“‘WITH GREAT JOY’
After the Ascension of Jesus to His Father the Apostles returned to Jerusalem. St Luke tells us that they returned ‘with great joy. And they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God’ (Luke 24:52-53).
WHY DID THE APOSTLES REJOICE – AFTER ALL, THEY HAD LOST JESUS’ PHYSICAL PRESENCE?
At first sight it seems strange that they should have rejoiced at the departure of Jesus, their Lord and Master, from this world. By His going they had lost the physical presence of their Friend, their Master, indeed, their God. But, they rejoiced, they praised and blessed God. What explains their joy, their praise of God? It must be – what the Gospel story intimates – that in the interval between the Resurrection and the Ascension of Jesus they learned, through the instruction of Jesus Himself, the real meaning of Jesus, the significance of His life, His death, His Resurrection and His Ascension. This new knowledge was so important, so filled with blessing for them and for the world that, in spite of their sadness at the departure of Jesus Himself, they rejoiced and, in turn, praised the God they had known in Him. At last they knew the mystery of Jesus, and they believed in Him, hoped in Him and loved Him. They would spend their lives giving to the world this belief, this hope and this love.
TRANSFORMING THE LIVES OF MEN
What was this new understanding of Jesus which so filled them with joy and with the desire to communicate this joy to the whole world? Since the time of the Apostles innumerable books have been written to explain the mystery which is Jesus. Here we must be content to give the simplest outline of the belief of the Apostles, a belief which was to change the face of the earth, to transform the lives of men.
JESUS IS THE SALVATION WHICH GOD HAD PROMISED TO MANKIND
First of all, we must remember that the Apostles were Jews, members of God’s Chosen People. They saw Jesus against the background of the sacred history of their own people. Thus they saw in Jesus the fulfilment of God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel, to the whole world. In Jesus they saw the salvation which God had promised to mankind.
THE FIRST FRUIT
They knew that Adam, the forefather of all men, had by his sin brought death and disorder to mankind. They remembered that it was the malice of the devil which had led to the sin of Adam. God had promised that sometime the son, the child of woman, would triumph over the devil and sin. In the Resurrection of Jesus they saw the first fruit of that triumph. By the power of God Jesus had risen from death to eternal life with the Father in heaven.
HE WHOM THE NATIONS SHALL OBEY
They knew, too, that when mankind had grown to some maturity in the disordered world which sin had created, when the great empires of Babylonia and Egypt had flourished, bringing civilisation and human culture to the world, then God had chosen Abraham to be the father of God’s Chosen People. He had promised great blessings to Abraham and, through Abraham, to all the families of the earth (Genesis 12:1-3).
This blessing has descended from Abraham to Isaac, from Isaac to Jacob. And Jacob had passed it on to Juda [Judah]. Jacob had promised that the rule over the Chosen People would belong to Juda until ‘he comes to whom it (the sceptre) belongs and to whom the nations shall obey’ (Genesis 49:10).
From the house of Juda then was to come the great ruler of the people of God, a ruler whom even the nations of the world would obey. The prophet Balaam had also foretold that a ‘star’ would rise from Jacob, a sceptre from Israel (Numbers 24:17).
THE LORD ‘BEGOTTEN’ BY GOD
In the tribe of Juda the blessing was given to King David. The prophet Nathan promised to David, ‘Your house and your kingship will exist forever before me; your throne will remain firm forever’ (2 Samuel 7:16).
In the Psalms David himself described the ‘Anointed One,’ the Christ Whom the Chosen People awaited. In Psalms David portrayed the kings and peoples of the earth conspiring against God and His Anointed. But God says to His Anointed, ‘You are my son, today I have begotten you. Petition me and I will give you the nations as an inheritance, the ends of the earth as your possession’ (Psalm 2:7-8).
In Psalm 110 David spoke of a ‘Lord’ Who sits at the right hand of God, Whom God sends forth from Sion to ‘rule in the midst of your enemies.’ This ‘Lord’ is ‘begotten’ by God, and a ‘priest forever, according to the order of Melchisedech.’
