The Burial and Resurrection of Christ

 

(John 19:38-20:31; Matt. 27:57-28:15; Mark 15:42-16:18; Luke 23:50-24:43)

Introduction

                  

In the mind of the Jewish religious leaders, the crucifixion of Christ had once and for all dissolved the popular movement that centered about Jesus the Nazarene, which so threatened their position of leadership in the nation Israel.

 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ overruled the verdict of the Sanhedrin.

When He rose triumphant from the dead, the claims and teachings of our Lord were undeniably validated. This event revitalized the feeble faith of the disciples and became the heart of the message which the apostles began to preach. It forced the enemies of the cross to face their responsibility for rejecting God’s Messiah and to reconsider the person and work of Jesus Christ.

 

The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead not only demonstrated the truth of His teaching, but the value of His death. It proved Him to be the Son of God. It transformed discouraged and disbelieving disciples into fearless preachers of the gospel. Those who shrank back from suffering were now gladly willing to suffer and die for the cause of Christ. The fact was that resurrection of Jesus Christ from the grave transformed the course of history..

 

The importance of the resurrection can hardly be overstated. We should recall that our Lord had publicly staked His credibility on one final and conclusive sign to the nation, the sign of the prophet, Jonah.

Then some of the scribes and Pharisees answered Him saying, ‘Teacher, we want to see a sign from You.’ But He answered and said to them, But He answered and said to them, "An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign, and no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah.

"For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.” (Matthew 12:38-40).

 

The effectiveness of our Lord’s entire ministry hung upon His ability to rise from the grave. And lest we think of this only as a theoretical and historical issue, we must also recognize how crucial the resurrection of our Lord is to Christians today.

 

A. It is an essential part of the gospel message that men must believe in order to be saved: “…That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved.

For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation.” (Romans 10:9-10).

 

B. The resurrection is also the cornerstone of the Christian faith and our assurance of life beyond the grave: “…And if Christ is not risen, then our preaching is empty and your faith is also empty.

Yes, and we are found false witnesses of God, because we have testified of God that He raised up Christ, whom He did not raise up—if in fact the dead do not rise.

For if the dead do not rise, then Christ is not risen.

And if Christ is not risen, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins!”

(1 Corinthians 15:14-17).

 

The Burial of Jesus

 

In several ways the burial of our Lord prepared the way for His resurrection. It may seem needless to say, but the burial of our Lord testifies to the reality of His death. Skeptics and unbelievers have sometimes advocated a ‘swoon theory’ which explains away the resurrection as merely the physical recovery of a dying Christ. Our Lord, they tell us, was not really dead, but merely unconscious. In the cool of the tomb, Jesus revived and went His way, limping from recorded history. The evidence against such a theory is too extensive to recount.

 

The death of Jesus was undisputed by everyone who witnessed His crucifixion. The Roman soldiers sent to guard the tomb were satisfied. Not only had they witnessed the unusual dismissal of His own spirit, but a spear was thrust into the side of our Lord, piercing the vital organs, probably including both His lungs and His heart. In addition, blood and water issued forth, which medically verified that death had already occurred. Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus prepared the corpse, which would have revealed the normal evidences of death. The women planned to return at a later time to further prepare the body (Luke 23:55-56). There was not one glimmer of hope that life remained in our Lord’s body.

 

Matthew’s account of our Lord’s burial includes some very interesting detail, not mentioned by the other gospels. The request made of Pilate by the chief priests and Pharisees is most revealing:

“On the next day, which followed the Day of Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees gathered together to Pilate,

saying, "Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise.’

"Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first."

Pilate said to them, "You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how."’ So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.” (Matthew 27:62-66).

 

First of all, this petition reflects a lingering uneasiness concerning the person of Jesus Christ and the power He possessed. Why would they still be wary, unless the way our Lord died evidenced a most unusual happening, the end of which was not yet in sight? (Cf. Luke 23:48.) Further, it indicates how aware the Jewish leaders were of our Lord’s teaching. They knew that He had staked His entire ministry on His ability to rise from the grave (Matthew 12:38-40; 27:63).

 

Finally, the religious leaders unwittingly fulfilled the purpose of God by taking extreme security measures at the grave-site. So long as the corpse was at hand, Christ could be shown to be only a self-deceived fanatic by His failure to rise from the dead. It would at least be possible for some of the disciples of Jesus to remove His body and claim He had risen. Pilate, who had to this point gone along with their requests, told them to use whatever means were necessary to provide maximum security.

