9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
10 They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. 11 “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Matthias Chosen to Replace Judas
12 Then the apostles returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city. 13 When they arrived, they went upstairs to the room where they were staying. Those present were Peter, John, James and Andrew; Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew; James son of Alphaeus and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14 They all joined together constantly in prayer, along with the women and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with his brothers.
We live in a time when most people dislike their leaders. In the United States of America, there are virtually no political leaders that have a positive rating in nationwide polls. In fact, most people are more apt to decry or put down their leaders, including the President than they are to revere or praise them. It wasn’t always that way, though. I don’t mean to imply that there was once a time when all people adored their king or leader and praised whatever they did, but it is true that people in the ancient world took much more pride in who their leader was. It was generally believed that a leader like a king or emperor was the representative of his people and what was true of that leader was true of his people. If a king was perceived to be powerful and mighty then so was the nation that he led. In the Roman Empire, many of the people had come to view the Emperors as divine. They celebrated this fact not so much because they adored the Emperor, although some did, but more so because if the Emperor was great and divine, then it meant that they were a powerful nation that would last forever.
Romans began to believe that the Emperor was divine beginning with the first Emperor, Julius Caesar. It seems that this belief increased with each passing emperor during the first century. Because of this believed divinity, it was often claimed that when emperors died that their souls would ascend into the afterlife to take their place with the gods. Roman mythology, in fact, was full of accounts of gods like Herakles, a son of Zeus, materializing on earth and eventually ascending back to heaven, so it only made sense to claim the same power and honor for the divine emperors. Although these claims were made, they were never actually rooted in empirical fact. It was more of a commonly shared myth and belief than anything anyone might have tried to actually defend or argue as a truth that would change anyone’s life.
Here, though, Luke has gone to great pains to paint a very different picture. All of those claims of divinity and godhood for the emperor were based on myths, Luke seems to be saying. They were a paltry counterfeit of the real thing, the real King. As he will carefully describe in this section, what happened to Jesus was no act of wishful thinking or fantasy and the state of Jesus’ divinity was no mere myth. This was all too real and it was about to be shown true not just through the testimony of the eyewitnesses but by the unlikely story of conquest through suffering and persecution that follows in the remainder of the book of Acts.
We first have to understand that Luke was not envisioning this scene the way that some 21st century person likely does. He is not imagining Jesus deftly floating up into the sky like an escaped balloon at a child’s birthday party that eventually disappeared out of sight behind a cloud several thousand feet in the air and then shooting off to a floating city that lies somewhere past the stratosphere. It’s easy for us to read this passage like that but that’s not what Luke would have meant at all by this passage.
Biblically speaking, the cloud, was a way of speaking about God’s space when it broke into the physical realm. It signified the presence of God himself (Ex. 16:10; 40:34; 1 Ki. 8:10-11; Ps. 104:3). When Luke described the witnesses as seeing Jesus disappear into the cloud, it is of this that he was making reference. Just as Elijah had been taken up into God’s presence and the mantle of being God’s witness to the world had been passed on to Elisha, so now Jesus was returning to his Father’s realm, heaven, and was passing on the mantle of being his witnesses to the disciples. It would now be up to them to carry on the work of the kingdom that he had initiated. It would be up to them to build the family that Jesus had created.
At its heart, then, Luke was describing a scene in which Jesus was enveloped by the very presence of God. The translation of verse 10 in the NIV doesn’t really help matters when it implies that they were looking up into the sky as though they really were like six year old children watching starry-eyed as their favorite balloon drifted out of sight. What the text actually says is that they were staring toward heaven (Luke uses the exact same word, “ouranos,” to describe where they were staring as is used in passages like Matthew 6:9 which says “Our Father in ‘ouranos’ or ‘heaven’).
As they watched the physically resurrected Jesus be enveloped by the glory cloud of God’s presence and disappear they were surprised. They had seen something like this before (see Luke 9:28-36) when Jesus was transfigured as Peter, James, and John stood by. But that time when the cloud receded, Jesus was still with them. It seems logical that they were staring into the place where glory cloud had ascended because they were expecting Jesus to still be there but he was no longer visible to them.
The poor disciples always seem to be understandably one step behind God’s plan and this time was no different. As they were standing there a bit befuddled by what had just happened as they watched Jesus ascend into the presence of God and take his place at the Father’s right hand (see Eph. 1:20-21; Phil. 2:9; Heb. 1:3; 2:9), two angels appeared in their presence and offered a gentle rebuke. Why were they just standing there? They had seen Jesus physically depart from them into the presence of God and they could rest assured that he would return in precisely this fashion one day. In the meantime the mantle of being a witness to Gods’ kingdom had passed to them.
The promise of Jesus’ return was not a reference to the popular but largely imagined doctrine of the rapture (a doctrine that did not appear until the 1830’s and was originated by a very sketchy group of mystics known as the Irvingites, although it has become quite popular in this century). The problem with the rapture theory, besides not being taught in the Scriptures themselves, is that the whole process goes in the wrong direction. Rather than Jesus coming and then leaving with believers, the Scriptures are clear that Jesus will return and dwell with his family forever (This includes the often misused Thes. 4:16-17 which clearly teaches that the Lord will return in the glory cloud of God where he will be “met” by believers, says Paul, using a very precise word that meant to meet a dignitary outside of a city and escort him back into your city). This is a clear prediction of the physical return of Jesus and the resurrection of all believers. It is the time when heaven and earth will be brought together (Eph. 1:10; Rev. 21:1-5) as Christ returns and brings the final salvation of renewal for the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-25) and the resurrection and transformation that is being stored in heaven (Acts 3:21; Matt. 19:28; 1 Pet. 1:3-5; Col. 1:3-5) for God’s sons and daughters who eagerly await his return from heaven (Rom. 8:23-25; Phil. 3:20-21). Jesus left their sight physically in the power and glory of God’s presence and he will return in the same way one day.
The disciples returned to where they were gathering together, a Sabbath’s day’s walk. This doesn’t mean that this took place on a Sabbath day but rather that the distance was about the amount that one could walk, according to Jewish tradition, on a Sabbath, which was a distance of nearly ¾ mile (about 1 km). They, no doubt, had quite a bit to talk about as they arrived to a group that included the eleven apostles (minus, of course, Judas Iscariot), the women disciples, Jesus’ mother, and his brothers. There are two things of note in that list. The first is the special mention of the women, something that would have run counter to normal societal practices to downplay or not mention the women at all. The second is that Jesus’ brothers have moved decidedly from the camp of skeptics and unbelievers (see John 7:5) to the ranks of the true believers, something that was almost assuredly a result of Jesus’ resurrection appearances to them (see 1 Cor. 15:7).
Jesus had promised them an incredible outpouring and baptism of the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5) and now they would wait together and in prayer for that promised to be fulfilled. Luke tells us that they were “constantly” in prayer, a word that carries the meaning of doing something resolutely, steadfastly, persistently, and to persevere without fainting. Luke draws special attention to the fact that the disciples spent their time waiting for the Spirit in the proper action of constant and united prayer for God to act. Although Jesus had called them to “go” and baptize people of all nations into God’s family, they had finally learned the lesson that they were unequipped to do this under their own power. They would pray until the Spirit came upon them and enabled them to complete their mission. They would go, but not before they waited for the Spirit to lead them. This is certainly a lesson that Christians of each generation need to remember.
Do you gather together consistently with other believers to “constantly” pray for God to work among you, for him to fulfill his promises to believers, and to be prepared to follow the Spirit wherever he leads you all? Take some time today to consider what that might look like and what it might demand of you to do this if you don’t regularly already.