Taken Up: the Good News About Christ's Ascension

 

TAKEN UP The Good News About Christ's Ascension

 

The ascension of Christ is first of all the greatest homecomings of all eternity.

Ekkehardt Mueller

Among other enterprises, “Elon Musk leads Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), where he oversees the development and manufacturing of advanced rockets and spacecraft for missions to and beyond Earth orbit. Founded in 2002, SpaceX’s mission is to enable humans to become a spacefaring civilization and a multi-planet species by building a self-sustaining city on Mars.”1

In his article “‘Prison Planet’ . . . ,” Fernando Calvo addresses ecologist and environmentalist Ellis Silver’s position on humankind as expressed in his book Humans Are Not From Earth: “After analyzing the human race, Dr. Ellis Silver concludes that our species does not originate from Earth, but has been ‘settled’ here. . . . he is convinced that our species was brought to this planet thousands of years ago by an alien race. . . . He speculates that . . . these aliens from the Alpha Centauri double star system . . . use Earth as a kind of ‘prison planet’ and keep us isolated here until we shed our primitive, aggressive behavior. Perhaps that would also explain why even today most people on earth feel they are still strangers here and why they have been attracted to distant worlds in the universe since earliest times.”2

Both Elon Musk and Ellis Silver dream about a place beyond Planet Earth as a location for humans to live. Many Christians would not accept their specific approaches. But they would suggest that the final place to inhabit forever can hardly be Planet Earth in its present form and under its current conditions.

Christians expect to live in what is called heaven or on the new earth, the planet renewed and purged from all traces of sin. They consider themselves pilgrims on the way to a future reality. Already Abraham was waiting for the city built by God and lived as an alien among the peoples (Heb. 11:9–11). Jesus Himself indicated that He would go away and said, “‘Where I am going, you cannot come’” (John 8:21, ESV).3

Unlike some other Christian denominations, Seventh-day Adventists do not have a liturgical year. Still, they remember Christmas and Easter. Each year some churches remember Ascension Day, which comes 40 days after Passover—after Jesus’ death and resurrection, and 10 days before Pentecost. In some countries, it is a holiday. For us, it is still appropriate, at any time, to contemplate the Lord’s ascension and the good news of Christ’s ascension.

 

Ascension Passages

Acts 1 and Adventists. When we Adventists hear the term ascension, our minds go to Acts 1, and we remember verses 9 to 11, probably the best-known ascension passage in Scripture: “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

This is by far not the only ascension passage in Scripture. The Gospels of Mark (16:19) and Luke (24:51) speak about Christ’s ascension. Peter, Paul, and John do also. To be one of the 12 apostles meant to be an eyewitness, “‘beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he [Christ] was taken up’” (Acts 1:22).

We may especially like Acts 1 because the ascension is linked to Christ’s second coming. An Adventist Fundamental Belief states that Jesus “ascended to heaven to minister in the heavenly sanctuary in our behalf.”And Christ’s ministry in heaven and the Second Coming are for us. But neither Jesus’ intercession as High Priest nor His second advent are the only reasons for His ascension.

We may be quick to ask the question, “What does Christ’s ascension mean to us?” This is a relevant question, but it should not be our first question. Otherwise, it reveals our selfish approach to life, according to the motto: If it does not do me any good, it is meaningless. But life is not only about me. It is about God and humankind and God’s creation.

We must first focus on God. Therefore, the primary question should be, What does the ascension of Christ mean to Jesus and God? And the second question should be, What does the ascension of Christ mean to the universe and the plan of salvation? Then may come the third question, What does it mean to us?

1 Timothy 3:16; Revelation 12. In his first letter to his younger colleague, Paul addressed Timothy, encouraged, and challenged him, mentioned the problem of false teachers in the churches and suggested establishment of a certain structure and order in the congregations for which Timothy was responsible. In the middle of this discussion, Paul suddenly referred to Jesus: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16).

God has established the church as His household and as a pillar and support of the truth of the gospel (vs. 15). The gospel is that the second person of the Godhead became a human person, was resurrected after His death, seen by the angels, proclaimed and believed by people, and ascended to the realm of glory. This is the mystery that has been revealed. The center of 1 Timothy is reached with this confession of the “great truth of the cosmic Christ who is the Lord and Savior of his church.”5

The incarnation—the Word becoming flesh—and the ascension of Jesus are connected. What begins with the incarnation ends with Jesus’ ascension and exaltation. In the Book of Revelation we notice that a symbolic woman—the church—“gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne” (Rev. 12:5). Again, Christ’s incarnation and ascension are directly linked. His death on the Cross is mentioned indirectly a little later. Revelation 12:11 speaks of the blood of the Lamb. Jesus died and yet lives forever and has the keys to Death and Hades (1:17, 18). His second coming is also in view throughout the Apocalypse. But Revelation 12:5 focuses on incarnation and ascension.

Without doubt, Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, resurrection, and ascension come as a package. Jesus’ death on the Cross was the greatest disappointment of humankind, certainly greater than the disappointment in 1844. But it proved to be the greatest demonstration of His love. It is also the greatest evidence of God’s selfless character, His compassion and grace. Yet the death of the Messiah would have been inconsequential without resurrection, and His resurrection would have kept Him on earth without His ascension, limiting Him in many respects.

Acts 1 connects Christ’s ascension with His second coming; the texts in 1 Timothy and Revelation link the ascension to Christ’s incarnation.

 

What the Ascension Means for Jesus and God

This is an important observation and takes us to our first question: “What does the ascension of Christ mean to Jesus and to God the Father and the Holy Spirit?”

The incarnation of the second Person of the Godhead is the miracle of miracles. We cannot grasp what it means. If I would become an ant to live with ants and try to show them that there is a greater reality than an anthill, it would still not reflect the difference between God in His glory and God incarnate. As a human being, I am a creature and would still be a creature were I an ant. But God is the Creator. Jesus not only entered into “human creatureliness” but also into the realm of “human corruption and perdition.” In the incarnation “God becomes man and the Creator creature.”In addition, He became a servant. He was humiliated, mistreated, and killed.

But Jesus incarnate is “not only completely like us, but completely unlike us.”He is completely human and completely God, having two natures simultaneously. This secret of His humanity “has no parallel at all” in us.Furthermore, the Godhead’s decision to become human in the Son predates God’s act of creation. This work of grace was established before the earth was brought into existence. “The secret, the very depth of the secret of God’s grace is that at the beginning of all His works and ways . . . He elected this so strangely merciful exchange,”the Son becoming human so that humans would be able to become sons and daughters of God—Jesus’ incarnation!

In contrast, Jesus’ ascension is something like a homecoming, a joyful family reunion. We do not know how the persons of the Godhead are connected with one another. But we know that Jesus as a human being needed to seek contact with His heavenly Father.

On a daily basis, Jesus spoke to the Father in prayer—frequently in nature. If He had to make decisions, He followed the divine will (Luke 22:42). As the Father taught Him, so He spoke (John 8:28). He was convinced of His Father’s love (John 3:35), but as a human being, He was not directly with the Father. Finally, on the Cross, Jesus felt completely cut off from His heavenly Father. This God-forsakenness broke His heart.

Certainly, Jesus had humanity constantly in His mind because He loved humans and cared for them, but He also had His Father constantly in mind. He stated that no one “‘has seen the Father except he who is from God’” (John 6:46). He must have longed to be with His Father. After all, He was human as we are. If we are separated from our spouse and love her or him, we want to be reunited. If we are separated from our families, normally we are looking forward to meet with them again. Some people do not know their physical father and take great pains to find him and get to know him. The ascension must have meant a great deal to Jesus Himself.

What about the other persons of the Godhead? The idea that God is pure knowledge and wisdom and has no emotions is not the biblical concept. The Holy Spirit can be grieved, and the Father suffers while Jesus is being crucified. But God also rejoices (Isa. 62:5). There is even joy in heaven over just one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7). And the father in the parable of the prodigal son runs toward his rebellious son to greet him and embrace him when he returns home (Luke 15:20). When Jacob finally believes that his son Joseph is still alive and has not been devoured by wild beasts, his spirit revives and he says, “‘It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die’” (Gen. 45:28). And there in Egypt one of the great family reunions of humanity took place. How much more do God the Father and the Holy Spirit rejoice as the divine-human Son returns to heaven!

Jesus’ ascension is the most celebrated and the most important homecoming of all time. The members o the Godhead are reunited in heaven. There is joy and praise in heaven. The interim of Jesus’ ministry on earth, including His death and resurrection, has come to an end. Yet it has not come completely to an end, not only because Jesus loves humans so much, but also because Jesus’ incarnation changed Him permanently. He retains His two natures, the nature of God and the human nature. He is truly the Son of Man as well as a truly human but exalted being, and in His perfect being, humanity is being elevated.

