Christ's Ascension and the Hope of the Church
When we speak about the accomplishment of the gospel, our discussion often begins with the crucifixion of Jesus and ends with the resurrection. Is it possible that there is more to Jesus accomplishment than this?
One of the most fascinating passages in the New Testament is the Transfiguration. There are a lot of reasons why it is fascinating, not least of which is the unveiling of Jesus Christ’s pre-incarnate glory on earth. For me, however, one of the fascinations is Moses and Elijah as Luke records it, were talking with Jesus (Luke 9:30). Wouldn’t you like to be a fly on the wall of that conversation! What would Jesus, Moses, and Elijah talk about when they get together? Interestingly, we don’t have to wonder. We are told the content of their conversation. Listen to what Luke says in chapter 9:30-31, “And behold, two men were talking with him, Moses and Elijah, who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.”
This is astonishing to me. When Moses, Elijah, and Jesus gathered together, they were not conversing about the ministry of Jesus up to that point, or the cross that is quickly approaching, or even the hope of the resurrection to follow. They spoke instead of the departure, namely, the ascension of Jesus.
Further, if you look closely, you’ll notice that Luke indicates that the departure is the “accomplishment” Jesus is going to perform in Jerusalem. He doesn’t mention the cross or the resurrection, which we traditionally conceive of as the accomplishment Jesus performed in Jerusalem. In this case, he speaks of the ascension. That’s much stronger than most of us would say it. To be honest, the ascension is often seen as little more than a final footnote in Jesus ministry, the obligatory wrap up to the main accomplishment of the death and resurrection. But notice: that’s not what we read in Luke 9.
Now, in saying all this, Luke is not diminishing the work of Jesus death and resurrection. Let’s think about it. What would the ascension be without the death and resurrection? In fact, the accomplishment of the ascension is an accomplishment due to the prior accomplishment of the cross and resurrection.
At the same time, could we not also say that the cross and resurrection look for a more perfect completion that comes in the ascension? I would argue that’s the exact point Luke is making. That in a very real sense, all of Jesus life has been leading to the crescendo of the ascension.
A hint of the ascension’s crescendo is provided in Luke 9 in that word “departure.” If you have a good study Bible, you might find a little asterisk or number by the word departure and a reference to the Greek meaning of the word. Do you know what it is? It’s is the word “exodus.” In other words, Jesus was spending time talking to Moses about the exodus he was going to accomplish in Jerusalem. Maybe they compared notes a little. Moses certainly knew a thing or two about exoduses!
Oh, and let’s not forget that Elijah was present. Wasn’t it Elijah in 2 Kings 2 who was “taken up” (ascended) into heaven on a chariot of fire? Maybe Luke is trying to tell us something important here. Maybe Luke is trying to tell us that the departure of Jesus was no mere exit strategy but an ascension that paves the way for an exodus.
Now, I’d be hesitant to advance such a thought if Jesus didn’t say it just that way in John 14:1-3. Right after Jesus prophesies Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial, Jesus turns to his downtrodden disciples and says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.”
Did you hear in Jesus words about “ascension” that leads to an “exodus”? You should have. Jesus goes to prepare a place for us (ascension), but he is going to come back and lead us out (exodus) to the place he has prepared that we may be with him for all eternity.
As you hear that, surely you can see how in one sense all of Jesus earthly ministry culminates in the moment of the ascension. Jesus is truly the way, the truth, and the life. Moses cannot lead us to the Father. Elijah cannot engineer our ascension to the Father. Only through Jesus is the path opened up to the Father (John 14:6). Surely this is the great accomplishment that Jesus was speaking about with Moses and Elijah that day on the mount of transfiguration.
All of this rich biblically redemptive truth helps make sense of why the disciples were not the least bit sad to see Jesus go at the end of the gospel of Luke. We would expect the disciples to respond like Mary Magdalene when she visited the tomb. She sees the stone rolled away and weeps in despair, until she hears Jesus call her name. At that moment, she falls at his feet and the text says, she “clings to him” (John 20:17). There’s desperation in her grasp! She must have felt like a mother who has lost her son in the supermarket and frantically searches until she locates him on the candy aisle and scoops him up into her arms and give him one of those never-let-you-go embraces! But that’s not what we see here.
