On a neglected source of Christian hope
In the traditional Christian calendar, this Thursday is the Feast of the Ascension. It remembers Christ’s departure from earth, forty days after His resurrection. We find the Biblical record of this event in two places: Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:6-11 (and perhaps a third, depending on the status of Mark 16:9-20).
Many Christians think little and thus know little about this final event in Jesus’ earthly ministry. But, historically, the Church has placed great importance on it. Augustine spoke of its observance and other records place it at least as early as the 4th century A.D. Moreover, both the Apostles and Nicene creeds see fit to include it in their doctrinal statements about Christ. The former, after declaring His resurrection, states that Jesus “ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.” The latter in almost the same terms declares, “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the father.”
All Christians at all times need to know, rest, and rely on the truths present in Christ’s ascension and subsequent seating at the Father’s right hand. Yet Christians today especially need it preached to us. For we live in a time where its truths speak assurance in the midst of our particular trials.
First, in a time where evil seems ascendant, the ascension preaches to us that Jesus reigns. We need not look long and hard to see how evil appears triumphant today. Our brothers and sisters in Africa and Asia endure persistent, violent persecution for which many are called to give their lives. Here in the West, we face a creeping secularism and a creepy set of attendant ideologies. For one, we face an ideology of death, manifested by euthanasia and abortion. Vermont now allows persons to move to that state to end their lives through assisted suicide. Canada’s system of terminating life recently gained headlines for a commercial that celebrated the act in ways both strange and cruel. Regarding abortion, even the triumph last Summer of overturning Roe v. Wade has led to a series of disheartening defeats for the pro-life cause at the state level. Moreover, we see the rise of an ideology regarding human sexuality that distorts and perverts God’s intention for human beings. This secular dogma rejects God’s plan for marriage as the lifelong union of a man and a woman through easy divorce and same-sex unions. It also denies God’s creation of us as either male or female through the transgender movement. Both contrary claims not only dishonor and disobey God; they damage, physically, emotionally, and spiritually, humans made in His image.
Yet the ascension declares to us that Jesus reigns, not these evil ideologies. His ascension was a kind of coronation as King of kings and Lord of lords. His seating at the Father’s right hand is a place of rule, confirming His sovereignty over all creation. As Jesus Himself said in Matthew’s Gospel, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Swiss Reformer Heinrich Bullinger also explained regarding Christ’s ascension that in it Jesus “declareth to the whole compass of the earth, that he is Lord of all things, and that to him are subject all things that are in heaven and in earth.” Thus, we can take heart that evil’s triumph is an ephemeral mirage. It is Christ who is the ruler of history, of nations, of His church, and of all men. And He is working all things for our good and for His glory, regardless of headlines.
Second, in a time of condemnation, the ascension preaches to us that Jesus is our Advocate. Our society has turned accusations into a kind of perverse currency. To gain political advantage or social capital, many use accusation and subsequent condemnation to attack, silence, and ostracize. Christians have become frequent targets for this treatment, often in response to not bowing the knee to the ideologies previously described. We face online mobs, legal pressures from misused anti-discrimination laws, and various other tactics. Moreover, we face the temptation to ourselves become complicit with or even participate in those sins that now seem so dominant. Many churches as well as individuals have succumbed to them, embracing heterodoxy if not heresy under the pressures of these secular forms of excommunication.
Yet the ascension reminds us that no less than the Son of God pleads for us. He does so, moreover, before the only judge who ultimately matters—not the media, not the bureaucracy, not Hollywood, but God the Father. These truths should comfort us on two counts. First, it should comfort us when we are persecuted for righteousness’ sake. We know the Father judges perfectly, being all-knowing and entirely just. Thus, we need fear no condemnation for our faithful thoughts, words, and actions. Yet in our sometimes desperate circumstances, we need extra assurance that God is on our side. We need to feel, not just think, that we are loved, that we are sons and daughters of God, adopted heirs. Christ’s presence with the Father as our defender affirms that truth. In those moments of persecution, we have God’s justice and love as our strong tower of refuge. Second, we do fail. We do sin. Seated at the Father’s right hand, Jesus acts as our priest who shed His own blood for our sins. He is our righteousness. Jesus, in His righteousness, advocates for us before the Father from His position of immense authority. Thus, in Christ, there is no condemnation. There is no condemnation from God. There is no condemnation that matters from the world.
Finally, in a time of strife, the ascension preaches to us that Jesus prepares for us a place of everlasting peace and rest. Because of evil’s seeming triumph and our resulting, earthly condemnations, Christians feel embattled. Peace seems only possible by surrendering the Gospel. Defending the Gospel demands at least the potential for persistent conflict with family, friends, society, and government. We feel more and more like aliens, not citizens. Living like this can be exhausting and disheartening.
Yet the ascension foreshadows the New Heavens and the New Earth. In John’s Gospel, Jesus declares, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Jesus prepares for us an eternal kingdom. Unlike the fading, often corrupt regimes of this world, in that kingdom justice, peace, and righteousness kiss. There, the Gospel claims its final triumph in the fully consummated reign of the Lamb. There we are fully welcome, fully citizens, to whom God says “Well done, good and faithful servant….Enter into the joy of your master.” Even now, Christ’s ascension foretastes that future promise. For Christ ascended bodily, in His humanity. Humanity, physically and spiritually, already resides with God in perfect peace and joy. So will we all. 16th century English Reformer Thomas Becon, in his catechism, stated that “by the ascension of Christ, we have a most certain and sure testimony of our ascension into the kingdom of heaven, and that we shall there remain for ever both body and soul with our head Christ.” And that kingdom will be one of peace and safety: the church triumphant, no longer militant.
Thus, let us focus anew on the glorious event of Christ’s ascension and its glorious implications. Let it remind us that Jesus reigns as king. Let it assure us that He even now advocates for us as our high priest. And let it comfort us that Jesus prepares us a place as citizens in an eternal, peaceful kingdom. In 2023, these are truths we especially need to hear.
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