Reading Ramblings – June 2, 2019

Reading Ramblings

Date: Ascension Day (Observed), June 2, 2019

Texts: Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47; Ephesians 1:15-23; Luke 24:44-53

Context: Ascension Day is observed 40 days after Easter, based on Acts 1:3. Some people think that Luke 24 describes Jesus asce nding on the evening of Easter, and that therefore there is either a contradiction between Luke 24 and Acts 1, or that Jesus ascended twice. It’s important to remember that Luke authored both books (which were originally a single book), so it would be odd if Luke contradicted himself. A careful reading of Luke 24 shows that Luke is very careful to link events that happen on the same day (24:1, 13, 36). However there is no such deliberate timing introduction to 24:50-53. While I can understand how people might be inclined to assume it continues on the same day, I don’t see it as an absolute necessity, given the phrasing. Particularly given Luke’s comments in Acts 1:1-3, which don’t indicate a repetitive coming and going of Jesus. In both the Gospel of Luke and the Acts of the Apostles, the Ascension is highlighted as a singular event, and it seems best to take it as the culmination of 40 days of appearances to his followers and disciples.

Acts 1:1-11 – Luke concludes his Gospel and begins his history of the Holy Spirit’s work in the early Church with Jesus’ ascension. This event is the triggering for the Holy Spirit’s arrival on Pentecost, as Jesus tried to explain to his disciples (John 14:25-26; John 16:4b-16). Jesus departs as He arrives – bodily. Both his conception and his ascension are miraculous, but in both cases He participates physically. In his mother’s womb and as He ascends to heaven He retains full humanity, even as both events are divinely orchestrated and empowered. These anchor Jesus’ humanity, and add credence to the emphasis of the Holy Church (based on Jesus’ own insistence, ie. Luke 24:36-42; John 20:20, 26-27) that Jesus as the Son of God is also fully a Son of Man, fully human rather than just appearing to be human. Jesus completed the purpose for which He came, and so ascends back to the Father to await the completion of all things and the Day of Judgment. In the meantime, we are to expect that the promised Holy Spirit of God will arrive and will continue his work.

Psalm 47 – This psalm first calls people to praise, and then provides the praise itself. The setting (vs. 5-7)might have been the procession of the Ark into the Temple as part of a worship ritual, or might have been associated with the coronation of a king or the king’s entrance to the palace and the throne, understanding that the king is the representative of God, rather than God himself. God is described as the greatest of kings who through his power established his people Israel and provided them with a homeland. The important thing is that the people of God are not limited to just the Hebrews, but all who recognize the rule and reign of God. In the context of Ascension this psalm (particularly v.5) works well with the Ascension of Jesus. Jesus goes up as the triumphant king. Not everyone knows this at the time, but his followers are tasked and then empowered to spread the news. His victory over his enemies is not a temporal, political or economic victory in the sense we are used to reading about, but rather a demonstrated victory over sin, death, and the plans of Satan to keep us bound in those chains.

Ephesians 1:15-23 – The ascension of Jesus is both literal and figurative. As the Son of God who has completed his incarnational work of resisting sin and therefore defeating death, Jesus returns to the heavenly throne room (Revelation 4-5) as the conquering king. His place at the right hand of God is testified to by Stephen (Acts 7:55-56) as he becomes the first martyr for Christ. The right hand or right side is emphasized as far back as Exodus 15:6 or Leviticus 8:23-26, and was recognized as the dominant hand/side. So in the story of Ehud (Judges 3), he is able to sneak a weapon past security by tying it to his right thigh rather than his left. Since the assumption would be that any weapon would be on the left side of his body, to be accessed by the right hand, nobody finds the short sword or realizes that he is left-handed. The right hand side of a throne seems to denote equality in power, while also deference to the one on the throne. This is in keeping with Jesus’ own teaching about his relationship to God the Father. In reference to power (divinity), Jesus can proclaim that I and the Father are one (John 10:30). Yet in reference not just to his incarnate mission but his relationship as a whole with the Father, Jesus can declare his obedience to the Father (John 6:44, 8:28, etc.). This is a mystery our sinfulness won’t let us understand, that one could be voluntarily obedient despite having equal power and authority!

Luke 24:44-53 – Jesus provides his followers with an introductory revelation to Scripture, allowing these simple men to see what so many enlightened and educated theologians had missed for so long – Jesus. This is the Christian way of understanding Scripture – that the primary importance of the Old and New Testament is to show us Jesus. It isn’t that the material is not true historically, or of value artistically as poetry, or useful for guiding our lives. But all of these things take their value and meaning ultimately from Christ alone. If we have Christ, we have everything. If we don’t have Christ, we ultimately have nothing, regardless of what we may appear to possess right now. And more specifically, the message of Christ is his sacrificial death and resurrection for the forgiveness of sins. Forgiveness can be proclaimed because of his sacrificial death and resurrection – the two are inextricably linked. There can be no other basis for the assumption of forgiveness. All the deaths of all the sacrificial animals up until that point were pointing towards this final, efficacious sacrifice on behalf of all people at all times and places, and in a very real sense the sacrifice of the Son of God is what gave power to the sacrifices of the Old Testament. Jesus’ revelation here is not complete – He does not give them everything they need. That will be the job of God the Holy Spirit, the promise of God referred to in v.49. It is this promise, the Holy Spirit, that they must wait for before starting their evangelistic work.

Jesus ascends to heaven as the victorious king. His death and resurrection accomplish the defeat of all evil and sin in the world, and therefore break the power of death and free us in faith for eternal life. This work is complete. It is not fully revealed or fully experienced, but it is complete. Nothing you and I do can further it or improve upon it. We are called simply to live in this reality, a reality that defines who we are in relationship to our God and therefore in relationship to everything and everyone else our God has created.

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