Appearance and Ascension

hot air balloon
On June 4, 1783 at the market square of a French village of Annonay, not far from Paris, a smoky bonfire on a raised platform was fed by wet straw and old wool rages. Tethered above, straining its lines, was a huge taffeta bag 33 feet in diameter. In the presence of “a respectable assembly and a great many other people,” and accompanied by great cheering, the balloon was cut from its moorings and set free to rise majestically into the noon sky. Six thousand feet into the air it went — the first public ascent of a balloon, the first step in the history of human flight. It came to earth several miles away in a field, where it was promptly attacked by pitchfork-waving peasants and torn to pieces as an instrument of evil!

It’s true that we don’t always react well to change, but take heart; we’re not alone. People have been frustrated by change for a long time, and they probably will be for many years to come. Dealing with change can be tricky.

God wants to change our hearts; but how?

In our final look at the book of Mark, we see reaction to change as well. Please turn in your Bibles to Mark, chapter 16, and we’ll be looking at verses 9 through 20. A short aside: in many Bibles, there’s a line drawn between verse 8 and the rest of the chapter. This is because the rest of the text is a post-script; its different sentence structure and detail lets us know that this section wasn’t written at the same time as the rest of Mark. That’s okay; just like an ongoing letter, sometimes we come back and add a post-script. That is what’s been done here, and we’ll take a closer look at some of those details later. For now, let’s look at verses 9-11, and we’ll see some details about Jesus’ first resurrection appearance.

When Jesus rose early on the first day of the week, he appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom he had driven seven demons. She went and told those who had been with him and who were mourning and weeping. When they heard that Jesus was alive and that she had seen him, they did not believe it.

First, let’s note how Mary is described; “out of whom He had driven seven demons” – this is a textual clue that this final portion was written at a later date. Mary Magdalene had been well enough known in the early church when Mark was first written; however, when the people who had witnessed these events started getting old and dying off, these thoughts needed to be written down. The “seven demons” phrase is a clue given for future generations to make sure they knew which Mary was being talked about.

You could say that this ending section of Mark is like a written account of a well-known family story. Lots of families have them – stories that are told that help us remember what a certain person did, and we don’t tell them like we’re reading the newspaper.

In my family, we tell the story of my parent’s fishing trips while they were stationed in Alaska. Apparently, my Dad loved to go fishing, and he had all the gear: hip waders, fishing pole, lots of different lures and tackle. I’ve grown up hearing how he’d be standing out up to his thighs in the water, vigorously fishing away… and all the while, my Mom would be on the bank of the river with a romance novel in her hands and a fishing pole next to her. She’d bait the hook, cast the line, and pretty much ignore everything while she read her book. And while Dad was out whipping the fishing line in the river, Mom would every once in a while look up, notice her bobber was moving, and reel in the next fish. They’d come home with a stringer full of fish… Mom’s fish.

Now I wasn’t born yet; I’ve never witnessed those events. But I grew up hearing about them so often that I can see them happening in my minds’ eye, regardless of the fact that I wasn’t personally present. My family’s fish stories are a part of my make up, and they remind me of something that was important to my parents.

That’s what these verses are: they are more than just bare fact testimonies about Jesus’ resurrection; they describe Mary Magdalene’s changed life… and that is what is required for belief.

Our hearts aren’t changed by facts alone.

As we continue, we see in verses 12 to 14 Jesus’ appearances to disciples. Look at the details here:

Afterward Jesus appeared in a different form to two of them while they were walking in the country. These returned and reported it to the rest; but they did not believe them either. Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

Look at the reference to “a different form”. For more details, we could look at Luke 24:13-27, and read about the disciples on their walk to Emmaus. What I find interesting is the disciples not recognizing Jesus. I know I’ve experienced this same thing: it can be a challenge to recognize people in unexpected circumstances. Ninety nine percent of the time, I wear my contact lenses, and most people, when they meet me for the first time, don’t realize that I need to correct my vision. So… on the rare occasions when people see me for the first time wearing my glasses, I often see a look of momentary confusion on their face – as if they can’t quite place me. I think it’s entirely possible that this is just what happened to Cleopas and the other disciple as they encountered Jesus.

