After His resurrection, Jesus completed His earthly ministry and ascended into heaven as His disciples looked on. In this sermon, R.C. Sproul concludes his sermon series in the gospel of Luke and explains the cosmic significance of Christ’s heavenly enthronement.
I will read Luke 24:36–53, and I would ask the congregation please to stand for the reading of the Word of God:
As they were talking about these things, Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, “Peace to you!” But they were startled and frightened and thought they saw a spirit. And he said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts? See my hands and my feet, that it is I myself. Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” And when he had said this, he showed them his hands and his feet. And while they still disbelieved for joy and were marveling, he said to them, “Have you anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate before them.
Then he said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
What a marvelous conclusion to volume one of Luke. Volume two we have already studied; namely, the book of Acts. Though Luke was the author, the ultimate author was God Himself, who by His Holy Spirit superintended the recording of these words. This is the truth of almighty God. Receive it in your hearts and be seated. Let us pray.
Our Father and our God, we ask You to help us as we think about these marvelous things that have been recorded for our instruction and also for our edification. For we ask it in Jesus’ name. Amen.
Jesus Surprises the Disciples
In the days between the resurrection of Jesus and His ascension, the Scriptures tell us that Jesus appeared to His disciples several times. On Easter Sunday, we looked at the strange appearance of Jesus on the road to Emmaus, when He walked with two men talking about the recent events. As He asked questions about what had taken place, they explained their grief and surprise about His death and the rumors of His resurrection.
Then Jesus, beginning with Moses, went through the Scriptures, and explained all that the Word of God said about the coming Messiah. Finally, the cloak over their eyes as they walked to Emmaus was removed when Jesus joined them for dinner and He then disappeared quickly from their midst. They said to one another, “Did not our hearts burn within us as He recounted these things?”
In this text is an account where Jesus surprised the disciples as they were gathered in Jerusalem, just as He had surprised the men on the road to Emmaus and when He appeared to them suddenly and mysteriously. We read that as they were talking, “Jesus himself stood among them, and said to them, ‘Peace to you!’” But they were startled and frightened, as if they had seen a ghost.
Jesus’ Glorified Body
We do not know exactly the makeup of Jesus’ glorified resurrection body, but this we know for sure: whatever His body is composed of we will have too in our own resurrected bodies.
We also know that there is both continuity and discontinuity. There is continuity in that the same body that was laid in the tomb was the body in which Jesus was raised and walked out of the tomb. To be sure, Jesus’ body had been changed. It was now glorified. It had mysterious qualities of composition that we do not fully understand. Although it was still human, it could suddenly appear here and there. It could not be in two places at the same time according to His human nature because the human nature remained human, though glorified. So, there was both continuity and discontinuity.
There was remarkable change in the appearance of Jesus’ body, but it was clear that when He came, the disciples were scared, as if they had seen a ghost. Jesus wanted to put their minds at ease. He told them: “Don’t be troubled, peace be with you. This is who I am. This is Me, Myself. Look at Me. Look at My hands. Look at My feet. See the stigmata. See the marks that are still there. I am flesh and blood, even though it is glorified flesh and blood.”
In order to make sure they understood the reality that this was the same body with which He had been laid in the tomb, Jesus said: “Touch me, and see. For a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have.” Then, He said to them: “Do you have anything here to eat? I am hungry.” Only Luke could provide this kind of detail in his historical account: we read they gave Him a piece of broiled fish. It was not fried fish, but broiled. He even tells us how the fish was prepared. To help them relax, Jesus had a meal with them.
After He ate, Jesus spoke these words: “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” He repeated to the full complement of the disciples the same message that He spoke to the men on the road to Emmaus, teaching them anew how all of the Word of God pointed forward to His death and resurrection.
Then, Jesus said that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, starting right there in Jerusalem: “You are My witnesses, and now I am sending the promise of the Father upon you,” speaking of the coming day of Pentecost. But in the meantime, He ordered them: “But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
Then, in just a couple of words, Luke ends this book with a brief mention of the ascension of Jesus, which I believe is one of the most underrated and overlooked texts in all sacred Scripture. We celebrate Easter, we celebrate Christmas, we consider Good Friday, but there are few people who really take time to celebrate the climactic moment of Jesus’ earthly ministry: the moment when He departed from the disciples and ascended into heaven.
Let me read the words: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany”—there in that circuitous route from Jerusalem up the Mount of Olives—“and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
That is how the book of Luke ends. But if we look just a moment further and see volume two of Luke, we see early in the book of Acts a little more detail about the record of His ascension. We read in Acts 1: “So when they had come together, they asked him, ‘Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them, ‘It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed,’” and so on.
Then, picking up in verse 9: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’”
The two men, angelic messengers from God, were essentially saying: “What are you doing? Why are you standing here fixed in one spot with your gaze focused on heaven, watching for as long as you can possibly see Him as He is taken up into the clouds? Why do you just stand there and look into heaven? Don’t you know that this same Jesus in like manner will return to you, just as you have seen Him go?”
The Uniqueness of the Ascension
Beloved, what is the significance of the ascension? If we look up the word “ascension,” all it means is “to go up.” When you go up a flight of stairs, you ascend the flight of stairs. Yet, there is something extremely unusual and extraordinary about the record of Jesus’ ascension, because when Luke talks about the ascension of Jesus, he is not talking simply about somebody going up, even up in the air or the sky.
