I chuckled this week when reading about the ascension of Jesus. The ascension refers to Jesus ascending to Heaven forty days after His resurrection. It is when His followers watch him go up to glory. I chuckled because one article on the ascension that I saw was entitled, “What’s Up with the Ascension?” What’s up indeed!
Evangelical Christians believe in the ascension, but that does not mean we really understand its significance. We may even feel conflicted about it. Why, after all, did Jesus not simply stay with His church in His resurrected body? How amazing would it be to have Jesus show up and silence the church’s critics and speak words to us audibly as we sit at his feet? But, even as we say this, we know that the ascension is important because Jesus is doing something important in Heaven at the Father’s right hand.
You can see this sense of conflicted feeling in the following two ascension poems. The first is a modern poem by James Matthew Wilson. He wrote:
Ascension Thursday: gone again.
My usual panic every year
Sets in as the Easter season ends;
I’d hoped to reconcile everything,
To feel, just once, grace tremble near,
In a resurrected, fiery ring.
But dry distraction settles in,
And with a crow’s beak pecks my breast
With hungers and regrets. Small sins,
On which I’d neither think nor cry
In ordinary time, impress
Themselves, while my unsettled eyes
Are elsewhere turned. But, suddenly robbed
Of His face after these un-tombed forty
Days—intimate meals now that the mob
Had killed and left him with its dread—
My stare falls on the table emptied
Of his presence.
What now, now that He’s fled?
There is almost a note of despair about that, is there not? “Robbed of His face,” “the table emptied of his presence,” “What now, now that He’s fled?” This is not encouraging! But, on the other hand, we have the words of an earlier ascension hymn, W. Chatterton Dix’s 1866 “Alleluia! Sing to Jesus! His the scepter, His the throne,” which are decidedly more optimistic.
Alleluia! Not as orphans
Are we left in sorrow now;
Alleluia! he is near us;
Faith believes nor questions how.
Though the cloud from sight received him,
When the forty days were o’er,
Shall our hearts forget his promise:
“I am with you evermore.”
So what is up with the ascension? How should we consider this simple but powerful line from the creed: “he ascended into heaven”?
The ascension of Jesus was a necessary part of God’s saving plan.
We begin with the idea that the ascension of Jesus was a necessary part of God’s saving plan. I say “necessary” because this is how Jesus treated His ascension in His post-resurrection appearances. Consider his interesting encounter with Mary Magdalene. John 20 records the moment went Mary Magdalene encountered the risen Christ, not initially realizing who He was. In this encounter, Jesus makes an interesting and strange statement. Watch:
15 Jesus said to her, “Woman, why are you weeping? Whom are you seeking?” Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away.” 16 Jesus said to her, “Mary.” She turned and said to him in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (which means Teacher). 17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” 18 Mary Magdalene went and announced to the disciples, “I have seen the Lord”—and that he had said these things to her.
The confusing question about Jesus’ words to Mary Magdalene is what did He mean when He said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father”? There is no shortage of opinions. R Kent Hughes believes that Jesus “wanted her to realize that a new relationship was in the process of being established” and that “the comfort that awaited Mary and her friends was far more substantial than his material presence could ever give.” R.C. Sproul writes of this:
I think the answer is simple. She was hanging on to Him for dear life because she thought she had lost Him, but now she had him back. So He said: “It’s OK, I’m not leaving yet. We still have some more time. I’m going to come and be with the disciples. I’m going to be with you for forty days or so. You don’t have to hold Me captive.”
And D.A. Carson offers a very helpful consideration of what might be happening here.
The thought, then, might be paraphrased in this way: “Stop touching me (or, Stop holding on to me), for (gar) I have not yet ascended…to my Father—i.e. I am not yet in the ascended state…so you do not have to hang on to me as if I were about to disappear permanently. This is a time for joy and sharing the good news, not for clutching me as if I were some jealously guarded private dream-come-true. Stop clinging to me, but (de) go and tell my disciples that I am in process of ascending (anabainō) to my Father and your Father.”
It is interesting to grapple with the why of Jesus’ words to Mary, but let us not miss the simplicity of the what: Jesus is going to ascend and there is no question of Him not ascending. He mentions the ascension to Mary, as we have seen, but then instructs Mary to speak of the ascension to the disciples. She was instructed to quote Jesus in this manner: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.”
The ascension, then, was no audible, no casual decision, no “making it up as I go.” Rather, it was integral to God’s saving plan. In the next line of the creed, we will consider what is normally called Jesus’s “session,” which refers to what He is doing now at the right hand of the Father. His ascension leads to His session and so is situated in the completed saving work of God in Christ.
The ascension of Jesus was necessary for the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Second, the ascension of Jesus was necessary for the coming of the Holy Spirit. When Jesus ascends and is exalted, He pours out the Spirit upon the church. But Jesus and the apostles made it very clear that the pouring out of the Spirit was dependent upon His ascension and exaltation, His glorification.
Consider the words of Jesus in John 7.
37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.
This is a fascinating text. Notice the progression:
- We are to “come to Jesus” and “dink,” that is, place our faith and trust in Him.
- When this happens, “rivers of living water” will “flow” “out of” our “hearts.” Thus, we receive this gift from Jesus and then it redefines us and flows out of our very lives.
- This “living water” is the Holy Spirit who (a) we receive from Jesus and (b) transforms and flows out of us.
- But when He said this the Spirit had not been given to the His followers “because Jesus was not yet glorified.” That is, He had not ascended to Heaven and been exalted. We will see the fulfillment of this in Acts 2 at the day of Pentecost when, after the ascension, the Spirit is poured out on the church.
