When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
As Christ takes the final steps towards his goal, our journey through the final chapters of Luke is complete. At the very start we noted the dramatic watershed moment when Moses and Elijah met with Jesus on the mountain of his Transfiguration and they discussed the exodus he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. On the way to Emmaus, Jesus had explained to Cleopas and his friend that Christ had to “suffer these things and then enter his glory.” The moment for entering his glory had come.
At the beginning of his Book of ActsLuke provides more details of Jesus’ ascension. Here he simply tells us that while he was blessing them he left them and was taken up into heaven. Let’s be careful not to misunderstand his “taken up”. Luke does not mean us to deduce that heaven is “up” in the sense of being on the far side of the moon or of mars! Rather he means that Christ was taken into a different and vastly superior realm.
Up to this point Jesus appeared in his resurrection life to different individuals and groups in a variety of contexts. And then he would disappear again. But now “he left them”. This leaving was deliberately staged. And it was final: it marked the end of his time on earth and ushered in a new era of mission, of proclamation on the part of Christ’s disciples of the good news of forgiveness in his name.
Luke’s final description is of the response of Christ’s disciples and their joyful worship which they continued at the Temple in Jerusalem. In a sense Luke has come full circle because he began his gospel also in the Temple and he now ends it there. It is as if he is inviting us to compare and contrast his beginning and his ending.
At the opening of his account Luke brings us into the Temple to focus on Zechariah, a priest who was carrying out his professional priestly duties of praying on behalf of the people. There is neither joy nor worship in Zechariah’s heart. As an old man he is struggling with deep personal disappointment and the even deeper problem of his own disbelief. He can’t bring himself to believe in God’s supernatural intervention within history to fulfil his promises. As a result, Zechariah is struck dumb temporarily, so that he is unable to bless the people.
How different the end of his account! Unlike Zechariah, the risen Jesus is able to bless the people before he ascends to the Father, there to represent his people as the true High Priest.
And then Luke brings us back once more to the Temple itself. This time his focus is not on a professional priest going through the motions of his religion, but without genuine faith. Rather Luke focuses on Christ’s disciples – made up of fishermen, tax collectors and others – who are filled with joy and worship.
What a contrast with Zechariah! What has made the difference? The coming of Jesus, his death, his resurrection and his ascension.
Although Christ’s followers can no longer see him, they worship knowing he is alive and appearing now at the right hand of God for them. Their hearts are filled with joy. And they are not dumb. They have a message for the world, of forgiveness in the name of Jesus for all who repent.
As we finish our 40-day journey with Luke, let’s join with the disciples in worship to our risen King, our hearts filled with joy.