Episode 155 - The Great Commission and the Ascension of Jesus

June 13, 2017

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At the end of His ministry, Jesus commissions His eleven apostles to continue His mission to call Israel to bear the fruits of repentance, to make disciples, and to imitate His manner of life. Jesus then ascends to the heavens on a cloud. This episode looks at a common misunderstanding of "the Great Commission" as well as the theological significance of Jesus' ascension.

This video is part of the Opening Up the Gospels series.
Transcription

Hi I’m Josh Hawkins, this is Episode 155 of Opening Up the Gospels. In the last three episodes I’ve worked through the Gospels’ record of Jesus’ appearances after His resurrection. We saw Him present Himself to Mary Magdalene, then to two disciples on the road to Emmaus, and then to the eleven on several occasions, offering undeniable proof that He had in fact risen from the dead. Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15 that He also had appeared to over 500 at one time. That’s pretty amazing - 500 eyewitnesses, all telling what they had seen and heard. It’s pretty much impossible to keep a secret or fake a story with that many eyewitnesses. Jesus had in fact been raised, and it was the proof that God was going to accomplish all that He had promised in the Law and the Prophets, as He had said it. The resurrection also showed that Jesus’ manner of life was now the standard of submission, what it looked like for a life to be committed and devoted to God. Those two points are things I talked about back in Episode 151 and are important for how we understand Jesus’ words to His disciples in today’s episode, where we’ll take a short look at what’s often called “The Great Commission” as well as the ascension of Jesus. The Gospel authors now fast forward 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection, and so it’s sometime in late May of 29AD. I want to read a few verses from the book of Acts, because Luke, the author of Acts, gives us a few important points to consider Check this out from Acts 1: "He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”" (Acts 1:3–5 ESV) So Luke is saying that during Jesus’ appearances to the apostles in the intervening 40 days between His resurrection and ascension, He spoke to them about “the kingdom of God”. Now as I’ve talked about often throughout this series, Jesus’ first coming did not redefine or reinterpret what the apostles believed about the kingdom - it was always an earthly kingdom based in Jerusalem ruled by a son of David whose reign would go on forever. Jesus wasn’t teaching His disciples for 40 days about the age to come and the promise to David’s son as if they had never heard it before, because that was something they were already extremely familiar with from the Law and the Prophets. Their own words in the Gospels and their later letters make that abundantly clear. What Jesus was teaching them during those 40 days becomes evident when we look at what they said and taught in the months and years to come, as evidenced by their sermons in the book of Acts and their letters that we have in the New Testament. Jesus was that final king from David’s line, but He first had to suffer as an atonement for sin before establishing His glorious kingdom. This “atonemental” understanding is what Jesus gave to Peter, James, the rest of the apostles, and even to Paul later on, who learned it directly from Jesus, according to his own words in Galatians 1. The death of Israel’s Messiah is accounted by God as an atoning sacrifice for sins, and those who repent and cling to the cross are the ones who will inherit eternal life and all of God’s promises. This is the very point that needed much explanation from Jesus, and this is what the apostles went on to proclaim boldly. Let’s read just a couple more verses from Acts 1: "So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “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 1:6–8 ESV) So after 40 days of teaching, look at what the apostles ask here. “Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” This isn’t a stupid question. Jesus didn’t take 40 days to redefine what the kingdom of God was, as if it was now some spiritual reality and that the age to come had been redefined and launched. The disciples are asking this question because they believed the Law and the Prophets and actually understood Jesus’ teachings over the last 40 days. Jesus answers them by essentially saying “the kingdom, as the Scriptures have spoken, will be established in the manner you’re expecting, but the timing is not for you to know”. Does that make sense? Jesus then authorizes them as His witnesses - as the ones who testify to all they have seen and heard and who instruct and lead others into the understanding that they now have. The Holy Spirit would empower them in this unique way, and it would be through their testimony and manner of life that the Gospel would be spread. Wel, let's keep reading from Matthew's gospel: "Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them. And when they saw him they worshiped him, but some doubted. And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”" (Matthew 28:16–20 ESV) First and foremost, we have to remember the context. Jesus is speaking to the eleven, who were Jews living in the land of Israel. And they’re on a mountain in Galilee, which is the northern region of the land of Israel. Now like so many other passages in the Bible, our propensity is to overuniversalize Jesus’ words and often times completely ignore the original context. This “Great Commission” as it’s often called, in its context here in the Gospels, is not a command to all Christians for all time to go to China and Brazil and Europe to reach the lost. Now don’t hear me wrongly here - I am not at all saying that missions is unbiblical, and I do believe we, whether Jew or Gentile, should tell as many as possible about Jesus and His story. The