They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.

The Ascension

See Mark 16:19, Luke 24:50-53, and Acts 1:1-9

"Ascension", Rembrandt Harmensz

“Ascension”, Rembrandt Harmensz

After Jesus’ resurrection, He appeared and spoke to His disciples and others for forty days, teaching them about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3). On the fortieth day, Jesus took His disciples out to the vicinity of Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, and while they were watching, He was taken up to heaven in a cloud. Put yourself in the disciples sandals and take a moment to think about what just happened. In the last forty days they have seen their rabbi, Jesus, who they thought would be their earthly king, arrested, crucified, resurrected, and now taken up to heaven in a cloud! The disciples have now witnessed what could be argued as the most dramatic event in all Scripture, ascending to heaven! As far as a major miracle, it would have had to be as equally impressive as the resurrection. Going to heaven to sit at the right hand of God was also a fulfillment of prophecy just like Jesus’ death and resurrection was. Yet, have you ever thought or been taught that the ascension was a major theological event? We have a day on the church calendar, forty days after Easter Sunday to commemorate the ascension, but you never hear anyone preach or teach or give the weight to this event like you do Easter and the resurrection story. In the Acts narrative in Chapter 1, we hear sermons on waiting on the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-8) and the commission He gave the disciples in Acts 1:8, but we don’t hear anything about the ascension itself. We celebrate Jesus’ resurrection in a big way, but His ascension is every bit as important to His deity as His resurrection. There is bound to be more here than we’ve known at first glance and has to be more to the story.

The ascension is not mentioned in Matthew or John and there is only one sentence on it in Mark. From the last few verses in Luke and the first few verses of Acts, we can piece together the story – and what a story it is! Luke’s story of the gospel of Jesus Christ has quite a profound ending. Jesus gathered His disciples around Him near Bethany on the Mount of Olives. Scripture says, ”He lifted His hands and blessed them and while He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up to heaven.” When the disciples saw this, they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. It is interesting to note that Luke begins His book by telling the story of an old priest, Zechariah, who was part of the line of Aaron and the official priesthood. This old priest is unable to bless because God took his voice after he didn’t believe the angel’s story of what was about to happen to him. The end of Luke’s book is a story of Jesus, who is not a member of the priesthood and was not supposed to be able to bless. However, Jesus raises His hands and blesses His disciples. In doing this, Jesus is claiming to be the promised Messiah who would be a prophet, priest, and king all rolled into one person. By lifting His hands to bless – which only priest were allowed and commissioned to do – Jesus was claiming the priesthood and displaying His divine nature as this triune being. This was why they returned to Jerusalem with such joy!

When the disciples saw Jesus ascending to heaven their Jewish minds would have quickly gone to the story of Daniel and the prophetic vision that he wrote down in Daniel 7 while in captivity in Babylon. In Daniel’s vision, four evil beasts came out of the abyss to bring chaos to the world. These four evil kingdoms of men misruled the earth and put it in shambles. Then in Daniel 7:13-14, Daniel sees, “one like a son of man”, coming with clouds to come and restore order to the chaos. This was taken by the Jewish minds as a reference to the Messiah who was to come and this is the first time in Scripture the Messiah was called the ”son of man”. Daniel’s vision then goes on to say that when this, ”son of man” went into heaven, He was led into the presence of God and was given authority over everything and that His rule and reign would be forever at the right hand of God. Interestingly, Jesus applied this title to himself several times and the disciples were definitely aware that Jesus called himself by this messianic term. In fact, the title “son of man”, is used for Jesus over one hundred times in the New Testament. Read Luke 9:21-22, Luke 9:26-27, Luke 11:29-32, Luke 18:31-34, and Luke 19:10 and also look at these passages in Matthew; Matthew 24:30-31, Matthew 25:31-33, and Matthew 26:64. From the Daniel story and by listening to what Jesus said about Himself, when they witnessed the ascension, they thought, ”He’s going to heaven now to sit at the right hand and rule with His father! He is the ‘Son of Man’ like He said He was!”

