Volume 14, No. 5 (May 2019)
The Great Fifty Days of the Easter season (Eastertide) will culminate in the giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost:
He presented Himself alive to them after His suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. And while staying with them He ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, He said, “you heard from Me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.” (Acts 1:3-5)
This period, however, is punctuated on the fortieth day [May 30, this year; and often celebrated in church worship on the following Sunday] by the tremendously important event of Christ’s Ascension into heaven, the necessity of which He had foretold in John 16:
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send Him to you. (John 16:7)
And so the risen, glorified Christ completes His earthly ministry, as Luke describes in both of his books:
Then He said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then He opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in His name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of My Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.” And He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands He blessed them. While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:44-53)
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 1:6-12)
This event, too often overlooked in our worship and church life, has enormous implications for us as believers, as the author of Hebrews and Paul (as well as Jesus Himself and Luke above) have pointed out:
We have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (Hebrews 8:1-2)
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with Him and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages He might show the immeasurable riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory. (Colossians 3:1-4)
The Heidelberg Catechism lays out the significance of the Ascension in this way:
Question 49: “How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?
First, He is our Advocate in heaven before His Father. [Rom 8:34; I John 2:1]
Second, we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, our Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. [ John 14:2; 17:24; Ephes 2:4-6] [As John Duncan put it, “The dust of the earth is on the throne of the Majesty on High.”]
Third, He sends us His Spirit as a counter-pledge, [ John 14:16; Acts 2:33; 2 Cor 1:21, 22; 5:5] by whose power we seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God, and not the things that are on earth. [Col 3:1-4]”
Present-day writers have offered these reflections as well:
Many think that the ascension really means the shedding of Jesus’ human nature, as if Jesus is now simply a spiritual presence who used to be human, someone whom we remember with affection rather than someone we expect to see face to face someday. A full-orbed understanding of the incarnation will also proclaim that the incarnation continues, that it is the incarnate Christ who has ascended. Jesus is our contemporary, not a historical figure from a dead past. He is living now, interacting with us now, and standing now in a human body in the presence of the Father. He is praying for us now, leading our worship now, feeling our pain now, sharing our humanity now. (Laura Smit, “The Incarnation Continues: Recovering the Importance of the Ascension,” Reformed Worship 79)
Although the cross is the critical point in the perfecting of Jesus, the climactic moment happens as the crucified but risen Jesus of Nazareth ‘enters heaven itself’, the sanctuary of God’s presence, the holy Sabbath rest of the fulfillment of God’s purpose for all that He has made. He enters as the pioneer who goes before us (3.1; 12.2) and as a priest to ‘appear in the presence of God on our behalf’ (9.24). (Christopher Cocksworth, “The Cross, Our Worship and Our Living,” Atonement Today [ed. John Goldingay], 115-116)
The ascension is . . . the pinnacle of Christ’s redemptive work because a human being enters the heavenly place of God’s presence and sits at His right hand. (Christopher Cocksworth, Holy, Holy, Holy: Worshipping the Trinitarian God, 157)
Ten Reasons to Celebrate Ascension Day
The ascension of Jesus testifies that what we can perceive with our five physical senses is only part of the splendor God has envisioned for us—while doing nothing to denigrate the beauty of our bodily experience of the world around us.
The ascension of Jesus gives us language to speak about both Jesus’ absence and presence—his absence from us in the body, and his presence with us through the Holy Spirit. Being honest about Jesus’ absence is the first step to being open to God’s empowering presence with us in the Holy Spirit.
3. The ascension of Jesus depicts the boundary between earth and heaven as permeable. Our prayers cross over this boundary, Jesus’ resurrected body passes through this boundary, and—one day—so will ours.
The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize heaven. It pictures heaven as a place in which resurrected bodies belong. Heaven is not just ethereal and vaporous.
The ascension of Jesus changes how we visualize Jesus today. As you read this, in the present tense, Jesus is not passive, but active. Jesus is praying for us (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 24-25). Jesus is sending the Spirit. Having prepared a place for us, Jesus is actively waiting for us.
The ascension of Jesus helps us see lordship and sovereignty as good and gracious. In this sad world, power is equated with bullying or coercive force. In contrast, fusing the words “reigning Lord” and “Jesus Christ” transforms our understanding of power and helps us envision the kind of power that is purely good and altogether lifegiving.
The ascension of Jesus changes our picture of suffering. The ascension of Jesus helps us see that heaven is a place that is not indifferent to human suffering (Heb. 4:14-16). This calls us to embrace the overlapping rhythms of worship, pastoral care, and justice. Ascension Day is a profound resource for addressing deep pastoral needs—for those who struggle with depression, guilt, shame, burnout, shallowness, and conflict; for those who are persecuted; for victims of war and violence; for victims of abuse and tragedy.
The ascension of Jesus can prevent us from over-identifying with everyday reality. The ascension “sets our minds on things above” (Col. 3:1), and reminds us that our citizenship is in heaven. This, in turn, teaches us to invest deeply in our work and daily life, but to hold on to it loosely. It gives us a basis for passionate living that is graced by freedom, not grasping; invitation, not control.
Ascension teaches us a lot about ultimate desire, the kind of soul-aching desire that drives so much of our human striving. It reminds us that our ultimate desires cannot be satisfied with life as we know it, that ultimately all God’s saints long for “a better country” (Heb. 11:16).
Ascension humbles us. It shows us how limited our minds, imaginations, and words really are. It teaches us to ground our worship in doxology: “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!”
(John Witvliet, Reformed Worship 115)
OTHER RESOURCES ON THE ASCENSION
Ascension Resource Guide (Calvin Institute of Christian Worship)
“Celebrating and Singing the Ascension of Jesus Christ” (Cardiphonia)
William Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord (MacMillan, 1898)
Peter Atkins, Ascension Now: Implications of Christ’s Ascension for Today’s Church (Liturgical Press, 2001)
Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2004)