The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Love of God, and the Fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen.
Acts 1:1-26 The first account I composed, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after He had by the Holy Spirit given orders to the apostles whom He had chosen. 3 To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God. 4 Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, “Which,” He said, “you heard of from Me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” 6 So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; 8 but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.” 9 And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. 10 And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. 11 They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven. 12 Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away. 13 When they had entered the city, they went up to the upper room where they were staying; that is, Peter and John and James and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James the son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas the son of James. 14 These all with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer, along with the women, and Mary the mother of Jesus, and with His brothers. 15 At this time Peter stood up in the midst of the brethren (a gathering of about one hundred and twenty persons was there together), and said, 16 “Brethren, the Scripture had to be fulfilled, which the Holy Spirit foretold by the mouth of David concerning Judas, who became a guide to those who arrested Jesus. 17 For he was counted among us and received his share in this ministry.” 18 (Now this man acquired a field with the price of his wickedness, and falling headlong, he burst open in the middle and all his intestines gushed out. 19 And it became known to all who were living in Jerusalem; so that in their own language that field was called Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) 20 “For it is written in the book of Psalms, ‘Let his homestead be made desolate, And let no one dwell in it’; and, ‘Let another man take his office.’ 21 Therefore it is necessary that of the men who have accompanied us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us— 22 beginning with the baptism of John until the day that He was taken up from us—one of these must become a witness with us of His resurrection.” 23 So they put forward two men, Joseph called Barsabbas (who was also called Justus), and Matthias. 24 And they prayed and said, “You, Lord, who know the hearts of all men, show which one of these two You have chosen 25 to occupy this ministry and apostleship from which Judas turned aside to go to his own place.” 26 And they drew lots for them, and the lot fell to Matthias; and he was added to the eleven apostles.” (NASB)
Thursday was Ascension Day. Today is the Seventh and last Sunday of the Easter Season. Next week is Pentecost Sunday. The assigned reading for Thursday’s Ascension Services was Acts 1:1-11. The assigned reading for this morning is Acts 1:12-26.
Acts 1:1-11 and the Gospel lesson, Luke 24:50-53 were written by the same person– Luke. Both give us a report of the ascension of our Lord into heaven as does the end of St. Matthew.
The second half of the reading (Acts 1:12-26 ) is the assigned reading for the Seventh Sunday of Easter and it contains the report of what the disciples did in the immediate aftermath of Jesus’s ascension. Included in this section is a church service, the criteria and process by which Judas was replaced, the report of Judas’s gory death, and the call and ordination of Judas’s replacement– Matthias.
While the former, the Jesus’s ascension is a rather “heavenly” experience, the second half is very much earthly. So let’s take each part, the heavenly ascension and the earthly work of the church a piece at a time.
In the opening weeks of Jesus’s earthly ministry told the disciples who He was by telling them what He would do at the end of His earthly ministry. He said, “No one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man.” (John 3:13)
Christ’s local work on earth began when the Son of God took on flesh. The Son of God, the Second Person of the Trinity existed before the universe was created, He descended, became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary and became one of us. He grew to be a man. He fulfilled the Law perfectly. He spent His entire life sinless. He preached and taught the Word of God, the Law and the Gospel as they were given to be understood, preached, and taught. Jesus went to the cross to die for the sins of the world and on the third day, He rose from the dead. Over the next 40 days Jesus went back and forth between His heavenly Father and His church on earth.
During that time He proved that He was dead and had come back to life. He had given Himself to die and had taken up His own life again. In so doing Jesus was teaching and showing that He was truly God and that His suffering and death was a complete payment for your sins, my sins, and the sins of the world. Acts 1:3; “To these He also presented Himself alive after His suffering, by many convincing proofs, appearing to them over a period of forty days and speaking of the things concerning the kingdom of God.”
Jesus’s ascension was another proof that He was God and as such He would rule over heaven and earth and would return to judge the living and the dead. Thus at Jesus’s ascension, God the Father sent angels saying, “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
The Ascension was so important for the life and work of the church God the Father required that it be seen/witnessed by His apostles. Over those 40 days of Easter Jesus had gone back and forth between His heavenly Father and the earth and had done so without witnesses, at least no written eye witness report other than materializing behind close doors on Easter Sunday and on the Sunday after that. But it is only the final “going” that is witnessed. This time Jesus ascended, He went up into the sky, in a visible manner so it could be seen and testified to.
This time there would also be some instructions given and a repeat of a previous promise. (4-5) “Gathering them together, He commanded them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait for what the Father had promised, ‘Which,’ He said, ‘you heard of from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.’”
By virtue of His own instructions, promises, and the circumstances of His Ascension, Jesus links everything together–from His incarnation to His ascension. It is all necessary if the church is going to carry out its mission of saving people from sin, death, and eternal judgment. At the same time He is making sure that the apostles concern themselves with the task as hand. They want to know more than they had thus far been taught. “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’s reply. “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
In the legal profession, attorneys have a saying. “Keep your eye on the rabbit.” It’s another way of saying don’t get distract by all the tangents that arise in the course of prosecuting or defending a case. Jesus was telling that first generation of pastors and all those who would follow to “stay in their lane,” to do the work of the church on earth, to do the work of the Word and sacrament ministry.
