Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Ascension of Christ

The ascension is perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated event in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection figure prominently in evangelical preaching, as well they should. But why is so little attention given to the Ascension, especially since the subject is mentioned so frequently in Scripture? Jesus foretold it (e.g., Jn. 6:62; 14:12; 16:5ff; 20:17); Mark and Luke record it as a historical event (Mk. 16:19; Lk. 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11); and both Paul and the writer of Hebrews explain its implications (e.g., Eph. 1:20-23; 4:8-10; Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:3; 4:14; 9:24). Why then is such scant attention given to it today? I can only assume it’s because its significance is not well understood. What a pity! There are few things that demonstrate the glory of Christ quite like the ascension. It’s one of the greatest honors the Father has been pleased to confer upon the Son. Luke recounts it briefly:

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 (Acts 1:9)


It should be noted that the verb is in the passive voice (“he was lifted up). This suggests that Jesus’ ascension was not his own act. It wasn’t like a man ascending a flight of stairs by his own power. He was not the one acting, but was acted upon. He was taken up into heaven as a man might be carried up a flight of stairs. In fact, this is how Luke describes it in his Gospel, that Jesus was “carried up into heaven” (Lk. 24:51). And this is how the event is consistently described. In each case the verb is in the passive voice.[1]
 So then the Lord Jesus…was taken up into heaven (Mk. 16:19)
While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Lk. 24:51) 
…he was taken up (Acts 1:2)
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 (Acts 1:9)
This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11)
…beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us… (Acts 1:22)
He…was taken up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16)

It was God who was the active agent. It was he who lifted him up. The act was an expression of the Father’s pleasure in Christ. Just as the resurrection was a powerful declaration that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (contra the claims of those who crucified him, comp. Matt. 27:43 with Rom. 1:4), so too was his being taken up into heaven. Together with the resurrection, the ascension reversed the verdict of those who condemned him—he whom they condemned, God exalted!

What has Jesus been doing since he was taken up in glory? First, he has been directing and superintending the affairs of the church.[2] Second, he has been interceding for his own (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). Third, he has been ruling the nations and bringing them to “the obedience of faith” through the faithful witness of his people (cf. Rom. 1:5).

Let’s expand on this last point. The careful reader of Scripture will notice that the scene described by Luke corresponds to a prophecy of Daniel. Luke describes the ascension from the perspective of the apostles on 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 (Acts 1:9)

Daniel describes the event as viewed from heaven:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14)

The triumphant, royal overtones of the passage shouldn’t be missed. These are the main points of the prophecy and should be celebrated! The ascension of Christ was his accession to the throne of his Father. This is what Paul means when he says that God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand” (Eph. 1:20; cf. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:22; etc.). This is not a posture of inactivity, but of exercising royal authority. Jesus reigns from heaven. He is the “King of kings and Lord of lords,” “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 19:16; 1:5). This should be a great encouragement to us. It is because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [him]” that we can be assured of ultimate success in “making disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20).


[1] There is one passage where the verb appears in the active voice when describing the ascension (Eph. 4:8-10), but it should be understood against the background of these other passages. The same is true of Acts 2:34, where the ascension of Christ is implied, rather than stated.
[2] There is a beautiful depiction of this in the first two chapters of the book of Revelation where Jesus is presented as holding the seven stars in his right hand and walking among the seven golden lampstands. The seven stars are the “messengers [ministers of the Word] of the seven churches” and the seven golden lampstands are “the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20).