“[Jesus] no longer stands before us but only behind us.” That’s what Biblical scholar Douglas Farrow wrote in a book about the ascension of Jesus into heaven. He was describing what’s missing in the church today because we no longer think much about the doctrine of Christ’s ascension or what it means for Christ’s church even now. Jesus stands “only behind us” in our thinking because we speak a lot about Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection, what He has done for us in the past. And we are certainly right to emphasize the importance of those events for our salvation! But what is missing in modern American Christianity is an emphasis on the Jesus who stands before us, who has ascended into heaven and who even now reigns over His church and fills all things. We think about Jesus mostly in past tense (crucifixion and resurrection) and perhaps in future tense (second coming), but not much at all in present tense, where Christ is ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father.
It is long past time for the church to recover an emphasis on the ascension of Jesus. What does it mean that Jesus is ascended and sits at the right hand of the Father, as we confess in the Creed? We’re not talking about where Jesus’ body is spatially, as though Jesus went up into the clouds and so is longer present with His church on earth. The ascension is not some sort of divine space travel. Rather, the ascension of Jesus means that Jesus has assumed His reign as king over the church. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him (Matthew 28:18) and He exercises that authority “at the right hand of God,” which is not so much a place, as a position of authority. In fact, we still use this expression when we talk about someone being so-and-so’s “right hand man.”
Jesus reigns over the church, and is still present among us, although we cannot now see Him. We will see Him with our physical eyes when He comes again. Until then, we know He is with us because He promised He would be with us until the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). That He is ascended means He is ruling to bring faith, mercy, and salvation to all of His people by His Word that He causes to be preached and the Sacraments which He causes to go out, accompanied by the Holy Spirit that He sends (John 15:26). This is meant to bring the church comfort that Christ is still with us and that nothing we can do can really screw up His plan for His church. He’s still here, with all divine and human authority as the Son of God, ruling over His people.
In the ascension we also believe and confess that Jesus is even now mysteriously reigning over the kingdoms of this world, although indirectly. This should give us tremendous encouragement, especially in the face of governments, people, and culture that is increasingly hostile to our Christian faith. Though we cannot see it, we know that Jesus is ruling over all things, and that none of the plans to destroy the church or the faith of Christ’s people will ultimately come to fruition. Jesus is ruling over all things and bending even the evil of the devil and the world to His ultimate plans.
We need to recapture in our understanding of the faith that Christ is not just behind us, but before us. He is ruling now and working all things together for our good (Romans 8:28). Longing for the coming of Jesus to complete what He has even now begun in His ascension should be something that we pray for and desire always, and not only at the ends of our earthly lives, or at the end of the church year.
Most Lutheran churches in America do not have ascension services anymore. If observed at all, the observance is usually transferred to the Sunday following ascension. I wonder, do we not have ascension services because we no longer think much about Jesus as our Lord who is ascended and reigns over us, or do we not think much of that because we no longer bother to take the time to observe ascension as a special service worthy of extra attention, devotion, prayer, and worship?
I’m not sure which is the chicken, and which is the egg, but I think one of the things we can do to highlight Jesus’ ascension as a critical teaching for the church is to restore the celebration of Jesus’ ascension on its actual day, which is 40 days after His resurrection. This always occurs on a Thursday. This year, it will be May 13th. I strongly encourage you to come to ascension services to learn more about why it matters that Jesus is ascended and rules over His people now, and what a comfort and blessing this is for the church.
In the name of the risen and ascended Lord Jesus,