Editor's note: This column was co-authored by Kristin Carey.
Thursday is Ascension Day. It’s a little known and little celebrated holy day that marks Jesus’ exit from this world. The basic story is simple: forty days after his resurrection, Jesus rose up into heaven as he blessed his followers who looked on. But the significance of Jesus’ ascension is crucial for Christians.
Those followers who stood bewildered, gazing up at the clouds, had been through a lot. They left all they had to follow the man Jesus, thinking he would be their savior. They respected him, trusted him, and loved him, but struggled to understand the things he told them. They watched him die at the hands of their fellow Jews, and all their hopes were crushed as he breathed his last upon that cross. They hid in fear from the Jewish leaders as they grieved. Then they encountered Jesus as a risen man—and now he was leaving them again.
When Jesus spoke, before his death, about how he would soon leave them to go be with his Father, they protested. They were saddened because he said he was leaving them, confused because they did not understand where he was going, and perhaps angry because he said they could not immediately follow him there. Yet, as soon as Jesus ascended into heaven, they were filled with gladness.
Luke 24:52-53 says that after the ascension, “They worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy. And they spent all of their time in the Temple, praising God.” Something about Jesus’ ascension changed the disciples. They did not feel abandoned at his departure as they thought they would. Rather, they experienced a renewal of spiritual fervor and understanding. Clearly, Jesus’ ascension was more than a goodbye.
The Hope: Fullness in Christ
Just as Jesus came to into the world for a purpose, to carry out the work of our salvation, he also ascended for a purpose. In a sermon given at St. Andrew’s church in Mt. Pleasant, SC, Rector Steve Wood outlined the significance and purposes of Jesus’ ascension. His points included that:
1. Jesus ascended, and sat down beside the Father, because his work of salvation upon the earth was complete.
There is nothing more that needs to be done, either by him or by us, to finish the job of making us right with God and freeing us from the power of our sinful human nature. As he said with his last breath upon the cross, “It is finished.” At Jesus’ ascension, the disciples finally understood the purpose for which Christ came—and knew that it had been fulfilled. And they knew they could find their fullness in Christ.
2. Jesus acts as our High Priest.
Romans 8:33-34 is one of the most beautiful, freeing passages for any plagued by guilt or condemned by others. It says, “Who dares accuse us whom God has chosen for his own? No one—for God himself has given us right standing with himself. Who then will condemn us? No one—for Christ Jesus died for us and was raised to life for us, and he is sitting in the place of honor at God’s right hand, pleading for us.”
Jesus’ role in Heaven is to intercede for all who follow him, representing us and guaranteeing our victory against any spiritual or physical power that would seek to ruin us through accusation or condemnation. The disciples saw their teacher, their friend, their advocate, and their risen Lord ascend into Heaven. They knew he was going to sit on the throne beside the Father as he said he would, and they knew that he, their risen King, could not be defeated. The man that they knew intimately and trusted absolutely was going to work for them from the throne of Heaven. How could they do anything but rejoice in his exaltation, which surely meant their eternal victory?
3. Jesus’ departure meant the arrival of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus, God With Us, left so he could send the Holy Spirit, God Within Us. In John 14, Jesus told his disciples, “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth… he lives with you now and later will be in you.” And just before he ascended, Jesus said, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you”(Acts 1:8).
The disciples experienced the truth of Jesus’ words, “It is to your advantage if I go away, for if I do not, the Holy Spirit will not come to you…. You will receive power and be my witnesses…”
The same power that raised Christ from the dead came to fill them. Jesus demonstrated his faith in the power of the Holy Spirit working through his disciples when he commanded them to carry the message of salvation to all nations. These men were slow to learn, lacking in faith, and just as human as we are. They didn’t even fully understand Jesus’ mission until he ascended—yet he trusted them to carry the message of salvation that he died to offer us. He trusted them because he trusted the Holy Spirit to come and guide them into full understanding and to empower them with boldness of faith.
And that same exact power is at work in us today— it is offered to all who trust in Jesus’ name, making us the answer to Jesus’ prayer for workers to “bring in the harvest.”
We, like the disciples, usually will not understand God’s plan, even as it unfolds before our eyes. They never expected the Savior of the world to die, or to rise from the dead and leave again before any noticeable change took place in the world. But with the Spirit’s help, they came to place their trust and hope in him, rather than in their circumstances, knowing that although God doesn’t usually meet our expectations, he will always exceed them.