This past Thursday was Ascension Day. In some churches, tomorrow will be a celebration of Ascension Sunday. I’m not convinced the church must have a special day to commemorate Christ’s ascent into heaven. But I am absolutely convinced that we need to do more to think theologically about the magnificent importance of this key event in redemptive history.
That’s why I thought it worthwhile to repost some previous thoughts on Ascension Day.
But first a scene from The Lord of the Rings.
The about-to-be-formed Fellowship of the Ring has gathered at Rivendell to weigh their options. Elrond, the ancient leader of the Elves is in conversation with Gandalf, the wise wizard.
Elrond: Gandalf, the Enemy is moving. Sauron’s forces are massing in the East. The Eye is fixed on Rivendell. Now you tell me Saruman has betrayed us. The list of our allies grows thin.
Gandalf: His treachery goes deeper than you know. At Falcraft, Saruman has crossed orcs with goblin men. He is breeding an army in the caverns of Isengard. An army that can move in sunlight, and travel great distances at speed. Saruman is coming for the ring.
Elrond: This evil cannot be concealed by the power of the elves. We do not have the strength to stand against Mordor and Isengard both. The ring cannot stay here. This peril belongs to all Middle-Earth, and they must decide now how to end it. The age of elves is over. My people are leaving these shores. Who will you turn to once we are gone? The dwarves hide in their mountains seeking riches and care not for the troubles of others.
Gandalf: We must place our hope in men.
Elrond: Men! The race of men is weak, failing. The blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of men that the Ring survives. I was there, three thousand years ago, when Isildur took the ring. I was there when the strength of men failed.
Pretty cool, uh? And the scene has everything to do with Ascension Day.
Ascension Day marks the 40th day of Easter (or 39 days after Easter Sunday). Getting Christians to celebrate Ascension Sunday (this coming Sunday) is not the point of this post (though Bucer and Calvin argued for retaining the “Five Evangelical Feasts” in the church calendar: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost). Christians can disagree on how to remember the key events in Christ’s ministry, or if holy days are appropriate at all. But whether we remember Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and pouring out of the Spirit–that’s not an option.
Is there any part of Christ’s life on earth that we think about less than his ascension? Everyone knows about his birth—that’s what Christmas is for. His death, burial, and resurrection are pretty well covered by Holy Week. But who cares that Thursday was Ascension Day? Most of us know the stories of his miracles. We’re familiar with his sermons and parables. We could talk about the people he healed, the demons he cast out, and the Jewish leaders he ticked off. We are well-versed in what Jesus did on earth. But who thinks about how he left this earth? Or why it matters?
So how does Christ’s ascension benefit us? The Heidelberg Catechism (Question and Answer 49) mentions three ways.
First, Christ’s ascension benefits because we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1). Our Lord Jesus in heaven pleading our case, so that whenever Satan accuses us in our conscience or dates to lay a charge against us before the Father, Jesus, Christ, God’s own Son and our flawless advocate, stands ready to defend us and plead His own blood for our sakes. Think about that. Christ is our prayer partner in heaven. He intercedes for us before the throne (Rom. 8:34).
Second, Christ’s ascension benefits us because we now have our own flesh in heaven; our lives are hidden with Christ who dwells in glory above (Col. 3:3-4). Christ’s flesh in heaven is a guarantee that ours will be there too someday. Our hope is not an eternity as disembodied souls but real, resurrected, material human bodies in God’s presence forever. Christ’s body is the first one there, but not the last.
Third, Christ’s ascension benefits us because we get the Holy Spirit as a result. As Jesus Himself explained to His disciples, “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). This was no knock on His own earthly ministry, but Jesus understood that as a man He was limited to one place at a time. But once He ascended to heaven, He could send another Helper (John 14:16) to give us power from on high and to be with us forever.
Think about the implications of Christ’s ascension.
The ascension means we are in heaven, right now. Through union with Christ, we truly are not citizens of this world. Colossians tells us to set our minds on things that are above, because our lives are hidden with Christ who dwells there (3:2-3).
The ascension also implies that “asking Jesus into your heart” does not mean inviting a kind friend or comforting therapist into your life. It means—if we are using the non-biblical phrase in a biblical way—that we are expressing our desire to be one with the king of the universe. The Jesus who lives within our hearts is sitting exalted at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Most staggering of all, the ascension means that God has granted all rule, power, authority, and dominion (Eph. 1:21-22) to a man! This is why the scene I mentioned at the beginning from Lord of the Rings has everything to with Ascension Day. Yes, men have stumbled badly. Sin has wrecked havoc on the world because Adam reached for the fruit like Isildur grabbed hold of the ring. Elrond was right: the race of men is weak, failing. But Gandalf was more right: we must put our hope in men. One with our flesh reigns in heaven. One from our race will return as King. A man sits on Gondor’s throne, and the race of men will reign once more (2 Tim. 2:12).
The good news of Ascension Day is that Jesus Christ is exercising the dominion that man was made to have from the very beginning (Gen. 1:28). The ruin of the first Adam will be undone by the reign of the second. Because of Christ’s ascension, we know that the incarnation continues, Christ’s humanity lives on in heaven, the Spirit lives in our hearts, and a flesh-and-blood, divine human being rules the universe.