Sometimes it is said that in the life of Jesus there will have been five great transactions. One was His birth; another was the crucifixion; another, the resurrection. The fourth was the ascension, and the last, which we are looking forward to, will be His coming again. It is interesting that on Ascension Day we are inclined to forget what day it is. Most in our generation ignore Ascension Day, which marks the exit of our Lord from the earth, and yet Christmas Day, which commemorates the entrance of Jesus into the world, is hailed every year with weeks and weeks of preparation and great celebration. His entrance is easily remembered, but His exit is almost forgotten. One would think that a society which has developed a space-age mentality would think a little bit more about an ascended Savior.
Mark 16:19-20 says, “So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and seated on the right hand of God, and they went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them, and confirming the work with signs following.” And then in the first chapter of the Book of Acts, we have again the record of Jesus’ ascension: “When he had spoken these things while they beheld, he was taken up and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold two men stood by them in white apparel and also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” I believe the importance of the ascension is simply this: It was God’s approval of the finished assignment for Jesus Christ.
The countdown for the ascension lift-off began many years before. Even before the foundation of this world, somewhere in the eternal councils of God the redemption of man was planned, and it was all in the mind of God. We read in Galatians 4:4 that in the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son, made of a woman made under the law to redeem them that are under the law. The countdown continued at the baptism of Jesus in the Jordan River. As He came out of the water, the Spirit descended and a voice from Heaven said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” The countdown continued on the Mount of Transfiguration, when again the voice was heard from Heaven, “This is my beloved Son. Hear ye Him.” And then on the Cross, the voice of God was heard again when Jesus said, “It is finished!” And the countdown continued in the plan of God when the angels announced, “He is not here, but He is risen!”
Why didn’t Jesus go directly out of the tomb up into Heaven? Why the time delay here on earth? I believe there were primarily two reasons. One was for Jesus to be able to prove that He was resurrected. There are seven different writers in the New Testament who record eleven different appearances of our Lord after His resurrection. In 1 Corinthians 15, we read Paul’s account in which several of these events are put together, telling how Jesus appeared after His resurrection, and showed those present His hands and His feet, and even said one time to Mary, “Touch me not. For I am not yet ascended.” But shortly thereafter, He said to His disciples, “Reach out and touch!” He wanted all those who believed and those who didn’t believe to have visible evidence that He was resurrected. The second reason for the delay between the resurrection and the ascension was so that Jesus could give additional instructions to those who lived here and were unsure about all of the events. We see in Luke 24:27 that Jesus is speaking to those on the road to Emmaus, and the Scripture clearly says, “Beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself.” Then in verse 45, “Then opened he their understanding that they might understand the scriptures.”
Jesus was visible after His ascension, on at least two occasions as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. Thus there is further confirmation that Jesus Lives. In the seventh chapter of the Book of Acts, verse 55, Stephen, while he was being stoned “looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing on the right hand of God.” Then in Acts 9:17 when Saul was met by Ananias, went his way and entered into his house and “putting his hands on him said, Brother Saul, the Lord, even Jesus, that appeared unto thee in the way as thou camest, hath sent me, that thou mightest receive thy sight, and be filled with the Holy Ghost.” The blinding light that came upon Saul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus was none other than a manifestation of the glory of Jesus Christ in His exalted position beside the throne of God. We want to note now some lessons to be learned from a study of Christ’s ascension.
1. The Announcement of the Ascension
One of the often-repeated phrases of Jesus while He lived here on earth was simply, “I’m going back to the Father.” Over and over again, He was thinking about the Ascension Day. In John 7:33, we read, “Then said Jesus unto them, Yet a little while am I with you and then I go unto Him that sent me.” And in John 14, again Jesus said, “Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away.” This was the announcement of the ascension. Why should Jesus be looking forward to this day? Jesus knew full well that by the time of the ascension, the sweat of the Garden would be past, the scourge of the Judgment Hall would be past, and the nails of the Cross would be past. Jesus knew that His time was at hand, but He also knew that shortly thereafter His Father would lift Him off.
Suppose we make a comparison. Think of your experience on Christmas Day last year, when your families were together and you were enjoying the fellowship. Suppose you knew that after that Christmas Day event, you would be going through a terrifying experience. But somehow you had a promise (which you knew was sure) that shortly after this harrowing experience you again would be permitted to have a reunion with your family. I believe that it was in this context that Jesus thought about going back to Heaven.
The challenge of the ascension is that each of us has the responsibility of announcing our Ascension Day also to the world. Living like Jesus would have us live is the only real thing that matters. The important thing is to prepare for that day when we too will be called up higher. The Bible says that our citizenship is in Heaven.
2. The Admonition of the Ascension
When someone passes away, almost invariably, somebody will ask what their last words were. “What was the last thing he said before he passed on?” No doubt Jesus had a great desire to go back to the Father. Maybe that’s why Jesus didn’t live longer on the earth. It has always been amazing that a man long ago, like Methuselah, for instance, should live for 969 years here in the world, and Jesus the Son of God should live only thirty-three years. And then, only three of those years were spent in the public ministry to actually fulfill His mission. Maybe it was because of a divine homesickness. I believe that He had a great desire to return to the Father, and also He had a desire as He left, that the work which He begun, should be carried on.
The admonition of the ascension is clear and direct. In Acts 1:8 we read, “But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.” In Luke 24:47 we read, “And that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in his name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem.” And in Mark 16 we have the Great Commission recorded where Jesus says, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations.” Matthew says “baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you, and lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world.” Those were the last words of Jesus before He left the earth. This is the admonition of the ascension. It is a simple and yet very far-reaching assignment, and it hasn’t changed in two thousand years.