Much to our surprise, Luke tells us that as Jesus is carried up to heaven, the disciples “…worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Really? The same disciples who earlier in the gospel narrative were long faced and saddened, even threatening to oppose Jesus if he tried to leave, are not only not sad, but are shouting out in worship and full of joy. What has happened? The only reasonable explanation is, "they got it!" Through Jesus own teaching (Luke 24:44-49), the disciples’ minds were opened to grasp the importance of Jesus ascension for their salvation and the salvation of the world.
To say that is to beg the question, “What did they know about Jesus ascension that caused them to worship with great joy?” I would like to offer five worship inspiring and joy giving truths springing from the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ that undoubtedly filled the disciples’ minds as they watched Jesus disappear into the clouds.
1. A Proof – The ascension of Christ proves the Father’s acceptance of Jesus sacrifice on our behalf. By receiving Jesus back to heaven was indication that Jesus had completed the work that the Father sent him to do, and that the Father accepted His work as fully accomplished (2 Corinthians 5:21). This means that as the disciples watched Jesus ascend, they he was receiving the vindication he was due from his Father, and so they worshipped him with great joy!
2. A Pledge – The ascension of Christ is the pledge that the Father will accept us too. The writer of Hebrews in chapter 9 tells us, “Christ is our surety.” Another word for surety is guarantee or pledge. The writer is saying that what Jesus Christ receives we receive! This means that as the disciples saw Jesus being vindicated and carried away to the right of the Father, they knew that one day they too would be vindicated and carried away to be there with him in glory, and so they worshipped with hope and great joy!
3. A Preparation – The ascension of Christ is the beginning of Jesus preparation to bring us home. In John 14 Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you, and that when I come back to get you, I will take you to that place that I have prepared, and you will live forever with me.” As the disciples watched Jesus return home to His Father, they knew that Jesus went in order to prepare a place, a home, for them, and that before long they would join him. So, they worshipped him with great joy!
4. A Pouring – The ascension of Christ set in motion the pouring out of the Holy Spirit. In John 16, Jesus says the most astonishing thing. “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me…” Two things come to mind in this:
- Advance the Kingdom of Christ – Jesus absence makes way for the Spirit’s presence, and according to Jesus, that is to our advantage. How is this possible? The Spirit will continue the work of Christ through the church, advancing the kingdom in the whole world. The Spirit will do this through conviction of sin, convincing the world of the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ, and converting the world through the power of the grace of God.
- Deepen Our Relationship with Christ – But you know what else the Spirit will do? In a bit of a paradox, he will draw us even closer to Jesus. I was struck by this truth recently in hearing a sermon from my pastor friend and mentor Dr. Ligon Duncan when he said, “Jesus departs from us that he might be closer to us.” That may sound strange at first but it’s exactly right. One of my favorite prayers in the whole Bible is found in Ephesians 3:14-21. In that prayer, Paul makes a remarkable petition to God for the Ephesians. He says, “…I pray that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being.” For what reason Paul? He continues, “…so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith.” Because Jesus was restricted bodily through the incarnation, he could not be at all places at once. But through His Spirit, he can be with every believer in the world through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit at the same time. He says it himself at the end of Matthew, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” When the disciples saw Jesus parting from them, they knew through Jesus own teaching that they would actually be closer to him through the presence and power of the Spirit, and so they could worship him in that moment of ascension with great joy!
5. A Preview – The ascension of Christ is a previewing (or “sneak peak”) of what everyone will one day see. In Philippians 2:9-11, Paul teaches us that because of Jesus made himself nothing and took on the form of servant, being obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross… “God has highly exalted him, and given him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
The disciples glimpse the enthronement of Jesus Christ, a reality that the whole world will one day see fully. Think of it. In Acts 1:11 following the ascension, the angels say to the disciples, “Men of Galilee, the same Jesus who has been taken from you in heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.” The return of Jesus, in other words, will mirror the way of Jesus departure, but the return of Jesus will not be witnessed by only a small band of disciples. No, the entire world will behold the authority and power of Jesus Christ. Remember, every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord.
This means that the Bible ends where Luke’s gospel begins. What do I mean? Let’s jog our memories and listen once again at the worshipful proclamation of the angels, “Fear not, for behold I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). Given all that has been said before, you should hear both Luke 24 (the ascension) and Revelation 21 (Jesus return) in those words from the angels.
In light of this certain hope, let me strongly encourage you to heed the angels words and not fear but exercise faith. Live from victory not for victory. Jesus is king. Spread the good news, and let God be God, advancing His kingdom through the Spirit until the day of Jesus Christ’s return.