of the Ascension
So surely as He went away, so surely He comes again
All that is known of the incidents surrounding the Ascension depends on the historical records of Luke. Second only in importance to the story of the Crucifixion, nothing whatever as to its nature and details would have come down to us had it not been for his stories of the event, both in his Gospel and in the Book of Acts. From both these narratives it is known that some forty days after his resurrection Jesus took his disciples to a spot on the Mount of Olives and there visibly ascended into the skies in their presence. After that they saw him no more. Thus convinced that He had indeed returned to his Father in heaven, they returned to Jerusalem with joy, and a few days later underwent the profound experience of Pentecost which launched them upon their life's work and resulted in the establishment of the Christian Church.
It is noticeable that the account in Acts is fuller and more detailed than that in Luke's Gospel. It would seem that during the ten years or so which elapsed between the writing of these two books Luke must have obtained more information relative to the event. Had he possessed the full story when writing his Gospel it is unlikely that he would have refrained from including it since this is the natural climax to the Gospel. As it is, Acts virtually overlaps the Gospel insofar as the story of the Ascension is concerned and the combination of the two accounts enables a very full picture to be drawn.
It would seem that Jesus took the entire eleven disciples with him on this last journey. He led them, says the Gospel (Luke 24.50) as far as Bethany, and then lifting up his hands he blessed them.
He was carried away into heaven and they saw him no more. Acts adds the detail that a cloud received him out of their sight. A minor apparent discrepancy arises from the statement in Acts that they returned from Olivet "which is from Jerusalem a sabbath day's journey". This distance, the most that an orthodox Jew could travel from his home on the Sabbath, was, according to Josephus, a little under a mile, whereas Bethany is a mile and three-quarters from the city walls. It is not likely though that Jesus made his ascent from the middle of the village in full view of the townsfolk; the story has the atmosphere of a quiet leave-taking in a secluded spot. More probably, Jesus halted his little party whilst still on the slopes of the Mount, with Bethany perhaps coming into sight in the distance, maybe no more than a mile away, so that Luke's earlier account could still be reasonably correct. In fact the western slopes of Olivet are only about half a mile or less from the city.
The last time they had followed Jesus along this road it had been to Gethsemane and death; after that they had believed all was over and there was no hope. Now they followed him with quiet joy, past the Garden with its tragic memories and out on the open road as it traversed the southern slopes of the Mount where the sun shone brightly down. He was alive, and death could have no more dominion over him; all that the prophets had spoken would now surely come to pass.
So they stood to receive his blessing, and then in wonder watched his form ascend steadily into the blue sky above their heads. It was all so very clear now. During the past forty days He had appeared and disappeared time after time, convincing them that He was truly alive, risen from the dead, and with them still, not yet ascended to his Father. But this was different. They knew, now, that they would see him no more. As they "looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up" they realised, as no other situation could make them realise, that He had returned to the Father in heaven as He always said He would. The receding form vanished into a cloud passing across the sky, and that was the end. Thoughtfully they made their way back to the city and their waiting friends, conscious only of a great joy in their hearts.
Now we know that his body of flesh, with its enshrouding garments, did not continue its upward levitation onward from the cloud, through the earth's atmosphere, out into the vastness of space and so to the portals of the celestial land. We know that because we know it to be impossible for flesh and blood to enter the heavenly world and appear in the presence of God. When our risen Lord, to use the language of Hebrews "appeared in the presence of God for us" He did so, no longer as man nor manifest in the accoutrements of humanity fitted only for this earthly world, but in the spiritual glory of his Divinity. Now was his dying prayer fulfilled; He returned to his own place invested with the "glory which He had with the Father before the world was" (Jn.17.5). We know so little of that mystic relationship which exists eternally between the Father and the Son. All our illustrations and definitions are inadequate to convey to our minds a truth which must lie fundamentally outside the range of human intellect. But it is a grave indignity to the One in whom all things subsist to think of his Person as eternally manifested within the compass and lineaments of a terrestrial human being. Such a tiny creature was designed for and fitted to the physical conditions of a minute speck of matter in the vast creation of which He is Lord and Head.
We know all that, but the disciples did not. Their day and age was by no means ready for such an appreciation of the majesty and mystery of God. So it must have been that as they wended their way back to the city they were conscious only of the simple realisation that their Master had returned to his Father in heaven and of that they were sure because they had seen him go.
There was another assurance too and one that accounted for the unmixed joy which filled their hearts. One day He would come back to them; they had not lost him for ever. One day He would come back in glory and power to establish the Kingdom He had so often talked to them about, and then they would be in his company for all time. All their hopes and desires would then be satisfied. All that the prophets of old had predicted would be fulfilled. Jesus himself had told them all that, during the life they had shared with him, but not only so, even now, before they left the scene of the event they had just witnessed, two messengers of God, two angels, had appeared to them and repeated the promise, "Ye men of Galilee", they had said to them, "Why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven" (Acts 1.11).
The full force of the assurance is lost in the English translation. All too commonly it is assumed that the angels indicated that Jesus would return in exactly the same physical state and environment as He went away. That just as He had ascended visibly into the cloud, so He would one day descend visibly from a cloud, in a human body like that of his Ascension. He would be arrayed in clothing like that in which the disciples saw him go, setting foot again upon the Mount of Olives amid a circle of watching and waiting believers. This is not really what the angels meant. The expression "in like manner" in this verse has a deeper and, to the disciples, an infinitely more assuring significance. The comparison denoted by the Greek expression behind the translation was not so much that of the similarity of action or condition between the going and the coming but the equivalent certainty of the two factors. "As surely as ye have seen him go, so surely will he return."
