Who likes being left behind? We can all think of examples where we have been left behind. A beloved teacher leaves our school. A pastor retires and moves to Florida. A parent, child, or partner dies, and we are left behind to grieve. In each case, our sorrow results from a sense of loss, of abandonment. How is it, then, that the disciples are joyful when Jesus departs, leaving them behind?
Among the New Testament Gospels, only Luke narrates Jesus’ ascension to heaven. Matthew’s Gospel ends with Jesus’ promise to be with the disciples “to the end of the age” (28:20). Mark 16:19 is likely a later addition to Mark’s Gospel, which probably ended at 16:8. The Fourth Gospel distinguishes between Jesus’ resurrection and ascension (John 20:17), but lacks an account of the ascension.
In Luke, however, the good news ends with Jesus taking leave of his followers. Jesus and the disciples go to Bethany, where he blesses them and departs, being “taken up into heaven.” We might expect weeping, mourning, some act that expresses sorrow at being left behind. Instead, Luke reports that the disciples returned to Jerusalem “with great joy.” And “they were continually in the temple blessing God” (24:53).
Fortunately, the author of the Gospel of Luke left behind a second volume, the book known as “The Acts of the Apostles.” The beginning of Acts overlaps with the ending of Luke’s Gospel. Acts also narrates Jesus’ ascension, but provides more detail.
According to Acts, Jesus spends 40 days with the disciples before leaving them behind. During these 40 days, Jesus prepares them for his departure. In the Bible, “40 days” often refers to a period of instruction, preparation, or testing. Moses spends 40 days with God on Mount Sinai (Deuteronomy 9:9). Jesus is tested in the wilderness for 40 days (Luke 4:1-13).
As a teacher, I compare these periods of preparation to “review days.” On review days we don’t look at new material, but rather we make sure that what we have studied over the course of the semester has taken root. Review days provide opportunities for teachers to answer questions and correct misunderstandings. The disciples have a question for Jesus, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6).
Jesus’ reply is telling: “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set 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, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (1:7-8). In other words, the timeline is God’s business. The disciples’ task is to witness.
What just happened here? Jesus turns the conversation from the question “When will you put things right?” to the assignment “Get ready to be my witnesses.” As Tom Wright says in his commentary Acts for Everyone, “One day that kingdom will come, fully and finally. In the meantime, we have a job to do.”
The first-century disciples aren’t the only ones who are assigned a task. As Wright says, “We have a job to do.” Along with all the saints who have preceded us, we have been tasked with “witnessing.” Brethren theologian Dale W. Brown explains, “Brethren believed that the gifts and fruit of the Spirit were not only for the edification of the church, but also for the good of the world” (Another Way of Believing, p. 92).
To bear witness means to testify to what one has seen or heard. We may think of testimony as “speech,” but witnessing can take different forms. More than just verbal testimony, witnessing to the risen Lord is “another way of living.” Two problems can arise.
First, we may act as if we are in charge, but witnessing does not mean that we are tasked with setting the world aright. As Brown observes, we witness, but the Spirit works. Jesus, not the church, is Lord. Second, we may try to avoid the problems of the world by escaping into our own private religious realms, but witnessing is public and requires participation in the world.
Why are you looking up?
In Acts 1:11 two men ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
The illustration accompanying this Bible study is a page from a sixth-century manuscript known as the Rabbula Gospels. The illustration has two registers, relating to the two dimensions of creation, heaven and earth. In the upper register, the heavenly dimension, Jesus stands within a mandorla, an almond shape that artists use to depict light and express majesty. The two angels who bear crowns also express the understanding that Jesus now rules both heaven and earth.
Below Jesus is a hybrid creature, a tetramorph, which has its origins in the prophet Ezekiel’s vision (Ezekiel 1). The four creatures of the tetramorph later became identified with the New Testament evangelists: Man (or Angel) (Matthew); Lion (Mark); Bull (Luke); and Eagle (John). By using all these motifs, the artist communicates that Jesus enters another dimension, what we call “heaven,” and what the Bible refers to as being located “up.” In the lower register, Mary, the mother of Jesus, stands directly beneath her son. With her hands upraised, palms up, she stands in a posture of prayer. Neither Luke nor Acts mentions Mary’s presence at the ascension, although she is named in Acts as one of the group who gathers in Jerusalem shortly after the ascension (Acts 1:14). In the Rabbula Gospels, she most likely represents the church. Similarly, Paul is included among the apostles, even though he did not become a follower of Jesus until after the ascension.
By placing Mary and Paul in the group on the earthly plain, the artist invites viewers into the picture. We, too, are Jesus’ disciples. We, too, are called to witness to the One who reigns. Why do we stand gazing up into the heavens? We may have been left behind, but this is no occasion for grief. It is time to get to work. Peacefully, simply, and joyfully.
Christina Bucher is professor of religion at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College.