In this post I want to highlight what I think is the least emphasized of what many Christians call ‘Holy Days.’ The most highlighted days churches and believers celebrate include Christmas, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter.
But for many Christians the one we celebrate this week, and the one I want to emphasize, is rarely mentioned: it is the day Jesus’ returned to heaven 40 days following his resurrection. It’s called Ascension Day, and this year is on Thursday, May 21.
I’m not sure why Ascension Day is passed over by so many churches and Christians, but I think it is an extremely important day. And after this summary, I hope you do too.
Many readers will remember that Jesus’ final words on the cross before he died were “It is finished.” His role as our Savior and Lord was not over at that point; but his sacrifice for our forgiveness and salvation was over. Three days later he rose from the dead and for 40 days through a series of appearances he continued his ministry. That part of his ministry concluded when he ascended to heaven.
One preacher I read this week titled his sermon about Jesus’ ascension, borrowing from NASA’s space trips, “Mission Accomplished.” But even though Jesus’ death on the cross paid the debt for our salvation, and by his ascension he returned to heaven, the Bible does not suggest that his work was over. Jesus is still active and we know that someday he will return. Perhaps after the second coming we might not only say it is finished, but also that his mission has been accomplished.
During his ministry on earth Jesus knew and anticipated he would eventually ascend and return to heaven. For example, in John 6:62 Jesus tipped his hat when he said to some who were complaining, “Then what if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” Then following his resurrection, in John 20:17 Jesus told Mary, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’”
Luke is the only Gospel writer who gives a real description of the ascension and he does it twice – once at the end of his gospel, and the second time in the opening chapter of the book of Acts. Note the Acts account in chapter 1, verses 6-11: “Then they gathered around him and asked him, ‘Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?’ He said to them: ‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ After he 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’.”
What was the purpose of Jesus’ ascension? For one thing, it communicated to his followers that his appearances were coming to an end. Remember he had made a variety of appearances for 40 days. It was also an indication of the success and completion of what he had come to accomplish, and it displayed his return to heaven and God the Father.
What does the ascension mean to Christians today? Going back to Jesus’ farewell discourse before his arrest, in John chapters 14-16 Jesus told the apostles that after he left he would send the Holy Spirit. He did that on the Day of Pentecost and still sends the Holy Spirit to his followers today (see John 14:15-18, 15:26 and 27, and John 16:7-11).
A variety of passages in the New Testament tell us that Jesus is sitting at the right hand of God interceding for us (see Romans 8:34, Colossians 3:1, and Hebrews 1:3, 6:20, 8:1 and 2, 10:12, and 12:2). A very encouraging passage is Hebrews 4:14-16, “Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.”
Finally, Jesus’ ascension gives us a hint to his second coming. Remember what the angels said in Acts 1:11, “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.”
To conclude there are 4 final takeaways to keep in mind I borrow from another writer:
- Remember that Jesus is presently reigning as king and remains active and engaged in our lives and our world.
- Therefore, live boldly, confidently, and strategically as servants of the exalted king of heaven. Know your work for the Lord Jesus is not in vain.
- When suffering, take heart that Jesus is not indifferent to our struggles. Take your cares to the ascended Lord who hears our prayers.
- Finally, hope in a glorious future. The ascended Jesus will return and end suffering, destroy death and take us to be with him in heaven forever.
Ascension Day was and is indeed a Holy Day. Celebrate it this Thursday, May 21.
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