The day Jesus vanished reminds me of a scene from the Lord of the Rings. Bilbo and his young cousin Frodo are celebrating their shared birthday with a lavish party. At the height of the festivities, Bilbo stands to give a speech that ends with this announcement:
(I am) immensely fond of you all… (but) this is the END. I am leaving Now. GOOD-BYE!!
As soon as he finished speaking he slipped his finger into the ring hidden in this pocket and vanished from their sight.
The noisy crowd of hobbits was shocked into silence. At first. Then the rumble started. Questions. Comments. Guesses. Gossip. Where did he go? How did he vanish? Why did he leave us?!
As the crowd dispersed, their questions dissolved into grumbling. Of course that old geyser would pull some final trick on us. Hmmmph! They went back to their lives without a satisfying answer to Bilbo’s mysterious disappearance. Bilbo took pleasure in their confusion. Tricking them was his parting shot.
I sometimes picture Jesus’ ascension like this. The disciples gathered, high on the triumph of Jesus’ resurrection and his many appearances. They had seen him buried and now they had seen him appear, not just once, but again and again for forty days.
Each appearance proving it was really him. Really and truly.
But on this day Jesus vanished from their sight for good. That’s where the analogy with Bilbo ends, because Jesus did it for their good.
He Vanished Before their Eyes
Bilbo didn’t like his relatives, so tricking them gave him a good laugh, instead of troubling his conscience.
But Jesus loved his disciples dearly. That’s why he didn’t vanish into thin air like the elderly hobbit. He ascended physically, visibly from earth into the clouds. They could see his feet leave the ground. They could lift their eyes and follow his progress. Even if they had to crane their necks and shield their eyes from the sun, they could see him until the last moment when a cloud hid him from view.
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.
Jesus cared for his disciples up to the very last moment of his earthly ministry. Case in point. Even as they gathered for this final moment they were full of questions. They wanted to know the game plan. Like children expecting a treat, they wanted to know when they were going to get it. “Is it now Lord? Is this the time when you hand the kingdom back to your people Israel??”
After all, the prophet Micah had clearly said it was going to happen. Surely now that Jesus had conquered all his enemies, including death, this was the opportune time for Micah’s words to be fulfilled:
“And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion,
to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come,
kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem.”
Jesus answered them kindly. No. The timing of that prophecy wasn’t their concern, it was his Father’s prerogative. However, they would be given the very thing they need right now. Power. The very power of God for witness.
He Vanished to Mark the End of His Earthly Mission
How would you label Jesus’s earthly mission? When did it start? Yes, with the miraculous conception of the God-embryo in Mary’s womb. We call this incarnation, when God who is Spirit took on a human body to become united with us. We might label the first chapter of his life “birth” starting with that moment of conception by the Holy Spirit.
After birth came his entire earthly life, from his first gasp of air to his final breath expended with the words “it is finished.” During every nanosecond of that life, Jesus lived a life of perfect obedience to the will of his Father. He never sinned. Not once. Not the slightest tipping toward impurity in his attitudes. No half truth, exaggeration or flattery. Not the smallest act of rebellion or even dragging his feet. He actively obeyed the revealed will of God perfectly.
Birth. Obedient Life. Then his death as our substitute. When he was draped in the full weight of our sins, suffering the loss of his father’s presence, and enduring the lingering death imposed only on the lowest of humanity. His bodily resurrection on the third day is the triumph over both suffering and death. It vindicated his innocence and offered life to all who believe in him.
This is usually where we stop. But the creeds don’t stop there. Luke doesn’t stop there. Jesus’ earthly mission includes his bodily ascension. His descent to earth must be matched by his ascent back to heaven. They are the bookends of his earthly mission. Both were visible. Both could be seen and heard, touched and smelled.
The newborn needing to be wiped clean and swaddled. The scarred man raising his hands in blessing as he was taken up.
And now he had vanished.
He Told Them Why It Was Better
Jesus didn’t leave his disciples in the dark. He told them beforehand why it was better for him to depart. During their final meal together he prepped them. Frankly, they couldn’t imagine life without him. So as they grew sad he began to reassure them. It’s better, he said. The whole plan of salvation was at a hinge point. One door was closing so that another door could open.
John Calvin preached to his congregation about Jesus’ ascension. The Why question must have nagged them, too, because Calvin’s words are bracing:
“It is not enough to know the story…what Luke describes here is one of the main articles of our faith…essential to salvation.”
Calvin goes on to ask another Why question. Why didn’t God open the clouds and let them peek at Jesus’ arrival in heaven? Wouldn’t that have been better? A stronger assurance for their faith? Actually, no. It was better that they not get a glimpse of heavenly realities. It would have swelled them with pride, the chief enemy of our souls.
Remember what Paul said about seeing heavenly realities? He was shown them so that he could fulfill his calling as an apostle, but he was also given an affliction–his thorn in the flesh–to keep him from debilitating pride.
“So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh…”
2 Corinthians 12:7
If you’ve ever had a splinter that you couldn’t remove, that kept burrowing deeper until it became inflamed and infected, you have a small idea of the suffering required to keep Paul from something worse. Self-congratulating pride.
It was better for Jesus to ascend. It was better for the disciples not to see his arrival.
And They Got It
If you’ve ever said goodbye to a beloved family member or put a child on the airplane for a solo trip, you know the tug of that lingering last look. You stare at the spot where they turned the corner, disappearing from your sight. Though you know she’s gone, you find yourself glued to the spot.
Until you remember that you’re needed at home. Or at work. Your phone buzzes and you are called back to reality.
It took angels, two of them, to call these disciples back to reality. They appeared after Jesus vanished. Brilliant in their whiter than white robes, they questioned the disciples’ behavior. Why are you staring at the clouds? Their behavior made no sense to the angels. He’s coming back, remember? Foolish disciples. Jesus isn’t gone, he has Ascended. And he will return, just as he promised.
The angels’ words jolted them into action. Jesus had ascended and they knew what to do. Returning to Jerusalem, they waited. Ten days later, they received what they had been promised. The Holy Spirit.
Now they were ready to bear witness to the birth, sinless life, atoning death, bodily resurrection, and ascension of their Lord.