How Jesus’ Ascension Wrapped Up His Earthly Ministry to Make It Work for You
HE WENT UP ON HIGH!
Part Two of a Seven-Part Series on the Ascension of Christ
[EDITOR’S NOTE: On May 25 we celebrate the day that Jesus ascended to take his place on the throne of heaven. This seven-part series unpacks the Bible’s witness to this frequently overlooked, unparalleled drama and its profound impact on every dimension of Jesus’ mission for our salvation. For many readers, this will be a guided tour across an unfamiliar landscape in our vision of God’s Son. The actual amount of Scripture included in this week’s blog post, however, will make the insights offered more dynamic than ever. Get ready to think in new ways about what Jesus has done for you and about your life in union with the “Ascended Son.”]
Does America’s View of Jesus Surprise You?
Recently Barna Research Associates released studies on Americans’ views of Jesus. How do most of us see him? As only a man? As merely a myth? As God? The findings may surprise you.
Almost all Americans believe Jesus Christ was a real person who actually lived. Sixty-three percent of our citizens claim they have made a commitment to Jesus that’s still important in their lives today. Six in ten tell pollsters they have no doubt he will return to earth someday.
Most encouraging is that 43% of Americans—a plurality—believe Jesus was God incarnate while another 31% believe he was uniquely called to reveal God’s purpose to the world. Less than 10% believe he was merely a man. Fewer people believe he is only a myth.
We’re in an Amazing Moment of Promise for America
This means the Church in our nation has a most remarkable opportunity right now to see a major advance of the gospel among fellow Americans—if only we know how to make much of Christ as Savior and Lord by presenting him in the fullness of his supremacy because millions are predisposed toward him already.
The key, then, is for Christians in America to respond to a much grander vision of Christ, so we can share him more meaningfully everywhere we go. And the key to gaining that larger sense of all Jesus is right now lies in large measure with our ability to grasp more fully the truth and implications of the most neglected doctrine of Scripture: the ascension and coronation of God’s Son.
Just like there was an actual day when Jesus was born, a day when he died, a day when he rose from the grave—just like those days there was a day when Christ climaxed and ratified his earthly ministry by ascending to heaven’s throne to reign from that day forward as King of kings. His is a position of consummate authority—which he exercises to this very hour—over the nations, over our nation, within his Church, in believers’ daily walk with him.
That’s why this coming May 25 the Church worldwide must join in celebrating Ascension Day, as we fix our hope and our worship on the Lamb occupying the center of the universe (Revelation 5).
The Cosmic Climax for Jesus’ Earthly Ministry for Us
From the outset of his earthly ministry, Jesus consciously kept moving toward the finish, when victory would be won by an unprecedented sacrifice; when sin, the devil, and death would be defeated; when he would be crowned Savior and Redeemer, marching toward a new heaven and earth.
Of course, every aspect of his incarnate mission was crucial—including his teachings and miracles; the preparation of disciples to become the Church’s first spiritual leaders; his agony and atoning death in our place; his triumph over the grave; plus his weeks presenting convincing evidence he was truly raised from the dead.
But the apex was yet to come. All the gospels make this clear.
How Luke Reports It
Luke concludes his account of Christ’s life by recounting the Ascension as the culmination of all that had gone before. We read:
Jesus led his disciples out to the area near Bethany. Then he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them. He was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him. With great joy, they returned to Jerusalem (Luke 24, NIRV).
. . . he was taken up to heaven. The apostles watched until a cloud hid him from their sight (Acts 1, NIRV).
How Mark Reports It
Or take Mark’s gospel. Though possibly added by an associate of Mark, the final words nevertheless summarize the clear understanding of the early church that the Ascension comprised the grand finale of Jesus’ earthly accomplishments:
When the Lord Jesus finished speaking to them, he was taken up into heaven. He sat down at the right hand of God. Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere. The Lord worked with them. And he backed up his word by the signs that went with it (Mark 16, NIRV).
How John Reports It
Even though the Gospel of John does not record the actual Ascension event itself, Jesus’ words to Mary on Easter morning anticipated it:
Do not hold on to me. I have not yet ascended to the Father. Instead, go to those who believe in me. Tell them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God” (John 20, NIRV, emphasis added).
What’s amazing is that when Jesus says, “I am ascending,” it is in the present tense. Although his ascent was still forty days off, he views it as the very next “chapter” in redemption’s drama. Even on the day of his resurrection, his coronation filled his vision.
