The Ascension and the Return of Christ
In Acts 1:9, we are told: "After Jesus said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight." I would like to address a simple question: why? Why was Jesus taken up in this way? But before we get to that, let's read the next three verses:
Rembrandt's version of 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." Then they returned to Jerusalem from the hill called the Mount of Olives, a Sabbath day's walk from the city. (vs. 10-12)
This passage makes two basic points— that Jesus ascended into heaven, and that he will return. Both of those items are important in the Christian faith, and both are included in the Apostles' Creed, for example. First, Jesus ascended into heaven. This is commonly known as the Ascension, which is celebrated each year 40 days after Easter, always on a Thursday.
The second point this passage makes is that Jesus will return— he will return in the same way that he ascended. I believe that this latter point is the reason that Jesus ascended in a visible way— to emphasize that he will return in a visible way.
It would have been easy for Jesus to simply tell his disciples that he was going to his Father, and that that he would come back — and then he would simply disappear, as he did on other occasions, just this time never to be see again. I don't know of any theological reason why Jesus would have to ascend in a visible way. He did this to make a point, to teach a particular lesson, to the disciples — and through them, to us.
By visibly going up into the air, Jesus made it clear that he wasn't just disappearing— he was going to heaven, and there, he would be at the Father's right hand to intercede for us as our eternal High Priest. As one writer put it, Jesus is "our Man in heaven." We have somebody in heaven who understands who we are, understands our weaknesses, understands our needs, because he is a human. Even in heaven, he is still a human as well as being God.
Even after the Ascension, Scripture calls him a man. When Paul was preaching to the Athenians at the Areopagus, he said that God would judge the world by a man he has appointed, and that man is Jesus Christ. And when he wrote to Timothy, he called him the man Christ Jesus. He is still a human, and he still has a body. His body rose from the dead, and his body ascended into heaven.
Which leads to the question of just where is that body right now? How can a God who is omnipresent, not limited to space and matter, also have a body that is localized in a particular place? Is the body of Jesus floating somewhere in outer space? I don't know. I don't know how Jesus appeared behind locked doors, either, and I don't know how he could ascend into the air, contrary to the law of gravity. Apparently the laws of physics don't apply to the body of Jesus Christ. It's still a body, but it doesn't have limitations that we think are part of having a body.
That still doesn't answer the question of where the body is right now, but that's really not the most important thing we need to worry about, is it? We need to know that Jesus is in heaven, but we do not need to know just where that is. It is more important for us to know about the spiritual body, the way in which Jesus is living on earth right now in the church. And he is doing that by means of the Holy Spirit.
When Jesus ascended bodily into heaven, he was giving a visible sign that he continues to be human as well as divine. That gives us assurance that he is a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses, as it says in Hebrews. So the visible rising into heaven makes this point: that Jesus didn't just go away — he continues his ministry in a different way, as our high priest, our intercessor, our mediator.
I see a second reason, too, for why Jesus went up in a visible and physical way. Jesus had told his disciples in John 16 that "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." I am not sure why, but apparently Jesus had to go into heaven before the Day of Pentecost could happen. And when the disciples saw Jesus rise, they were also left with the promise of the Holy Spirit.
So there was no sadness involved, at least the way that Acts tells the story. There was no sorrow that the good ole days with Jesus in the flesh are a thing of the past. There was no idealizing of the past. Rather, there was an anticipation of the future, a looking forward to even greater things, as Jesus had promised.
As we read forward in the book of Acts, we see an excited buzz of activity among the 120 disciples. They were meeting together and praying and planning for work to do. They knew they had a job, and that is why they selected another apostle to replace Judas. They knew they had to be 12 people, representative of the new Israel that God was forming. They had a business meeting because they had business to do. Jesus had already given them the plan, to go into all the world as his witnesses. They just needed to wait in Jerusalem, as he had told them, until they were filled with power from on high, until they had received the promised Comforter.
