Ascension

Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra
Photo by Stephen W. Hiemstra

“He ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” [1]

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The ascension is where Jesus commissions the church.

The Gospels of Mark and Luke briefly describe Christ’s ascension. For example, Mark reports the ascension with these words: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” (Mark 16:19) Luke 24:50 places the ascension near Bethany. The Gospel of Matthew ends, not with the ascension, but with the Great Commission [2] while the Gospel of John focuses more on specific instructions to given to the disciples [3].

The key to understanding the ascension arises in the Book of Acts, which outlines a parallel between Jesus’ work and the work of the disciples. In life on earth and in life after death, Christ is our model.

Just like Christ asserts God’s sovereignty over heaven and hell in his death on the cross, the disciples are commissioned to assert God’s sovereignty over the earth after the ascension. Just before he ascended, Jesus said:

. . . 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)

This parallel ministry is also discussed in John’s Gospel: “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” (John 20:21) We see parallel language also in the Lord’s Prayer: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matt 6:10) [4]

Christ’s ascension also includes one of the lighter moments in scripture:

And when he [Jesus] had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “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 1:9–11)

In other words, Christians are not supposed to leave their heads in the clouds and stare off into space! [5] What seems humorous is actually serious and includes a warning. Disciples who leave their heads in the clouds are warned that Christ will return, which is, perhaps, an allusion to the parable of the talents that includes judgment of slothful servants (Matt 25:14–28).

The ascension links us to Christ’s work in heaven. The Book of Hebrews describes Jesus’ work as a high priest in heaven interceding in prayer for us (Heb 8:1–2). It should come as great comfort that Jesus, who we know, will sit in judgment when we appear before God’s judgment seat [6]. If heaven works like the North Star in our Christian walk, then Christ’s ongoing work in heaven is the heart of that star (Alcorn 2006, xi). And Christ inspires the church’s work here on earth.

[1] The references in this chapter to the Apostle’s Creed are all taken from FACR (2013, Q/A 23). Another translation is found in (PCUSA 1999, 2.1—2.3).

[2] “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.” (Matt 28:19–20)

[3] For example: “Jesus said to him [Peter],’ If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!’” (John 21:22)

[4] Also: Luke 24:49, Acts 1:4, and John 14:26. The Great Commission in Matt 28:18–20 also links heaven and earth in evangelism.

[5] C. S. Lewis (2001, 134) observed: “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next.”

[6] As the Apostle Paul told the Athenians: “The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30–31)

REFERENCES

Alcorn, Randy. 2006. 50 Days in Heaven: Reflections that Bring Eternity to Life. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.

Faith Alive Christian Resources (FACR). 2013. The Heidelberg Catechism. Cited: 30 August, 2013. Online: https://www.rca.org/sslpage.aspx?pid=372.

Lewis, C. S. 2001. Mere Christianity (Orig Pub 1950). New York: Harper Collins Publishers, Inc.

Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PC USA). 1999. The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)—Part I: Book of Confession. Louisville, KY: Office of the General Assembly.

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