The church celebrates Christmas and Easter in a big way. Many churches at least devote a sermon to Pentecost, the birthday of the church. How many Christians know about Ascension Day? It’s exactly forty days after Easter, which means it always falls on a Thursday. It’s easy for it to come and go without notice. So why is Jesus’ ascension important?
Bible verses about Jesus’ ascension
First, let’s look at some scriptures. The fullest description of the ascension comes in Acts 1:6-12. (All quotations come from NASB 1995.)
So when they had come together, they were asking Him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by His own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be My witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.”
Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a Sabbath day’s journey away.
Some other Bible verses refer to the ascension. Here is a sample:
- When Peter and John were summoned before the Sanhedrin, Peter declared, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom you had put to death by hanging Him on a cross. He is the one whom God exalted to His right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).
- As Stephen was dying, he declared, “Behold, I see the heavens opened up and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
- Paul enumerated many blessings in his letter to the Ephesians and prayed that they would be enlightened about Jesus’ mighty acts, “which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come” (Ephesians 1:20-21).
- And Peter wrote, “For He was foreknown before the foundation of the world, but has appeared in these last times for the sake of you who through Him are believers in God, who raised Him from the dead and gave Him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God” (1 Peter 1:20-21).
- John’s vision in Revelation moves directly from the incarnation to the ascension, encompassing Jesus’ entire earthly ministry in a single verse: “And she [a woman representing God’s people] gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron; and her child was caught up to God and to His throne” (Revelation 12:5).
The meaning of Jesus’ ascension
Our understanding of the resurrection is incomplete without the ascension. But none of the scriptural references lay great stress on it. It’s as if it ought to be obvious to everyone.
Actually, if there were no ascension, some important New Testament teachings would require careful explanation. Jesus died and rose from the dead bodily. He will never die again. And now, the church waits for his return.
Return from where?
After all, Scripture records that Jesus appeared to his disciples a few times and then stopped. Did he leave his native land and move to, say, China? Did the disciples think he was likely to wander back sometime?
Jesus no is no longer physically present on earth. Instead, he sits at the right hand of God, enthroned in heaven. Jesus is sovereign because he conquered death and disarmed the devil. His throne is a throne of mercy and grace because he makes intercession for us there.
God with us
In ascending, though, Jesus didn’t abandon the earth or his followers. He sent the Holy Spirit. Essentially, Jesus was “God with us” when he walked the earth. After his ascension, the Holy Spirit became “God with us.” And the Holy Spirit, unlike the man Jesus, doesn’t have the limitation of being in only one place at a time and having to take time to rest.
Jesus also gave gifts to the church: people in the roles of apostle, teacher, evangelist, pastor, and teacher. Jesus remains present to the church through these leaders. And the Holy Spirit himself gives other gifts as evidence of his presence.
Finally, the reality of the ascension creates a longing in Christians to be reunited with Jesus. He left to prepare a place for us as a bridegroom left his betrothed to prepare a place for her. We will all be reunited with Jesus in our own death—except, of course, for those believers still alive and breathing when he returns for his church.
What did the ascension really look like?
The Bible says Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father. If the Father isn’t anywhere on earth, then Jesus can’t be, either.
How was he supposed to get from one realm to the other? He could have simply vanished or faded like the Cheshire cat. Or he could have sunk into the earth. Now that would have presented an entirely different picture of Christ’s departure!
The disciples saw him rise to heaven.
We needn’t think of a “three-tier cosmology” where heaven is somewhere in the sky and hell is somewhere underground.
But that’s what the ancients thought. Whatever it was they saw, that’s how they’d have to describe it.
Now, Luke could have described something dramatic, such as a chariot of fire separating the apostles from Jesus and Jesus ascending to heaven in a whirlwind. But that’s how Elijah got to heaven. God doesn’t repeat himself.
Instead of Jesus going up even more dramatically than Elijah, he just disappeared into a cloud, never to be seen bodily again. It’s so dull that it’s no wonder, of all the Christian holidays, Ascension Day can come and go and hardly anyone remembers to observe it.
But the fact of the ascension of Jesus Christ matters a great deal.