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?

The Resurrected Dead

Signorelli_Resurrection-pano

At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
– Matthew 27:51-53

A scripture we normally read over fairly quickly is the above passage in Matthew 27. The main reason we do not spend a lot of time on this story, incidentally only found in Matthew, is because of the part in verses 52 and 53 where tombs are broken open and dead people come to life. Since that is something we have never witnessed or heard of happening, it causes us some problems in trying to explain what and how this might have occurred. One amazing fact that we often overlook because of the quick read, is the fact that these resurrected people only appeared after Jesus’ resurrection, three days later! Only after Jesus’ resurrection did these holy people go into Jerusalem and witness to people. Where did they go for three days and is the fact that they appeared only after the resurrection significant?

The answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes”! These people were the first fruits offered to God of eternal life for the believer. Jesus himself was raised on the day the the Jews celebrated the Feast of First Fruits (see Exodus 23:14-19). The Feast of First Fruits had, at its center, the idea that you gave to God the very first harvest of your crops as a way of saying, “I trust you to provide and protect the rest of the crop to me at a later date when the full crop is ready to harvest.” Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.” (also read the next two verses, 1 Corinthians 15:21-23). Christ was the guarantee of the resurrection of all God’s saved and redeemed people and these first holy people were resurrected as the first fruits of that promise of eternal life. We have this promise in Scripture that God resurrected these people and will also give us that same resurrection from the dead.

Another interesting piece of information is that every major city in the Roman world had three parts. As you approached the city you first came to the graveyard, called the necropolis. Next was the city itself, called the polis, and finally came the acropolis, the high place that was fortified to withstand assault. Now, read 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18 and picture in your mind Christ returning and picking up the dead in Christ – first on the outskirts of the city and then coming in to the city and picking up the living and taking them up to meet with him on the high place in the clouds. What an exciting picture of the hope that we have in Christ and a great thought for the upcoming Easter Sunday!

Roll Away the Stone

When the Sabbath was over, Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James, and Salome bought spices so that they might go to anoint Jesus’ body. Very early on the first day of the week, just after sunrise, they were on their way to the tomb and they asked each other, “Who will roll the stone away from the entrance of the tomb?”

– Mark 16:1-3

Jesus died at 3:00 p.m. on Friday, which was the day of the Jewish Passover celebration. However, it was also Preparation Day (Mark 15:42-43) which was the day before the Sabbath (Saturday). Every kind of work had to be completed before sundown on Preparation Day (Friday) because no work could be done on the Sabbath. Joseph of Arimathea got permission from Pilate to take Jesus’ body down off the cross just before evening began. Jewish custom was that the body must be buried by sundown on the same day that it was deceased, so they hurriedly wrapped the body in linen cloth and put some spices on it to mask the smell. They then put the body in Joseph’s new family tomb that had never been used (Matt 27:60-61). The Jewish people did not believe in embalming or doing anything to preserve the body (many scholars believe the Jews of the day thought the flesh was where sin resided, so the quicker it decayed and left the bones, the better). A year or so later, the bones would be put in a box called an ossuary and they would rest with their ancestors that were already in the tomb.

The next day was Saturday and the chief priests and Pharisees were concerned about someone trying to steal the body and fake a resurrection. They asked Pilate to seal the tomb with his official Roman Seal and to put Roman guards on the tomb. The seal was just wax and wasn’t designed to seal it shut, just to say this tomb is occupied and you better not touch it or you’ll answer to Rome.

On Sunday, the Marys and some other women went early to the tomb to take the spices that they had prepared to finish the burial process. The Jewish custom was to wrap the body with linen and put lots of spices between the layers of linen. They would put the body on a shelf in the tomb and then close the tomb for three days. They would sit outside the tomb and mourn. At the end of the third day, they would crack open the tomb and call out the name of the deceased (Lazarus – John 11 esp. verse 17 and footnote and 38 and 39). If there was no answer, the deceased would then be legally dead and they would close up the tomb permanently.

When the women asked, “Who will roll away the stone?” the stone was not the problem. They could have gotten the tomb open. The problem was the seal. Who will break the seal and incur the wrath of the Romans? When they got there, the stone was already rolled away and they could look in. Somehow, we get the idea that the angel came and rolled away the stone so that Jesus could get out. Jesus didn’t need the stone rolled back! He was the resurrected Lord! He blew out of there; no grave clothes or stone could hold him back! The stone was rolled away so that the disciples could look in and see that he was indeed gone, that he had risen on the third day, just as he said.

The stone was also rolled away for our benefit, so that we could look inside and see that Jesus was not there. If we believe these truths, that Jesus is alive and risen, we must live in a way that shows that we are confident of these truths. We need to roll away the stone for others around us and let them know that the tomb is empty and that Jesus is alive and risen! The resurrection not only gives us purpose and meaning in this life, but gives us the certain hope of heaven and a life after this life with Christ. A hurting world needs to see that evidence in us that the stone has indeed been rolled away and he is risen!

P.S. When they looked into the tomb, there were two angels dressed in white, one seated at the head and the other at the foot of where Jesus body had lain. This is the exact same picture that we see in Exodus 25:17-23, when God instructed the Israelites to put an angel at each end of the ark of the covenant. Between those two angels (cherubim) is where God lived and met with them. What an amazing picture that was played out 1500 years after the ark of the covenant was made!

The Resurrection

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep.

–1 Corinthians 15:17-20

Without a doubt, the resurrection of Jesus is the defining moment in all of Scripture. All of our Christian faith originates with this one event. All of our beliefs and hopes rise or fall on the resurrection. All of the missionary activities over the last 2000 years took place because of the resurrection of Christ. Our country itself and all of western civilization is founded and based on this seminal event. No other religion claims a resurrected leader. You can visit all the other religious leaders tombs and final resting places. Probably the best way to think of it is, what if there were no resurrection? The resurrection proves that this life is not all that there is, that there is a certain hope of heaven and a life forever with our God and his son Jesus. Paul says that Jesus, the Christ and our Messiah, was the first fruits and a guarantee of that promise.

This Easter season we need to come to the realization again of how much God loved us. We need to be reminded again of what he did and how marvelously amazing his redemptive plan was. God worked out every detail, from Abraham 2000 years before Christ, right down to 3:00 p.m. , the hour of his death and to his resurrection on the third day. We need to be reminded again during this blessed week of Palm Sunday, Passover, and Easter that we serve a resurrected Lord! The stone has been rolled away and the tomb is empty! He is alive! And, we have been commissioned by our resurrected Lord to go and tell this good news! He is Risen! Risen indeed!