In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them for forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So, when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you now restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 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.” 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. 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 1:1-11).
If you’re like me, or most Christians, you’ve probably given very little thought to the ascension of Jesus Christ. We arrange our year around the celebrations of his birth, death, and resurrection. But there is no holiday to celebrate the ascension — at least not one that is widely celebrated by protestants. Because of this, up until recently, I had given very little thought to the ascension and its meaning.
However, I’ve come to realize that the ascension is to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection what a fuse is to a stick of dynamite. It’s because of the ascension that each Christian can experience the power, presence, and protection of Jesus in their lives. The ascension is the event that paves the way for the fire of the Holy Spirit to reach the dynamite of Christ’s life and detonate it into our lives with explosive power.
The Meaning of the Ascension
When the angels looked at the apostles they gave them a gentle rebuke. “Why are you just standing there?!” It almost sounds as if they are perplexed. “Don’t you guys understand what just happened?!” I’m sure they didn’t. Nor do we. You see, the apostles thought that the ascension meant that they had somehow lost Jesus. Sure, it was amazing to see the resurrected Jesus go up into the glory cloud of God, but now they were alone. What were they going to do?
At the end of Luke’s gospel, he tells us that after the ascension the apostles went back to the city with great joy! What moved them from staring off into space, wondering what all of this meant, to the kind of joy that sent them back into the city worshipping, rejoicing, and thanking God? The angels understood what had just happened and their rebuke was meant to help the apostles understand. They said, “This same Jesus whom you have seen go up, will return.”
“Sure,” they say, “Jesus has gone up, he’s ascended to the throne of the universe, but where he is, he’s the same Jesus. He’s the same Jesus you ate with, fished with, lived with, only now instead of living in weakness he has resumed his power.” And suddenly the apostles understood that the ascension didn’t mean that they would have less of Jesus’ power, presence, and protection, but more. Because he ascended, Jesus could speak his powerful authoritative word to and through each one of them without the physical Jesus right there with them. Because he ascended, Jesus could make his presence intimately known to each one of them all the time! Because he ascended, Jesus could exercise his kingly protection over all of creation and in and through each member of his body.
By ascending, Jesus did more than merely “go up” into heaven. He ascended to the throne of the universe. You could ascend the throne of England, if you could get past the guards, but that wouldn’t make you the King of England, because “ascension” is more than a spatial reality. Ascension is a spatial word — to go up — used to describe a change in relationship. Ascending the throne puts you into a new kind of relationship with the kingdom; a relationship of authority.
If Jesus remained bodily on earth he could only be in one place at one time. After this gentle rebuke the apostles no doubt remembered how Jesus had said that it would be better if he went away because he would then send the helper, the Holy Spirit (John 16:7). The Holy Spirit would then empower each believer to be a ‘little Christ’ — Christians — living out Christ’s life, imperfectly to be sure, in thousands of different places at an incalculable number of different times.
That’s why Luke starts the book of Acts by saying that the Gospel of Luke was a book about all that Jesus began to do and teach. The implication is that Acts is a book about what Jesus continues to do and teach through the lives of his people, who are indwelt by his Spirit. So, to see what relevance the ascension has for us today we must ask two questions:
1) Who was Jesus?
2) How does Jesus’ ascension — the fact that he is reigning in heaven and not physically here on earth — make my life his life? The answer to these questions are what Paul was talking about when he says in Galatians, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me (Gal 2:20).
One of the traditional ways of summing up the life of Jesus is the use of the perspectives of Prophet, Priest, and King. What I want to do over the next 3 weeks is to look at the life of Jesus through each of these lenses and then ask ourselves the second question, “How does Jesus’ ascension— the fact that he is reigning in heaven and no longer physically present on the earth— how does that make those realities of Jesus’ life continue in me?”
For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; (2 Corinthians 4:6–9).
Though we have been given the tremendous task and privilege to represent Christ on the earth, we remain “earthen vessels” or “jars of clay.” We are fragile and finite things filled with the indestructible life infinite glory of the Creator. The Gospel of Luke is the story of God’s work of redemption through the perfect Man, Jesus Christ. The book of Acts and our own lives, as the continued Acts of the risen Christ, are the stories of God’s continuing work of redemption through imperfect men and women empowered and indwelt with the Spirit of Christ. We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that the surpassing power to be lights shining into darkness, living Christ’s life, that power belongs to God and not to us. Though it does not belong to us, it has been given to us. And because it has, we have the power to be afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed, through the power of an indestructible life. Jesus Christ is the power, we are the fragile vessels through whom he has chosen to deliver himself.
Next Week: The Word in Flesh: The Perfect Prophet