Retelling the Ascension Story


Three days after Jesus was buried, he rose from the grave and appeared to his disciples. Over the course of the next forty days, the resurrected Jesus, with his nail-pierced hands and spear-split side, spent time in the company of his friends—teaching them, encouraging them, and preparing them for a mission to take the story of his resurrection to the furthest reaches of the globe. On one of those occasions, as Jesus was eating with his friends, he told them to wait for the gift the Father had promised—the Holy Spirit Jesus had told them about. The Holy Spirit would come and comfort them and lead them forward. They were to remain in Jerusalem until this happened.


It could not have been easy for the disciples to sit with their risen Lord. For as much joy and hope as Jesus’ resurrection brought them, they had been present at his death. They had witnessed the brutal execution of this man they loved, followed, and gave their lives to serving. They saw his beaten and bloody form hang from the cross as he breathed his last. After he died, they were hollowed out with grief.

Along with their grief was the guilt. The trauma of the crucifixion had revealed weaknesses in each one of them. They watched their loyalty to Jesus collapse under the weight of the chief priests’ resolve to put an end to what he had started. Not one of them had shown the strength they believed they possessed when Jesus was taken into custody. Each one denied knowing him in his greatest hour of need.

On top of the grief and the guilt was the fact that the world as they knew it had changed. When the resurrected Jesus appeared to his disciples, it was to remind them of their call to be his witnesses in the world. But after the resurrection, they hardly knew what that world was anymore.

They were fragile and unsettled, but they could not escape the reality that Jesus had in fact risen. And they knew they were somehow tied up in it. How could they not be? In a world where everyone dies, one man’s resurrection becomes instantly relevant to all. His resurrection was part of their story.

The disciples used that time to ask questions of Jesus. They wanted to understand what would happen next. Would he deal with the religious leaders who opposed him? Would he overthrow Rome? Would he restore the kingdom of Israel to her former glory? And if so, when? Would they be part of it?


Jesus told them the Father was establishing his kingdom, but the particulars of this business were not theirs to know. Such knowledge belonged to God alone. What he could tell them, however, was that the Holy Spirit would come on each one of them in a matter of days, and when he did, they would be filled with power.

In that power, they would be his witnesses in Jerusalem, in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. This Great Commission, the disciples came to understand, was very much about the kingdom of God. Their mission, though they struggled to grasp it, was in some way the work of building the kingdom of God. The Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God—the two main subjects Jesus discussed after his resurrection—were inseparably linked, meaning the disciples’ call to bear witness to Christ carried eternal significance.

Forty days after the resurrection the disciples were on the Mount of Olives and Jesus was with them. He told them they would be his witnesses, and after he said this, he began to rise up into the sky right before their eyes. Up he went, until a cloud hid him from their sight. The disciples stood in silence as they watched him go. In that moment the world became an even greater mystery than the one the resurrection demanded they embrace.

Jesus did not need to visibly ascend. What the disciples witnessed was not for Jesus’ benefit but for theirs. He did it so they would know he was actually gone. They would not see him the next day. He would not attend to them in the same way he had these past forty days. They were not to wait for him. Now they were to wait for the Holy Spirit.

As the disciples stood, looking up and watching their friend vanish, two angelic beings dressed in white appeared. The luminous apparitions said, “Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking into the sky? This same Jesus who has now been taken up will come again. He will descend in the same way you saw him ascend into heaven. He is coming back.”

But as far as the disciples were concerned, the time for standing around and looking up to heaven had passed. They needed to let Jesus go and step into the mission he had given them. What was happening in the sky was not their chief concern. What was happening on earth was.

The disciples responded by obeying Jesus’ command to wait. They left the Mount of Olives and went back into Jerusalem and gathered many of Jesus’ followers together in the upper room where they were staying.


More than 120 people were gathered in all. There were the eleven disciples: Simon Peter, James and John (the sons of Zebedee), Peter’s brother Andrew, Philip, Thomas, Bartholomew, Matthew the tax collector, Simon the zealot, Alphaeus’s son James, and James’s son Judas. With them were the women who had discovered the empty tomb, Jesus’ mother, Mary, Jesus’ brothers, and many more whose lives had been changed by Jesus.

For ten days they waited, but it was not a passive waiting. They used the time. They joined together to pray. They prepared for the work that lay ahead. This was an act of obedience to their slain and risen Lord. In their waiting they trusted him, even though their understanding of what lay ahead was less than clear.

Jesus never told them how long they would have to wait for the Holy Spirit to come—just that he would arrive in a little while. After all that had transpired in Jerusalem in recent weeks, remaining there was as much an act of courage as it was an act of faith. This was the city where Jesus had been arrested, beaten, crucified, and buried. This was the place where Judas had betrayed Jesus for a pocket full of silver and where Peter had denied knowing Jesus for fear of a child’s accusation. This was the city that seemed bent on erasing any trace of the movement Jesus started.

There were more appealing places to wait and families many of them could have gone home to. Each had the option to return to their homes in places like Galilee, Nazareth, and Cana. They could have gone back to their old jobs—fishing, collecting taxes, carpentry, prostitution. They could have even gone back to their old religions—Judaism or Roman paganism. But those who gathered in the upper room didn’t. They chose to obey Christ, and they waited. And they used their time.


Each person gathered in that upper room over the course of those days had been changed in some way through their relationship with Jesus. The cast of characters would have included people like Mary Magdalene, who had once been possessed by demons, and Nicodemus, the Pharisee who helped cover the cost of Jesus’ burial. Perhaps the synagogue ruler from Capernaum, Jairus, was there with his daughter Talitha, whom Jesus had raised from the dead, and perhaps they were huddled together in friendship with Lazarus, whom Jesus had also raised from the dead. Former lepers, newly sighted blind people, and once-paralyzed beggars would have been milling about in the crowd too.

As it has always been with the people of God, their desire to obey Christ was strengthened by the bond of their fellowship with one another. God had made them to need one another—to be known, loved, and supported. This was the power and influence of Jesus in each of their lives. He had loved and served them in such a way that they had come to need one another. The usual dividing lines of the day—wealth, nationality, reputation—were already beginning to blur. These were people who had come to accept that they were all weak and that Jesus had been strong for them. They were all poor and Jesus had been generous with them. They were all outsiders and Jesus had given them a place with him. These truths drew them toward one another.

Taken from The Mission of the Body of Christ (Retelling the Story Series) by Russ Ramsey. Copyright (c) 2018 by Russ Ramsey. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.

Russ Ramsey and his wife and four children make their home in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of StruckBehold the Lamb of God, and was awarded the 2016 Christian Book Award from the Evangelical Christian Publishers Association for his book Behold the King of Glory. Russ grew up in the fields of Indiana and studied at Taylor University and Covenant Theological Seminary (MDiv, ThM). He is a pastor at Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee, and his writing has appeared at The Rabbit Room, The Gospel Coalition, The Blazing Center, and To Write Love on Her Arms.