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Jesus rises and ascends into heaven
Luke chapter 24, verses 1-12
On the first day of the week, very early in the morning, the women took the spices they had prepared and went to the tomb. They found the stone rolled away from the tomb, but when they entered, they did not find the body of the Lord Jesus. While they were wondering about this, suddenly two men in clothes that gleamed like lightning stood beside them. In their fright the women bowed down with their faces to the ground, but the men said to them, “Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; he has risen! Remember how he told you, while he was still with you in Galilee: ‘The Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men, be crucified and on the third day be raised again.’” Then they remembered his words.
When they came back from the tomb, they told all these things to the Eleven and to all the others. It was Mary Magdalene, Joanna, Mary the mother of James, and the others with them who told this to the apostles. But they did not believe the women, because their words seemed to them like nonsense. Peter, however, got up and ran to the tomb. Bending over, he saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, and he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.
An aura of wonder hangs over this episode. The women come to the tomb of Jesus expecting to find his dead body. When they find the stone rolled away and the grave empty, we are told that “they were wondering about this.” The KJV translates this as “perplexed.” A feeling of puzzlement, almost doubt, comes over them. They don’t know what to make of what they have seen. They need some interpretation.
Luke tells us that after Peter came to the tomb and saw the strips of linen lying by themselves, “he went away, wondering to himself what had happened.” The Greek word here translated as “wondering” indicates that Peter is filled with awe, astonishment, and surprise. He senses that a miracle has taken place.
The empty grave does not prove the resurrection; there are other possible explanations why the body of Jesus was not found in the grave. Enemies of the Christian faith have long used these other explanations in an effort to discount the truth of the resurrection. If the women who came to the tomb, on the other hand, had found the dead body of Jesus, this would be certain proof that he is not alive. Both they and Peter found the grave empty and wondered. They needed an explanation.
The two men “in clothes that gleamed like lightning” provide the explanation: “He has risen!” The women are gently reminded that Jesus himself had prophesied both his crucifixion and resurrection (chapter 9, verse 22). It took the words of these heavenly messengers to cause the women to remember. How difficult it is even for these close followers of Jesus to remember!
Luke waits to identify the women until after their visit to the tomb. Heading the list is the name of Mary Magdalene, from whom Jesus had cast out seven demons (chapter 8, verse 2). She is prominent in John’s account of the resurrection (John chapter 20, verses 10-18). Joanna the wife of Cuza, the manager of Herod’s household (chapter 8, verse 3), and Mary the mother of James are also named. Mark adds the name of Salome (Mark chapter 16, verse 1) whereas Luke simply speaks of others. These women had come from Galilee and had made it their special responsibility to minister to the needs of Jesus. Now they serve as the first human witnesses to the resurrection by telling the eleven apostles what they had experienced.
Their testimony is met with unbelief. The words of these women seem to the apostles to be pure nonsense. That God should chose women, whose testimony was generally regarded as unreliable in those days, to be the initial witnesses to the resurrection is another example of how he works in ways contrary to human thinking. Only Peter and an unidentified disciple (John chapter 20, verses 3-9) go to investigate the women’s report. They find the grave empty. But they are not yet privileged to behold the risen Lord.
The women had come to the tomb “on the first day of the week.” The resurrection of Jesus marks a new beginning in the history of the world. Just as the original act of creation began the first day of the week, so on Easter there is the dawn of a new day. Sin, Satan, death, and hell are vanquished! The body of believers continue to celebrate this decisive event each first day of the week. Sunday after Sunday, the words of Jesus are remembered; his body and blood is shared; his praises are sung. An early Latin hymn says it well:
“Welcome, happy morning!” Age to age shall say;
“Hell today is vanquished; Heav’n is won today!”
Lo, the Dead is living, God forevermore!
Him, their true Creator, All his works adore.
“Welcome, happy morning!” Age to age shall say;
“Hell today is vanquished; Heav’n is won today!”
(Christian Worship Hymn 163, stanza 1)
On the road to Emmaus
Luke chapter 24, verses 13-35
Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. They were talking with each other about everything that had happened. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him.
He asked them, “What are you discussing together as you walk along?”