 

 In their zeal to protect Jesus’ body from theft, the enemies of our Lord provided irrefutable evidence to the miraculous resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ from the dead.

 

Several observations concerning the people who took part in the burial of the Savior:

 

1st We must  reluctantly acknowledge that none of the eleven disciples were there to claim the body of Jesus, as John the Baptist’s disciples had done (Mark 6:29). Their absence at the foot of the cross and at the graveside was conspicuous. (except for John)

 

It was two members of the Sanhedrin, the council of whom condemned our Lord, who cooperated in the burial of the Lord. Neither of these two were known to be courageous or bold in their faith (John 19:38-39), but their love of Jesus outweighed their fear of their colleagues or of Rome. Joseph of Arimathea provided the tomb, while Nicodemus brought myrrh and aloes, spices customarily used in the preparation of the body for burial. Due to the lateness of the hour, things were done somewhat hastily (Luke 23:54-56; John 19:42), and the final preparations would be made after the Sabbath. Without intervention by Joseph of Arimathea, the Jewish religious leaders would have cast the dead body of Jesus in the Valley of Hinnom near Jerusalem, which was a garbage dump.

 

The Prophetic Word: Isa 53:9  “And they made His grave with the wicked—But with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.”

 

The Fulfillment: Matt 27:57-60

“Now when evening had come, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who himself had also become a disciple of Jesus.

This man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given to him.

When Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth,

and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn out of the rock; and he rolled a large stone against the door of the tomb, and departed.” NKJV

 

Once again we find the women who ministered to our Lord, unashamed of their love for Him. As many have observed, they were the last to leave our Lord at His death and the first to return to find Him alive. The fact that our Lord first revealed Himself to Mary Magdalene must have been both a reward for her deep love and devotion, and a rebuke to the unbelief of the men who were His closest friends.

 

I must say that the more prominent role that is assigned to men in Scripture is no evidence of either greater spirituality or devotion to our Lord, nor is it any evidence of the rewards which we will receive from Him. It is not the greatness of the task which brings about the commendation of our Lord, but the motive for our service (cf. Matthew 10:40-42; 25:40). These women surely loved the Lord!

 

The Resurrection of Our Lord

 

The Events of the Resurrection

As each of the gospel writers presents the resurrection from a different perspective, and with a different purpose, we cannot easily blend every event into a sequence that is completely satisfactory. This is no reflection on the accuracy of each account, but the product of our own lack of information.

 

Our Lord, unwitnessed by mortal eyes, was literally, physically raised to new life from the dead. This was not merely the restoration of life, the rejoining of soul and body, but a transformation whereby Jesus was both similar to His old self, and yet strangely different as well (He was so disfigured by the the beatings and crucifixion, people could hardly recognize Him before His death. He bore all of these, not just the nail prints into His resurrected body.). His body still bore the marks of His crucifixion, and Mary was able to recognize Him by His voice (John 20:16). He no longer was limited by objects, such as locked doors, grave clothes, or tombstones, but could pass through solid objects (cf. John 20:19).

Following the sequence of events as outlined by John, Mary Magdalene first arrived at the tomb, found the stone already rolled away, and concluded that someone had removed the body of Jesus (John 20:1-2). On hearing her report, Peter and John ran out to the tomb. John, being the younger, arrived first and looking in from outside, could see the linen wrappings lying inside. Peter, undaunted by the thought of entering a tomb, barged in for a closer look, followed by John (John 20:4-8).

 

While Peter’s response is not recorded, John says of himself that he believed. If John did truly believe Jesus had been raised from the dead it would be due to the evidence inside the tomb, and not that contained in Scripture, “For as yet they did not understand the Scripture, that He must rise again from the dead” (John 20:9).

 

John also must have kept his conclusions to himself, for faith does not seem to come to the disciples until our Lord appeared to them (John 20:19ff.). The disciples had refused to accept the report of the women, both concerning the angelic messenger and his words, and of seeing the risen Christ (Mark 16:9-11,14; Luke 24:11;22-24).

 

The evidence inside the tomb was compelling. The stone was rolled away, the guards were missing, the body, likewise was gone. But strangely the evidence was not one which pointed to theft. Had the body been stolen, the thieves would surely not have taken the time to unwrap the body there. The wrappings were neatly arranged, not flung aside in haste. Perhaps they were not unwrapped at all, but simply collapsed, like a cocoon, since our Lord could have simply passed through them as He later did the bolted door of the Upper Room (John 20:19).

 

Not yet seeing the Lord, the disciples simply went home to await further developments. If they believed the body to be stolen, surely they grasped the fact that they would be the prime suspects, and might expect a visit from the authorities.

 

Mary lingered at the tomb. Here was the place where she had last seen His body. When she looked into the tomb, she beheld not only the place where the body had once lain and the grave clothes, but also two angels. It seems that she did not recognize them as such and mechanically answered their query as to why she continued to weep (John 20:13).

 

In what to me is the most moving scene of the entire New Testament, Mary is now confronted by a third Person, whom she does not yet recognize as her Lord. “Jesus said to her, "Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?" She, supposing Him to be the gardener, said to Him, "Sir, if You have carried Him away, tell me where You have laid Him, and I will take Him away."

16  Jesus said to her, "Mary!" She turned and said to Him, "Rabboni!" (which is to say, Teacher).” (John 20:15-16). In the one word reply, ‘Mary,’ she recognized the voice of the One Whom she most dearly loved (The voice of her Shepherd). Tears of sorrow became those of joy. She grasped Him so as never again to be separated from Him. It was not that Jesus couldn’t be touched (cf. John 20:25), but that men could not cling to Him (as High Priest before His blood atonement was offered in the Tabernacle of the 3rd Heaven.).

“Jesus said to her, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I am ascending to My Father and your Father, and to My God and your God.” (John 20:17).

With great joy Mary departed to share her good news with the disciples. What a disappointment their unbelief must have been to her. At least she and the other women knew He was alive (Luke 24:10-11).

 

The Evidence for the Resurrection

Evidences for the actual, historical, physical resurrection of our Lord on the third day are not wanting. Several lines of evidence will be mentioned:

 

1.                 there was the empty tomb. This in spite of the fact that the greatest security efforts were taken. An armed guard was on constant duty, realizing the consequences of failing to do their task well. A great stone (Mark 16:4) lay outside the tomb, making a clandestine entry or escape impossible. And on this stone was placed the seal of Rome, threatening death to any who would defy Rome’s authority by breaking it.

 

To any grave robber, there was no great value attached to this body, surely not so great as to challenge Rome to steal it. There were plenty of other bodies available at much less risk. To the enemies of Christ, there was no reason to steal the body. Their cause was strengthened by its presence under Roman guard. And for the disciples, there was no desire to steal the body. For them, the matter was as dead as the Lord Whom they had followed. What could be gained by taking His body? Who would wish to pursue the cause of a dead Messiah?

 

2. We must not overlook the testimony of the guards themselves (Matthew 28:11-15). They witnessed the earthquake which the angel employed to remove the stone. They beheld the radiant appearance of the angel and trembled in his presence. Roman soldiers found sleeping on guard duty were put to death. These guards were not.

Matt 28:11-15

“Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, saying, "Tell them, 'His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.' (death penalty for Roman Guards)"And if this comes to the governor's ears, we will appease him and make you secure." So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day. NKJV

 

3. Then there was the evidence inside the tomb. The grave clothes were neatly arranged, and not scattered about. This evidenced a calm and orderly event, not a hasty theft. Perhaps the wrappings were simply collapsed, rather than unrolled, evidence of the fact that Jesus simply passed through His burial shroud. John may well have been saying that his belief was the sole result of the evidence inside that empty tomb, without any grasp of the biblical necessity for such an event, and before he had even seen the Lord Jesus raised and alive. And inside the tomb were the angelic messengers who assured those who came that they had come to the right tomb, but that Jesus had already been raised, just as He promised.

 

4. Then, too, there was the earthquake which shook Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ death and opened the graves of the believing dead (Matthew 27:51-53). After our Lord’s resurrection, these resurrected saints appeared to many in Jerusalem. I would conjecture that these Old Testament saints were the first fruits of our Lord’s resurrection power. I believe that they appeared in Jerusalem during the 40 days of our Lord’s sojourn on earth, and then, with Jesus, ascended to Heaven.

 

5. There was, as well, the eye-witness appearances of our Lord to various groups or individuals after His resurrection. He appeared to Mary Magdalene (John 20:14-17), and to the women who had come to the tomb (Matthew 28:9-10). Jesus also appeared to Peter and to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). He also revealed Himself to the disciples, once in the absence of Thomas (John 20:19-25), and then with him present (John 20:26-29). In all, over 500 witnesses could be named who had seen our Lord risen from the dead. And Paul made this claim at a time when many of those witnesses were still alive and able to verify the claims of the apostles (1 Corinthians 15:5-8).

