THE MOST NEGLECTED HOLY DAY

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:

  1. Remember that Jesus is presently reigning as king and remains active and engaged in our lives and our world.
  2. 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.
  3. When suffering, take heart that Jesus is not indifferent to our struggles. Take your cares to the ascended Lord who hears our prayers.
  4. 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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THE OTHER SIDE OF EASTER

In this fifth week after Easter I’m thinking about what took place after Jesus’ resurrection. The Gospels tell us that for 40 days Jesus appeared several times to his followers to encourage and instruct them. He appeared to Mary Magdalene Sunday morning (John 20:11-18), to two unnamed disciples in the afternoon (Luke 24:13-35), and to 10 of the apostles that evening (John 20:19 and 20). The following Sunday he appeared to the 11 apostles, this time including Thomas who was absent the week before (John 20:24-28). Later he appeared to seven of his disciples by the Sea of Galilee after which he restored Peter who had denied him (John 21:1-19). In I Corinthians 15:6 the Apostle Paul reports Jesus appeared “to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at the same time.”

After 40 days Jesus concluded these appearances with an important act that is rarely emphasized by his followers today: he ascended (returned) to heaven. Even though it is rarely emphasized, Ascension Day is on the church calendar on the sixth Thursday after Easter—the 40th day of Easter, this year on May 25. Jesus’ ascension is important in the New Testament—so much so that Luke reports it twice: at the end of his gospel in Luke 24:49-53 and at the beginning of the book of Acts in 1:9-11. Jesus’ exalted status seated at God’s right following his ascension is also important and frequently mentioned (Ephesians 1:20, Colossians 3:1, Hebrews 1:3, and others).

Those familiar with the Apostle’s Creed will remember the reference to Jesus’ ascension in it: He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father. What are we to make of this part of the classic statement of the Christian faith often recited in many churches?

One thing we should realize is that the ascension marked the end of the resurrected Jesus’ appearances to his followers. Acts 1:9 reports “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” During the 40 days of his appearances he would appear and disappear, but this time was different. He had accomplished what he came to do and returned to the Father. The creed’s affirmation that Jesus “ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father” summarizes the teaching of the New Testament.

The descriptive words of both Jesus’ “ascending to heaven” and being “seated at the right hand of the Father” are symbolic. One theologian warns us “It is important to realize that the ascension is not making a statement about cosmology and how to find heaven on an astronomical map” (Michael Bird). Another theologian suggests the imagery of being seated at the right hand of God means he has returned “to the close presence, power and majesty of his Father” (Alister McGrath).

Jesus returned to heaven and sat down at the right hand of the Father, but that does not mean he is absent from our world or us. Nor, in the words of James Bryan Smith, does it “mean he is up in heaven taking a long nap.”

In Matthew 18:20 Jesus promised “where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I with them.” And in John 14:18 he told his apostles “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” The primary way Jesus is still with us today is through the Holy Spirit he promised following his ascension.

Ascended and sitting at the Father’s right hand, Jesus has been given absolute sovereignty. New Testament scholar Bruce Metzger put it this way: “That Christ ascended and now sits at the right hand of God means that he lives and rules with all the authority and power of God himself.”

Jesus is also talking to the Father about us. In Romans 8:34 the Apostle Paul writes Christ Jesus “is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.” The writer of Hebrews affirms as our high priest Jesus “always lives to intercede for those who come to God through him” (Hebrews 7:25).

To conclude this post let’s return to the account of Jesus’ ascension in Acts 1. After “a cloud hid him from [the Apostles’] sight” and “they were looking intently up into the sky” a couple of angels asked them why they were looking into the sky. Then the angels affirmed, “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” (Acts 1:11). Jesus will return!

In Philippians 2:9-11, after talking about Jesus’ death on the cross, the Apostle Paul takes his readers from the ascension to the second coming, “Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

(The title of this post was borrowed from my pastor, Jim Shelburne of Washington Avenue Christian Church.)

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