Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
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. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus who was taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing…let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
We recently celebrated a joyful Resurrection Day. Jesus Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection form the very heart of gospel proclamation in the New Testament. But does the message of the gospel culminate solely in the resurrection? Actually, no, it does not. In fact, when Mary Magdalene, the first person to see the risen Christ, grabbed hold of him in the garden that amazing morning, Jesus gently but clearly told her not to cling to him, “…for,” he said, “I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and tell them that I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Twice he uses the verb “ascend,” indicating yet another extremely important event that must happen. He must take his official place, as the first resurrected human, beside his Father in heaven. Why should Mary not cling to him? Not because it was dangerous or disobedient for her to do so, but because she didn’t need to. He would appear to her and his other friends many times over the next 40 days. And then, following his ascension, when he was seated at the Father’s right hand, he would pour out his own Spirit on them and remain personally with them (and us) through the end of the age (Matt.28:18-20).
Luke describes Christ’s physical ascension in his gospel (24:50-53) and in Acts (1:1-11). In these passages the Lord commissions the apostles and promises them immersion in the Holy Spirit, who will empower them for the continuation of his mission. They will begin the process of reaching the whole world with the message of the risen Lord Jesus, the only message on earth that can bring forgiveness and eternal life. But that mission does not start in earnest until Jesus has permanently taken up his position at the right hand of the Father. Why? Because he will personally empower and oversee the work. It is from that position of universal authority that the risen, divine/human Lord takes the controls of the universe (so to speak) in his hands. The picture in my mind (inadequate of course) is of a pilot taking his seat in the cockpit of a gigantic airliner, engaging the engines, grasping the yoke, pressing the thrust levers forward and lifting off.
Christ’s ascension is the key to the application of his work on the cross and in the resurrection. As the risen, ascended and true Lord of the visible and invisible realms (Matt.28:18-20) he pours out the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, giving spiritual rebirth to the church, inaugurating God’s coming kingdom on earth and guaranteeing his eventual return and the regeneration of the entire creation (Rom.8:18-30; Rev.21-22). He takes up the mantles (almost always separated among different men in the Old Covenant) of Prophet, Priest, and King. He is the Living Word of God (Jn.1:1-5), the Ultimate High Priest (see the book of Hebrews), and the King in God’s Kingdom (Eph.1:15-23; Col.1:11-20). The Ascension is incredibly important.
There are many implications and entailments of Christ’s ascension. But since we continue to experience unprecedented health and political crises in our world today, I would like to meditate on his absolute, personal, providential sovereignty over human life. There is a genuine human being supervising our world. He is truly, practically, materially, wisely in charge of all that happens in cosmic history and in our personal histories. He understands and shares our suffering as a true Man, and he guides us unerringly as true God. He is moving us and our world toward a pre-planned, foreordained victory in him (see Eph.1:3-14). God mysteriously uses simple free human will (both bad and good decisions) to bring about his overarching and redemptive purposes (see Acts 2:23-24, 4:27-28; Gen.45:8, 50:20 for examples). We don’t know how it is that un-coerced human decisions can blend with and come under God’s purposeful sovereignty, but the Bible is clear that they do. The apostles did not attempt philosophical explanations of these things. Instead, they accepted the Lord’s sovereignty as a source of great comfort and courage. Paul’s first chapter of Ephesians bubbles over with precisely this supernatural gospel wisdom. But his classic exposition of it in Romans 8:28 is still the go-to verse:
For we know that for those who love God all things work together for good. For those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.
So, there are no true “accidents” in the life of a believer, or for that matter in all of human history. Nor are there any experiences, tragedies, trials, or traumas that the Lord does not ordain and redeem for eternal good. Note that Romans 8:28 does not say that everything that happens is in itself good, but that the Lord uses it, choreographs it together, for ultimate blessing in the lives of his people (Acts 2:23, 4:23-28; Gen.50:20). And the good he is creating out of the wreckage of this life is producing a glory that is all the more wonderful for having come through the violent impact of this age (see again Romans 8:18-24). It’s not just that he makes up for bad things that happen to us, like a loving but limited father might, apologizing for letting something difficult happen to his child but then buying her an ice cream to “make it all better.” No, the glory that comes out of our traumas literally transforms the suffering itself into eternal joy, a deeper and more profound joy than could ever have been experienced otherwise. Resurrection life, given to us by our risen and ascended Lord, is that joy. It is beyond our wildest imaginations.
Because Jesus is the Ascended Lord, great king David’s greater Son, at the controls of life, actively moving us toward inevitable glory, we live in the reality of the most famous psalm of all: David’s own 23rd psalm.
The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside still waters,
He restores my soul…
He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death
I will fear no evil, for you are with me:
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup overflows…
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life
And I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever.
So, my troubled, tired, traumatized Christian friend, take heart. Our Lord has overcome the world in ways we can hardly imagine (Jn.16:33).
Just a Thought…