By Daniel Marrs
Forty days after Jesus rose from the grave, another miracle marked the completion of Jesus’ earthly ministry: the Ascension. This episode doesn’t get as much attention as Jesus’ birth, crucifixion, or resurrection. Christmas and Easter are major cultural events, even outside of Christian circles. But for many Christians, Ascension Day passes by with hardly a murmur of recognition or excitement. Why is that?
Maybe it’s because the Ascension seems a little strange. A man floating into the sky, never to be seen again…what’s this all about? But remember, this is the same man who was born to a virgin, calmed storms with a word, rose from the dead, and who, post-resurrection, could pass through walls and locked doors. Let’s be honest—disappearing into the sky is sort of par for the course given that kind of context!
I wonder if our tendency to let Ascension Day slip past uncelebrated has more to do with the simple fact that it feels anticlimactic? The Christmas story tells us that God purposed to be with us, joining himself to human nature and walking among us as a man. And we know how Jesus’ life culminated with the world-shaking significance of the cross and the resurrection.
But then he just…leaves. Why? And what does it mean for us?
Let’s go back to the story itself, as recorded in Scripture. And then we’ll uncover some of the story’s meaning and provide some truths to meditate on this Ascension Day.
In the book of Acts we read that for 40 days Jesus “presented himself alive with many convincing proofs,” and he “spoke about matters concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3, NET).
Can you imagine the atmosphere of anticipation and excitement? The apostles’ hopes about Jesus had been dashed when he was arrested and crucified as a criminal. But the resurrection changed everything—in more ways than any of them realized. Anything seemed possible. Maybe now all their hopes for the coming kingdom of God—all the deepest desires of the people of Israel wrapped up in Jesus the Messiah—would finally come true!
Sure, Jesus was still making some hard-to-interpret comments. For example, “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait there for what my Father promised…For John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now” (verse 5).
We don’t know for sure what the apostles made of these mysterious sayings, which probably didn’t fit neatly with their ideas about the coming kingdom. But even so, expectations were running high. “Lord,” the apostles asked, “Is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (verse 6).
Instead, Jesus signaled that his plans for the kingdom were even bigger and better than the apostles had imagined. “You are not permitted to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (verses 7 and 8).
Then, before their very eyes, Jesus physically floated up into the sky, disappearing from view behind the clouds as the apostles gaped in amazement.
We don’t know how long they stood staring. But it was long enough that two angels eventually showed up to call their attention back to earth: “Why do you stand here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come back in the same way you saw him go into heaven” (verse 11).
So, the apostles stayed in Jerusalem and waited, just as Jesus had instructed. Only a few days later, the Holy Spirit was poured out in an unprecedented way on God’s people, and the church was born.
But what do we make of this odd interlude between the resurrection and the establishment of the church through the power of the Holy Spirit?
Let me suggest three things to ponder this Ascension Day, things that make a huge difference for every Christian.
1. The Ascension reminds us of the kind of hope we have in Jesus.
The way that Jesus departed tells us something. He didn’t dissolve away into the spiritual ether. He didn’t become “one with the Force,” like Obi-Wan Kenobi leaving behind an empty robe as his consciousness ascended to a higher plane. Instead, in continuity with the stable, the cross, and the tomb, with the flesh and blood and grime and texture of everyday life, Jesus ascended bodily, in full view of the apostles.
The angelic messengers were clear that he’d return in the same way. This reminds us that Jesus and his kingdom aren’t disconnected from this world. Remember when Jesus taught his disciples how to pray? “Our Father in heaven, may your name be honored, may your kingdom come, may your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-10, emphasis added).
The Ascension—specifically the extraordinary way in which Jesus’ body physically rose up into the sky—reminds us about the kind of hope we have in Jesus. It’s not an ethereal, otherworldly hope. God’s kingdom is all about the heavenly transformation of this world in a place where Jesus is king. We fully expect our king to return, to be physically present with us.
So the Ascension is a vital bookend to Jesus’ ministry, verifying once and for all that the kingdom (and the hope we have in Jesus) hasn’t been transmuted into some vague, spiritual consciousness—it remains tangible and real.
2. The Ascension reveals the scope of God’s kingdom.
Did you notice how the apostles phrased their question to Jesus? “Is this the time when you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). They had the right focus in many ways: Jesus was indeed the promised Messiah for the people of Israel.
But Jesus’ answer reveals that God’s plan has global ramifications: “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the farthest parts of the earth” (Acts 1:7-8).
Scripture also tells us that when Jesus returns, it will be a global event. The apostle John wrote, “Look! He is returning with the clouds, and every eye will see him” (Revelation 1:7). Jesus’ return will eventually culminate with the full realization of God’s kingdom—the new heaven and new earth, where God dwells with his people in perfect harmony and peace (see Revelation 21).
The Ascension account reminds us that God wants to establish his reign over the entire cosmos. When he left, his ministry was actually just beginning. And that brings us to the last observation about the Ascension…
3. The Ascension tells us that we have a part to play.
When Jesus left, he was closing one chapter of his ministry to open a new chapter—the ongoing ministry of the church through the power of the Holy Spirit! Jesus told his disciples about their mission to serve as witnesses on a global scale, sharing the good news about Jesus and his kingdom. And he told them to expect a powerful outpouring of his Spirit that would enable this mission. What started on Pentecost, just a few short days after the Ascension, continues to this day. Each Christian has a role in this Spirit-empowered work. We are witnesses, sharing what we’ve heard and experienced.
Jesus’ departure was temporary. He wasn’t abandoning his people! In fact, he was making room for a deepening and broadening of God’s mission in the world. In John 16 Jesus told his disciples, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I am going away. For if I do not go away, the Advocate [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you, but if I go, I will send him to you” (verse 7). He went on to say, “When he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth” (verse 13).
The Ascension is an invitation to continue the work and ministry of Jesus during his temporary absence.
Bio: Daniel Marrs is the publisher for Thomas Nelson Bibles. He has taught Bible and theology classes at Baylor University and Belmont University, served in the United States Air Force, had a brief stint playing guitar in two different bands you’ve never heard of, and is obsessed with theology, with degrees from Baylor University (PhD, 2015) and Talbot School of Theology (MA, 2009). He resides in Nashville with his wife and daughter.
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