Does Christ’s ascension into heaven make any difference to us on earth? It’s a good question to ask this week as the church remembers the ascension of Christ on 21 May.
Luke describes Christ’s ascension in Acts and his gospel (Luke 24:50-53):
“You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends 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. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 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 1:8-11)
Here’s the backdrop to the ascension: After Jesus rose from the dead, He spent 40 days speaking to his disciples about the kingdom of God, showing them the Old Testament signposts to his death, resurrection and ascension (Luke 24:25-27, 32, Acts 1:3). We’ve been mimicking that in a tiny way in our “Burning hearts” devotions since Easter.
But now, before their very eyes, Jesus literally, bodily ascends into heaven to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The seated Christ has finished his work of atonement and is taking His place as ruler of the church and the cosmic king, “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come” (Eph 1:21-22). We affirm the ascension every time we say the apostles’ creed, “…he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
“Why”, you may ask, “did Jesus not just vanish like he did many other times? Why this spectacular departure?”
The ascension is a linchpin
A linchpin is a locking pin that holds a wheel in position and stops it sliding off the axle on which it is riding. In many ways, Christ’s ascension does the same thing for the Christian faith. If you think about it, it is the climax of everything Jesus announced about God’s Kingdom coming to earth (Luke 4:17-21, 43; 8:1). It is Christ’s coronation and this is a big deal if we’re his subjects! As Tim Keller writes, “It is a new enthronement for Jesus, ushering in a new relationship with us and with the whole world… Jesus was tracing out physically what was happening cosmically and spiritually.”
Notice, for example, the impact this final miracle of Jesus had on the disciples who witnessed it. Instantly they worshipped Jesus, not as a man or a friend, but as their King, praising God as they waited for the promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:52-53). The ascension convinced these disciples to align themselves with the objective, true King of the universe. It gave them the confidence to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth, even though it cost them their lives. Clearly, this was no personal preference or private faith for the witnesses of the ascension. The disciples based their entire lives on the fact that the risen Christ was also the cosmic king who would one day return to rule and reign on earth.
A few days later, we see Peter proclaiming the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ as inseparable elements in the gospel story (Acts 2:22-36). Listen to Peter’s bold conclusion:
“For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
“‘The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
35 until I make your enemies your footstool.”’
36 Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:34-36).
Peter’s testimony was held together by the linchpin of the ascension! If it weren’t for the ascension of Christ, the wheels of Christianity would have surely fallen off shortly after 33AD.
The ascension launches a great mission.
Here’s what I love most in Luke’s account: “Why do you stand here looking up into the sky?!” (Acts 1:11). It’s such a businesslike question for such a surreal setting! Wouldn’t you also be mesmerized by this spectacle? But the two angels order them to get their heads out the clouds and back to earth, “Now’s no time for standing around and staring into space. It’s time to get on with your king’s mission!”
Luke’s account makes it clear that as soon as Christ is launched into his heavenly throne, the gospel is also launched into all of Israel and all the earth by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus’s departure ushers in the age of the Spirit (Acts 1:8). And when the Holy Spirit is unleashed, Jesus is no longer limited by time and place as He was in his earthly body.
That’s exactly what we see happening at Pentecost a few days later, and through the book of Acts. It’s what we still see today, and to the end of the age. Because of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will be with every generation of the church until the harvest is gathered in and the great commission is complete (Matt 28:20).
Actually, without the ascension, Christians would have no purpose beyond ourselves in this world. We would just be living for our little comforts and plans, gripes and groans like everyone else. Building our own little ladders to heaven. Securing our paper kingdoms. Dreaming up our own ideas of the afterlife. But because Jesus has descended to earth as our sacrifice and saviour, and ascended to heaven as our real, objective King, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves (Acts 1:8): His Kingdom, in heaven and on earth.
What’s more, those heavenly messengers remind us that history is not cyclical or arbitrary (Acts 1:11). The world is moving purposefully to a certain point in the future. That fixed point is the physical, visible return of Jesus to rule over the earth, the day when every knee will bow to Him as Judge and King. Once and for all, God will make His enemies a footstool for his Son (1 Thess 5:2; Ps 110:1; Rev 20:14). So, Christ’s ascension is a warning to those who have not bowed the knee to Him as King. And a reminder to Christians not to just to wander about aimlessly on this earth. We are allies of the cosmic King who has great purposes for his Church on the earth. “To preach repentance and forgiveness of sins in his name to all nations”, in the power of the Holy Spirit, until our King returns (Luke 24:47-48). What a blessing to have a mission beyond ourselves! A mission whose outcome is assured by the King himself!
The ascension is our great assurance
But until our King returns, the ascension secures us a heavenly high priest who always has the ear of God, an advocate who is at God’s right hand.
For me, right now, this is why the ascension is such a precious doctrine. Christ is not a remote monarch or wily politician like our world’s leaders. He is the caring, passionate King we glimpse when Stephen is stoned in Acts 7. For this is what Stephen saw as he faced his executioners:
“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56).”
Yes, Stephen saw Jesus standing, not sitting at God’s right hand! Not distant or disinterested, but active and engaged in the lives of those who love him. He is standing in heaven as our great advocate to plead our case before God. To pray for us as we face troubles in this world (John 17:20; 24; 26). To defend us against Satan’s accusations when we sin (1 John 2:1). To reassure us of His love even when we feel foolish and insecure (Rom 8:34). It’s this vision of Jesus as his heavenly advocate that gave Stephen the serenity to entrust his spirit to the Lord Jesus and forgive his enemies (Acts 7:59-60). It’s this same view of the exalted Jesus that is enabling Ravi Zacharius to face terminal cancer in peace, with the gospel mission still burning in his heart. And it’s why the writer of Hebrews concludes, “Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to intercede for them (Heb 7:25).
Because Christ paid for our sins with his life and has ascended into heaven as King, those who have bowed the knee to Him can know that we have a High Priest in heaven. So, we can boldly draw near to God in prayer and always find grace to help us when we need it most (Heb 4:16; 7:19; 27).
What a difference the objective reality of the ascension makes at this time of crisis and loss! Through this pandemic, let’s not dwell on the gloom of our planet. Let’s lift our eyes to heaven and see Christ the king orchestrating his great redemption mission to the ends of the earth. Let’s see Him building up his church one human heart at a time, guiding all events towards a new heavens and a new earth (Isa 65:17-25). As his subjects, let’s not be so self-absorbed that we miss our part in that grand plan!
Amazingly, two thousand years after Christ’s ascension, we can still know Christ’s intimate presence in Africa, hear his voice powerfully in his word and feel the continuous outpouring of his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Rom 5:5; Rom 8:9-10; 2 Cor 3:17). As Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor who had also never met Jesus, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Peter 1:8). Do we love Him too, and do we really grasp the meaning of his ascension?
Lord, we sometimes feel afraid and a little lost at this time of crisis. Help us to truly take to heart all that you said about the Holy Spirit as our counselor, who lives in us, and helps us, and stays with us forever (John 14:16; 17; 18; 26). Lord, make your ascension real for us, so we may see you as our active, caring Sovereign and Advocate in heaven, and may be assured of your power, love and presence in our lives, come what may. Come, Lord Jesus.
Timothy Keller, Encounters with Jesus, (chapter 9 titled The Right Hand of the Father).
John Stott, Focus on Christ, (chapter 1 titled Through Christ our mediator.)