On of the most fascinating and important - yet often overlooked - events that took place during the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ was the Ascension. Yet, I don’t recall ever hearing a message preached expressly about it. At Christmas time we put much emphasis on His incarnation as a “babe in a manger”. Around Easter we stress the gruesome crucifixion followed by the glorious resurrection. But it seems that, at least in practice, we have forgotten or perhaps overlooked the miraculous ascension of our Lord which took place some 40 days later.
Jesus put on flesh and blood when He descended from His place in the heavens. He temporarily and voluntarily put upon himself the constraints of humanity. Yet His purpose and intent was never to stay among us indefinitely here on the earth, but rather to accomplish the mission He’d been given by the Father and then to return to His heavenly home. Jesus came to visit us, to receive a kingdom unto Himself, and then to return home.
Jesus not only prophesied about His own death and resurrection, but often spoke of His certain return to Heaven, the place from whence He came. He longed to go home, where He enjoyed the immediate presence of His Father. In addition to Jesus’ own predictions, several Old Testament writers also foretold the ascension of the coming Messiah in their prophecies. Thus, the Ascension is yet another fulfillment of numerous prophecies and still further affirmation of the identity and deity of Jesus Christ as the Son of God.
This morning we will take a brief look at the wondrous ascension of our Lord. We will examine its method (how it happened), its ending (what it led to), and its promises (that would follow).
I. THE METHOD OF THE ASCENSION - HE WAS “TAKEN UP’ TO HEAVEN (Acts 1:1-2a, 9-11; Luke 24:50-51; Mark 16:19-20; 1 Timothy 3:16)
Over the years, I have thought of the ascension as the occasion during which Jesus went back to heaven. I have pictured Him rising into the air before the gathered crowd of witnesses as they watched Him make His voyage home. And while my understanding was generally correct, I’ve come to understand that Jesus didn’t simply “go” back to heaven. Something else, even more wonderfully mesmerizing, was actually taken place...
In each of the passages describing the Ascension of Christ we find verbs intentionally being used that describe Him as being “taken” up into heaven. The NASB translation uses the following words to describe the event - He was “taken up”, He was “carried up”, He was “lifted up”, and He was “received up”. Notice that in each instance Jesus was not simply rising up as a result of His own initiative. He was not returning solely at His own discretion.
“For God so loved the world that He sent His only begotten Son”. It was the Father’s plan to send Jesus to become the sacrificial atonement for our sin. It was God who sent Him - though He certainly was not opposed to doing so, Jesus did not come completely by His own volition. In the same manner, it was also God’s plan to retrieve His Son after the work on earth was accomplished. In other words, Jesus didn’t just return when He was done - God picked Him up!
There are two examples of men being “translated” in the Old Testament. While translation is not the same thing as ascension (perhaps the subject of another sermon someday), there are similarities. The first man is Enoch, about whom the Bible says “and he was not (found), for God took him (up)” see Gen. 5:24 and Hebrews 11:5. The second man is Elijah, who is described as having been “carried up” to heaven in a whirlwind see 2 Kings 2:11. In both of these occurrences, it is God who actually took the person from the physical realm and brought them into the spiritual realm.
On the night of His arrest, Jesus tried to comfort the apostles with these assuring words, “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to Myself, that where I am, there you may be also” (John 14:3). Notice how the Lord reveals that we do not “go” to heaven on our own, but rather that Jesus will come and receive us to Himself. Consider the word “rapture” which means “caught up” or “snatched up”. When Jesus returns for His church, we will be lifted into the sky to join Him in the air. The prevailing principle is this the Lord is coming to get us because no human can get to heaven on their own. They must be taken there by God Himself, just as was demonstrated at the Ascension of Christ.
