We Will Never Be Without Him: Reflections on Jesus' Ascension
As Suffering Servant his humiliation and sufferings contribute to our being made right with God. Jesus connects the Son of Man figure with the suffering servant figure of the prophet Isaiah (Is. 53:10-12; Mk. 10:45) whose suffering would be redemptive for Israel. Jesus repeatedly asserts that the Son of Man must suffer, die, and be resurrected (Lk. 18:31, 19:10). (See also Mt. 20:18, 28, 26:45; Mk. 8:31, 10:33, 14:21; Lk. 18:31, 19:10.) In identifying the Son of Man with the Suffering Servant, Jesus combines the motifs of humiliation, suffering, and death with that of the future exaltation of the Son of Man.
As Messiah, Jesus brings in a reign of God. It is a reign that, contrary to popular expectations, is not reducible to political power and nationalistic ambitions. It is a reign that results in a community of righteousness and peace. The title "Messiah" is a Hebrew word meaning "anointed" (Greek=Christos; English=Christ). The term was used in the Old Testament to refer to those anointed with oil for a special function such as that of the high priest (Lev. 4:3,5,16) or the king (2 Sam. 1:14,16). During the late Old Testament period (400-300 B.C.E.) the title "Messiah" came to denote the ideal king anointed by God, empowered by God's spirit to deliver his people and establish his kingdom in righteousness (Dan. 9:26-27). Jesus seems to have been reluctant to apply the title to himself due to its political, nationalistic overtones. During his earthly ministry, when others directly confronted him with his identity as Messiah, he did not deny it. (McKenzie, Parables for Today, 14-15)
When I was a child the stained glass window on the back wall of the church we attended was in the form of a triptych. The left hand panel was Jesus in Gethsemane, his face earnest as he prayed with a blood red tear glittering on his face. The right hand panel was Jesus on the cross, his face anguished. And the middle panel was Jesus ascending, his face serene, and his feet on a cloud that was at least a foot off the ground. I sat there as a child wondering all sorts of things. "Why isn't he wearing sneakers?" "How can he hover over the ground like that?" But the most pressing question was "Why can't that peaceful man help those other two men?" My mother's answer, to get me to turn around and sit down, was "Honey, they're all the same man." Well, that really cleared things up for a 4-year-old girl!"
But she was right. And here on the brink of his departure it dawns on the disciples who it is who stands before them. Jesus who was servant is Savior. Jesus who was jeered at is the judge of the living and the dead. Jesus who was mocked and mutilated is Risen Christ, Messiah.
Such a recognition sets the heart on fire to share the message that love is stronger than death. John Wesley once described the effects of a woman testifying in a prayer meeting on behalf of her faith. He said that as she spoke, "a fire kindled and ran, as flame among the stubble, through hearts of almost all that heard." (Paul Wesley Chilcote, She Offered Them Christ, Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993, 53)
Jesus now appoints the disciples as his witnesses. They have seen his death and can now testify to his resurrection (Marshall, 906). They are to spread the good news of repentance and forgiveness of sins, to all the nations, beginning with Jerusalem (Lk. 24:47).
He clothes them with power. They are not being asked to be "flame among the stubble" on their own power, but with the aid of the Holy Spirit. They are to wait in Jerusalem until they are "clothed with power from on high" (24:49). (Relevant O.T. texts are Joel 2:28f; Is. 32:15, 44:3; and Ezek. 39:29; see also Lk. 12:12; Mt. 10:20; and Jn. 14:16f.)
Alyce M. McKenzie is the George W. and Nell Ayers Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.