Luke 24:36-53, The Easter Ascension and Commission

[May 12, 2013] Today, being the Sunday after the Ascension, we read the end of the Gospel according to Luke which both concludes Luke’s gospel and anticipates his Acts of the Apostles. At this point in Luke’s resurrection account Jesus has only appeared to Peter and the two people on the road to Emmaus on Easter Sunday. (Luke did not record the Lord’s appearance to the women.) Our text begins in Jerusalem on the evening of the same day, in a room where the eleven are gathered along with a number of others (24:33) in addition to the Cleopas (who was probably Jesus’ uncle) and the person who was with him (possibly his wife). Jesus suddenly stands in their midst, quite miraculously, startling and frightening them, and says to them, “Peace be to you.”

Was He there all the time while they were talking, or had He suddenly arrived? The Gospel according to John speaks of Jesus manifesting Himself in His resurrection; in other words, He was simply making Himself visible here and there, as He chose.

The Ascension (Luke 24:50-53)

If we were not anticipating the description of the ascension takes place at the beginning of Acts, we would naturally read Luke 24:50-53—what seems to be an account of the ascension—as taking place on the same day as 24:1-49. In other words, we might want to consider whether Luke intended us to read verses 50-53 as taking place on the evening of Easter Sunday and not as an anticipation of the ascension forty days later (Acts 1:3-11). This would mean that we should also read Acts 1:2 as referring to the events of Luke 24:36-53 and Acts 1:3 as referring to events subsequent to that. When Jesus appeared to His disciples and then was “taken up” (ana-lambanō; Acts 1:2), or was “parted (di-istēmi) from them and carried up (ana-pherō) into heaven,” this took place only on the first of the forty days in which He appeared to them again and again, until His final ascension on the fortieth day. In Acts 1:9-11 Jesus was “lifted up” (epairō) and “a cloud received Him (hypo-lambanō) out of their sight” as He was “going (poreuomai) into heaven,” “and thus was (again) “taken up (ana-lambanō) into heaven.”

None of these words have to depict the vertical ascension we usually imagine, but the later account does describe a cloud “receiving Him” out of their sight and the disciples gazing “into the heaven” (this is translated as the “sky” but does not have to be; it is the same word for heaven used throughout the account). The verb for “lift up” implies an upward movement, but this can be understood visually or abstractly; it can also mean, for example, “to exalt.” In Acts 2:33 and 5:31 Peter uses the word “lift up” or “exalt” (hupsoō) to the right hand of God. Philippians 2:9 has “exalt beyond measure” (hyper-upsoō). Mark 16:19 has Jesus ascending from inside a room in Jerusalem, when He was “received up (ana-lambanō) into heaven.” 1 Timothy 3:16 also uses the word “received up” (ana-lambanō). Lambanō can mean either to take or to receive. Like Luke and Mark, John 20:17 also speaks of an ascension on Easter Sunday, though earlier in the day, and there the word used is ana-bainō.

In Luke 24:26 Jesus spoke of His resurrection with those on the road to Emmaus when He spoke about how the Messiah had “to suffer these things and to enter into His glory.” When the improvised Sanhedrin asked Him if He was the Messiah, He replied in 22:69 that “from now on the Son of Man will be seated at the right hand of the power of God.” Was He already seated here when He first appeared to Peter and the two on the road to Emmaus (suggested by 24:26), or not until (apparently) in the evening when He parted from them (24:51), or not until forty days later when He ascended in Acts 1:9-11? In John’s gospel He was exalted on Easter Sunday, before He saw the gathered disciples in the evening but after He saw Mary of Magdala. But the exaltation in Acts 2:33 apparently did not take place until forty days had passed (the ascension in Acts 1:9-11). All of these are true in some sense. Early Christian tradition also spoke of the ascension taking place on Easter Sunday (e.g., Epistle of Barnabas, Gospel of Peter, Tertullian and Eusebius).

