Luke is the New Testament author most responsible for our concept of the Easter season and the Ascension of Jesus. At the beginning of Acts, Luke’s sequel to his Gospel, he tells us that the risen Jesus made appearances to his disciples during the 40 days after Easter and ascended to heaven. Then in Acts 2 he describes how the Holy Spirit came upon the apostles and launched their missionary activity on Pentecost Sunday, 50 days after Passover on the Jewish calendar and 50 days after Easter. Thus he connects Jesus’ ascension and the mission of the church.
Only Luke presents Jesus’ ascension at some length and in realistic detail, though other New Testament writers show their awareness of the tradition. Luke provides a brief notice of the ascension near the end of his Gospel (24:50-51) and a more substantial account in Acts 1:1-11. The reference to it in Mark 16:19-20 is generally regarded as part of the compendium of the risen Jesus’ appearances added to Mark’s Gospel in the 2nd century and as dependent on the material in Luke-Acts.
The ascension plays an important role in Luke’s three-phase history of salvation: Israel (up to and including John the Baptist), Jesus (the center or middle of time) and the Holy Spirit and/or the church (until the second coming of Christ and the fullness of God’s reign). With the ascension the time of Jesus ends, and the stage is set for the Spirit-led mission to begin on Pentecost.
In the Lukan framework the apostles are principles of continuity between the times of Jesus and of the Spirit. They witnessed Jesus’ ministry of teaching and healing. They experienced the risen Jesus as alive again for 40 days. Their task after his ascension is to bear witness to Jesus “to the ends of the earth.” This commission from the departing Jesus serves as the outline for Acts and provides the mandate for the church’s missionary activity throughout the centuries.
The reading from Ephesians 4 strengthens the link between Jesus’ ascension and the church’s mission. It features Paul writing from prison, calling Jewish and Gentile Christians to greater unity and reminding them that all their spiritual gifts come from the risen and ascended Christ. The latter point derives from Psalm 68:18: “He ascended on high and took prisoners captive; he gave gifts to men.” These enigmatic words are interpreted as prophecies of Jesus’ ascension. The risen and ascended Christ now reigns over creation and fills it much like the world soul of Stoicism and the figure of Wisdom in the Book of Wisdom. Thus he empowers ministers of the word—apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers—to use their spiritual gifts for building up the body of Christ (the church). Through the risen and ascended Christ the link between the ascension and the church’s mission is extended beyond the apostolic generation and becomes the dynamism of the church in all ages.