The Outrageous Claim of the Ascension

Today is Ascension Day, the fortieth day after Easter Sunday. For centuries the Christian church has marked this day (also called Ascension Thursday) in remembrance of Jesus’s bodily ascent to heaven.

The number forty is based on Acts 1:3: “He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” Ten days later we celebrate Pentecost (Acts 2:1), fifty days (seven full weeks) after Easter, when Jesus poured out the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:1–33) on his fledgling church.

Don’t be too surprised if you haven’t heard of Ascension Day, or even if it’s been a while since you’ve heard any reference to Jesus’s ascension at all. It’s sad, but not surprising. The doctrine of the ascension is not a truth that the recent history of theology has been apt to emphasize, and as Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow highlight in their book The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, it is not only important but essential to the gospel. Wisely did the ancient church confess not only that

He was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried, on the third day he rose again

but that

he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.

The ascension reminds us that Christianity is not only an historical faith, but a faith of the present and future. Jesus is, right now, in glorified humanity on the throne of the universe, wielding as the God-man “all authority in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18). He is not just our suffering servant who came and died and rose triumphant, but our actively ruling, actively conquering king.

The True King of the World

Despite the ignorance and negligence and animosity there is toward him in the world today, he already sits enthroned and is, in his perfect timing and sovereign sway, bringing all his enemies under his feet. In light of what his foes would contend, Chester and Woodrow are right to call the ascension an outrageous claim.

When you went to bed last night Jesus was at work subduing his enemies. While you slept he was continuing to rule over the world. He was still at it when you woke up this morning and even now as you read this. That is the outrageous claim of the ascension. It is outrageous because his rule is not recognized in his world. Open a newspaper and it is not full of how Jesus is reigning. Instead it is full of conflict and crime.

Yet the story of the ascension is the story of the enthronement of Jesus as the king of the world. (29)

The Ultimate Affirmation of Bodily Existence

It’s Jesus’s ascension into the presence of God that gets all that he accomplished “down here” to count for us “up there” with God. Without Jesus’s ascension, there would be no true access to God, no full measure of the Spirit, and no great salvation. The ascension is a link in the chain of salvation as essential as Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection. And the ascension has something powerful to say about humanity and the human body:

The ascension is the story of a body moving to heaven. It is not escape from the bodily realm, but the entry of humanity — in all our physical-ness — into heaven, the sphere of God. Far from diminishing the importance of the body, the ascension is the ultimate affirmation of bodily existence. The Son of God himself has a body — not as an historical convenience, but as a permanent presence in heaven. (60)