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Occasional Letters: Taken Up

D Newell, Glasgow

The first chapter of the book of the Acts introduces the reader to the stupendous miracle of the ascension. So important is this moment in redemptive history that it is alluded to four times by the simple phrase, "taken up". Although the English in fact renders two different Greek words, the idea is the same. The Lord Jesus was bodily taken up from the earth, where He had spent the previous thirty-three or so years, back to the heaven whence He came. As a result, on the Day of Pentecost He poured out the Holy Spirit upon His waiting disciples, thereby energising them for faithful witness during His absence from the world. The connection between the first two chapters of Acts is that between cause and effect, departure and arrival, exaltation and empowerment. But each mention of "taken up" has a different emphasis. Let's trace them through.

The introductory verses focus on the termination of the Lord's public ministry: "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach, Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Spirit had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: To whom also he shewed himself alive after his passion by many infallible proofs, being seen of them forty days" (Acts 1.1-3). After a lifetime of devoted service, in which He conspicuously practised everything He preached, and after a substantial post-resurrection period of forty days, sufficient to demonstrate to His disciples that He was really alive after His suffering and death, the Lord Jesus returned home. All earthly service in relation to His first coming was complete. The qualification, "in relation to His first coming", is needed because the Lord had by no means retired from ministry. On the contrary, exalted at God's right hand He constantly intercedes for His people, preserving them from the pitfalls of the pathway. How thankful we should be for the unfinished ministry of Christ!

The next reference records the disciples' collective confirmation of the Lord's removal: "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel" (Acts 1.9-10). That slow-motion visible ascent was deeply significant, because it scotched any confusion as to His whereabouts. Those early disciples who left John Baptist to follow the Saviour asked the pertinent question, "Rabbi…where dwellest thou? He saith unto them, Come and see. They came and saw where he dwelt, and abode with him that day" (Jn 1.38-39). Similarly, at the close of His ministry there was to be no doubt about His dwelling place. Luke carefully reiterates the language of visual testimony: "while they beheld…out of their sight…they looked steadfastly…gazing up". During the forty days of post-resurrection witness the Lord had, without warning, startlingly appeared and disappeared. He passed through locked doors (Jn 20.19,26); accompanied travelling disciples unrecognized, suddenly vanishing from view (Lk 24.15-16,31); unexpectedly turned up on the shores of Lake Galilee (Jn 21.4). They never knew when next they might meet Him. But now they were gathered together for corporate corroboration of His final departure into heaven, a home-going He had preannounced in the Upper Room Ministry: "If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I" (Jn 14.28). Henceforward the disciples gladly served their Master, confident in the knowledge of where He was: "It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God" (Rom 8.34); "when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high" (Heb 1.3); "[He] is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God" (1 Pet 3.22). To know we have a living, glorified Saviour is a powerful incentive to earnest worship and faithful service.

The evidence of the disciples' eyes did not stand alone. It was endorsed by what they heard from two angels: "Ye men of Galilee, 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). This announcement raised the anticipation of His return to fulfil Old Testament predictions of Messiah's triumphant reign over the earth. The disciples had earlier queried the time for the restoration of Israel's kingdom (Acts 1.6). Concerning that question an amillennialist (of all people) comments with beautiful accuracy, "the verb restore shows that they were expecting a political and territorial kingdom; the noun Israel that they were expecting a national kingdom; and the adverbial clause at this time that they were expecting its immediate establishment" (John Stott). Far from destroying such an expectation, the angels now tied it directly to the Lord's future touchdown on Mount Olivet (as predicted in Zechariah 14.4), the very place where the disciples were standing. That glorious return would result in the establishment of the promised era when "the Lord shall be king over all the earth" (Zech 14.9). Although we of this dispensation primarily await God's Son from heaven (1 Thess 1.10), we also long for Israel's revival and the Savour's righteous rule. Believers should never be narrow-minded in their interests, but rather look forward to everything that concerns the glory of the Lord Jesus Christ.

The final reference to the Lord being "taken up" specifies the necessary qualification of an apostle. "Wherefore of these men which have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, Beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained to be a witness with us of his resurrection" (Acts 1.21-22). Judas had defected and died, but a replacement was needed to fill up the company of the twelve. Peter laid down a requirement which was obviously hard to fulfil even then (there were only two candidates who fitted the bill) and is completely impossible now. Whatever men may claim or insinuate for themselves, there are no apostles – or apostolic equivalents – today. Genuine apostles had to accompany the Lord for the whole duration of His earthly service. But the sharp-minded reader will immediately raise the very pertinent question, "What about Paul?" Even in New Testament times some doubted his apostleship because he clearly stood outside the twelve for, unlike them, he had no contact with the Lord Jesus before the ascension. Nevertheless on the Damascus Road he genuinely saw the risen Christ in a unique, personal manifestation which sets him apart as the final resurrection witness because his conversion, as one "born out of due time" (1 Cor 15.8), typifies the coming conversion of national Israel when, says the Lord, "I will pour upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn" (Zech 12.10). Wonderfully, in that future day "all Israel shall be saved" (Rom 11.26), and the salvation of Saul of Tarsus previews it. We have no need to mourn the passing of the apostolic office for we have their teaching, the "apostles' doctrine" of Acts 2.42, permanently preserved for us in the Scriptures of truth. As Peter puts it, penning his second letter, "I will endeavour that ye may be able after my decease to have these things always in remembrance" (2 Pet 1.15). We don't have the men but we have their written ministry.

Because of the ascension the Lord Jesus is now enthroned in heaven. In the light of this, our responsibility is to fortify our souls daily by feeding upon the inspired Word which fosters a love for our risen, exalted and soon-coming Lord. Let us be taken up with Him.

To be continued.


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