He Ascended Into Heaven: Why It Still Matters Today
Acts 1:9"After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight." Acts 1:9
This is one of the most remarkable statements in Holy Scripture. We call it the ascension of Christ into heaven. All the major creeds mention it and every Christian group believes it. There aren’t many things that all Christians have always believed but this is one of them. Christians believe that at the end of his earthly life, Christ literally and bodily ascended into heaven. We can go so far as to say that this is one of those doctrines that divides Christians and non-Christians. If you don’t believe in the ascension of Christ, then you aren’t really a Christian at all.
That may sound strange to your eyes—as I say it, it sounds strange to mine, primarily because we don’t talk about the ascension very often. That wouldn’t be true if we were Roman Catholics or members of the Orthodox Church, but it’s definitely true of most evangelical Christians. We believe it but we don’t think about it very often so it doesn’t seem that important to us. Or perhaps it doesn’t seem as important to us as the crucifixion or the resurrection. We know that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead for our salvation, and we know that we couldn’t be saved without Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Where does the Ascension fit in? To many people it seems like a PS to the main message of the gospel—perhaps a convenient way for Christ to go back to heaven. But does it really matter today? And is it essential to our Christian faith?
Let’s begin by considering what it was that the disciples saw when Jesus suddenly disappeared from the earth.
I. What the Disciples Saw
Among the gospel writers only Luke gives us any detail regarding the ascension. Matthew and John don’t mention it at all; Mark mentions it very briefly in Mark 16:19.
Luke 24:50-52 gives us the following information: “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” When you add these verses to Acts 1:9-14, the sequence of events looks like this:
1. The disciples and Christ gather in the vicinity of Bethany.
2. He commissions them as witnesses to the ends of the earth.
3. He lifts up his hands to bless them.
4. As he blesses them, he begins to rise from the earth.
5. The disciples watch as he leaves them.
6. A cloud envelopes him and takes him from earth to heaven.
7. The disciples look intently up into the skies.
8. Two angels appear to them.
9. The disciples worship the Lord.
10. They returned to Jerusalem where they met the other disciples in the upper room.
I have spelled this out in some detail because Luke obviously considers the ascension a very important event. He tells us enough so that we can’t doubt the reality of what happened on that day. As far as he is concerned, the ascension is just as real as the resurrection.
Let me recap it another way. The disciples and Jesus were speaking, he blesses them, and is taken up into heaven before their eyes. They were there, they saw it, it really happened. This was not a figment of their imagination or a dream or vision. Unlike the resurrection, which no one saw as it was happening, the disciples actually saw Jesus ascend into heaven.
Beam Me Up, Scotty
I emphasize this point because in recent years liberal scholars have attacked the ascension of Christ as scientifically impossible. People don’t just float off the earth and disappear into thin air. Luke’s story sounds like Captain Kirk on the TV series Star Trek: “Beam me up, Scotty.” It violates the natural laws of the universe. Critics suggest that Luke 24 and Acts 1 represent a pre-scientific view of the universe that no one takes literally today. To them, the ascension is not a literal event but a parable that teaches us that Christ is now in heaven.
Such a view needs only one response. The ascension is no harder to believe than the resurrection. But those same liberal scholars don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead either. When you make science your god, the miracles of the Bible go out the window and instead of believing the Bible, you stand in judgment over it.
Let me simply point out that if God can raise his Son from the dead, he can certainly take him back home to heaven. It comes down to a simple question: Am I willing to believe that God can do what he said he would do? The ascension poses no problems for people who believe in the God of the Bible.
II. What it Meant to Christ
A. It marks the end of his earthly sufferings. Philippians 2:5-7 tells us that Christ “emptied himself” of the outward trappings of deity in order to take on the form of a man. He humbled himself by leaving the palaces of heaven to be born in a stable in Bethlehem. He veiled his glory and lived a life of humiliation. All of us feel it was unfair for the King of Kings to be treated so rudely by those he came to save. Do you recall that as he hung on the cross, onlookers jeered as his life ebbed away? They laughed at his pain and cried, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself” (Mark 15:29-30). The ascension means that Jesus has been vindicated in all that he came to do and his days of humiliation are over forever.
