I used to sit and watch with amazement as basketball superstar Michael Jordan ascended to the rim with the basketball in his outstretched hand. His hang time was unbelievable. It was almost as if he defied gravity, as he made his way to the rim for one of his jaw-dropping dunks or reverse layups as a basketball god. Jesus also has some serious hang time. Jesus defies gravity in his ascension. Sorry Air Jordan and Sir Isaac Newton. And yet, when the right time comes, Jesus will return to earth, just like he ascended to heaven. According to Jesus, what goes up must come down. Like and unlike Jordan and the Terminator in their return to the court and screen, Jesus will someday say, “I’m back.”
One of the most neglected aspects of Jesus’ public ministry is his ascension. This past Thursday marked the forty days since Easter Sunday when Jesus ascended to heaven. Many Christians around the world celebrated the Feast of the Ascension (See here for more information on the feast). Some Christian groups dedicate this Sunday to its remembrance.
Luke gives special attention to the ascension: see Luke 21:26-28; 22:66-71 (cf. Matthew 26:57-68); 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-11; and 7:54-60. The apostolic community took great comfort from knowing that the crucified and risen Lord ascended to the right hand of the Father, and that he will return in glory.
Paul (Saul) was present at Stephen’s stoning and heard Stephen speak of seeing the ascended Christ (Acts 7:54-60). No doubt, at the time, he scoffed at Stephen’s vision. Later, Paul highlights the significance of the ascension for the Christian life: Ephesians 4:1-16 (spiritual unity and gifting) and Colossians 3:1-4 (identity in Christ and spiritual growth).
Luke and Paul are not alone in the New Testament’s accounting of Jesus’ ascension. Here are a few examples. Hebrews 1:1-3 reveals that Jesus is the great prophet, priest, and king. He is the true Word of God who declared that he would reign regally in heaven with the Father, as the heavenly high priest who offered himself as the once-and-for-all sacrifice for sins. In John’s farewell discourse (John 14-16), the Lord speaks of the need for him to return to the Father so that the Spirit would come and abide with his people to comfort and counsel them. In Acts, we find that the disciples are to wait for the Spirit upon Jesus’ ascent, just as they are to await Jesus’ return (Acts 1:4-11). Following almost immediately after the ascension, Christians celebrate the Spirit’s outpouring, gifting and empowerment (Acts 2:1-4) on Pentecost Sunday a week from now.
How seriously do we take the ascension? The ascension did not lead the early church to escape the world, but to live with their feet firmly hitting the ground running forward in mission. The ascension mobilized Christians to live victorious, holy lives in the midst of severe difficulties and persecution, as in the case of Stephen. Take for example this central statement on the ascension in the opening chapter of Acts, which details the missional movement of the apostolic community:
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “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 1:6-11; ESV).
The apostolic community took the ascension very seriously. The ascension of Jesus coupled with the descent of the Spirit at Pentecost made it possible for them to stop staring at the heavens and move forward here on earth by becoming Jesus’ witnesses—which involved suffering unto death in many cases—in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (the English word “martyr” is taken from the Greek word for witness—martus; refer to this article on the subject of martyr). Just as Jesus’ ascent was no ordinary hang time, so the apostolic community’s witness was no ordinary observation.
How about us today? How seriously do we take Jesus’ hang time? Are we gazing up at the heavens to the point of being of such heavenly good that we are of no earthly value? Or does Jesus’ ascension lead us to be his witnesses here below in a manner that we proclaim and demonstrate Jesus in word and deed in a self-sacrificial loving manner, thereby advancing his kingdom shalom? Ours is a hope that does not avoid the world and its struggles. Rather, the ascended Jesus continues to operate here on earth through his Spirit-filled people.
I don’t have Jordan’s hang time—not even close. But what other Christians and I do have is the confident assurance that the Jesus who hung on the cross is not dead and buried, but raised and seated at God’s right hand. He has conquered sin and death. Our salvation is complete. As the Creed declares, he will come again to judge the living and the dead and make all things new. I am hanging my hopes on him. We close with the following text from Hebrews on our ascended and returning hope. This hope made it possible for the Hebrew Christians to remain faithful as Jesus’ witnesses in the midst of severe suffering. Like these early Christians, our ascendant hope for whom we eagerly wait makes it possible for us to descend by faith into suffering with his liberating love:
Thus it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him (Hebrews 9:23-28; ESV).