Who’s Going to Clean Up after the Horse? (5 Reasons the Ascension Matters)

Why do heroes ride off into the sunset? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed? Who wants a hero who skips town as soon as the crisis is over? The hard stuff is what comes next. Sure you beat up the big bad guy, but what about all the little ones? What about all the problems you didn’t fix? What about the daily grind of living in a broken world? Look at you on your cool horse. Who do you think is going to clean up all that poop it left behind?

Forget the sunset. I want a hero who sticks around, not one who takes off.

But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? His people waited thousands of years for him to come. And finally, the Messiah arrived. Then….bam! He’s gone. One minute he’s there with the disciples, and then “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

He ascended. He left.

I can just picture the disciples standing there, staring into the sky like a bunch of kids watching all their balloons float away.

The Messiah rode off into the sunset.

What is that all about? Why wouldn’t Jesus stick around? You’d think a few thousand years would be enough waiting already. Did he really need to take off and make us wait longer? That’s like telling the kids on Christmas morning that they’ll need to wait until New Year’s to open their presents.

That’s just mean.

So something must be wrong with how I’m telling this story. The ascension isn’t a mean trick that God played on us. And it certainly isn’t about Jesus leaving us just when we needed him most. The way the Bible tells it, the ascension is fundamental to God’s story.
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5 Reasons the Ascension Matters

Luke begins the book of Acts with the ascension for a reason. In Luke’s story, which includes both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the Ascension is the critical hinge between the life/death/resurrection of Jesus (Luke) and the story of his Spirit-empowered people at work in the world (Acts). And that’s because, for the biblical authors, the Ascension is critical.

1. The Kingdom

It’s really with the ascension that Jesus establishes the Kingdom. Although Jesus lived his entire life in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom promises, the ascension is key. That’s why the Bible pictures the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven leading a host of captives (Eph. 4:8), the defeated enemies of the Kingdom. And, arriving in heaven, he sits down at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb 1:3). His rule has begun. The Kingdom is here! With his birth the King arrives. With his life, death, and resurrection the King redeems. With his ascension the King rules. If you stop short of the ascension, the story dies.

2. The Priest

And, having returned to the father, Jesus also serves forever as our true High Priest (Heb. 9), the perfect priest who cleansed the people from their sins and will always represent them before the Father. The ascension breaks the cycle of God’s people continually needing a new priest to offer a new sacrifice. With the ascension, Jesus becomes our true priest forever.

3. The Spirit

In one of the most amazing statements in the Bible, Jesus says that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (Jn. 16:5). I can think of several people who could make the world a better place just by leaving it. But Jesus? How can his departure be good for us? Because the ascension is when Jesus sends the Spirit to God’s people. His departure is good news because the Spirit is good news. So, having promised to send the Spirit once he was gone, that’s exactly what he did. After Acts 1 comes Acts 2 – Jesus ascended and the Spirit came. Good news.

4. The People

But now for an interesting question: Why did Jesus need to leave in order to send the Spirit? Couldn’t the Spirit have come while he was here? To be honest, I have no idea if God could have done things differently. Probably. So why do it like this? As I’ve said before, I try to avoid answering “Why did God…?” questions. But I do wonder if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to empower God’s people so that we could do what we were always supposed to: image God in creation as his people. Jesus could have continued doing that for us. He does it far better than we ever could. But God’s plan was never to carry out our role for us. He wants us to do it. So I wonder if the ascension is about God creating space for his people to be his people and carry out their calling in the world. I don’t know, but I wonder.

5. The Future

Finally, I think the ascension is a powerful reminder of our destiny. Here it’s important to remember that Jesus did not stop being human when he ascended. It’s not as though his humanity was a costume that he put on at Christmas and hastily discarded at the ascension. Jesus represents us as our High Priest forever specifically because he remains one of us forever. So the ascension points to our destiny as humans – ruling over God’s creation and manifesting his glory everywhere.

The ascension is not an optional add-on to the story, a piece that we may choose to discuss if we have any time after dealing with the more important parts. The ascension is critical. The ascension is when the King rules, the Priest represents, the Spirit comes, the People serve, and the future shines with the brilliance of God’s plan.

