“When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.”
The Gospel finishes as it began, in the Temple, ready for the new beginning in the book of Acts which will tell the story of the journey of the Gospel from Jewish sect to world religion and from Jerusalem to Rome.
Luke gives a very short account of the Ascension here, but does so with a quiet solemnity and a simplicity which somehow recalls both the offering of bread and wine at the Last Supper, and the breaking and giving of bread to the hungry Five Thousand. This time, however, it is the community of believers that is being blessed and given, and it is Jesus who is being lifted up.
The place of ascension is given as Bethany, near Jerusalem, adjoining to the mount of Olives. This recalls the agony of Gethsemane, of course, and “Bethany” itself means “the house of sorrow.” The time of being lifted up in sorrow and crucifixion has given way to being lifted up in honour and triumph. And it is upon the mount of Olives which was long prophesied to be a location of ultimate division and judgement. Zechariah 14:4 reads: “On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem, and the Mount of Olives will be split in two from east to west, forming a great valley, with half of the mountain moving north and half moving south…” The context, once more, is of Jerusalem in turmoil and under judgement.
And Jesus lifts up his hands, as the high priest did when he blessed the people; (Leviticus 9:22). He blesses as one having authority, as Jacob blessed his sons. The apostles were now as the representatives of the twelve tribes, so that in blessing them he blessed all his spiritual Israel, and put his Father’s name upon them. Christ was now sending his apostles to preach his gospel to the world, and he gives them his blessing, not for themselves only, but to be conferred in his name upon all that should believe on him through their word; for in him all the families of the earth were to be blessed.
The narrative ends with a praise-filled waiting, constantly seeking God at the Temple, just as Jesus had done when in Jerusalem.
Matthew Henry has a delightful conclusion to his commentary on Luke. It breathes an old serenity and robust holiness that is always fresh, relevant and appropriate. Let’s close with that as our final reflection.
“While we are waiting for God’s promises we must go forth to meet them with our praises. Praising and blessing God is work that is never out of season: and nothing better prepares the mind for the receiving of the Holy Ghost than holy joy and praise. Fears are silenced, sorrows sweetened and allayed, and hopes kept up. The amen that concludes seems to be added by the church and every believer to the reading of the gospel, signifying an assent to the truths of the gospel, and a hearty concurrence with all the disciples of Christ in praising and blessing God. Amen. Let him be continually praised and blessed.”
Amen, let it be so!