 

6. One of the most convincing evidences of the resurrection is the dramatic change in the lives of the disciples. Before the resurrection, they were a forlorn and defeated group of men. Afterward, they were men who fearlessly proclaimed the gospel, even in the face of great opposition and danger (cf. Acts 2-5).

 

The Significance of the Resurrection

 

(A)   The empty tomb conclusively established the credibility of our Lord Jesus Christ and His teaching. Throughout His ministry, our Lord was challenged to prove Himself to His skeptics. Many signs and wonders had been accomplished by the Lord Jesus, but His opponents persisted in their unbelief. At last, Jesus refused to grant further signs other than one final demonstration of His power, that of His resurrection from the grave (Matthew 12:33-40). When our Lord arose from the dead, it was His last sign to Israel as to His divine power and authority. His resurrection was the dominant theme of apostolic preaching.

 

(B)   The resurrection went beyond attesting to the integrity of Jesus in assuring men of His identity as the Son of God.and declared to be the Son of God with power according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. …” (Romans 1:4). It was Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God which was the basis for Jesus’ condemnation by the Jewish Sanhedrin (Luke 22:70; John 19:7). The resurrection was God’s way of publicly overruling the verdict of the Sanhedrin and testifying that Jesus was, indeed, the Son of God, even as He claimed.

 

(C)  The resurrection demonstrated our Lord’s ability to save. “who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” (Romans 4:25). Throughout His earthly life and ministry, Jesus had spoken of Himself as the One Who had come ‘to seek and to save that which was lost.’ While the cross demonstrates the love of our Lord and His willingness to save men, the empty tomb reveals the power of our Lord and His ability to save.

 

 (E) The resurrection provides the Christian with a measure of the power, which is at work in him to enable him to live the Christian life. “But if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through His Spirit who dwells in you.” (Romans 8:11). God supplies the ability to do whatever He commands. The resurrection is the measure of the power which is at work in us.

 

(F) The empty tomb firmly roots our spiritual destiny in the soil of history. Many recent theologians have attempted to convince us that it really does not matter whether or not the tomb was really empty, that it is only our resurrection faith which counts. The New Testament writers refuse to speak of a faith ungrounded in history. In fact, our faith stands or falls on the historicity of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:1-19).

 

Furthermore, our Lord promised His followers that the Holy Spirit would convict men of sin, righteousness, and judgment (John 16:3). The basis for the Spirit’s conviction concerning the righteousness of Christ was the fact of His resurrection and ascension: “And concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you no longer behold Me” (John 16:10).

The fact that Christianity is subject to factual and historical verification opens the door for Christian apologetics. The facts bear out that Christianity at its roots is both supernatural and historical. While apologetics can never convince men of the truth (cf. Luke 16:31), historical facts concerning Christ’s resurrection do provide the Holy Spirit with a basis for convicting men of the truths of the gospel.

 

 

(G) Finally, the fact of a risen Savior assures the Christian of a hope which lives beyond the grave. In the words of the apostle Paul, “14  For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.” (1 Thessalonians 4:14).

 

(H) Jesus Conquered His Enemies

Col 2:15 “Having disarmed principalities and powers, He made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them in it.” Angelic Levels: Colossians 1:16  For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him.

 

The Glory of Jesus  Phil 2:9-11

“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

 

Conclusion

 

The resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ has much to say to the unbeliever. It demands that the claims of One Who cannot be held captive by death must be taken seriously.

 

Also, the resurrection of Christ is a warning to those who die apart from a saving faith in the work of the Savior. Some today welcome death as the only viable solution to a world of pain, frustration and seeming futility. May I remind you that the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead means that death does not end it all for the unsaved. Paul tells us that Christ’s resurrection from the dead assures all men of resurrection from physical death: “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).

 

The frightening reality is that those who have not come to faith in Christ must spend an eternity apart from Him in judgment (cf. 2 Thessalonians 1:9). Death is not the end for the non-Christian. Everyone will be raised from physical death, and those who have not believed in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Savior of men must face judgment beyond the grave: “And inasmuch as it is appointed for men to die once, and after this comes judgment” (Hebrews 9:27).

 

Everyone will be given the question that Pilate asked the people:

Matthew 27:22  Pilate said to them, "What then shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?"

 

THE 12 RESURRECTION APPEARANCES

 1.     John 20:11-18 Jesus appears to Mary Magdalene who is grieving over the empty tomb suspecting that someone has stolen the Lord’s dead body. Jesus says to her “Mary” she responds by saying “Rabboni” (a word honoring her teacher). Mary recognized His voice just as Jesus said in

John 10:14 "I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me.”

