Ascension Sunday June 2, 2019
215, 213, 221, 46
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 has become little more than a historical footnote, 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? 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 with them, ate with them, and allowed them to touch Him—always appearing and disappearing at times and places of His choosing.
Had His ascension been of no importance, Jesus could have simply 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 led His disciples to the site of His ascension. Jesus 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. Instead, 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—to say, based on the ascension of Jesus, “Things are looking up.” So, then, what is the meaning of the ascension?
First, the ascension of Jesus signified the completion 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.” (John 19:30) 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.” And this God the Father demonstrated 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 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.” 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 verbs are actually in the passive voice, meaning that Jesus did not act but was acted upon. He was taken 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 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: ‘How can I be saved?’ Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved,” Acts 16:31.
Salvation is complete. Forgiveness is ours. No matter what else is happening in our lives, we have an abiding, triumphant sense that “things are looking up.”
Second, at His ascension Jesus was enthroned as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, that is, a return to the full use of His power and glory, which He had hidden during His state of humiliation and servitude.
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, or on vacation? Why would God the Son need to sit?
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 or chairs with honor, power, and authority: sitting presidents, congressional seats, county seats, reserved seats, chairmanships, first chairs in orchestras, and department chairs at academic institutions.
And so it is with Christ sitting at the right hand of God. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He not only went to a place, He 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” 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 than 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 supreme through the eyes in our head. Instead, we see a world filled with wars, terrorism, crime, natural disaster, economic distress, poverty, birth defects, and starvation. We see the visible Christian Church attacked from without and from within. We see problems overwhelming our individual lives.
But the reality is much different, dear friends. 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 of ISIS, 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 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. We may be a little congregation faced with a challenging ministry and overwhelming odds, but Jesus Christ is in control.”
Third, as our ascended Lord, Jesus lives eternally to intercede on our behalf. This is a beautiful, comforting, and repeated truth in Scripture. And I think it essential to hear this truth in God’s own words. 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.” (“The Lutheran Hymnal, 1941” #200:3) It isn’t just that He lives to help, He knows exactly how to help.
In spite of everything I have told you today 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 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 picture the disciples had of Jesus was His two hands raised in blessing, hands which still bore and will always bear the marks of His love, grace, commitment, and mercy: the marks of the crucifixion.
Remember 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 why “things are looking up” in Jesus Christ.
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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.