Does Christ’s ascension to heaven make any difference to us on earth? It’s a good question to ask, not least on Ascension Day. But if we are going to examine the why, we need first to look at the what. What exactly happened at Christ’s ascension?
The Ascension Described
Before 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).
Luke describes Christ’s ascension in both his Gospel (Luke 24:50-53) and Acts 1:8-11. The latter reads as follows. “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 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.”
The seated Christ has finished his work of atonement and took his place as ruler of the church and cosmic king
A Spectacular Departure
Before their very eyes Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. He went to sit at the right hand of God the Father. The seated Christ had finished his work of atonement and taken his place as ruler of the church and cosmic king. He is now “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” (Ephesians 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?”
Christ’s 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, which 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.”
It is Christ’s coronation, which is a big deal if we’re his subjects
Crowning the Cosmic King
Notice, for example, the impact this final miracle had on Jesus’ disciples who witnessed it. Instantly they worshipped Jesus, not as a man or a friend, but as their King. They praised God as they waited for the promised Holy Spirit (Luke 24:52-53). The ascension convinced them to align themselves with the objective, true King of the universe. It gave them confidence to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. Even though it would 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 this fact: the risen Christ was also the cosmic king who would one day return to reign on earth.
A few days later, we see Peter proclaiming the death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. For him they had become inseparable chapters 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, until I make your enemies your footstool.”’ 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).
It gave them confidence to be Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the earth. Even though it would cost them their lives
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.
Christ’s 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 business-like question for such a surreal setting! Wouldn’t you also be mesmerised? But the two angels order them to get their heads out the clouds. “Now’s no time for standing around and staring into space. It’s time to get on with your king’s mission.”
The Holy Spirit Unleashed
Luke’s account makes it clear that as soon as Christ ascended his heavenly throne, the gospel launched into all of Israel. As he had promised, the power of the Holy Spirit carried it forward. For 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.
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. It’s what we see throughout the book of Acts. It’s what we still see today and will see until the end of the age. Because of the Holy Spirit, Jesus will be with every generation of the church until the great commission is complete (Matthew 28:20).
Following God’s Agenda
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 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 1:9). His Kingdom, in heaven and on earth.
Because of Christ’s ascension, we are part of something much bigger than ourselves
Those heavenly messengers remind us that history is not cyclical or arbitrary (Acts 1:11). The world is moving purposefully towards a certain point in the future. That fixed point is the physical, visible return of Jesus to rule over the earth. It is the moment when every knee will bow to Christ as Judge and King. Once and for all, God will make his enemies a footstool for the Son (1 Thessalonians 5:2; Psalm 110:1; Revelation 20:14). 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 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 in assured by the King himself.
Christ’s Ascension is our Great Assurance
Until our King returns, the ascension secures us a heavenly high priest who always has the ear of God the Father. Again Tim Keller captures it beautifully in his book “Encounters with Jesus“. “There is no stronger advocate possible than the one who is at God’s right hand.”
The ascension secures us a heavenly high priest who always has the ear of God the Father
A Passionate Advocate in Heaven
For me, right now, this is why the ascension is such a precious doctrine. Christ is not a remote monarch or wily politician. He is not some unreachable leader. He is the caring, passionate King we glimpse when Stephen is stoned in Acts 7. “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. 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. That’s because the king of the universe is active and engaged in the lives of those who love him. The Son is standing in heaven as our great advocate to plead our case before the Father. He prays for us as we face troubles in this world (John 17:20; 24; 26). Christ defends us against Satan’s accusations when we sin. And he reassures us of God’s love when we feel foolish and insecure (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). 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 as he died (Acts 7:59-60).
He prays for us as we face troubles in this world. Christ defends us against Satan’s accusations when we sin. And he reassures us of God’s love when we feel foolish and insecure
Grace, Peace and Assurance
It is this same view of the exalted Jesus that enabled Ravi Zacharius to face death from 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” (Hebrews 7:25). Christ paid for our sins with his life and has ascended into heaven. Therefore those who have bowed to him can know that we have a High Priest in heaven. So we can boldly draw near to God in prayer. We can always find grace to help us when we need it most (Hebrews 4:16; 7:19, 27).
What assurance the objective reality of the ascension gives us 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.
Two thousand years after Christ’s ascension, we can still know Christ’s intimate presence in Africa
Amazingly, two thousand years after Christ’s ascension, we can still know Christ’s intimate presence in Africa. We can hear his voice powerfully in his word and feel the continuous outpouring of his love in our hearts through the Holy Spirit (Romans 5:5; 8:9-10; 2 Corinthians 3:17). In fact, the ascension intensifies, in a very personal way, everything that Jesus has done, and is still doing to redeem a people for himself. As one of those eye witnesses to the ascension wrote to believers who had never met Jesus, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Peter 1:8). Do we love him too, do we really grasp the powerful meaning of the ascension in our lives?
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 counsellor. We know he lives in us, helps us, and will stay with us forever. Lord, make your ascension real. So that we may see you as our active, caring Sovereign and Advocate in heaven. And may we be assured of your power, love and presence in our lives every day. Come, Lord Jesus.