44 He said to them, “This is what I told you while I was still with you: Everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the Law of Moses, the Prophets and the Psalms.”
45 Then he opened their minds so they could understand the Scriptures. 46 He told them, “This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, 47 and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. 48 You are witnesses of these things. 49 I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high.”
The Ascension of Jesus
50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
When I read this passage about the ascension of Jesus I'm fascinated by the section right at the start the second verse in verse 45 where Jesus opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures.
What is this miraculous opening of the mind? Something helped them to understand and believe. But the Holy Spirit had not yet come: that would only happen at Pentecost. We believe and confess in Luther’s small catechism, in the explanation to the third article of the Apostle’s Creed that it's the work of the Holy Spirit to help us to understand and believe. So what happened? And more importantly: how can I get it?
I would like to have my mind open to understand the scriptures. Wouldn't you? They can be confusing at times. The same bible can lead us to different conclusions at times, about important matters like whether both Women and Men can be ordained to the public ministry. Both sides of the debate base their arguments on the bible, or more correctly on their interpretation of it. But it is not only on this issue. The issue of how we understand the bible, and indeed IF we can understand the bible at all is fundamental to EVERYTHING we do as a church.
And it raises lots of other questions for me too about the initial story:
All those times we smile at how Peter seemed to always be saying and doing the wrong thing. Can we forgive him because his mind was not yet open to understand?
Well, being people who understand forgiveness, and have just rested in the power of it ourselves, I think we can forgive him anyway but we'll come back to this.
Jesus had said to them “this is what I told you while I was still with you: everything must be fulfilled that is written about me in the law of Moses the prophets and the psalms.” And then he opened their minds so they could understand the scriptures. I don't think that word then here is chronological. I don't think it means first he did one then he did the other. I think it's part of the process. In doing one thing he did the other.
In explaining to them that everything in the Old Testament was about him, he was in saying that opening their minds so they could understand the scriptures. He was giving them the basis of what the Bible was really about. Seeing him as the fulfilment of the messianic hope was grounding them in scripture. And he does the same for us.
I was excited to realise when we were working through this reading in our Pastoral Assistants meeting on Tuesday night that there is a pattern here. It rang a bell from another story in the gospels.
In our readings the week after Easter only about 6 weeks ago we deal with the two men on the road to Emmaus. Their eyes were downcast, they don't understand what has happened. And Jesus appears and talks to them.
This story is not hard to find, because it is the story that comes right before this story of the ascension in Luke chapter 24.
In recounting the Emmaus encounter Luke says
27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself.”
And then only three verses later he says
30 When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight. Luke 24:30-31.
So here we have it twice in one chapter of the Bible Jesus explains that the Old Testament: all three divisions the law the prophets and the writings point to him. And each time he explains this, soon the eyes of people are opened to recognise him and to understand.
This can definitely help us in our quest to understand the word of God better. If you like me would like to be able to read the Bible and understand it, then read through the lens here that we have been given: read it through the filter of Jesus Christ. He is the ground of faith. He is what the Bible is all about.
If you read the Bible with a view to being able to win at Bible trivia at a Christian trivia night, I really don't know if that is a lens, or a filter that will help you understand. If you read the Bible to find verses that justify your pre-existing views on race, gender, sexuality, slavery, morality or pretty much anything else apart from Jesus Christ, you are missing the mark. That is not how the Bible is meant to be read.
If you read the bible as a law book, you will not believe and understand, you will be a slave to the law. If you read the bible as a history book, or as a science book, you are reading it for the wrong reason. That is not what it means that the bible is inerrant and inspired. It is not an inerrant science textbook. It is not an inerrant History book. It is both historical and scientific, but that is not it’s primary purpose.
The Bible is the inerrant word of God, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to bring us the Good news or gospel of Jesus Christ, and the free and full forgiveness of sins through him, to bring us back, Holy and dearly loved, to the Father.
In his commentary on the Old Testament Martin Luther stated that the Bible is what urges us on towards Christ, or what promotes Christ. “Was Christum Treibet” in German.
So for Luther, the Old Testament for example was like the “swaddling cloths” of Christ, clothing God’s great plan of salvation. It was the cradle in which Jesus was to be found. He read the bible through this lens of Jesus Christ. He believed that the only true Apostolic teaching was that pointed to Christ.
So, how does this knowledge help me?
As wise men followed the light of a star to seek Jesus, wise people still seek him today. They seek him where he is to be found, in the word, the Bible that promotes him, the Old Testament that points to him. They come to the word searching, and seeing everything else about the faith before and after Jesus through this lens of who he is.
An understanding of the world and our relationship with God based on his revelation in Jesus Christ is called an understanding of the gospel.
If we look through every word of the Bible through this lens of the gospel (the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ) that is how we find understanding.
But it can't just be a once off and now you know it all. Now that we have found Jesus there the reason that we read his word changes. It is not just to understand him, it is to know him better, to walk with him more every day.
It is to be a disciple.
And that is the job of the church. To be disciples and to make disciples.
Now the church doesn't claim to understand everything and walk with eyes wide open all the time. We don't claim to understand everything about scripture perfectly. But we do our best with what we have. And whatever you do whenever you read any verse of the Bible read it through the lens of Jesus Christ and him crucified and risen for our salvation to bring us back to the father. A plan put in place before the creation of the world, by a loving God who knew we would sin and separate ourselves from him.
By a seeking God who was not happy with that and could not bear to be separated from us for eternity.
And on every page of the Bible when you find Jesus there, give him thanks. For that promise is for you. Always and forever in this life and the one to come.
Now do you understand?