Our Lord’s Ascension

The Biblical Significance of Our Lord’s Ascension [1]

Each Ascension Day we meditate on a relevant individual text of Scripture. Since no one text affords us a full explanation of Christ’s return to heaven, our meditations have been somewhat piecemeal. We get one perspective now, then another later, but we don’t get to see the one event in a single shot. Such a sketch we seek to provide here.

The Placement of the Ascension

The ascension occurred toward the end of that all-important cluster of events at the center of the history of redemption. It occurred between the preceding incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ, and his subsequent outpouring of the Spirit from heaven.

Although the ascension was unexpected to the disciples (Luke 24:50–51; Acts 1:9), it was not to our Lord. John the Evangelist records differing instances in which he foretold the event. Initially he did so rather cryptically (John 6:62 [cf. John’s comment in 13:1]); then more clearly (John 16:5, 28–29); and most explicitly during the forty-day period between the resurrection and ascension (John 20:17). The ascension is thus located toward the end of the fifty day period between the resurrection and the outpouring of the Spirit on the church. Following on the heels of the resurrection, the ascension combines with it to speak of Jesus’ exaltation.

The Principles of the Ascension

The Bible’s scattered references to the ascension reveal four principles.

First, the ascension reminds us that our Lord is divine. Although Jesus was not alone in by-passing death (so did Enoch and Elijah), nor in foretelling events (the prophets did too), he was alone in foretelling his ascension and in describing it as a return to his Father. The prophecy came true. He was “carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51); “lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). The cloud is significant, for as Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:16, our Lord was “taken up in glory.” The glory refers to the cloud—a reminder of the Shekinah cloud of the Lord’s glory from Old Testament times (cf. Dan.7:13). It is no wonder that the disciples responded to the ascension with worship (Luke 24:52). Legitimate worship is reserved for God.

Second, the ascension reminds us that while Jesus is divine he remains fully human. He arose in the body in which he lived, died, and was resurrected. His raised body had superior powers, but it retained the same features as the body in which he had lived (John 20:24–29). The disciples saw Jesus ascend precisely because he was in the body they knew (Acts 1:9). In the ascension he took his body to heaven. Remaining in it he is able to be our sympathetic High Priest.

Third, Jesus’ bodily ascension tells us that he is eternally alive. Since he didn’t die again on earth subsequent to the resurrection, we can be sure he hasn’t died in heaven either! He sat down at the Father’s right hand because his death-work was finished. To quote Hugh martin, he “died death dead.” And yet he remains most active, for in entering into heaven he has appeared in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb. 9:24). Seated next to the Father, he ever prays to him on behalf of his people (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 7:25). He does so to dispense grace and help as sought and needed (Heb. 4:14–16). He rises to sympathize with us in our sufferings, and he greets us as we enter heaven (Acts 7:55–56).

Fourth, Jesus has in his ascension received divine honor for his work on earth. His Father has “highly exalted” him by accolades of “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Phil. 2:9; Dan. 7:14). His name is hyper-exalted, his reign is begun, and it will never end (Dan. 7:14b; 1 Peter 3:22). His every enemy will one day be placed under his feet (Ps.110:1). Christ’s foes as well as his friends shall bow before him, confessing he is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2: 11). It is, however, only to those who are his true friends that Jesus promises a share in his throne (Rev. 3:21). From it the saints will judge the world (1 Cor. 6:2).

The Pondering of the Ascension 

While our celebration of the ascension lasts a day, our pondering of it is surely lifelong. References to the ascension teach us that this pondering is:

Active not passive. Recall the rebuke of the angels that famous day: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10–11). We’re to be heavenly-minded not heavenly-gazing! Soon our brief lives will be over. We’ve work to do (Eph. 2:10). It’s not impossible that Christ will return for his church in our day. The reverse of the ascension tells us his return will be sudden, personal, bodily, and glorious.

Positive not negative. Christ has left this earthly scene, but he has sent us the Holy Spirit as his representative on earth (John 16:1–11). In fact, Jesus said that if he were not to ascend the Holy Spirit would not come. This is because on his return to heaven Christ was rewarded with the promised Holy Spirit who would apply the benefits of his work to his people (Acts 2:33). Christ in turn would send the Spirit to the church to empower her witness (John 15:26).

Hopeful not hopeless. Having experienced life at its most earthy, fallen, and pressurized, our sinless Christ not only sympathizes with us, he urges us to hold fast our confession under duress, and to come with confidence to his Father for all that we need (Hebrews 4:14-16).

  

[1] First appeared as a bulletin insert for Seventh Reformed Church’s Ascension Day Service, May 10, 2013.