In terms of Luke’s gospel, the departure (di-istēmi; also “being set apart”) from them in 24:51 probably fulfills the exodus of 9:51 of which Jesus spoke with Moses and Elijah during His transfiguration. Yet if 24:51 is only the first (and maybe not even the first) of several ascensions, He is set apart from them (departs) to be with the Father in an exalted state, yet He does not actually leave His disciples but continues to appear to them for forty days. Perhaps even when He is “received out of their sight” in a cloud, He has still not left us but has only gone out of the sight of our eyes. John’s gospel attempts to explain this, I believe. The resurrected Jesus has become omnipresent, His humanity taking on the qualities (attributes, or rather, perfections) of His divinity. Even during the manifestations of the forty days He was never exclusively in the place where He appeared.

The textual tradition is distressed in Luke 24:51-52 from various attempts to reconcile it with the account in Acts 1:9-11, some manuscripts omitting the phrase, “and He was carried up into heaven” and “and they, after worshiping Him,” but the textual evidence is overwhelmingly in its favor.

The conclusion then is that Jesus’ departure and being carried up into heaven in 24:51 depicts only a temporary disappearance at the end of the first day (or, it already being so late, possibly the next morning). Mark 16:19 could be referring to this same ascension at Bethany—and probably does, if the account was dependent on the Lukan text (which it probably was)—or, on the face value of it, it could be taken to mean that Jesus ascended while He was still indoors in Jerusalem. John’s gospel implies that an even earlier ascension took place—I imagine in the morning—after Jesus saw the Magdalene.

Proof of the Resurrection (24:36-43)

Jesus’ sudden evening appearance in their midst (verse 36), while startling and frightening them, brings them peace and ends up with their receiving His blessing and worshiping Him (when He is “carried up into heaven” before them). We will come back to this.

They are startled and frightened, however, because they think they are seeing a spirit (see Hebrews 12:23 and 1 Peter 3:19), that is, a spirit without flesh and bones (verse 39).

Jesus recognizes that they are “troubled” and that questions are rising up (ana-bainō) in their hearts: they do not believe what their eyes are telling them. So Jesus shows them His hands and feet where the nails had pierced Him. He asks them to look at the wounds and to touch Him. They would then realize that He has flesh and bones. Neither Luke nor John tells us whether the disciples took Jesus up on His offer and touched Him; the reader (or auditor) is left to assume that they did.

Luke tells us that the disciples still could not believe because of their joy and amazement; they still thought it was apparently too good to be true. So Jesus offers them additional proof. He asks them for something to eat. They give Him a piece of broiled fish and He eats it in front of them. (If you want to know, the word for “broiled” could just as well mean roasted or baked.) People have questioned about their having fish to eat in Jerusalem—it sounds more like they were in Galilee (see John 21:9)—but who knows? they certainly they had ways of preserving fish. The important thing is that Jesus ate what they gave Him in front of them.

In Luke’s depiction here, Jesus goes out of His way to prove to them that He is not a mere vision or hallucination on their part, that He is bodily and physically present with them. He was dead and is now alive, but not in any sort of metaphorical sense but at least as much physically alive as He was before. His asking them to behold His hands and His feet was also to establish that He is the same One who certainly died on the cross; He is not another. This kind of physical realism bothers people, but it is inescapable here. The truth of both the incarnation and the resurrection depend on our accepting the full physicality of these two events. God was incarnate in Jesus’ very earthy humanity, in His very physical-ness. Even His skin and hair and nails were divine. In the resurrection this identification becomes even more acute. His humanity—inclusive of its physicality—is taken up in resurrection and made to participate in the properties of His divinity: its eternity (being present at all times) and omnipresence (being present in all places). Because we separate these two qualities (and must do so in order to understand them) of divinity and humanity, this identification is incomprehensible. Yet it is inescapable for Christian faith, as was made clear in the global (oecumenic) struggle to understand the Scriptures during the next five or six centuries.

Jesus impresses two additional things on the disciples here. One is that He was dead and is no longer. Not only was He physically real in both His incarnation and resurrection—He has (hopefully) established this point—but He is no longer dead. Not only is He no longer dead, but He is fully recovered, as if death had been unable to touch Him. Yet they had witnessed His suffering, they had seen His body broken on the cross, they saw this ruined body laid in the tomb. At least some of them—the women at least—witnessed these things; in any case, all that was undeniable to them, for it was a horrific experience they all went through. Yet He is among them now as living. Moreover, He is not merely recovered from death as, say, Lazarus was, to be conquered by death at a later time. He is alive with a quality of life that defied death and that can never again be overcome by death. Luke does not say this, but the ascension accounts, His physical and human exaltation to the right hand of God, imply this. He is physically present before them as One Who had certainly died and yet Who is now undamaged by His death, and I suggest, untainted by death in any form.

