Most Christians understand that the resurrection of Jesus is of crucial importance to their salvation and the validity of the Christian Faith. Paul states explicitly that if Jesus is not risen from the dead, we are still in our sins, and we of all people are to be most pitied (1 Cor. 15:17-19). But when it comes to the ascension of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, it can quickly become a bit confusing. Why did Jesus ascend back into heaven? Wouldn’t it be better if Jesus were here visibly and physically? Wouldn’t people believe in Him easier? Couldn’t all the problems in the world be solved quicker and more effectively if Jesus were physically present?
One thing to point out immediately is that when Jesus was here during his earthly ministry, for all the miracles and good deeds that He did, He certainly did not fix everything. There were certain towns that did not believe and so He didn’t perform mighty works in them. Many sick were brought to Him to be healed, but we do not know that He actually healed all of them. And of those that He did heal, His healing wasn’t permanent. Every last person whom Jesus healed eventually died, even Lazarus whom He raised from the dead eventually died again. In fact, this points to the reason for the Ascension of Jesus. There was something incomplete even in the earthly ministry of Jesus.
Part of why Jesus needed to ascend into heaven is explained by understanding what slavery to sin and death and Satan is. In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and He planted a beautiful Garden in the East of Eden, on a mountainside with a river running out of it. When Adam and Eve fell into sin and were exiled into the world, they literally descended into the land. If they had lost their footing, they would have literally fell. Even after God washed the world clean and the ark came to rest on Mt. Ararat, Noah and his family still had to walk down that mountain. His descendants instinctively knew that in order to return to God, they needed to ascend, they needed to go back up to Him, so they built cities and towers and pyramids reaching up into heaven, reaching up to God.
And sometimes they found Him, like Moses did with the children of Israel on Sinai or David on Mt. Zion or Solomon on Mt. Gibeon and Mt. Moriah, or Elijah on Mt. Carmel. And the Lord invited His people to draw near to Him in the tabernacle and temple, ascending to the Lord by steps, by altars, by songs, and by smoke. The music and the choirs and the sacrifices were ascensions that pointed up to the One who made all things, to the One who had once planted a Garden on a mountain, and seemed to suggest that one day people would ascend to walk with God in the garden.
This is what Jesus came to accomplish. He has done this by first descending: by coming down and entering into our world, becoming a man like us. This is why He was conceived in the womb of Mary. This is why He grew up as a child and learned and ate and slept. Then as a true and faithful man, He obediently fulfilled the Israelite law and condemned the unrighteous, knowing full well that this would bring Him into conflict with the powers of sin and darkness. So the kings of earth condemned Him to death, and so He not only lived for us but He also died for us. He lived in our place, and He died in our place. He went down into death, He went down to the grave, He descended into Hades because that is where we were enslaved. And having descended to the lowest place, enduring all justice for every sin, having satisfied all the just requirements of the law, He broke down the gates of Hell, He burst out of the grave, He arose triumphant over sin and death and the Devil.
But He could not stop there. If Jesus merely rose from the dead and still walked among us to this day, we would not be saved. Salvation is not merely breaking out of the grave. Salvation is triumphing over sin and death and being reconciled to God our Father. Salvation is not merely coming to our senses and busting out of the pig pen; salvation is coming home to our Father and being embraced and kissed and clothed in His fine robes and being given his ring and being seated in His presence as one of His children with all joy. For Jesus to have stayed here without ascending to the Father would be for Him to only be half way done. Salvation is ascending the mountain of God, going back into the garden, being welcomed home and eating of the Tree of Life at the right hand of the Father.
This is why it is absolutely fitting to amend Paul’s statement and include the fact that if Jesus had not ascended back into heaven, we would still be in our sins. Jesus not only rose up victorious, but He ascended to the Father in order that we might be restored to God our Father. And He is there with a body like ours. He is there reigning over heaven and earth. He is there interceding for us with the Father. And one day, He will come again in that same body. The veil that separates heaven and earth will finally be forever torn in two, and we will see Him as He is and heaven and earth will mingle as they were always meant to. As Job cried with defiant faith nearly four thousand years ago: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last He will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another” (Job 19:25-27).
But why do it this way? Why save the world through a long, winding road of suffering and loss with Jesus invisible, in heaven, leaving us here down in the trenches with cancer and sin and political oppression all around? The answer is two fold: First of all the Bible is clear that when you become a Christian you actually begin to participate in the resurrection life. The Holy Spirit is the eternal, rambunctious, joyful life of God breaking out inside you. And by faith, you begin to see this world as it really is, as the kingdoms of our Lord and Christ. And even the darkness does not seem so dark anymore because His light is breaking out in every corner of the world.
Secondly, it was God’s wisdom to do it this way, the slow way because He is respects the integrity and dignity of what He has made. He wants people to grow up into true wisdom. This is why it is foolish for a parent to do everything for a child. The child may never learn to do what he needs for himself. Why has Jesus not flown us to the summit of the mountain of history? Because there are lessons we must learn here, wisdom to be gained, only possible through ascending the Mountain of God for ourselves.
But Jesus has not left us as orphans; He has sent us His Spirit to live inside us. And He has spread this table for us, where He feeds us with the power of His resurrection life. And He has given us His Word which is a light and sword and His wisdom. He does not want robots or puppets. He wants human beings who freely choose to love Him and love another. He wants a race of people who delight in His gifts, who walk by faith, who wrestle with evil and pain, who grow up with grace in their bones and worship and laughter on their lips. In other words, God loves what He has made and He is committed to truly restoring it, raising it up, so that all things may share in His endless glory and delight. So Jesus ascended to the Father so that we might be absolutely certain of who Our Father is. He ascended so that we might carry out His mission with joyful certainty about who we are and where all things are going.
In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen.