The Story That Doesn’t End – Luke 24:50-53
When you read a book that has told a long and important story, you expect it to finish with a carefully crafted ending which sums up the major themes which have been covered. Luke does nothing like that when he brings his gospel to an end. In about four short sentences, he describes Jesus blessing his disciples, ascending to heaven, and the disciples returning to Jerusalem and gathering at the temple to praise God. That’s it. Nothing more. It’s a strange ending.
But Luke never intended his ending as an ending. He was already planning a sequel, the Book of Acts, so the last words in the gospel don’t bring the story of Jesus to a close but merely bridge into the next part of the account Luke is writing.
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Jesus took his disciples outside the city and near to Bethany which was on the Mount of Olives. They had been there several times before, and it held good memories for them. What happened next created one more unforgettable memory.
There were two things Jesus did.
First, he blessed his disciples. Luke says Jesus “lifted up his hands and blessed them.” Raising hands was a very normal form of Jewish prayer. Perhaps Luke stresses the raised hands because, like a priest, Jesus was calling down God’s blessing on his followers. Zechariah, the priest at the temple whose story is told by Luke right back at the beginning of the gospel, wasn’t able to bless the people because he’d lost the power of speech (Luke 1:8-22). Now, at the end, Jesus – the one the writer of Hebrews would call our “great high priest” (Heb. 4:14) – does pronounce a blessing on these disciples.
They certainly needed that blessing!
There was so much they had experienced and learned, but how could they make sense of it all? What they’d seen and what they’d been told may have been overwhelming. Most of us have moments when we want the merry-go-round of life to stop spinning. We say: “I need time to think, and to take in everything that’s happened.” If that’s true for us, how much more for them? The apostles had walked away from their jobs and families to follow a prophet of God. And he’d turned out to be so much more than any previous prophet, healing the sick, casting out demons, walking on water, teaching God’s truth. Gradually they’d begun to realize this Jesus was not just a prophet but the Son of God. But then he was crucified, and then he was raised back to life, and then he was teaching them what the Scriptures really said about the Messiah. How does anyone process all that? Answer: not easily.
So much had happened in so little time, and they would need more than time to take it all in. They’d need the help and wisdom of God, and Jesus prayed that blessing on them.
There was also so much that lay ahead of them. Their struggle wouldn’t be only with the past, but also with the future. The disciples were being put to work.
Part of Jesus’ final teaching was that the gospel had to be preached to all nations, and those who were witnesses of his life, death and resurrection would be the ones to do it (Luke 24:46-48).
That was a near impossible task, almost unachievable for at least two reasons.
One was the magnitude of the work. Their travel experience was never greater than walking the roads of Judea, so how could ordinary people like them start crossing oceans to far-off lands? Where would the money come from so they could eat and cover travel costs? How could they reach the sophisticates of Greece or Rome, and also the poor in Asia Minor or North Africa? Who had the skills? Who would write a strategy? Who would even listen to them? The scale and scope of what Jesus had commanded would make most mortals go weak at the knees in fright.
It would also seem impossible because of the hardships they’d have to face. These disciples stood before a risen Jesus, but every one of them knew that what happened before his resurrection was crucifixion and death. If enemies could do that to someone as popular as Jesus, it would be their fate too.
Jesus had never pretended otherwise. Many times he’d warned them that following him involved the way of the cross (Luke 9:23), and he’d given specific prophesies that his followers would be hounded to death. Jesus told them: “They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God” (John 16:2).
How could anyone face a future like that? Those who could would have three qualifications: 1) be sure that Jesus is God’s Son; 2) be wholly committed to him as Savior and Lord; 3) be filled with his Spirit and therefore have the strength of God to face any hardship. The last of these mattered very much. Jesus had promised they would be clothed with power from on high (v. 49), and now he prayed that blessing on them.
What no one could understand with their own intellect, what no one could face in their own strength, both became possible with the blessing of Jesus. That was true for simple disciples standing with Jesus near Bethany. Equally simple disciples of our day have the same blessing. The magnitude of the work is still enormous. The hardships to be faced by those who serve Jesus are still daunting. We are neither wise enough nor strong enough on our own, but with the Lord’s blessing and his power all things are possible.
Second, Jesus left his disciples. The way Luke describes it, Jesus was still blessing them as he ascended to heaven. “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (v. 51).
Only Luke describes the ascension of Jesus with any detail, but it is a hugely significant event. God took human flesh, and still fully human returned to glory. He didn’t abandon his manhood at the door of heaven. Jesus took that redeemed humanity right into the presence of the Father, the first of the millions who are his and will share the victory he won over death.
