Christmas brings the incarnation before us every year. Easter does the same for Jesus death and resurrection. But the doctrine of the Ascension is a part of the story that is not given nearly as much attention. There is an “Ascension Day” on the Christian calendar, but when were you last in a church service that celebrated it? That moment when Jesus having given His life on the cross and being raised from the dead, lifted off the earth before the disciples very eyes, and ascended back into heaven.
William Barclay rightly observed: “It is extremely unusual to hear a sermon on the Ascension. It is one of the neglected parts of the life of Christ in the ordinary teaching of the pulpit.”
Interestingly, that was not the case with the early church fathers. There are many references in their writings of the first few centuries in which they addressed the Ascension. It was a prominent theme with them.
And it should be given prominence. It’s an important part of Christian teaching, with profound implications.
F.F. Bruce in his commentary on the Book of Acts points out that the Resurrection and the Ascension cannot be separated. They form two parts of one continuous movement; and that movement is what we might call the process of Jesus glorification.
It’s interesting to read Luke 9:51, “Now it came to pass, when the time had come for Him to be received up, that He steadfastly set His face to go to Jerusalem.”
Here’s the moment in Jesus ministry when He intentionally began to head toward Jerusalem for the final climactic week: “when the time had come for Him to be received up”. Scholars agree that it’s referring to the whole drama of His suffering, death, burial, resurrection and ascension, but it’s interesting that Luke chooses words that make the Ascension event the focal point. That’s the end it was all headed toward.
This is not to detract from the central importance of the Cross as the saving sacrifice, or the glory of Resurrection morning. The Ascension, however, is the culmination of it all, and in itself it speaks volumes.
In fact, the moment of the miraculous Ascension of Jesus marks an important transition that we mustn’t miss. It’s an important day in Christian teaching. Everything changed that day Jesus ascended back into heaven:
The post-resurrection appearances of Jesus ended.
No more showing up in locked rooms. No more cooking His disciples breakfast on the beach. No more sitting down and teaching them about the Kingdom. This was the last sight any of them had of Jesus on earth.
It commences a period of physical separation between Christ and the Church.
Thank God we continue to enjoy the wonderful presence and fellowship of Jesus by the Holy Spirit. God has “raised us up together, and made us sit together in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6). That’s our position – we are spiritually joined with Christ. We are one with Him. He’s sustaining us. His life is in us.
But that doesn’t change the fact that physically we are separated from Him. Jesus talked about this. “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.” (Matthew 9:15)
Those days of the bridegroom’s absence began when Jesus ascended. We’re living in those days. How many times does it say in the book of Acts that “they fasted and prayed” in the early church. It was the secret of their great power. But it was the separation of the Church from the physical presence of Jesus that pressed them into that great feeling of their need to fast and pray.
Jesus’ ministry is now by the Holy Spirit.
He’s physically absent, but He has sent us the Holy Spirit. Jesus said He would be “allos parakletos” (another Comforter). Note: He doesn’t use the more obvious Greek term “heteros parakletos” … which would mean “another Comforter of a different kind”. No. He says “ALLOS parakletos” … “another Comforter of exactly the same kind”. The Holy Spirit is also God – the third Person of the Trinity. They are the same essence.
So Jesus departed and sent the Holy Spirit in his place, and He told His disciples that this was going to be “to our advantage” (John 16:7). How could it possibly be to our advantage for Jesus to leave? Because the Holy Spirit would be to us ALL that Jesus is, but not now confined to one human body on earth, but God incarnate in a worldwide Body. The entire Church. So Jesus could declare in John 14:12 , “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he will do also; and greater works than these he will do, because I go to My Father.” Not “better” works, but “broader”.
Why does Luke begin the book of Acts with the Ascension?
It’s very important that he does so, because the book of Acts is the story of the continuing ministry of Jesus through the Church by the Holy Spirit. It’s the first half century or so of the fulfilling of the Great Commission. The disciples took the gospel of Jesus from Jerusalem to the known ends of the world at that time.
And what is the basis of the Great Commission? “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…” (Matthew 28:18-20)
It’s on the basis of Jesus Ascension in glory to the right hand of the Father, where He holds all power and authority, that His Church on earth is being authorized to carry out His plan.
Note Luke’s exact words in Acts 1:2 – “until the day in which He was taken up”. That language is used repeatedly in the New Testament passages that speak of the Ascension. Not “He flew up” or “He made His way up” or even “He went up”. No the language is very specific … “He was taken up”. The same point is made in Acts 1:9, Acts 1:22, Luke 24:51, Mark 16:19 and 1 Timothy 3:16.
The language is very important. It indicates the Father’s will. God the Father brought the Son back to glory:
“Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name…” (Philippians 2:9)
God has “… seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named …” (Ephesians 1:20-21)
Is that authority something that is still yet to come in the future? No. Paul says, “… not only in this age but also in that which is to come.”
Rejoice in this today! The enemies of Christ may still have a sphere of influence, but they are not in charge. Jesus is the Victor. He has all the authority in heaven and on earth.
I believe … He ascended into heaven,
And sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty;
From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.