They stood still, their faces downcast. One of them, named Cleopas, asked him, “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”
“What things?” he asked.
“About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel. And what is more, it is the third day since all this took place. In addition, some of our women amazed us. They went to the tomb early this morning but didn’t find his body. They came and told us that they had seen a vision of angels, who said he was alive. Then some of our companions went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.”
He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.
As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus acted as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them.
When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
They got up and returned at once to Jerusalem. There they found the Eleven and those with them, assembled together and saying, “It is true! The Lord has risen and has appeared to Simon.” Then the two told what had happened on the way, and how Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.
This story of the appearance of Jesus to the two disciples on the road to Emmaus is recorded only by Luke. The location of the village of Emmaus is disputed. The best known place by that name is located about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. But Luke says that Emmaus was about seven miles away (Greek measurement: 60 stadia). Josephus speaks of a village by that name lying roughly three and a half miles northwest of Jerusalem. Luke’s mileage figure would then constitute a round-trip. Another site that is seven miles from Jerusalem was identified in later times as Emmaus, but there is no first century mention of this town. It seems likely that Luke is using the round-trip figure. So the two disciples had only a relatively short trip back to Jerusalem to tell their story to the assembled disciples.
One might aptly term this a “recognition story.” Though the two disciples saw the risen Jesus, they were kept from recognizing him at first. Only after Jesus had served as host at their meal together were their eyes opened “and they recognized him.” They later reported to the group that “Jesus was recognized by them when he broke the bread.”
Some have wanted to interpret this meal as a celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar. It is argued that the term “the breaking of bread” in Acts chapter 2, verse 42 and elsewhere refers to Holy Communion. Though that is possible, the phrase “to break bread” with someone usually means to simply eat a meal together (see Acts chapter 27, verse 35, where there is obviously no celebration of the Sacrament). Since we are not told that Jesus shared the cup with the two Emmaus disciples, we cannot understand this meal as a celebration of the Sacrament.
There is something significant in the fact that these disciples did recognize Jesus in the breaking of bread. How many times had not the followers of Jesus experienced his presence in that very way: the feeding of the five thousand (chapter 9, verse 16), the times he ate even with tax collectors and sinners (chapter 15, verse 2), and also the Last Supper (chapter 22, verse 19). Each time we Christians today celebrate the Lord’s Supper, our faith recognizes him as the living Lord who is with us on our way.
One of the two disciples is named Cleopas. Luke possibly records the name because of his later activities within the early church. Who was the other person? A number of guesses have been made over the years, including the suggestion that the traveling companion of Cleopas was his wife (perhaps the name Cleopas is equivalent to Clopas, whose wife, Mary, was at the foot of the cross; John chapter 19, verse 25). They are privileged to become eyewitnesses of the risen Lord.
As the two walk along the road talking about the recent events in Jerusalem, they are joined by a third person. The reader of Luke’s gospel is in on the secret as to the identity of this person, but the two disciples remain in the dark. They think it strange that anyone visiting in Jerusalem (or living in Jerusalem, as some translate) could be unaware of the happenings of the last few days.
Responding to Jesus’ question, they relate to him their bitter disappointment over dashed hopes. It had seemed as if the mighty prophet from Nazareth would bring redemption to Israel, but his death by crucifixion plunged his followers into deep despair. Even the report of the women about the empty tomb and the angels’ message failed to lift their spirits. One thing was missing: the risen Jesus had not been seen.
The women at the tomb had failed to remember the prophetic words of Jesus about his death and resurrection. These Emmaus disciples had failed to believe the prophetic Scriptures. Jesus admonishes the two for their foolishness in not believing what, for example, was written in Isaiah chapter 53. He asks the rhetorical question, “Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” The remainder of the journey to Emmaus turns into a Bible class with Jesus as both teacher and subject matter. Later Jesus’ two students will inquire of one another about the marvelous burning they felt “while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us.” Searching the Scriptures is preparation for recognizing the living Jesus.
The two disciples are not about to let this dynamic stranger get away. With evening coming on, they urge him to stay with them. As they sit at the table, the guest becomes the host: he takes the bread, gives thanks, breaks it, and gives it to them. At the moment of recognition, the stranger disappears. The two hurry back to Jerusalem to report their encounter with the glorified Lord. They are met with the exciting news that Jesus had appeared to Simon. The mystery of the empty tomb is rapidly being solved. And with this comes a revival of hope.
