Ascension Day - Luke 24.44-end; Daniel 7.9-14; Ephesians .15-end (9/5/13)
The Ascension of King Jesus is often overlooked by Christians because we are so uncomfortable with it. It seems so strange and comical, hard to imagine. I remember sitting in the chapel of The Queen's College in Oxford many times and looking at the stained glass windows reflecting sincerely on the life of Christ before coming to the picture of the Ascension and trying hard not to laugh - there were the disciples below on the hill looking up with sadness and above them in the top right hand corner was a grey could with two large sandled feet popping out at odd angles! It looked ridiculous! Even more ridiculous I am sure is the chapel of the Ascension at Walsingham which has two wooden feet coming down from the ceiling. The only thing that could make such representations more horrific is if the feet were also wearing socks!
Because of this absurdity we often try to either minimalise the Ascension of Christ or to 'spiritualise' it. But the fact that it was a real, historical, physical event is of great importance. We know that it is important as Luke is at such pains to emphasise that it was a physical event. Just before the account of the Ascension he has the disciples both see and touch Jesus to prove that He is real and even tells of Jesus eating fish to prove He is in a real, physical body.
But what is important to remember, and where such ludicrous artistic images fall flat, is that the 'cloud' was no normal cloud as you might see in the sky on a rainy day (or every day when you live in England) - it was the glory of God. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to converse with God a huge cloud descended and covered them ("I am going to come to you in a dense cloud, so that people will hear when I speak with you and will always believe you." Exodus 19.9 - see also Exodus 24.16; 34.5), likewise God personally led His people through the wilderness in the cloud (Exodus 14). The cloud also descended on the Tabernacle when Moses went to speak to Jesus there (Exodus 33.9-10; 40.34-38 see also Numbers 9) and at the blessing of the Temple in 1 Kings 8 (2 Chronicles 5) the cloud physically descended to symbolise the falling presence of God upon that place. Again in Ezekiel 1.4 when Jesus approaches him in the vision of God's glory He comes in a whirlwind from the North - a great cloud with fire and lightening. Even in the New Testament we find the cloud of God's glory descending upon Jesus at His transfiguration (Matthew 17; Mark 9; Luke 9) and we are told that Jesus will come again to judge the earth with power and glory in a cloud (Luke 21.27; Revelation 14). Just as Jesus "descended in the cloud" in Numbers 11 and 12 so He now ascended in the cloud to heaven - the cloud being the heavy and weighty presence of the glory of God.
We must not overlook the saving significance of the Ascension of Jesus Christ - the Ascension it the linchpin of Christ's work. On the one side it is the confirmation and vindication of Jesus as the Messiah, all that He said and did is proved to be right and true as He ascends to heaven to sit at the right hand of His Father. The Ascension proves the past. But the Ascension also guarantees the future. Jesus said in John 16.7 that "I am telling you the truth. It is to your benefit that I go away, because if I don't go away the Counsellor will not come to you. If I go, I will send Him to you." Because of the Ascension we know this must be true as Jesus is confirmed as God - thus we also know that the Ascension is vital to God's plan as without it the Holy Spirit will not come. The Ascension opened to us the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
When we say the creed we find that it is all in the past tense. "Who for us and for our salvation came down from heaven, was incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made man. For our sake He was crucified under Pontius Pilate. He suffered and was buried. On the third day He rose again in accordance with the Scriptures and He ascended into Heaven." The creed to this point is all past tense - but then it changes, subtly yet vitally! "He ascended into Heaven (past tense), and is seated at the right hand of the Father (present tense), and He will come again to judge the living and the dead (future tense)." The ascension is thus seen to be crucial to the ministry of Christ and the plan of salvation - it takes the past and brings His ministry into the present and ensures the certain outcome of the future.
The Ascension was also foretold in the Old Testament in Daniel 7. Here we have a real scary picture of God. Indeed it is from this reading we often get that image of God as an old man with a long white beard sat on a throne. But what is important is that in this passage the Son ascends to His Father surrounded by the clouds of glory. Then the Son is given all authority to rule in glory over the Kingdom that every people and language and tribe and race and nation should serve Him. He is given charge over the eternal dominion, over the Kingdom that cannot be destroyed - the Kingdom of God.
[[It can be hard to understand Daniel 7 in light of Jesus saying that “no one has seen the Father except [the Son]” as it seems that Daniel did. This is not, however, the case. What we see in Daniel is a twofold prophecy like so many of the prophecies in the Old Testament. If one continues reading the interpretation that the angel gives of the rest of the chapter it is clear that ‘the one like a Son of Man’ is Israel, the people of God, personified in an individual, coming before the Throne of God – Jesus – and being invited into the Kingdom to reign from Jerusalem as kings (Daniel 9.22, 26-27). But the People of God are only ‘kings’ and invited to reign because they are one in Jesus Christ the true and greater King of Kings and Lord of Lord, and the only Ruler of Princes. Thus the person who comes before the throne is also rightly understood as representing Jesus, the Son, coming before the Father at the end of time and receiving all authority and power – even though the Father Himself is not the one seen on the throne.]]
What this tells us is of great importance. It assures us that Christ is now Lord and King over everything and everyone (whether they like it or acknowledge it!). Satan and sin has lost, their destruction is assured and the reign of the Kingdom of Heaven is certain. We who believe can rest assured of this and place our hope in Jesus knowing He ascended to His Father and received the Kingdom.
It is also worth noting that just before Jesus ascends and leaves His disciples He blesses them (Luke 24.50-51). This is important as that same blessing is given to us. The Ascension means that we know that Christ has won the victory over sin, the flesh, and the Devil, and that the Holy Spirit has been sent to empower us with God's blessing. But what is the Holy Spirit there to empower us to do?
In verses 46-47 Jesus says "This is what is written: the Messiah would suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for forgiveness of sins would be proclaimed in His name to all the nations beginning at Jerusalem." Jesus then speaks of sending the Holy Spirit to help them do this proclaiming and blesses them. We are empowered by the same Holy Spirit and the blessing of God to proclaim repentance and forgiveness in (and only in) the name of Jesus. That is to say we are called to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ that people might believe, repent, and be saved.
J.C. Ryle possibly the second greatest Anglican in all of history (after George Whitfield) said concerning the doctrines of repentance and forgiveness "No Christian teaching, be it remembered, is scriptural and sound, which does not give the principle place to these two great doctrines."
This is THE message - repentance and forgiveness in Christ - this is the Gospel, this is our life, this is our task, this is our mission. The Ascension is the linchpin of our ministry as disciples of Christ proclaiming the Good News, it is the assurance of our victory, our Saviour, our power, the Holy Spirit and the future glory.