Nevertheless he left. He was there with his disciples, and a short time later they were still there and he was not. Were they consumed with grief? Or panicked to be on their own? From what Luke goes on to write about worship and rejoicing, neither seems true.
Perhaps they reacted so well because they understood two things.
They knew this was God’s plan. Their minds had been opened to understand the Scriptures, and Jesus had spent time helping them to see the big picture of what God was doing. Now they knew and understood much more than ever before. Jesus had not been raised back to life so he could set out again in the flesh on a new mission of healing and teaching across the land. The time when Jesus would leave footprints in the dust of Judea was drawing to a close. He wouldn’t be growing old with them. His departure was a moment that was meant to come, and they knew it.
They knew this was God’s plan for Jesus which would usher in an equally wonderful plan for them. Far from being abandoned, the disciples had been promised power from on high (v. 49), but the Holy Spirit was a gift to be sent only when Jesus returned to heaven. At another time Jesus had told them:
“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)
Of course they’d have wanted to keep Jesus with them, perhaps to spend years with him moving from village to village, teaching and ministering to human need like before. No doubt God could have done great things. But if that mission had required Jesus always to be physically present, only a few would ever have been reached. Only those in the same geographical place as Jesus would have been helped. God’s work would have been limited.
For the great commission to be fulfilled, there had to be another way. That other way required every apostle and new disciple to spread out across the land and then to many lands. They could not all have the physical Jesus with them, but they could all have the Holy Spirit. And his presence with each follower of Jesus was the wonderful plan that lay just ahead.
Right now, they had to let go of Jesus, physically and emotionally. He was returning to glory; that was God’s plan, and they had to accept it. But very soon the Spirit would fill them with great power, and that was how God would take his gospel through them to the world.
Dr. Henry Cloud, a consultant and psychologist, wrote a book he called Necessary Endings. The title explains his main thesis, that there are times when we have to let one thing end before we can find the even better thing which is meant next for our lives. He writes: “…remember, for the right tomorrow to come, some parts of today may have to come to a necessary ending.”
No one can cling to what they have – even something God has given – as if it is their permanent property. We cannot say, “What I have I keep, and I’ll never let it change.” God owns the plan for our lives, not us. When he says, “It’s time to let go,” then no matter how painful it is to loosen our grip on things that have mattered so much to us, that grip must be released. The comfort – the joy! – is that God’s next right thing for our lives is just ahead, and it’s a good thing, a very good thing.
The disciples rejoiced and worshiped. Luke writes:
“Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (vs. 52-53)
The words Luke uses show they realized three things.
They recognized his divinity. Very probably their thinking about Jesus still needed to mature. But now they saw him in a new way, and they knew to worship him. They had always seen something special in Jesus, something of the divine. But what they’d sensed was not something but everything of the divine. Jesus was the man who was also God. And so these disciples worshiped him.
They abandoned their fear. After the crucifixion, they’d kept out of sight, away from all human contact, terrified they’d also end up on a Roman cross. Not now. Now, instead of being controlled by fear they were filled with joy. Now, instead of hiding in secret they marched back boldly to Jerusalem and met together very publicly at the temple. These were changed people.
They centered their lives on the worship of God. That doesn’t mean they did nothing except sing psalms and spiritual songs. But devoting themselves to God became their number one focus. In time that instinct and that commitment would take them out from the temple and into the darkest places of the world so others could know the good news. But, wherever they went, their lives would be forever centered on God.
Nothing of what Luke has written about in the final four verses of his gospel brings the story of Jesus to an end. When Luke begins the Book of Acts, his opening sentence reads:
“In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven….” (Acts 1:1-2)
Luke’s first book was about what Jesus began to do and to teach, and everything he is about to detail in twenty eight chapters of Acts is therefore about what Jesus continued to do and to teach. Jesus’ work wasn’t finished. One writer says: “This is simply the end of the overture, with the music poised…, ready to surge forward into the next movement of the work.”
The next ‘movement’ will be thrusting these disciples and many more out across the world. They won’t be alone for they will have God’s Spirit, and the good news that Luke has described so carefully in his gospel will go throughout the world.
That work was not finished even when Luke completed his second volume. Still Jesus sends his disciples. Still he gives them the power of the Spirit. Still they go to the ends of the earth that all may know and all may believe in Jesus, the Son of God.
 Luke gives a little more detail of the ascension in Acts 1:9.
 In Acts 1 Luke indicates a considerable time was given to teaching the disciples before his ascension.
 Henry Cloud, Necessary Endings (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), 230.
 John 20:19
 Michael Wilcock, The Savior of the world: the message of Luke’s gospel (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1979), 215.
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