1 Theophilus, the first scroll I wrote concerned everything Jesus did and taught from the beginning, 2 right up to the day when he was taken up into heaven. Before he was taken up, working in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen. 3 After his suffering, he showed them that he was alive with many convincing proofs. He appeared to them over a period of forty days, speaking to them about God’s kingdom. 4 While they were eating together, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem but to wait for what the Father had promised. He said, “This is what you heard from me: 5 John baptized with water, but in only a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.”
6 As a result, those who had gathered together asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?”
7 Jesus replied, “It isn’t for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 Rather, you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”
9 After Jesus said these things, as they were watching, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 While he was going away and as they were staring toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood next to them. 11 They said, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (CEB)
Mothers know what it’s like to wait. Childbirth is preceded by nine months of expectation, anticipation, preparation, growth, change, worry, sometimes a touch of doubt or fear. Pregnancy, especially a first-pregnancy, is a transition time from one way of life to another. A whole new world looms before mothers (and fathers), and the life after childbirth is never quite the same as it was before. But before parents get there, (especially moms) they have the long wait of pregnancy.
Then, after childbirth, mothers (and fathers) learn even more about waiting. Waiting for that fist tooth to finally pop through so you can get a minute’s sleep again. Waiting for a child to say Mommy, because they always learn to say Daddy first. Then, waiting for the child to learn to say Daddy again because from then on out, it’s always, “Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mommy! Mom! Momma! Mommy!” And, there’s waiting for your child to be able to find a matching shoe so you can finally leave the house now that you’re thirty minutes late. Even at age thirteen, we’re still not past that on some days.
The Day of Ascension was this past Thursday, forty days after Easter Day, but we commemorate the Ascension of Jesus Christ on a Sunday because, honestly, Sunday is the only day pastors can get most of their congregation to come to church for worship. Like the Epiphany, the Ascension is important enough that we don’t want to skip it, so we move it to a Sunday to make sure it’s covered.
The Ascension of Jesus falls in the between-time of Easter Day and the Day of Pentecost. Easter is joy and happiness. Pentecost marks a different kind of excitement as the church’s birthday and descent of the Holy Spirit. Not only does Ascension fall in a between-time, it marked the beginning of a waiting period for the Disciples. Remember, after Jesus was raised from the dead, he appeared to the disciples multiple times over forty days. He appeared in a locked room. He showed up again so Thomas could see. He was recognized after breaking bread in Emmaus. He cooked breakfast for the disciples on the beach.
Acts 1:4 suggests that Jesus may have stayed with the disciples, maybe even lived with them for part of those forty days. The Greek word used there has an uncertain meaning, in part, because it’s only used once in the New Testament. It might refer to table fellowship or gathering the disciples together. Or, it might refer to staying the night. The Common English Bible translates it as “While they were eating together,” while the New Revised Standard Version renders it, “While staying with them.”
Either way we translate the word, what’s clear is that Jesus was hanging out with the disciples a lot. The disciples had likely gotten used to resurrection-Jesus being present and continuing to teach them. Luke tells us in his Gospel that Jesus opened their minds to understand the Scriptures about the Messiah and how repentance and forgiveness of sins must be proclaimed in his name (c.f. Luke 24:45-47). Acts 1:2-3 tells us that Jesus instructed the apostles he had chosen speaking with them about God’s kingdom. And he ordered them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit, which the Father had promised to send upon them. The timeline of a few days from now is rather non-specific. They didn’t know the when.
But, the apostles still had questions about God’s kingdom, so they asked Jesus, “Lord, are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel now?” (Acts 1:6 CEB).
At first, it sounds like a very earthly question, as thought the apostles were still looking forward to an earthly kingdom. And maybe it was an earthly question, in part. But the word Luke uses for restore is the same word used in the Greek Septuagint version of the Old Testament in Malachi 4:6 (*LXX 3:23) where God speaks of Elijah being sent to turn the hearts of children to parents, and the hearts of parents to children before the great and terrifying Day of the Lord comes. The Septuagint actually says “who will restore the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of people to their neighbors…” (Malachi 3:23 my translation of LXX).
So, if Luke used this word as an intentional reference to the restoration work of Elijah that was mentioned in Malachi, then the question of the apostles was about more than an earthly kingdom. It was about a kind of restoration that involved calling the people of Israel back to faithful community. A restoring of broken relationships. The importance of restored human relationships is one of the things Jesus preached about often (c.f. Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 5:20-26, 18:15-17; Mark 11:25). After all, the work of Jesus Christ on earth included restoring the human race to God and human beings to each other.
