Summary: The Ascension of Jesus is far more critical to the Christian than most people know.
What Does the Ascension Mean?
Today is Ascension Sunday on the church calendar. It used to be that the church calendar drove the events of the Western world. This is not so any more. For many who call themselves Christians, including those who are pastors, this day comes and goes with little notice. This is especially so if it interferes with Mother’s Day or Memorial Day weekend. This isn’t the case this year, but it shows when it does conflict where the churchgoer’s priorities are. Yet this implications of the Ascension are immense and far more important than either of these two holidays.
Only Luke gives the details of Christ’s ascension. It is recorded in two places, here and in Acts. John hints at it when He tells Mary to stop clinging to Him as He had to return to the Father. What is called the “longer ending of Mark makes mention that He was taken up from their sight, but not all think this is original to Mark. Matthew does not mention it at all. We do know He got back to Heaven as Jesus is mentioned as being at the right hand of the Father.
Another issue with the two Lukan accounts of the Ascension are that on the surface they seem to differ on important details. If we read the account in Luke this morning, the context would indicate that He ascended back to heaven on Easter Sunday and on the account in Acts on the 40th day. But this is only an apparent discrepancy. Matthew and John record resurrection appearances after Easter Sunday as does Luke in Acts 1:3 where he says that Jesus presented Himself alive over the period of 40 days by many infallible proofs. Paul also mentions several other appearances not mentioned in the Gospel.
We must remember at the beginning of Luke that Luke mentions that he took special care to present an accurate and orderly account about Jesus. Everything he records in Luke and Acts have been scrutinized over and over again. A skeptic named William Ramsey in the 19th century and another lawyer took it upon themselves to once and for all disprove Christianity. The other lawyer tried to disprove the resurrection and Ramsey the accounts in Luke. Both of these lawyers thought this would be an easy task. But neither succeeded and became Christians instead. Luke proved himself so accurate that his accuracy as a historian is beyond dispute.
Luke wrote the gospel first and then Acts. He would have had opportunity to correct the account in Luke if the additional information provided in Acts had contradicted the account in Luke. So we must treat both accounts as accurate. It is best to take both of these accounts as happening on the 40th day, although He may have risen up to heaven temporarily in Easter Sunday and come back again as a prequel to the Ascension.
Another issue, then is where does the teaching of verses 45-49 occur? Was it on the appearance on Easter Sunday evening or on the 40th day? Either is possible. We know from John’s account of the appearance on Easter Sunday night that He breathed on them and said “receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father has sent me, even so I send you.” So these words in these verses show some affinity to the Gospel of John. But they are also similar and a summary of what Luke records Jesus as saying on the 40th day before His ascension. I think it is important to note “that” Jesus said these things. It would be nice to know the answer to this mystery. We may just have to wait to ask Jesus in person.
I am going to treat the two ascension accounts as being the same account, with the account in Luke being in summary form. It says that he led them out to Bethany, which is on the Mount of Olives. The Acts account gives a possible interesting detail. There is a Greek verb “Having assembled together” which may instead be the verb translated “having taken salt together” (i.e. lunch). The only difference in these verbs is an apostrophe, something which was left out of the original Greek texts as all punctuation marks were to conserve space. Paper was expensive. If the common translation is taken to assemble, it would be in the wrong voice. But this is not the case with the latter.
Did Jesus have one final meal with them, a last reminder of the Lord’s Supper several weeks earlier where Luke records that the Supper was not only a memorial of his upcoming death but also a promise of Resurrection and a future kingdom. As one of the questions asked in relation to the command to return to Jerusalem and await the power that was coming down from on high, the Holy Spirit, seems to support the eating of one final meal. They thought that this was going to be the coming of the Messianic Kingdom they had been awaiting for. Jesus had to rebuke them and tell them it was none of their business, but the Father’s. They were to go out into the world and be His witnesses.