AN OPPORTUNITY ARISES FOR YOU to share with someone (using words) the Gospel of Jesus Christ. What do you say?
You might start with God as our holy and loving Creator, then describe how we humans have sinned against him. Result: our relationship with God is broken and we are under a curse of death. You would point out that God wasn’t content to leave things there; he launched a Grand Plan to rescue us from our sins and reconcile us to himself—a plan that continues to unfold today. Cue John 3:16—‘For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.’ You would expound on this verse, I’m sure, and provide a fine explanation of why Jesus died: to pay the price for our sins and restore our busted relationship with God. Hopefully, you would then talk about the amazing thing that happened two days later: Jesus was raised from the dead so that all who believe in him can live forever.
I do wonder, though, whether you would stop there? Most Christians do. I’m not sure why, because there was another important event just as amazing as the resurrection that occurred forty days further on. You know the event I’m talking about, don’t you?
Bread from heaven
A year or two earlier, Jesus performed one of the most well-known of all his miracles: he fed five thousand people with only five small loaves and two small fish. Incredibly, there were twelve basketfuls of broken pieces left over. The diners at Jesus’ impromptu outdoor eatery were so impressed that they wanted to make him their king. But that wasn’t what Jesus wanted—at least, not on their terms—so he made himself scarce.
His solitude didn’t last long; the people found him next day on the other side of the lake. They challenged him to explain how he had got there so quickly without a boat, but he issued them with a challenge of his own: Don’t concern yourselves with worldly bread that goes stale and cannot save you from death; seek bread from heaven that endures to eternal life. I, the Son of Man, can give you this bread. It was a claim they found easy to believe; they were still being sustained by the ‘bread from heaven’ that Jesus had given them the day before.
But belief in Jesus was about to get harder. The reason he could give them true bread from heaven was simple: he was that bread. Jesus himself had come down from heaven for the sake of sinners. ‘Whoever eats this bread will live forever,’ he declared. ‘This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’
You could see their faces dropping. Though Jesus was a proven miracle-worker, he was unmistakably a human being. What human being comes from heaven? Who did this man think he was? And as for eating his flesh in order to live forever, was he crazy? ‘This is a hard teaching,’ the people grumbled. ‘Who can accept it?’
But Jesus stood firm. ‘Does this offend you?’ he asked, defying them with his eyes. ‘Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!’
Dead and alive
Shortly after that, Jesus began to forewarn his twelve disciples that he would be killed by the Jewish leaders. Inevitably, D-day arrived—a Friday. Jesus suffered and died a death of shame on a cross, despite the fact that he had never sinned.
Early on Sunday morning, a grieving Mary Magdalene visited Jesus’ grave and was distressed to see that the stone covering the entrance had been rolled away. She looked into the tomb and saw two angels sitting where the body had been laid. They asked her why she was crying, and then a man behind her (whom she presumed was the gardener) asked her the same question. She turned around to ask him if he had taken her Lord away, but when he spoke her name she realised who he was. ‘Rabboni!’ (‘Teacher,’ a title of great honour), she cried, apparently clasping onto him in worship. ‘Do not hold on to me,’ Jesus said to her gently, ‘for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”’
Mary was overjoyed to be looking into Jesus’ eyes again. She had thought she’d lost him forever, but there he was in front of her—alive and breathing and looking back at her, no doubt with a smile, perhaps a laugh. Yet there was an earnestness about the way he had spoken of his coming ascension. ‘Please understand, Mary,’ he had seemed to be saying, ‘that I need to keep myself for my Father. He must be the first to embrace me, for he is the one who sent me.’ The night before his death, Jesus had prayed, ‘Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.’ He and his Father had always been one, and they were still one even though he had ‘left home.’ Yet he was looking forward to reprising the heavenly oneness that they had enjoyed in ages past. He would feel a sense of urgency about his return home until it was completed.
The same day, Jesus appeared to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus and then to Peter. That evening, he paid a visit to his gathered disciples as they cowered behind a locked door. They reacted with fear, thinking he was a ghost. ‘Why are you troubled,’ he asked them, ‘and why do doubts rise in your minds? Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have.’ His words reassured them that he was their familiar human friend; he even ate food in front of them. A series of further appearances added further credibility to the claim that Jesus, the very human Son of Man, had been raised from the dead.
The disciples were aware that Jesus would soon be returning to God.1 Forty days after his resurrection, it happened:
When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven… He was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going…
They must have stood there, awestruck as they watched Jesus literally lift off the ground and sail upwards. We can picture them craning their necks skyward and peering into the sunlight, their mouths wide open but barely able to breathe as he ascended higher and higher. Eventually, he disappeared behind a cloud.
Slowly, as they stood and blinked at the heavens, they began to process what they had just seen. Where had Jesus gone? Why had Jesus gone? First he had gone away; then he had come back; now he had gone away again. What should they be feeling? Would they ever see him again?
Without warning, two men dressed in white were standing beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.’
With that, the penny dropped. Jesus had indeed come from heaven as he had claimed, for he had been received back there.2 Many had dismissed him as a failed wannabe, a scoundrel, a stench in God’s nostrils; even some of the disciples had given up on him. Now, though, they knew he had been sent by God. And since he had been received back into heaven, they knew he was righteous. This was wonderful news, for it meant all believers were righteous too. Jesus hadn’t ascended into heaven simply on his own behalf; he had done so as the ordained representative of humanity. We were seated with him in the heavenly realms, sharing forever in his righteousness and in his unity with the Father.
Jesus’ claim about himself—‘I am life-giving bread from heaven’— had proven true. He had gone away, yes, but the disciples weren’t sad. They hadn’t lost him; they would never lose him. He was with them and they were with him, and he was coming back one day to stay. ‘They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’
- Jesus had told his disciples several times that he would soon be going away (John 13:33,36; 14:2-4,12,28; 16:5,7,10,28). And when he encountered Mary at the tomb, he had asked her to tell the disciples that ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God’ (John 20:17).
- Some months earlier, Jesus told Nicodemus the Pharisee that ‘no one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man’ (John 3:13).