November/ December, 1987
Volume 22, Number 6
In the church and among God’s people, at Christmastime we commemorate the coming of Christ into the world in bodily form. We stand in awe as we think of the infant Jesus who was God taking on a human body (incarnation), and living among the human family. We are thrilled by His noble works, and astounded that He should die as a Substitute for us. We anticipate His coming back to earth sometime in the not too-far distant future.
The birth of Jesus however is not the only important happening in connection with the life and ministry of our Lord. Another event which is crucial to a correct understanding of the New Testament truth about Jesus Christ-relates to His ascension and exaltation. Yet during most years, Ascension Day passes almost without our noting it.
Forty days after His resurrection, the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, where He is now exalted. The account is given in Acts 1:9-11. His exit from this life was as miraculous as His entrance into the world-and there are a number of results of His ascension.
1) It marked the conclusion of His humiliation and the beginning of His exaltation. 2 Corinthians 8:9 describes Jesus as one who “became poor that you through his poverty might be rich.” Jesus laid aside the glories of heaven when He came to earth, but Ephesians 1:20-22 says that at the ascension, the Father “set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power.”
2) It guarantees that Jesus is appearing in the presence of God as our Mediator. Hebrews 9:24 says, “For Christ is … entered into … heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” Jesus has become an Advocate to plead our cause before God (1 John 2:1).
3) It makes real the promise that Christ has gone to prepare a place in heaven. The fact that Jesus ascended bodily into heaven indicates that heaven is indeed a real place (John 14:2-3). The fact that Jesus is alive and has ascended into the presence of the Father’s throne, makes it possible for Him to come back again as He had promised.
Read the article featured in the pages that follow and thrill again at the tremendous blessings God has in store for the believer. And as we come to the close of 1987 and begin marking our calendars for 1988, why not put a special mark at the date (Thursday, May 12, 1988) and seek to remember especially the significance of our Lord’s ascension?
The Ascension and Exaltation of Christ
By Galen R. Hackman
Each Spring the church and the world pause to celebrate the anniversary of the most monumental happening in all of history. The occasion is celebrated on a day called Easter. The event is the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Forty days after Easter, the anniversary of still another event occurs -one almost entirely forgotten by the world and the church. This occasion is the ascension of Jesus Christ. The ascension of Christ is an important event, and we need to see it in its proper perspective. Granted, it may not have been as significant as the resurrection of Jesus, nevertheless it is not insignificant! In past years, at least in some communities, Ascension Day was a special religious holiday in which no work was done. The ascension of Christ has tremendous theological meaning, as well as practical application. In this article, we aim to consider some of the biblical record which relates to the ascension (especially Acts 1:7-11), and we will attempt to find out how this event relates to us today.
1. REASONS FOR THE 40-DAY DELAY
One of the first things that we notice from the passage before us (Acts 1: 1 -11, NIV), is that there was a fortyday delay between the resurrection and the ascension (Acts 1:3). What purpose could this delay have served? Was Jesus not anxious to return to the Father? Was His work not finished at the resurrection? Our text suggests two reasons for the delay, and then a third reason can be found in the verses which surround the description of the Ascension of Jesus.
First of all, there was the need to present “many convincing proofs that he is alive” (Acts 1:3). The word used here for “proof” is a strong word denoting “a sure sign,” “positive proof,” or “decisive evidence.” The positive evidence Jesus presented was in the form of post- resurrection appearances. Over a period of forty days, Jesus showed himself to be very much alive by appearing to a vast group of different people under divergent circumstances. He appeared to Mary Magdalene and another woman in the garden on the morning of the resurrection (John 20:14 and Matthew 28:9-10); and to Peter, later on the same day (Luke 24:34); and to the two disciples on their way to the town of Emmaus (Luke 24:13-33); and to the ten disciples (without Thomas) in the upper room (John 20:19-24); and to the eleven disciples (Thomas present) one week later (John 20:26-29); and to seven disciples by the Tiberias Sea (John 21:123); and to 500 believers in Galilee (1 Corinthians 15:6); and finally, once again to the disciples just prior to His ascension (Matthew 28:19-20; Acts 1:3-12).
Combining these appearances, we have over 500 individuals who saw the risen Lord before His ascension. The diversity of these people, the large number of persons, the circumstances under which they saw Jesus, the inability of Jesus’ enemies (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Romans) to disprove the testimony of these disciples -all of these things come together to form convincing proof of the resurrection of Jesus from the tomb. Had Jesus died, arose, and then gone immediately to be with the Father, it would have been quite easy for the authorities to claim that the body of Jesus had been stolen from the tomb. But as it was, they now had to deal with the reality of Jesus’ person, and the testimony of the disciples.
