“[Jesus] presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the Kingdom of God… So when they had come together, they asked Him, ‘Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?’” (Acts 1:3,6).
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
When it comes to Christian holy days and festivals of the Church there is no greater confusion than over the Ascension of Our Lord both in terms of what we are celebrating and why we are celebrating it. We confess the ascension of Christ every Sunday in the words of the creeds: “And He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father” but no further explanation is really given in either of the creeds, and we are left with more questions than answers concerning Christ’s ascension. Why didn’t Jesus stay? Where is He now? What is the right hand of God? Does this mean that Christ isn’t with us now?
These questions are worth exploring from the Bible because they determine how we, as the Church, receive Christ and His benefits on the other side of His death and resurrection. The appointed readings for the Ascension of Our Lord come from Acts 1:1-11, Ephesians 1:15-23; and Luke 24:44-53, and historically these passages have served as the basis for our confession of the ascension. Tonight, we will look at them specifically focusing on a question asked by Jesus’ confused disciples: “Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?”
For the forty days between His resurrection and ascension, Jesus had taught about the Kingdom of God. This was nothing new. When John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus, he had declared, “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” As Jesus began to preach, He proclaimed the same thing; and when He sent the twelve they were to preach: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Many of Jesus’ parables began, “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” The Kingdom of God was even proclaimed at Jesus’ suffering and death—though perhaps ironically rather than intentionally: the soldiers mocked Jesus as king, even put a scepter in His hand, robed Him in royal purple, and placed a crown of thorns on His head. And when Christ was crucified, the accusation above His head declared that He was “guilty” of being the King of the Jews.
Jesus’ resurrection had demonstrated beyond a doubt that He is the Messiah. Now what? Would He bring back the glory days of David and Solomon when the Kingdom of Israel was at its peak? Even the select group of the apostles still had misunderstandings about the Messiah’s purpose and the nature of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus’ Kingdom of God was, and is, a kingdom like no other. The Kingdom of God is not a kingdom of this world. It is not a kingdom of land and armies. It does not grow by conquest and violence. It is not a political but spiritual kingdom. It is not limited to the Jewish people but includes all believers—the spiritual Israel.
To understand the simple truth of the Kingdom of God, go back to the sermon of John the Baptist: “Repent, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.” Not “coming soon,” but “at hand.” Why was the Kingdom of Heaven at hand when John preached this at the Jordan? Because Jesus was there. Where this King is, there is His Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is not a place but an activity, not God’s realm but His reign. God rules in people’s lives by the preaching of repentance and the forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:47).
So, Jesus taught about the Kingdom of God during the forty days between His death and resurrection. The apostles had been where Jesus was for three years of His public ministry. They’d seen their King nailed to a cross and they’d assumed the worst. But now they saw their risen King, nail-prints and all—the King who had conquered even the kingdoms of death, devil, and hell. Jesus was with them. And where Jesus is, that is where the Kingdom of God is found.[i]
Close to the ascension, the disciples asked about the Kingdom: “Lord, will You at this time restore the Kingdom to Israel?” They asked a “when?” question; Jesus gave them a “how answer.” “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be My witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
Notice: Jesus does not say, “What are you talking about? I’m not restoring the Kingdom to Israel!” Rather, He says, “Don’t you worry about timetables.[ii] That’s the Father’s business.” That’s the “no” half of His answer. Then comes the “yes” half of His answer: “Here is what has been given to you—to receive My Holy Spirit and to bear witness of Me, at home and abroad.”
The Kingdom would indeed be restored to Israel but in a greater way than the disciples imagined.[iii] Jesus reconstitutes, restores, and recreates Israel in Himself. He is Israel-reduced-to-one. The Kingdom has already been restored to Israel because by His death, resurrection, and ascension, the Son of David has defeated every foe, liberated God’s people, and now reigns as King of Israel.
But the Father is not done yet! He will use the witnesses of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, to take this message to the entire world. Israel will not left behind, but the entire world will be “Israelized.” I don’t mean ethnically or geopolitically. I’m not referring at all to the modern state of Israel. I mean that wherever the Father is worshiped in Spirit and truth, there is the true Israel, there is the Kingdom, there the Messiah is reigning by grace. Not just in Jerusalem and Judea but in Samaria and to the ends of the earth. Wherever God’s people gather around Word and Sacrament, in that place, the Kingdom of God is at hand.
