Today is Ascension Sunday when many Christians celebrate Jesus’ miraculous return to Heaven. It has inspired great Christian art like the Rembrandt painting above and musical masterpieces such as Beethoven’s “Christ on the Mount of Olives.”
If it weren’t for Luke, we’d know almost nothing about the ascension. He gives us a brief description at the end of his Gospel and an extended one at the beginning of the Book of Acts (Luke 24:50-53, Acts 1:9-11). Matthew and John don’t mention the ascension at all, and Mark simply says that Jesus “was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19b). But this verse is in the disputed longer ending that’s not in several of the oldest manuscripts of Mark (Mark 16:9-20). There’s even a difference between the way Luke’s Gospel and the Book of Acts describe the event. The Gospel identifies the location as Bethany; Acts implies that it was on the Mount of Olives “about a Sabbath day’s journey away” from Jerusalem (Acts 1:12). (Why did the disciples leave Jerusalem after Jesus had ordered them not to? Acts 1:4, cf. 1:12). Acts suggests the ascension took place forty days after Jesus was raised from the dead (Acts 1:3); Luke’s Gospel makes no mention of this forty-day period and gives the impression that it took place at the end of the first Easter Day. I hope you won’t let these facts trouble you or cause you to doubt the importance of Jesus’ ascension.
The ascension completed Jesus’ journey from heaven and back again. He descended from heaven to earth and from earth to the grave – down, down, down. Then he ascended from the grave to the earth and back to heaven – up, up, up. The Apostle Paul says, “He who descended is the same one who ascended far above all the heavens, so that he might fill all things” (Ephesians 4:10). In his descent and ascent, Jesus demonstrated the paradoxical truth that “all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted” (Luke 14:11, 18:14). Bernard of Clairvaux said, “Through humility you may ascend to sublimity.” The way up is down!
The ascension can be seen as a metaphor for spiritual progress. Ascent was easy for Jesus because he wasn’t weighed down by sin. It’s difficult for us because our sins weigh us down like an anchor. Jesus floated up to heaven like a helium-filled balloon. We have to climb Mount Everest. Spiritual maturity doesn’t come suddenly and unexpectedly like a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It comes from years and years of hard work, through spiritual disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, spiritual reading, fasting, and Christian service. How will we know when we’ve arrived? When we come to that perfect love of God that casts out fear. Love is the hallmark of spiritual ascent, because God is love (1 John 4:8b). The closer we get to God, the more the love of God is perfected in us.