Today is Ascension Day, which is unfortunately a bit of an overlooked and misunderstood event in the life of Christ.
Perhaps because it strikes us as kind of silly. Icons of the ascension have Jesus’ feet peeking out from behind the clouds, like he was literally going “up” into space. Was Jesus some kind of spaceman? A superhero taking off into the sky? Why is going to up to space? What will he do up there?
A Russian cosmonaut, after entering outer space, reportedly said, “God isn’t up here!” thinking he proved something.
I wonder if this is why we don’t think or talk about the ascension too much. It’s interesting that only Luke records it, in his Gospel and at the beginning of Acts.
Missing the point
But if we imagine Jesus floating upwards, we completely miss the point of the ascension. Think about it: how far would he go? Then what? He’s in space?
The ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus went upwards into space, but that he went into God’s space (otherwise known as “heaven”), where he is on the throne as King. The implications of this are massive for our lives!
If Jesus doesn’t go to the Father, the Spirit doesn’t come, and the church is left powerless to fulfill her mission to preach the good news to all nations. Without the ascension, there can be no Pentecost, and with no Pentecost, there’s no church.
The ascension is like a prelude to and a foundation for the sending of the Spirit.
Confusion, rebuke, instruction, and witness
Luke gives us the story of the ascension in Luke 24:36-53, and it follows the pattern we’ve seen in all the resurrection appearances in the previous verses: 1) confusion about what’s going on, 2) a rebuke of some kind from Jesus or an angel, 3) instruction on what this means, and 4) the resulting witness that occurs when disciples tell others what they’ve seen.
- Confusion. Jesus appears among the disciples and proclaims, “Peace be with you!” The disciples are scared out of their wits. It’s a ghost!
- Rebuke. “Why are you freaking out?,” Jesus says, “Check out the hands and feet, dudes. And give me a piece of fish to eat. I’m not a ghost!”
- Instruction. “This is what I told you,” Jesus says, “Everything must be fulfilled.” Now it’s Bible study time and he “opened the Scriptures to them…” to show them how they all point to him, how he is the climax of the story of redemption.
- Witness. But Jesus being the climax of the story doesn’t mean the story’s over. Jesus calls them into mission by being witnesses, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins to all nations. The resurrection of Christ means the call to mission is inescapable. God’s new world has begun and we are invited to live in it and bring it to others.
So after he instructs them, he leads them out, and lifts up his hands to bless them, like a priest. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up “into heaven.”
As he did this, a cloud hid him – this was the Shekinah, the visible representation of the pleasure and presence of God. The same luminous presence Moses encountered on Sinai, that traveled before Israel by day and appeared as a glowing pillar of fire by night, that surrounded Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration when his face shone forth as the sun.
The cloud is a clue as to what’s going on here. It indicates an overlap of heaven and earth. Heaven is “God’s space,” where God is wholly experienced and known. Earth is the “human space,” where we interact with each other and live out our days.
God doesn’t exist within our space, but fills our space. The heavens and the earth are two “worlds” that overlap and interlock in unpredictable and mysterious ways…
So the ascension means that Jesus went into heaven, into God’s space, not that he went up into outer space. “Up” is a metaphor. When we say a king “ascends” to the throne, we don’t mean he floats upward toward it – it’s a metaphor that has to do with glory and power that someone receives in becoming king.
This is the same kind of metaphor – Jesus ascends to heaven, but we can’t measure that in miles or light-years, he is moving into God’s space. The cloud of presence envelops him and he leaves his disciples and ascends to heaven.
But why? Who cares? Actually the implications of this fact are massive. Here are five:
1) The Ascension means that Christ is exalted
Jesus now occupies the place of ultimate power and authority in the universe. The resurrected, ascended Christ holds a position “far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every name that can be invoked, not only in the present age but in the age to come” (Eph 1:21-22).
Jesus is the King of the universe, right now, not later. “Jesus is Lord,” is the elementary gospel proclamation, and we live our lives in light of his kingship now.
And this is really at the heart of the gospel: It’s not just that Jesus Christ will help you with your troubles, or that he is a really good friend, or that you can have this wonderful spiritual experience with him, it’s about the objective fact that he is actually the Lord of the world.
The good news we preach is not a private spirituality but a political reality: Jesus is Lord – and his lordship challenges and trumps all other allegiances and loyalties, which is why Christians tend to get into so much trouble with rulers. They declare a higher allegiance than one to country or nationality or ethnicity.
2) The Ascension means that we will be glorified
The second thing the ascension means is that there is a human being in charge of the universe God created, which is how he always intended it. Adam was to rule over creation as a loving and wise steward. Christ as a human being has ascended to heaven and now he as the Second Adam rules and reigns over creation.
The Incarnation wasn’t a temporary arrangement to solve a particular problem. No, the Incarnation is permanent. Christ still is a human being in heaven now, and at his coming he will take the humanity he has redeemed into that sphere and make all things new.
Jesus is the “firstfruits” of his people and guarantees our resurrection and glorification. Christ’s resurrected body is a guarantee and preview of our own resurrected bodies. The glory he has is what we have received a token of now and will receive fully when he comes to make all things new.
3) The Ascension means Christ is praying for us
A third implication of the ascension is that Christ is praying for us! This is wonderful news. Jesus ascended to heaven not to just get a nice break from all that crucifixion and resurrection stuff, but to begin a new ministry: that of being our High Priest.
The Apostle Paul rejoices over this, asking “Who is it that condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more that that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Rom 8:34).
The writer of Hebrews also rejoiced over this: “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (4:14-16).
Christ is actively praying for us, interceding for us, sympathizing with us, bringing us help in our times of need. What a wonderful comfort to have Christ ascended!
4) The Ascension means Christ is with us
A fourth implication: Christ’s ascension meant the sending of the Holy Spirit, which means that even as he leaves his disciples in bodily form, he can then become present to them in a new way, through the Spirit. He told his disciples: “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7).
Imagine if Christ had just established a throne in Jerusalem – he would have been localized and limited to one place. You’d have to wait 100 years to get an appointment.
Through the Spirit, though, Christ is present with us, at all times, in all places. Christ has ascended to become everywhere present. He went away in order to be with us in a new and powerful way, through the presence of the Spirit in the church.
5) The Ascension means Christ’s power works through us
Finally, Christ not only sends his Spirit to us to be with us, but in order to give us power to be the church.
All authority now belongs to him, and he told his disciples, “Very truly I tell you, all who have faith in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12).
Paul says in Ephesians that God exerted “incomparably great power” in the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and also prays that we would know (experience/live in) that very same power in our daily lives!
Not that we would know about it. Not that we would understand it. That we would know it intimately, experience it daily, walk in it constantly.
It is a power that is meant to course through our lives, we are meant to live in it, by it. It’s a new kind of life present within us that we learn to recognize and participate in.
Dallas Willard was one of the best teachers about this new kind of life that God gives:
When we place our confidence in Jesus, He becomes a new kind of life in us, and that means now we think different thoughts; we believe things we didn’t believe before, and also we are strengthened and directed by grace, which is now a force in our life that comes from Jesus. And salvation as a life is simply participation in the life that comes from Jesus, who is with us and in us. The basic idea is, there is now a power, a personal power, moving in our lives that comes from God and comes in the form of Jesus… [the Christian life is about] interactive relationship, the intermingling of activities, sharing a life.
Think about the risen and exalted Christ in heaven (all around you) constantly allowing power to flow from his life into yours. That is the simple reality that is painted here, and it is available to anyone who wants it. Anyone who places their trust in Jesus and will allow him to do what he wants with their life can know this power, will experience it right now in the present.
It is power to transform us and energize us for the work of following Jesus, becoming the kind of people the world needs:
- People who look and act a lot like Jesus
- People who love one another as God has loved them
- People who serve others with no thought of return
- People who give generously because their confidence is in God to provide for every need
- People who never seem to worry about anything
- People who quietly but firmly refuse to join in evil
- People who pray for the sick and see them recover
- People who advocate on behalf of those who don’t have a voice of their own.
How do we learn to walk in this awareness? We offer ourselves to Jesus as best we can, seek to walk with him every moment, and obey his commands.
The Ascension of Christ means that Christ is exalted as Lord of the whole world, that our glorification is guaranteed, that Christ is praying for us, present to us, and empowering us to live as his disciples now.
Walk in that awareness today!