by Justin Dillehay
It may be the most important doctrine you never think about.
It’s in the Bible. It’s in the Apostles’ Creed. And it’s something the church commemorates today, May 30. I’m talking about the ascension of Jesus (Luke 24:50–51; Acts 1:9–11).
I’m not sure why we neglect the ascension. Perhaps it gets overshadowed by the cross and resurrection. Maybe we’re slightly embarrassed by a story that sounds like Superman flying off into space. Regardless, I fear we don’t fully appreciate what the ascension does—both in salvation history and also in our Christian experience.
Here are four reasons the ascension matters.
1. The Ascension Explains Jesus’s Absence
If Jesus were dead, his absence would require no explanation. (After all, none of us wonders why we’ve never seen Peter or Paul or Julius Caesar.) But he’s not—so it does.
We worship and love a man we’ve never seen. And it’s not just us 21st-century Christians. It was true of many first-century Christians as well. As Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, “Though you have not seen him, you love him” (1 Pet. 1:8).
This bittersweet reality is so obvious that we take it for granted. And yet without the ascension, it wouldn’t be obvious at all. Jesus is more alive today than when he raised Lazarus 2,000 years ago. And yet Christianity has never included pilgrimages to meet Jesus in person or international tours by Jesus to visit his church. There’s only one reason why not: Because 40 days after he rose again, he ascended into heaven.
The ascension created the bittersweet tension that Christians on earth have experienced for almost two millennia: that of being present in the body and absent from the Lord (2 Cor. 5:6–9). Of course, there is a vital sense in which Jesus is always with us (Matt. 18:20; 28:20), but not in the full and final sense. Just as the angels could point to the empty tomb and say, “He is not here; he has risen” (Matt. 28:6), they could now point to the entire world and say, “He is not here; he has ascended.”
2. The Ascension Enthrones Jesus at the Father’s Right Hand
The ascension isn’t mainly about what Jesus was leaving, but where he was going and why. I’ve referred to it as “bittersweet,” and focused on the bitter part. But the ascension should also be sweet to everyone who loves Jesus. The ascension was Jesus returning home. Back to his Father. Back where he had dwelt in glorious love from all eternity (John 1:1, 18; 13:1; 17:5, 11, 13, 23)—only this time with the keys of Death in his nail-scarred hand (Rev. 1:18). Just imagine the welcoming party.
But the ascension wasn’t simply Jesus going home; it was Jesus being enthroned. Scripture repeatedly speaks of the ascension ending with Jesus “being seated at the right hand of the Father” (Ps. 110:1; Acts 2:33–34; Eph. 1:20; 1 Pet. 3:22). And this is no ordinary seat. As Jesus told the church in Laodicea, “I . . . conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Rev. 3:21).
How did he conquer? By dying and rising. We see this in Revelation 5:5–6, where the Lion who has conquered is seen as a lamb who has been slain but is now standing. This description of the Lamb standing isn’t meant to conflict with the numerous references to Jesus being seated; rather, it’s meant to show that Jesus is alive, since slain lambs aren’t usually standing. But it’s the ascension that placed Jesus where John saw him standing—in the heavenly throne room surrounded by a host of elders, living creatures, and saints, all worshiping him and his Father (Rev. 5:6–14).
This is the message of the most often-quoted Old Testament passage in the New Testament, Psalm 110:1: “The LORD says to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” The ascension is how he got there (Acts 2:33–34). It’s what enthroned him as king, “ruling in the midst of his enemies” (Ps. 110:1).
3. The Ascension Allows Him to Continue His Priestly Work for Us
But as Psalm 110 makes clear, the ascension is also about Jesus’s priesthood (v. 4). When we think of Jesus’s priesthood, we naturally think of him offering himself up on the cross. And rightly so. The cross is of first importance (1 Cor. 15:3–4). It was there that Jesus said, “It is finished” (John 19:30).