The Ascension Day thrust was simply “It’s time to get to work.” And the message of the Second Coming is simply going to be a reward for the work we have done. Jesus did not complicate the mission of the Church when He left. It was simply that repentance and remission of sins in His name should be preached among all nations. Maybe we ought to ask ourselves the question, “Have we been faithful in heeding the admonition of the ascension?” We can even get a little later word from Jesus, about the work of the Church if we open the Book of the Revelation, and we see His message to the seven churches. He says to the church at Ephesus, “Thou hast left thy first love.” And to Sardis He says, “Thou hast a name that thou livest and art dead,” and to Laodicea He says, “Thou art neither cold nor hot.” So apparently we haven’t heard the admonition of the ascension like Jesus wishes we would. That’s what happens when the Church gets its sights off its supreme task. Jesus didn’t give anything that the Church could use as a substitute for the task of going into all the world and preaching the Gospel. That’s the admonition of the ascension.
3. The Admiration of the Ascension
If the hearts of men were ever tuned in Heaven’s direction, it must have been the day they saw the physical form of Jesus disappear into the skies. Luke records the event with some feeling. He says, “And he led them out, as far as Bethany, and he lifted up his hands and blessed them, and it came to pass, as he blessed them he was parted from them and was carried up into heaven and they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” These words give an expression of the admiration of the ascension.
The outstretched hands of Jesus, no doubt with the nail prints visible, speak of blessing, kindness, love and tenderness. Christ’s coming the first time was accompanied with a Heavenly worshipping. Hebrews 1:6 says, “Now when he bringeth the first begotten into the world, he saith, And let all the angels of God worship him.” God planned the farewell service when Jesus left the courts of Heaven. It seems, however, that a much greater praise service was what Jesus deserved as He went back after having been here. Hebrews 1:3 says, “Who being the brightness of his glory and the express image of his person and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had himself purged our sins sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” It would seem that if all the angels were told by God the Father to worship (when Jesus descended to earth), how much greater a welcome God the Father must have planned for Jesus when He came back. The Hebrew writer says, “To which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand until I make thy enemies my footstool.” I believe there is great admiration that needs to go toward Jesus Christ as we see Him ascending. No doubt the admiration of His followers was so intense, so wonderful, that even an angel needed to be sent to break the spell when He said, “Why stand ye gazing up into Heaven? This same Jesus which is taken from you shall so come in like manner.”
4. The Accomplishment of the Ascension
We’ve noticed the announcement of the ascension, the admonition of the ascension, and the admiration of the ascension: now we observe the accomplishment of the ascension. There were several accomplishments, but the primary accomplishment of the ascension is recorded in the fourth chapter of Ephesians and the eighth verse, where the Bible says, “Wherefore he sayeth when he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men.” The Scripture tells us that when Jesus ascended, He placed into captivity that which makes us captive. In other words, here is the attainment of supreme power. Acts 5:31 says, “Him hath God exalted with his right hand to be a prince and a Saviour.” The resurrection without the ascension would have been somewhat incomplete. Ephesians 1:19 says, “And what is the exceeding greatness of his power to us who believe, according to the working of his mighty power, which he wrought in Christ when he raised him from the dead, (but that’s not the end of the verse) and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places.” It wasn’t all complete when Jesus was resurrected from the dead, because He was still down here in the dominion of Satan. A few verses later in chapter 2 of Ephesians we’re told that Satan is the prince of the power of the air. And while in the dominion of Satan, (even though Jesus had a resurrected and a somewhat glorified body) He was still here on earth where Satan is active. But not so after the ascension. Verse 21 says, “But now far above all principality, and power and might and dominion and every name that is named, not only in the world, but also that which is to come.”
Here is the accomplishment of the ascension: “And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be head over all things to the church.” Later on in Ephesians 2, we learn that when Jesus ascended, spiritually we also have ascended. Verse 4 says, “But God, who is rich in mercy for his great love wherewith he loved us, even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ, by grace ye are saved and hath raised us up together (past) and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” So that spiritually while Jesus has actually gone on, and ascended into Heaven, and has accomplished complete redemption, and has gone to the place of complete exaltation_He has also made a provision whereby right now, we can sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus. That’s a great affirmation. That is the accomplishment of the ascension. The ascension speaks of the end of a thirty-three year battle between God and Satan, and the conflict ends with a smashing victory on the part of an ascending Savior. 1 Peter 3:22 says, “Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.”
Christ’s ascension into Heaven was a step of wonderful exaltation and victory on the part of the Savior. The accomplishment is four-fold. First, He led captivity captive. That is, He has conquered him who tends to conquer us. Secondly, according to Hebrews 1:14, we now have a high priest, and an intercessor: “Seeing then that we have a great high priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.” Thirdly, when Jesus ascended and the victory was complete, there was a showering of gifts down upon earth. Ephesians 4:8 says that “He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men.” Jesus said, “If I go not away, the Comforter cannot come.” And so as Jesus ascended up into Heaven, provision was made that a great outshadowing of blessing through the Holy Spirit, and through special gifts and privileges should come upon those who believe on His name. Fourthly, another accomplishment of the ascension was that He went to prepare a place for us. In John 14, Jesus says, “I go to prepare a place for you, and if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again.”
My friend, you may not choose to be concerned about Christ’s ascension, but you will not be able to escape the truth about His Second Coming. The one who said “I go,” also said “I will come again.” At His “lift off” only a few followers wondered in awe. At His “touch down” every knee will bow and every tongue will confess. For the believer the ascension is a challenge to hold fast the profession without wavering. For the unsaved, the challenge is to accept the salvation of the Son of God so you may escape bowing before Him some day as Judge.