 

Jesus says to her John 20:17 “Jesus said to her, do not touch me; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” KJV

 

2. Matthew 28:5-15, Mark 16:2-8, Luke 24:1-11

The appearance is to the women bringing spices to anoint the body of Jesus. Angels testify that Jesus is risen and direct them to return to Jesus’ disciples to announce His Resurrection. On their way, Jesus appears to them.

Matt 28:8-10 “So they went out quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to bring His disciples word.
And as they went to tell His disciples, behold, Jesus met them, saying, "Rejoice!" So they came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him.
Then Jesus said to them, "Do not be afraid. Go and tell My brethren to go to Galilee, and there they will see Me."

3. From a road to Jerusalem to the road to Emmaus Mark 16:12-13, Luke 24:13-35

Two disciples heading home to Emmaus were discussing the events that occurred over Passover and the death of Jesus. Their hope for Israel’s redemption were crushed. Suddenly a man joins them. Speaking about Old Testament prophecies that were fulfilled by Jesus, he rebukes them for their unbelief. They listened to this stranger as He taught them. They invited Him to dinner. At the breaking of the bread, they knew that this was the resurrected Jesus.

 

4. Jesus appears to Simon Peter Luke 24:34, 1Cor 15:5.

Luke 24:34-35 and saying, "It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon." NIV

 

 

5. From Emmaus Road to the Upper Room – Luke 24: 36-43, John 20:19-23

 

Jesus walks through locked doors and appears to 10 disciples (Judas is dead and Thomas was absent.) Jesus shows that we will have resurrected bodies. That can be touched –Jesus had flesh & bone and the scars from the crucifixion. The reason why the women at the tomb, the disciples at Emmaus and in the Upper Room did not recognize Jesus right away is because He bears the scars of His crucifixion in His hands and feet and the wound from the sword. He also displays other features he received from His sufferings (Isa 53:2-3 “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,

nothing in his appearance that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” NIV) In Jesus’ sufferings, His visage was marred beyond recognition.

 

6. A second Upper Room appearance John 20:24-29

Thomas doubted reports of the risen Saviour. Jesus returns to show Thomas his wounds, and to put his fingers in his wounds and to stop his disbelief.

 

7. From the Upper Room to the Sea of Tiberius John 21:1-25

Peter and 6 disciples had fished all night and caught nothing. Jesus beckons them from shore to cast their nets to the right side of the boat. They do as commanded and catch 153 fish. The 154th fish was the miracle fish already cooking when they arrived. When Jesus served their meal they knew it was from the Lord.

 

Here Jesus extracts three confessions of faith from Peter and prophecies on Peter’s death. John 21:15-19. In John 21:14 it is recorded that this was the third appearance of Jesus to His disciples (apostles) referring to numbers 5 and 6 regarding His appearances.

 

8. Matthew 28:16-20 At Mount Tabor the disciples worship Jesus, to whom all power & authority (exousia) had been given. Jesus then gives them the Great Commission: Matt 28:20-22 “Matt 28:19-20

“Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:

Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age. Amen.”

 

9. From Mount Tabor to the Upper Room   Mark 16:14-18, Luke 24:44-49

Jesus again appears to the disciples in the Upper  Room and reiterates His command to them. “Go ye into all the world,… Mark 16:15-18

 

10. Jesus’ Ascension from the Mount of Olives Mark 16:19-20,

Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:8-11

“But you shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and you shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.  And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”

 

11. To James and

12. to Paul  1 Cor 15:7-8

“After that He was seen by James, then by all the apostles.Then last of all He was seen by me also, as by one born out of due time.”NKJV

 

 

The Ascension
(Luke 24:31; Acts 1:1-11)

Introduction

 

I had determined some time ago that this message on the ascension of Jesus Christ would be the conclusion of this series on the life and ministry of our Lord. When I began a serious study in preparing for this message, I came to a distressing realization: the ascension of the Savior was not considered worthy of emphasis by any of the gospel writers.

 

You will read the entire gospel of Matthew without finding any direct reference to the Ascension. Luke’s gospel, in very general terms, relates this final event in the life of our Lord in one verse. I must conclude that for some reason the ascension was not considered essential to the purposes which compelled the gospel writers to record their accounts of the life and ministry of the Master. The purpose of this study is to answer the obvious question, “Why?” “Why do none of the gospel accounts make much of the ascension of Jesus Christ?”

 

Why Was the Ascension of Our Lord
Not a More Important Theme in the Gospels?

