By Martin Morrison.
What’s important about Ascension Day? The simple answer is nothing at all! There are no special sacred or religious days as such for Christians. Everyday belongs to the Lord. He is the Lord of heaven and earth. He is the Lord of time and space. Every second of every day is under the headship of Christ. There is not a square millimetre of space or a micro-second of time to which Jesus cannot say, “It is mine”.
Alright. So perhaps we need to rephrase the question. What is important about the ascension of Jesus? Well, that’s quite a different question. It is hugely important to the Christian faith and to every Christian. The historical record of the ascension of Jesus is given to us by Dr Luke in Acts 1:1 – 11. You would greatly benefit if you could read the portion. Let’s unpack this topic under two headings.
Firstly, it is quite clear from the Lukan record that what we have here is historical. William Neil, who is usually conservative in his conclusions, tells his readers (without argument) that Luke was conveying theological truth through symbolism and poetry. Others have argued that Luke lived in pre-scientific days with a totally different cosmology. Surely, they say, you can’t really believe in a literal ascension as recorded by Luke? Well, all you need to do is to read the narrative for yourself. There is no sign of poetry or symbolism. It is unsentimental, even austere. It reads like history, as if Luke intended us to accept it as history.
It’s historical importance is that it visibly signified the end of the earthly ministry of Jesus. His earthly ministry commenced with the incarnation and ended with the ascension. During the forty days between the resurrection and ascension, Jesus kept appearing, disappearing and reappearing. His six-week ministry of post resurrection teaching had come to an end. And so he visibly and publicly ascended, so that his disciples would know that he had gone for good. They were not to keep looking for his appearing but to wait in Jerusalem for the outpouring of his Spirit. Jesus’s earthly ministry was confined to a particular time and space. Palestine in 30 AD. The next phase of Jesus’s ministry required his physical exit and then the entry of his Spirit which would not be confined to time and space. So the ascension of Jesus leads to Pentecost which inaugurates what Jesus continues to do on earth through his Spirit and the apostles. Without the physical departure of the earthly Jesus, there would be no arrival of the Spirit of Jesus, not only to Palestine but to the ends of the earth.
As I have often said, the Christianity we are taught in the Bible is both natural and supernatural. There is a historical Virgin Birth, a historical Death and Resurrection, and a historical Ascension. Yet at the very same time, it is supernatural. The Bible affirms a supernatural God; a supernatural Book; a supernatural Saviour; a supernatural Ascension; a supernatural Conversion; a supernatural Heaven and a supernatural Hell. There must be no pretence that you can have Christianity without the supernatural.
Secondly, the ascension is theological. In other words, what does it mean? Well, it includes a number of aspects. Let me mention just a few. The first is that when Jesus ascended he ascended to a place. Luke calls the place heaven (Acts 1: 10 – 11). This place is out of our sight. It is a spiritual place, but a place nonetheless. The ascension of Jesus into heaven is designed to teach us that heaven does exist as a place in the space-time universe. Also surprising to our western ears, is that he is seated at the right hand of God with his physical body! If you have a problem with that idea, you have obviously been reading far too much Plato! But more of that for another day!
Luke continues, by telling the disciples and us, that though Jesus is presently in heaven, he will return. “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you in heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him going into heaven”. (Acts 1:11). So the ascension teaches us, not only that Jesus left, but that Jesus will return. Now if that isn’t supernatural, then I don’t know what is! Exactly how he will pull off his return, I have no idea. How every eye will see him, how every ear will hear the trumpet when New Zealand is already living in tomorrow, I cannot tell!! But I know that he pulled off his first coming in a somewhat unusual fashion, so he can no doubt manage the second without my input!
So I think, it would be quite smart for us to seriously consider whether we are ready to face Christ when he returns in his own good time, when he returns to bring human history as we know it to an end. Of course, a very good question is whether you will be pleased or terrified when he suddenly returns? Does it fill you with joy or dread or perhaps indifference or derision?
Finally, the ascension of Christ affirms the Kingship and Lordship of Christ over the entire universe. When Jesus ascended into heaven he received glory, honour and authority. Luke recalls the words of Peter in his sermon at Pentecost, that Jesus was “exalted at the right hand of God” (Acts 2: 33).
“After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Hebrews 1:4). Just as we may sit down at the completion of a large task to enjoy the satisfaction of having accomplished it, so Jesus sits down, having completed his work of redemption on the cross. “It is finished”. No more striving, no more works, no need for religion, no more keeping of rituals or sacred days. Jesus the Saviour, is finally unveiled and known as Jesus the Lord. “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”
For further reading: John Stott, The Message of Acts (The Bible Speaks Today Series). Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology. An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.
Both available at Amazon. Grudem hardcopy and Kindle.