Jesus didn’t just ride off into the sunset, leaving us to clean up the mess he left behind. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the father so that God’s plans could be accomplished. Once we really understand that, we’ll agree that it truly was better for us that he go.

[I asked someone to read through my gospel book, and he pointed out that I didn’t have anything in there on the ascension. What a tragic oversight! So this is my first shot at addressing that omission. Let me know what you think.] 

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About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on December 22, 2011, in Christology, Gospel, Theology. Bookmark the permalink. 12 Comments.

  1. Great list. I met Dr. David Moffitt at SBL and he did his dissertation on resurrection in Hebrews. One element that he emphasized, and found emphasized elsewhere in the NT, is how Jesus’ resurrection allowed him to enter the heavenlies as our priest. Likewise, as you noted, from Ephesians, it allows him to rule beyond our realm for the time being.

  2. I don’t know Marc. Those archeologists in Israel keep finding more stuff. Ossuaries (burial boxes)are really interesting—they found one a few years back with Yeshua bar Yehoseph. Of course, those name combinations are fairly common.There was booklet of scripture, composed of copper plates, found recently, but as far as I know it didn’t fit the orthodox boundaries of scripture. Like in other things, I think you can believe in Christ, and still accept modern scientific realities. BBC commentator and amateur archaeologist Graham Hancock has written some interesting stuff on cultures that may have vanished with the sea level rise following the end of the Ice Age. The history of human civilization may go back a lot further than we realized—way beyond the land of Mesopotamia, even! Some people don’t keep up on the news apparently.

    • Maybe I missed the thread of your argument. Are you saying that archeological finds have something do with how we view the Ascension? If so, I’m not sure I see the connection.

  3. Marc, I’m saying that someday archeaologists may actually find the remains of Jesus Christ. One can still follow him.

    • I think that might be stretching the resources of archeology just a bit too far. The best they could come up with is something that claimed to be the bones of Christ. But as you know, substantiating something like that would be pretty much impossible.

      Either way, I think you’d have to agree that the way the Bible presents the story, the ascension is pretty important. Whether you think the Bible’s presentation of the story is accurate/important is a different question. And it sounds like we have pretty different views on that latter question.

  4. I don’t have very scholarly views since I am not a professional archaeologist. I guess what I am getting at is as I read current events there is a lot of truth that is coming to light that takes one beyond the traditional Bible narrative. And by the NT’s admission we don’t have that much information about Jesus to have a complete description. Do you think 3 years of teaching and 30+ years of living could be put into a few chapters? Thus it remains an unanswered question: Who was Jesus. Did Jesus rise from the dead?. I don’t know, but it doesn’t matter because I stii have to decide whether I think what He said was right. Plus I know anyways there have been holy, spiritual people, and still are today, who do incredible things beyond normal human comprehension. Jesus could have been one of them, but we ordinary folks may never get that far.

    Here’s another perspective: My brother was raised in the same Baptist Sunday school I was and he was recetnly commissioned —as an artists—to do paintings of the Missoula Ice Age floods for a local museum. Guess those were 10-100,000 years ago! I don’t know what my Baptist minister relatives think about that. I haven’t asked! But even in my closest family members I have to deal with reality that pushes us way beyond the literalist, Biblical narrative.

    There is a fascinating, broad world out there. my man. “Love rejoices happily in the truth.” (I Corinthians 13:6) We have to accept the truth as it comes. It doesn’t really change my view of Jesus.

  5. @Swaren, I think I have to side with Marc on this one. It sounds like the Jesus you want to paint has no resemblance to the Jesus of Christianity or the Bible b/c the Bible is always suspect to what archeology finds. I completely agree with you that archeology and science help explain the natural world in a way that the Bible does not. However, this isn’t b/c the Bible is “wrong” or “inaccurate” but b/c the Bible is not a science text book. I didn’t spit on Shakespeare in high school b/c my geometry book never mentioned him. So it seems ironic to appeal to truth in 1 Cor. 13:6, if a main tenet of your argument is that the Bible contains untruths. (Perhaps that pushes your argument too far though b/c you would be more inclined to say that we have simply misrepresented the Bible’s truth, and that indeed is another matter). However, the Bible proclaims the resurrection and ascension of Christ as a literal, tangible, historical event and Paul pities Christians as bound for hell if it’s not literally true – 1 Cor. 15:17-19. Can you still believe in Jesus and not believe he was born of a virgin, literally died, physically rose, and historically ascended? I guess so, but it seems honesty would require one to at least say that it is not the Jesus of Christianity that the Bible proclaims.