It seems like the apostles wanted to know if this restoration was about to take place. After all, what other work is left for Jesus to do? And Jesus responds by telling them not to worry about the timing of things. Instead of being concerned about the timing of things to come, the apostles will be witnesses of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. In essence, Jesus tells the apostles that his work will now continue through them. The Ascension is the transition of Christ’s ministry from Jesus, himself, to the apostles and those who will follow them. The gist of Jesus’s message to the apostles is this: Don’t worry about the time, you’ve got a job to do.
Then, suddenly, Jesus was taken up into heaven. There’s no indication that the Ascension was something the apostles who were with Jesus expected when it happened. One moment Jesus was walking and talking with them, the next moment he was zooming into the clouds. Luke notes that the apostles “were watching” as he was lifted up. They were staring toward heaven when two men in white robes suddenly appeared beside them and asked a pointed question: “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB).
First, it’s worth noting that these two men in white robes make several appearances in Luke’s writings. In the account of the Transfiguration (Luke 9:28-36), Moses and Elijah show up and talk with Jesus about his departure, which is literally Exodus in Greek.
Later, two men in gleaming bright clothing appeared to the women at the tomb of Jesus. They also asked a rather pointed questions: “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He isn’t here, but has been raised. Remember what he told you while he was still in Galilee, that the Human One must be handed over to sinners, be crucified, and on the third day rise again.” (Lk. 24:6-7 CEB). These men were later described as a “vision of angels” (Luke 24:23), but since the word angel means messenger, it would fit whether the men were actual angels of the heavenly kind or Moses and Elijah appearing once again. After all, they were described as men initially.
While the two men aren’t mentioned at the Ascension at the end of Luke, they do show up in Acts. And they ask questions once again. “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:11 CEB). It’s possible that these two men—these messengers—were Moses and Elijah prodding the apostles on.
There is a strong connection to the Ascension of Elijah in this account of the Ascension of Jesus. Forty days recalled the forty-day experiences of both Moses and Elijah. Moses was with the Lord for forty days on Mount Sinai where he neither ate nor drank (c.f. Exodus 34:28). Elijah fasted for forty days as he travelled to Mount Horeb where he experienced the theophany and heard God’s voice (c.f. 1 Kings 19:8). The forty days of post-resurrection Jesus is an echo of his forty days of fasting in the wilderness during which he was tempted (c.f. Luke 4:1-13). But these forty days after the resurrection weren’t a time of preparation for Jesus, they were a time of preparation for the apostles and the ministry they would continue after Jesus ascended.
It’s significant that the apostles saw the Lord ascend into heaven. When Elijah was about to be taken up into heaven, he asked Elisha—his disciple—what he could do for him before he was taken away. And Elisha asked for a double-share of Elijah’s spirit; twice the spirit of Elijah. Elisha’s request would be granted only if he saw Elijah being taken into heaven. That event of Elijah’s ascension—of separation from Elisha—was what allowed Elisha to receive that double-share and continue the work of Elijah.
Joshua was filled with the spirit and wisdom because Moses had laid hands on him before Moses died (c.f. Deuteronomy 34:9). It is after the departure of the leader that the followers are empowered. The apostles saw Jesus ascend, and only a few days later, the Holy Spirit rushed upon them with fire and wind. They were empowered to speak languages they hadn’t learned, and to proclaim Christ with a boldness they hadn’t known before. They were empowered to be witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
While Jesus was on earth, his work of healing, restoration, and proclaiming God’s Kingdom was limited by the fact that he was only one person who could encounter a limited number of people. When Jesus ascended, his followers were empowered to continue his work, and the number of people with access to the power of God’s Spirit increased exponentially.
We are now witnesses. The work of Jesus Christ is ours to continue. While the apostles would wait another ten days after the Ascension to receive the empowerment of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, we have the Holy Spirit now. The Spirit is with us everywhere. We are Christ’s witnesses, and we have the privilege of continuing Christ’s work. We don’t have to start by traveling to the ends of the earth. We can begin right where we are.
It might also be worth noting that, while the apostles were waiting for the Holy Spirit to come, the first thing they did was gather together to pray. That’s in verses 13-14. Before they did anything else, they prayed. That’s a model for us, too. We have work to do as followers of Jesus, but that doesn’t mean we throw ourselves into business at the expense of everything else. The work of Jesus Christ includes the work of devoting ourselves to prayer. Prayer is a way of connecting to the Spirit. It’s how we prepare ourselves to receive the Spirit. Pentecost is waiting. Are we ready?
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Rev. Christopher Millay
*The Septuagint is commonly noted as LXX, which is the Roman numeral for 70. It is a translation of the Old Testament, written in Greek, which dates to the 3rd-2nd centuries B.C. Also, chapters and verses sometimes differ between English translations, the Greek Septuagint, and the original Hebrew. Malachi 4:6 in English translations, for example, is Malachi 3:23 in the Septuagint (LXX) and Malachi 3:24 in Hebrew.