The Ascension

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

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

What happened to Jesus Christ after he rose from the dead? Christians believe that after he appeared several times to his disciples to convince them he was really alive, Jesus then physically ascended to heaven, where he now rules over the whole universe.

This is Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven:

Jesus led his disciples out to the area near Bethany. Then he lifted up his hands and blessed them. After Jesus said this, he was taken up to heaven. They watched until a cloud hid him from their sight.

While he was going up, they kept on looking at the sky. Suddenly two men dressed in white clothing stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking at the sky? Jesus has been taken away from you into heaven. But he will come back in the same way you saw him go.”

Then they worshiped him. With great joy, they returned to Jerusalem. Every day they went to the temple, praising God.

Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11, NIrV

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 this account of Jesus’ ascension into heaven seem 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 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, it seems more like an ancient myth than a historical fact. Don’t logic and science prevent reasonable people from accepting this as the truth?

So I can understand it if you’re thinking that the figure of Jesus is very appealing from a religious point of view. You can even accept the New Testament stories about him, provided you interpret them spiritually and not literally. For example, from the modern perspective, as a literal event Jesus’ resurrection is nonsense. But as a symbolic expression of the continuing impact of Jesus’ personality upon his friends – well, that makes sense. The spirit of Jesus lives on in his disciples’ memory, and this memory inspires them to try to live like he did. As for the ascension, no modern, rational person could possibly accept that. The ascension must clearly be a myth from pre-modern times, 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. Centuries ago folks might have thought that Jesus’ body flew up like a rocket from earth to heaven, but that’s no longer possible in a world like ours, where science and reason prevail. The story of 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 light years of space. So Christianity probably is just a fairy tale after all.

Is that what you might think? I have to admit that sometimes I’m tempted to think something like that myself. So how about it? Must we, as rational persons living on the brink of the twenty-first century, reject these supernatural Bible stories as primitive superstitions? I don’t believe we have to. I accept the biblical record. Let me tell you why I do.

RESURRECTION AND ASCENSION

Let’s consider first the connection between Jesus’ resurrection and his ascension. Each event 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 kind of life – the life of the world to come. But it was still 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 for a while and then went elsewhere.

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. Christ was no longer part of the old order after his resurrection, of the natural world. He was part of the new world to come. He didn’t belong here any more; so when the time was right, his new spiritual body went to heaven.

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 that he would always remain with them – even though he was about to leave them in the body sense (Acts 1:8; Matt. 28:16-20; Luke 24:50-53). 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, until the last great day of his return when he will establish a new heaven and earth.

Notice how Luke describes the event itself. He doesn’t say that Jesus took off like a space shuttle and flew up to the stars (v. 9). 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 part of the sky at all. It doesn’t occupy a corner of outer space. Make no mistake: heaven is real. It is a real place, but a place in another dimension. It is not part of our space/time universe. Even pre-modern people recognized 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

I hope this explanation of what happened when Jesus ascended is helpful. Now, for the more important question. What does Jesus’ ascension into heaven mean? 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. The ascension signals the end of that.

But more importantly, Jesus’ ascension prepares the way for the coming 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 the time. Previously only a few heard 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 God within us: in our praying, in our believing, in our overcoming evil, in our witnessing, in our loving service.

Most of all, the ascension serves to proclaim Jesus’ divine power and authority. The ascended Christ now “sits on the right hand of God,” according to the Apostles’ Creed, the historical statement of basic Christian belief. What does that phrase mean? It is a figure of speech. When you think about it, of course God has neither a right hand nor a literal throne. The “right hand” was the place where a king’s most trusted and powerful representative sat. It was the position of honor, glory, and authority. We use the same kind of figurative language today. For example, when a news reporter says, “The White House announced today that it was doing such and such,” she doesn’t mean that a building in Washington D.C. started talking to the press. This famous place serves as a symbol of the government’s authority. So for Jesus to be lifted up from earth to heaven and exalted to God’s right hand means that God has given him the place of highest honor and greatest power.

JESUS IS LORD

The ascension means Jesus is Lord over all creation. He rules the whole universe and everything and everyone in it. Now, that raises a difficult question. If Jesus really is reigning right now in heaven, why isn’t that fact more evident in our world? The answer is that someday it will be. I think it’s a little like a game of chess. I don’t really understand that complicated game. I can look at a chessboard and see only a jumble of pieces. But a grand master can look at the same board, study it for a few minutes, and announce, “Checkmate in six moves.” Not only does he size up the situation, but he sees the outcome, he recognizes how the remaining moves must unfold. The game’s already been decided. That’s how Christians view the present world scene. Where others see only chaos and a jumble of evil, Christians know the game has already been won. We realize that Jesus is the victor, and we’re only a few final moves from the end. The enemy may lash out in attack, he may do some damage, but that won’t affect the final victory because Christ our Savior rules.

What more can we say? Just one thing. The ascended Lord has equipped us with his Holy Spirit. He has commissioned us, given us orders to carry out during the time until his return. What kind of orders? To be his witnesses. To tell others 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, that every knee must bow before him and every tongue confess that he is Lord.

That is the Christian witness. It’s not public relations. We aren’t in the propaganda business. We don’t go in for arm twisting. “We are not trying to master the public, but simply to make the Master public” (Helmut Thielicke).

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