  6. We have a very close knit family that has four ordained ministers, all evangelicals. Actually we started out as Lutherans (my paternal grandparents came from Norway) but after moving out to the West Coast they all split into different evangelical churches, including the Conservative Baptist where I was raised. But, as I mentioned my brother’s artwork, I find myself confronted with scientific evidence, for example local geology, which makes it harder to accept the traditional literalist view. And many other Christians do as well, even if they don’t admit it. I’m simply saying that the Modernist-Fundamentalist schism never has really been resolved honestly, and certainly modern science makes a lot of literalist interpretation difficult to maintain. I’m not saying that Christ wasn’t profound, and that He didn’t do miracles, etc.

    Unfortunately, I don’t get handsomely paid to represent a religious viewpoint as certain profs do. What I think is ironic is that Western is now touting transformation through the Gospel. I have always believed in that. Unfortunately Conservative Baptists took upon themselves heavy financial burdens, probably because they started out as a mission society and kept appointing lots of them, and also took the obligation of maintaining educational institutions and that has made their acceptance by ordinary folks, looking for trustworthy people, hard to attain. A highly acclaimed work I would refer you to is:
    The Evangelical Subculture” by Prof. Randall Balmer of Columbia U. You can find some summaries with Randall Balmer on YouTube. It aired on PBS. It is a sympathetic critique. I’m open to the truth wherever it is.

    • Woah, this discussion took a rather unexpected turn. I don’t normally respond to comments that are clearly off topic. But this one has a few things in it that I think need to be addressed.

      First, I’m going to assume that you’re referring to me when you talk about someone who gets “handsomely paid to represent a religious viewpoint.” I don’t normally take offense at comments, but I’m not sure how else to take this. You have no idea how much money I make, so please do not suggest that you do. And unless you’ve worked at Western Seminary lately, you have no idea how much any of us make. More importantly, I’m completely at a loss to see how it makes any difference for the discussion that we’re having.

      Second, I do not appreciate the suggestion that I’m just a mercenary hack who spouts the party line because he gets paid to. If that’s what you think I’m doing, I’d have to wonder why you’re bothering to read any of this.

      Third, it sounds like you have a gripe with the CBA. Though I have nothing against the CBA, I am not now nor have I ever been a part of the CBA. So please take up your concerns elsewhere.

      Fourth, and this is really the main reason I responded in the first place, you are incorrect in connecting Western Seminary with the finances of the CBA. To the best of my knowledge, Western does not receive any money from the CBA, though it does receive donations from quite a few individual CBA churches as well as churches from other denominations. Again, though, I fail to see how any of this has anything to do with the ascension. So please stay on topic.

  7. With all due respect,Marc, I’m sorry if I am emoting. I do believe that we need the Gospel to change lives, but I thought the bottom line was to “walk in the Spirit” not how much intellectual firepower can be displayed. I would humbly ask you to look at Randall Balmer’s work. His father was an evangelical minister so he is very sympathetic but takes a sociological view of us as a culture. Balmer is also an editor for Christianity Today.

    For 25 years I was a member at a church that has a ‘unique’ relationship with Western and actually I have been a short term employee at Western, too. It was in 1976 and the people were very nice, but even then I sensed some of the prof’s didn’t like me. I don’t know why. Maybe they have more serious things on their minds that I can’t fathom. I think I would have enjoyed continuing to work there longer, but, alas, our projects were completed in less than a year.

    I was reading Rev. Johnson’s article about ministering to someone who was tragically crippled by surgery. I know that the pastoral ability to get through to people’s hearts when there is hopelessness and misery is a very cherished ability. I wish I had that ability—maybe it would make my relations with people smoother.

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