We spend a lot of time in church teaching about the cross and the resurrection, and rightly so, because these are both central pillars of the Christian faith. However, perhaps we are guilty of neglecting the ascension of Jesus, when he left this world to return to Heaven, to rule and to reign as the exalted King of Kings. Do you think much about Jesus’ ascension? Remember, after Jesus rose from the dead, there was a period of 40 days when he made several appearances to people, to individuals, to the disciples and also to a larger group. There are about a dozen such appearances recorded for us in the Bible. For each of these appearances, the resurrected Jesus would have left Heaven, from the right hand of the Father, and come back down to earth. For example, he appeared on the road to Emmaus, to the disciples without Thomas but later with Thomas, to Peter and to 500. (See 1 Corinthians 15:6) Jesus did not stay on earth throughout these 40 days, but was coming and going from Heaven. But this coming and going was not going to last.
Jesus wants to make it clear the disciples that he is about to return to Heaven permanently, and there will be no more resurrection appearances until the Second Coming. I think that’s why Jesus leaves in the public and dramatic way he does. If you think about it, he could have just disappeared and never come back. But that would have left the disciples in limbo, wondering if he would appear again in a few days’ time.
“Jesus departed in a style designed to convey finality. Even then, it was not ‘Farewell’ but ‘Au revoir’, for as the apostles stood gazing at the heavens, two angelic messengers appeared to tell them that Jesus would return from Heaven in a similar manner to that in which he had just departed.” (Gordon Keddie)
The temporary period of 40 days has drawn to a close. Jesus is leaving them physically, only to return at the end of time, when he comes back as Judge. Amazingly, his departure is a wonderful thing for the church, because although no longer physically present, by his Spirit, Jesus will be with all of his people all of the time, empowering them in their Christian walk, and assuring them of his love. ‘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. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgement…’ (John 16:7-8)
1. The details of the ascension
We are not given many details about this crucial event. ‘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.’ (Acts 1:9) Imagine being there. Jesus begins to ascend into the sky. And the only other detail we are given is about the clouds. Is this significant? I always just visualised Jesus being hidden from them as he went above the clouds. However, it actually says that the cloud not only surrounds Jesus, but also carries him away. In other words, the cloud is his mode of transport to Heaven.
This might seem insignificant. But it is actually a wonderful detail, especially in the light of the prophecy made about Jesus’ ascension in the book of Daniel. Acts details the ascension from a human viewpoint, whereas Daniel’s viewpoint is from Heaven itself. ‘In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’ (Daniel 7:13-14)
The way Daniel describes it, Jesus’ ascension is like his coronation procession, where he is taken away from his earthly ministry and into his heavenly glory and reign. Just 10 days after his ascension, on the day of Pentecost, Jesus will pour out his Spirit on the church. ‘Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear.’ (Acts 2:33)
When you think of Jesus, and talk to Jesus, where do you picture him to be? This is an important question! It is vital that we grasp that he is no longer dead on the cross, but is alive in the throne room of Heaven, in heaven’s headquarters, where he is working all things for good.
2. The distraction of the ascension
What do I mean by that? 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.’ (Acts 1:10-11)
At first, the question of the two angels might seem unfair. Of course, the disciples would be staring up at the sky, we might think. So, why do the angels give this mild rebuke? We need to remind ourselves of the context of this passage. Jesus has just given his disciples a hugely important job to do, to be his witnesses near and far. They have received their marching orders. They are to wait in Jerusalem to receive the Holy Spirit, and then they are to roll up their sleeves and get stuck into the task of spreading the gospel. In this sense, the angels are redirecting the gaze of the disciples. It is as if they are saying, don’t look up to the sky, wondering when Jesus will come back, but rather look out into the needy world, and focus on the task he has entrusted you with.