In Mark 16:19 it says that Jesus, ”was taken up to heaven and sat at the right hand of God.” This fulfills the prophetical verse in Psalm 110:1 where God declares the promised Messiah will sit at His right hand. Jesus says,”that’s me”, when He quotes that verse to the Pharisees in Matthew 22:41-45. In conclusion, because of prophecy and Jesus’ words to them, the disciples knew exactly where He was going, where He would be sitting, and what He would be doing when He got to heaven. He would now have all authority over the earth. When they saw Jesus ascend to heaven, they realized in a huge way, “Our Rabbis is King of the Universe! He’s in Charge! He does have all authority!” Then an angel comes and tells them that He will be coming back the same way that He left.

Given this background, isn’t the ascension every bit as important to God’s deity as His resurrection? The ascension proves that Jesus is the King; He is ruling and reigning over the universe now! Like the first disciples, we are also to be witnesses of His ascension. When He said to, “be my witnesses”, it was not only witness to the resurrection, it was witness to His ascension as well. We are to be witnesses that He is not only our Savior, but He is also our King! Evidently, the early disciples really believed that He was in charge of the world. Do we? By what we say and how we live, we also are witnesses to whether or not Jesus is in charge of the universe. Every time we choose to do what the King desires we are taking back a square foot of the Kingdom and are advancing the Kingdom of Heaven. Conversely, every time we choose not to do what the King desires and requires, we loose a square foot of the Kingdom. He didn’t say, “Just hang on till I get back”, He said to start advancing the Kingdom here on earth. We are to be expanding the Kingdom by the way we serve the ascended King. What square foot will you take today by living the way the ascend King wants?

Are You the Coming One?

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

The Beheading of St John the Baptist

I have always been a little troubled by the story of John the Baptizer in Luke 7 where he sends some of his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the coming one or should we expect someone else?” What happened to John the Baptist? Was John now doubting that Jesus was the Messiah? A little research into history and the culture of the day made me realize there was more to the story than a casual reading of the Text would suggest. Perhaps John’s question was more complex than it seemed on the surface.

First of all, we need to establish a little background. The Luke narrative doesn’t say it, but John the Baptist was in prison at the time of this story (Matthew ll:2). We also need to read Mark 6:17-20 to understand why John was put into prison. Herod Antipas had put him in prison for publicly criticizing the fact that Antipas married his brother Philip’s wife. Because John was in prison, he had to send two of his disciples to ask Jesus a question that was troubling him. Did John the Baptist lose his faith? Had this fiery, passionate desert man lost his fire? Does he think that he has made a big mistake in promoting this man, Jesus? Or is there more to the story?

I’m going to contend that John did not lose his faith; how could he? He had seen heaven literally ripped open and God’s spirit descending on Jesus like a dove (Mark 1:10). He had heard God’s voice speaking from the heavens saying, “This is my Son, whom I love, I am well pleased with Him.” He baptized Jesus (Matthew 3:14) to fulfill Scripture. In John 1:24-34, John had publicly declared about Jesus, ”This is the Son of God.” Could this question then of Jesus being the “coming one” be more complex?

Could the “one to come” and the Messiah possibly be two separate figures in John’s theology? We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essene community was looking for two Messiahs. One was to be a prophet / priest and the other was to be a warrior / king. Together these two figures would come and rescue the Israelites, set up a new priesthood, and establish a new kingdom on the earth. Also, there were several different schools of thought at that time as to what the promised Messiah or Messiahs might look like and what they would have to do to usher in the new kingdom. John had definitely gravitated to the fire and brimstone and day of judgment theology. He read Malachi 4:1-5, and knew that he was the Elijah of verse five that would usher in that dreadful day of the Lord (John was told that he was like Elijah from birth; see Luke 1:17 and read The Kingdom of Heaven if Forcefully Advancing).  John quoted the Isaiah passages where the mountains and hills would be made low and he told the people that the ax was at the root of the tree and that the winnowing fork was in the Messiah’s hand. John got the part about the warrior king and fire and judgment, but he wasn’t seeing or hearing about any of this kind of activity from Jesus. All he was hearing about Jesus was the Zechariah 9:9 Messiah that was meek and lowly and a servant. If the coming one was going to do the things John was thinking, there was going to have to be more fireworks, more war-like actions on the Messiah’s part. John could have been saying, “I know you are the Messiah, but are you the Coming One? If you are the Coming One, why am I still in jail? Why can’t you bust me out of here, I am one of your right hand men in the coming kingdom? When are you going to start the judgment part?”

