Let's be honest: the ascension of Jesus is weird. It's the story of a man taken up into the clouds. I remember reading the story with a friend who is not a Christian, and she looked at me with pity as if to say, “You don't really believe this wacky stuff, do you?” I was about to object to her unspoken accusation when I thought, Yes, actually, this is pretty weird.
The two men at the ascension scene, probably angels, don't seem to help matters. “Why do you stand here looking into the sky?” they ask. Surely the answer is obvious. The apostles have just seen a man taken up into the clouds, so I'd probably be looking up to see what happens next, too. The point these men are making, of course, is that what happens next—what their attention should be focused on—will take place on earth because Jesus is sending the Holy Spirit to empower his people to become his witnesses.
So, again, the ascension is weird. But it can also feel a bit disappointing. For example, you may have had conversations that went something like this:
“If God exists, then why doesn't he make himself known? Why doesn't he write a message in the sky? Surely he could if he were God.”
“But he has made himself known,” we say. “He sent his Son, Jesus. Jesus is God among us. He made God known.”
“So you say, but how can I know that? Jesus died a long time ago.”
Or, something like this:
“How can you be so confident there's life after death?”
“Because someone came back from the dead,” we respond. “The resurrection of Jesus is key to the claims of the Christian gospel. Our faith stands or falls on this historical event.”
“But how do you know that wasn't just a made-up story?”
“Because the tomb was empty and eyewitnesses saw Jesus alive. And those eyewitnesses weren't gullible people, desperate to believe. Thomas in particular, one of the Twelve, doubted the news until he saw and heard and touched Jesus for himself. His life was changed, just as meeting the risen Jesus changed the lives of countless other witnesses. Many went from hiding in fear to boldly proclaiming the story of Jesus even when faced with persecution, imprisonment, and martyrdom.”
“Yeah, but coming back from the dead? There's no scientific proof for anything like that.”
These conversations meander around a similar refrain: wouldn't evangelism be a whole lot easier if Jesus were still on earth? Imagine he was still living somewhere in Palestine so that people could go to see him. Imagine scientists had studied him over the years and could verify that he was more than 2,000 years old. Or imagine Jesus himself was on tour, performing miracles and preaching the gospel.
The ascension seems like bad evangelism strategy. It removes the key piece of evidence that substantiates the claims of Christianity. It's like our best player got subbed out as the game was just beginning.
Startlingly Good News
But in Scripture and for the Christian, the ascension is startlingly good news. In fact, there could be no salvation or mission without the ascension. The great Puritan theologian John Owen affirmed the same when he said:
This assumption of our Lord Jesus Christ into glory, or his glorious reception in heaven, with his state and condition therein, is a principal article of the faith of the church—the great foundation of its hope and consolation in this world. . . . The darkness of our faith herein is the cause of all our disconsolations, and most of our weaknesses in obedience.
That said, what was the immediate effect of the ascension on the first disciples?
“Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:52-53). Their response was worship, joy, and praise.
Their Lord and friend had been taken from them, but they understood enough of what had happened for the ascension to produce in them worship, joy, and praise.
Why? They believed Jesus when told them: “But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). This exhortation remains true for us as well; Jesus' physical absence is better for us than his continued physical presence.
As we think about the ascension, we must rediscover the great comfort it brings. Diplomats and reporters often talk about “their man in Washington” or “their man in Tokyo.” For Christians, Jesus is “our man in heaven.” He is there for us, on our behalf. He's our representative, securing our salvation by his very presence in heaven.
But we must also discover the ascension as a great challenge. Jesus receives all authority and sends us out to declare that authority to the world. The ascension, then, is the beginning of mission.
This article has been adapted from Tim Chester and Jonathan Woodrow's new book The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God (Christian Focus, 2013).