I’m preaching this sermon tomorrow on Ascension Sunday. Unless we understand the Ascension of Christ, we cannot understand the Great Commission.
Changed Hearts, Changed Lives
44 Jesus said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you—that everything written about me in the Law from Moses, the Prophets, and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” 45 Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures. 46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 Look, I’m sending to you what my Father promised, but you are to stay in the city until you have been furnished with heavenly power.”
50 He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. 52 They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem overwhelmed with joy. 53 And they were continuously in the temple praising God.
This is Ascension Sunday. There is probably no Sunday among the significant Sundays of the Christian year that is more misunderstood than this Sunday. The reason for that misunderstanding is a failure to appreciate the significance of the Ascension for our lives and for the lives of those in the first century.
For many, the Ascension seems less real, less credible than the miracles of Jesus. We can understand the miracles of healing, feeding, and even raising the dead as indications of Jesus’ compassion. People were sick, so he healed them. People were hungry, so he fed them. People were grieving, so he raised their loved ones back to life.
Or we can understand the miracles of Jesus as indicators of what the kingdom of God is truly like. Jesus says that there is coming a day when there will be no more sickness, crying, or death. When everyone will have everything they need. And so the miracles are previews of the kingdom of God.
But when it comes to the Ascension, we don’t seem to be able to make sense out of it. The story of Jesus being taken up to heaven in a cloud seems a little like something out of Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty,” as Captain Kirk used to say. It seems like a science fiction fantasy, ripped right from Ray Bradbury’s screenplay. Except of course that the Ascension predates Star Trek by 20 centuries.
So, what do we make of this strange event where Jesus floats up to heaven on a cloud, or surrounded by clouds, in plain sight of his disciples numbering maybe as many as 500 people? Baptists, in our typical pragmatic fashion, latched on to the final words of Jesus, which are similar in this passage and in Matthew:
Matthew 28:18-20New International Version (NIV)
18 Then Jesus came to them and said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 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, 20 and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
Of course, since we could not explain the Ascension, we focused on the Great Commission, as the Matthew passage is called. But, usually we leave out verse 18, and usually on quote Matthew 28:19-20, the part about us going and making disciples, etc, etc.
But verse 18 is so intimately connected both to the Great Commission and to the Ascension, we cannot understand either without it. Jesus claim to have “all authority in heaven and on earth” is an amazing claim. But that is what both the Ascension and the Great Commission are about.
Let me explain. And for an explanation we have to turn back to the Hebrew Bible, Daniel 7:13-14:
13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man,[a] coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. 14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.
In this brief text, we have the account of a dream that Daniel himself had. In the dream, Daniel dreams of four kingdoms. Most scholars believe that these four kingdoms represent Babylon, Persia, Greece, and Rome. Here’s what happens after Daniel sees these four kingdoms:
9 “As I looked,
“thrones were set in place,
and the Ancient of Days took his seat.
His clothing was as white as snow;
the hair of his head was white like wool.
His throne was flaming with fire,
and its wheels were all ablaze.
10 A river of fire was flowing,
coming out from before him.
Thousands upon thousands attended him;
ten thousand times ten thousand stood before him.
The court was seated,
and the books were opened.
11 “Then I continued to watch because of the boastful words the horn was speaking. I kept looking until the beast was slain and its body destroyed and thrown into the blazing fire.12 (The other beasts had been stripped of their authority, but were allowed to live for a period of time.)
So the Ancient of Days is clearly God. And once God has dispatched the rebellious kingdoms of this world, then “one like a son of man” (a human being, in other words) comes on the clouds of heaven TOWARD the Ancient of Days. He is led into God’s presence and there he receives AUTHORITY, GLORY, AND SOVEREIGN POWER! And, people from all peoples, nations and languages (which is another way of saying “the ends of the earth”) worship him.
Okay, so get ready for this. Imagine that you’re making a movie and you are filming the final scene in the life of Jesus. You need two cameras for this scene. One camera is shooting the disciples’ eyeview from the earth. That camera records Jesus ascending from earth into heaven. And he ascends on the clouds of heaven up and up until the camera cannot see him any longer.
Then, imagine that the scene shifts. Camera number two is positioned in the throne room of heaven. You’re no longer standing on earth looking up, but you are standing in the throne room of heaven looking “down” toward the earth. (Down, of course, is a nod to our notion that heaven in up and earth is down, but you would not really be looking down.)
As you look through the viewfinder of the camera, you see in the distance a very small figure, seemingly surrounded by clouds, approaching the throne room of God. As the figure grows larger and closer, you see it is Jesus — one like a son of man, a real human being. You continue to film.
Then, Jesus is in the presence of God. And God, the Ancient of Days, confers upon Jesus authority, glory, and the power of God (sovereign means ruling, kingly, none other like it).
So, two perspectives are captured by the two cameras. First, there is the disciples’ perspective as they watch Jesus ascend into heaven. Second, there is the perspective of the hosts of heaven as Jesus enters the presence of God and receives all authority, glory, and sovereign power that is rightfully his. God gives this authority, glory and power to Jesus because of his willingness to be born as a human being, live, die, and rise again. All because God so loved the world.
That’s what the Ascension means. And if you need further proof, Paul picks up this same theme in Philippians 2:5-11:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9 Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11 and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Okay, so what does that have to do with changed hearts and lives? Just this: The One, and the only one, who is worthy is Jesus.
John records this scene in heaven when he is searching for someone worthy to open the seals of the 7 scrolls. John says:
4 I wept and wept because no one was found who was worthy to open the scroll or look inside. 5 Then one of the elders said to me, “Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.”
6 Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing at the center of the throne, encircled by the four living creatures and the elders. The Lamb had seven horns and seven eyes, which are the seven spirits[a] of God sent out into all the earth. 7 He went and took the scroll from the right hand of him who sat on the throne. 8 And when he had taken it, the four living creatures and the twenty-four elders fell down before the Lamb. Each one had a harp and they were holding golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of God’s people. 9 And they sang a new song, saying:
“You are worthy to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
because you were slain,
and with your blood you purchased for God
persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.
10 You have made them to be a kingdom and priests to serve our God,
and they will reign[b] on the earth.”
11 Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. 12 In a loud voice they were saying:
“Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength
and honor and glory and praise!”
13 Then I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them, saying:
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be praise and honor and glory and power,
for ever and ever!”
14 The four living creatures said, “Amen,” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
-Rev 5:4-14 NIV
Back to our passage from Luke 24:
46 He said to them, “This is what is written: the Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and a change of heart and life for the forgiveness of sins must be preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things.
“A change of heart and life” is usually translated “repentance.” But repentance is a word we hardly ever use now. And, repentance too often is shorthand for “accepting Jesus.” Which is fine if in accepting Jesus there is a change of heart and life.
The followers of Jesus in the New Testament had their hearts and lives changed because they realized who Jesus was, is, and will always be — the One to whom God has given all authority. The King of kings. The Lord of lords. The only One worthy of praise, glory and honor.
That’s why their hearts and lives were changed. Because they realized that the Ascension of Jesus was really his return to his rightful place at the right hand of God. That Jesus had done all the Father had asked him to, and had done it willingly. And that Jesus was now the One on whom God had bestowed a name above every name.
The Ascension was the final vindication and recognition of the faithfulness of Christ to the love of God for all the world. It was the moment in which Christ returned to God the Father, victor and victorious.