Though Luke is concluding his Gospel, the real story is just beginning. Ahead is the disciples' empowerment through the bestowal of the Spirit so they can carry out their call on behalf of God. Beyond that is the mission to proclaim to the world what they have experienced and understood. Jesus had ministered to them to prepare them for this time. Now it is nearly time to go. Training camp is just about over; a long season of ministry lies ahead.
This account is unique to Luke and allows him to link the Gospel with Acts, given that the ascension ends and begins each volume. This final Gospel unit has a few similarities to the Emmaus account. Both include a resurrection appearance, a meal and scriptural exposition. Jesus is present with his disciples and is present in the Word. The union of the two reflects what life is designed to be.
Though I have separated these final verses from the Emmaus account, Luke has effectively woven the two stories together. As the room is buzzing with reports of Jesus' self-manifestations, he appears and says, "Peace be with you."
The disciples are still trying to take it all in, so peace is hardly their reaction. Rather, they are startled and frightened. They think for sure it is a spirit (pneuma; NIV a ghost). Even with the numerous reports of appearances, the idea that Jesus is alive and present is hard to accept. Empirical modernists are not the only skeptics: for the first disciples Jesus' resurrection was a difficult truth to swallow. Only a rapid-fire succession of demonstrations convinced the community it was so.
Jesus deals with their shock by challenging them. "Why are you troubled, and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a [spirit] does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have." Jesus invites them to determine once and for all that what has been reported is true. Offering himself to be handled, Jesus wants to lay to rest for all time any doubt about his resurrection's truthfulness. He showed them his hands and feet. This is no phantom. There is no hallucination. The disciples have not fabricated the stories that they heard. Psychosis has not created an account to fill an emotional hole. This is no immaterial Jesus, as the Gnostics later claimed had come, a Jesus who walked but left no footprints. No, this is the crucified Jesus with the marks of nails in his hands to prove he had gone the limit to overcome sin. It is Jesus raised from the dead, pure and simple.
It is all too much. The disciples still fight unbelief, but it is mixed with joy as the truth is slowly but surely dawning like morning light. Amazement is the dominant emotion. To prove the point, Jesus asks for food: "Do you have anything here to eat?" He accepts the broiled fish, probably obtained in the city, and eats it. The meal's consumption destroys the disciples' now short-lived "spirit" hypothesis. Jesus is really in their midst. He has come to have a final word on this momentous day.
Jesus reminds them that everything that had occurred had been discussed by him. His life has been a fulfillment of Scripture. "Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms." Once again Luke highlights the divine design by using the term dei, "it is necessary." The Bible is an open book on Jesus' life and mission.
Then Jesus explains the Scriptures. Like a prophet-teacher, he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. A careful look at the syntax shows that three themes dominate his exposition, since verses 46-47 are governed by three Greek infinitives (pathein, anastenai, kerychthenai). It is crucial to appreciate that fulfillment centers on the person of the Christ. It is in the promised Son of David that these events are fulfilled. Old Testament hope is being realized here (though at the time Jesus spoke the scriptural texts were not known as the Old Testament, but simply as the revered writings of the Jewish faith, the Scriptures). Jesus says he is the completion and fulfillment of scriptural promise and hope: What God promises, he brings to pass. In fact, you are experiencing the center of his plan right now. To know Jesus is to be in the will of God.
First, the Christ had to suffer. Jesus had predicted this all along (9:22, 44; 17:25; 18:31-33; 22:37). His death was anticipated by Scripture. Luke has quoted Psalm 118 in describing Jesus' rejection, along with portions of Isaiah 53 in relation to his suffering. In addition he alluded to Psalm 22, Psalm 31:5 and Psalm 69 in the passion account.
Second, Messiah was to be raised. In this concept are bound up Psalm 16:10, Psalm 110:1 and Psalm 118:22-26. The disciples are experiencing this truth even as Jesus speaks.
Third is what remains to be accomplished. Five elements dominate this mission statement.
1. The disciples will be called to preach. They began to fulfill this call in Acts 2, and ever since the church has been proclaiming Jesus through the preached word. Preaching the gospel is an honorable ministry with the most ancient of roots.
2. Their message is a call to repentance. Since Jesus draws attention to the Old Testament roots of this concept, he is not merely discussing the "change of mind" that the Greek term metanoia suggests but the "turning" that is bound up in the Hebrew concept of repentance. Those who need a relationship with God are called to turn to God in faith. Coming to God involves the awareness that the road one was traveling was the wrong one. To come to know him is to change one's direction in life.
3. What is offered is forgiveness of sins. There need no longer be an obstacle between humankind and God because of sin. As we turn to God through Jesus, the offer of forgiveness manifests God's willingness to be gracious and to cancel the debt of sin that Jesus paid (Rom 1—8, especially 3:21-31).
4. The authority for it all resides in Jesus' name. Here is a major theme in Acts. Events are tied to his personal presence and his regal authority. Baptism, healing and forgiveness are especially noted in Acts (Acts 2:38, 3:6; 4:7; 8:16; 9:15-16; 10:43, 48; 15:14). As the Risen Lord and Christ, Jesus himself carries out these things.
5. The message is for all nations, and the preaching will start in Jerusalem. It took the church until Acts 10 to get this point. They initially thought Jesus had meant preaching in all nations to Jews of the diaspora. But God's vision to Peter showed that the message was for all humanity. Jesus is Lord of all, so the message can go to all (Acts 10:34-43).
The Old Testament elements behind the preaching seem to be the promises of the various covenants. The Abrahamic covenant included the promise that through Abraham's seed all the nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3; Gal 3). The Davidic covenant had promised a ruler who would be a son to God and a source of blessing to Israel and the nations (2 Sam 7:5-16; Ps 2; 45; 89; 110; 118; 132; Is 2:2-4; especially Is 9—11; Ezek 34 on the Davidic son as shepherd). The new covenant promised a new heart, which Joel 2 tells us comes by the pouring out of God's Spirit. Luke calls this the what my Father has promised in verse 49, and John the Baptist had said the bestowal of the Spirit was the evidence of Messiah's arrival in Luke 3:15-17. The arrival is proclaimed in Acts 2, and Gentiles are seen as included in Acts 11:15-18.
With the mission set forth, Jesus calls all present his witnesses (compare Acts 1:8, 22; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39, 41; 13:31; 22:15; 26:16). They have seen with their eyes and held in their hands the truth that Jesus is alive. So he calls them to this preaching task. They have experienced truth into which angels, kings and prophets had longed to look (Lk 10:23-24; 1 Pet 1:10-12).
The task's scope and difficulty mean that they are not simply to launch out, but they must wait until God has given them authority from above, what Jesus calls being clothed with power from on high. First Chronicles 12:18 shows the Old Testament roots of this image. The Lukan reference to God's promise describes the coming of the Spirit's enabling power. In this brief statement is the Synoptic equivalent of the great Paraclete address of Jesus in John 14—16. The church's task will be difficult; special ability will be needed to accomplish it. It is not to be carried out in mere human strength. Just as Jesus' presence at the table has shown, God's intimate, indwelling presence is necessary to make it work.
It is also significant that it is Jesus who sends this promise (I am going to send). He is now the mediator of blessing from God. Acts 2:33 makes a similar point. To experience the Father's goodness, one must pass through the Son.
Luke describes Jesus' departure very briefly. The conciseness of this account is probably because Luke also spends time narrating a departure in Acts 1. It is much discussed whether this event is the same as the one in Acts 1 or is a distinct event. If it equals Acts 1, then Luke has simply summarized quickly here what took place forty days later to establish a literary tie to Acts. The possibility of literary compression makes a choice very difficult to establish (for one event, see Parsons 1987:193-94; for the options, Osborne 1984:137-38 and especially 266-70; Osborne opts for two perspectives on the one event: Lk 24 as theological and Acts 1 as historical).
The Gospel's final scene closes with a note of blessing and worship. Such an ending is perfectly appropriate, for Jesus came to offer hope. From the opening words of the infancy material to the end of the Gospel, Luke has sounded the trumpet that Jesus brings God's promise and blessing in fulfillment of God's design. What he did was necessary. What he did brought a new era, as God moved from a time of promise to the beginning of realized promise. Jesus is to bring more, as Acts 3 makes especially clear, but the corner has been turned in God's plan. Blessing is available in a way only dreamed of before Jesus.
Many people wish that they had lived in the Old Testament times of great miracles. To see Moses or Elijah at work would have been inspiring. But Luke's perspective is that these Old Testament saints would have seen our era as the blessed one. What they had worked toward met its realization in Jesus. So the Gospel's closing note of blessing is very appropriate. To experience Jesus' presence is to be blessed. The disciples head to Jerusalem with hearts filled with joy, gratitude and worship—attitudes that we too should experience as we learn to appreciate God's grace.
The disciples' response is to await the blessing. They journey to Jerusalem, obeying the Lord's command to wait for the Spirit there. But more than their obedience is the attitude that accompanies it. They are filled with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. There was not just obedience, there was joy, praise and thanksgiving, along with a commitment to be constantly present with the Lord. The resurrection has strengthened these disciples' relationship with God. Their sense of privilege at being involved in God's plan did not waver even years later, when persecution and rejection of their message became strong. They loved their enemy and took the message of the living and ascended Christ to the world. They challenged the world to receive blessing from Jesus and, without shrillness, warned of the judgment to come (Acts 2:36-41; 10:42-43; 13:23-41; 1 Pet 3:15-16). But their mission was not a task or a business to them. It was a joy, an act of worship to experience Jesus' presence and do his will.
The Gospel of Luke has an open-ended conclusion. In a real sense it ends at a beginning. No longer is the story about what Jesus did during his earthly ministry. Now it is the saga of what he continued to do through God's people, whom he equipped to perform a task and carry a message. That message is not one of words alone but of life, love and light. The message is both proclaimed and lived out before a world covered with darkness.
As the Gospel closes, it is important not to forget the words that came early in this Gospel when both John the Baptist and Jesus were introduced:
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
to give his people the knowledge of salvation
through the forgiveness of their sins,
because of the tender mercy of our God,
by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Jesus departed into the heaven from which he came. He did so not to leave us but to guide us, not to disappoint us but to intercede for us. He departed with a blessing. He departed to equip us. For those who know him, his blessing is always with us. So we worship him with joy and serve him with gladness, continually blessing God for the gift of his Son.
Great is God's faithfulness. That is the understanding, desire and assurance Luke longed to leave in the heart of his reader Theophilus. That is the precious legacy Luke left to the church.