We read in the gospel of John that Jesus Himself said, “No man ascends into heaven except the One who has first descended from heaven.” If you know your Bible, you know that Enoch was translated, carried up into heaven. You know that Abraham went to paradise. All of the saints in glory ascended in some sense into the heavenly realm. Yet, Jesus spoke exclusively when He said, “Nobody ascends into heaven except the One who has first descended from heaven.”
Do you see the link? The ascension is linked to the descension. When Jesus is considering His ascension, He is considering something that happens only to Him and for Him. It is not a question of geography when Jesus speaks about leaving.
Ascended to Reign
When Jesus first announced His departure to His disciples, what was their attitude? They were crestfallen. They were brokenhearted. They were crushed in their spirits when Jesus told them He was going to leave: “You can’t say that. You can’t leave us—You must stay here.”
Jesus said, “Don’t you know that it’s better for you if I go away than if I stay?” Not one of His disciples understood that. They all thought it would be better for Jesus to stay than to go away. Many in the church today still believe it would have been better for Jesus to have stayed on earth than to have gone away because they do not understand the import of the ascension.
The point of Jesus’ ascension involved where He was going and why He was going. Jesus was ascending to His coronation, His investiture. He had to leave this earth because His kingdom at that point was not of this world. His kingdom was the kingdom of heaven, and a throne was waiting for Him as He was lifted on high and placed at the right hand of the Father, the position of absolute cosmic authority.
When elections for public office happen, we recognize there is often much at stake. But the best news is that whoever is elected will not unseat or dethrone the King of kings and the Lord of lords, because His reign is not something in the distant future. Rather, His reign is right now.
The moment Jesus went up into heaven, He was put in the seat at the right hand of God, and all authority in heaven and earth was given to Him. He was coronated there, not just as King, but as King of kings and Lord of lords, so that every earthly authority, as much as they may hate Him and despise Him, is nevertheless subject to Him. This very minute, Jesus rules and reigns over all things. The Lord God omnipotent in the person of Jesus Christ reigns right now.
The High Priest’s Atonement
Not only was Jesus going up in order to be crowned as King, but He had another task. He had to ascend to the heavenly sanctuary, to the Holy of Holies. As a mere shadow, this was rehearsed in Old Testament days once a year on the Day of Atonement, when the high priest would take the sacrifice into the Holy of Holies and sprinkle the blood on the throne of God.
It was one high priest one year, another high priest the next year, and another high priest the year after that, but there is only one High Priest after the order of Melchizedek who was made a High Priest forever. The day that Jesus died on the cross was the final day of atonement forever—never does another atonement need to be made.
When Jesus atoned for our sins, He did not go into the temple on earth and sprinkle His blood on the ark of the covenant. He went to heaven, to the heavenly tabernacle, and passed through the veil that separates heaven and earth. There, with His final work of atonement, He presented His finished work to the Father. From that day, He has been serving as our High Priest, interceding for His people—the church—every single day.
I pray for the people in this congregation. I know a lot of you pray for me. I have two different kinds of prayer lists. I have prayer lists where I hear about somebody going through a particular struggle, and I will pray for them once or twice, and so on. I also have a prayer list of people that are in serious trouble and have been over a long period of time, and that list is long. I pray for the people on that list every single day of my life without fail. Can you imagine how long the prayer list of our great High Priest is that covers me, you, and all who belong to Him?
No wonder these men stood transfixed, gazing as Jesus was carried away by the shekinah glory cloud in a startling display of exultation. As they peered into the sky and Jesus was going further and further away, they wished they had the Hubble Telescope to continue to track Him as far as the eye could see.
The angels came and said: “What are you doing standing here gazing at heaven? Didn’t you hear what He said? ‘Go back to Jerusalem. Wait in Jerusalem until the power of the Holy Ghost comes upon you, and then you shall be My witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the uttermost parts of the earth.’” That is where the book ends.
Let us hear for a moment the rest of the story. When Luke tells us about the ascension, he describes the event from the perspective of those watching it. When they returned to Jerusalem, they did not return sobbing in grief and tears. Rather, they were kicking their heels together and rejoicing because they now understood where Jesus was going and why He was going there. Indeed, it was better for Him to leave than to stay. So, they returned throwing their hats in the air and glorifying God.
What about the other terminal point of this journey? Jesus was not only going to His coronation, He was not only going to be the High Priest after the order of Melchizedek, but He had said, “No one ascends into heaven except the One who first came down from heaven.”
So, beloved, this was Jesus’ homecoming. This was the second person of the Trinity who took upon Himself a human nature, whom Luke described in the very beginning, of whose birth we are told. Then He grew up in wisdom and entered into His earthly ministry.
Jesus ascended into heaven from the Mount of Olives, the same place where He groaned in travail in prayer to the Father, saying, “Let this cup pass from Me.” God said, “No, drink the cup.” Jesus had prayed in the upper room, “God, restore to Me the glory that I had with You from the foundation of the world.” That prayer was answered in the affirmative: “Of course, Jesus. When You come home, You will come back to Your place of origin, back to heaven itself.”
The Apostle John gives us a brief record of that in the Apocalypse, in Revelation 5:11–13:
Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying,
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!”
Handel understood this passage: “For He shall reign forever and ever.” Then, how long? “Ever and ever. Amen.” Now you know the rest of the story.
This transcript has been lightly edited for readability.