Then Jesus “was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). He ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. As the prophet Daniel had witnessed centuries before in a vision, “One like a Son of Man… came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion and glory and a Kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him” (7:13-14).
Jesus was lifted up, body and all—received by a cloud out of their sight. The Messiah, the Son of Man, came to His Father, the Ancient of Days, having accomplished the salvation of humanity. And to Him was given a Kingdom that was to span the entire world—a world to which His disciples would bear witness as they are clothed with the Holy Spirit.
Then angels declared to them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The heaven to which Jesus ascended is not the realm of astronomers, the sky with its stars and planets. It is not a place where He is confined or to which He has retired. It is the state of glory in which He who shares our humanity enjoys all the power and glory that He had with the Father from eternity.[iv] St. Paul summarizes: God “raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him as head over all things to the Church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:20-23).
Our Savior did not retire when He ascended to heaven. He has not deserted us. He is involved and He is in charge. The works of the apostles and the Church in every generation are His doing. This work is not only done for Him; it is done by Him. He will return from heaven visibly, say the angels.
In the meanwhile, the apostles and the rest of the believers were not on their own, apart from Christ, until the King returned in glory. Remember, Jesus promised them that the Holy Spirit would come upon them—this would happen at Pentecost. What does the Holy Spirit do? He uses the Word of God to bring people to faith—and where the Word of God is, you will also find Jesus—the Word made flesh. The Holy Spirit joins people to Jesus’ death and resurrection in Holy Baptism—people are joined to Christ by water and the Word: He is not far away, but promises He is with you to the end of the age. And the Holy Spirit works to deliver Jesus’ body and blood for the forgiveness of sins in the Holy Communion. In other words, the work of the Holy Spirit is to bring Jesus to you. And where Jesus is, there the Kingdom of God is found.
This is a treasure that we gladly proclaim; and among Christians, we are best prepared to do so. See, many Christians today believe that Jesus is only in heaven because He has a human body, and the laws of physics dictate that a human body may only be in one place at a time. But our Lord, the Creator of physics, is greater than the laws of physics. So, for instance, when He says of bread and wine, “This is My body and this is My blood,” we don’t say, “that’s physically impossible.” We give thanks that Jesus is present with us, forgiving our sins and strengthening our faith. The ascended Lord is not confined simply to a place in heaven. He is still very much present with His Church on earth, present even when He is not visible.
Jesus is here. And where Jesus is, there is His Kingdom. That means that you are in His Kingdom now. You don’t see it yet, but you’ve got His Word on it.
Other Christians believe that Jesus will come back in glory, before the Last Day, and set up a kingdom on earth that will last for a thousand years before He ends this world. Like many in the first century, they expect the Messiah to set up a kingdom on earth. This is a bad reading of the book of Revelation, and it has the unfortunate effect of teaching that Jesus and His Kingdom are future things, not present realities. But you know better: in His means of grace, Jesus is here. And where Jesus is, there is His Kingdom.
So, the ascension of Jesus gives you two great comforts.
On the one hand, Jesus is ascended into heaven. He even took His body with Him—a testimony to you that He will raise you from the dead—body and all—and deliver you to heaven, body and all. Ascended into heaven, Jesus sits at the Father’s right hand and rules all things for your good and the good of His Church. That’s a great comfort as you endure the temptations and afflictions of this world.
This is also a comfort: the same Lord Jesus Christ who is ascended into heaven is also as near to you as His means of grace. He is with you—as near as His Word, forgiving your sins and strengthening your faith. You don’t live as one who someday hopes that you’ll be part of the Kingdom of God. You are part of the Kingdom of God. You don’t see it yet: you will when the Lord returns in glory and delivers us to heaven. But while you don’t see it yet, you are part of God’s Kingdom even now. Why?
The Kingdom of God is still at hand! Because the Kingdom is where Jesus is, and Jesus is here in His means of grace. So, go in the peace of the Lord, serve your neighbor with joy, tell the Good News of the Kingdom of God. For Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven for all your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
[ii] The Gift of Being Proven Wrong: The Ascension and Israelizing … – 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/the-gift-of-being-proven-wrong-the-ascension-and-israelizing-the-world.
[iii] The Gift of Being Proven Wrong: The Ascension and Israelizing … – 1517, https://www.1517.org/articles/the-gift-of-being-proven-wrong-the-ascension-and-israelizing-the-world.