Thus, His life, death, resurrection, and ascension have changed the universe forever, the world, and even the Godhead. One person of the Godhead unites in Himself Divinity and sinless humanity. On earth, Jesus was a human being “without ceasing to be God.”10 In the heavenly realm He is God without ceasing to be the representative of humanity.

 

What the Ascension Means to the Plan of Salvation and the Universe

The plan of salvation affects not only humanity; it also affects the entire universe. The conflict is not limited to Planet Earth. As humans have made decisions for or against God, so have heavenly beings.

Mark 16:19 states that the Lord Jesus “was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” Peter adds: He “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” (1 Peter 3:22). And Paul broadens the picture even more by writing: “He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10).

Jesus’ ascension led to His exaltation as well as His heavenly glory and enthronement. He functions not only as the great High Priest (Heb. 4:14) but also as King of kings (Rev. 17:14). He will bring the plan of salvation to its conclusion and take care of all evil and sin.

Revelation 5 describes what happened in connection with Jesus’ ascension when He joined the Father on His throne:

● The four living beings and the 24 elders around God’s throne fell down before the ascended Christ, the King.

● In their hands they held harps and golden bowls full of incense. The incense consisted of prayers of the saints that Jesus in His new function as High Priest would hear and mediate.

● They sang a new song, praising Christ’s work on earth, which would continue in heaven: “‘Worthy are you, . . . for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth’” (Rev. 5:9, 10).

● Then the myriads of angels joined in the singing. Ellen G. White described the scene in the following way: “The Father’s arms encircle His Son. . . . With joy unutterable, rulers and principalities and powers acknowledge the supremacy of the Prince of life. The angel host prostrate themselves before Him, while the glad shout fills all the courts of heaven, ‘Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power, and riches, and wisdom, and strength, and honor, and glory, and blessing.’ Revelation 5:12. Songs of triumph mingle with the music from angel harps, till heaven seems to overflow with joy and praise. Love has conquered. The lost is found.”11

● John completes his report stating: “And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, ‘To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!’ And the four living creatures said, ‘Amen!’ and the elders fell down and worshiped” (Rev. 5:13, 14).

The ascension of Christ affects the Godhead and all creation. It is crucial for the completion of the plan of salvation.

 

What Ascension Means to Us

Finally, we come to the question what the ascension means to us. This question is legitimate. But we are not the only ones to benefit from Christ’s ascension. Therefore, we must see the larger picture.

Here is what Scripture says about the benefits of Christ’s ascension for us:

1. The disciples were not discouraged when Jesus left them. Rather they were invigorated, praising God. Jesus “was exalted to God’s right side and received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit. He poured out this Spirit” (Acts 2:33, CEB). The disciples, in turn, proclaimed the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ with enthusiasm and zeal. They were not able to keep silent. After Jesus’ departure from Planet Earth, He did not leave us as orphans. He sent the Holy Spirit in an unprecedented way and measure. “Christ gave His representative, the third person of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit. This Gift could not be excelled.”12 Since then the Holy Spirit is with us. Although we are constantly guided by Him, we can still pray to be filled with Him. And we can do this with assurance of being heard, for “‘if you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!’” said Jesus (Luke 11:13).

2. Paul tells us that when Jesus was exalted, “God put everything under Christ’s feet and made him head of everything in the church” (Eph. 1:22, CEB). Jesus is the Head of His church. At times, we may struggle with the human side of the church. Then we remember who is in charge. The real head is not an elder, the pastor, or a president. The true head of the church is Christ, and He pursues His goals with His church and will make the struggling church a triumphant church. Be of good courage!

3. Jesus is our Mediator. He transfers His merits to us. He forgives our sins. He justifies and sanctifies us. “‘There is no other name under heaven . . . by which we must be saved’” (Acts 4:12). “Who is to condemn?” writes Paul. “Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom. 8:34). “Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven” (Heb. 8:1). “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (4:15).

4. After His ascension, Jesus was seated in heavenly places (Eph. 1:20). God seated us also with Him in the heavenly places (2:6). We are already saved and yet are waiting for the final consummation.

 5. “‘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?’” (John 14:2). Jesus invites us into God’s presence, into His house, which is the sanctuary. There God will dwell with us, wipe away all tears, and we will see His face (Revelation 21 and 22).

