The Ascent of Joy
And Jesus said to them, "These are my words which I spoke to you, while I was still with you that, everything written about me in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms must be fulfilled." Then he opened their minds to understand the scriptures and said to them, "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 preached in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are my witnesses of these things. And behold, I send the promise of my Father upon you; but stay in the city, until you are clothed with power from on high."
And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven. And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.
In the book of Acts, which Luke writes to continue his account of Jesus' work in history (by his Spirit), he says (1:1–3):
In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and to teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. To them he presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, we learn that the ascension of Jesus back to the right hand of God the Father occurred forty days after the resurrection. Had it been Easter 1981 when Jesus was raised from the dead, the ascension would have occurred last Friday, day before yesterday. And had we been among the disciples, we would now find ourselves waiting in Jerusalem for the outpouring of God's Spirit which came about ten days later on Pentecost. Therefore, today I want to focus our attention on the ascension of Jesus, and next Sunday on the meaning of Pentecost.
A Veil Concealing the Splendor of Christ
I pray that Christ may give us all the grace to understand and feel the significance of these historical events. According to Luke 24:45, that is the work of the risen Christ: "Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures." Until the Lord takes the opaque casing off of our minds, we can scarcely perceive the significance of the ascension at all. That's why the apostle Paul teaches that, unless Christ takes it away, a veil lies over our minds, concealing the splendor of his work (2 Corinthians 3:14).
It may help us pray more earnestly that Christ remove this veil if we know what it looks like from the inside. It's a little different for each person, but the motifs on the fabric are similar. If this veil lies on your mind what you see is something like this: You see the space shuttle Columbia blasting off with astonishing heat and light and force. And you see terrible mushroom clouds rising up over Hiroshima and Nagasaki. You see micro- and macro-computer systems that control unbelievably complicated procedures. You see national and international political giants wielding tremendous influence in the world. In one sense it is not dark under this veil. Its underside is woven with all the dazzling colors of the industrial age in which we live. And only very dimly through some thin patches we see—far, far away, and very small—the scene of an obscure Jewish teacher being caught up in a cloud as his friends look on. And in comparison to the technicolor and size of the images inside the veil it seems very, very insignificant. Judge for yourselves, then, whether you need the help of the risen Christ to lift this veil off your mind, that you may see the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of God for what it really is. Let's pray together and ask him to do it.
O Lord, our Lord, how excellent is your name in all the earth. We believe, Jesus, that you died for our sins, rose on the third day, ascended to the right hand of the Majesty on high, and that you are coming again. I beg of you, help us to see and feel what that means: that you will be revealed in unspeakable cosmic glory, that you will roll up the sky like a scroll and throw it away, you will cleave the earth and sweep it clean with worldwide judgment, and you will make a new heaven and a new earth in a universe of righteousness and holiness. For before you, all the nations are as dust, and lighter than dust; in the scales they go up. Our biggest bombs are like caps in your pistol; our computers are the tinker toys of heaven. O God, have mercy on our blindness; forgive us that we are so easily enamored by the big, the novel, the flashy works of man and so little awed by the power at work in Jesus Christ. Frustrate the god of this world and tear the veil apart that we might see the worldwide, indeed the universal, significance of the ascension of our Lord Jesus. In his name we pray. Amen.
Why Jesus' Ascension to the Father Is Joyful
Luke recorded the ascension of Jesus twice: once at the end of his gospel, and once in the first chapter of Acts. According to Luke 24:50 the ascension takes place in Bethany: "He led them out as far as Bethany." According to Acts 1:12 the ascension took place on the Mount called Olivet. This is not a discrepancy, because Bethany is a village a little less than two miles from Jerusalem (John 11:18), and the Mount of Olives is just beside it. Luke shows us how he understands their proximity in Luke 19:29, where he says: "Jesus drew near to Bethany at the Mount called Olivet." The two were so close that if a person were on the Mount of Olives, he could be said to be at Bethany. So the ascension took place about two miles outside Jerusalem from the place where he had so often (Luke 22:39) met with his disciples, the Mount of Olives.