good news of the Jewish king and His coming kingdom will go forth into all the world as a witness to all the nations, as Jesus Himself said in Matthew 24:14. That’s one of the reasons for this video series, and that’s why we go and send out missionaries. But let’s be true to the context, less we miss what Jesus is saying. Without that context, we can easily fall into one of the many common misunderstandings about this “Great Commission”. One of those is that Jesus rejected the Jewish people, and that these words here in Matthew 28 are a command to go to the Gentiles and tell them about Jesus instead, because all the Jews rejected Him. But Jesus is not telling His apostles to forsake their own brothers according to the flesh. In fact, as we already read in Acts 1, Jesus wanted them to begin in Jerusalem, then go to Judea and Samaria, all lands where Jewish people lived. The good news was and still is first and foremost to the Jewish people, because the gospel is about a Jewish king, and the restoration of the city of Jerusalem, and the God of Israel being exclusively worshipped by all the nations. As I’ve said so much throughout this series, the leadership had rejected Jesus, but there was a remnant of Jews who had borne the fruits of repentance. God had not changed His mind about the promises He made to Abraham, nor did he “realize” or redefine or reimagine them through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. There has always been a faithful remnant of the ethnic descendants of Abraham throughout history, and it’s through them that the God of Israel would accomplish all that He said. As I talked about all the way back in the episodes on John the Baptist, physical descent from Abraham was not sufficient to qualify anyone for the blessing. Repentance and faith was required. So Jesus’ command to the eleven is for them to essentially take on the role that the prophets had, the role that John had, and the role that Jesus Himself had, in calling the Jewish people to turn back to the Lord their God. It was a call to make disciples in the way that Jesus had made disciples of them. It was a call to teach them about the atonement provided in the death of the Messiah, and a call to imitate His standard of living. The Jews were called to be a light to the rest of the nations. This was the story that was continuing on, and it’s clear that the eleven obeyed Jesus’ words by preaching boldly in Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria and in all the land. it’s not until years after Jesus spoke these words to the eleven that the Jewish Apostle Paul was called directly by the Lord to take the message of repentance and faith to the Gentiles. And even then, Paul would always first appeal to the Jews in every city he went to. The Gospel is first to the Jew, then to the Greek, as Paul writes in Romans 1, and that is still true even today. Now there’s so much more that could be said about this, but I hope the original context makes sense to you now, and that you see the continuity with the rest of the story of the Bible here. Well, let’s read a few final passages from Mark and Luke. First, Luke 24: "And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God." (Luke 24:50–53 ESV) And now Mark 16: "So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by accompanying signs." (Mark 16:19–20 ESV) So now we’re back in Judea, in Bethany, which is just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. And both Luke and Mark say that Jesus was carried up into the heavens. In Acts chapter 1, Luke records that a cloud took Jesus out of their sight as the disciples gazed upward at Him. This was not Jesus’ “disappearing act”. It was far more significant theologically than we may initially realize. Mark says that Jesus “sat down at the right hand of God”. In the apostles’ sermons in the book of Acts, we see them using this very phrase and quoting Psalm 110 verse 1, which says: The Lord says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” (Psalm 110:1 ESV) The apostles universally offer this passage in their sermons as proof of Jesus’ exaltation and vindication of His identity far above all other rule and authority and might and dominion. Jesus’ ascension and his seating at the right hand of God was the proof of His identity as the very God of Israel, the one worthy of exclusive worship, the sole creator and sustainer of all. Jesus was both Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, the one who would one day sit on David’s throne in Jerusalem, and He was also their God, the one who led them out of Egypt and made a covenant with them at Sinai. It was this one that the Jewish authorities rejected, and Jesus’ ascension to the right hand was proof. Psalm 110 would later go on to speak of the day of wrath, the great day of God that Jesus Himself will bring to pass. Until that day, He sits and mercifully waits patiently. Much has been spoken and written about Jesus’ ascension and Psalm 110, so I’d encourage you to dig into it if it interests you. Well, let me close this episode by reading a few final verses from Acts 1: "And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “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 1:9–11 ESV) These angels want to make sure the apostles understand that Jesus will be back, just as He said. He was no longer walking among His disciples in the land of Israel, but now sits in the heavens in patience waiting for that great day the Prophets spoke of - the day of the Lord. As surely as Jesus came the first time, He will come again, and all that the God of Israel has promised will come to pass. And with that, our look at Jesus’ life from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John is complete. Come back for one more episode where I’ll offer a summary and some concluding thoughts. As always, you can find all the episodes in this series on my website, www.joshuahawkins.com/gospels. God bless.

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