Ten Questions and Answers on the Ascension
[Editor’s Note: In a previous blog, we shared how Ascension Day is neglected by many Christians. In order to shed more light on this significant Church holiday, we’re providing ten questions and answers by Dr. Wayne Becker, a longtime Bible teacher and Church holiday enthusiast.]
1. What do we commemorate on this holiday?
As the very name of the day makes clear, this is the day on which we remember and celebrate the bodily ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven. That is even more explicit in the Latin term for this day, Ascensio Christi, “the ascension of Christ.”
2. Is Ascension Day always on the same date each year?
No, it’s always observed 40 days after Easter, according to the careful historian Luke. He begins the Book of Acts with these words:
In my former book (i.e., in the Gospel of Luke)… I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up into heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:1-3, emphasis added).
3. Where can I read about the actual ascension of Jesus?
You’ll find it just a few verses later in Acts 1, where Luke recounts Jesus’ last words to his disciples and then records that “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9, emphasis added). For other references to the ascension, see Acts 1:1 (quoted in Question 3 above), Luke 24:51, and Mark 16:19.
4. Where did the Ascension take place?
Scripture does not specify the location explicitly but from the context of Acts 1:6-12, it is generally assumed to have taken place on the Mount of Olives, since verse 12 tells us that “they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives.” That’s a small hill outside of Jerusalem; it was once the site of a basilica but now has only a small octagonal chapel to mark the site.
5. Did Jesus predict his ascension as he did his suffering, death, and resurrection?
He did indeed! Just as he told his disciples in advance of his coming crucifixion and resurrection (see, for example, Matthew 20:17-19, Mark 10:32-34, and Luke 18:31-33), so he also told them of his eventual ascension. In this case, John is our most helpful gospel writer because he includes five separate occasions on which Jesus speaks very matter-of-factly of his eventual return to heaven (John 7:33; 6:62; 14:2; 14:12; 14:18). And see especially Jesus’ very forthright declaration before the high priest in Matthew 26:64.
6. Are there any prophetic references to the Ascension in the Old Testament?
Yes, though they tend to be somewhat “veiled” references, in the sense that we understand them to refer to the ascension of the coming Messiah mainly because New Testament writers validate them as such. The two most explicit such references are both from Psalms:
When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train (Psalm 68:18; quoted in Ephesians 4:8)
The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet (Psalm 110:1, quoted in Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, 13, and 8:1)
7. Do the writers of the New Testament Epistles refer to the Ascension very often?
Yes, the Ascension is referenced (or, more commonly, simply regarded as fact)
- by Paul in Romans 8:34, Ephesians 2:6 and 4:8-10, Colossians 3:1, 1 Thessalonians 1:10, and 1 Timothy 3:16
- by Peter in Acts 2:33-34, 3:21, and 5:31 and 1 Peter 3:22
- by the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 1:3, 13, 4:14, 6:20, and 9:24
8. Is there any special doctrinal significance to the Ascension?
There certainly is! In fact, commentators see a lot of significance to this event. I’ll mention just three:
Christ’s Power and Authority
Christ’s ascent to heaven, where he now “sits at the right hand of God the Father” (see Hebrews 1:3) says much about his power and authority, a theme that comes through in many of the passages cited above, but perhaps nowhere as powerfully as in his own words to the high priest at the time of his trial:
In the future, you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Matthew 26:64).
The Sending of the Holy Spirit
His ascent to heaven was a necessary prelude to the sending of the Holy Spirit that took place ten days later, at the festival of Pentecost. Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit as a Counselor (NIV term; NASB says “Helper,” and NLT says “Advocate”) and made it clear that his “going away” was a necessary prerequisite for the sending of the Holy Spirit:
But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7; see also John 14:16-18 and 15:26-27).
So in a sense we can say that Ascension Day was necessary if Pentecost was to happen!
The Promise of His Eventual Return
His ascent to heaven was accompanied by the promise of his eventual return. Listen to Luke’s record of what happened immediately after the Ascension:
They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11).
So just as surely as we know that Jesus ascended, we can be confident that he will one day come again.
9. If the Ascension is such an important event, why is Ascension Day such a lesser known holiday?
A good question! And it’s one for which I don’t have a good answer. It is certainly more widely known among Christians who are members of, or have a background in, the liturgical churches, such as the Orthodox, Catholic, Episcopal (Anglican), and Lutheran churches primarily—and to a lesser extent such protestant denominations as the Presbyterian and Methodist churches as well. For these churches, Ascension Day is built into their liturgical (church) calendar and is observed annually.
10. How can I celebrate Ascension Day whether our church does or not?
You can take time to examine some of the scriptural references I’ve laid out here, and praise God for the Ascension as a historic fact—especially for the assurance from Scripture that Jesus Christ is now seated at God’s right hand, where he intercedes for us.
Then look forward to Pentecost and realize that the Christian Church had its beginnings there in Jerusalem at 9 o’clock in the morning, 10 days after the ascension of Jesus, when the Holy Spirit was sent from heaven by the ascended Christ to indwell every believer in a way that had never been true before. So praise God indeed for Jesus Christ as our crucified, risen, ascended, reigning, and coming-again Lord!
Here are a few web sites that I found especially useful:
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Dr. Wayne Becker
Dr. Wayne Becker is Professor Emeritus of botany at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition to teaching biology, he has been very active in student discipleship and Bible study, and has been a frequent speaker for campus groups such as Intervarsity, Cru, and Navigators.