“And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” Luke 24:51
Parting from dear friends, beloved relatives, and especially from cherished brethren in the faith is never easy —even if just for a short time. Their absence from our immediate lives leaves a real void, an emptiness, which cannot be filled to complete satisfaction even by occasional contact by letter or by telephone. And, when such parting is to be permanent —when the chances are overwhelming that we will probably never again lay eyes upon a loved one here in this world— oh, then the parting is fraught with indescribable pain and heartache, which only those who have experienced it can truly appreciate.
With parting viewed from that perspective, we can better sympathize with the disciples of the Lord Jesus whose hearts were filled with “sorrow” (John 16:6) when He told them of His impending departure to be with His heavenly Father. He would no longer be visibly present with them to teach them, to guide them, yea, even to reproach them and admonish them, and thus to restore them to the paths of righteousness, comforting them with His precious Gospel.
But the almighty Savior (Matthew 28:18) did not leave them, nor did He leave us, in hopelessness and despair. Instead, He assured us all of His return someday and, in the meantime, left us the ironclad guarantee of His abiding presence with us “even unto the end of the world” (v. 20b) — including His continual blessing upon our work for Him, upon our lives, and particularly upon our souls, as we diligently continue in His precious Word. Those assurances took the sting out of Jesus’ departure for the disciples, and they found their sorrow gradually giving way to joy and peace in believing His promises and to eager anticipation of their fulfillment (Luke 24:52).
We too have that same “joy and peace in believing, that [we] may abound in hope through the power of the Holy Ghost” (Romans 15:13) — “hope” being the sure and certain anticipation and expectation that the ascension of the Lord Jesus, the proof positive of His omnipotence, will continue to joy our hearts as we await His second visible advent.
We have that joyful hope in our omnipotent Redeemer as we witness in spirit His triumphant ascension itself as He rises into the heavens.
At the time of His ascension, the Savior had spent almost six weeks with His disciples, confirming to them the glorious fact of His mighty resurrection from the dead with “many infallible proofs” (Acts 1) and had “opened their understanding” of the Scriptures to a recognition of how wonderfully God had foretold through His holy prophets all that befell their Lord Jesus during His great and horrible passion, and had even prophesied His resurrection from the grave on the third day (Luke 24:45 and 46). Things were finally beginning to “gel” for the disciples, even though they still had many questions and misconceptions about Jesus’ real mission to this world of sin (Acts 1:6). These gaps would soon be filled in, Jesus promised them, with the coming of “the Comforter,” His Holy Spirit, who would “teach [them] all things, and bring all things to [their] remembrance, whatsoever [Jesus had] said unto [them]” (John 14:26).
Luke tells us that, on the day of His ascension, “forty days” after His resurrection (Acts 1:2-3), “He led them out as far as to Bethany” (Luke 24:50). They had been on this trek before: On the little road leading out of the city of Jerusalem, across the brook Kidron to the Mount of Olives, past the Garden of Gethsemane (where they had witnessed Jesus’ agony and bloody sweat as He suffered the guilt of the world, where they had all deserted Him out of fear for their own safety). They climbed the hill called Olivet and followed the road until it branched unto a kind of fork: One path led down to the city of Jericho, the other to the nearby village of Bethany, the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. It was a familiar hike up that hill; but little did the disciples know what would follow.
Suddenly Jesus paused, turned to them, and “lifted up His hands, and blessed them” (v. 50). In none of the Gospel accounts are the Savior’s words recorded. He might have used the Aaronic Benediction ordained by God Himself in the Old Testament (Numbers chapter 6) —the benediction we still use today at the close of our morning services— OR it might have been a special and very personal blessing. His hands were raised, as Christian pastors still do today when they lay the Lord’s blessing and name upon His people (Numbers 6:27); and there in His palms were still visible the “prints” (cf. John 20:25) or scars of the nail wounds Jesus suffered when He was crucified as our Substitute. What a tender and loving scene as the Savior bestowed upon His disciples the fruits of His redemptive work: Peace with God, His unmerited grace and blessing, and the assurance of God’s favor through faith in His Son…the very same blessing, in essence, laid upon you each and every Sunday at the close of the service.
Now our title-text tells us: “And it came to pass, while He blessed them, He was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” What a simple statement to report such a triumphant act, an act attributable only to the Savior’s omnipotence as the Son of God! Before their very eyes, according to His human nature (with His true human flesh and blood), Jesus began slowly to rise into the air! This was no illusion or trick; there were no wires or mechanical assists. But this was yet a further “infallible proof” of Christ’s almighty power as the exalted and glorified Son of God, the Creator defying the powers of His creation, rising unpropelled by anything other than His own power, higher and higher into the sky! The awestruck disciples craned their necks and shielded their eyes as they followed His ascent heavenward, until finally, Luke tells us in Acts chapter one, a passing cloud “received Him out of their sight” (v. 9) “And they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:52) — joy, first of all, over the triumphant act itself, by which the Lord Jesus again made good on His Word, demonstrated His omnipotence over the forces of nature, did so visibly before their very eyes, thus confirming to them the truth of their earlier confession of Him: “We believe and are sure that Thou art that Christ, the Son of the living God” (John 6:69).
But the joy of the disciples, and our superb joy as well, in the ascension of the Lord Jesus as proof positive of His omnipotence is not limited merely to the act of triumph witnessed that day! It is also joy in Christ’s triumphant reign at the right hand of His heavenly Father, for which the disciples “worshiped Him.” Jesus didn’t ascend to heaven just to “BE there”! No, He ascended to DO there what was His divine right to do in His exaltation as the King of all kings and the Lord of all lords, namely, to “reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15). The Father “put all things under His feet,” under His control, Paul writes to the Ephesians (1:22), making even His enemies His footstool according to the prophecy of the Psalmist (110:1).
Now, after the deep humiliation to which He had subjected Himself in order to be our Savior, during which time He voluntarily abstained from the full and continual use of the omnipotence that He possessed without interruption from all eternity —now Christ sits “on the right hand of God the Father” (Apostles’ Creed), exercising, also according to His human nature, “all power…in heaven and in earth” (Matthew 28:18), ruling over all creatures, all peoples, all governments, even over Satan and all his hosts, in the particular interest of His Church on earth. At His Name, every knee must now bow in subjection (Philippians 2:10), even those who abused their temporal power to abuse and to slay Him.
And one of the special facets of His omnipotent reign, one which brings us particular joy, is that this glorified and exalted King not only “sits” in heaven (as if He were now permanently “located” there on a physical throne), but He “ascended up far above all heavens,” the Bible tells us, “that He might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). Now, as we well know, the Reformed, who ascribe to Christ only a “local presence” according to His human nature, who consider Him “stuck up there,” as it were, with His physical body, really sell the Lord Jesus short!! For He is not limited to any thing nor to any place! That’s why He could promise us: “Lo, I [“I myself” (Luke 24:39), my entire self, true God AND true man], I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world!” (Matthew 28:20b). That’s why He could assure us concerning the real presence of His true body and blood in the Holy Sacrament: “This IS My body; this IS My blood.” He is not locally enclosed in the heavens. He is everywhere at the same time, omnipresent, also according to His human nature. Oh, what joy that should bring to our hearts to be able to confess of Jesus’ real presence in the Sacrament of the Altar, for instance:
Thy body, Lord, is everywhere at once, in many places!
How this can be, I leave to Thee; Thy Word alone sufficeth me.
I trust its truth unfailing!
(TLH 306, 5)
But we Christians have our most superb joy in the triumphant comfort that is ours because of Christ’s ascension, because of the blessed functions He now fulfills in His glorious reign as our omnipotent Redeemer and King. The exalted Lord Jesus ascended, first of all, to be our Forerunner, that is, to prepare in the heavens a place for us, that where our Savior is, “there [we] may be also” according to His sure promise (John 14:3), living and serving Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness! Even now anticipating that “crown of life” (Revelation 2:10b) is a “joy,” He tells us, that “no man taketh from you” (John 16:22b).
We also have the joy of knowing that our exalted and ascended, omnipotent Lord Jesus still functions as our heavenly Prophet by sending forth “pastors and teachers” (Ephesians 4:10-11) to dispense to us and to our children the precious Means of Grace, by which our souls are nourished and built up in the faith unto salvation, and by which we are equipped here in this present world to lead lives well-pleasing in His sight in proof of our faith in Him.
We also rejoice that, as He sits at the right hand of His heavenly Father, our exalted, omnipotent Savior acts as our Advocate or lawyer, our “defense attorney” as it were, pleading our case with God for the sake of the price He paid for our redemption: His holy life and His innocent suffering and death. You just can’t get representation and mediation like that from anyone but your perfect High Priest, “Jesus Christ, the righteous [One],” …“who…maketh intercession for us,” the only intercession that avails before God, the only intercession made on our behalf at the Throne of Grace (I John 2:1b; Romans 8:34b).
And finally, we rejoice in the kind of reign that our omnipotent Savior exercises there at the right hand of God: A reign in which the King of kings and Lord of all lords governs and protects His precious bride, the Church, and rules over all things —even over our enemies— in the interest of His Church (Ephesians 1:19-23). With that kind of joyful assurance in the reign of our omnipotent heavenly King, we can confidently declare with the Apostle Paul: “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord!” (Romans 8:38-39). Yea, “Even as He lives and reigns to all eternity, this is most certainly true!” (Luther, Small Catechism, 2nd Article).
No wonder the disciples “worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with GREAT JOY, and were continually in the Temple, praising and blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). Can WE do otherwise, who “know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ” (II Corinthians 8:9), who have seen Him in spirit through His Word ascend mightily into the heavens for US to be our Forerunner, our Prophet, our Priest, and our everlasting, gracious King?? Should not we also be “continually in the Temple,” making the most of every opportunity we have to “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our [exalted and ascended] Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3:18)? Should not we also be “praising and thanking” our gracious God and Lord for His undeserved mercy toward us poor sinners, and then backing up our words with lives dedicated to the service of our glorious King? After all, we have a lot to be thankful for; we have a lot to be joyful about; and, by His grace, we have a lot to look forward to, if we but hold fast to what we have —His precious Word of truth in its purity with all its promises and assurances— “that no man take [our] crown!” (Revelation 3:11). Therefore, with grateful hearts, we raise our voices to our ascended, exalted, and omnipotent Lord Jesus, and earnestly beseech Him:
Oh, grant the consummation of this OUR song above
in endless adoration and everlasting love!
Then shall WE praise and bless Thee where perfect praises ring
and evermore confess Thee, OUR Savior and our King!
(TLH 352, 4)
— D. T. M.