II. THE ENDING OF THE ASCENSION - JESUS IS ENTHRONED AT GOD’S RIGHT HAND (Hebrews 10:11-14; 1 Corinthians 15:27-28; Ephesians 4:8-10)
The ascension of Jesus was a homecoming of sorts. It was a glorious processional - a parade that began on earth and ended in the heavens. Can you imagine the celebration that must have taken place when He arrived? Can you even begin to picture the scene in Heaven that day? Jesus had been absent for some 33 years, but the Ascension marked His triumphant return. Unlike the prodigal son who returned home in shame, Jesus came back victorious having forever crushed both sin and the grave! His ascension marked the return of a conquering hero, and made a spectacle of the defeated enemies of God.
According to Scripture, when Jesus arrived in Heaven following the Ascension He was seated at the right hand of God the Father. This is referred to as the session of Christ. This position is the place of God’s highest honor and favor, indicating that Christ was and is exalted above all others. Jesus is recognized as being at God’s right hand in numerous passages throughout the Bible.
From His heavenly seat, Christ now rules over all of creation. Jesus told the disciples shortly before His departure, “All authority has been given to Me both in heaven and on earth”. God the Father has granted His Son with all power to reign over all created things.
From His royal throne, Christ also serves as our intercessor and Great High Priest. His ascension marked the beginning of His eternal priesthood, which took the place of the old priesthood set forth in the Law of Moses. Just as in former times the Levitical high priest would enter into the Holy of Holies to make intercession for his people, so also Jesus ascended into the Holiest of Holies - that is, Heaven itself - and now serves as our divine intercessor.
III. THE PROMISES OF THE ASCENSION - THE HOLY SPIRIT AND THE SECOND COMING
While the angels of heaven were welcoming Him home, the disciples were bidding Him farewell. While in one sense the Ascension was a great homecoming, in another it was a heartfelt parting. This time, unlike the crucifixion, Jesus really was leaving. Though they were probably in awe as they watched Jesus being lifted up into the heavens, I am certain they must have felt some level of sadness and uncertainty as they watched Him go. Nevertheless, their reaction was spectacular.
A. The Sending of the Holy Spirit (John 16:5-7)
The verses we read earlier this morning indicate that following the Ascension the disciples worshiped, they preached, they were joyful, and they were continually praising God. It was these men would launch the New Testament church. This remarkable feat was made possible because of the coming of the Holy Spirit.
While Jesus was on the earth as a man, He was limited by time and space. Though He retained all of His deity, the constraints of humanity precluded Him from doing certain things. For this reason, Jesus declared that it would be more beneficial to mankind that He return to Heaven than to remain on earth. He promised that He’d send the Holy Spirit, who would come and fill all believers. The indwelling of the Holy Spirit would empower the church to literally change the world, but it had to be preceded by the Ascension. Just as the Father sent the Son, now the Son would send the Holy Spirit.
B. The Second Coming (Matthew 24:29-30; Zechariah 14:3-4)
The accounts of the Ascension also make it clear that Jesus will return again in the same way that He left. The angels who were present told the disciples this would happen. Since Jesus ascended from the Mount of Olives and was carried up into heaven on the clouds, we can expect His return to share these same details.
The Ascension of our Lord Jesus marked the end of His earthly ministry. He returned to glory, where He shed the constraints of His humanity and was readorned with the full extent of His glory. God brought His Son home, seated Him at His right hand, bestowed upon Him the authority to reign over His entire creation, and anointed Him as our eternal High Priest. Furthermore, the Ascension allowed for the sending of the Holy Spirit and foreshadowed the manner in which Christ would come again someday. As you can see Jesus’ Ascension is a monumental event and we should recognize it as such.
One final thought… it is critical that we see Jesus as He really is. He died to be our Savior, but He lives to be our Lord. He is a reigning king, and we are His subjects. We would do well to stop thinking of Him in terms of His past humanity, but rather to view Him in the reality of His present deity. He is the enthroned Son of God, highly exalted and majestic, and He possesses all authority over us. He deserves our utmost respect and complete obedience.