He Ascended Into Heaven: Why It Still Matters Today
March 29, 1998
“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: