Seeing Jesus is essential for our faith. We see him now by faith, but those who lived then, when he did, saw him with their own eyes. They were eye witnesses of his life, death, and resurrection.
But that’s not all they saw. They also saw Jesus ascend into heaven.
Jesus’ ascension happened on a Thursday. Did you know that? It surprised me too. Because Jesus rose on a Sunday, “the first day of the week,” I assumed the other post-resurrection events happened on Sunday, too. Pentecost does. It happened on Day 50, the day the Holy Spirit descended to fill each of God’s people.
See for yourself. Open your calendar and start with Easter Sunday as Day 1. Count and see that Day 50 lands on a Sunday, too. The church rightly celebrates this day with its most precious gift of God’s indwelling Spirit.
But Day 40? The day Jesus physically left us, rising away from earth until he disappeared from sight behind some clouds? Count for yourself. It happened on a Thursday. What an ordinary day for such an extraordinary event.
How do we know Jesus ascended? They saw him.
Who Saw Him?
Picture that spring day in Palestine, not too hot and not too cold. Brilliant blue sky arching over the semi-arid landscape. Cultivated fields and olive groves. Wild flowers springing from crevices in the rocks.
Now listen to Luke’s story:
“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.”
“Them” refers at the very least to the eleven disciples. Judas, who died by his own hand, hadn’t yet been replaced. These eleven had all witnessed his resurrection, as well as Jesus’ repeated appearances in the same upper room where they had eaten the final Passover together.
Their sorrow had been replaced by joy. Now they wanted to know “what’s next?”
We can also assume there were women among the crowd who saw Jesus ascend. Luke first told us about the women who followed Jesus in Luke 8:1-3, and we have seen for ourselves that women were still following him, even arriving first at the empty tomb.
Luke, who had carefully researched his material, tells us that there were 120 brothers in the Christian community at that time (Acts 1:15). Add the women to this and you’ve got quite a crowd.
What Did They See?
Luke’s total account of Jesus’ Ascension covers only 5 verses in the Bible, the two I just quoted from his gospel, and 3 more at the beginning of his second book, Acts 1:9-11.
“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.”
Let’s observe those 5 verses together. What did they see?
- Jesus’ hands, still scarred
- His arms raised in a familiar gesture of blessing
- Jesus’ face animated by his last words to them
- His movement upward, without visible effort
He left, not turning his back on them, but “carried up,” “lifted up,” “taken up” as the final act of dependent obedience of his earthly life.
Where Did They Lose Sight of Him?
We are tempted to figure out how Jesus did this. After all, we know more about space travel and astrophysics today than they did. We want to know where he went.
Scripture only tells us that he went up. They could see his feet leave the earth and follow him with their eyes. Then he disappeared from their sight, their view being blocked by a cloud (Acts 1:9).
If you’ve ever sent a child off to summer camp or said goodbye to a friend as the moving van pulled away, you know how it feels. You stand and watch and wave, hoping they will turn and wave back. Finally they get on the elevator or turn the corner or board the airplane.
However they do it, they disappear from sight. Luke captures the emotion of the parting. He had prepared them. They knew it was time.
Jesus didn’t sneak away at night, but left them in broad daylight, with a final view of his face.
Why Do We Need To See For Our Own Joy?
I marvel at the next words, “And then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God (Luke 24:52-3).”
The moment they had surely dreaded had come. He was no longer with them. He was gone. But look at how they reacted. One preacher summarized it as:
I think their reaction can help us as believers today. We often feel lonely, weak, discouraged by life. Suffering burdens us. Sin trips us. Trials tempt us. If you and I were watching Jesus ascend, we might burst out, “Wait! Don’t go…I need you to stay here with me!”
We had seen these disciples in similar states of need. Not only had we seen them jockey for position among themselves, we had watched them desert Jesus at his hour of need. Even the empty tomb had baffled them. What had changed?
Jesus had risen, just as he said.
Because the resurrection stamped all of Jesus’ promises as guaranteed, they could believe the one he told them in the upper room that last Thursday evening they were together:
“It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you But if I go, I will send him to you.”
And that is exactly the promise he repeated, right before he ascended.
See for yourself. With the Scriptures before you and the Spirit within us, we too will see Jesus as often as our heart longs for his presence.
You can find more posts on Jesus’ Ascension here.