The Ascension: Acts 1:10,11
And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.” (NASB)
Many people hold this passage as proof of Jesus’ future coming. The reasoning is this: When Jesus ascended, the angel stated that he would come back in just the same way: bodily and in clouds.
Once again, we see that the translators have chosen words which best fit their interpretation. In this case, the word is ‘will come’. In the NIV, it reads incorrectly: “will come back”.
The angels ask a simple question, “Why do you stand looking into the sky?” Either the angels did not know what had just happened, or else they did. It is unlikely that they did not know, since they were obviously sent by God to give them a message, and besides, they show their knowledge in their following statement.
Given that they did know, then, it seems that the question is at best rhetorical (not requiring an answer) and at worst stupid (because it was perfectly obvious why they were looking).
Would an angel ask a stupid question?
Let us look at another example of an angel asking a question.
Luke 24:1-7 In Luke’s gospel, angels appeared to the women who went to the tomb to anoint the body of Jesus. “Why do you seek the living One among the dead?” they ask. This would have been a stupid question, all things considered, since it was at the tomb that the women saw Jesus’ body being laid. Of course they would seek Jesus there! Where else would they look for Him? What made it reasonable, in fact important to ask this was their following statement that Jesus had in fact risen, just as He had told them He would (v6,7). The statement, then, shows the validity of the question.
In the same way, the angels in Acts 1 asked what could have been considered a stupid question. After all, the disciples had just seen Him ascend into heaven. Why else would they be standing, looking there? Again, the key to the question is in their statement to follow: “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven …” The statement, again, shows the validity of the question.
If the angels answer that Jesus is going to return in the same way, this makes the question meaningless, even stupid! “Why do you stand looking up into heaven? Jesus is going to come back just the same way!”
Isn’t this expectation of a return a very good reason to be standing there, looking?
What, then, would make the question reasonable? I can think of only two possibilities. If you can think of more, please let me know!
Possibility #1:“Why keep looking? He’s going to come back, but not for years!”
Possibility #2:“Why keep looking? He’s gone!” (similar example in Luke 24)
Considering possibility #1, it seems that the angels would have mentioned the delayed time of Jesus’ return if they meant to imply it. “This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven, but not for some time!” However, there is no mention of a delay at all!
In order to apply possibility #2, it must be established that the angels did not speak of Jesus’ return, but of His going.
The literal translation from the Greek reads: “This Jesus, the (One) being taken from you into the heaven, thus will come in the way you beheld Him going into the heaven.” (Interlinear Bible)
The key word is “will come”, eleusetai, which means “will come” or “will go”. It does not mean “return”. It means “come”, but not always in the sense of “come to this place.” Sometimes, it can mean “go to another place”.
John 7:34 – Where I am (will be), there you cannot come (go).
Matthew 14:29 – And Peter got out of the boat, and walked on the water and came (went) toward Jesus.
John 21:3 – Simon Peter said to them, “I am going fishing.” They said to him, “We will also come (go) with you.”
The word means neither come (to here) nor go (to there), but rather “proceed”. It needs qualification by the adverb or phrase accompanying it. In any event, it does not mean ‘return’.
Now the question asked by the angels has meaning. In the same way that the women should not seek the living among the dead because “He is risen”, the disciples should not look for Him in the earthly realm because “This Jesus .. thus will proceed in the way you beheld Him going, into heaven.” In other words, He has ascended, and proceeds to His Father in heaven.
Is this explanation consistent with the rest of scripture?
Mark 16:19 – So then, when the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God.
Daniel 7:13 – And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming, and He came up to the Ancient of Days and was presented before Him. And to Him was given dominion, glory and a kingdom.
Daniel also saw Jesus ascending with the clouds, just as the disciples did. However, Daniel saw this from a heavenly perspective, not an earthly one. He saw Jesus proceeding to heaven, up to the Ancient of Days, to receive His kingdom. Didn’t Jesus ascend to heaven to receive His kingdom? The disciples simply saw Him ascend, and so the angels were sent to explain to them the purpose of His ascension. No wonder the angels ask, “Why do you stand looking into the sky?” No doubt they recalled Daniel’s prophesy, and rejoiced that they had witnessed that glorious fulfillment!
Conclusion: The Acts account of the resurrection and the angelic comments after it were not referring to the departure and future return of Jesus. Instead, they refer to the departure and destination of Jesus: Jesus was to receive His kingdom from God, and from there judge the wicked generation that had rejected Him (Matthew 23:34-39).
Note: Since first presenting this study, many years ago, I have neither had my interpretation of the text supported nor refuted. I am open to either, as my knowledge of Greek is limited. Even Preterists view this passage as a promise of a future return of Jesus, but that return in judgement at AD 70. One good article by Roy Lee Scott presents a Preterist interpretation. In any case, if you should disagree with me, I hope it is because you searched for the truth, rather than just dismissed it out of hand because “everybody knows He is coming back, bodily, on the clouds. It says so.”