Thursday, May 17, 2007

Ascension Day: "This same Jesus will return in the same way as you saw him go" (Acts 1:11)

We've come to the close of our 40 day recollection of the time Jesus walked and talked and ate with his disciples after his resurrection from the dead. These 40 days come to their definitive close with the Ascension. The church calendar celebrates this on Ascension Day, which is today, Thursday the 17th of March. The subsequent Sunday may also serve as a day to remember our Lord's Ascension to heaven and his session to the right hand of the Father.

Last year on Ascension Day I posted a number of unintegrated theses on Christ's ascension. I still stand by most of those theses and would recommend taking a glance at them. Unfortunately, I have done little to develop or synthesize those ideas directly in conjunction with the ascension, although many of them have wiggled their way into my weekly reflections on the resurrection over the past 40 days since Easter. What I wish to add this time around is a pointed reflection on Luke's account of the ascension in the opening scene of the Book of Acts.

What I found particularly striking and still a bit confusing is a little word repeated twice in the last verse of this scene: Two men appear and say "Men of Galilee, 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" (Acts 1:11). Why is it so important that it is this same Jesus who will return? Why is it so important that this same Jesus will return in the same way that we went? And why does the mention of this sameness of personal identity and mode of action imply that the disciples should stop standing there looking into the sky? I don't know if I have adequate answers to these questions, but here's a shot.

Why is it so important that it is this same Jesus who will return? As I have stated elsewhere, the ascension is closely tied to Jesus' return. So it fits that the disciples would receive a promise of his final return in glory immediately after his ascension. But the mention of "this same Jesus" adds an emphasis on the identity of the person who will return. The accent falls not on the return but on Jesus. The substance of our hope is not so much the return of Jesus but the return of Jesus. This is a helpful reminder to keep our attention on Jesus and not get too caught up in the details of his return or, worse yet, treat Jesus as a means to some other end like heavenly bliss. The promise of the second coming is the promise that the one and the same Jesus who was sent by the Father to dwell among us, die in our place, and be raised for us is the one who will come again. Now that's the kind of judge I want to face at the end of time!

Why is it so important that this same Jesus will return in the same way that we went? At the face of it, this second use of "same" should not be particularly interesting. I mean, there are angels speaking prophetically and so they being specific about what is going to happen someday. We thank the two guys dressed in white for the details and go on our way. But the repetitiveness of the word "same" (outos) as well as the redundancy of the description ("taken from you into heaven ... the way you have seen him go into heaven") indicate the possibility of a deeper significance. My initial guess is that the two men dressed in white are identifying the content of Christ's return: the final coming of the Kingdom of God. A few verses earlier, the disciples ask if now is the time for Jesus to restore the kingdom. Jesus says its none of their business and tells them that his spirit will come to empower them to bear witness to him throughout the world. With the question of the kingdom still lingering, the two men make it clear that when Jesus comes back, he will come back by the clouds opening up, which is apocalyptic code for the arrival of God and his kingdom. So, the same kind of return tells us that although the kingdom has not yet fully come, it certainly will come and it will be Jesus who brings it. By his ascension he is now poised to come again in glory.

Why does the mention of this sameness of personal identity and mode of action imply that the disciples should stop standing there looking into the sky? I suspect that an unrelenting emphasis on the constancy of Jesus' personal identity and the specification that Jesus' return will bring with it the kingdom of God should help to turn the disciples away from their dumbfounded looks into the sky. It is not our job to "wonder where he went" but rather to bear witness to who he is throughout the world and to prepare the world for the coming kingdom. Of course, I still wonder where the body went. But the scriptures clearly point me in another direction, so I'll try my best to heed it.

Any thoughts?
Why do you think Luke emphasizes the sameness of Jesus in his ascent and return?
What happens when we put the accent on the return instead of the One who is to return?
How can reflecting on Christ's ascension instill in us a passion for his kingdom?


vanilla said...

"What happens when we place the accent on the return ---?"
This is a reflection of the fact that we, unfortunately, empahsize the self rather than the Christ in our spiritual relationship. How am I affected? how do I feel? etc, etc. Our focus should always be on our Lord and Savior, Jesus the Son of the Living God.

(I appreciate having found a site where biblical issues are discussed cogently and intelligently. May the Lord bless you and guide you in your work!)

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Keith Drury said...

Die this "same Jesus" mean the resurrected God-man Christ Jesus ... thus meaning the one who returns to judge us is the resurrected son of man--we will be judged by one how was tempted at all point as we are yet was without sin? If so the plea "I'm only human" would get little traction?

Scott Hendricks said...

What do you mean by "opening of the clouds is apocalyptic code . . ."?

I think that "this same Jesus" coming back "in the same way he went" means I'd better follow him, and do what he said!

Anonymous said...

I think you see him return with your conscience through signs from other things and happenings, like peoples actions or natural disasters that would remind you of him teaching you something through them. He taught Peter that way with "feed my sheep".