I’m sure you are all familiar with the mystery of Lord Lucan, the British aristocrat who disappeared in suspicious circumstances on 8th November 1974, following the murder of his children’s nanny in London the previous night.
Since that day Lucan’s body has not been found nor have there been any confirmed sightings to prove his whereabouts. To this day, no one really knows if Lord Lucan is dead or alive. Whether he is in the grave or living in luxury overseas.
Fortunately, thanks to Luke, we do not have the same uncertainty about whether Jesus is alive today and where he is. Luke tells us in our passage today that Jesus appeared to his disciples before ascending into Heaven. Let’s look at both events in turn.
Jesus…appeared to his disciples (v.36-49)
Firstly, Luke assures us that Jesus appeared to his disciples after his resurrection, proving to them that he was fully alive and had really defeated death. For example, in verses 36 to 43 Luke tell us that Jesus showed his hands and feet to his disciples, spoke to them, invited them to touch him, and even ate some broiled fish before their very eyes. He was no ghost or apparition, nor a mass hallucination.
In verse 44 to 47, Jesus offers yet more evidence that he is really alive. He does this by pointing them to the Old Testament predictions of his life, death and resurrection. Predictions written hundreds of years earlier, yet amazingly fulfilled in him.
Verse 45 tells us that Jesus “opened the minds” of his disciples, so that they could understand and appreciate all the ways he fulfilled “the law, the prophets and the psalms” (which was the traditional way of referring to all three parts of the Old Testament).
We know the disciples understood what Jesus showed them, because throughout the rest of the New Testament we see Peter, Paul and other apostles constantly quoting the Old Testament.
From Pentecost onwards they consistently quoted Scripture to persuade and prove to people that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection was no fable, but a fact of history predicted centuries in advance.
These first Christians pointed to Jesus as
- The great prophet predicted by Moses;
- The everlasting descendant promised to King David;
- The Suffering Servant prophesied by Isaiah; and as
- The glorious Son of Man foreseen in the book of Daniel.
In verses 50 and 51 of our passage this evening, Jesus gives one final proof to his disciples that he is really alive. In the vicinity of Bethany, on the Mount of Olives, Jesus ascends to Heaven before their very eyes.
A ghost or hallucination can just fade away, but a physical resurrected body has to go somewhere. After 40 days of appearances, the risen Jesus wanted his disciples to see him depart and be sure of where he had gone to.
So where had he gone? And what had Jesus gone to do? The answer Luke gives us is that Jesus had ascended to Heaven, to reign at his Father’s right hand.
Jesus…ascended to his Father (v.50-53)
During his ministry, Jesus had told his disciples many times that he would one day return to his Father in Heaven. As the eternal Son of God, Jesus had told the disciples that he would one day re-assume all the heavenly glory and power that he had held before he became man.
On Ascension Day the disciples were given the privilege of seeing Jesus’ return to Heaven take place. Luke tells us in his second volume, the book of Acts, that the disciples saw Jesus lifted up and enter a cloud, before disappearing from view.
If we saw this happen today, we might think Jesus was about to become an astronaut or some kind of skydiver. But the disciples knew their Old Testament, would have understood the significance of what they had seen.
The disciples knew that to see someone be lifted up was a sign of exaltation, and glorification, a sign that Jesus was being honoured and empowered, like at the coronation of a King. Jesus’ lifting up was a moment of triumph, like when a football club captain lifts up the Premier League Trophy or FA Cup at the end of the season!
The fact that Jesus was taken up into a cloud would also have been highly significant to his Jewish disciples. Because throughout the history of Israel, God had repeatedly shown his presence among his people in the form of a cloud. For example:
- God had led his people out of Egypt in a pillar of Cloud.
- He had descended onto Mount Sinai in a cloud when he gave the Ten Commandments; and
- God had symbolised his presence in the Jerusalem Temple by filling it with a glorious cloud.
So when the disciples saw Jesus rise up and enter a cloud, it was a sign for them that Jesus was returning to God – he was returning to the presence of his Father.
When Jesus entered the cloud that was the last his disciples saw of him. But elsewhere in the New Testament we are told what happened next. The book of Hebrews, for example, tells us that Jesus then sat down at God’s right hand in Heaven.
You and I sit down to take a rest, to recover our strength and recuperate after a busy day. We might find a comfy sofa or our favourite armchair and put our feet up. But when Jesus sat down, it was a sign that his work of redemption and rescue was complete. By his crucifixion and resurrection he had done everything necessary for our salvation. By sitting down in Heaven, he showed his rescue mission was complete.
And once Jesus had sat down, he didn’t start to rest but began to rule. He sat down not on an armchair but on a throne. Jesus sat down at God’s right hand like a chief executive alongside a chairman, or a prime minister alongside a president. He sat down to assume a position of awesome authority, a position of power over all Creation.
Jesus remains in that position of power to this day. Seated at his Father’s side he is pouring out his Holy Spirit on his people. He is answering Christian believer’s prayers. He is building his Church. And he is preparing to return one day in glory!
The right response…witness & worship!
So if anyone asks you tomorrow “Where is Jesus now?” and “What is he doing?” we know what to tell them. We can tell them that Jesus is in Heaven at the right hand of God, ascended and glorified, occupying the ultimate position of power.
But, as I finish, one important question is left for us: How should we respond to the ascension and rule of Christ?
The disciples in our passage give us a perfect example. An example of witness and worship.
In verse 48 we are told that they became witnesses to Jesus, telling people about him and all that he had done. We can do the same today, by sharing Jesus with our colleagues, neighbours and friends, and by supporting mission agencies who share the Gospel overseas.
In verses 52-53 we are also told that the disciples joyfully worshipped Jesus and praised God for him. We might not be able to see Jesus anymore, but as Christians we all owe him a great debt of gratitude for our salvation. So let’s keep expressing our gratitude in songs of praise and lives of service.
Witness and worship, the ideal response to our risen and ascended Lord.