Acts 1:9: And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. (ESV)
So far in this series, we have considered major events such as creation, the fall, the giving of the law, the incarnation of Christ, the death of Christ, and the resurrection of Christ. Now we come to the ascension of Christ.
At first blush, the ascension may seem rather an inconsequential event relative to those we have considered as well as those still to come. However, while the ascension may appear less worthy of consideration, I believe further thought will yield a different result.
Defining the Ascension
What is the ascension of Christ? The ascension of Christ means precisely what Acts 1:9 says, which is that Christ was lifted up out of his disciples' sight. We know that he did in fact ascend to Heaven (John 14:12; 20:17). His ascent was a journey to a place rather than an infinite trek.
This idea of a journey to heaven is interesting in itself. And indeed, the ascension is properly understood as a journey. Christ was not simply raised to a height and then lowered down. Christ was raised, and raised he remains. Christ's ascension had a point of departure–earth–and a destination–heaven. This has at least a few points of implication for us.
The ascension of Christ means that Christ is alive but no longer on earth. There is something about the way that we read the Bible that often gives the impression that Christ is more a figure from the past than he is an active player today. At least, I have received that impression, perhaps from my own distorted understanding. But when we conceive of Christ as currently ascended, as currently alive, there tends to be a greater sense of the immanence of Christ than I typically have. One of the distinctive features of Christianity is that it consists in the worship of a living founder. We do not only look to the past to what Christ has done, but we look up to where Christ currently is. He is not here, for he is risen, just as he said.
The ascension of Christ also means that Heaven is a place where physical beings can reside. We know this without Jesus ascending, since Enoch and Elijah were both there bodily before the incarnation. Nevertheless, it is worth establishing firmly. This idea excludes any doctrine which would hold that our lives following this one are not physical, or that the resurrection is a purely spiritual reality. Jesus was not resurrected bodily only to leave his physical form behind when he ascended to heaven. He was resurrected bodily to ascend bodily, and he will return and rule bodily.
What this does is help establish that physical matter is not inherently evil or undesirable. Christ himself is a man embodied in physical form. He is a human being with a human body in a physical place. We should not think of heaven as a purely spiritual place. The fact that it is not accessible by tower or rocket does not make it less physical. If the modern study of physics has shown us anything, it is that we understand the physical world far less than we would like to admit. We mostly take the physical world for granted. As a result, the spiritual aspects of our existence appears to us more mysterious than the physical world ought to appear. It is not that the spiritual world should be less mysterious to us, but that the physical world should be more mysterious to us. Scripture makes less of a distinction between the spiritual and the spiritual than it does between the heavenly places and the world, between what is above and what is below.
How the Ascension Impacts Our Living for God Through Christ
All of the preceding impacts our perspective of life as we live it for God through Christ. For one, Christ is not reduced to a mystical presence in our lives, but his mystical presence in our lives and our union with him is in addition to his physical presence in Heaven. We do well to recall that our union with Christ now is not all that it will be. Christ's ascension makes this so. Indeed, Christ recognized that there is something missing in his physical presence's absence from our lives. Nevertheless, he told us that it is to our advantage that he leaves so that the Helper, the Holy Spirit, might come. Although we are united with Christ by his Spirit, we still long for the day when we will be in the presence of Christ. Not until then will our union with him be complete.
In the meantime, it is right and ok to acknowledge and recognize a certain flavor of angst and ennui in our current circumstances. Our living for God through Christ is tinged with longing to be with God in Christ. Christ's ascension guarantees that reality until he descends again or our souls ascend to him. And even in the latter case, there will still remain the absence of our bodies while we await our resurrection to match our King's.
In sum, the ascension of Christ is the key link between the resurrection of Christ and the return of Christ. It would be a rather obvious and perfunctory point if not for the number of false doctrines and twisted ideas that have arisen in the time since regarding Jesus's physical form, his current mode of existence, and the reality of his resurrection and return. In the ascension of Christ, we are reminded that Christ really did come as a man, he really did die and rise again, and he really will return. In the meantime, we are called to set our mind on things above, where Christ has ascended, and from where he has sent the Spirit to be our Comforter in the time that we await his return. And it is his return which we will cover shortly. But first, we will consider Jesus's exaltation.