Let me try to identify some of the reasons for this lack of emphasis on the ascension in the gospel accounts. While these reasons are largely inferential, they do help us to see this matter through the eyes of the gospel writers.

First and foremost, the purpose of the gospels is revealed in their title, ‘the gospel.’ That is, the authors of the gospels set out to present the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ. Technically speaking, the salvation was procured by the death of Christ and proved by the resurrection.

 

The ascension did not directly contribute to the work of the cross in such a way as to be instrumental in achieving the salvation of men. In the light of the writers’ purpose to portray the good news of salvation, any part of Christ’s life and ministry which does not directly relate to their purpose would pale in the shadow of the death, burial and resurrection of our Lord. It is not that the ascension of Christ is unimportant, then, but that it is it is not vital to the purpose of the gospel accounts.

 

 

The ascension of Christ was not a favorite topic for those who were so intimately involved with Him. As John put it,

“What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—and the life was manifested, and we have seen and bear witness and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was manifested to us—what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, …” (1 John 1:1-3).

 

Unlike Christians today, the disciples lived and walked and talked, and touched the Savior while He was on the earth in bodily form. Whenever He talked of departing them or leaving them, they were deeply distressed (cf. John 16:6,22). It was not something they wanted to happen, or that they wanted to think about.

 

Those of us who have had Christian loved ones die can understand the feelings of the disciples concerning the Lord’s ascension. While we know that God’s will has been done and that those who have died in Christ are with the Lord, we personally sense the loss of the presence of our loved ones who have departed, even though we anticipate spending eternity with them in the presence of our Lord. We do not, therefore, find great comfort or joy in reminiscing over the departure of our loved ones. So, too, I believe the gospel writers did not have any predisposition to write of our Lord’s departure to return to His Father.

 

Third, the ascension does not serve as a fitting conclusion to the life and ministry of our Lord. It somehow seems anti-climactic in the light of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. It tends to conclude on a note of sorrow and separation rather than of joy, victory, and triumph.

 

What, Then, Is the Meaning of the Ascension?

We have seen that the gospel accounts hardly mention the ascension, and we have suggested several reasons for this to be the case. While the ascension may not be prominent in the gospels, it is paramount in the book of Acts. While Luke did not emphasize it at the conclusion of his first book (Luke), he highlighted it at the beginning of his second volume (Acts).

The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

 

And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the uttermost parts of the earth. And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:1-11).

 

One of the most significant words in the book of Acts is that little word “began” in verse one. The first account, which was the gospel of Luke, was the report of what Jesus began to do and to teach. The book of Acts records what our Lord continued to do and to teach through His body, the church.

 

There should be no misunderstanding the words of our Lord upon the cross, when He cried out, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The Savior could truly say “It is finished” with regard to the work of redemption, which was accomplished on the cross. According to the usage of this expression man’s debt for sin could be marked “paid in full.” But the Lord Jesus did not say, “I am finished” in the sense that His work on earth was completed. The work of proclaiming that salvation to men is still going on. That is what Luke meant when he spoke of what our Lord “began to do and teach” in the introduction of his second volume. The exciting thing to realize is that the ascension of our Lord was vital to the continuation of our Lord’s work on earth through His body, the church.

 

While the provision for man’s salvation was the work of our Lord which was completed on the cross of Calvary, the proclamation and application of the benefits of this work have continued through the centuries, through the church, the body of Christ. The ascension of Jesus Christ was central to the initiation and continuation of this work.

 

From a casual reading of the gospel accounts one would get the impression that Jesus ascended to His Father shortly after His resurrection. In Acts we learn that there was a period of 40 days that our Lord continued to manifest Himself to His disciples on the earth: “To these He also presented Himself alive, after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the Kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).

 

The purpose of this forty-day period was three-fold as described in verses 3-5 of Acts chapter 1. First of all it was designed to convince the disciples of the fact of our Lord’s physical, bodily resurrection (cf. verse 3 above).

The remaining chapters of Acts reveal that the central truth of which the disciples were fully-convinced was that Jesus, though put to death, had risen from the grave:

 

“This man, delivered up by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God, you nailed to a cross by the hands of godless men and put Him to death. And God raised Him up again, putting an end to the agony of death, since it was impossible for Him to be held in its power” (Acts 2:23,24).

 

“But you disowned the Holy and Righteous one, and asked for a murderer to be granted to you, but put to death the Prince of Life, the one whom God raised from the dead, a fact to which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14-15; cf. also 1:22; 4:2,10; 5:30-32; 7:56-60).