But once they did notice Him, they did the same thing that Mary Magdalene did: they told the disciples. And in both cases, the disciples reacted the same way to this momentous news of change: they rejected it. They simply didn’t have the mental framework to think about Jesus as the Resurrected Lord. Their stubborn refusal to believe was tied to lack of faith – Jesus says it Himself in verse 14. They’d been exposed to the facts of Jesus’ resurrection, but they didn’t have the faith to accept those facts as valid.

Scripture teaches us that faith is a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9); we do not generate faith on our own, and so we can’t be too upset at people who refuse to believe based on historical evidence of Jesus alone. Mere exposure to the facts of the resurrection is not what leads us to faith. Instead of giving information about Jesus to people, we can show them how the gift of faith has changed us… and can change them as well. That is what the disciples didn’t see at first, and that is what they were rebuked for by Jesus Himself in verse 14 – their stubborn refusal. Please remember:

Our hearts aren’t changed when faith is absent.

In verses 15-18, we see Jesus’ instructions to the church. These are descriptions of various events, some of which are found in the book of Acts. Let’s read:

He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the good news to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: In my name they will drive out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

By the time this post-script was written, these events had already happened. There’s reference to Acts chapter 2, where the Holy Spirit is given at Pentecost and the disciples spoke in new tongues. Acts 5 tells us about healing those with unclean spirits; in Acts 28, we read about Paul being bitten by a snake and just shaking it off – causing those who witnessed the event to mistake him for a divine being. Not to prove some kind of special power, but there were times in Bible college when I ate things at the back of the fridge that probably were covered by the “poison will not hurt them” clause mentioned here!

These verses are a remembered summation of Jesus’ instructions; the Lord gave the disciples specific instructions about how they were to go about the work of the Kingdom. In verses 15 and 16 they were given instructions on what to do, and the theology to help them remember why they were doing it. But notice that the instructions and theology alone aren’t enough to produce life change. The disciples had been receiving Jesus’ teaching and training in ministry for three years, and they still didn’t believe the Resurrection.

Our hearts aren’t changed by remembering our duty.

It’s good to remember what our God-given task is, and our role in the Kingdom, but remembrance alone doesn’t change us. What does? Let’s look at the last two verses of Mark, 19 and 20. What is it that causes the disciples to respond?

After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it.

We see the Ascension mentioned here, the cross reference is Acts 1:1-11. But notice: what’s the result?
Look at this phrase: “the disciples went out and the Lord worked with them.” It’s only after the disciples stepped out and started obeying the directives that Jesus had given that they started to see the power of God. How does God change our hearts?

Obedience to God and the presence of Jesus changes hearts.

When we are obedient to what God tells us to do, regardless of how we feel about it, never mind if we have experience doing what we’re told or not – our hearts are shaped to become more pliable and soft toward God when we live by His agenda and not our own. Think about it: the disciples had no personal experience in working miracles; the most they’d known was being sent out two at a time by Jesus to proclaim the Kingdom and they saw some authority over evil spirits – and that, too, was a result of obedience to Jesus’ sending.

This leads me to ask: How is the Lord working with you? What are your directives that the Holy Spirit is prompting in you? What change is present in your life that’s showing you that God is confirming His word IN YOU?

If you’re being directed in Kingdom work, step out in obedience. If you’re a little hesitant, it’s always a good idea to check any promptings you might get against Scripture – the Spirit will never prompt a believe to do something that contradicts the Word of God. But if you’re being nudged (or sometimes pushed) to pray for someone without knowing why… well, by all means, pray! The Spirit intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words; we can pray for others without knowing every detail. If you’re being told by God to care for someone, or to give someone a call that you’ve not spoken to in a long while… these could all be promptings from the Holy Spirit. In the words of the old hymn, “Trust and Obey”.

Finally, think about this: if you are NOT being prompted to obey the Lord, ask yourself why? Perhaps the only step of obedience facing you today is the step of faith to surrender to Christ. Make no mistake: it is a surrender, and you’ll not be prompted to do anything else in the Kingdom of God until you’re able to enter that Kingdom as one of its citizens. And that, my friend, is a gift from God that He extends to all who all on the name of Jesus. Is that what “Trust and Obey” means for you today?

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