Consider John 14 as well. There, Jesus says:
15 “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16 And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17 even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. 18 “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.
Here again, we have the promise of the giving of the Holy Spirit to the church. And it is in this context that Jesus says, “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” Yes, ultimately this may be read as a reference to Jesus’ second coming. But, again, in the context of His words about the Spirit, it can also be read as saying that the giving of the Spirit is the giving of the presence of Christ. In other words, we can now say we are not orphans because He has given us the Holy Spirit! We are not alone. Though Jesus has ascended, yet He is present in His Spirit.
This is also made abundantly clear in the preaching of the apostles. Consider what Peter says in his great sermon of Acts 2.
32 This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. 33 Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.
The progression here is simple:
- Jesus is exalted (i.e., ascended and glorified and at the Father’s right hand).
- Jesus pours out the Spirit upon His church.
What seems clear is this: there is a sense, of course, in which the Spirit of God has always been present with the people of God, and you can find scriptural support for this. Yet there was a uniqueness to the outpouring of the Spirit in power upon the church at Pentecost that marks a new moment in salvation-history. And that pouring out of the Spirit apparently necessarily was not to happen until Christ ascended. We have the Spirit, in other words, because Christ has been glorified and exalted. He has poured out the Spirit on the church as the ascended and exalted Christ!
The ascension of Jesus was necessary for the transition from Jesus’ singular presence in His person to His corporatepresence in His church.
There is something else at play in the ascension of Jesus, and it is revolutionary in its implications. Simply put, the ascension does not mean that Jesus has left, it has simply redefined how Jesus is present. In His incarnate state, Jesus was singularly present in His person. After the ascension, however, Jesus is corporately present in His church.
Notice how, in Acts 1, the very last words of Jesus to the church are words of commission and mission. And notice how the ascension of Jesus is immediately followed by angels calling upon Jesus’ followers essentially to stop just standing around!
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.
The disciples begin with a misguided question: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel.” This shows that even now they were grappling with their understanding of who exactly Jesus was and what His mission was. They are asking, as first century Jews, this question: “Are you now going to do what we originally thought you were going to do? Are you going to cast the Romans out and establish the rule of your people? Are you going to be the Messiah of popular opinion?”
Jesus, in response, dismisses the question by pointing to the very real limitations of their knowledge and instead points to what He is going to do, and it involves the church.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 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.”
The ascension, then, is the transition from Jesus’ singular presence to His corporate presence through the singular body of the church! In other words, in His ascension and the outpouring of the Spirit, Jesus effectively passes the baton to the church. He is saying, “I have shown you the way. I have demonstrated the way. I have given you the model. More than that, through the Spirit I am giving you my very presence. I am still with you! But now, in my name and power, it is your time to step forward. You are now my body! You will now continue what I began!”
The church continues the work of Jesus in the world!
New Testament scholar Patrick Schreiner believes that this helps us understand what Jesus meant by His fascinating statement in John 14 about His followers doing “greater works” than He did.
The Gospel of John contends the church will extend and expand the works of Jesus. Jesus affirmed, “Whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). This statement has troubled interpreters over the centuries. However, the first thing to notice is this only kicks into reality at the Messiah’s ascension. “Greater” works likely refers to two realities. First, the church can more expansively spread Christ’s work because it is more widely dispersed. Second, “greater” works refers to people’s prophetic role after Jesus’ completed work. They work in the time of fulfillment. “Greater” then refers to both extent and salvation-historical placement, which cannot be separated. Both of these points are secured by the Messiah’s ascent to the right hand of the Father. As Christ’s people are transformed by the word and Spirit, they become the prophetic hands and feet of Jesus.
This is well said! Think of it: in His incarnate state, Jesus was not omnipresent. He was localized. He had a body. He was here and not there and there and not here. This is why Martha could say to Jesus concerning her deceased brother Lazarus in John 11 the following: “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” So, Jesus was localized in His flesh.
But now, in and through the church that spans the globe, Jesus is present around the whole world! The church, which Paul calls His body (1 Corinthians 12:27), carries on the work of Jesus in the world!
Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it powerfully when he wrote, “The church is the presence of Christ in the same way that Christ is the presence of God.” In other words, to see the Son was to see the Father but to see the church is to see the Son…or so it should be!
The ascension therefore revolutionizes our ecclesiology, showing us that Christ’s presence in the world continues in…you! And me! And us!
These words traditionally attributed to Teresa of Ávila put it so well:
Christ has no body but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which He looks
Compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which He walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which He blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are His body.
Christ has no body now but yours,
No hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks
compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
Is this a daunting thought? Indeed, the responsibility of it is powerful and staggering! But Christ has not called us to do this and to be this in our own power! On the contrary, He is with us, empowering us through the Spirit, and has given us a good and true gospel to help us be what He has called us to be. Daunting? In our flesh, yes. But as the people of God indwelt by the Spirit of God? This is an amazing privilege!
The ascended Christ is still in the world through His church, through you!
Do that, church!
Be that, church!
 Hughes, R. Kent. John. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1999), p.455.
 Sproul, R.C. John. (Lake Mary, FL: Reformation Trust Publishing, 2009), p.387.
 Carson, D. A. The Gospel According to John. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), p.644.
 Schreiner, Patrick. The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine (Snapshots) (p. 25). Lexham Press. Kindle Edition.
 Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Sanctorum Communio: A Theological Study of the Sociology of the Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol.1 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), p.138, fn.29.