May 23, 2021 - Ascension

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Today we’re going to take a look at the Ascension, the Thursday when Jesus ascends into heaven, 40 days after his resurrection from the dead. Luke 24 gives us the impression that Jesus rises from the dead, appears to his followers, and then rises into heaven all on one day. Luke himself corrects that impression in the book of Acts by clarifying that Jesus spends 40 days appearing to his followers. Luke says that Jesus “presented himself alive after he died by many convincing proofs,” one of which must have been the miraculous catch of fish in John 21. I’d love to know what else he did, other than proving by eating that he was not a ghost, and letting Thomas place his finger in the nailprints and his hand in Jesus’ side.

 

Jesus tells his followers to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, who has not yet fallen upon them. But finally, after 40 days, the disciples come together and ask Jesus, “Lord, is now the time when you’re going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” Jesus answers, “It’s not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has set by his own authority. But you shall receive power, when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses: in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”

 

(Clearly, Jesus has not come just for Jews, in case they were in any doubt. Earlier in his time with them, Jesus had sent them out on tour just for Jews. Now, the historical Jesus makes it clear he has come for all nations. The early church did not make this up.)

 

Only Luke tells us exactly what happens next: “While they were watching, he was taken up, and a cloud took him from their eyes. And as they were staring intently into heaven while he was going, 2 men were standing by them in white robes, who also said, Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, the one who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way in which you saw him going into heaven.”

 

Jesus’ ascension into heaven is a classic text for when we have to say goodbye to somebody we hold dear. What a way for Jesus to say goodbye: to rise straight up into the clouds! No hugs. No choked-up speeches of regret. Before they know it, before they can get one more word in edgewise, before they can grab him and keep him from flying away, Jesus is off the ground and rising into space over the Mount of Olives.

 

Looking down, Jesus sees the city where he died and rose. To the south, he sees the town where he was born. To the north, he sees the Sea of Galilee. As he rises higher, the landscape fades into a giant globe, and Jesus disappears into another world.

 

What if Jesus had stayed here? We’ve figured out the options as to where to put someone when they’ve died. Where do we put Someone who has risen from the dead and will never die again? Where’s he supposed to go? Where does he fit in our society? Imagine if Jesus was still on the loose in his resurrected body!

 

If it’d been in their power to do so, we know what Jesus’ followers would have done. They would have tied Jesus up and they would have kept him somewhere where they knew they could find him, so that they could get hold of him whenever they needed him. They would never be so lucky. Even in those 40 days before he ascends to heaven, the risen Jesus has no address and no cell phone number where he can be reached. No one can control him. No one can pin him down.

 

But the issue is far deeper than the simple question of where do we put a risen body. Yes, one can try to dismiss the claim as a fairy tale, or as a convenient ending to a hoax that hides the telltale evidence. But that approach creates more problems than it solves. If the risen Jesus did not truly rise into heaven, the implications are enormous.

 

Andrew Purves calls the Ascension the hinge on which hangs all that we believe. He argues that, “Without the Ascension, the Lordship of Christ is relegated to the past.” Without it, we’ve got a Lord who is not on the throne. Through the Ascension, he says, “the Incarnation continues.” God-in-the-flesh remains alive just as he was when he rose.

 

In his book Space, Time, and Resurrection, Scottish theologian Thomas Torrance observes that the Ascension is the reverse of the Incarnation. When Jesus is born, God and humankind meet on our turf. In the Ascension, they meet on God’s turf. In the Incarnation, God becomes flesh in space and time without ceasing to be God. In the Ascension, Christ ascends above all space and time without ceasing to be human or diminishing his physical human existence. Through his rising into the clouds, we see that Jesus’ coming in the flesh was not a temporary put-on. God has taken up permanent residence in the body of Jesus of Nazareth.

 

Torrance points out that the Empty Tomb points us backward and downward, while the Ascension points us upward and forward. He says that the Ascension is what shows us that the historical Jesus and our heavenly Lord are one and the same. Although he has risen beyond our world of space and time, we cannot separate him from space and time. To know the mind of God, the Ascension forces us back to the historical Jesus.

 

Torrance also argues that Christ’s work of reconciliation is not complete without the Ascension. He argues that we cannot go where Christ has not already been, that Christ must redeem every step of human existence, from the womb to beyond the tomb. As Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “By presenting his own ruined, risen body to be seated at God’s right hand,” she says, Jesus imported flesh into those holy precincts for the first time. “By putting and keeping them on, Jesus has brought us up to God.” Jesus paves the way for the arrival of a resurrected human race in heaven.

 

In the Ascension, Jesus takes human nature where it has never gone before. Now, some might say: Wait a minute. What about Enoch, who walked with God, and was taken straight into heaven? What about Moses and Elijah, who disappear without leaving behind a grave we can point to, and who then reappear to Jesus at his Transfiguration? The answer is: None of these 3 were resurrected, or transformed into new imperishable bodies.

 

Jesus is the firstfruits of the resurrection. He is the first to be raised imperishable. Even the saints who rose when Jesus rose in Matthew 27 did not leave their tombs until after Jesus rose. So when Moses and Elijah appear to Jesus, I must conclude that they are still spirits, waiting for their resurrected bodies. (We’ll talk about that in just a few minutes.)

 

Jesus also ascends so that he can multiply his mission here. His presence (paradoxically) becomes a barrier to his own Great Commission. If Jesus stays on earth, his presence becomes a distraction. We become too dependent on him. We run to him and try to get him to do our job for us, instead of letting him use us to do the job.

 

Jesus says that we shall do greater works than he has done, “because I ascend to the Father.” (John 14:12) Jesus could only heal as many people as he could personally touch. But through the healing power of God’s Spirit, God can use us to heal hundreds of millions. As much supernatural power as Jesus had at his command, Jesus would have been overwhelmed if he had tried to personally meet the needs of every person on earth. But by the power of God’s Spirit, millions of his followers can do greater works than Jesus ever could do by himself in the flesh. Through his Ascension, now that he sits on the throne of heaven, Jesus is no longer held back by limitations of space and time.

 

Jesus tells us that none of this can happen while he is still with them. Why not? Because he told us so. The Ascension is what makes it possible for Jesus to be more available to us now than he ever was or ever could have been on earth. As Professor Torrance puts it, “It is through God’s Spirit that Christ can be both historically absent and actually present.” Or as Barbara Brown Taylor writes, “The risen, ascended Lord was no longer anywhere on earth, so that he could be everywhere instead.”

Jesus says to his followers, “Many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, but did not hear it.” (Matthew 13:17) How much we wish we could have seen him with our own eyes! But as much as we might wish to get even the shortest glimpse of the Jesus who walked this earth, the Jesus who has ascended to heaven is worth far more to us than any Jesus who had stayed on earth.

 

As Torrance points out, the Ascension holds back our visible and physical contact with Christ’s majesty and power. It forces us to walk by faith and not by sight. As our high priest, Christ ascends to be our full-time mediator and defense attorney, and to offer constant prayer for our needs. And the crazy part is that according to God’s word, we are up there with him right now. Colossians 3:3: “For you have died, and your life is hid with Christ in God.” What a mystery! Our lives are hidden with Christ, seated at the right hand of God. I can’t explain what that means, but someday, the reality will catch up to us.

 

But Jesus will not remain out of sight forever. Jesus’ rise to the throne of God is only a temporary holding pattern. Jesus predicts in Matthew 24 that his return will be like lightning that flashes all the way across the sky – no one will miss it. And the Person who comes back will be the same person who rose into the sky so many centuries ago. Jesus is the world’s oldest living Jew (count the candles on his birthday cake!), but the years have not changed him one bit.

 

Unless the risen Jesus actually rose to the throne of God, the implications are enormous. If Jesus left his body behind when returning to God in heaven, then we have been left behind as well, stranded on this side of the great divide. If Jesus did not rise to heaven with the same body with which he walked out of the tomb, then who is sitting on the right hand of God? Is it someone who was once truly human like us, but no longer? Or is he Someone who can still sympathize with our weaknesses, Someone who still shares our human flesh?

 

God in the flesh has taken up residence in heaven, preparing a place for us. Jesus can do so much more for us there than he ever could on earth. By rising to God’s throne, Jesus shows us that he remains the same Person he always was. By his ascension, he shows us that his earthly Lordship continues until we see him again. We can be truly thankful that Jesus remains the same person who walked the hills of Galilee and rose alive out of the tomb.

 

Let’s go back to the question of Enoch, Moses, and Elijah. They are not yet resurrected, at least not from our earthly vantage point. The apostle Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15:20 that “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.” Paul goes on to say in verse 22 that “in Christ all shall be made alive” (meaning all who believe). But then in verse 23 he says, “But each in their own order: Christ the first fruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ.” So Enoch, Moses, and Elijah have not yet been raised to new life, and Paul makes it clear that “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15:50) At the Transfiguration, Moses and Elijah must have made a rare appearance as disembodied spirits.

 

This brings up the question: What happens to believers in Christ who die between now and the resurrection? Are they asleep? Or are they alive with Christ in heaven? God’s word gives us evidence to support both possibilities.

 

The Bible regularly uses the word “sleep” to describe death. Daniel 12:2: “Many of those who sleep in the dust shall awaken.” When speaking of the Rapture in 1 Thessalonians 4, Paul speaks of the dead 3 times as those who have “fallen asleep.” On the other hand, in the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke 16, the Rich Man and Abraham are both alive while the Rich Man’s brothers are still alive on earth. In his debate with the Sadducees, when Jesus proves life after death with the line “I am the God of Abraham,” Isaac, and Jacob, Jesus says, “He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all are alive to him.” (Luke 20:38)

 

So how do we put the puzzle parts together? Here’s my attempt to make sense out of the whole of what God tells us. From where we sit in North America, it is Sunday, but it is already Monday in Tokyo; we just haven’t caught up with them yet. So likewise, from where we sit right now, our fellow believers in Christ are asleep. They may be asleep (and most of them have been asleep) for a long time, never noticing the passage of time. That’s part of the picture.

 

But when they die, God seems to hit the fast-forward button for them, and they escape from time. For them, our future resurrection has already happened. For them, it’s already Monday, but we haven’t caught up with them on the ground yet. When we die, or when God brings time to an end on the last day, finally we will catch up with them.

 

But meanwhile, if those who have died can see from outside of time, this would explain Hebrews 12:1: “Therefore, since we also are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, laying aside every weight and sin that so easily entangles us, let us run with perseverance the race that lies before us.” If I’m reading God’s word correctly, our loved ones in Christ and the great heroes of faith who have gone before us are watching us, cheering from the grandstands. If only we could hear them, shouting encouragement to us!

 

But whether it’s Enoch, Moses, Elijah, the risen Jesus, or those who are alive on earth when Christ returns to take us home, something huge has to happen to us before we can enter heaven. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 15:51: “We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in an atom (of time), in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable nature must put on the imperishable, and this mortal nature must put on immortality.”

 

Jesus ascends to heaven with a new resurrected body. Those who are alive when he returns to take us up into the clouds will likewise be transformed in an instant, and those who rise from the grave will receive new imperishable bodies. What will those bodies be like? The apostle Paul tells us in Philippians 3:21 that Christ will “transform our lowly bodies to be like his glorious body.” 1 John 3:2 says that when Christ is revealed, “we shall be like him.” You want to know what our new bodies will be like? Look at the body with which Christ was raised from the dead, a body somewhat like ours, but now imperishable and indestructible.

 

Will we recognize each other? Do we recognize each other at a 40th year class reunion? Maybe not at first (like the disciples when they had a hard time recognizing the risen Jesus), but give us a few clues, and we’ll be able to say, “It’s you! Wow, how you’ve changed!”

 

Jesus ascends to heaven in a resurrected body, taking flesh where it has never gone before. Someday, we will join him, whether we rise from the grave, or we are transformed in an instant of time, if Jesus returns while we are still alive. We will not be angels, progressing to a higher kingdom. Paul tells the Corinthians that we will judge angels. Hebrews 1:14 makes it clear that angels are all “ministering spirits,” not resurrected humans.

 

As we look at what happens next after the Ascension, on the day of Pentecost, we see that the prophet Joel’s prediction is fulfilled: “your sons and your daughters shall prophesy.” On our next broadcast, we’ll take a look at prophets and prophecy, starting with Abraham, and going all the way through the prophets in the New Testament. What exactly is a prophet? How can we tell a true prophet from a false one? And has God appointed a prophet to lead us today? Join us as we explore these questions about prophets on Biblical Words and World!