Michael Horton is J. Gresham Machen Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, and he co-hosts The White Horse Inn, a nationally syndicated radio talk-show that explores issues revolving around Reformation Theology in American Christianity. Dr. Horton is a minister in the United Reformed Churches of North America and is an accomplished writer whose many books include: The Gospel-Driven Life and Putting Amazing Back Into Grace.
Dr. Horton read from Acts 1 (the sequel to the gospel of Luke), verses 1 through 11. The ascension is actually part of the gospel. It is part and parcel with the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The disciples, even after the resurrection, were confused: "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" They were basically thinking, "Now that He's been resurrected, why would he leave?"
Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament shadows and types, such as Moses and David. In I Cor 10:1-6, Paul even likens Christ's cross with Moses' Red Sea crossing. But in Jesus we have both Moses (who leads His people through the Red Sea) and Joshua (coming out on the other side to take possession of the promised land).
All of Jesus' replies from Satan are taken from Moses' speech in Deuteronomy 6. The goal of the Exodus was not just deliverance from Pharaoh but deliverance unto God. "I am the One who delivered you from Pharaoh....therefore, you shall have no other gods besides Me."
Eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord is a prominent theme in the historical books and it reappears in the accounts of feasts in Luke's gospel. Peace and joy and feasting in the presence of God.
Israel was called upon to execute the judgment of God upon the nations--the judgment that was meant to prefigure the last judgment. Yet Israel did a poor job of it. God said of them that they, like Adam, disobeyed. Israel was sent into exile. This is where we find Israel at the time of Christ's first advent.
The Pharisees were eager to restore obedience to Torah, so that Messiah would come and restore the theocracy.
A NEW EXODUS
What we find in Acts 2 is a new exodus. Jesus instituted it Himself. God had attested to this Jesus of Nazareth by raising Him from the dead, vindicating His claims. The signs and wonders pointed to God Himself. When asked how they knew He lived, they never said, "Because he lives within my heart." No, they knew Jesus lived because the resurrection was historical.
Looking back, recall Jesus' foretelling that he was going to Jerusalem to be crucified. But Peter and the others thought he was going for an inaugural parade of honor. Remember the mother of the sons of Zebedee asking Jesus (as Palm Sunday was drawing near), "Lord, when you enter your kingdom, can one of my sons be on your right and the other on your left." Jesus told her she had no idea what she was talking about. That would have meant dying on his left side and right.
A NEW WILDERNESS
Following the new exodus of Jesus' death and resurrection, we have a wilderness period between the resurrection and the ascension. Jesus was immersing, day and night, His apostles in what they needed to know to be His apostles. For 40 days they received intensive instruction about the kingdom. And now the 40 days are ended by Jesus entering the heavenly Canaan (as opposed to the promised land that Joshua entered).
Note that "while eating with them" Jesus revealed the truths of the kingdom to them. One, this was to give testimony to the physicality of the resurrection. (Remember Jesus asking for fish in one of the resurrection accounts?) But there is another reason: It is a renewal of the New Covenant promise that he made with them in the upper room (take, break and eat). Only in this case, Jesus is the meal. Jesus makes Himself the sacrifice and the substance of our salvation.
The "breaking of the bread" becomes central in New Testament worship. They heard Jesus open up the Scripture and their hearts were burning (Luke 24). But they didn't recognize it was Jesus until he "took, broke, and eat."
Eating and drinking in the presence of the Lord is an essential part of our participation in the new covenant. Someday it will occur bodily.
Jesus gives a charge to those He led across: To wait in Jerusalem until the promised Spirit (to be sent). Just as Pentecost came 50 days after the Passover, the true Pentecost came 50 days after the true Passover.
But the Ascension was crucial: The disciples/apostles could not enter their earthly conquest until Jesus entered His heavenly kingdom. But the disciples, in asking, "Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?" were still thinking of an Old Testament theocracy. But it wasn't that bad, since Jesus was talking about the kingdom of God. The disciples were wondering when the resurrection of the just was going to occur, and why Jesus would be leaving.
Jesus answer was a partial yes. Stay in Jerusalem, until you get empowered to be my witnesses. The full consummation of the kingdom would come off in the distance.
LIVING IN THE LAST DAYS**
Jesus' ascension opened a fissure in history. The second temple expectations of the Pharisees were not fulfilled. We're living in that fissure -- "these last days of this present regime."
It is good that Jesus went, and it is good that the Holy Spirit came. Recall that Jesus called "the gospel", "the kingdom". But it is not a geopolitical kingdom. It doesn't grow by political coercion or by ballots, but by God's spirit. As prophet, Jesus reveals the Father's Word. As priest, He intercedes for us. As King, he is looting Satan's possessions during these last days (having previously bound the strong man).
The cloud which guided Israel in the wilderness, which filled the tabernacle.....the cloud now takes Jesus into heaven at His Ascension. That cloud will come again to empower the disciples.
In Luke 24, we have two witnesses to the resurrection ("why are you looking for the living among the dead?"). Here at the Ascension, we have two witnesses ("why do you stand looking into heaven?"). The witnesses were telling the disciples to keep their eye on the ball, the next new thing was about to happen.
Luke 24 tells us similarly that "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." Soon they will be thrown out of the temple -- but only the earthly temple. Jesus was in heaven building the true temple.
WHY THE DELAY IN CHRIST'S SECOND COMING?
Why the delay in His coming? Peter tells us that it is because of God's mercy, as living stones are being added to the new, the true, temple.
The conquest of Christ in this world is greater than any conquest in the Old Testament. What fills this gap? Nothing, Jesus absolutely must come back. But in the meantime, we enjoy a real union with Jesus Christ. And on the basis of that union, we are sent out. Sent out by the missionary God.
The logistical detail of replacing Judas with Messiah -- what's it doing here in the early part of Acts? They are there because the Kingdom is not entirely invisible. It is a visible, even now. The kingdom is visible in the preaching of the gospel, the sacraments, and church discipline.
Church growth in the book of Acts is described by the phrase "and the word of God grew." We have two Advocates, in fact: One in heaven and another on earth. And we need both. The powers of the age to come has broken in. The everlasting feast has already begun.
All the outer courts of the temple have been broken down. We have immediate access to God. We are living stones in Him. No longer insiders or outsiders (as Jews and Gentiles were); no, we are one people -- He has broken down the wall.
That which is unclean can (in Christ) become clean. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God's people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy" (I Peter 2:9-10).