As Christians, we celebrate Christmas and Easter.
- Many mark the season of Advent (leading up to Christmas), and Lent (leading up to Easter).
- We often take care to note the week beginning with Palm Sunday – Maundy Thursday – Good Friday – Easter Sunday.
- Birth – Death (cross) – Resurrection.
- This is all good.
But there is another event in the life of Jesus that we evangelicals usually skip over.
The New Testament sees a third movement as an essential part of the completion of Jesus’ work: the Ascension.
I think we miss this for a couple of reasons:
- because of our theological and liturgical tradition, many evangelicals reject (sadly) liturgy, often using the excuse of dead repetition, which is hardly worse than the dead repetition of the liturgy of non-liturgical churches;
- but we often miss it because of our failure to read carefully. In Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost, the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being ‘exalted to the right hand of God’ (Acts 2:33). In support of this, he cites Psalm 110, the most quoted psalm in the NT, with its imagery of ‘the Lord’ (Messiah) taking his seat at the right hand of ‘the Lord’ (Yahweh, the God of Israel).
We can see how important this is in Paul’s theology. In the hymn in Philippians 2, Paul skips over the resurrection and moves straight from Jesus’ ‘death on the cross’ to his being ‘exalted to the highest place’ (Philippians 2:8–9). It is as if the movement from death to life to glory, in resurrection and ascension, is one movement.
In John’s gospel, Jesus makes reference to this by the garden tomb, telling Mary not to hold on to him because he has not yet ascended, and, intriguingly, the gospel message she is given for the disciples is ‘I am ascending to the Father’ (John 20:17). Luke divides his work into two not on the basis of the resurrection but at the point of the Ascension: In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven… (Acts 1:1–2)
So why do we miss the importance of this?
I could lead us into an exploration of Daniel 7, which is important for understanding the ascension, but I’ll leave us with 4 key words, for why the Ascension is so important in the NT:
- Authority. Jesus is enthroned with the Father. It is because of the Ascension that the lamb who was slain is seated with the one on the throne and shares his worship (Revelation 4). It is in the Ascension that ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matthew 28:18). And this authority means that Stephen is confident that he is held by a higher power, even to the point of death—his final vision is of Jesus ascended in Daniel 7 terms (Acts 7:55–56)
- Humanity. In the incarnation, God entered into human existence. In the Ascension, that humanity is taken up into the presence of God. We have a High Priest interceding for us who is not unable to sympathise with our challenges, dilemmas, suffering and weakness (Hebrews 4:15–16)
- Responsibility. The Ascension marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; he has now given us the responsibility to continue this work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not distant or indifferent, but he has delegated.
- Fidelity. Jesus ascending in the clouds to heaven promised that he will return ‘in the same way’ (Acts 1:11). His return is never called the ‘second coming’ in the New Testament, because it is not paired with his ‘first coming’ (the Incarnation) but with the Ascension. As God has put all things under his feet, one day his authority de jure will be an authority de facto.