Second, our text suggests that during these forty days, Jesus had certain things to say to His disciples, instructing them concerning their future. Out of all that Jesus must have taught, only two things are hinted at in the passage before us. There was first of all instruction about the true nature of the kingdom of God. This is implied by the disciples’ question in verse 6, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” I find it amazing how after three years of living with Jesus (and after this time of intense training and discipleship), the disciples still did not get it through their heads that Jesus was no political revolutionary. These men were still expecting the kingdom to come in some physical way.
Certainly (we say), had we been there, things would have been different. We would have had a more clear perception. We would have more accurately interpreted the facts. Do you think we would have? I remember sharing with an elderly brother who was a member of the Church of the Brethren and had lived the better part of his adult life as a Christian and active church member. Yet in discussing faith and the promise of eternal life, he said, “I don’t believe it is possible to know whether or not one will be in heaven after death.” I was shocked! How could this man give his life to a cause and yet miss one of the key truths-a foundation principle of that cause? The writer of the Book of Hebrews has this same frustration. He says:
“We have much to say to you about this, but it is hard to explain because you are slow to learn. In fact, though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again” (Hebrews 5:11-12a).
So it was for the early disciples. So it may be for us also. Slowness to learn has been characteristic of God’s people down through the years.
A more encouraging part of Jesus’ teaching during the forty days relates to the future ministry of the disciples. Although very little is recorded for us, we know from Acts 1:8 that it was during this time that Jesus promised the disciples the empowerment of the Holy Spirit. He taught them also the pragmatics of evangelism. He said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” This promise was fulfilled and the injunction to evangelism followed. Acts 2 records the coming of the Spirit upon the early church and then, in chapters three through seven, we see evangelism in Jerusalem. And the section of the Book of Acts from chapter eight through twelve, records evangelism in Judea and Samaria, and chapters thirteen to the end of The Acts, recount the evangelism to the ends of the earth.
It is our prayer that we also may sense the need for continual growth and teaching, even after we feel we have learned all there is to know!
A third reason for the forty-day delay can be seen in the need to encourage the disciples. Following the crucifixion of Jesus, we find thedisciples huddled in the Upper Room, fearing for their lives (John 20:19). If the disciples were to become what God had intended for them to be -individuals who would “turn the world upside down”–they needed a new vision and hope. These appearances, along with the infilling of the Spirit, served to give the disciples a strength which was indestructible.
2. CHARACTERISTICS OF THE ASCENSION
Having considered in part the events leading up to the ascension, let us now consider the characteristics of the ascension itself. Notice first of all the word “cloud” in Acts 1:9. We err when we think of the ascension as some type of blastoff (much like a modern rocket). Although it is right for us to visualize Jesus moving up off the earth into the sky, it is wrong for us to think of Him as being transported, or beamed-up, to some place in outer space. What we have here is the description of Jesus leaving the world of tangible and visible things, and entering into the world of spiritual things. What I am saying is that although we tend to think of Heaven as being up, and Hell as being down, these are but human expressions to aid us in understanding the reality of these places-and indeed Heaven and Hell are real places. However, we do not know where the places actually are in a physical sense.
This is where the word “cloud” comes in. It helps us to understand what really happened to Jesus at the Ascension when we realize that in Scripture a “cloud” is symbolic of God’s presence. In the Old Testament it was a pillar of cloud which led the Israelites during their daytime wanderings through the Sinai Desert (Exodus 13:21-22). In the New Testament, as Peter and James and John looked at Jesus while on the Mount of Transfiguration, it was a cloud that enveloped Jesus and Moses and Elijah. Out of the cloud came a voice which said, “This is my son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him” (Matthew 17:113). And the Scripture says that Jesus will return “on the clouds” (Revelation 1:7; Matthew 25:30).
When we understand “cloud” from this perspective, we see that Jesus’ ascension was not some “blast-off” into another galaxy. Rather, it was an entrance into the glory of God, a glory which the Bible says was the glory Jesus had before the world was (John 1:1; John 17:5), and which He laid aside in order to become man and die for our sins (Philippians 2:5-8). The Ascension marks the exaltation of Jesus to His rightful place as God-sharing the heavenly throne with His Father.