 

‘Many convincing proofs’ which happened over a substantial period of time, in a variety of circumstances, to a diverse number of people (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:4-8), served well the purpose of convincing the disciples of the fact of our Lord’s resurrection.

 

 

A second purpose of the forty day period after the resurrection was to command the disciples.

“… appearing to them over a period of forty days, and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. And gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, …” (Acts 1:3,4).

 

There was much that the disciples could not understand about the life and ministry of the Lord until after His death and resurrection. Now He could speak plainly of His work upon the cross and they could understand His teaching. But even now there were truths that they could not bear. Only after His departure, after the promised Holy Spirit came upon them, would they comprehend the great truths of the gospel. For this reason, Jesus commanded the disciples to wait until the promised Spirit was sent.

 

Third, the forty days enabled our Lord to clarify and correct certain misconceptions held by the disciples.

“And so when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, ‘Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth’” (Acts 1:6-8).

 

The Kingdom was a prominent theme in Jesus’ ministry. John the Baptist came before Jesus and introduced Him as the King of Israel (cf. Matthew 3:2; Mark 1:2-3), as well as the Lamb of God. Jesus frequently spoke of the Kingdom (cf. Matthew 5-7,13). The disciples were preoccupied with the subject, and particularly their role in it (cf. Matthew 19:28; Mark 10:37f.). The religious leaders accused Jesus of being a king or of claiming a kingdom (John 19:12) and this Pilate acknowledged (Matthew 27:37). The thief on the cross asked Jesus to remember him when He came into His Kingdom (Luke 23:42).

 

Little wonder that the disciples should persist in bringing up the subject of the Kingdom after the resurrection. They were certain that it must be forthcoming. Our Lord found it necessary to clarify His teaching on the Kingdom that was to come.

Jesus corrected His disciples on the matter of the time of the Kingdom’s arrival, not on its essential nature. The disciples anticipated a literal, physical reign of our Lord upon the earth. Some Bible students would have us believe that such expectations were misguided. They suppose that Jesus spoke only of a spiritual reign in the hearts of men.

 

That’s a rather interesting thing, because our Lord does not correct the disciple’s concept of the Kingdom; He corrects their preoccupation with the timing of the Kingdom. Now if they were wrong in thinking there was a Kingdom to come after three years of teaching, they were also wrong after 40 days of post-graduate work. More than this, my friends, they were wrong after the coming of the Holy Spirit. Because one of the things you will discover later in the book of Acts is that when the apostles preached, they preached to the Jews that if they turned to Jesus as Messiah, there would be a restoration of the Kingdom.

 

Look, for example, in Acts chapter 3 after Pentecost. Peter and John are preaching as a result of the healing of the cripple who was outside of the temple, and who was healed. Peter says in verse 19: “Repent therefore and return, that your sins may be wiped away, in order that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).

 

The expression ‘times of refreshing,’ was understood rightly by Israel as being the time of the restoration and the establishment of God’s Kingdom upon earth. “And that He may send Jesus, the Christ appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of the restoration of all things about which God spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets from ancient time” (Acts 3:20-21).

 

In other words, that which the Old Testament prophets had been speaking, that which our Lord Jesus came to establish, that is the message which the apostles preached. Until 70 A.D., they offered to Israel the opportunity to turn to Jesus as the Messiah, and promised that if they did, the Kingdom would be ushered in. Obviously, the nation did not repent and believe. And you understand that Israel, trying to forcibly bring the Kingdom in unbelief by rebelling against Rome, brought the power of Rome down upon them. Because of Jewish insurrection, Rome sacked that city and there was a massacre that was absolutely incredible to read about. Millions of Jews, it seems, died at that time. My point is simply this, the disciples had come to believe in a literal kingdom as a result of the teaching of our Lord, both before and after His resurrection.

Understandably, then, the disciples put this question to our Lord: “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (verse 6).

I want to underline the phrase, “at this time.” That is the issue that our Lord calls to their attention, not the issue of the nature of the Kingdom. He is dealing not with their misconceptions about the Kingdom, but with their preoccupation with the time of its coming. That is where they were wrong.

Now you must understand the circumstances in which all of this occurred. Do you remember where this took place? Not Jerusalem. It was the city outside of Jerusalem—Bethany. Bethany is where the triumphal entry began (cf. John 12:1,9,12). This is where Jesus had raised Lazarus. People had gathered not only to see Jesus, but to behold Lazarus, and it was out of all of this that the crowd came to herald Jesus as the Messiah. So it was Bethany that was the point of origin for the triumphal entry.