Jesus appears to the disciples
Luke chapter 24, verses 36-49
While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.”
They were startled and frightened, thinking they saw a ghost. He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.”
When he had said this, he showed them his hands and feet. And while they still did not believe it because of joy and amazement, he asked them, “Do you have anything here to eat?” They gave him a piece of broiled fish, and he took it and ate it in their presence.
He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. He told them, “This is what is written: The Christ will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
As evening came that first Easter Sunday, the eleven apostles and the other followers of Jesus, men and women, were more and more convinced that the grave was empty because Jesus had risen. But they had little understanding as to just what that meant. People in those days generally believed that the souls of the dead were able to roam the earth. There was a great fear of ghosts. However, it was unthinkable that a dead person could make bodily appearances.
Yet that is exactly what Jesus did: with his glorified body he appears to Mary Magdalene, to Peter, to the Emmaus disciples, and to the group that has assembled here. His greeting is the familiar “Peace be with you.” It is a word they all need to hear, for they are understandably filled with fear.
Jesus first wants to convince his disciples that they are not seeing a ghost but rather a real, live person. He shows them his hands and feet still marked with the wounds he suffered. He invites them to touch him to demonstrate that he has flesh and blood and is no ghost. Finally, he eats a piece of broiled fish before their doubting eyes. There is a great struggle going on in their hearts between the joy of believing and the dread of being deceived. So faith wrestles with doubt in the Christian’s heart.
Not only is this the same person who ate and drank with his disciples during his earthly ministry; his message is the same. Jesus reminds them of how his entire ministry is a fulfillment of the Old Testament Scriptures. The first public sermon preached by Jesus as recorded by Luke began with this thematic statement: “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing” (chapter 4, verse 21). Jesus moves through the various books of the Old Testament, opening the minds of his disciples to show how all has been fulfilled in himself. The Old Testament is promise; the New Testament is fulfillment. The message is the same: repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
When the rich man in hell requested that someone from the dead should go and speak to his five brothers, Abraham replied that “if they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead” (chapter 16, verse 31). When Jesus appears here to his disciples, he does not simply show himself to be a living person; he opens their minds to an understanding of the Scriptures. Today we do not have the privilege of seeing the body of our risen Lord face-to-face, but we have the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which bear witness to him. These are sufficient for our faith and our witness.
Jesus concludes by giving to his followers a command and a promise. Their task will be to preach to all nations, witnessing to all they had seen and heard. It is an awesome assignment that Jesus gives, but along with it comes the promise that the disciples will be “clothed with power from on high.” The book of Acts (also written by Luke) tells the story of how the Holy Spirit empowered the disciples to go with the gospel. The journey of Jesus ended in Jerusalem; the mission of the church will begin in that same city and finally reach to the ends of the earth.
Luke chapter 24, verses 50-53
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
The gospel according to Luke ends on a note of blessing and praise: Jesus blessing his disciples with uplifted hands; the disciples worshiping him and praising God. In the Greek text, the word for “bless” and “praise” is the same. It is because we are blessed by God that we in turn praise him. This is the essence of Christian worship. Luke began his gospel with the priest Zechariah burning incense in the temple; the last verse finds the disciples in that same temple praising God for his Servant, Jesus Christ. Here is true recognition of the risen Savior.
After Jesus had blessed his disciples, we read that “he left them and was taken up into heaven.” From the context in which this story is placed, it would appear that this ascension into heaven took place on Easter Sunday evening. In Acts chapter 1, verses 1-11 we have an account of Jesus ascending into heaven after spending 40 days with his apostles. Hence the church celebrates the Ascension of Jesus on the 40th day after Easter.
In a sense, each departure of the risen Jesus from his disciples during those 40 days was an ascension. Jesus was preparing his followers for that day when they would no longer have his visible presence to rely upon. Then, though Jesus was gone from their sight, their hearts were filled with the great joy of knowing him to be God’s Servant, having come to rescue the world from sin and death. They were prepared to give their lives as his witnesses.
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