But we mustn’t take “It is finished” to mean that nothing else needed to happen in order for us to be saved. For example, if Christ hadn’t risen, the only thing “finished” would’ve been us (1 Cor. 15:14–19). No. Though the full penalty for our sins was paid at the cross, Christ’s priestly work didn’t end there.
It continues to this day in heaven, where Christ “appears in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). And his entrance there has everything to do with his sacrifice. “He entered once for all into the holy places . . . by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Note this: Our eternal redemption was secured—not simply by Jesus dying on the cross—but through Jesus entering heaven by means of his own blood. In short: no ascension, no salvation.
This is why Robert Peterson refers to the ascension as “the great linchpin of Christ’s saving work”—because it forms the transition from Jesus’s earthly ministry to his heavenly ministry. Without this linchpin, the wheels would come off our salvation.
The ascension doesn’t diminish the cross and resurrection in the accomplishment of our redemption. Rather, it’s a necessary extension of them for the application of our redemption. The reason Christ can “save [us] to the uttermost” is not only because he died on earth, but because “he always lives to make intercession for us” in heaven (Heb. 7:23–24). Indeed, the fact that Jesus has ascended into heaven and sat down is seen as proof that his cross-work was successful.
And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Heb. 10:11–14; cf. 1:4)
This is why we can “hold fast our confession”—because we don’t just have a high king who has died on the cross, but also “a high priest who has passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14).
4. The Ascension Serves as the Launching Pad for His Conquest and Return
Jesus didn’t ascend into heaven for nothing. He may have been seated, but he hasn’t been idle. On the contrary—after crushing the head of Satan’s resistance at the D-Day of Calvary, it was from heaven’s throne that Jesus launched his last-days offensive.
It began at Pentecost, when he poured out the Holy Spirit and began liberating the nations. According to Jesus, this was one of the main objectives for the ascension: “It is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). People from every nation have been purchased; they now have to be gathered—and we can’t do it alone. This is the work of the Holy Spirit. Until he was given, the Great Commission could not advance, but until Jesus ascended, he could not be given (Luke 24:49; John 7:39). It was only then, “being exalted at the right hand of God,” that Jesus could pour out the Spirit (Acts 2:33).
As a person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit mediates the power and presence of both Father and Son, such that in a real sense Jesus is with us even now (Rom. 8:9–10; 2 Cor. 3:17; Gal. 4:6). This is how, despite being in heaven, Jesus can promise to be with us till the end of the age—until the harvest is gathered and the mission is accomplished (Matt. 28:20).
But this age won’t last forever, and the mission won’t be completed with Jesus sitting down. One day he’s going to get up, and when he does, the whole world will know it. His enemies will be made his footstool, his friends will be made his vice-regents, and his creation will be made a Paradise (Ps. 110:1, 5–6; Rev. 3:21; Rom. 8:21).
The ascension isn’t a stopping place; it’s a launching pad. “From heaven we await a Savior, who will transform our lowly body” and “restore all things” (Phil. 3:20; Acts 3:21). Someday he’s going to descend again (1 Thess. 4:16). And when that day comes, we will no longer have to choose between being present in our body and absent from our Lord.
Until then, we wait.
Don’t Waste the Ascension
But let’s not sit down just yet, because our work isn’t finished. Instead of “wasting” the ascension, let’s allow it do its perfect work.
Jesus is absent—so let us cultivate a desire to “depart and be with Christ” which is “far better,” even as we seek to be faithful here on earth (Phil. 1:21–26). Jesus is king—so let us worship and bow down and recognize that the universe isn’t a democracy. Jesus is high priest—so let us come boldly before the throne of grace, knowing that we have an Advocate there who has walked our road and felt our pain (Heb. 4:14–16; 1 John 2:1). And Jesus is returning—so let us join in the Spirit’s mission to make Jesus’s name known among every tribe and nation.
And if all this seems a little too heavenly minded, that’s okay. That’s what the ascension does (Col. 3:1–4).