While Jesus would no longer be locally present, that is presence in His fleshly bodily form in one place (thus the world local) Jesus ascension does not mean that He is gone, absent. He had already promised, “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am also.” (Matt. 18:20)
Matthew 28:28-29 records the ascension as well and contains some additional instructions. “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” In the ascension Jesus returns to His heavenly throne to rule over heaven and earth. It also means that means that He is with us wherever His Word and sacrament ministry and as He also taught, He is with us in the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
After the ascension the disciples returned to Jerusalem to wait for the manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Thus begins the second part of this morning’s lesson. They return to Jerusalem and St. Luke wrote, 14 “These all [that is all the disciples] with one mind were continually devoting themselves to prayer.”
The first order of business after Jesus’s ascension was to go and hold a proper church service. We are told that they were of one mind. When the Bible says that they were of one mind or at other places urges us to be of one mind, it means of one doctrine. To be in agreement in regard to the teaching of the Word of God.
Thus they were in agreement, of one mind. They now all understood the difference between the Law and Gospel. They understood that all of the Old Testament Scripture was really about the coming of the Christ. The Gospel lesson told us that Jesus “opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and He said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ would suffer and rise again from the dead the third day, and that repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations, beginning from Jerusalem.’”
First order of business was a church service, a service based on the common doctrine. Having finished the church service, the prayers, the praying of the Psalms, it was time for the second order of business, namely to appoint a replacement for Judas and as part of the sacred text, we are provided with some gory details about his fate. Now the death of Judas was not a gory story for the sake of closing the historical book on Judas. We had previously been told that Judas gone out and hanged himself. Now note the sharp theological and historical contrast we are given in Acts chapter one.
The chapter began with on a high and holy note. The risen Christ had taught the disciples, promised the Spirit, and ascended into heaven before their very eyes. The disciples had spoken with angels and they gathered together for a church service (vv 12–14). Seems like a very pious and heavenly start for the New Testament Church.
Then what? Then the Word of God takes us to “Hakeldama, that is, Field of Blood.” We are taken from the heights of the Mt. of Olivet to the field of Hakeldama, from the resurrected, living, sinless, and faithful Christ Jesus and His holy and blameless church, to Judas the betrayer, the unbeliever, an instrument of the devil, and sin, despair, and eternal death. We are taken from the Lord who has gone before us to prepare a place for us to live eternally to a sinful man who dies eternally.
Here at the start of the New Testament Church, we are reminded what the church is to be about and what the stakes really are. For once sin entered the world, bloody death soon followed. Cain slaughtered Abel. The flood, Sodom and Gomorrah, the Angel of Death in Egypt, war after war, assignations, and on and on. The Bible treats death for what it is. A gross and gory intrusion into life. Death must never be sanitized. A lot of people are trying to do that today and in so doing they deny reality that Jesus came to vanquish. “For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead… For He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be abolished is death.” (1 Cor. 15:21, 25-26)
In John 17:12 Jesus referred to Judas as “the son of perdition.” Judas had been lost forever. The story of Judas’s horrible death both spiritual and physical reminds us of a savage reality. The reality of unbelief and sin. Christ creates the New Testament Church to deal with this reality. Christ has given to the world an institution, a living breathing, speaking, moving, serving and worshiping creature in His own image for the purpose of saving people from spiritual and physical eternal death. He gave His Bride the Word of God, the Office of Ministry, God pleasing worship services, Confession and Absolution, Holy Baptism, and the Lord’s Supper.
All this is came to be because of another gory and bloody yet glorious death. The death of Judas is horrifying. But the death of Jesus ultimately gives us forgiveness of sins, life, salvation, and our very own ascension.
Both Jesus and Judas died on a tree. Matthew 27:5 tells us that Judas hung himself. Our text tells what happened after he was death. Jesus, of course, was nailed to a “tree” after He had been beaten bloody. Both Jesus and Judas died gory, bloody deaths. After hanging Himself Judas’s body fell “headlong bursting open in the middle and all his bowels gushed out” (v 18). For this reason, and because of the “blood money” that Judas received in return for betraying Jesus, the place where he died was named “Field of Blood.”
The blood of Jesus, on the other hand, “cleanses us from all sin” (1 Jn 1:7); for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Heb 9:22). Rather than turning our eyes away from the cross, we fix our eyes upon it and sing hymns praising the life giving blood of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. We take His precious body and blood into our bodies and blood in, with, and under bread and wine for our life and salvation.
By grace through faith we are given “the riches of the glory of His inheritance in the saints . . . 20 which [God the Father] brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church.”
It is from here, this earthly existence where death and despair reign, that the Bride of Christ carries out her work of vanquishing death. Ephesians 4:8-9 Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” 9 (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? 10 He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, so that He might fill all things.)
Christ Jesus has ascended. He has gone before us to prepare a place for us, just as He said. Death, you see, can no longer appall us.
May the peace that surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.