Ascension Sunday May 13, 2018
215, 213, 216, 50
Hymns from The Lutheran Hymnal (1941) unless otherwise noted
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.
Regrettably, for many Christians and Christian churches the ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven has become little more than a historical footnote. His ascension seems to be a sort of “P.S.” to the work of redemption, which culminated in the death of Jesus for our sins and the resurrection of Jesus for our justification. But the ascension? It seems interesting, but not that significant. However, this is not the biblical view of the ascension.
In Scripture, the ascension of Jesus has great significance. During the forty days following His resurrection, Jesus, as stated in Acts 1:3, “gave many convincing proofs that he was alive.” He met with His disciples, talked and walked with them, ate with them, and on one occasion cooked breakfast for them. He allowed His disciples to touch Him to prove He was no apparition. During those forty days He was always appearing disappearing, and reappearing at times and places of His own choosing.
Had His ascension been of no importance, Jesus could have simply appeared, disappeared, and never reappeared. He could have returned to God the Father unobserved. But the ascension was important for the disciples to witness. This is why we are told in Luke 24:50-51 that “when he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”
Jesus was the one who led His disciples to the site of His ascension. Jesus was the one who wanted His disciples to have that final picture of Him ascending into heaven—not with the intent that they should stay on the Mount of Olives or gaze indecisively into the clouds. Rather, by understanding the significance of His ascension, the disciples should move forward with their lives and ministries in great confidence and joy. This is what they did. “Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.” (Luke 24:52-53)
Therefore, if you and I truly understand the meaning of the ascension, we too will have no reason to look down in gloom, doom, and despair, and every reason to look up in hope and confidence. So, then, what is the meaning of Christ’s ascension into heaven?
First, the ascension of Jesus signified the completion of His redemptive ministry on earth. When Jesus Christ died on the cross, He atoned for all of our sins. And yes, I know that this is a familiar, simple, even childlike statement. But aren’t you glad that it is simple? Aren’t you glad that it doesn’t change?
From the cross Jesus cried out “It is finished!” As I’ve explained in other settings, the Greek word used in this verse, “TETELESTAI,” was actually a financial term meaning “PAID IN FULL.” Moreover, the Holy Spirit led the apostle John to write this verb in the perfect tense, a tense signifying a completed action with abiding results. Not “it was finished,” or “it will be finished,” or “it might be finished,” but literally, “it has been finished”—completely, eternally, irrevocably. And God the Father demonstrated that all our sins were atoned for by raising Jesus from the dead. And He demonstrated this again at the ascension when He raised Jesus from the Mount of Olives into heaven itself.
In the Apostles’ Creed we confess, “He ascended into heaven.” This is true. But the ascension of Jesus was not only something that He did, it was also something that was done to Him. Look carefully at the words of Acts 1:9, “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Or Acts 1:11, “This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven.” A similar description is given in Luke 24:51, “While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.”
What did you notice? According to these verses, Jesus not only ascended into heaven, He was “taken up” into heaven. The Greek verbs are actually in the passive voice, meaning that Jesus did not act but was acted upon. He did not return to heaven but was returned to heaven by God the Father because the work of redemption was entirely done. And of equal importance, because God the Father had entirely accepted this redemptive work.
This means, dear Christian friends, that there is entirely nothing that we can do and entirely nothing that we need to do in order to be saved other than to trust in Jesus Christ as our Savior. The most important question any of us can ever ask in life is not “How can I become rich?” or “How can I live to be one hundred?” or “How can I write a best-selling novel?” or “How can I influence friends and trounce enemies?” No, the most important question is the question asked in fear and trembling by the jailer at Philippi: “What must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved.” (Acts 16:30-31)
When we honestly evaluate our lives, we can see so many sins, so many failings, so many reasons for Jesus Christ to raise His two hands—not in blessing but in rebuke and disgust, and to say, “That’s it. I’ve had enough. Go away. And don’t come back.” The psalmist wrote: “If you, O LORD, kept a record of sins, O Lord, who could stand?” (Psalm 130:3) The answer, of course, is no one.
