On top of the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem is a very small Crusader-era church called “The Chapel of the Ascension.”
Unlike the popular and crowded Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which marks the site of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, this little chapel sees few visitors. Administered by Muslims since the end of the Crusades, the chapel marks the traditional site of Jesus’ ascension into heaven. Muslims believed that Jesus was a prophet, so they maintain the site and allow Christian pilgrims to see what’s inside.
And what’s inside is a small area that — according to tradition — reveals the footprints of Jesus — the place where He stood before He was taken up into heaven. Pilgrims in the medieval period would take home dust from this little spot as relics of their Holy Land visit but, like the pieces of the “true cross,” if you took all that sacred dust and put it together, Jesus’ footprint would be about size 500.
The chapel is often not on the main tour route for visitors to the Holy Land today. Maybe that’s because the ascension of Jesus has been a downplayed story in many Christian churches.
Yet, the Ascension is vitally important to our understanding of the story of Jesus and the church. Forty days after Jesus’ resurrection, Jesus tells His disciples what they are to do next. There on the Mount of Olives, Jesus gives His disciples a strategy for implementing the resurrection life of the new creation in the present. He has spent three years instructing and training them for this moment, and now, as He ascends to take His royal place with the Father, He commissions His disciples to carry on His work until He returns to bring it to completion.
So, how does that movement unfold, and what’s our part in it?
Three key components in the text reveal how individuals and churches are to be part of the transformational movement that Jesus is launching in the world: word, waiting and witnessing.
First, word. In verses 1-3, Luke gives us a synopsis of what Jesus “did and taught” in the 40 days between His resurrection and ascension. Forty is an important number in the Bible because it’s a number of preparation. Noah was in the ark 40 days; Israel was in the desert 40 years; Jesus was tempted for 40 days. All are precursors to a new beginning. In the 40 days between Easter and Ascension, Jesus was preparing His disciples for their new mission, both by teaching them about the kingdom of God and by giving them “convincing proofs” that He was, indeed, raised from the dead.
Even after three years of teaching, Jesus spends 40 more days instructing His disciples. Before He leaves them and before they go charging off into the world, Jesus wants them to wait and make sure they have read all the directions.
And what were those directions? Luke tells us.
At the end of his gospel, he says that Jesus’ primary instruction to the disciples was grounded in Scripture. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you — that everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus uses the whole story of Scripture to place His ministry, death and resurrection into context. Whatever we believe and whatever we do must be grounded in that word.
If we’re going to follow Jesus, that is, be people who announce the presence of the kingdom of God, then we have to be willing to be students of Scripture, and also be immersed in it every day as Jesus was. Daily reading and regular study with others anchors our sense of mission.
This immersion in the word leads to the second task we need to embrace as Jesus’ people: waiting.
In verse 4, Jesus orders His disciples not to go rushing off into the world with their newfound knowledge, but, rather, they are to “wait there for the promise of the Father” and the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Waiting isn’t something that we humans tend to do well. The disciples were no exception. Jesus tells them to wait in Jerusalem for God to give them His promised empowering Spirit, but the disciples respond by asking an impatient question, much like kids when they ask, “Are we there yet?” “Yeah, yeah, but Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (v. 6).
They are right, of course, in connecting Jesus’ resurrection with the restoration of the whole world through the promise to Israel. This is what the Scriptures are about, after all, and Jesus has instructed them as such.
But they misunderstand that this promise of restoration needs to be proclaimed throughout the world. They will not merely be bystanders to this project, but rather the ones who will help to bring it to reality. This is the work that Jesus has been doing all along, and now it will be their work. It will not be an easy task, and they will not be able to do it on their own.
Jesus did not choose these disciples because they were the best and brightest and most capable people. He chose them, as God often chooses people, because God’s power can be revealed through them. They had no power of their own, only the power that God would give them. And that power will come through the dynamic work of the Holy Spirit coming upon them.
Biblically speaking, “waiting upon the Lord” is not a passive activity, but an active one. We actively seek God’s presence and we await it anxiously with anticipation. Jesus tells His disciples that they need to wait for the Spirit’s power. They do so not by sitting around wondering when the Spirit will come, but rather by constantly devoting themselves to prayer (v. 14).
Notice also that they don’t wait as individuals who are hoping for a personal spiritual experience, but rather as a community. When the Spirit comes, they are “all together in one place” (2:1). I can’t stress this enough, while I understand and value our need for caution at this unprecedented time, the people of God are meant to be together in community. I continue to pray that this will be the case sooner rather than later.
Besides biblical illiteracy, one of the major problems in the church is a failure to wait upon the Lord, to wait upon the Spirit through prayer. The primary work of the church is done through the Spirit, and we wait on the Spirit in prayer. Apart from the Spirit, we are powerless. When we fail to wait in prayer, we will fail because we try to do everything under our own power.
Word and waiting then lead us to the third task: witnessing. Jesus tells the disciples that once the Spirit has come upon them and empowered them, they will be His witnesses in Jerusalem, all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (v. 8). This is really the thesis statement of the whole book of Acts because this is precisely what the disciples will do. But what does “witness” mean?
In the first-century world, when someone was enthroned as king or emperor, that new authority would take effect through heralds going off throughout the territory announcing the good news: “We have a new king.” This was good news indeed because the arrival of a new king meant the restoration of order and not the chaos of anarchy. Imagine, for example, a new Roman emperor coming to power and heralds being sent as far as Britain and Spain and Egypt — literally to the ends of the empire — to announce the emperor’s enthronement.
That’s the image we get here. The disciples ask about the kingdom, when it will come about, and Jesus tells them that in one sense the kingdom is already here because the king has defeated His enemies (for Jesus, the enemy of sin and death) and is taking His place as God’s Messiah and the world’s righteous ruler.
And yet, His kingdom is not all the way here yet. The world is still not fully and visibly living under God’s just and healing rule. The kingdom is already here and not yet fully here, and disciples live in this in-between time. The disciples are to go out as heralds and proclaim that His kingdom is at hand.
And then Jesus gives them their travel agenda. They are to begin in Jerusalem, where Jesus had been crucified and where people were looking for them, too.
They were to go to Judea and Samaria (Samaria being Israel’s bitter enemy).
And they were to go to the ends of the earth, to a Roman Empire that already had a lord named Caesar and would not take kindly to the enthronement of a rival.
The disciples would bear good news, but it would be bad news to some. It’s no coincidence that the Greek word for witness and “martyr” is the same.
To be a witness for Jesus thus means a whole lot more than merely telling the story about how an individual gets to heaven, as it has sometimes been understood.
To be a witness is to proclaim and demonstrate Christ’s lordship in our own lives, tell those stories of forgiveness and transformation, and recall how God’s grace has made us new. Baptism marks us a people who have been transformed by God’s grace in Christ and his lordship over our lives. And when we ourselves have said yes to Jesus’ call to be witnesses, we then demonstrate what that looks like through our lifestyle, actions and love for the world that is God’s good creation.
It’s a witness that lifts the poor, eats with sinners, forgives sins, brings healing and demonstrates sacrificial love.
It’s a witness that is grounded in a Jesus-shaped vision of the world as God’s kingdom. It’s a witness that compels the world to ask: Who is your Lord?
Indeed, Jesus implies that his disciples will not only be his heralds and witnesses, but they will also continue his work. At the end of this passage, Jesus ascends in a “cloud,” leaving the disciples standing there gawking at the amazing sight (v. 9). In Scripture, a “cloud” is very often associated with the presence of God who guided the Israelites from Egypt in a pillar of cloud, met Moses in a cloud on Mount Sinai, and dwelt in a cloud in the tabernacle. Jesus thus ascends into God’s presence, which isn’t far from us and will return to us as promised. Heaven and earth are interlocking realities. Luke wants us to be reminded of that reality and that Jesus has not gone far and is still present in the Spirit, empowering the disciples to carry on the work.
But there’s another kind of reference here that Luke seems to be making. It goes back to the story of Elijah and Elisha in 2 Kings 2. Elijah the prophet, at the end of his life, ascends to heaven in a whirlwind (this after Elisha has asked for a double portion of his mentor’s spirit). Elisha sees Elijah go in this way and then picks up Elijah’s fallen mantle, his symbol of prophetic authority, and carries on Elijah’s work.
The ascension of Jesus acts in a similar way. Jesus is taken up, and we pick up His mantle to continue His work.
The lectionary passage ends with the disciples still staring at the sky (v. 11). A lot of Christians still do that, focusing all their attention on a heavenly destiny or waiting for the sky to fall like Chicken Little.
But the two angels who show up tell the disciples of Jesus that the sky isn’t their destiny. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go” (v. 11). So now, they imply, pick up the mantle and go to work. Turn your gaze from the sky and toward the world that needs the message of the good news of the kingdom. Go and be witnesses.
When the Crusaders built that chapel on the Mount of Olives, it was originally open to the sky, but then they put a roof on it. Whether that was for theological or defensive reasons, we don’t know. But there does seem to be a missional connection: the closed stone dome and the dark interior compels the pilgrim to go outside, where you see a panorama of Jerusalem before you. Word and waiting turn to witness.
May we be disciples of Jesus who no longer keep staring at the sky but keep looking out into the world and seeing every day as an opportunity to be a herald of the king in what we say and do.
Yes, Jesus will come back, but for now Jesus is still at work, and He chooses to do that work in us and through us.