Look, up in the sky!

I remember the corny opening of the old Superman show:

Look, up in the sky!

It’s a bird!

It’s a plane!

It’s… 

No, it’s not Superman. It’s the Son of Man.

As we’ve seen, the risen Jesus appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days, continuing to teach them about God’s kingdom. In his post-resurrection state, Jesus was able to come and go at will (e.g., Luke 24:31, 36), so we probably shouldn’t imagine him needing a room at the Holiday Inn. His followers would have grown accustomed to seeing him depart in supernatural ways (if indeed one can get used to things like that).

But at the end of that forty day period, Jesus made an even grander exit. Here’s how Luke describes it at the end of his gospel, in the simplest of terms:

He led them out as far as Bethany, where he lifted his hands and blessed them. As he blessed them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. (Luke 24:50-51, CEB)

In Acts 1, Luke adds that Jesus “was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight” (vs. 9), leaving the disciples “staring toward heaven” (vs. 10).

All of this seems a rather scant description of such a significant event. What can we make of it?

First, we shouldn’t think of “heaven” as a location on a map, as a “place” in our sense of the word. It’s less a matter of where Jesus has gone, and more a matter of with whom he now resides: he has gone to be with his Father. On the day he returns, he will complete the work of restoration that has already begun: the corruption of sin will be forever eliminated, all of creation will be set free (Rom 8:18-22), heaven and earth will be made new, and God will dwell with his people (Rev 21:1-3).

Second, Luke’s references to heaven resonate with the Old Testament. The great prophet Elijah, for example, instead of dying, was taken directly to heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:11). This happened as the mantle of prophetic authority was passed to his protegé Elisha. This suggests a similar passing of the ministry of Jesus to his disciples. He has just commissioned them as his witnesses (Acts 1:8); his ascension to heaven can be taken as the exclamation point.

Even more important is the presence of a cloud, an ancient sign of the presence of God’s glory. Think of the stories: God went before the Israelites in a pillar of cloud. A cloud covered Mt. Sinai as Moses received the commandments. A cloud covered the tent of meeting when God’s presence filled it. The cloud of God’s glory filled Solomon’s temple.

Later, a cloud overshadowed the mountain where Jesus was transfigured before his astonished disciples. There, they heard the voice of God say, “This is my Son, my chosen one. Listen to him!” (Luke 9:35).

Perhaps most important of all is the prophet Daniel’s vision of “one like a human being, coming with the heavenly clouds” to God, the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13). Here, the phrase “human being” translates the expression “Son of Man,” one of Jesus’ favorite names for himself. He took Daniel’s imagery upon himself (e.g., Matt 24:30; Mark 13:26), and there was no mistaking his meaning. Indeed, when the high priest asked Jesus directly if he was the Messiah, Jesus essentially said yes and then quoted Daniel, whereupon the high priest tore his clothes in declaration of blasphemy (Mark 14:61-63).

It’s significant, then, that as the disciples stand gawking into the sky, two heavenly messengers appear, saying, “Galileans, why are you standing here, looking toward heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). One day, Jesus will return, riding a cloud of glory, just as Daniel foresaw.

So when the time comes, go ahead, look up in the sky. When the Son of Man comes, he’ll finish what he started.

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