Almost all churches and believers observe at least a tiny section of the Christian calendar (Christmas & Easter). While observing these “holy days” (i.e. holidays) is obviously not any kind of requirement, the purpose of observing certain sacred holidays is to latch on to a form of yearly rhythm, as well as to unite oneself to the larger body of Christ. Much like the Jewish feasts and holidays that Jesus himself embraced, much of the global body of Christ across a spectrum of denominations and churches have learned the value of embracing a rhythm of common calendar observance.
Today is Ascension Day. Forty days after Easter Sunday.
When we tell the story of Jesus, we tend to tell it incompletely. And our incomplete telling of the story of Jesus distorts our gospel. We tell the story generally like this:
Christmas (Jesus’ birth).
Good Friday (his redemptive death upon the cross.).
Easter Sunday (his resurrection).
But this is not the end of the story. Because 40 days after his resurrection Jesus ascended. And of course, the story is still not yet complete because now we await the return of Jesus Christ.
But the fact that Christmas, Good Friday, and the Easter are considered great holy days in the Church while Ascension Day goes largely unnoticed is a significant commentary on our theology.
I don’t think for a committed Christian that Christmas could come and go and not notice it. Or Easter Sunday. The Church makes a big deal out of those days. Of course we must.
But it is a commentary on our lack of theological understanding of the implications of the Ascension that Thursday 40 days after Easter can come and go and we don’t even notice it. I mean, it should be the case that we would be telling our boss, “I’ve got to have Thursday off because it’s Ascension Day and I have a gathering at my home with my friends and family. It’s a very important day for us.”
That’s what should be happening. It should be our great day of prayer. But that it’s not demonstrates that we don’t really understand the Ascension and it’s implications.
The Ascension is not about Jesus flying away to a distant part of the universe. That’s what we often think about it, but it is wrong. First of all, the relationship of heaven and earth just doesn’t work that way. Heaven is not a distant place. It is a different dimension.
The Ascension is not about Jesus assuming a distant geography. The Ascension is about Jesus assuming a divine regency.
Psalm 2 is part of the great promise that God gives to his messiah, written 1,000 years before Jesus’ birth. Look what God says in vv. 7b-8:
“You are my son;
today I have begotten you.
8 Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession. (NRSV)
This is what was fulfilled and began on Ascension Day when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.
The Ascension is about Jesus being promoted to divine rulership of the earth. Think of it this way.
We might say that a king ascends to throne. Now, that the throne may in fact be somewhat elevated physically is a symbolic representation of the reality that the king rules over all the domain. But the emphasis is not about the king going up higher in a physical sense. The emphasis is about his position of authority that has been bequeathed upon him. He ascends to the throne.
Or we might say that a board member in a corporation has been elevated to the position of chairman. It doesn’t mean necessarily that they have to go up higher, although typically they do represent that by assuming the office on the top floor of a corporate building.
Or even in education, we talk about how a student moves up a grade. So the language of ascending higher is there, but the point is not that they actually go up higher. The point is that there is a promotion.
So when Jesus ascended physically into the clouds, that is a symbolic emphasis on the greater spiritual reality that Jesus’ ascension is about Jesus being promoted by God to rule the world.
This is what Christians believe. We believe that God has promoted Jesus to the position of the ruler of the world. That’s an extravagant claim, but it is a thoroughly Christian claim.
Jesus ascended to heaven not to escape the world but to rule the world. The “blessed hope” is that his reign and rule, which has already been inaugurated since his resurrection and ascension, will be completely fulfilled. One day the curtain will be pulled back, and the division between heaven and earth erased. And what is now the present reality will suddenly be known by all that Jesus is Lord.
When the apostles were arrested by the Sanhedrin early on for preaching Jesus as Messiah and were being questioned about this by the ruling religious council in Jerusalem, their defense as expressed by their leader Peter was “God has exalted Jesus and made him both Prince and savior.” That word “prince” is a word that can mean “prince” or “leader” or “ruler” or “chief.” It’s actually the root word in the Latin for our English word “President.”
So it would be very provocative and much more in keeping with the way we think as modern democratic people to imagine Peter responding to this council by saying, “Well, you can say what you want, but here’s the truth: God has made this Jesus to be President and Savior.”
President Jesus. Not by democratic election but by divine appointment of the Father.
One of the titles that we use for Jesus all the time is “King of kings and Lord of lords.” And that is true. But when was the last time you’ve ever heard of anybody that was called a lord? Or even a king for that matter? It’s a title that is very rarely used anymore. We don’t talk about kings and lords. We talk about presidents and prime ministers. That’s the modern vernacular.
So if we’re going to bring it into modern thinking, we can say it this way: The gospel announces that Jesus is now President of Presidents and he is Prime Minister of Prime Ministers. He is the Head of the heads of state. God has promoted Jesus to the rulership of the world. Not just for some future age. But right here and right now.
This is why so many of the apostles and evangelists of the early church were put to death by the ruling authorities. It wasn’t because they were just telling people, “Invite Jesus into your heart so that you can go to heaven when you die.” Rome had zero issues with that. As far as Caesar was concerned, you can talk about heaven, the afterlife, and religion all you want to.
Why were they killed? Because they were announcing that the world has a new Emperor. A new King. A new President. And his name is not Caesar. It’s Jesus Christ.
This is why the gospel is not something just to be believed, but it is something to be obeyed.
Through him we received grace and apostleship to call all the Gentiles to the obedience that comes from faith for his name’s sake. (Romans 1:5)
If Jesus has been raised from the dead and ascended to divine rulership of the world, we must take his teaching seriously. If the Ascension of Jesus is his being promoted by God to the Oval Office of the universe, then we who confess Jesus is Lord must exemplify our faith by obedience, as Paul says. We must live the way he taught us to live.
The task of the Church is to be the community of people who already believe that Jesus is Lord and obey him as Lord, President, Ruler, Emperor, Prime Minister.