To Achaz, one of the descendants of David, God had said, ‘Behold, the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel’ (Isaias [Isaiah] 7:14). At the time when the armies of Assyria were advancing on Jerusalem Isaias had foretold that this child would be born to the Chosen People. ‘Sovereignty’ would rest upon his shoulders; he would be called ‘Wondrous-Counsellor, Mighty-God, Eternal-Father, Prince-of-Peace.’ He would sit upon the throne of David and rule his kingdom ‘through righteousness and justice’ (Isaias 9:1-6).
A DESCENDANT OF JESSE
Again Isaias had described the Anointed One of God as a descendant of Jesse, the father of David: ‘A twig will come forth from the stump of Jesse, from his roots a sprig will sprout. The spirit of Jahweh will rest upon him: the spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the spirit of counsel and fortitude, the spirit of knowledge and of the fear of Jahweh’ (Isaias 11:1-2). The descendant of Jesse will rule with justice and righteousness.
Both Isaias and Micheas [Micah] had foretold that in the time of the Anointed One of God all the nations of the earth would enter the Kingdom of God. The word of God would go out from Jerusalem to all the world (Isaias 2:2-4; Micheas [Micah] 4:1-3).
Micheas had proclaimed that the promised king would be born at Bethlehem: ‘from you will he come forth to me who will reign over Israel’ (Micheas [Micah] 5:1).
THEY HAD BEEN EXPECTING A POLITICAL MESSIAH
The Apostles, like their contemporary fellow-countrymen, knew that God had promised to bring blessings to them and, through them, to the rest of the world. They knew that the channel of these blessings had been narrowed down by God from Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, Juda and David to some one individual, a descendant of David, who would extend the Kingdom of God to the whole world. They knew that this promised king, this Anointed One of God, would be born of a virgin at Bethlehem.
Thus when they met Jesus and followed Him they were ready to accept Him as the Messias, the Anointed One of God. His doctrines and His miracles enabled them to see in Him the Promised One for Whom they had been waiting.
But, like their countrymen, they had been expecting a royal Messias who would lead them to worldly glory. Hence, when they saw Him refusing to become a temporal king, when they saw Him arrested, tried and put to death like a common criminal, they were bewildered and confused and they lost heart.
EVERYTHING FALLS INTO PLACE
The Resurrection of Jesus, however, and the instructions which He gave them during the forty days He remained with them on earth opened their eyes to the unperceived riches of their own scriptures. After His Resurrection Jesus showed them that they had attended only to the glorious aspects of the Messias they expected. They had ignored the more difficult prophecies about the sufferings and death of the Messias. Jesus recalled to them the words of Isaias about the ‘Servant of Jahweh,’ Who as the Messias would bring blessings to all men, but who would suffer and die. Far from being a man the people might admire, he would be despised. He would take upon Himself the sins of men: He would be bruised and pierced for the sins of men so that men might be saved. He would be led to death like a lamb to the slaughter.
He recalled to them the words of Zacharias [Zechariah]: ‘Behold thy King will come to thee, the just and the saviour. He is poor and riding upon an ass and upon a colt, the foal of an ass’ (Zacharias [Zechariah] 9:9).
HE WOULD RULE NOT AN EARTHLY KINGDOM BUT THE HEARTS OF MEN
Faced with the risen Jesus, perceiving in His very aliveness the triumph of man over sin and death, the Apostles under His instruction finally saw the true meaning of their own scriptures, the true meaning of God’s promises. The Messias, the Christ, would be a king indeed, but a king in the world of the spirit of man. He would rule, not an earthly kingdom but the hearts of men. He would gain His kingdom, not by military or political conquest but by the sacrifice of Himself on the cross for the salvation of mankind. His triumph would be achieved through humiliation and death. His triumph would not be over the kingdoms of the earth, but over the devil, sin and death. The evils brought into the world by the disobedience of Adam – sin, disease and death, the rule of the devil over the souls of men – these evils would be overcome by the obedience of the Anointed One of God. By his sin Adam had preferred his own advantage to God and so had lost the Kingdom of God for himself and for all his children. By His obedience, and obedience unto death, Jesus had preferred God to His own advantage, to His own human life, and so He had won back for all men the kingdom of God.
The Apostles knew that the sacrifice of Jesus was successful, effective, for they saw with their own eyes that God had given life back to Jesus, had made Him immortal in the flesh and glorious. Thus they were able to reconcile the two apparently contradictory descriptions of the Messias given in the scriptures of their people. The Messias would be a glorious, triumphant king; He would also be a servant, despised and humiliated, put to death by His enemies. In Jesus, in the gloriously risen Jesus, the Apostles saw these contradictions merge with one another, vanish. And the picture of the Messias which emerged from this merging of contradictories was even more glorious than had been their former dreams of worldly glory.
MORE GLORIOUS THAN THEIR DREAMS OF WORLDLY GLORY
For Jesus, Whom they recognised clearly as the Messias, the Christ, was not only man, He was God Himself, the Son of God. In Him they saw God Himself. He had come into this world not to establish simply an earthly kingdom filled with earthly peace and blessing. He had come to give men the far greater blessing of eternal life, the blessing of sharing in the life of God Himself, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Through Him and in Him and with Him they would conquer sin and death and the devil. By His grace they would rise with Him to the Father, to rule gloriously in heaven.
THE MYSTERY OF HUMAN EXISTENCE IS SOLVED
In the mysterious love and providence of God they had been chosen to bring this great blessing of eternal life to the rest of men. They had been chosen to assist the Son of God to establish the Kingdom of God among men. It is no wonder, then, that they returned from witnessing the Ascension of Jesus with hearts filled with joy and thankfulness to God. For them the mystery of human existence had been solved. Man had been bound over to death and the devil through sin. In Jesus sin had been overcome, and with sin death and the devil had been conquered. They rejoiced as men truly reborn, and born now not just to a passing existence here on earth but born to eternal life.
RAISED ABOVE EARTH-BOUND CYCLES
Under the tutelage of the risen Jesus they now saw that all human history up to that time was but a preparation for the coming of Jesus and His work of redemption. Jesus was the centre of all history, the centre which gave meaning to the growing circle of human history.
Without Jesus human life on earth was doomed to the ever-recurring cycles of human history, to repetitive beginnings, flowerings and decay of human civilisations and cultures.
But with Jesus human life could be raised above these earth-bound cycles to the eternal Now of God. God Himself had descended into the world of man, became a man to raise men to God. Without Jesus all men had been doomed after this present life to the eternal boredom, frustration and pain which is hell. Through Jesus it became possible for all men to rise to the perfect satisfaction of all human desires which is life with God in heaven.
WHY DOES THE BIBLE NEED THE OLD TESTAMENT AT ALL?
Because all human history up to that time was but a preparation for the coming of Jesus it was only fitting that previous persons and events foreshadow or prefigure Jesus Himself. Thus the Apostles were able to see even Adam, the first man, as a figure of Jesus. As the first man it was the function of Adam to bind men to God by his obedience. Adam, it is true, failed. But Jesus, the Christ, the First Man of the New Covenant, succeeded.
Abel offered to God an acceptable sacrifice. So did Jesus, in fact, the only sacrifice perfectly acceptable to God and effective of human salvation.
Melchisedech, whose name means ‘king of justice,’ the king of Salem (which means ‘peace’), offered to God a sacrifice of bread and wine. Jesus offered to God at the Last Supper bread and wine which He changed into His own Body and Blood. This was the clean oblation of which the prophet Malachias [Malachi] spoke, the sacrifice which would be offered to God all over the world, from the rising of the sun to the going down thereof. Melchisedech appears in history with no father or mother, no human genealogy. Jesus has no human father; He was born of a virgin. As God He has no mother; for Mary was only the Mother of God in His human nature.
Isaac carried the wood to Mount Moriah, where at the command of God he was to be sacrificed. Jesus, at the command of God, His Father, carried the wood of the cross to Calvary, where He was to be sacrificed for the sins of men.
