Yesterday was Ascension Day, traditionally celebrated on the 40th day of the Easter season. Luke is the only Gospel writer who gives the actual story of Jesus’ Ascension into heaven. Luke’s Gospel is also the only one that has a sequel, which we know as the book of Acts. Acts chapter 1 begins with a fuller account of Jesus’ Ascension which includes these words in Acts 1:3. “After [Jesus’] suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Since Jesus’ first appearance was on Easter Sunday itself, the count starts then and the forty days of earthly appearances end on a Thursday, the 40th day and thus Jesus’ Ascension is celebrated on that day. Acts 1:9 says, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
Even though Luke is the only New Testament writer who gives a story of Jesus’ ascension, the other New Testament writers assume that the Resurrection of Jesus includes the Ascension of Jesus where he sits on the throne at the right hand of God, the Father.
The Ascension is an important part of the full Gospel story. If Jesus had simply stopped his resurrection appearances, the early disciples would have had reason to doubt the momentous events that they had witnessed. Why didn’t Jesus continue to appear? Was it all a dream? Where was he? Why was his whole ministry, death, and resurrection important to their ongoing life? How could they live in the power and authority of God?
So, it was important for Jesus to have some final teaching time before he stopped his regular earthly appearances and ascended into heaven before their eyes. The essence of that teaching session is found in Acts 1:4-8.
4 While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
It is obvious from this exchange that the apostles still didn’t understand fully the true nature of the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to bring. Their burning question was still about restoring the kingdom to Israel. In response, Jesus used three key words to convey his message, three words which have ongoing relevance for us today.
Authority. To the question of “when,” Jesus replied that it is only the Father who knows the answer and that the times or periods are set by the Father’s own authority. The word “authority” in English has the word “author” within it. The author of a book is the one who created the story. Only the author has the right or the authority to change his or her work or to allow it to be shared. Authority is both the ability and the right to use power in a situation.
Power. While the Father retains authority, the disciples will receive power through the Holy Spirit. This is a power derived from the authority of the Father, the Creator. It is one thing to have the right to exercise power, but another thing to actually be able to use that power. The Greek word for “power” here is at its root meaning to simply be able. The Father has the authority and the ability to carry out God’s purposes, and the Holy Spirit gives that ability or power to the disciples at Pentecost, 10 days after these words were spoken. It is also interesting to note that this Greek word is also the word from which we get our English word, “dynamite.” The power that the Spirit gives is not some ordinary, passive ability. Rather, it is tremendously powerful like the explosion of dynamite is in a rock formation.
Witnesses. The authority of the Father and the power of the Spirit enables the disciples to be witnesses to the work of Jesus, the Son of God. Here, we have the completion of the reference to God as Trinity, three in one. Again, the underlying word translated “witnesses” is packed with meaning. This is the same word that is turned into the English word, “martyr.” A martyr is an active and ongoing witness to the power of God, even unto death, if necessary. This indicates a type of story-telling that goes beyond just an objective listing of “this happened, and then that happened.” The witness is a powerful part of the story. Not only that, but the audience for the witness is not just a few people in a jury box. Jesus tells them it is beyond their little circle in Jerusalem, the religious capital. The witness to the Good News is spread out from Judea, the land of the Jews, to Samaria, seen as the land of “half breeds” with their own religious traditions, to the ends of the earth, crossing all cultures and times!
The rest of the book of Acts is the story of how these three words were carried out. It is symbolic that what starts out at the center of the religious world in Jerusalem, ends at the close of the book of Acts in the center of the political world, Rome. Yet, even that is just the start. If a tiny coronavirus can cross all national boundaries, how much more can the Jesus-witness of modern day disciples by the power of the Holy Spirit under the authority of the Creator God, enable the Good News to spread from Williamsport to Pennsylvania to the rest of North America, to the “ends of the earth.” Our COVID-19 world needs the witness of Jesus’ love that we can provide by the Spirit’s power!