Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Essential Ascension

It's Ascension Day today, forty days after Easter Sunday, when we recall the Lord Jesus leaving His disciples and returning to heaven.

When we think of it, we normally imagine Jesus hovering and floating upwards, His clothing fluttering in a gentle breeze until He disappears from sight. His going upwards may reinforce our three-level territory, with the earth stuck in the middle like a sandwich between hell below and heaven above.

But what is the ascension all about? Why does it matter? What is its importance for us today?

1. The ascension is the culmination of His earthly ministry. Over the course of the forty days, He proves to His disciples that He is alive, and teaches them further about the Kingdom. '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.' (Acts 1:3) While the disciples didn't get what He was talking about before the crucifixion, they now start to get it afterwards. Jesus has prepared them for the future, which is now here.

2. The ascension brings about the sending of the Holy Spirit. Jesus will not be physically with the disciples, but He will be present inside them, through the Holy Spirit. '"Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you."' (John 16:7) Rather than being limited to one location, Jesus is present in all locations and places through the presence of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is variously described as the Helper, the Advocate, the Paraclete - the one who draws alongside and supports. The Holy Spirit is given ten days later, at Pentecost.

3. The ascension is the commissioning of the disciples. Jesus may not be physically on the scene, but the disciples will continue His work, reaching much further than Judea and Galilee. '"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."' (Acts 1:8)

4. The ascension is the glorification of Jesus. Having ascended, He now sits on the right hand of the Father, in the place of honour in heaven. 'He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of His nature, and He upholds the universe by the word of His power. After making purification for sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4having become as much superior to angels as the name He has inherited is more excellent than theirs.' (Hebrews 1:3-4)

5. The ascension is the triumph of Jesus. In the place of authority, Jesus reigns over not just the church, but also all of creation. Jesus 'has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.' (1 Peter 3:22) Jesus has authority over all angels, people, kingdoms and places. There is no part of the universe of which Christ does not say "It is mine!"

6. The ascension continues the intercession of Jesus. Jesus' humanity has been carried into the heart of heaven, the centre of the presence of God, and as our older brother and great High Priest, He continues to pray for us. 'Consequently, He is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. 26For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.' (Hebrews 7:25-26) Jesus is praying for us! This is possible through His entering the heavenly sanctuary, and His indestructible life.

7. The ascension guarantees that Jesus will return. After Jesus disappeared from view, two angels asked the disciples, who were still gawping upwards, "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." (Acts 1:11) His return will be personal, glorious, universal, to bring home His people, and to bring judgement to the world. 'Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him.' (Hebrews 9:28)

Far from being unimportant, we see that the ascension is an essential element of the person and work of Christ, and an elementary doctrine of the Christian faith. As the hymn goes:

Life-imparting heavenly Manna,
stricken Rock with streaming side,
heaven and earth with loud hosanna
worship thee, the Lamb who died.
Alleluia! Alleluia!
Risen, ascended, glorified!

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