Forty days after Jesus rose from the grave on Resurrection Sunday came a very important but often overlooked event—the ascension of Christ to heaven. While we commemorate Good Friday and celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on Easter, perhaps even consider the birth of the Church on Pentecost, many Christians gloss over or forget the ascension. But the ascension is vital to Christianity, and after the crucifixion and resurrection, it is the next aspect of Christ’s saving work on behalf of Christians.
The Biblical Background
During the last supper (John 13–17) Jesus repeatedly told the 11 disciples (after Judas Iscariot had left to betray him) that he was going back to the Father. The disciples did not understand Jesus’ repeated references of going away, and this left them sad and bewildered. Christ was speaking of his death, resurrection, and ascension, but they were so dumbstruck by his statements that they kept thinking he was going to go away on a journey and did not know why they couldn’t accompany him (John 13:36–37, 14:5, 16:17–18).
Following the crucifixion and resurrection passages in the Gospels, Scripture subsequently records the ascension (and the length of time after the resurrection when it occurred) in the following passages:
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)
While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. (Luke 24:51–52)
[Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. (Acts 1:3)
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 1:8–11)
The Importance of Jesus’ Ascension: The Giving of the Holy Spirit
Jesus himself had told his disciples that it was good for him to go away, because only then would he send them the Helper, the Spirit of truth (John 16:7–16). Jesus promised that the Spirit would be with them forever, bringing to remembrance all that Jesus said, and would guide them into all truth (John 14:16, 26, 16:13) And on the Day of Pentecost, ten days after Jesus’ ascension, that’s exactly what happened. The Spirit descended on the church in Jerusalem and filled the disciples with power, the gift of tongues, and boldness to preach in the name of Jesus—and that day, 3,000 men were converted by the power of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:41). Peter even connected Jesus’ ascension and exaltation to the outpouring of the Spirit in Acts 2:33–35.
While the disciples of Jesus were certainly blessed by walking and talking with the Incarnate Christ, they and all Christians since have been blessed even more by the indwelling Holy Spirit, which was only given after Christ ascended. The Apostle Paul tells us that “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5), and all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God (Romans 8:14–16) and exhibit the fruits of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22–23). Even our future hope of glorification is tied to the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14). Without the ascension of Christ, none of these benefits of the Spirit (of which many more could be listed) would be available to Christians.
The Ascension and Enthronement of Christ Gives Us an Advocate with the Father, and Christ Now Applies the Blessings of Salvation
Peter tells us that God exalted him [Jesus] at his right hand as Leader and Savior to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins (Acts 5:31). Later, salvation and the giving of the Holy Spirit is provided to Gentiles also (Acts 10:45, 11:17, Romans 3:29, Ephesians 3:6–8). Paul tells us, “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Romans 8:34). The author of Hebrews reminds us of Christ’s advocacy for Christians “since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens (Hebrews 7:25–26). John writes that Christ is our advocate, “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
The Ascension Is Important to Christians Because It Is Proof of Our Blessed Hope
John related the words of Christ, who spoke of his ascension as a guarantee of our future state, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2–3).
The Apostle Paul frequently mentions Christ’s ascension, not only as a historical reality (which it certainly is) but also as a promise of the future hope of Christians. In his passionate defense of the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, Paul also ties in Christ’s ascension and the future resurrection of Christians in glorified bodies. He then expands on the thought in 2 Corinthians 4, Colossians 3, 1 Thessalonians 4, and 2 Timothy 4. Notice the progression which Paul emphasizes:
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. (1 Corinthians 15:20 NKJV)
So also is the resurrection of the dead. The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body, it is raised a spiritual body. There is a natural body, and there is a spiritual body. (1 Corinthians 15:42–44 NKJV)
Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. So when this corruptible has put on incorruption, and this mortal has put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: ‘Death is swallowed up in victory.’” (1 Corinthians 15:51–54 NKJV)
Knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. (2 Corinthians 4:14)
When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. (Colossians 3:4)
For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. (1 Thessalonians 4:16–17)
The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. To him be the glory forever and ever. Amen. (2 Timothy 4:18)
While we often think of the Lord’s death, burial, and resurrection, we much less so think of the ascension. But our blessed hope of seeing the glorified Christ (Titus 2:13) is rooted in the reality of Christ’s ascension and exaltation at the right hand of the Father. And that blessed hope is only the beginning of the eternal blessings we will enjoy with Christ and God the Father. Perhaps on this Ascension Day, we can meditate on these verses that stress the eternal gift given to us because of Christ’s death, burial, resurrection, and ascension.
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Corinthians 4:17)
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away. (Revelation 21:3–4)