But It Was on Jesus’ Mind From the Start
Among the gospel writers only John records how Jesus hints at the Ascension all along the way. At the very outset, for example, when Nathanael said to Jesus, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God. You are the king of Israel,” Jesus pointed his recently recruited follower to his coming exaltation:
You will see greater things than that . . . You will see heaven open. You will see the angels of God going up and coming down on the Son of Man (John 1, NIRV).
Here’s another example. When many deserted him because he invited them to find eternal life through his body and blood, Jesus said to them:
Does this upset you? Then what if you see the Son of Man go up to where he was before?
To this, Peter reacted the way all of us should to the Ascension:
Lord, who can we go to? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the Holy One of God (John 6, NIRV).
Again, John alone reports that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet at the Last Supper, doing this humble act of service in such a way that pointed to the Ascension:
Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world. It was time for him to go to the Father . . . Jesus knew that the Father had put everything under his power. He also knew he had come from God and was returning to God . . . So he got up from the meal and took off his outer clothes . . . After that, he poured water into a large bowl. Then he began to wash his disciples’ feet (John 13, NIRV, emphasis added).
Jesus’ Transfiguration: a Preview of Coming Attractions
Some months before “Passion Week,” probably on top of lofty Mount Hermon in Caesarea Philippi, three of Jesus’ disciples were given a brief but rather spectacular peek at his coming coronation.
The week before, Peter had confessed out loud that Jesus was God’s “Son” and God’s “Messiah”—both terms were reserved for the everlasting King of Israel promised by the prophets. Now, as Luke 9 reports, the reality behind those titles was displayed in a dramatization of Jesus’ future glorification:
As he was praying, the appearance of his face was transformed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly, two men, Moses and Elijah, appeared and began talking with Jesus . . . about his exodus from this world, which was about to be fulfilled in Jerusalem . . . Then a voice from the cloud said, “This is my Son, my Chosen One. Listen to him (NLT, emphasis added).
In this conversation between Jesus and two Old Testament saints, they discussed his “exodus from this world,” code language for the Ascension. Moses and Elijah anticipated with Jesus how the zenith of his saving work would be a permanent “transfiguration” as he sat down at the Father’s right hand.
Best of all, this mountaintop revelation of Jesus’ inherent royal splendor was a preview of coming attractions, a manifestation of his supremacy that awaits all of God’s people at the end. While we anticipate that great day, the primary response of all the saints toward the enthroned Son of God should be precisely what the Father expected of Peter, James, and John that day on the mountain: “Listen to him!” In other words, give King Jesus your undistracted focus, your undivided submission, your undiminished worship.
Jesus’ Triumphal Entry: a Dress Rehearsal for His Coronation
The transfiguration drama of Luke 9 links nicely with what took place months later in Jerusalem, often called Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into the Holy City. Matthew 21 describes it this way:
A very large crowd spread their coats on the road. Others cut branches from the trees and spread them on the road. Some of the people went ahead of him, and some followed. They all shouted, “Hosanna [Lord, save us now!] to the Son of David! Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest heaven!” When Jesus entered Jerusalem, the whole city was stirred up (NIRV).
The drama of that jubilant ride into Jerusalem was like a dress rehearsal for his much more majestic march into the courts above on the day of the Ascension. Imagine what the cosmic reprise of this scene was like exactly 47 days later, when he made his glorious entry into heaven to be enthroned as King of kings!
In fact, the disciples noted how Palm Sunday (as most of us call it) reflected Zechariah’s prophetic snapshot of Jesus’ ascension when centuries earlier the prophet declared:
People of Jerusalem, shout! See, your king comes to you. He always does what is right. He has won the victory. He is humble and riding on a donkey . . . I will remove the war horses from Jerusalem. I will break the bows that are used in battle. Your king will announce peace to the nations. He will rule from ocean to ocean . . . Then the Lord will appear over his people . . . The Lord who rules over all will be like a shield to his people . . . The Lord their God will save his people on that day (Zechariah 9, NIRV).
Infinitely transcendent expressions of triumph and joy must have echoed throughout creation from saints and angels the hour Jesus went up on high.
Jesus Focused on It Hours Before the Cross
Biblical scholars point out that Jesus’ final act in this upper room ceremony was a foreshadowing. It portrayed how the Incarnate One shortly would assume his kingly calling by ascending on high. Here’s how this episode ended:
When Jesus finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes. Then he returned to his place . . . (emphasis added)
Jesus’ whole mission was fulfilled in the form of a servant, humbled for a season in order to cleanse the human race of sin, only to “return to his place,” to assume universal supremacy as he went back up on high.
