Prior to Jesus’s ascension, his disciples had assumed that he would continue with them in much the same way he had been with them before. But it was clearly not so. The great transition was taking place, and he had been taken from their sight. But he had given them work to do; they were to be his witnesses to the ends of the earth. They had been commissioned.
Verse 10: “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them.
‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’.”
It’s as if they were saying, “What are you standing around for? You’ve been given work to do, and it will be a good thing if he finds you doing it when he comes back.” Like the disciples, we sometimes look for Jesus but cannot see him. We strain our eyes toward heaven, and still miss seeing him. But when we reach our hands to earth to serve the least of his brothers, we suddenly spy him there. That was his intention.
Verse 12: “Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath’s day’s walk (that is about 3/4 mile) from the city.” I wonder how they felt as they walked back to the city. I wonder what they talked about. There was something final about Jesus’s departure. I think they probably understood that they had entered a new phase of life, but how were they to live it? “Witnesses to the ends of the earth”—how were they to do that? What would it look like?
As they walked back to their accommodations in Jerusalem, I don’t think they had any clue about how to answer those questions. The future was a blank. They had no idea what their lives were going to look like. All they had was Jesus’ instruction.
The era into which they had transitioned – the witnesses-to-the-ends-of-the-earth era – has continued to this day. We, like them, do not see the Lord Jesus in the flesh. We, like them, carry on the commission to be witnesses, making disciples of every nation. We, like them, have the words of the Lord and the Spirit of the Lord to guide us.
Don’t forget that Jesus once said, “I tell you the truth: It is better for you that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.”5 The coming of the Holy Spirit ushered in a new era. This was in keeping with God’s unchanged desire to live with people. He had lived with Adam and Eve until the rebellion, when their relationship was broken, and man and God were estranged, separated. Thousands of years of sacrifices, the building of the temple, the promise of a new covenant was all so that God could live with his people again.
He came to us in Jesus, who was Immanuel – God with us. But as a physical being Jesus could not be with a lonely old man in India, a young Christian mother in Ecuador, and you in your town all at the same time. The transition was necessary. It was better for the disciples, it is better for us, that he went away.
Consider this: after the ascension, Jesus continues to show up all over the place – up, up, but not away. Because of the coming of the Spirit, Jesus could be everywhere. In chapter 2, verse 47 we find him bringing people into his church: “The Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” It wasn’t the apostles and teachers and programs that added people to the church; it was the Lord Jesus. In chapter 9, verse 34 we find him healing people: “‘Aeneas,’ Peter said to him, ‘Jesus Christ heals you. Get up and take care of your mat.’ Immediately Aeneas got up.” In chapter 14, verse 3, we find Jesus working miracles among the Gentiles: “Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to do miraculous signs and wonders.” We keep seeing the same thing throughout the book.
And that theme continues. Jesus is here, living in his people, acting through them by his Spirit. His ministry on earth, his death, resurrection, and ascension were only the beginning of what he was doing and teaching. He is still at it, and we are invited to join him, to be a part of the kingdom he inaugurated.
5 John 16:7