We note also in the text before us that the ascension of Jesus was visible and physical. In other words, it was such that it could be witnessed by people. This is significant. Just as it was important for Jesus to be seen following His resurrection, so it was necessary for Him to be seen as He ascended. This visible ascension brought to an end the earthly ministry of Christ. Had His appearances merely ceased, or had Jesus merely vanished without a trace-it would have been easy for the skeptics (then and now) to claim that the post-resurrection appearances (and consequently the resurrection itself) were mere fabrications. As it was, however, the unbelievers had yet another visible, tangible, physical event for which they could find no earthly explanation.
In addition to all this, we see also from our text that the ascension was accompanied by a promise. As the disciples stood gazing into empty space, two angels came and said: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1: 11). And so the ascension stands as a testimony to the imminent return of the Lord Jesus. The words, “in the same way,” imply that Jesus will return a second time in a manner similar to that in which He departed at the ascension. Specifically, Jesus will return in His glorified physical body in a way that is visible to all. His return will be literal and physical, just as His ascension was.
Thus, the ascension was God’s means of bringing the ministry of Jesus to a final climax. It was a way of indicating to the disciples that they were now alone; the ministry was now theirs. If Jesus was to be magnified -if His gospel was to be proclaimed -they were going to have to accomplish it. This is for us too today.
3. CONTINUING MINISTRY OF JESUS
When we speak of the ascension as bringing to an end the earthly ministry of Jesus, we dare not assume that the ascension marked the end of His ministry! Jesus is still actively at work within and among us in at least the following four ways:
a) First of all, we notice the Scriptures speak of the ascended Christ as either seated (Ephesians 1:20) or standing (Acts 7:56) at the right hand of God. The right hand position to any ruler is the place of power and equality. In reference to the position Jesus now has, Paul says that He is raised:
” far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the age to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way” (Ephesians 1:21-23).
This has tremendous practical value for us. Because of Christ’s power and authority over all God’s creation, we know that the world (although evil and base) is not spinning out of control. We know that the church (although weak and complacent) will ultimately triumph. We know that when we pray, Jesus not only hears our prayers, but He also has the ability and authority to change the course of events for the benefit of His people.
b) Second, the Scriptures also speak of Jesus as our defense. As Jesus is seated with the Father, He takes on the role of One who intercedes for us. In 1 John 2:1, John writes: “My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense–Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” What a wonderful assurance! To know that One who loves us is the Mediator between our sinfulness and God’s holiness; to know that Jesus not only interceded for us on the Cross with His blood, but that He continues to plead with God over our sin even now; to know these truths is in deed a wonderful assurance within the soul. As Christians–when we sin and fall short of the glory of God, and the awfulness of that sin weighs upon us–even then we have our Mediator, the Lord Jesus who died, arose and ascended to the right hand of God.
c) Third, following His ascension the Bible teaches that Jesus began to carry on an equipping ministry for His church. The Apostle Paul taught much about spiritual gifts. In Ephesians, he says that “when Christ ascended on high … he gave gifts to men” (Ephesians 4:8). The types of gifts are listed in passages such as Ephesians 4:11, Romans 12:6-8, and 1 Corinthians 12:7-11. As individuals are born into the kingdom, Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, distributes to each one the gifts necessary to fulfill the work to which that person will be called.
There is no ministry to which God has called you, no cross that He has asked you to bear, no pain or heartache or hardship you’ve been called upon to suffer-for which God has not fully equipped you. The most exciting aspect of this equipping ministry is the one mentioned in Ephesians 4-equipping for ministry (service). How God could transform the cowardly group of disciples into the powerful army of itinerant preachers who built the New Testament church, remains a mystery of divine grace. But we know that what Jesus did for them, He does also for us. The secret lies in a personal surrender of ourselves to God, and the use of the spiritual abilities which He so graciously grants to us.
d) Fourth, there is the ministry of Jesus which corresponds to the promise of His return which was given at His ascension. John says that Jesus has gone to “prepare a place” for those who believe (John 14:2). What this place is like, the Scriptures merely hint at; no tears, no night, no sin, no pain, no death. There will be none of the things which belong to the old order. Rather, there will be joy, praise, worship, and the things that will be part of our new experience in Heaven (Revelation 22). For those who have come to know the ascended Christ, just the thought of eternity in His presence is all the incentive they need to continue on in the pilgrim faith.
The Ascension (and the observance of Ascension Day) should remind us of all that Jesus said and did, but especially it should remind us of what He is now doing. Perhaps the church of today would benefit by setting Ascension Day aside such as it does Good Friday or Palm Sunday, and using it to remind believers of the present ministry of Jesus on our behalf, and of the soon return of Christ for His loyal disciples. To this end, may God be praised.