Following his account of the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, Luke then begins a listing of the appearances of Christ after His resurrection, beginning with His appearance to Cleopas and Simon (not Peter, study vv33-34 carefully) on the road to Emmaus. (Luke 24:13-35)
Now that the New Covenant has been given to the disciples and Christ has risen from the grave, has the narrative changed its perspective from Israel’s expectation of the restoration of the kingdom to a perspective of the Age of Grace? These two disciples’ expectation (and disappointment) is clearly expressed in v21: But we were hoping that it was He who was going to redeem Israel… Christ’s response to their story of smashed hopes was, ‘O foolish men and slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and to enter into His glory? ’ And beginning with Moses and with all the prophets He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. What was the biblical focus of Moses and of the prophets? With the exception of Jonah, Moses and the prophets were all about Israel. Remember that the focus had narrowed with the promises made to Abraham. If Christ explained Himself on this basis, (1) His focus is still on Israel’s program, and (2) Israel’s program alone was sufficient at that time to justify all that had taken place. But the mystery, hidden in God in other ages, remains a mystery at this chronological point! Moses, the prophets, and these two disciples on the road to Emmaus are unaware of the Mystery. To say that Christ revealed the Mystery to them at this time, since His words to that effect (or any other effect) are not preserved in the narrative, is pure conjecture. We must ask if the events that follow give any indication that the disciples’ expectation has changed to something other than the promise of the restoration of David’s kingdom. As we shall see in Acts 1:6-7, it has not, so we infer that the context of this passage is still exclusively that of the kingdom.
In v44, during Christ’s appearance to all of the disciples, He reiterates the basis on which He explained His role and work to Cleopas and Simon. These are My words which I spoke to you while I was still with you, that all things which are written about Me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled. In other words, He told them that in order for the Kingdom to happen, all the promises concerning the Kingdom had to be fulfilled. He did nothing at this point to correct any mistake in their expectation, which was still a Kingdom expectation.
The first hint that what Christ had done accomplished a broader purpose than their expectation comes in v47: …and that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem. The expression all the nations in the Greek language is panta ta ethnay, literally “pan-ethnicity”. This word ethnay can have several meanings ranging from everyone except Jews to individual family groups. This verse clearly implies that repentance for forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all who have not repented and received forgiveness of their sins (regardless of race or ethnicity), and that there are many in Jerusalem who, according to God’s plan, must hear it first!
Does this verse finally reveal the Age of Grace, the mystery hidden in God in ages past? Or is this statement also spoken within the hearers’ expectation of the Kingdom? There is nothing in the OT descriptions of the Kingdom that says that the entire world will not be blessed by Israel’s and Christ’s rule in those days — quite the contrary! The promise to Abraham was always in you all the families of the earth will be blessed. (Genesis 12:1-3) Christ’s instructions to His disciples to begin in Jerusalem and work outwards is entirely consistent with the promises to Abraham and David, and at the end of the four gospels we see the beginning (only) of the fulfillment of those promises and prophecies. Will the non-Hebrew recipients of that blessing, when those prophecies are actually fully fulfilled, need to repent and have their sins forgiven? Of course! There is nothing in this verse that cannot be understood to fall completely within Israel’s Kingdom expectations, and nothing here that requires it to be interpreted as referring to any other program.
Luke 24:49 is a very specific instruction to Christ’s disciples. They are to remain in Jerusalem until they have been clothed with power from on high, an expression that we will study very carefully in the book of Acts. We understand it today to refer to the coming of the Holy Spirit, but often miss the details of how the Holy Spirit came to the disciples and other followers of Christ. Keep this command to remain in Jerusalem in mind as we explain the verses that follow it.
My Bible commentator has labeled vv50-53 as “The Ascension” incorrectly, I believe. Let’s look carefully at the details and compare them to Luke’s account in Acts 1:9-11.
First, the foregoing appearances are a very brief list (two, to be exact), and seem to be followed immediately by Christ’s leading the disciples out. Luke later records many other appearances in Acts 1:3 over a period of 40 days. It seems unlikely that 40 days elapsed between v48 and v49.
Second, Luke records Christ’s words in Acts 1:4 as a reminder of something He had told them earlier, saying which you heard [past tense] of from Me.” If this is indeed a reminder of something He said earlier (specifically 40 days earlier as the chronology of vv3-4 indicates), then the passage in Luke 24:50-53 is not the ascension Luke describes in Acts 1:9-11.
Third, the passage in Luke says that He led them out as far as Bethany, which is some 14 furlongs from Jerusalem. Acts 1:12 says they returned from the Mount of Olives, a sabbath day’s journey from Jerusalem. In Jesus’ day, a sabbath day’s journey was considered to be about a mile, which is 8 furlongs. Their location in the Luke passage was nearly twice as far from Jerusalem as their location in the Acts passage.
Fourth, Luke 24:51 states that after blessing the disciples he parted from them, while Acts 1:9 says he was lifted up… and a cloud received Him out of their sight. What’s more, while they were standing there with their mouths open, angels appeared to them and described what they had just seen as being taken up into Heaven (v11).
IMHO, these two passages describe two different occurrences forty days apart. Luke did not decide to “summarize” at the end of his gospel because he was tired or was running out of room on the papyrus. He was too good a historian and under the influence of the Holy Spirit, and left nothing out. Christ’s “parting from them” in Luke 24:51 is perfectly in keeping with how He parted with Cleopas and Simon in the previous passage (v31). There is no mention in v51 of any upward movement, any cloud, or any angelic beings.
On the other hand, in Acts 1:1-2, Luke clearly states that his gospel was written about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up. So did Luke identify the closing verses of his gospel as a parallel account of the same ascension he is about to describe in Acts, perhaps having been asked by Theophilus for clarification? If so, are vv1-2 a generalization, the details of which he goes on to describe in vv3-11?
Matthew does not describe the ascension at all, simply ending his gospel by stating the “Great Commission” with less detail than Luke does. Mark describes the occasion of the “Great Commission” as happening while the eleven disciples were having a meal together (Mark 16:14-16), and then states simply that after He had completed speaking to them (whether only on this occasion, which is unlikely given the parallel passages, or altogether we don’t know), He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. John doesn’t describe the Ascension at all, choosing rather to record a single intimate post-resurrection moment between the risen Christ and seven of His disciples, where he focuses on John, Peter and commitment. That leaves us with Luke’s account being the single most detailed — and authoritative — account of the Ascension.
We will take a further look at Acts 1:1-2 in the next post.