“He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
For many of us, Easter ended a long time ago. Forty days ago, to be exact. It’s a distant memory, and now our minds are occupied with end-of-school festivities, preparations for summer vacations, and Memorial Day pool barbecues and pool parties.
But for many Christians in the world, “Easter” refers not just to a single day but to a fifty-day season of celebration. In the third and early fourth century, these fifty days were collectively referred to as Pentecost. This season of Pentecost celebrated Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension into heaven, and the gift of the Spirit. By the end of the fourth century, Christians had separated out their observances of Christ’s ascension and the giving of the Spirit, celebrating Ascension Day on the fortieth day after Easter Sunday, and rounding out the season by celebrating the Day of Pentecost on the fiftieth and final day.
In short, Easter is still going on! And the Day of Ascension is an important part of the ongoing celebration of Christ’s work for us.
What is the Ascension?
The “ascension” refers to the moment recorded in Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:3-11 in which Jesus leaves his disciples and ascends to heaven, with the promise of returning “in the same way [they] saw him” leave (Acts 1:11). The account is brief, and it can be tempting to treat it as a mere epilogue to Jesus’s life; a necessary explanation of why he’s no longer physically present on earth. If we’re honest, in many of our minds, Jesus’ ascension just isn’t as important as his death and resurrection. On the contrary, many of the benefits we enjoy as Christians and many of the realities we take for granted exist precisely because of the ascension.
For starters, consider that the most-quoted Old Testament text in the New Testament is Psalm 110, which begins with David saying: “The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” God had promised David that one his descendants would one day sit on his throne forever. David is looking forward to the fulfillment of this promise, and in Acts 2, Peter makes clear that Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. In ascending to heaven, he was being “exalted at the right hand of God.” In other words, the ascension is not so much about Jesus leaving but about him arriving to his throne. The ascension is why we call Jesus our “King”.
Why It’s Celebrated
Numerous benefits of Christ’s ascension could be listed. The sixteenth century Heidelberg Catechism lists three particularly wonderful ones: “First,” it states, “[Jesus] pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father.” He intercedes for us (Romans 8:34), bringing our prayers to the Father who accepts those prayers because of his Son. Hebrews 9:24 also says that he appeared “in the presence of God on our behalf.” There’s a direct link between Jesus’ ascension and our acceptance with God. Michael Bird writes, “With the ascension and exaltation of Jesus, the door into the presence of God is permanently open for us.” Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow likewise write:
“Our presence before God is as certain as Christ’s presence before God. Our salvation is safe and secure as long as Christ is in heaven. This is why the ascension is such good news…If Christ is not in God’s presence on our behalf then we are not in God’s presence.”
This means that we can boldly approach God in prayer because Jesus ascended. It means that when we are tempted to doubt God’s love for us or when we are struggling with guilt over our sin, we can experience comfort and security, because Jesus is in God’s presence on our behalf. As Chester and Woodrow go on to say, “While He stands in heaven you are secure in God’s family.” So long as Jesus is welcome in God’s presence, we are too.
Second, “we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members to himself in heaven.” Jesus is a human being and is, at this moment, still in his body. By ascending to God’s right hand, this means that a human is currently ruling the universe. That means that God’s original intent of having human beings rule over the world is now fulfilled (see Hebrews 1:5-11). The Scottish theologian John Duncan once wrote, “The dust of the earth sits on the throne of heaven.” This guarantees that we who are united to Christ will one day live in God’s presence in our physical bodies.
The third benefit the Heidelberg Catechism mentions is that Jesus “sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.” The Bible is emphatic: because Jesus ascended, we have the Holy Spirit (John 7:39; 16:7; Acts 2:33). The Spirit is at working transforming us to look more like Jesus. He is at working spreading the message of Jesus across the world. Every bit of growth you’ve seen God accomplish in your life, and every story of someone trusting in Jesus for their salvation can thus be traced back to the ascension and enthronement of Jesus as king. Jesus makes this connection in the “Great Commission” passage:
“And Jesus came and said to them, ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.’” (Matthew 28:18-20)
And as Bruce Metzger has written:
“Ascension Day proclaims that there is no sphere, however secular, in which Christ has no rights – and no sphere in which his followers are absolved from obedience to him…Christ’s ascension is the guarantee that he has triumphed over the principalities and powers, so that at his name ‘every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ as Lord, to the glory of God the Father’ (Phil. 2:10-11).”
The ascension of Jesus, then, is a critical component of his ministry. May we meditate deeply on these truths on this Ascension Day and beyond.