He Ascended Into Heaven

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Luke 24:50-53
Acts 1:9-11

The Bible says that forty days after he rose from the dead, Jesus took his disciples up to a hilltop just outside Jerusalem and . . . after a parting blessing, he left them – by physically rising up from the earth into heaven! What does Jesus’ ascension into heaven mean for us?

This program is one of a series on the Apostles’ Creed, the ancient summary of Christian beliefs. At the heart of this creed is a paragraph detailing what we believe about Jesus Christ, and at the heart of that paragraph is a series of verbs that describe his mighty acts. After Christ was crucified, dead and buried, after he descended into hell and rose again from the dead, we confess that “he ascended into heaven.” Here is Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven:

Then [Jesus] led them [that is, his disciples] out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.

. . . 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.”

Luke 24:51-52, Acts 1:9-11

I wonder, do you have trouble believing this story? After all, it is a bit unusual. The Bible says that forty days after he rose from the dead, Jesus took his disciples up to a hilltop just outside Jerusalem, where he gave them some last instructions. Then, after a parting blessing, he left them ??” by physically rising up from the earth into heaven!

Does that seem a little fantastic to you? I realize that a modern world-view raises basic questions about the credibility of this story. If you are familiar with the New Testament, I’m sure you must have been impressed by the person and character of Jesus Christ. But some of the miracle stories in the Gospels are quite unusual, to say the least. And especially this matter of Jesus rising from the dead and then his body flying directly up to heaven??”well, doesn’t it seem more like an ancient myth than a historical fact. Don’t logic and science prevent reasonable people from accepting this story as the literal truth? The story of Jesus’ ascension must clearly belong to pre-modern times, to an age when people still believed in a three-story universe with the earth on the ground floor, hell down below, and heaven upstairs beyond the stars. Jesus’ ascension into heaven just doesn’t “fly,” so to speak, in our modern universe, with our ever-expanding understanding of solar systems, galaxies and vast light years of space. So Christianity probably is just a fairy tale after all.

Is that what you think? I have to admit that sometimes I’m tempted to think something like that. So how about it? Must we, as rational persons living in the twenty-first century, reject these supernatural Bible stories as primitive? I accept the biblical record as factual. Let me tell you why.

Resurrection and Ascension

Let’s consider first the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension. Each event really demands the other. If Jesus’ living body actually ascended to heaven, then obviously it first had to rise physically from the grave. But the opposite is also true. A real resurrection also requires a real ascension. The resurrection means Jesus’ body was raised to a new kind of existence. When he arose from the dead he was translated into a different sort of life altogether ??” the life of the world to come. But it was still real life in a real body. And a real body has to be somewhere. The resurrection is not the mythical symbol of a general spiritual truth. It’s a fact. The whole Christian faith is based on it. The resurrection resulted in Jesus Christ living a new life in a glorified body, a body which existed in our time and space, at least for a while, and then went somewhere else.

So if the resurrection is a real event, then the ascension must be too, because the ascension is simply the account of what happened to the body of the risen Jesus. Let me state it simply and bluntly: no ascension, no resurrection; no resurrection, no gospel; no gospel, no Christianity.

What Happened

So what actually happened when Jesus physically left our world? One day Jesus took his disciples to a hillside outside Jerusalem. He commissioned them to be his witnesses throughout the whole world, and to teach people from all nations to be his followers. He blessed his disciples, and promised he would always remain with them??”even though he was about to leave them in the bodily sense (Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 24:50-53). And then he departed, finally, unmistakably, in such a way that there could be no misunderstanding or confusion. He would appear physically on earth no more, at least until the last great day of his return when he will come again in his glorified body to establish a new heaven and a new earth.

Notice how Luke describes the event itself. He doesn’t say that Jesus took off like a rocket and flew up to the stars. No, what he says is that as the disciples watched, Jesus appeared to rise briefly, and then he was hidden from their view by a cloud.

The point of the ascension is not that heaven is up in the sky in a literal sense. The point is that Jesus Christ in his resurrection body has left this world and entered the glorious presence of God. Heaven is the place where God reigns, and where his angels, together with all the redeemed and glorified saints, enjoy the fullness of perfect joy in his presence. The sky, because it is infinite and above us, is a good symbol of the eternal glory of heaven. But it’s only a symbol. Heaven isn’t part of our universe. It isn’t beyond the sky at all. It doesn’t occupy a corner of outer space. Make no mistake: heaven is real. It’s a real place, but a place in another dimension, beyond our capacity to fully grasp. It’s not part of our space/time universe. Even pre-modern people recognize this truth. Almost five hundred years ago Martin Luther said this about Jesus’ ascension: “It didn’t happen the way you climb up a ladder in your house. It means he is above all creation and in all creation and outside of all creation.”

When you come down to it, how else could Christ have signaled his leaving this world? He couldn’t die again. His going had to be public, obvious, dramatic, clearly understandable??”thus the Ascension. As New Testament theologian G. E. Ladd wrote: “If heaven is understood as the dwelling place of God, as a realm of existence other than and different from the physical universe, there is no other way Jesus could have signaled his departure into that other world than by a visible ascension as Luke describes it.”

What it Means

But now for a more important question. What does Jesus’ ascension into heaven mean for us? On the simplest level, Jesus’ visible ascension to heaven was to show that his resurrection appearances on earth were finished. Jesus’ physical presence on earth from now on would cease.

But more importantly, Jesus’ ascension also shows us our own future. Christ our head is already in heaven; we, the members of the body, will join him there. Do you remember what Jesus promised his disciples in the Upper Room just before he died?

Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.

John 14:1-3

Where Christ now is, all who love him will one day be. You can bet your life on it.

Jesus’ ascension also prepares the way for his gift of the Holy Spirit. When he left the world, Jesus did not leave his disciples alone and helpless. He promised to send his Spirit to them. Though absent physically, henceforth Jesus would be present in the person of the Holy Spirit. In fact, he said this would actually be better for his followers. For now he would be with them all, all the time. Previously only a few could listen to his words. Not many could be in his presence at one time. But after the ascension every Christian believer can experience Christ’s continual presence and help. Christ is God with us: at home or work, in the hospital room, in the retirement home, in prison cell or labor camp, in life and in death. The Holy Spirit is Christ within us: in our praying, in our believing, in our overcoming sin, in our witnessing, in our loving service.

What more can we say? Just this one thing. The ascended Lord has given us his Spirit in order to strengthen and equip us to serve him. He has commissioned us; he’s given us orders to carry out during the time until his return. What kind of orders? To be his witnesses. To tell others ??” with our actions as well as our words ??” about his saving love, his victorious resurrection, his glorious ascension and rule. We are to announce to our world that Jesus reigns, that all who refuse his lordship will be frustrated in the end, that finally every knee must bow before him and every tongue confess that he is Lord.

Today would be a great day to do that, don’t you think?