Today the Church throughout much of the United States celebrates a mysterious event called the Ascension of the Lord.
As I have said, the Ascension of the Lord is mysterious, and as such, at times misunderstood. Many people have come to believe that the Ascension of the Lord is about how, at a certain point of time, the Lord Jesus disappeared from the planet, drifting off into the stratosphere, and from a place in the sky, he moved off into heaven, where he remains to this day—with us, but only at a distance.
This mistaken perception has been reinforced by simplistic interpretations of the descriptions of the Ascension in the New Testament, which are using unusual language to describe an event that was really and truly experienced by the Apostles and disciples of the Lord Jesus.
The language of that they use to describe this event is meant to indicate that what the Apostles and disciples saw had to be understood in the categories given by the prophets of the Old Testament. I know that this sounds complicated, and it is, but to put it simply, the Apostles and disciples who witnessed the Ascension of the Lord Jesus wanted, first and foremost, to provide a theological description of their experience—and to do so they used the Scriptures of the Old Testament as their guide.
The prophets of the Old Testament had foreseen that God would act in the world in Christ and that he would change the world in an extraordinary way. The Apostles and disciples came to understand that what the prophets had foreseen had all come to pass in the Lord Jesus.
Thus, the Old Testament was filled with signs indicating who the Lord Jesus really and truly is and what his mission in the world is all about.
The Apostles and disciples refer to these signs from the Old Testament in their descriptions of their experiences of the Lord Jesus.
Now, since we might only be vaguely familiar with the Old Testament, or even if we are somewhat familiar, not really sure of what precisely the prophets of the Old Testament were referring to, some of the ways in which the Apostles and disciples describe their experience of the Lord Jesus might seem unintelligible. For example, what do the Gospel writers really mean when they say that Christ is the Son of David or that he is the Messiah?
You would have to know something about what the prophets of the Old Testament said about such things or something about the historical books of the Bible, and if you didn’t you really wouldn’t know what the Gospels are referring to.
This is the case with the Ascension of the Lord Jesus, an event that is described for us in an excerpt from a New Testament book called the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts of the Apostles is a follow up to the Gospels, particularly the Gospel of Luke, and it offers a glimpse at the great events that happened after Christ’s resurrection from the dead.
The excerpt is from the first chapter, and it describes the Ascension of the Lord Jesus as “Jesus being lifted up and disappearing into a cloud.” The language here is a description of signs from the Old Testament. The first sign is manifested in Christ being “lifted up,” which captures the meaning of imagery from the Old Testament that refers to the revelation of God beginning a new age for the world and new time in human history (Book of Daniel, Ancient of Days, Son of Man).
The second is the reference to the cloud, which is a reference to how the divine presence reveals itself (Exodus, the Temple, etc.).
What the Apostles and disciples are testifying to is that at a certain point the revelation of Jesus Christ risen from the dead changed.
Christ revealed himself not only in the physical body of his Resurrection, but also in a new way in which great signs from the Old Testament were being fulfilled. The two signs were a new age for the world and a new revelation of God’s presence.
Christ was at the heart of the matter for both this new time in history and this new revelation of God’s presence. This is what is being signified when the Acts of Apostles says that the Lord Jesus was “taken up to heaven.” It doesn’t just mean he disappears into a different metaphysical plane of existence, but that he will now reveal himself, here on earth, in a new and surprising way. This new and surprising revelation will change the world and change how people experience the divine presence here on earth. This is what the Ascension of the Lord Jesus is all about—not that he disappears, but that he reveals himself in a new, surprising, and very mysterious way.
Further, it is through this new time in history and this new revelation of God’s presence that God in Christ would bring certain promises he had made about the restoration of the kingdom of Israel. The fulfillment of these promises would happen as future events associated with the new age of the world and the new revelation of God’s presence would be revealed.
The Apostles and disciples would be major players in these future events. In fact, they would receive a share of divine power so that they could fulfill their mission. This power would be called the Holy Spirit.
So the excerpt from the Acts of the Apostles is not best understood when it is isolated from the rest of the book that it begins.
This particular Scripture is setting things up for a great big story—the story of the continued revelation of God in Christ in the world, in history, and in the Church.
You see, the Acts of the Apostles will tell us that the life and presence of Christ continues to be revealed in the Church. The Church is not merely something that the followers of the Lord Jesus invented, but instead, it is a revelation of the Lord Jesus himself. The Church is the sign that a new moment in history has begun and is the privileged bearer of his divine life and presence in the world.
The Church continues the revelation of the Incarnation of God in Christ in the world. Bottom line: this is what the Ascension of the Lord Jesus reveals. Not that the Lord Jesus drifted off into the stratosphere, but that his revelation changed. The Lord Jesus doesn’t just exist somewhere out there; he is, even right now, acting to bring heaven to earth in the Church.
This is the reason that an angel tells the Apostles and disciples to stop looking off into heaven for the Lord Jesus after the Ascension has taken place. He is not off “out there.” Christ is present in the world in a new and surprising way. Once, he revealed himself in the body of his human nature, and now, he reveals himself in a new kind of body—this body is called the Church.
It is the Church that will fulfill Christ’s promises about a kingdom too!
Now, these promises about a kingdom were not, as some had misconstrued, about the creation of a utopia of sorts. No. Instead, the promises about a kingdom were about the defeat of worldly and spiritual powers that were opposed to God’s plan in Christ.
These worldly and spiritual powers were not abstractions, but very real entities, and they made themselves the enemies of God in Christ and stood as obstacles to the people receiving the new revelation of God’s divine presence in Christ the Lord.
One of these powers was Rome—a mighty, worldly empire—and as the great big story of Acts of the Apostles continues, we see the beginnings of Christ’s strategy to deal with Rome. God in Christ will overcome the Roman Empire, but the way he will do it will come as a total surprise.
In reference to that surprise, let me just say that when God in Christ wants to deal with the enemies of his kingdom, he doesn’t send in tanks and legions of soldiers; he sends his Church.
And let’s make that the lesson for today: too many of us Christians have such a diminished and desiccated understanding and experience of the Church. We think the Church is merely some kind of faith-based corporation that provides services for its members or acts as a contractor to help the government with social services.
If that is all that the Church is, it is no wonder so many people lose interest in the Church and drift away. The Church is revealed to be, in the Ascension of the Lord Jesus, the extraordinary means by which God in Christ is acting in the world.
And there is a deep implication for us in this, and we all need to get ourselves ready for what this implies: we are not called by Christ into his Church so as to receive faith-based services that we pay for.
In fact, if you take today’s Gospel seriously, you see that Christ never said anything about the purpose of the Church being to establish faith-based infrastructure for the benefit of its members. No! What Christ wants his Church to do is to make disciples. The purpose of this vast network of institutions is not to serve our faith-based needs, but to create the conditions for the possibilities for more disciples. If the infrastructure we are maintaining is not fulfilling the purpose of making disciples, then whose purpose does it serve? Christ’s? Or someone else’s?
If we use the Church for any purpose other than for what Christ intends, our efforts will falter and fail. We are called by Christ into his Church to advance the cause of his kingdom. And it is the cause, the purpose, of Christ’s kingdom to change the world. God in Christ wants to change this culture in much the same way he changed Rome.
Listen to this (and believe it): when God in Christ wants to change the situation on earth, he sends us; he sends you. He has sent the Church.
What are you here for? What is the Church for?
To bear Christ’s heaven into this world; and in doing so, to change your life; and in changing your life, to change the world.