B. The ascension proves that Christ finished the work he came to do. While he was on the earth, he spoke often of “the work” of the Father (John 4:34; 9:4; 17:4). His work came to a climax when he hung on the cross, bearing the sins of the world. The Bible says that when he died, he became sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21). When he died, God poured out his wrath on Jesus even though Jesus was perfect and pure and wholly innocent. But as the sinless substitute, he took the punishment I should have received so that I might go free. Just before he died, Christ shouted out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), which literally means “paid in full.” The work was done, the debt was paid. I can never be charged with the guilt of my sins because Jesus paid it all. The ascension signifies that the Father has accepted the work of his Son.
C. At his ascension Christ was glorified by God the Father. Several times the Bible speaks of Christ being at the right hand of God in heaven (Acts 2:33; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3). In Hebrew thought to be at the king’s right hand meant that you were in the place of highest authority. For Christ it means that he now reigns as King of Kings and Lord of Lords. The New Testament speaks of this in many places:
· He sits at the right hand of the majesty on high (Hebrews 1:3).
· He has been elevated far above all earthly rule and authority (Ephesians 1:20-21).
· He is over all and fills the entire universe (Ephesians 4:10).
· He has been given a name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9-11).
· He has been declared greater than all the angels (Hebrews 1:4).
· He has become the captain of our salvation (Hebrews 2:10).
· He entered heaven as our forerunner (Hebrews 6:19-20).
· He is the firstfruits of the resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:20).
· He has become the head of the church (Colossians 1:18).
· He will reign until he puts all enemies under his feet (Hebrews 1:13).
· He is crowned with honor and majesty (Revelation 5:12).
· He waits for the moment when he will return to reign over the nations from David’s throne in Jerusalem (Luke 1:32-33).
The ascension means that Jesus has received what he deserved. Like a victorious conqueror returning from a distant country, Jesus now reigns in heaven and sits at the Father’s right hand. His work is done, the battle is over, and he has been crowned the undisputed Lord of the universe.
III. What it Means to Us
A. The work of salvation is now complete. Since God has accepted Christ, nothing more can be added to what he did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. Hebrews 10:11 reminds us that there were no chairs in the tabernacle because the priests were not allowed to sit down. They stood to perform their work because their work was never done. Every day the priest would kill another animal—signifying that the price of sin had not yet been paid. But when Christ returned to heaven, he sat down because he had offered himself as the one sacrifice for sin forever. Thank God, Jesus is seated in heaven. It means we have a sit-down salvation.
B. We have a friend in heaven. Hebrews 4:14-16 calls Christ a great high priest who has gone into heaven. Because he walked on this earth with us, he knows what we are going through and is able to sympathize with us in our struggles. Because he is now in heaven, he can help in all our troubles. When we go to the throne of grace, we don’t have to worry about being turned away because Christ himself is there to meet us. He has grace to help in the time of need.
People who live in big cities understand this principle well. We deal with so many different government bodies—local, state and federal—that it’s inevitable that sooner or later we’ll get in trouble one way or another. At that moment, only one question crosses the mind: “Who do I know who can help me out?” If you know someone at City Hall, suddenly your problems begin to vanish. Or you may know someone who knows someone, and if your friend will make that phone call, everything will be OK. In order to survive in today’s world, you need some friends in high places—a man on the inside, someone who knows you and is willing to help you out. Just try doing business in Chicago without a few friends in high places. You’ll drown in a sea of red tape.
What we need in Chicago, we already have in heaven. We’ve got a Friend in High Places—the Highest Place in the universe. We’ve got a man on the inside who can help us out with all our problems. Think of it this way. When you’re in trouble, you need two things: 1) Someone who cares about your problems, and 2) Someone who can help you out. If your friend cares but isn’t in a position to help you, you’ll get sympathy but no concrete help. If your friend could help you but doesn’t care about your problem, well, that’s like not having a friend at all. What you need is someone who cares and is in a position to make things happen for you. That’s what Jesus is—a Friend in High Places who loves to come to the aid of his people.
C. The ascension also means that Christ prays for us in heaven. Romans 8:34 tells us that Christ is now at the right hand of God interceding for us. In Hebrews 7:25 we learn that because Jesus lives forever, “he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.” The word “intercede” means to speak up on behalf of someone else. That means that Christ is now in heaven praying for us. What a marvelous thought this is—and what a balm for troubled souls. When I am down in the dumps, Jesus prays for me. When I falter under the load, Jesus prays for me. When my faith gives way, Jesus prays for me. When I fight a losing battle against temptation, Jesus prays for me. There’s even more than that. Often when I am asked to pray for someone, I can’t seem to find the appropriate words and I feel as if my prayers are in vain. But Jesus in heaven comes alongside, takes my pitiful prayers and transforms them into powerful petitions before the throne of God. When I can’t pray, when the words won’t come, Jesus prays for me.
D. I John 2:2 adds the encouraging truth that Christ is our attorney in heaven. He is our advocate who speaks to the Father in our defense. When the devil comes and makes a claim against us, Jesus speaks up on our behalf and pleads his own blood in our defense. The Father looks at the Son, sees his pierced hands, and says, “Case dismissed.” Let me tell you the best part of this truth: He’s never lost a case yet. No matter how much money you pay an earthly lawyer, you can never be certain of the outcome of your case. So many things can happen in the courtroom that you can’t control. Even the best lawyers lose now and then. But because Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father, he’s in the place of highest authority in the universe. He never has to appeal a decision to the Supreme Court. He is the Supreme Court—and he’s there for you and me all the time. Lately I’ve heard the expression “24-7"—it means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s what Jesus is. He’s our 24-7 advocate in heaven.
Acts 7 shows us how this works. When Stephen preached his bold sermon before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of Israel), he recited the history of the nation, showing how the Jews had consistently rejected God’s messengers. He told them they had murdered God’s Righteous Son (v. 52)! The rulers didn’t like that kind of talk so they gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen cried out, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). What does it mean? On earth Stephen stands before a corrupt human court, but in heaven there is another judge. There will be another trial, but this time the judge will also be the attorney for the defense. The judge normally sits, but in heaven Jesus stands to defend his people. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “They can kill you on earth, but I will defend you in heaven.”
E. Let me mention one aspect of this truth you may not have considered. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he took his glorified humanity with him. The physical body of Christ is now in heaven, which means that someday when we are raised from the dead, we won’t be raised as spirits but as real people with our physical bodies glorified just like Jesus. He not only redeemed your soul, he also redeemed your body. If you are in Christ, you have His promise that your flesh will be renewed and gloriously raised in the resurrection. Then we all shall see him as he is, and we will be with him forever. The ascension guarantees our Christian destiny. Because he was raised, we too will be raised. Because he ascended, we too will ascend. Because he is in heaven, we will join him there someday.
This week I spent six days speaking at the Word of Life Bible Conference Center in Hudson, Florida. Last night an older couple drove me to the Tampa airport so I could catch my flight back to Chicago. As we talked, the father shared a tragic story about the death of one of his sons at the age of 33. It happened just as the son was completing his training to be a missionary. Cancer took him in death after only three months. Before he died, he encouraged his parents with these words, “Don’t worry about me. I’m just being transferred to Headquarters.” His parents have cherished those words ever since he died six years ago.
Where does that faith come from? What hope do any of us have of going to heaven? Surely it is this: We will be where he is, and we know where he is because he ascended into heaven. At the moment of death the children of God can rest assured that the Christ who ascended bodily into heaven will take them to be with him—and will one day raise their bodies immortal and incorruptible (1 Corinthians 15:52-53).
The Tug of Heaven
Let me close with this thought. Because of the ascension, we may rest assured that the religion of Christ is true. God has accepted him and because God accepted him, he will accept all those who trust in him. Because he is safe in heaven, we will someday be safe in heaven. We will be where he now is.
The ascension shows us how we should spend our life—looking up. The story is told of a little boy who went outside on a windy spring day to fly his new kite. As the wind blew, the kite flew higher and higher until it finally disappeared from view in the clouds far above. After a few minutes a bystander asked, “How do you know the kite is still attached to the string?” “I can feel it pull,” the boy replied. The same is true for us today. Christ is pulling us toward heaven. He is pulling us away from the earth toward our eternal home. We may not see him with our eyes but we feel his tug in our hearts. We know where he is and we know that where he is, we will someday be.
Every day Jesus tugs on our hearts, pulling us up toward heaven so that when we finally get there, we won’t feel like strangers. One day soon the Lord will give us one final tug and we’ll end up in heaven forever. Until then, let the people of God rejoice. Christ has conquered! He has won the victory and defeated every foe.
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