Many Christians celebrate the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. Some celebrate exactly 40 days after Easter; others celebrate the following Sunday.
The Ascension does not have quite the same prominence in the Christian calendar as the “big three”—Christmas, Good Friday and Easter. Perhaps this is because we underestimate the importance of this event. We may even think of it as anticlimactic, after the trauma of the Crucifixion and the triumph of the Resurrection.
This is a mistake. The resurrected Jesus did not just stick around for 40 days and then retreat to the safety of heaven, his work on earth now done. The ascended Jesus remains forever fully human, as well as fully divine and fully involved. This revelation helps us to understand the nature of his High Priesthood. Jesus is eternally our Intercessor. The nature of the atonement itself is not merely about what Jesus has done, but who he is and forever will be.
The Bible records the Ascension as the next step or event in Jesus’ work. In Acts 1:9-12, we are told:
After he [Jesus] said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. 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.” Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day’s walk from the city.
These verses make two basic points: that Jesus ascended into heaven and that he will return. But there is more to ponder. In Ephesians 2:6, which is one of my favorite verses, Paul adds a perspective not to be missed:
Because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in our transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.
Here Paul explains the implication of the new life we have in union with Jesus Christ. He often used the phrase “in Christ” in his letters to help us understand our new identity. To be “in Christ” is to share not only in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, but also in his ascension by which we, in some sense, even now live with him in “the heavenly realms.” Being “in Christ” means that when God looks at us he does not see us alone in our sins. He sees us with and in Christ, for that is now who we are.
In the book The Message of Ephesians, the late John Stott comments on Ephesians 2:6:
What excites our amazement…is that now Paul is not writing about Christ but about us. He is affirming not that God quickened, raised and seated Christ, but that he quickened, raised and seated us with Christ…. Fundamental to New Testament Christianity is this concept of the union of God’s people with Christ (emphasis added).
Paul further emphasized this truth in Colossians 3:1-4:
Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.
After Jesus was resurrected, he was recognizable by those who knew him, but he was not quite the same. He was able to move in and out of the dimensions that we experience as human beings.
Being “in Christ” means that as Christians we live in two realms—the physical world of everyday reality and the “unseen world” of spiritual reality. We do not yet experience the full glory of our resurrection and ascension with Christ, but Paul tells us that it is no less real. The day is coming, he says, when Christ will appear, and in that day we will experience fully the reality of who we have become.
God did not merely forgive our sins and then leave us on our own to try to be righteous. God made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions. He then raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms. That is what being “in Christ” means. We are no longer who we are alone, but who we are in union with Christ, sharing in all he has accomplished for us, in our place and on our behalf. We belong to Jesus Christ!
This is the foundation of our faith and hope. God has made us one with Christ so that in him we can share in the relationship of love that he has with the Father and the Spirit. In Christ, the eternal Son of God, we are the Father’s beloved children in whom he is well pleased. Ascension Sunday is a good time to remind ourselves of this life-changing good news.