What’s So Great About the Ascension?

What’s So Great About the Ascension? June 11, 2014

Question: Why does God the Father always have to use his left hand? Answer: Jesus because is sitting on his right hand! That’s a corny joke I know, but a good opener to talk about Jesus’ ascension, the moment which marks Jesus’ departure from the earth and the beginning of his heavenly session.

Sadly, the ascension is something of a poor cousin in terms of both the theological import attached to it and the relative neglect of Ascension Day even among churches that would identify themselves as liturgical. For many, the ascension is a kind of optional epilogue, lacking the theological profundity of the cross and without the apocalyptic special effects of the resurrection. Then for others, the ascension is something of an embarrassment, the lingering residue of a belief in a three storey universe, with Jesus oddly launched into a heaven that was naively thought to be only a few hundred feet above the clouds. Yet a glib dismissal of the ascension will simply not do because the ascension is an essential part of the story of Jesus.

Christian faith has traditionally insisted on confession of the ascension because it is intractably connected to a whole tapestry of Christian beliefs about Jesus’s work, God’s kingdom, and everlasting hope. St. Luke considered the ascension so vital that he recorded it twice, first in Luke 24:49-53 and again in Acts 1:9-11. For St. Luke, the ascension shows that the chapter Jesus’ earthly ministry had ended, while Jesus’ ministry through the church has now dramatically begun. The mention of Jesus’ ascension and enthronement besides the Father finds its place in the Nicene Creed because it signifies above all else that God the Father has put a human being in charge of the universe. As Bruce Metzger put it: “Ascension Day proclaims that there is no sphere, however secular, in which Christ has no rights – and no sphere in which his followers are absolved from obedience to him. Instead of it being a fairy tale from the pre-space age, Christ’s ascension is the guarantee that he has triumphed over the principalities and powers, so that at his name ‘every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:10-11).”[1]

While we could easily sermonize on the ascension for hours, I want to modestly suggest three aspects of the ascension that call out for attention.

1. Jesus ascends to heaven so that he can send the Holy Spirit to his followers. Jesus promised the disciples that they would be clothed with “power from on high” (Luke 24:49) and that he would send them the “Advocate” to assist them in their witness and work (John 14:16-17; 14:26; 15:26; 16:7). It is only as the ascended and exalted Lord that could Jesus send the Spirit to them. The sending of the Spirit from the Father and through Jesus is proof that Jesus in his earthly life was the anointed Spirit-bearer and in his exalted state Jesus is the exalted Spirit-giver. The fresh winds of the Holy Spirit are blowing like never before as royal gifts given to his subjects by God’s freshly installed viceroy.

2. Believers embryonically share in the reign of Christ by virtue of their union with Christ. Believers are united with Jesus in his death, resurrection, and in his exaltation. In the New Testament, reigning with Christ is held out as an impending hope to be consummated in a future moment (1 Tim 2:12; Rev 2:26-27; 3:21; 5:10; 20:6; 22:5). However, in Ephesians and Colossians, believers are in a sense already seated with Christ: “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6); “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus” (Col 3:1). Obviously this can lead to an unhealthy spiritual triumphalism. We are not on the throne yet, but our Man is, our Messiah is, our Master is, and where he is we shall also be! What that should lead to is not triumphalistic self-assurance, nor a disdain for all other earthly authorities. Rather, the prospect of reigning with Christ should cultivate a deep desire to live lives worthy of our royal calling (Col 3:2). It should promote a sense of awe at the grace of God which turned rebellious sinners who raged against the kingdom into royal heirs of the glorious king (Eph 2:7).

3. Jesus’ work of mediation continues in his heavenly session. The priestly office of Christ is expressed supremely in his atoning death, but is not limited to it. The ascended Jesus is the mediator who continues to give us access to God and he continues to make intercession for his people. The exaltation of Jesus completes this work of mediation because the ascension of Jesus into heaven means the acceptance of those for whom he died and rose. This is expressed beautifully in Hebrews: “We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure. It enters the inner sanctuary behind the curtain, where our forerunner, Jesus, has entered [heaven] on our behalf. He has become a high priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek (Heb 6:19-20). Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary ahead of us as our forerunner and we have assurance that we too will be accepted there.

If that is not cause itself to rejoice in the ascension, then I leave you with the words of Bishop Maximus of Turin: “The mystery of the Lord’s Ascensions, dear brothers, has ordained today’s festival. Let us rejoice that the Only-begotten of God came to earth for the redemption of all and let us be glad that He entered heaven for our immortality … The earth rejoices when it sees its Redeemer reigning in the heavens; heaven is glad because it has not lost its God which it had, and has received the manhood which it had not.”[2]

 


[1] Bruce M. Metzger, “The Meaning of Christ’s Ascension,” in Search the Scriptures: New Testament Studies in Honor of Raymond T. Stamm, eds. J.M. Myers, O. Reimherr, and H.N. Bream (Leiden: Brill, 1969), 128.

[2] Cited in Peter Toon, The Ascension of our Lord (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1984), 131-32.

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  • Norman

    Just a comment on Jesus ascending so He could send the Holy Spirit. Does this suggest that the Holy Sprit was not commonly on the earth while Jesus was? Going through the life of Joseph it is remarkable that he gave credit to God for the interpretations, had a high moral code when approached by Potifer’s wife, and was so honest while in prison that he became the overseer. Where did he get these ideas (teachings?) considering the dysfunctional family he came from. I postulate that while away from his family in Egypt he must have been ministered to by the Holy Spirit in some manner.