6. Jesus’ ascension makes possible our ascension. Here we are back to the very first text that was quoted. The angels tell the disciples: “‘This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’” (Acts 1:11). Jesus’ ascension is linked to His second advent. Besides all these aspects of ascension, this contains the promise that Jesus will come again. Paul wrote about the Lord’s second coming: “Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:17). The divine-human Christ will take redeemed humanity home.

Yes, there will be a second homecoming. Yet Christ’s ascension and our future ascension still differ tremendously. Christ’s ascension was unique and always will be. Even Elijah’s ascension was possible only because of Jesus’ ascension. He is divine and human, Creator, and Savior. We are human and are always depending on Him.

We may still ask, How does ascension work? We should not think of it as a mere travel through space. “One cannot get to God simply by traveling sufficiently far and fast . . . God is in a different dimension of reality.”13 Quite likely, the ascension has to do with entering another dimension similar to stepping from one room into another. Today, this is more easily understandable than it was centuries ago. “Even the ‘cloud’ is not a meteorological feature in the atmosphere, but an indication of God’s presence, as in the transfiguration”14 and in Israel’s exodus from Egypt.

About Jesus’ ascension Kurt Henning states: “In the same moment, when one wanted to watch, everything already melted away. So there was nothing to see, ‘for a cloud took him away before their eyes,’ as it is recorded. So just as in the resurrection: Nobody saw what was actually going on, because you can look at God’s hands but not at his fingers. There is indeed the report of the witnesses about the Ascension, but there is no video of it.”15

In the end we will be surprised at what happens. What matters, though, is that we will be taking part in it.

The philosopher “Martin Heidegger [supposedly] once said: ‘If Jesus of Nazareth has risen from the dead, then all scientific knowledge is preliminary.’ [Commenting on this statement someone wrote:] If he has risen from the dead, then everything we think is still questioned by him. . . . If Jesus Christ ascended to heaven, . . . then we are never by ourselves again, and that is exciting. . . . When we land on Mars, he is already there. And when we die, he is also there. If it’s true that he ascended to heaven, then the entire cosmos is permeated by his power. That’s breathtaking. If he has really stepped back into the invisible world, then he stands in the reality from which our reality comes. Then we still have great things ahead of us.”16

The ascension of Christ is first of all the greatest homecomings of all eternity. It reunited the Godhead in heaven. The incarnation, passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ changed everything, beginning with the nature of the Godhead and Jesus’ new position as Priest-King, continuing with the defeat of Satan and the wholehearted support of Jesus by all loyal beings. Third, the immense benefits for humanity include forgiveness of sin, salvation to eternal life, direct access to God, a close relationship with God, divine guidance, care, and love. As Christ’s resurrection guarantees our resurrection, His ascension guarantees our ascension to the heavenly sanctuary (Rev. 7:14, 15).

So, how does our deliberation of the ascension of Christ affect us? It depends on us. A deeper understanding of God and His involvement with humanity, of Jesus’ condescension and exaltation, and of His love can warm our hearts and lead us to seek God’s presence more and deepen our relationship with Him. It can cause us to give up our independence and self-sufficiency and rejoice in God’s grace. It can change our everyday life and our value system. We may live a life honoring Him, serving others, and proclaiming the best news that ever was shared. But all of this depends on you and me.

However you may decide, here is God’s calls to us, “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God” (Col. 3:1). “Since . . . we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (Heb. 4:14) and “wait for [Him to come] from heaven” (1 Thess. 1:10).

 

Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is an Associate Director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, Maryland, U.S.A.

 

NOTES AND REFERENCES

1. Https://www.spacex.com/elon-musk.

2. Https://www.pravda-tv.com/2016/10/gefaengnisplanet-der-mensch-stammt-nicht-von-der-erde.

3. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references in this article are quoted from the English Standard Version of the Bible.

4. Https://www.adventist.org/beliefs/fundamental-beliefs/god/son.

5. George W. Knight, The Pastoral Epistles: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1992), 186.

6. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics (Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2010), 4:20, 37.

7. Ibid., 27.

8. Ibid., 28.

9. Ibid., 32.

10. Ibid., 40.

11. The Desire of Ages, 834.

12. Christ Triumphant, 301.

13. Millard Erickson, Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Books, 2013), 796.

14. Anthony C. Thiselton, The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2015), 52.

15. Kurt Henning, in Heinz Schäfer, ed., Bildern reden; Beispiele für die Wahrheiten der Bibel, Band 3 (Stuttgart: Christliches Verlagshaus, 1987), 101, translated.

16. Ibid., Band 2 (Stuttgart: Christliches Verlagshaus, 1982), 75, 76.