When it comes to the holy days and festivals of the Church year there is perhaps no greater confusion than over the Ascension of our Lord both in terms of what we are celebrating and why we are celebrating it. We confess the ascension of Christ every Sunday in the words of the both the Apostles’ and the Nicene Creed: “And he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father” but no further explanation is really given in either of the creeds, and we are left with more questions than answers concerning Christ’s ascension:
Why didn’t he stay?
Where is he now?
What is the right hand of God?
Where is it?
Does this mean that Christ isn’t with us anymore?
These questions are worth exploring from the Bible because they determine how we, as the Church, receive Christ and his benefits on the other side of his death and resurrection.
The appointed readings for the Ascension come from Acts 1, Ephesians 1, and Luke 24, and historically these three sections of Scripture have served as the basis for our confession of the Ascension. From both his Gospel and Acts, we hear Luke’s historical retelling of the events after Jesus’ resurrection: that Christ appeared to the two disciples on the Emmaus road and also to the Eleven, teaching them, and delivering to them the promise of the Holy Spirit. He says, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem…Behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you” (Luke 24:46-47, 49) and after this he takes them out to Bethany, blesses them, and “while he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51) or as it says in Acts, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9).
These passages from Luke and Acts help greatly with both the “what?” and the “why?” First, Christ is taken, body and soul, as God and man in one person, and is received into heaven by a cloud. The testimony of the angels in Acts confirms this when they ask the disciples, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus… was taken up from you into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Not only is he in heaven, but Mark 16 and 1 Peter 3 add that Christ is “at the right hand of the Father” which we hear also reflected in our creeds.
Christ promises at the end of Matthew that he would “be with us always” and this remains true – especially in light of the Ascension.
The “why?” Luke provides in part, namely, that everything which had to be fulfilled by Jesus in his earthly ministry was fulfilled. It was necessary for Christ to come, die, and rise, and these very things Jesus did and was standing before them live-and-in-person to testify to that fact. The promise of the Holy Spirit or the “promise of my Father” and the preaching of the Gospel play another part in answering why. The giving of the Spirit and the preaching of the Gospel hint that Jesus is not ascending into heaven with the result that he is absent from us or that he is no longer with us. Christ promises at the end of Matthew that he would “be with us always” and this remains true – especially in light of the Ascension.
Ephesians 1 and 4 help further clarify what Luke hints at saying that Christ “ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things” and that God “set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places” to have “power, and might, and dominion” so that “all things are under his feet.” Paul confesses that Christ’s Ascension is not Christ’s absence, but real presence. Because of Christ’s ascent to the right hand of God he is not constrained to one place, but is, as God and man, filling all things. In light of these verses, we confess the right hand of God, not to be a seat of rest, locally fixed in heaven, but Christ’s authority over all creation in all creation. His authority is everywhere. Even though Christ is “out of sight” as it says in Acts, Christ is yet present, and not only in power, but physically in his body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.
As a person, God and man, Christ was crucified, dead, and buried, and as a person, God and man, Christ ascended into heaven and is therefore present for you today as a person, God and man, concretely, tangibly, and physically. In this there is no greater comfort and glory for God. Because of Christ’s Ascension, Christ himself absolves me of my sins through the mouth of a pastor. Because of Christ’s Ascension, Christ himself has baptized me and made me his own. Because of Christ’s Ascension, Christ himself serves me at the table with his very own body and blood for the forgiveness of my sins. And because of Christ’s Ascension, the ruler of this world has been cast out and Christ alone reigns in glory over all creation.