The Ascension definitely provided the ultimate answer to Christ’s exquisite prayer in John 17, voiced 43 days prior to his return to heaven. Listen to the burden of his intercession the night before the cross:
Father, the time has come. Bring glory to your Son. Then your Son will bring glory to you. You gave him authority over all people. He gives eternal life to all those you have given to him . . . I have finished the work you gave me to do. So now, Father, give glory to me in heaven where your throne is. Give me the glory I had with you before the world began . . . I will not remain in the world any longer . . . I am coming to you now . . . Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am. I want them to see my glory, the glory you have given me. You gave it to me because you loved me before the world was created (NIRV, emphasis added).
He Knew He Must Go Up in Order to Come Down
Finally, in Jesus’ teachings, the Ascension was implied in numerous forecasts regarding his future reign. Consider:
Then the sign of the Son of Man will appear in heaven. At that time, all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven. He will come with power and great glory. He will send his angels with a loud trumpet call. They will gather his chosen people from all four directions. They will bring them from one end of the heavens to the other (Matthew 24, NIRV, emphasis added).
The Son of Man will come in all his glory. All the angels will come with him. Then he will sit in glory on his throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him (Matthew 25, emphasis added).
On trial before the Sanhedrin, Jesus emphasized this glorious outcome as he pulled back the curtain to reveal to them that he was so much greater than they even dared to accuse him of claiming!
Then the Chief Priest said, “I command you by the authority of the living God to say if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus was curt: “You yourself said it. And that’s not all. Soon you’ll see it for yourself: The Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Mighty One, arriving on the clouds of heaven” (Matthew 26, The Message, emphasis added).
Psalm 118 Foretold His Final Triumph
As we’ve just uncovered, the Ascension clearly held a very special place for our Savior in his purpose for coming among us. Even in the days of his “humiliation,” when his divine kingship was kept incognito, he eagerly looked forward to the crowning day, as predicted specifically in Psalm 118. This prophetic text was referred to by Jesus, as well as repeated in sermons in Acts and some epistles.
According to Psalm 118, Jesus’ exaltation would resemble a builder setting in place a sturdy foundation stone on which a massive cathedral would be built. When the religious leaders determined to disqualify him outright as God’s Messiah, Jesus used this psalm to warn them:
Then what does this Scripture mean? “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” Everyone who stumbles over that stone will be broken to pieces, and it will crush anyone it falls on (Luke 20, NLT).
Decades later, reflecting back on that conversation, Peter drew on Psalm 118:
You are coming to Christ, who is the living cornerstone of God’s temple. He was rejected by people, but he was chosen by God for great honor. And you are living stones that God is building into his spiritual temple . . . As the Scriptures say, “I am placing a cornerstone in Jerusalem, chosen for great honor, and anyone who trusts in him will never be disgraced” . . . But for those who reject him, “The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone.” (1 Peter 2, NLT, emphasis added).
Christ Ascended: the Cornerstone and Capstone of Our Salvation
Though cast aside on the cross, Jesus was brought back from the grave to become the cornerstone of a redeemed, liberated universe. He knew, and the early church affirmed, that his ascension would seal and therefore guarantee the triumphant completion of the new creation God is building, the new creation that every believer already has become in Christ (2 Corinthians 5).
To say it another way, Christ has become the cosmic capstone of our redemption. In his enthronement he became forever the majestic masonry that holds everything together—reconciling heaven and earth, God and sinners. As Scripture claims:
. . . everything got started in him and finds its purpose in him. He was there before any of it came into existence and holds it all together right up to this moment . . . leading the resurrection parade—he is supreme in the end . . . all the broken and dislocated pieces of the universe—people and things, animals and atoms—get properly fixed and fit together in vibrant harmonies, all because of his death, his blood that poured down from the cross (Colossians 1, The Message).
The day of Christ’s ascension anchored and locked in everything else he did for us by every other facet of his earthly pilgrimage. It also confirmed all the promises of God yet to come to pass.
What If He Had Not Gone Up?
Behold the summation and ratification of our salvation: Christ ascended!
This frequently ignored evangelical doctrine just happens to form the culmination of the application of Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection by which we are saved, and by which now, through the Holy Spirit, we can live in the power of the “ascended life” of Jesus day by day.
Put simply: If Jesus had not gone up on high, neither could we—now or ever.
About the Author
Over the past 40 years, David Bryant has been defined by many as a “messenger of hope” and a “Christ-proclaimer” to the Church throughout the world. Formerly minister-at-large with the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, president of Concerts of Prayer International (COPI) and chairman of America’s National Prayer Committee, David now provides leadership to ChristNow.com and to Proclaim Hope!, whose mission is to foster and serve Christ-awakening movements. Order his widely-read book at www.ChristIsAllBook.com.