Carrying On After Jesus Is ‘Gone’
Jesus’ Ascension seems to happen at a rather inopportune time.
WENDY ALSUP (Christianity today)
For those following a liturgical church calendar, Pentecost is generally viewed as the climactic moment of Eastertide. In Acts 2, the Holy Spirit came with stunning fanfare on the little band of believers huddled down praying in that Upper Room. The commotion drew the attention of locals, and in one day, three thousand people came to believe in Jesus. But though Pentecost puts an exclamation point on the preceding 50 days in the Christian calendar, Ascension Sunday provides us needed reflection without which Pentecost doesn't make much sense.
Acts 2 loses a lot of its meaning without Acts 1.
The first chapter of Acts records the last face-to-face conversation the disciples had with Jesus. They asked him a crucial question in Acts 1:6, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” It’s a question we ask still today as we work to reconcile our current experiences with what we believe God has done in the past and will be doing in the future.
Before the crucifixion, these same disciples had not understood Jesus’ coming death and resurrection. Along the Emmaus road after his resurrection, he connected for them the dots between the Old Testament and his death (Luke 24:13–27). It makes sense then that these same disciples wanted a little more clarity about the next steps after his resurrection. It makes sense that at times we still do as well.
But Jesus didn't explain the details to them in Acts 1. Instead, in the next verses, he promised once again the coming of the Holy Spirit, who would equip them to be his witnesses to “Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Instead of explaining the details of what happened next, Jesus used language that reminded them (and us) of his instructions a few days before on a mountain in Galilee, recorded in Matthew 28.
The Great Commission
Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20
Go and make disciples everywhere, Jesus instructed them with this pivotal commission. He repeated a version of this in Acts 1:8 with his very last words face to face with his disciples before he ascended into heaven. Their mission was to take the good news of Jesus to the very ends of the earth. That was his final instruction. And we claim it as our mission still today.
This commission is noteworthy because Jesus’ own earthly ministry was incredibly centralized. By the time of his ascension, he had brought the good news of himself to only roughly 0.03 percent of the Earth's inhabitable land. His ministry encompassed a very tiny region of a very large world. Yet, he left this misfit band of tax collectors and fishermen, who scattered when fearful and seemed unable to discern for themselves the most basic aspects of the good news of Jesus, to evangelize the other 99.97 percent of the inhabitable world. At face value, this seems quite risky.
The First Sending
Though we call Jesus’ sending in Matthew 28, reinforced in Acts 1:8, the Great Commission, it is not God's first commission to his children. Jesus’ commission to his disciples before he ascended harkens back to the first commission or mandate God gave to mankind.
God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. Rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and every creature that crawls on the earth.” Genesis 1:28
In Genesis 1, God essentially tasked Adam and Eve to go do what he had just done at Creation. It was a noble calling, to go as his image bearers out into the newly formed world and replicate what he had done, like self-similar, smaller fractal images reflecting the creativity and character of the One True God throughout creation. They could not create ex nihilo, out of nothing as God did, but they could create based on what he had already done.
Adam and Eve sinned and were banished from the Garden before we could see this noble mission play out. They were sent out, but not in the perfection in which God had created. Except for God's pronouncement of One coming who would defeat Satan in Genesis 3:15, all the nobility of the calling in Genesis 1 and 2 seemed lost.
In Acts 1, Jesus stood as the fulfillment of the protoevangelium, the first glimpse of the gospel, in Genesis 3:15. Though Satan snapped at Jesus’ heals, Jesus had, in fact, dealt Satan a knockout blow to the head with his death and resurrection. The kingdom of God was at hand. Redemption was and is nigh. Then, similar to what God did in Genesis 1, Jesus commissioned his disciples to take this message of the new King and kingdom out into the world. Jesus essentially said, “This message you just saw me teach in Jerusalem, Galilee, and Bethany? You, disciples, go do that out in the rest of the world.”
God said to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1, “Be fruitful.” Jesus redeems this commission in his discussion of the vine and branches, promising “fruit that will last” in John 15:16 to those whom he appointed to do his work. Christ's death and resurrection accomplished the redemption of the noble calling to bear God's image out into the world, lost at the Fall of Man.
Then Jesus returned to heaven.
How long did the disciples stand staring after Jesus into the sky? I'm sure they wondered what they were to do next, confused by Jesus’ cryptic response in Acts 1:7 to their question about when the kingdom would come—“It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.”
These disciples had been utterly spiritually dependent on Jesus during his earthly life, and yet he expected them to take the gospel to the rest of the world. It makes sense that they stared up after him, I suspect with confusion and concern on their faces, needing angels to finally tell them to stop straining their necks to see him. How could they possibly do this monumental task to which he had commissioned them on their own? Surely he was coming right back.
What a moment of sanctifying faith for this small band of believers! Jesus told them in John 14:18 that he would not leave them as orphans, that an Advocate, Comforter, or Counselor (depending on your translation of the Bible) would come to remind them of all of his teachings and equip them in a way that would be even better than walking and talking with him in person. But Jesus had left, and no advocate had yet come.
These same disciples had their faith sorely tested just weeks before at Jesus’ crucifixion, and most had failed the test. No one had failed more miserably than Peter. But after Jesus rose from the dead, he had discipled Peter anew. Now, in the Upper Room after Jesus’ ascension but before the coming of the Holy Spirit, Peter led the band of disciples in persevering faith as they waited and prayed.
Though Pentecost in Acts 2 marks the anointing and equipping of the Holy Spirit to do the actual work of spreading the gospel throughout the region, the days around the Ascension mark a major hurdle for the disciples' persevering faith. And it highlights the noble work to which they and we are called. As God did in Genesis 1, Jesus instructed his disciples to go and do worldwide what he had done locally, furthering God's kingdom in the image of God. And then Jesus returned to heaven and left us seemingly alone to accomplish something impossible.
We sit today meditating on the Ascension, sharing with the disciples our own questions of how the kingdom will manifest itself fully and when exactly Jesus will return. When our circumstances in ministry don't fit what we thought God was doing to further his kingdom, we too may find ourselves staring up in the sky, wondering what is going on in God's plan. Like the disciples, we may ask what the next steps of faith look like for us when we don't understand the steps that came before. But also like them, we can be active in the things we know to do, the rhythms of prayer, evangelism, and discipleship that flow from the Great Commission for every generation of believers.
As we contemplate the disciples' confusion as they waited, we have context for our own. But Jesus says to us as he said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority.” We, like them, have been commissioned to do something great, something bigger than ourselves, but we too must trust and move forward without knowing God's timetable. However, we do not fly blindly in our own power.
God has called us to a noble work, going to all nations and discipling others as Jesus modeled for us. Though Jesus returned to heaven to sit at the Father's side, he did not leave his disciples as orphans to accomplish this work on their own, nor has he left us.
Pentecost is coming.
Wendy Alsup is the author of several books. Her newest, Is the Bible Good for Women?, examines challenging biblical passages through a Jesus-centered lens. She writes at theologyforwomen.org.