What’s with the Ascension?

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This Sunday Christians of the Great Tradition commemorate the event in Jesus’ life that most American Christians subtly avoid: The Ascension. After all, the idea of the disciples standing around watching Jesus’ feet disappear into the clouds sounds pretty strange – we know heaven isn’t literally up. American Christians often seem a bit sheepish about the whole Ascension thing. However, the New Testament portrays the Ascension as an essential component of Jesus’ saving acts – even the completion of Jesus’ work. To cite a few examples:

  • In Peter’s Pentecost speech, the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being “exalted to the right hand of God” (Acts 2:33). In support, Luke quotes the most cited psalm in the NT, Psalm 110, with its image of the messiah taking his seat at the right hand of God.
  • In the gospel of John, Jesus, tells Mary not to hold on to him because “I have not yet ascended,” and the message she is given for the disciples is, ‘I am ascending to the Father’ (John 20:17).
  • Luke divides his two books, not at the resurrection, but at the Ascension: “In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven…” (Acts 1:1-2)
  • In Philippians 2, Paul skips the resurrection and goes straight from Jesus’ ‘death on the cross’ to his being ‘exalted to the highest place’ (Phil 2:8-9). Jesus movement was from death to life to glory, but here Paul conflates the resurrection and ascension as one movement.

Why is the Ascension important? (From Ian Paul’s terrific blog Psephizo.com)

  1. Authority. Jesus is enthroned with the Father. Because of the Ascension, the lamb who was slain is seated with the one on the throne and shares his worship (Revelation 4). At the Ascension Jesus said, ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matt 28:18). It is that authority that gave Stephen confidence in the face of death—his final vision is of Jesus ascended in Daniel 7 terms (Acts 7:55-56). 
  2. Union. In the incarnation, God entered human existence. In the Ascension, humanity is taken up into the presence of God. “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb 4:15-16). Jesus joined humanity that humanity so can join him.
  3. Empowerment. The Ascension marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; Jesus gives humans responsibility to continue His work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is neither distant nor indifferent, he has delegated his earthly presence to his body, the Church.
  4. Trustworthiness. Jesus ascended in the clouds promising that he will return “in the same way” (Acts 1:11). (His return, btw, is never called the “second coming” in the NT because it is not paired with his “first coming” [the Incarnation], but rather with the Ascension.) As God has put all things under his feet, one day his authority de jury will be an authority de facto.

So, yeah, the embarrassing miracle matters. Besides, anyone who can believe God can be born from the womb of a virgin, and that a man with his blood drained from his lifeless corpse can walk bodily from the grave three days later, can believe that God can assume that risen Lord bodily into the clouds. So, it may sound strange, but get over it. The Ascension is worth believing in and celebrating, because a lot is riding on those disappearing feet.

Like your salvation.

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