Look at how Jesus answers John by re-reading Luke 7:22-23. Jesus quoted prophetical scriptures from Isaiah (Isaiah 35:5-6, Isaiah 61:1-2) that tell what the Messiah will do; such as healing the sick, restoring sight to the blind, and even raising the dead. Notice, however, Jesus purposely leaves out the part where the Messiah will set the captives free. Jesus was saying to John – in code through the Old Testament Text – “John, your end times charts are off. It won’t be with fire and judgment this time; that will be later. And no, you are not getting out of jail. There’s no military might this time, it will be me coming to die as a servant.” Then Jesus turned to the crowd and begin to brag on John and told them there was no greater man born of woman than John and that he was the Elijah that would prepare the way of the Lord (Luke 7:24-28 and Matthew 11:14).

In summary, John the Baptist didn’t lose his faith or doubt that the person that he had earlier baptized in the Jordan was the Messiah and the Son of God. He was just confused about how all this was going to take place, because it didn’t look like the fire and judgment part was coming to pass like he thought, especially since he was now in prison. John was not going to see the results or fruit of what he had tried to do, but he was as great as any person in Scripture because everything he did pointed to Jesus as the Messiah.

What Jesus Was Saying in Matthew 11:28-30

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
– Matthew 11:28-30

I’m learning more about this well-known quote from Jesus as I study more closely the Old Testament and culture of the time. I used to think that in this verse he only meant that he felt sorry for me and that he would give me rest if I was tired and burdened by my heavy load. As it turns out there is a bit more here to learn about what Jesus was saying in this often quoted scripture.

Yoke

Yoke

First of all in Jesus day, the main rabbis all had a system or set of beliefs that allowed you to interpret God’s word through their system. Each one’s system was a liitle different than the others. This system was called their “yoke of Torah”. Jesus’ “yoke” or way of interpreting scripture was the Shema, “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” Jesus said this in Matthew 22:37-40 when asked what the most important commandments were. Every situation in life was to be looked at through that filter. Jesus is saying in the Matthew 11 passage, “I have a new way to look at keeping the Torah and it won’t be as burdensome as what the Pharisees teach. It may be hard to do, but it is simple to understand.” Secondly, he is making some new profound messianic claims in this passage. These claims can only be seen if you had an intricate knowledge of the Hebrew Bible like they did Let’s look at some of those.

  1. “I will give you rest” – look at Exodus 33:14 when God told Moses – “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest.” The Jews would have known and picked up on that verse from the Torah instantly. He will give us rest?, is he claiming to be God?
  2. “You will find rest for your souls.” – look at Jeremiah 6:16 – when the Lord says,”look for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls.” Jesus was claiming to be the ancient paths to God and if they would walk that ancient path, they would find rest for their souls. This was another obvious messianic claim.
  3. For “I am gentle and humble in heart” – look at Numbers 12:3. “Now Moses was a very humble man, more humble than anyone else on the face of the earth.” The Jews knew the words of the Torah in Deuteronomy 18:15 and 18 where God says to Moses, “The LORD your God will raise up for you a prophet like me from among your own brothers. You must listen to him… I will put my words in his mouth”. Philip told Nathanael in John 1:45 – “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote.” And Jesus said in John 5:46, “If you believed Moses, you would believe me, for he wrote about me.” So, again, Jesus was claiming to be God by quoting Old Testament passages that hinted at his deity. He was the prophet like Moses.

If you knew your Hebrew Bible, when you heard Jesus make the statement he made that is recordedin Matthew, you knew he was saying. “I am the one who was foretold about, I am the Messiah, God’s son that you have been looking for .”

Learning these few cultural facts and studying the scriptures that Jesus would have memorized gives us a much fuller meaning of the words he spoke in Matthew. Now, I am looking at everything Jesus said and trying to trace it back to the Old Testament roots. Amen.