The Ascension of Jesus is celebrated on the 40th day after Easter Sunday (Acts 1:4). Because it is always a Thursday it tends to be overlooked and neglected. Yet the Ascension of Jesus is the culmination of his earthly life. It confirms his identity, and speaks to us of our destiny. Without the Ascension what would Jesus have done? Would he have hung around the disciples, appearing to them from time to time to instruct and guide them? Would he have gradually faded away, like a ghost? Would his presence among them have delayed the coming of the Holy Spirit? Would his frequent post-resurrection appearances have altered our understanding of our resurrection? Would they have fostered a belief in some sort of spiritual presence, an after-life on this earth rather than in heaven? What does the Ascension of Jesus have to say to us about our own future life?
The belief of the early church was that Jesus, at the end of forty days of teaching about the kingdom of God, was taken up to heaven before the very eyes of the disciples. A cloud hid him from their sight. “They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white, stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘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 1:10,11)
The resurrected human body of Jesus was taken up into heaven. This is significant. No longer would his body walk on this earth until his coming again. The bones of Jesus do not lie in a tomb, or anywhere else. He is resurrected from the dead and ascended into heaven. By doing this he completes his earthly mission. By completing the cycle of birth, death, resurrection and ascension, he pioneers our entry into heaven. What he did forty days after his resurrection, we are destined to do if we are in Christ. We follow him into the heavenly realms, where he is “in charge of running the universe, everything from galaxies to governments, no name and power exempt from his rule. And not just for the time being, but forever. He is in charge of it all, has the final word on everything.” (Ephesians 1:21-22 The Message)
The first Christians were so thrilled by this message that they wrote hymns about it. St. Paul includes one such early hymn, in his letter to Timothy.
“Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.” (1 Timothy 3:16)
The Gospel message is described as “the mystery of godliness”, i.e. a divine mystery that, instead of being hidden, has been revealed to us so that we do not have to be ignorant of God’s purpose. It is a revelation of ‘godliness’ i.e. of living in a reverent personal relationship with God, a recognition of our place in creation, a desire to live to our highest potential, in harmony with his plan for our lives. It is to live in reverence for God rather than in rebellion against God and his loving purpose for us. Such a life is aligned with our heavenly Father’s design for us. It is in contrast to the life that is opposed or indifferent or in rebellion to God’s purpose for us. Such a life, that does not want to acknowledge or reverence God, is called ungodly. It is hollow and self-destructive.
The Gospel message depends on these truths:
- The eternal Son of God, existing as pure spirit before Time, was made visible in his earthly life, when he became a human being.
- Christ’s profound claims were vindicated by his miracles, climaxing in his resurrection; these were sure evidences that he
was the sinless Son of God.
- During his earthly ministry angels watched over him, his birth and resurrection were witnessed by the heavenly host.
- After his death and resurrection, his message was proclaimed to all races.
- All kinds of people responded by putting their faith in him.
- Finally, he was exalted to the glorious presence of God in heaven. This was the climax of his earthly ministry.
This, if it is “beyond all question”, is “great”. The Christian Gospel is Christ-centered. It is the proclamation of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the glorified Lord of all. What does this have to do with us?
Jesus ascended so that we too, might ascend with him. We are united with him, by grace through faith. We are part of his Body. If we are in him we can look forward to being taken up into glory. He pioneered the way for us. He took his human body into heaven so that we too, might be taken into the presence of God. This destination is called “glory”.