“Looking up into heaven is inappropriate. He will indeed come back in the same way. But, being assured of that fact, you must not spend any time looking up into the sky in anticipation of the event. Rather, you must set your eyes upon the work he is giving you to do!” (Gordon Keddie)
I think there’s a lesson for us today. Maybe we are a bit like the disciples here. We’ve been given a clear job to do, but instead we stare up into the sky, as it were, speculating about when exactly Jesus will return, or speculating about other questions in the Christian life, which are of very little importance. It’s quite an image- the disciples are skygazing when they should be amongst people, living out the gospel in actions and sharing it in words. Sometimes we make such a big deal about our preferences for worship style, whether based on the Bible or not, or how we should dress at church, or wishing church was more like the way it was when we were young. We can be guilty of majoring on the minors. Jesus would want us to focus on the major task at hand- evangelising lost souls. What is it that distracts you in the Christian life? What will help you to refocus your gaze onto being a witness for Jesus? Stop looking, and get working!
Or maybe you are distracted by tv or holidays or gardening or good food or your appearance. Don’t gaze into the mirror, but see instead the lost world around you. We all have our hobbies and legitimate concerns, but don’t let them weigh us down. ‘Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith.’ (Hebrews 12:1-2)
There’s a further incentive here for staying focused on being a good witness of Christ Jesus, and that’s the fact that Jesus is coming back. ‘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.’ (Acts 1:11) This is the Second Coming of Jesus. It helps us to consider the sobering truth: we will one day have to give an account of our lives to Jesus. We won’t have to give an account of our lives to anyone else, not our spouse or children or friends or even our bosses. Only Jesus. It makes sense then, to live for his glory, and to get on with the work he has given us to do. Then we’ll hear one day the amazing words ‘well done, good and faithful servant’. Now is the time between the ascension and the 2nd Coming. Now is the time for sharing the gospel.
3. The difference the ascension makes
We’ve already noted one huge difference that the ascension makes to the church, and that is the giving of the Holy Spirit to all those who trust in Jesus for their salvation. Yes, we’re called to be witnesses and that’s not always an easy task, but we’re equipped by God for the job. He will help up live out holy lives and he will give us the words to say as we share our testimony. Let’s spend the rest of our time looking more widely at what the rest of Bible teaches us about the practical difference the resurrection makes in our lives. As we do so, let’s consider what Jesus is doing right now: he’s sitting, he’s interceding and he’s preparing.
Jesus is sitting. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he sat down. ‘Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when this priest had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, and since that time he waits for his enemies to be made his footstool.’ (Hebrews 10:11-13)
When you are doing manual work, for example, you’ve been catching up on housework for most of the day, we all know the lovely feeling of knowing that you’ve finished the housework and you can just sit down and have a cup of tea and rest. Sitting down is a sign that the work has been completed. Jesus has finished his work of dying on the cross for our sins, and so now he can sit in the place of rule, at the Father’s right hand. That is great news for us. It means that the task of covering over our sins has been finished. So, when we trust in Jesus for our salvation, God treats us as if we had never sinned. We are righteous and innocent in his sight. Enjoy the fact that Jesus sits in Heaven.
Jesus is interceding. ‘Who then is the one who condemns? No one. 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.’ (Romans 8:34)
What does this mean? It means that Jesus is always thinking about us, praying for us, and arguing our case before his Father. He does this for all of his children. He does this for you, if you trust in him.
I’ve shared before how encouraged I was to meet an elderly Christian man who said to me: ‘I pray for you every day’. I was really taken aback. I didn’t know him very well. But it was just what I needed to hear, and just what I needed in my weakness. But there’s something even more encouraging- Jesus is doing that for us each and every day.
Jesus is preparing. ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. You believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.’ (John 14:1-3)
Is your heart troubled today? What a truth this is to help us to keep perspective – Jesus is getting everything ready for us to spend eternity with him in Heaven. One of our friends in Oxford allowed us to spend time in their cottage there. It was really kind of them. They worked hard to get everything ready for our arrival. Then they could say: ‘Come and stay – everything is now ready’. One day we shall hear those words from Jesus himself.
These are all huge encouragements. Let’s think about the ascended and reigning King Jesus more than we sometimes do!