JESUS IS THE CENTRE OF HISTORY
This same correspondence between men and events of the Old Testament with Jesus might be expressed in another way by saying that Jesus summed up or recapitulated in Himself the history of mankind in its relations with God. Of course in Jesus this recapitulation is realised in a perfect way. In Jesus there is no failure to respond to God’s will and in Jesus there is found the fullness of God’s grace, in fact, the very fullness of the Godhead Himself.
ADAM REPRESENTED THE WHOLE HUMAN RACE
In the eyes of God Adam represented the whole human race. His obedience would have brought inconceivable blessings to all men. In God’s eyes Jesus represented the whole human race. His obedience has brought great blessings to all men. The Chosen People were in God’s eyes as His ‘son,’ a son through whom the whole world would be blessed. Jesus is Himself the very Son of God, the Son through Whom mankind is really and fully blessed. The Chosen People, God’s ‘son,’ were exiled in Egypt before they entered for good the Promised Land. Jesus, the Son of God, was exiled in Egypt before He returned to the Promised Land to carry out His redemptive work. The Chosen People, God’s ‘son,’ were saved from destruction in Egypt by the shedding of the blood of a lamb. Jesus is Himself the lamb whose blood washes the world from sin. In the annual Passover celebration the Chosen People were forbidden to break any bones of the lamb through whose blood they were saved. On the Cross at Calvary God saw to it that the bones of Jesus, the true Lamb of God, were not broken. Thus also the realities of the Old Testament prefigure Jesus, and the life and deeds of Jesus sum up the realities of the Old Testament and give them new dimension, new depths of reality; for the Old Testament is but a shadow of Jesus, Jesus Himself is the substance of God’s plans for the salvation of mankind.
All these things the Apostles came to see clearly after the Resurrection of Jesus, either through the tutelage of Jesus Himself before His Ascension or through the light of the Holy Spirit which they received on the day of Pentecost.
THEY SAW THEIR ROLE IN THE PLAN OF GOD
More than this, they saw finally their own role in the plan of God. They saw that they had been chosen by Jesus to bring the blessing of salvation to all men. They were to be instruments of Jesus in establishing the Kingdom of God among men. From Jesus Himself they had received the commission to make disciples (that is, believers in Jesus) in all nations. These disciples were to be initiated into the Kingdom of God by the reception of the Sacrament of Baptism, that washing with water in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, which would expel sin from their souls and introduce therein the divine life which Jesus had won for them by shedding His blood on the Cross. Once saved from sin by Baptism these disciples were to be guided in their moral lives by the instructions, by the commands of the Apostles. From Jesus the Apostles received this threefold power to teach men the truths of salvation, to give men the graces by which they could achieve salvation and to rule the human conduct of men in order to lead them to eternal life. Among the Apostles themselves, even though all shared in this threefold power, Peter had been chosen by Jesus to be the head of the whole kingdom, of the whole Church. In the Kingdom of God Peter was the absolute head, the supreme ruler.
THE LIGHT ON A MOUNTAIN TOP
The Apostles also knew that while the Kingdom of God would be in this world, it would not be of this world. It would be as observable to men as a light on a mountain top. It would have a structure, an organisation. It would make use of perceptible signs to transmit the life of God to men, the signs of baptism, the laying on of hands for the giving of the Spirit, of the Body and Blood of Jesus, of remission of sins, of the anointing of the sick and the dying, of the laying on of hands for the transmission of the powers entrusted to the Apostles by Jesus, of the elevation of marriage as a sign of the unity of the Church. But, as the last phrase indicates, all these would be external signs of an incomparably greater invisible reality, the union of men with God through union with Jesus, the God-Man. Jesus the Christ is the vine through which the divine life is communicated to those men who would be grafted on Him by baptism. The Kingdom of God on earth would be a union of men with Jesus, a spiritual union whereby Jesus would be the source of divine life for those united to Him, Himself the way by which men reach God, the very Truth the grasping of which would make men free, free of sin and free from the downward drag of sinful human history.
Filled with thoughts such as these the Apostles and the disciples of Jesus, one hundred and twenty in number, waited in Jerusalem for the coming of the Spirit of God Whom Jesus had promised to send them.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959 (Headings in capital letters added afterwards.)