The point is not what this could mean biologically on a cellular level. For it is humanity as the assumed nature of His divine hypostasis that is in question, the humanity of His Person. The question of the boundaries of His humanity is interesting, however. Physically our bodies and even our individual cells excrete, and we have a tremendous number of nonhuman microorganisms living symbiotically within us. The evangelists and apostles and church fathers and mothers could not have known what some of us now know (say, about the human microbiome) and therefore they could not have addressed such questions. Yet the fact suggests that the rest of creation is not untouched by Jesus’ resurrection but is already affected by it, even participating in it. (In a silly and superstitious way this gave rise to the whole notion of relics.) Paul calls Jesus in His resurrection the firstborn of all creation, and also the heir of the entire creation. The entire creation is going to be reborn in Him, transfigured by His resurrection and sharing in its transformation. Not only humanity but the entire creation will one day fully participate in the divine nature, just as Jesus’ own body does. This is something impossible to imagine, but it has already taken place in Jesus Himself, and therefore already has an actual realization, and therefore cannot be denied (by a believer).

The other thing that Jesus impresses on His disciples is His presence with them. This is very important for us when we talk about Jesus being present in our midst when we gather and His “real presence” in the Supper (the Eucharist). He is not present merely as a memorial, but rather His memorial reminds us of His presence. Jesus asks them to touch Him and He eats in front of them. A person whom I email or text or with whom I skype or video chat is not present with me in this sense. Our minds are communicating but I cannot touch the other. What is present with me is what is accessible to my body. This computer, this desk, the chair I am sitting on, the clothes I am wearing, and so forth—these are present. We are present when we are face-to-face in the same physical location, breathing the same air, and I can hear your actual voice in the air that we breathe and not as it is conveyed to me electronically, and see your eyes and touch your skin. Jesus is personally present with us in the embodiment of His humanity, not in a dead body but a body alive with His Person, and not as a memory or a narrative or an idea or doctrine, or feeling.

His spiritual presence is present—actually here—physically (immediately and directly), and mediated soulically (by thoughts and feelings).

This is true for us as well as those first disciples. I am conveying here a Christian interpretation of reality. The physical creation is present to us, to itself, because it is entirely alive and conscious. Though our comprehension requires that we make a distinction, there is no separation between this consciousness and the physicality of all that exists. Yes, this consciousness is embodied in the various levels of wholeness (holons), yet nothing at all exists without this duality (which, I am insisting, is not a duality). The soul, the mind and emotions, mediate this reality to us, but do not have the immediacy of either. (Those who share this perspective include philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Christian de Quincey, and scientist and theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.) The point here is that a Christian understanding of creation cannot denigrate creation as less spiritual than spirit itself except when we create a false dualism between the two (a dualism that is  non-existent except in our souls, what the apostles sometimes call the “flesh”).

Jesus was present in that first gathering of the disciples, and He is present in the same way every time we gather in His Name; and we receive Him (as thus present) when by faith we receive the bread and wine of the Supper. In receiving Him, we take in His divine Person as embodied in His humanity, not as a disembodied spirit. Thus in receiving Him, we are already participating in His resurrection. Obviously, there is a mystery here, for what I am saying is that we are participating in eternity while still existing in time; our spirit is in heaven while we are on earth. There is a tension between the two that is not yet resolved, and we are living and operating in this tension. Nevertheless, the tension is real and not something mentally constructed. We do not even grasp it mentally.

Thus in gathering, we have peace, because He is actually present with us. We live in this tension, but that tension is not a dualism of two equal forces. Time is contained in eternity, locality is contained in ubiquity. The tension is something we know now, but we only know it temporarily, for time itself is moving forward to its resolution in eternity. The presence of Jesus as One who has already died and overcome death tells us of the victory of eternity over time, of the victory over this tension. We are under God’s judgment now but this is resolved in the cross and one day we will know it no longer and, by faith, we can already participate in its dissolution. We have peace with God as if the judgment has been overcome—because in Christ it has been, on our behalf. We have peace because Jesus’ resurrected presence in our midst means our own resurrection in Him and the resurrection of the whole of creation. We have peace because we already participate in Him, in the victory of His resurrection, in His resurrected humanity, by the Holy Spirit Whom He sends to us, and Who comes to dwell in us, in our own spirit, identifying Herself with our spirit.

Another Depiction of the Christian Gathering (24:36-53)

The disciples are gathered and, as in the Gospel according to John, Jesus suddenly appears in their midst and says, “Peace be to you.” He is present with them. This is what happens at every Christian gathering as such, that is, every gathering in His Name. This is particularly when we gather on the Lord’s Day, which is the weekly repetition of that first Easter. What follows in a single scene (the scene really begins in verse 33), is a second depiction of the gathering of the church; just as verses 13-32 was the first.

Jesus opens their minds to understand the Torah, the Early and Later Prophets, and the Psalms (the Writings, the Psalms being the first book of that collection?) so that the gathered disciples understand that the Scriptures speak of Him. He then commissions them on the basis of this understanding of the Scriptures, and the fact that they are witnesses of these things (of the fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures, their witness making up the New Testament). The commission is to announce (kērussō) on the basis of His Name repentance for the dismissal of sins. This is what He did in the Gospel according to Luke and what the apostles will do in the Acts of the Apostles. Jesus says He will send forth the Spirit which the Father promised to clothe them with power from on high, to empower them to carry out this commission. Then He leads them out to Bethany and begins to give them a priestly blessing (which Zacharias in the beginning of the gospel could not give, see 1:22) before He temporarily departs from them (though He is only carried up into heaven, where He is still—invisibly—with them). They worship Him (literally, do Him homage) and are filled with great joy.

Both on the road to Emmaus and in the room in Jerusalem Jesus opens the Scriptures to His disciples, that is, He leads them to see that all the Scriptures of the Old Testament speak in some way of Him, that He is their meaning and fulfillment. Whether it is explicitly, implicitly, literally, typologically, metaphorically, or ethically, it is all prophetic in the way it presages, foretells, alludes, hints, outlines and points forward to Him. The ministry of the Christian gathering takes the Scriptures and brings Christ forth from it. More than that, it offers eyewitness testimony to the Gospel, the story of the Christ, by which the church “remembers” Jesus. In the very beginning, this was done through actual witnesses, but as soon as the church broke loose geographically it began to depend on written testimony, the first being the Gospel according to Matthew. The ministry of the Spirit within the church consists in bringing forth Christ from the Scriptures of the synagogue and the testimony of the Gospel for the sake of the church. The apostolica that we have in the Acts of the Apostles, the Epistles and the Book of the Revelation does just this.

In the house in Emmaus Jesus revealed Himself in the breaking of the bread (“their eyes were opened and they recognized Him”). Likewise in the room in Jerusalem Jesus eats fish in front of them that they might realize that it is He Himself. This second scene, however, does not imply a shared meal and only vaguely can allude to the Lord’s Supper (besides, it takes place before He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures).

The gathering ends with a trip out to Bethany where Jesus lifts up His hands and blesses them. This is a priestly—or high priestly—blessing such as Aaron’s in Leviticus 9:22. In Acts 3:25-26 Peter says to the people of Israel, “It is you who are the sons of the prophets and of the covenant which God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your Seed all the families of the earth shall be blessed.’ For you first, God raised up His Servant and sent Him to bless you by turning every one of you from your wicked ways.” The blessing that Jesus gives to His disciples is the blessing promised to Abraham, a blessing that will be for all the peoples of earth. This accords with what Jesus had said in verse 47, that it is written “that repentance for forgiveness (dismissal) of sins would be proclaimed in His Name to all the gentiles.” The blessing promised to Abraham is the blessing that is made so much of in Deuteronomy and is associated with the Promised Land (not to disparage the promise to Israel, for the believer in Christ, Christ Himself becomes the Promised Land in spirit).

Jesus entered the gathering giving them peace and the gathering ends with His blessing.

In Emmaus, Jesus “vanished from their sight” (verse 31), and in Jerusalem, as He was blessing the gathered disciples, “He parted from them and was carried up into heaven,” as if heaven enveloped Him. There is a parallelism here, but a disproportionate one. When Moses and Aaron blessed the people in Leviticus 9:23-24, “the glory of YHWH appeared to all the people. Then fire came out from before YHWH and consumed the burnt offering and the portions of fat on the altar; and when all the people saw it, they shouted and fell on their faces.” As Jesus blessed the disciples and was “carried up” into heaven, they bowed to the ground in adoration (proskuneō). The ascension did not sadden them but it was as if they realized they were seeing the glory of God in Him, for afterwards they were filled with “great joy.” The ascension was not a disappearance, a departure, but His exaltation (even if not for the first time) to Godhead, that is, to the “right hand” of God. We can only explain the disciples’ “great joy” if they did not have a sense of loss but of gain; and since there can be no greater gain than the Lord Himself, their gain must have been their awareness of His increased presence. On account of this they were filled with a drive to praise God (verse 53).

Peace and blessing. His presence brings us peace. His self-disclosure (and revelation) through the Word brings us into the blessing. We begin with His peace, we end with His blessing. His self-revelation through the Word is the means from one to the other.

The apostles remained in Jerusalem and even after Pentecost participated in the worship at the Temple and taught the people in the Porticos of Solomon (as Jesus also did).

The Commission (24:44-49)

After He made it clear that it was He Himself Who was with them as risen from the dead, He tells them that His death and resurrection from the dead were (at least a part of) the fulfillment of His own words which He spoke to them while He was with them (before), when He said that everything written about Him (the Coming One) in the entire Old Testament had to be fulfilled (see 9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31-33 and 22:37). “Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (compare 24:31; Acts 16:14 and 26:17-18), and afterwards He concluded, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and [thus it is also written] that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His Name to all the gentiles, beginning from Jerusalem.”

This statement does not say that everything in the Old Testament testifies of Him (this is taken up elsewhere), but that what it says concerning Him (the Coming One, the Messiah) had to find its fulfillment. Part of that fulfillment includes the proclamation in His Name of “repentance for the forgiveness of sins” to all the gentiles, beginning from Jerusalem (or Zion). We often find this message concerning the gentiles in the prophets and the psalms as they look forward to the end of the age or the coming of the messianic age, the coming of God’s kingdom.

Jesus then says, “You have witnessed this!” (literally, “these things”). What they have witnessed is the ministry and suffering and death of the Messiah and His rising from the dead. See Acts 1:8, 22; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 22:15 and 26:16 (compare 4:33 and 22:20). As eyewitnesses they are to testify to what they have seen and heard. As those who witnessed, they were to become witnesses (testifiers). Jesus did not appear “to all the people, but to witnesses who were chosen beforehand by God” (Acts 10:41) and these He commissioned to testify of Him.

“And behold!” means to pay attention. You are to be My witnesses, testifying of Me, but you are to wait until I send forth the promise of the Father (the Holy Spirit) and you are clothed with power from on high. We do not understand this apart from Acts 1:8, where Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” Just as Jesus did not begin His Christic ministry until He received the anointing of the Holy Spirit when He was baptized in the Jordan, so they are not to begin their ministry of witnessing to the ends of the earth until they similarly receive the same Holy Spirit.

This clothing with power is not the same as the dwelling of the Holy Spirit within our spirit. It is something exterior. It is an enabling, a capacity to serve. It is the Holy Spirit operating through our functioning, operating both on the one who ministers and the one who is ministered to. It is the energy (en-ergia) of the Holy Spirit that is upon us. This power comes upon the church as a whole for the sake of its apostolate. Everyone who becomes a member of the church through faith in Christ comes under this anointing and participates in this power when they share the Gospel with others and when they exercise the gifts of the Spirit for the building up of the body of Christ.

The conclusion of the Gospel according to Luke is not so much a conclusion then as a transition to the Acts of the Apostles. Christ in resurrection has entered into glory and is already in heaven even as He appears to His disciples on earth to make it clear to them that He continues to be with them, but He is also sending them the power of the Holy Spirit so that they can now be on earth what He was when He was on earth, and fulfill the foretold messianic commission of proclaiming to all peoples in His Name repentance for dismissal of sins.

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