gospel so that Theophilus would have certainty about the things he had been taught concerning Jesus.
Luke is also unique, in that his Gospel is only the first volume of a two volume set. He continues on to write a literary introduction to the Book of Acts in which he says, “In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
The ascension of Jesus Christ serves as the “hinge” which joins together the Gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts. And indeed, as we hear in our Scripture lessons tonight, Luke narrates an account of the ascension in the last chapter of the Gospel and in the first chapter of Acts. The Gospel tells us about the ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The Book of Acts, tells about how the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost enabled the church to bear witness to Christ in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth, just as Jesus had said they would.
However, the ascension of Jesus is about more than just his leaving so that the Holy Spirit can do his work. And the work of the Spirit in Acts is about more than just making disciples now that Jesus is gone
We first hear about the work of the Spirit in relation to Jesus in the Gabriel’s annunciation to Mary. In response to her question about how she would conceive a child since she was a virgin, Gabriel said, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy--the Son of God.”
Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary was the incarnate Son of God – true God and true man. His ministry began as he was baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River. When he had been baptized, as Jesus was praying, the heavens were opened, and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form, like a dove; and a voice came from heaven, “You are my beloved Son; with you I am well pleased.”
We might wonder why the One conceived by the work of the Spirit now has the Spirit descend on him. But it soon becomes clear that this has been integral to Jesus’ saving work. Luke tells us that after his temptation, “Jesus returned in the power of the Spirit to Galilee, and a report about him went out through all the surrounding country.” The Holy Spirit empowers Jesus in the saving work given to him by the Father.
Then at Nazareth Jesus takes up the scroll of Isaiah and reads these words: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.” And then Jesus said, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
Jesus Christ, conceived by the Spirit and anointed by the Spirit had come to free those who were oppressed by sin and death. He came to free you from the sin and guilt for all the angry words you have spoken to family and friends. He came to free you from the sin of lust and coveting that continually bubbles up from your heart. He came to free you from the fear of death – death by virus; death by cancer; death by accident.
On Good Friday, Jesus was numbered with the transgressors as he hung upon the cross. The One who had been anointed by the Spirit fulfilled the mission given to him by the Father by dying. He suffered and died as the sacrifice for our sins. He received God’s judgment so that we never will. Instead we receive forgiveness.
The Old Testament had said that anyone who was hung upon a tree was cursed by God. Dead and buried, everything looked so clear. Jesus has been a false Messiah – a false Christ. He had in fact been cursed by God, and that was the end of it.
But this was exactly what Jesus had told the disciples would happen. And he had told them that on the third day he would be raised. On Easter, God raised Jesus from the dead. And on that evening he appeared inside the locked room and showed the disciples that he was alive – that he had risen from the dead. As we learn in our text he said, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.”
Then he 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. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Jesus said that all which was necessary had been fulfilled. And now repentance and forgiveness of sins was to be proclaimed in his name to all nations. The disciples were the witnesses who would carry this out. But Jesus said that first they needed to receive the One promised by the Father. They needed to wait in Jerusalem until they had been clothed with power from on high.
Next we hear in our text: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
In his ascension, Jesus withdrew his visible presence. And to us that doesn’t seem to make much sense to us. Before he ascended, he told the disciples they would be his witnesses. But first they needed to receive power from on high. We know, of course, that this empowerment took place on the day of Pentecost as the Holy Spirit was poured out upon them.
On that day, Peter preached a powerful sermon. He spoke about how the Jews had killed Jesus. And then he said, “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.”
Peter announced that Jesus Christ had been exalted in the ascension – that he was now at the right hand of God. As the exalted Lord he had received the Spirit – he was experiencing a new aspect of the Spirit’s work, for now it was he who had poured out the Spirit upon his Church. And so Peter could declare, “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 ascension is the exaltation of our Lord. Jesus Christ gave himself into death on a cross for us. He was hung on a tree. He was indeed cursed by God – cut off so that we never will be. But in the resurrection and then in the ascension, God has vindicated and exalted Jesus. He has declared to all that the cross was Jesus’ saving work for us. And he has exalted Jesus as the Lord – true God and true man – who pours forth the Spirit.
The ascension is the withdrawal of Jesus’ visible presence. But this is not the absence of the risen Lord. Instead it is the exaltation of Jesus so that he can give the gift of the Spirit by whom Christ is present with us in power to give faith and the forgiveness of sins. Because Jesus has been exalted in the ascension and has poured out the Spirit, he is the Lord who is present with us everywhere the Spirit is at work. The Spirit of Christ is the risen Lord present and giving salvation to us.
The ascension of our Lord Jesus is the definitive declaration of his victory. It shows that the Lord defeated death by passing through it and then rising from the dead. But it also declares that we too will share in Jesus’ resurrection because the Lord who has ascended will return in glory on the Last Day. In our second reading, Luke’s account in Acts, we learn that two angels 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.”
The ascension tells us that risen and exalted Lord will return on the Last Day to give us a share in his resurrection. We have the living hope of the resurrection. We also have the expectant hope of Christ’s return to raise the dead and renew creation. And so we fervently pray: “Come Lord Jesus!”