This is nowhere better illustrated than by another occurrence of the same expression in Acts. During the narrative of Paul's shipwreck in Acts 27 there comes a point where Paul in a dream received Divine assurance of safety and deliverance for the whole of the ship's company with instructions for their action. In recounting all this to his fellows Paul says (v.25) "I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me." "Even as" here is the same word, "hon tropon", as "in like manner" in Acts 1.11. In Paul's words it denotes the certainty of fulfilment; the coming deliverance was as real and assured as the fact that God had spoken to him. Upon Olivet the promised return was as real and certain as the obvious fact that they had seen him go. It was this certainty which sent them back to Jerusalem "with great joy."
For the more studious, the basic idea behind the expression "hon tropon" is that of the regular duplication of similar events, of one following the other in automatic and assured sequence. It is derived from trope, a turning around or about, referring primarily to the regular and predictable motion and return of the heavenly bodies in their seasons, as the sun in its course along the ecliptic or the planets in their orbits. In the circuit of the year the sun travels first to the north of the Equator and then to the south, returning at the end to the position from which it started. (Hence our word "tropics", which comes from "trope".) So it came to mean an orderly way or succession, the certainty of an expected future event compared with the acknowledged certainty of a known past event of the same class. Whilst the expression "like manner" can express this idea fairly well, the rendering "as ‑ so" is much more forceful and accurate. and this is how "tropon" is usually translated in the A.V. Just a few examples from the Greek New Testament and Septuagint Old Testament, and one from the Apocrypha, will suffice to illustrate this. The italicised words are the A.V. renderings of "hon tropon" or "tropon". Acts 21.25. "I believe God, that it shall be even as it was told me". Acts 15.11. "We believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they". 2 Tim.3.8. "Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these resist the truth. Gen.26.29. "That thou wilt do us no hurt ‑ as we have done unto thee nothing but good". Deut.11-25. "The Lord your God shall lay the fear of you upon all the land .... as he hath said unto you." Exod.14.13. "For whereas ye have seen the Egyptians to-day, ye shall see them no more for ever." Obad.l6. "As ye have drunk upon my holy mountain, so shall the heathen drink continually." Psa.42.1. "As the hart pants after the water-brooks, so pants my soul after thee, O God." 2 Macc.15.39. "As wine mingled with water is pleasant .... even so speech finely framed delights the ears of them that read the story".
It can be argued that if one thing is "even as" another it can be said to be "in like manner", similar in manner, and this is true enough provided the basic meaning behind the expression is kept in mind, that it is the assured recurrence of the relevant events, the fact that they stand together as related matters equally certain of realisation. As this is true, so that is true. As this has happened, so that will happen. When "manner" in the ordinary sense of the word, as custom, action, fashion, is concerned the word "ethos" is employed, as in Jn.19.40, Acts 15.1 and 25.16, Heb.10.25; sometimes it is "houtos", which latter can be roughly rendered 'thus-wise' or 'accordingly'. It is so in Mark 13.39 "So ye, in like manner, when ye see these things" and 1 Pet. 3.5 "For after this manner in the old time holy women also" or Rev. 11.5 "He must in this manner be killed".
Coming back for a moment to Acts 27.25, the expression in the Greek text is identical ‑ except for the verb concerned ‑ as in Acts 1.11. Here is the comparison. Acts 1.11. "Thus (houtos) he will come even as (hon tropon) ye are seeing him go-away into the heaven." Acts 27.25. "Thus (houtos) it shall be even as (hon tropon) it has been told to me."
Small wonder then that with this note of certainty ringing in their ears the predominant feeling in the hearts of the disciples as they returned to Jerusalem was one of "great joy". So much so that this was the salient feature of the story as it was afterwards received by Luke and incorporated in his Gospel. The sad and anxious enquiry "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" was swallowed up and forgotten in the face of this heavenly assurance of the certainty of his return. He had only gone away for a time; He would surely come again. In the meantime they could with good heart execute his commission to preach the Gospel of the Kingdom to the uttermost parts of the earth, firmly persuaded that, even as He had gone away, so surely would He come back.
So it is with us, who two thousand years later wait still for the fulfilment of the angelic assurance. It is of little importance in our Christian lives that we know the time of his coming ‑ and no man knows, or ever can know, the time anyway. It is more important that we have as clear an understanding as we can gain from the Scriptures of the manner of his coming, that we be not deceived either by false Christs or false expectations. It is greatly important that we understand very distinctly the purpose of his coming, for without that knowledge we are as servants who know not what their Lord doeth and are unready to enter into his higher service when He does come. But most important of all is the firm and fixed conviction, which nothing can shake, that He most certainly returns at the pre-ordained appointed time. He sets in motion that chain of events which characterises the Days of the Son of Man, without delay, without failure, unaffected and uninfluenced by whatever of opposition on the part of his enemies or apathy and lack of comprehension on the part of his followers He may find. When the Clock of the Ages points to the hour already set for the Advent, He comes. So surely as He went away, so surely He comes again.