So Jesus' ascension into heaven was a dramatic drum roll, a moment of suspense, as the disciples waited for the next stage of the rocket to ignite and blast them into greater and greater service. As Jesus had promised them, with the Holy Spirit they would do even greater things than Jesus had done. And the visible ascension of Jesus into heaven was a promise of greater things to come.
Jesus called the Holy Spirit "another Comforter," and it so happens that Greek has two different words for "another." One means something similar, and the other means something different, and Jesus used the word for something similar. The Holy Spirit is similar to Jesus. The Spirit is a personal presence of God, not just a supernatural power. The Holy Spirit lives, and teaches, and speaks, and makes decisions. The Holy Spirit is a Person, a divine Person, part of the one God.
The Holy Spirit is so similar to Jesus that we can also say that Jesus lives within us, within the church. Jesus said, I will come and abide with the person who believes. I will live in them— and he does that in the Person of the Holy Spirit. So Jesus went away, but he did not leave us as orphans, on our own. He returns to us through the Holy Spirit living in us.
But he will also return in a physical and visible way, and I think this is the main reason he took the trouble to ascend in a physical and visible way. We are not to get the idea that, "Jesus is already here in the form of the Holy Spirit, so he has already returned and we shouldn't expect anything more than what we already have."
No, Jesus makes it clear here that his return is not a secret, invisible thing. It will be as clear as daylight, as clear as the rising of the sun. It will be visible to everyone, just as the ascension was visible to everyone at the Mount of Olives nearly 2000 years ago.
That gives us hope, that we can expect more than we have right now. Right now, we see a lot of weakness. We see weaknesses in ourselves, and weaknesses in our church, and weaknesses in Christianity as a whole. We certainly hope that things get better than this, and we have assurance from Christ that he will indeed intervene in a dramatic way, to give a quantum leap to the kingdom of God. He is not going to leave things the way they are.
He will come back in the same way that the disciples saw him go into heaven. That means visibly, physically. It even means a detail that I wouldn't think all that important: the clouds. Just as he ascended into the clouds, the Bible says he will return with clouds. I don't know the purpose of the clouds — they seem to symbolize the angels that come with Christ, but it seems that there will be physical clouds, too.
But that is a minor point. The main point is that Christ will return in a dramatic way. There will be flashes of light, loud noises, phenomenal signs in the sun and moon, and everyone will see it. There will be no mistake about it. No one will say, It happened over there. When it happens, it will happen everywhere, and there won't be any questions about it.
And when it happens, Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians, we will rise to meet Christ in the air. This is what is known as the rapture, and this won't be a secret rapture. It will be a very public rapture, as everyone will see Christ returning to earth. And so we will participate with Jesus in his ascension, just as we join him in his crucifixion and in his burial and in his resurrection. We will also ascend into heaven, to meet the Lord as he returns, and then we shall also return to earth.
Does it make any difference?
But we don't know when this will be, so does it make any difference in our lives? It should. We find practical conclusions from this in 1 Corinthians and in 1 John. Let's look at 1 John 3: 2-3: "Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure."
And then John goes into a section that argues that believers obey God; we do not want a sinful life. There is a practical implication for our conviction that Jesus will return and we will be made like him. The result is that we try to get rid of sins. That doesn't mean that our efforts are going to save us, or that our failures are going to sink us, but it does mean that we try not to sin.
The second biblical conclusion to this is in 1 Corinthians 15, at the end of the resurrection chapter. After explaining about the return of Christ and our resurrection into immortality, Paul writes this in verse 58: "Therefore, my dear brothers, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain."
So there is work for us to do, just as there was work for the first disciples. The commission that Jesus gave them is also given to us. We have a gospel to preach, a message to proclaim, and we have been given the Holy Spirit in power to be able to do it. So there's work to do.
We do not need to stand around gazing at the sky, waiting for Christ to return. For that matter, neither do we need to be gazing at the Scriptures for clues as to exactly when this might be, when Scripture tells us quite plainly that it isn't for us to know. Instead, we have the promise that he will return, and that should be enough for us. There is work to do, and we need to give ourselves fully to the work of the Lord, because we know that our labor in the Lord is not in vain.