 

Now can you imagine why the disciples would bring up the subject of the coming of the Kingdom? I suppose they thought, “Here we are at Bethany again. Maybe we’re going to have the real triumphal entry this time.”

Here they were, Jesus was raised from the dead, the subject of conversation had been the Kingdom. Now there is this promise for which they are to wait. And you know how our minds always run wild in speculation when we are waiting for something and we do not know exactly what it is. All of these things must have come together, and the disciples were almost ready to burst with anticipation. And so our Lord responded to them, not regarding their concept of the Kingdom, but regarding their preoccupation with its time: “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority” (Acts 1:7).

 

The Imminent return of our Lord Jesus is encouragement to holy living:

2 Peter 3:10-14  “But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night, in which the heavens will pass away with a great noise, and the elements will melt with fervent heat; both the earth and the works that are in it will be burned up.

Therefore, since all these things will be dissolved, what manner of persons ought you to be in holy conduct and godliness, looking for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be dissolved, being on fire, and the elements will melt with fervent heat? Nevertheless we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.

Therefore, beloved, looking forward to these things, be diligent to be found by Him in peace, without spot and blameless;”

 

The Ascension itself was the most forceful and satisfying answer to the question of the disciples:

And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:9-11).

 

The ascension was a glorious event. Our Lord disappeared into a cloud, not ‘into the clouds’ (cf. verse 9). It may well be that this cloud was no ordinary cloud, but rather a manifestation of the Shekinah glory, even as it took place in the transfiguration (cf. Matthew 16:27–17:9, especially verse 5). Since the transfiguration was a preview of the coming Kingdom, the Kingdom must be quite similar. Now, in Acts 1:11 we are told that the return of the Lord Jesus will be like that of His ascension. It, like the transfiguration, must have been glorious, but it was viewed by a larger number.

The ascension was a display of the splendor and glory of the coming Kingdom. As such it was a reassurance to the disciples that this Kingdom was the same as they had previously been instructed.

 

What a beautiful way to dovetail a two-fold response to this pressing question of the disciples. While they were not to be overly concerned about the timing of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel, they were assured of its certainty and its splendor. The Ascension served as an assurance to the disciples that their hopes would be realized.

 

One last passage remains to be considered in our study of the ascension of Christ and its importance to us.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things. And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:7-12).

 

The ascension was the final, incontestable evidence that Jesus Christ was the victor over Satan and his hosts. It is the measure of His victory, but also the measure of the power which has been bestowed upon His saints to carry out His work on earth until He returns.

 

The ascension was necessary for the Holy Spirit to come upon the church (and individual believers) in a different way than in times past (John 16:7ff.).

 

Conclusion

Taking the various threads of which the doctrine of the ascension of Christ is woven we can briefly summarize its reference and application to Christians:

(1)   Separation. In one sense the ascension was the bodily separation of our Lord from His followers. But we must quickly add that the Scriptures never record any mourning or tears concerning this. Undoubtedly this is true because our Lord’s departure inaugurated a time of even greater intimacy with Jesus through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. “… and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20).

 

(2)   Consummation. The ascension symbolized that the work which our Lord was sent to accomplish in His physical body on earth has been finished. “… when He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:3).

 

(3)   Glorification. When our Lord returned to the Father it was in splendor and glory. While His glory was somewhat veiled by His humble surroundings at His incarnation, His return was with even greater glory and honor because of the work He had accomplished. “Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9).

 

(4)   Confirmation. The ascension was, in part, a confirmation of Christ’s person and work. He returned to the Father. In this His claim to have come from the Father was vindicated. While no one could actually witness the actual incarnation of Christ in the virgin birth, His return was visible to His followers. The ascension of Christ is also a confirmation of our faith and assurance in Christ: “This hope we have as an anchor of the soul, a hope both sure and steadfast and one which enters within the veil, where Jesus has entered as a forerunner for us, having become a high priest forever according to the order of Melchezedek” (Hebrews 6:19-20).

 

(5)   Transition. The ascension serves as a connecting link: between the work of Christ in salvation and that in our sanctification; between the gospels and the epistles; between what has been accomplished by Christ and what is still being done through His Spirit. It is even a transition in the ministry of Christ as well. Having completed His work on the cross in His flesh, He now intercedes for us as a sympathetic High Priest, as One Who has experienced our afflictions:

 

“Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.

For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need." Hebrews 4:14-16        (NKJV)

 

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