“The Past, Present, and Future of the Ascension” (Luke 24:44-53; Ephesians 1:15-23; Acts 1:1-11)
“He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.” That’s what we just confessed about our Lord Jesus Christ, isn’t it? This portion of the Apostles’ Creed captures what this day, Ascension Day, is all about. These three things: He ascended into heaven. He sits at the right hand of the Father. And he will come again. A past act. A present reality. And a future hope. And all of these things are good news for you. So now let’s consider these blessed truths, under the theme: “The Past, Present, and Future of the Ascension.”
The lessons appointed for Ascension Day–from Luke, from Ephesians, and from Acts–these lessons lead us into these truths and show us the past, present, and future dimensions of the Ascension of Our Lord. We take them now, one at a time.
First, the past. Christ’s ascension is a past act. It is a historical fact. It happened on a certain day in history. There were witnesses. The event is recorded for us to read. Luke the historian tells us what happened. In fact, he tells us twice, once at the end of his gospel and again at the start of his second volume, the Book of Acts. In Luke 24 we read that Jesus led his disciples out “as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” And in Acts 1, likewise, Luke tells us what happened forty days after Christ’s resurrection, on “the day when he was taken up”: “As they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.”
So there is the past act, the bare fact: Jesus ascended into heaven. But this fact has context, and it has meaning. The context is that this ascension happens only after other things have happened first: namely, that the Christ suffered and died and the third day rose from the dead. In other words, Jesus ascends into heaven after having completed the saving mission on which his Father sent him. In his ascension, the Son of God is returning to the Father, having done all things the Father sent him to do. That is the context of Christ’s ascension.
And this has great and wonderful meaning for you! For by his death and resurrection, Jesus has won total and complete salvation for you! His death on the cross won full forgiveness for all of your sins. You are cleansed, you are covered, by the blood of God’s own Son.
Yes, you are a sinner. So am I. We have not done what God would have us do. And we have done what God tells us not to do, in his commandments. That is sin. And it is damning. You and I are guilty. And we cannot make up for these sins by anything we do. So God had to intervene. He did so by sending his own Son into this world to be our Savior. His name is Jesus Christ. His mission was to pay the price that sets us free. And that is what he did on the cross, taking the penalty that we deserve: death under God’s judgment. Jesus took that in your place and for the sins of the whole world.
God then raised him up on the third day, on Easter Day, showing forth the victory that Christ has won over sin and death. The victory remains with life, the resurrection life of Jesus, which, by his grace, he shares with us. Through faith in Christ, trusting in him and not in ourselves, we are brought into a life of repentance and the forgiveness of sins.
So it is with that context and that meaning that Christ ascended into heaven. The ascension of our Lord is a past and completed act that has great meaning for our present and our future.
Secondly, this Ascension Day also tells us what Jesus is doing now, now that he has ascended. Once again from the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The ascended Christ right now is sitting at the right hand of the Father. That is a present reality. Our reading from Ephesians speaks of the great might that God worked in Christ “when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places.” But then, what does this mean, that Christ now is seated at the right hand of God? What’s this “right hand” business?
To be “seated at the right hand,” in biblical thought, means to be placed in the position of highest honor and authority. In the ancient world, to be seated at a king’s right hand meant that that person had been bestowed with the highest honor that a king can give. That this person has been authorized to exercise the authority of the king himself. And so that is what it means when the Bible and the Creed say that Christ is seated at the right hand of God. God has given Jesus the name that is above every name. Worthy is the Lamb to receive honor and blessing and glory and might. Again, as Ephesians says, God has “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Do you see why this is such great good news, that Christ is seated at the right hand of God? It means that Jesus, your brother and Savior, right now is interceding on your behalf. He is praying for you, watching over you. Indeed, Jesus Christ now is governing all things in heaven and on earth for the good of his church. It may look like this world is spinning out of control, pure chaos: Civil disturbances. Natural disasters. Political upheavals. The persecution of the church. Christians being slaughtered by the hundreds and the thousands by Islamic terrorists. Our own nation, America, has fallen into complete moral collapse. Good is spoken of as evil, and evil applauded as good. The world has gone crazy, and it seems to be getting worse.
In such a situation, we can begin to despair. How long, O Lord? Where are you, Lord? What Ascension Day tells us, though, is that, in spite of appearances, God is indeed working out the course of history according to plan. God has not abandoned his church. The Good Shepherd is still watching out for his sheep. Why? Because Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
And Christ’s ascension does not mean his real absence, but his real presence with his church. Our dear Lord assures us: “Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in their midst.” And again, “For lo I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” We have a Savior who is with us, right here, right now. He even gives us his true body and blood here in the Holy Supper, for us, for the forgiveness of our sins.
Having ascended, Christ now is seated at the right hand of God, governing all things for the sake of his church. And even more so, Christ is present with his church, wherever his Christians are gathered in his name and where he himself gives us his precious Sacrament. This is a present reality.
A past act. A present reality. That leads us then to our third point, a future hope. The angels at Christ’s ascension pointed to this future when they told the disciples: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” This is speaking of the glorious return of Christ on the Last Day. As we say in the Creed: “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he will come to judge the living and the dead.” Christ will come again! This is our future hope.
“But Pastor, you just said he will come again to judge! How can that be a thing of hope? I don’t want to be judged!” Oh, true enough, if you and I were to be judged according to our sins. We would not make it. We would not meet God’s standard of judgment, and we would be condemned to hell. But remember, Jesus has taken care of those sins. Fully paid for, by his blood, on the cross of Calvary. Your sins are forgiven, and God will remember them no more. Thanks be to God!
So what will happen on the day when Christ returns is not that you will be judged guilty and thus condemned, but rather that you will be pronounced righteous for Christ’s sake and welcomed into his eternal kingdom! Christ will say on that day: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We are his own, beloved, and so we will “live under him in his kingdom and serve him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, just as he is risen from the dead, lives and reigns to all eternity.” What a joy this will be! Unbroken joy! No more sorrow or sighing. No more sickness or death. Only joy. Only blessedness. We can only imagine how good this will be. And even then, it will be even better, beyond anything we can imagine or our minds now can grasp. This is what is in store for us. It is our future hope. And it is a hope we can be sure of, we can stake our lives on, because God’s Word is true and cannot lie.
The past, present, and future of the Ascension. A past act: He ascended into heaven. Christ’s saving mission is complete, having won our salvation. A present reality: He sits at the right hand of the Father. Jesus now is governing all things for the sake of his church, and he is with his church, present with us till the close of the age. A future hope: He will come again. Our Lord will return on the Last Day and welcome us into his everlasting kingdom. Do you see now why the church all around the world today is celebrating this great festival? It’s really good news!