We know from Acts 1:6–8 that after they had gathered there, they talked about the kingdom and about the work of witnessing after Jesus was gone. But in his gospel Luke very simply focuses on the final farewell. He wrote, "He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven." The last thing Jesus says is a blessing. And in the midst of his blessing, God the Father exalts him to his right hand in heaven. The response of the disciples is to worship Jesus, return in joy to Jerusalem, and bless God continually in the temple. In verse 52 the RSV omits the phrase, "they worshipped him," and puts it in a footnote, but the NIV and others are probably right that it is original and should be kept. So the text says, "They worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.''
We might have expected it to be a tearful parting and perhaps there were tears. But evidently the sadness of physical separation was overcome or outweighed by some cause for joy. It was an "ascent of joy." And I think in order to do justice to the meaning of the ascension, we need to understand why it should cause such joy in the disciples. Ordinarily, when our best beloved departs on a long journey, we do not rejoice. We cry. In order for that crying to be turned into rejoicing, we have to be deeply assured of two things.
Because He Will Return
We have to believe that this is not the end; that there will be a reunion with the one we love. Jesus had given them that assurance. Just a few weeks earlier he had told the disciples that a time was coming when men would faint with fear "for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory" (Luke 21:26f.). And in Acts 1:11 we find out that, after Jesus had departed, angels assured 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." Thus the departure was not final. There would be a reunion. And so there could be joy even in his absence. And so it is true for us today, too, as Peter wrote (1 Peter 1:8): "Without having seen him, you love him; though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with unutterable and exalted joy," if you set your hope fully on the grace that is coming to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. The separation is not final. We will see Jesus again.
But the assurance of reunion alone is not enough to turn the departure of our best beloved into a time of rejoicing. That we will see him again and talk with him and look on his rich wounds and serve in his very shadow—all this fills us with hope and so takes the sting out of our separation. But does it fill us with joy at the separation? If you had a dear friend who was to be taken away to prison, even though he promises to return in ten years when his time is up, you don't go home from the prison rejoicing. Grace may give the cloud a silver lining, but the cloud is still big and dark. No, if our crying is to become rejoicing, we must be assured of something much more than reunion.
We must be assured that the separation is best for us and best for our beloved. It has to be more like sending your nine-year-old off to camp or your 18-year-old off to college. And so it was. The ascension of Jesus Christ into heaven at God's right hand was an "ascent of joy" because it meant that the greatest possible blessing would come to Jesus and to his people. The benefits of this separation promised to be so great that the disciples' grief was turned to continual joy. And very likely Jesus was taken up in the midst of his blessing in order to leave the inescapable impression that his leaving was a blessing. It was an "ascent of joy" because for Jesus it meant the beginning of a glorious heavenly exaltation as the God-man in the presence of his Father, and for us it meant that we would share the benefits of all that exaltation.
Because Jesus Is Glorified and Reunited with His Father
Jesus spoke to his disciples in John 14:28, "You heard me say, 'I go away, and I will come to you.' If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father. For the Father is greater than I." It was an ascent of joy for Jesus because it was a return to the Father who is infinitely glorious and who loves the Son with all his heart. "I came from the Father and have come into the world; again I am leaving the world and going to the Father . . . Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made" (John 16:28; 17:5). O, how Jesus loved the Father and longed to be with him! And since the disciples loved Jesus, how could they help but rejoice at the glorious reunion of Father and Son.
The severing of the Son of God from his Father was awful. Not only did Christ empty himself of all but love when he became a man, but in the final act of obedience on the cross (Philippians 2:5–8) he bore the curse of his Father (Galatians 3:13) to save us from wrath according to his Father's will. And then in a mighty act of indignation over the powers of death, God raised Jesus from the dead. He gives him forty days to prove himself to his disciples, and now he's coming home. And what a reunion it was!
Let all the house of Israel know that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified! (Acts 2:36)
God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow in heaven and on earth and under the earth and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:9–11)
There never was before nor will be again a coronation day like that. If the myriads of angels in heaven rejoice over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:10), what must they have done when the Son came home, whose blood bought all those repentant sinners!
Can you imagine those disciples seated around Jesus there on the Mount of Olives, perhaps in the very spot where six weeks earlier he had sweat blood? Can you imagine Jesus saying in those last moments, "O, that I could help you see what I am about to see, and hear what I am about to hear, and feel the embrace that I am about to receive from my Father in heaven! O, that you might know my joy! These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full (John 15:11). Then you would rejoice, and no one could take away your joy (John 16:22). And now may the Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace (Numbers 6:24–26)." And he was gone. And should they, then, not rejoice in the joy of their Lord? I tell you it was an "ascent of joy," for Jesus was coming home.
Because It Ensures Great Blessing for the Church
But the ascension of Jesus is an "ascent of joy" not only because the disciples love Jesus and rejoice in his joy, but also because there are supremely valuable benefits that come to them, to us, because Jesus has returned to the Father. I'll mention three—all ours if we just take them and make them part of our lives.
When Jesus ascended and sat down at the Father's right hand, he certified once and for all the achievement of the cross. He demonstrated that his sacrifice was sufficient to atone for all our sin. The book of Hebrews makes it plain that "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins" (9:22). The sacrifice of Christ for our sins is contrasted with the sacrifices of old covenant: "He entered once for all into the Holy Place taking not the blood of goats and calves, but his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption" (9:12). And what does his ascension to sit at God's right hand have to do with this? Hebrews 10:11–14,
Every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins, but when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God . . . For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are sanctified.
When Jesus sat down at God's right hand, it signified that the final payment for sin had been made. Therefore, the ascension of Jesus is the seal that everything has been done to cover all the sins of those who trust Christ and are sanctified by him. So don't be downcast, my dear disciples, I am not leaving because the work of atonement was too hard. I am leaving it because it is finished.
But there does remain something to be done. It is not as if the Son sacrificed himself, brought us to the Father, and left us there. We would never stand. It remains the eternal dignity of the Son to be our mediator, our go-between. We approach the Father only through our high priest who pleads his own wounds on our behalf forever. "He is able for all time to save those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Hebrews 7:25). "Who shall bring any charge against God's elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus who died, yes, who was raised from the dead, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us" (Romans 8:33, 34). Therefore, the ascension of Jesus to God's right hand not only certifies that a satisfactory atonement has been made, but it also inaugurates the eternal intercessory work of Christ, and thus guarantees that we will always have saving and sympathetic (Hebrews 4:15) access to the Father forever.
Finally, the ascension of Jesus is an "ascent of joy" for us because it means that Jesus reigns supreme over all our enemies. 1 Peter 3:22 says,
Jesus Christ has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him.
You remember that Paul said our struggle in this life is not really against visible, physical opposition, but against principalities and powers and spiritual hosts of wickedness (Ephesians 6:12). It is precisely these that Jesus has conquered by his death and over which he now reigns by his ascension. And all this is for our sake, for the church as Paul says in Ephesians 1:20–23:
God raised him from the dead and made him sit at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in that which is to come; and he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church.
Jesus Christ is the king of the universe, and there is nothing Satan can do about it. But he can do this: he can try to put a veil over your mind so that a hundred things, which will all pass away, seem to shine more brightly than the kingship of Jesus. Resist him firm in your faith! Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. He will take the veil away that you might see the ascension of Jesus for what it really is: the homecoming and coronation of the Son of God, the validation of the sufficiency of his sacrifice for sin, the inauguration of his eternal intercessory work, and his installation as the sovereign God-man over all the enemies of the church. O, that we might always be a people who worship Jesus and make our way obediently to Jerusalem rejoicing and saying continually:
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me bless his holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And forget not all the benefits of his ascension!