The Ascension of Jesus Christ has always been difficult for us as human beings to grasp - it just seems too fantastic - an occurrence that leads itself to all kinds of cartoonish interpretations. Is it space travel? That seems silly. Why ‘up’ and not ‘sideways’? Why was it necessary? Is it a mistaken Resurrection appearance in the wrong place? And Christians celebrate it on a Thursday - so liturgically and ecclesiastically it has never had the importance placed on it that other major Christian festivals have had.
And yet the Church has always understood that Jesus did indeed bodily ASCEND from the disciples. He was taken into the glory of God, and removed from our sight.
Turn to he Apostles’ Creed. The second part of the Creed which deals with Jesus Christ reads like a story, a narrative in condensed form of all that was considered important about him. The Creed uses 12 verbs ( conceived, born, suffered, was crucified, died, buried, descended, rose again, ascended, sits, he shall come, judge). 9 are in the past tense, 1 is present tense, and 2 are future. The last past tense used is vital to the whole account - and that verb is “ascended”. Without that last past tense the narrative would be stuck in the past without the ascension. And get this, if Jesus’ life didn’t continue, then he would have died again - and death, not life, would have had the last word. The Resurrection requires an Ascension to be complete as we shall see. If Jesus continued to live with us and never left us, then the sending of the Spirit could not have happened.
Suppose, years ago, I was at the sink washing up, and one of my boys (when much younger) was out playing in the garden. Suddenly there is a yell, and he comes in running, having hurt himself. He is crying for Mum - ‘where’s Mum?” he keeps saying amidst the tears. And I reply, pointing, “she went that way.” In other words, the last time I saw her she was heading in that direction - follow her and you should be able to find her. Now think of the Ascension: where’s Jesus? Where’s the last time you saw him? Well, he went that way (upwards).
ESPN has recently celebrated the 25,000th episode of Sports Centre. When someone asked them how on earth did they manage to keep track of all the episodes, the reply was given, “We’ve got a guy!” How do you know that when you die you just won’t be left rotting in the grave? How do you know in a world like this that evil won’t triumph? How do you know God will accept you at the Judgement Day? How do you know that not only are your prayers heard but answered? Answer: “WE’VE GOT A GUY! And that’s what the Ascension of Jesus is all about. Let’s look at some Bible verses…
“Our forerunner, Jesus, has entered heaven on our behalf; he has become a high priest for ever.” And: “Therefore Jesus is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest truly meets our need - one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.” And again: “We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, and who serves in the sanctuary.” (Hebrews 6:20; 7:25,26; and 8:12).
You see, Christ does not simply bring God’s life down to us. he is also our MAN for God, and lifts us up to where he is. He is even now offering perfect praise - he is my perfect heavenly worship leader (see Hebrews 2:12). He is also perfecting my praying with his own intercession. This is such good news! I have spent too long trying to get close to God - I almost lost hope that I would ever manage. The good news is that Jesus has got us close to God. He has done it. He is our Brother and our Priest who serves in heaven. Indeed, Hebrews 8:2 calls him our Leitourgos (where we get our word ‘liturgy’ from). He is tuning our hearts to sing the Father’s praise. We get to add our “Amens” to Christ’s perfect prayers. Oh, there you are, struggling with your prayer life, wondering why you find it so hard to pray, and wondering whether you will ever get the hang of it - and what you don’t see is that Christ your Saviour is also your great High Priest, who carries your name over his heart, and who hears your stumbling faltering words, and in his mercy and office as the Ascended High Priest, takes those every words and perfects them, completes them, so that your prayers are mighty and effective, even to the tearing down of the enemy’s strongholds. Alleluia!
Let’s unpack this further. After his resurrection, Jesus said, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father ...” (John 20:17) Without Christ, we are cut off from God the Father. Without Christ, we can’t fathom or embrace such an intimate name for God. But in Christ, we participate in the relationship that Christ has with the Father. We are taken into that fellowship by his Holy Spirit. Jesus’ Father is our Father . The God who comes close to us every moment of the day invites us to participate in all he has. Jesus Christ is the head of humanity, and in his ascension to the Father, he has joined us with him. We are united with Christ - so much so Paul can say, “God raised us up in Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” (Ephesians 2:6) Not only did God come to where we are in Christ, but he has taken us to be where he is! Christ wants us with him always. Our man, Jesus Christ, has ascended the heights of heaven for us and he still bears our humanity. You and I are there in him. Our friend and brother, Jesus Christ, flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, the new Adam, has ascended, and we went with him. Spiritually, yes - but nonetheless real.
We can so often wrongly think that Jesus stopped being human after his ascension. But no, he remains in skin for ever. There is a Man for ever in the Trinity. I cam across these verses from an unknown poem:
“’Tis the weakness in strength that I cry for! my flesh that I seek In the Godhead! I seek and I find it! Oh Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee; a Man like me
Thou shalt love, and be loved by for ever; a Hand like this hand Shall throw open the gate of New Life to thee! See the Christ
This is so wonderful. We shall be greeted by a face - the face of Jesus, fully Man and fully God. We shall recognise and be recognised. The Son of God did not come to earth to stay. Nor did he spend 33 years slumming it before he couldn’t wait to shed his skin and return to the splendour of the heavenly life. No, the Lord Jesus descended to us in order to gather us to him and gather us before the Father’s throne. He is still in the self same body that was born, lived, dead, and rose. Christ maintains our humanity, joining us to him, for all eternity.
Then the Ascension is the glorious fulfilment of Christ’s threefold office as Prophet, Priest and King. Thus:
• The Ascension marks the end of our hearing Christ’s human
voice on earth. And yet because he has ascended he sends the Holy Spirit, and he takes Christ’s words and makes them live to us, and his Spirit will lead us into all truth.
• The Ascensions marks the completion of all that Jesus did on the cross for us - and yet at the same time as our great High Priest he lives to forever offer his continual mediatorial life before the Father - and he prays for his own.
• The Ascension completes the triumph of Christ’s obedient life - it is his coronation day after his resurrection. At the same time, the Ascension marks the inauguration of Christ’s eternal reign and rule as King of the Universe. He sits at the Father’s right hand. And he will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.
Thinking yet more on this glorious topic... Suppose you had just been saying goodbye to someone you loved intensely - perhaps you are at a dock waving farewell as the ship sails away; or at a train station platform, watching in agony as the train departs; or perhaps you have sat at a bedside watching a dear one die. And ask yourself, what lover ever sang happily when departed from his/her lover? Mostly, it feels grey and cheerless... AND YET we read in Luke’s gospel, “Jesus was parted from them and carried up into heaven; and they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God.” (Luke 24:51-53) Their dearest friend had been taken from them - surely they ought to have been desolate and brokenhearted. But no! And the key is this. Christ had lifted his arms in blessing over them (Luke 24:50), fulfilling the promise of Numbers 6, where God commands the way the people of Israel are to be blessed: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious to you. The Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace.” And the next verse sums up the joy of it all, “So [the priests] shall put my name on the children of Israel, and I will bless them.” As Jesus ascends he lifts his hands up, and the higher he rises, the more the arc of his blessing increases, covering more and more people. Eventually as he disappears into the sky, the range of his blessing, so to speak, is worldwide. And thus whenever they looked up into the sky, whatever they did under the sky, whenever they saw the rain fall, or felt the sun shine, they had memories of being blessed - they has this glorious picture, not of his feet disappearing as so many artists depict it, but of his hands lifted in blessing. No wonder they were full of joy! The scene under the sky was hot-wired into their minds. They were never alone. Everything they did, all that happened to them, occurred under the benign and effective blessing of God himself. Glorious.
I fear I could go on and on - there is so much theological richness here. But let me conclude by drawing some things together in conclusion:
1: Like a light shining in the window of a beloved’s house awaiting your welcome, so is Jesus the Ascended Lord waiting for you.
2. Christ is a person and not something spirit-like and he is for you - your advocate (one who pleads on your behalf, who sticks up for you).Christ the Ascended Lord understands you - no one is beneath his care or beyond his help, or too far away to pray for.
3. Therefore your prayers are heard, and you yourself are valuable.
4. It follows that your real home is with Christ, and his Ascension reminds you to keep your heart and mind on Christ.
5. The Ascension of Christ reminds me that while there may yet be battles to be fought, yet the victory has been won, and the outcome is never in doubt - and doesn’t at all depend on your efforts.
6. In light of the Ascended Christ, everything on earth seems less stressful and important.
7. Although you are weak, there stands the Ascended Christ who is able to help you stand upright - the Son of God is your Head and you are part of his body.
Jesus has not forgotten us. He has taken our humanity with him. And that is the guarantee of his return. Jesus has not dropped us. He holds in himself our very nature. He stays in our skin, and offers his perfect obedience STILL and on our behalf he lives and prays for us. The eternal Son of God, therefore, has woven the very stuff of creation for ever into his being. He cares about the sparrows and he cares about you and me. And he cares enough to cleave to us for all time. Flesh is in heaven. Flesh and spirit are united. The ancient breach is healed. The man Jesus Christ reigns over all things: the world may threaten with its terror, its manners may coarsen, fear may seek too grip us - but we have a man. And he will see to it that all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.