Still reeling from the trauma of the crucifixion and then the shattering of all earthly expectations by Jesus’ resurrection from the dead, the apostles, trying to make sense of the common Jewish beliefs regarding the Messiah and the apocalyptic establishment of God’s kingdom, pose a simple question to Jesus prior to his ascension: “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?”
Implicit in this question is a desire to understand what comes next. If God’s ways had left them confounded and confused, yet still elated, could they now grasp the order of the next events? Would the plan follow what they understood the pattern of the coming kingdom of God to be? Not exactly. For Jesus tells them, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority.” All they needed to know was that they were to be witnesses to the life and resurrection of Jesus and were to bring their witness to the truth of Christ to the world, beginning from Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria to the ends of the earth. Whatever came next would have to be discovered in the course of faithfully carrying out their mission.
It was not that Jesus was not who they thought he was—though they would discover he was more than they could have imagined, namely God incarnate—it was that “the earliest Christian community had to discover that God’s saving act temporally differentiated the enthronement of the Son of Man from his judgment of the world; and it had to discover that the Gentiles’ share in this same saving act demanded the launching of a world mission” (Ben F. Meyer, The Aims of Jesus). It was in the experience of living their lives as faithful disciples of Jesus that they would come to understand how the events of Jesus’ life informed their task as church.
Jesus’ ascension might be the most misunderstood and overlooked of the events remembered during the Easter season, from the resurrection to Pentecost. But the story of the ascension, which is cast in the language of ancient cosmology, with Jesus “going up” to heaven, is about the enthronement of Christ as Lord. The Gospel of Mark will describe Jesus as “taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.”
The apostles’ previous hope that Jesus should now restore the kingdom to Israel in a physical sense would now be understood as Jesus’ enthronement as the king who rules with authority over all temporal and spiritual powers. Not only was Jesus King of Israel, he was, indeed, King of the world.
The Letter to the Ephesians relates that God’s power was at work in Christ through the resurrection and when God “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” It is because Christ already rules that he is able to guide the church in wisdom and enlightenment, but even more to focus our hope on the kingdom still to come in its full glory. This power is at work even now in the body of Christ here on earth, the church, allowing it to continue Jesus’ mission of proclamation for the salvation of the world.
The apostles asked, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus’ rejoinder to the apostles, to focus on their own task as church, is not a denial of his kingship but the means by which Jesus’ kingship would be made known universally.
Yes, the kingdom came in a way they never expected. As we reflect that “this Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven,” we also wonder, when will that be?
Like Peter and the other apostles, we have our tasks as witnesses, while we await in hope the fullness of the kingdom, knowing that the one who promised it will do it. He will fulfill our hopes beyond our wildest expectations. We do not know when or how this will be, but the one who promised it already reigns, and he will do it in ways we have never imagined.