It’s been over 20 years since our church put on a “Living Scenes of Easter” play.
One challenge back then was to dramatically present the ascension scene. Rather than provide fodder for America’s Funniest Videos, we decided to handle things simply: we would create smoke using dry ice to simulate Jesus ascending into the clouds. It worked well.
Most of us are aware that forty days after his resurrection, Yeshua ascended into heaven. We would do well to reflect upon this ascension. The fullest ascension account is found in Acts 1:9-11.
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. (ESV)
Final “goodbyes” are the most difficult, like bidding adieu to a dying parent or sibling. Those last few moments can be tough to process. The early believers had to experience that sort of grief—twice!
The Apostles and early believers had experienced the traumatic devastation of the crucifixion followed by the ecstatic exuberance of the resurrection. It had been an amazingly bipolar experience. After the high of the resurrection, the disciples now had to brace themselves for a different kind of loss. Jesus’ departure to heaven was bitter-sweet: He had to return to His Father’s throne and thus initiate the age of the Holy Spirit (John 16:7).
Jesus’ ascension is connected both to the resurrection and to his second coming. It is an extension of the gospel and a foundational belief that has important ramifications.
First, let’s survey the information Luke gives us about the Ascension in Acts 1.
The passive voice in verse 9, “he was lifted up,” makes us wonder who did the lifting.
The answer could be the Father or the Spirit. While on earth, God the Son incarnate made Himself obedient to the Father, yet He worked his miracles in the power of the Spirit. In other texts, the emphasis is that He simply ascended (Eph. 4:8-9). Just as the Father (Acts 3:32), Son (John 2:19), and Spirit (Rom. 8:11) all are said to have resurrected Jesus, so perhaps all three divine persons had part in the ascension.
Note that this ascension took place “as they were looking on.” The ascension was an important event, one that the Apostles had to witness. The ascension almost made the grade as one of the essentials of the gospel, as expressed in 1 Corinthians 15:3ff. There, Paul states that the essentials of the gospel are: Christ died for our sins, was buried, and rose again on the third day. Yet, in another summary of the message, the ascension is included. 1 Timothy 3:16 reads, “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
From where did Jesus ascend? The text tells us (Acts 1:12) that these events transpired on the Mount of Olives. Interestingly, Zechariah 14:3-4 tells us that Jesus will return to earth on this very spot. The context is during the Battle of Armageddon at the very end of the Great Tribulation:
Then the Lord will go out and fight against those nations as when he fights on a day of battle. On that day his feet shall stand on the Mount of Olives that lies before Jerusalem on the east, and the Mount of Olives shall be split in two from east to west by a very wide valley, so that one half of the Mount shall move northward, and the other half southward.
To where did He ascend? The fact that two angels (appearing as men) were on the scene suggests that Jesus returned to heaven. In his sermon at Pentecost, Peter taught that Jesus ascended to heaven (Acts 2:34). In Acts 1, the angels asked a rhetorical question about why the apostles were gazing into the sky. They explained that this same Jesus would one day return to earth just as He had ascended from the earth.
The mention of the cloud in our text is not merely for purposes of atmosphere (that’s a joke, folks). The fact that Yeshua was enshrouded in a cloud could connect the event to the cloud of God’s glory seen throughout the Old Testament, the Shekinah. It also would bring to mind the prophecy of Jesus’ return in Daniel 7:13-14.
I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominionand glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languagesshould serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom onethat shall not be destroyed.
This also connects to Jesus’ prophecy of Luke 21:27 that “at that time they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.”
Both the Acts account of the ascension and the prophecy of Luke 21:27 connect Bible readers to the Daniel 7 passage.
To Mary Magdalene, after the Resurrection, Jesus says in John 20:17, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Thus Jesus’ ascension was, in essence, a return to the Father.
Second, let’s note some implications we can draw from the Ascension.
1. The ascension tells us that Jesus’ work of redemption is completed.
Just as Jesus’ birth was, in a sense, the starting point of His earthly appearance, so the ascension is the ending point. In a sense, it was the celebration of His amazing work of atonement on the cross and the victory of His resurrection. Hebrews 1:3 puts it well:
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.
Christ has finished His work of providing salvation. This is why His physical presence on earth was no longer necessary. He died once for all mankind (Heb. 10:10), rose once from the dead, and ascended once to glory. Now He has “sat down,” thus implying rest after He had completed His earthly mission.
Through the Lord’s Supper, we remember what He did, but His ascension stands as a testimony that the work is done, complete, perfected, and finished.
2. The Ascension testifies that Jesus is now exalted.
Psalm 110:1 prophesies, “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’”
To be seated at the Father’s right hand means He is seated in the place of privilege and authority. As Jesus stated before ascending, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth” (Matt. 28:18b). The right hand is a visual representation of authority.
When God the Son became Jesus, a perfect human nature was melded to His divine nature. Thus, when Jesus ascended, God the Son returned to the place of authority He had before He emptied Himself, but now with a human nature forever united to His eternal divine nature (see Philip. 2:5-11).
Third, let’s note some additional applications that affect our devotional lives.
1. We can take heart that Jesus is preparing a place for us.
In addition to sitting at the Father’s right hand, exalted, He is also adding room additions onto His Father’s house for us (John 14:1-6).
2. We can appreciate that Jesus also serves as our advocate (defense attorney) and high priest. We call this His “session.”
1 John 2:1 states, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.” Jesus rises to defend us against Satan’s accusations, as He is also pictured doing in Zechariah 3:1-10.
The Book of Hebrews develops the theme of Jesus serving right now as our high priest.
3. We can recognize that the Holy Spirit and His gifts were triggered by the Ascension.
In 2 Kings 2, Elisha asked Elijah for a favor before he ascended into heaven. He requested a double portion of the Holy Spirit. In a similar vein, Jesus taught He must ascend to heaven before the Spirit could come in His Pentecostal power (John 14:16ff).
Although the disciples had to wait ten days after the ascension for Pentecost, the coming of the Spirit needed to be preceded by the ascension.
Ephesians 4:7-10 connects the events.
But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
(In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
The implication is that the gift of the Spirit—and the gifts that come by the Spirit—would only be given by an ascended Lord.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is historical fact, but it is more than mere history. It is also rich theology. Our Lord is ascended!