Often, it is this overwhelming awareness of our own mortality and sinfulness that leads us to cry out in despair with Paul in Romans 7, “I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” He goes on to lament, “What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Is there any Christian who has not made the same lament, who has not asked the same question? But this question is immediately and gloriously answered, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:18-19,24-25)
Salvation is complete. Forgiveness is ours. This is one meaning of the ascension. Therefore, no matter what else is happening in our lives, these facts should fill us with an overwhelming sense of joy and victory so that we also proclaim with Paul in Romans 8, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:37-39)
Second, at His ascension Jesus was enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that is, He once again assumed the full use and display of His power and glory, which He had hidden during His state of humiliation and servitude on earth.
As a child, I often puzzled over the words of the Creed, “He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Frankly, sitting on the Father’s right hand did not sound very comfortable to me. And why was Jesus sitting down anyway? Was He tired, indifferent, on vacation? Why would God the Son need to rest?
Of course, Christ “sitting” after His ascension had nothing to do with resting and everything to do with ruling, as in sitting on a throne. Even today we associate sitting on chairs with honor, power, and authority: sitting presidents, congressional seats, reserved seats, first chairs in symphony orchestras, and department chairs at academic institutions.
And so it is with Christ sitting at the right hand of God the Father. When Jesus ascended into heaven He not only went to a place, He also assumed a position of all-power and all-authority over the world, His Church, and our lives. This was one of the visual lessons of the ascension, and one of the reasons Christ wanted His disciples to witness it. The disciples were to equate Christ’s “going up” with His “presiding over” all things and being the Most High God.
You and I need to see the same lesson in Christ’s ascension. The apostle Paul prayed in Ephesians 1:18-23, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
In these verses Paul prayed that through the eyes of our heart, that is, through faith, we might see the almighty power of God at work in the world, in the Church, and in our lives. Why the eyes of our heart? Because we often fail to see Jesus Christ ruling supremely with the eyes in our head. Instead, we see a world filled with wars, terrorism, crime, natural disasters, economic distress, poverty, birth defects, and starvation. We see the Christian Church attacked from without and from within. We see problems overwhelming our individual lives.
But the reality, dear friends, is much different from the perception. Instead of focusing on the daily headlines or nightly news, we should be focusing on the words of Paul to the Philippians and the sovereignty of Christ: “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name”—EVERY name, including the names ISIS, Trump, Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Illness, Catastrophe, and Economic Distress. “The name that is above every name,” wrote Paul, “that at the name of JESUS every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:9-11)
“He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Oh, what a difference it must make in our lives, relationships, and ministries when we understand this aspect of the ascension. “I may be sick, but Jesus Christ is in control. I may be struggling with finances, but Jesus Christ is in control. I may be worried about the state of this nation or the faith of my children, but Jesus Christ is in control. This is the meaning of His ascension.
And this is precisely why Jesus told His disciples before ascending into heaven, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. THEREFORE go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely, I will be with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)
Third and finally, as our ascended Lord, Jesus lives eternally to intercede on our behalf. This is a beautiful, comforting, and repeated truth in Scripture. Paul wrote in Romans 8:33-34, “Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
John wrote in his First Epistle: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have One who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:1-2)
The author of Hebrews wrote: “Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” (Hebrews 7:23-15) I’m reminded of the beautiful Easter hymn: “He lives to bless me with His love. He lives to plead for me above. He lives my hungry soul to feed. He lives to help in time of need.” (TLH #200:3) It isn’t just that He lives to help, but that He knows exactly how to help.
In spite of everything I have told you about the ascension of Jesus—how it signified the completion of His earthly ministry, how the ascended Lord is ruling over all things and always interceding on our behalf—is there anything more comforting than the knowledge that He who governs all things, He who intercedes for us in all things, personally experienced all aspects of our humanity, yet remained without sin? With this knowledge you and I can never say, “God doesn’t understand what I am going through.” He does understand, for He Himself went through it in the Person of Jesus Christ.
According to Luke 24:50, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.” The last image the disciples had of Jesus was with His two hands raised in blessing. The same hands which still bore and will always bear the marks of His love, grace, commitment, and mercy: the marks of the crucifixion.
Consider those two crucified hands of the ascended Lord—the two hands governing the world, the two hands controlling every aspect of your life, the two hands reaching out to embrace you—and you will understand the meaning of the ascension.
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All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®. NIV®. Copyright© 1973, 1978, 1984 by International Bible Society. Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved.