ASCENSION SUNDAY | Luke 24:44-53

One of the difficulties we have in reading and understanding the Bible is that we often unintentionally plug individual passages and key concepts into a controlling story that is foreign to the Bible. This results in making the Bible answer questions it was never interested in addressing.

For example, many read Genesis 1-2 as if it were a modern scientific account of cosmic and human origins. Unfortunately, this ancient Near Eastern origins story isn’t interested in addressing our contemporary debates over the age of the earth, evolution, and so on. To force the Bible to speak into such debates is often to distort the text and to miss the message Genesis 1-2 is actually trying to convey.

This week’s Gospel reading for the Ascension of the Lord Sunday bunches together all kinds of heavyweight concepts and phrases at the core of the Christian faith: repentance, forgiveness, preaching the gospel, etc.  I am afraid the church has often plugged these concepts into the wrong story as well. As a result, the church has tended to neglect some major ideas we need to recover if we are to faithfully live out our earthly vocation as followers of Jesus. (The thread connecting all the readings for this coming Sunday is Jesus’ ascension as heavenly enthronement. Go read them here.)

Here’s a portion of the Gospel from Luke with key ideas in bold:

45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them,“This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.” 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. (Luke 24:45-53)

These are the final words in Luke’s Gospel, so they are important to grasp. Like the disciples in the story, we all long to have our “minds opened” in order to “understand the Scriptures” properly. In Luke’s account, Jesus is working overtime to help them put the entire plot together in light of recent events—the Messiah’s death and resurrection. Even the novice to the Bible can see that the plot involves death and resurrection, a message about repentance and forgiveness of sins, being clothed with power, bearing witness and preaching some kind of “gospel” message to the nations. The passage ends with Jesus blessing them and ascending into heaven. 

The Story many of us have been taught in the church, which we try to squeeze all our “salvation” concepts into, can be summed up as a personal salvation story about personal forgiveness of sins. A typical summary might be:

God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. Unfortunately, you are a sinner and your sin separates you from God. If you were to die today “in your sins,” you would spend eternity apart from God. The good news is that Jesus has suffered in your place and by confessing faith in Him you can have your sins forgiven and find peace with God now and for eternity. All you need to do is repent (i.e., feel sorry for your sins) and believe the good news” (i.e., offer mental assent to Christ as savior). 

Now, I can agree with probably every truth claim in that paragraph above. The problem is that this is simply not the bigger, larger, more Israel-centered Story the Bible is telling from Genesis to Revelation regarding God’s plan of rescuing His Creation from the power of Sin and Death through the life, death, resurrection, ascension and future coming of Jesus the Messiah.

This truncated personal salvation story about forgiveness of sins is too individualistic; it leaves out the entire OT story of Israel; it has too narrow a view of repentance, forgiveness of sins, and faith; it deals with the symptom (sin) without addressing the fundamental problem beneath it (idolatry); it has the wrong goal in mind (heaven); it largely ignores the commission Jesus gave the church; and downplays the centrality of His Ascension and Heavenly reign here and now through the church; it doesn’t announce the same gospel as the apostles and early church—“Jesus is Lord!” Have I gotten your attention yet? 

This Ascension Sunday come and join us as we unpack some of these central ideas above, and ask the question: “What’s the deal with the gospel and salvation?” What questions do you have about these big concepts above? Let me know and I’ll try to address them on Sunday. 

A student once emailed my professor saying, “Okay, I get that Jesus was Israel’s Messiah. I just don’t understand what that fact has to do with the gospel and salvation.” I suspect many (if not most) of us can relate to this student’s question. If so, this is a sure sign that we have the wrong story when it comes to understanding the gospel and salvation. My professor says we need to go back and re-read the Bible until we find a Problem for which “Jesus is Lord” is the grand solution. 

Take a moment to slowly read through all the texts for this Sunday, and listen for the larger Story unfolding that has the proclamation of “Jesus as King” as its central theme. See you Sunday!

Recommended Resources:

The King Jesus Gospel by Scot McKnight

Salvation by Allegiance Alone by Matthew Bates

Scot McKnight: What Is The Gospel? from ReGeneration Project on Vimeo.

Jeremy Berg is the founding pastor of MainStreet Covenant Church in Mound, Minnesota, and Professor of Theology at Solid Rock Discipleship School. Jeremy is completing his doctorate in New Testament Context under Dr. Scot McKnight at Northern Seminary in Chicago. He holds a M.A. in Theological Studies from Bethel Seminary (2005) and B.A. from Bethel University (2002). He and his wife, Kjerstin, keep busy chasing around three kids, Peter, Isaak and Abigail.

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