The ascension is not a fitting conclusion to the life and ministry of our Lord. It seems a bit of an anti-climax in the light of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. It concludes on a note of sorrow and separation rather than of joy, victory, and triumph.
The gospel accounts hardly mention the ascension. But Luke does highlight in today’s passage. One of the most significant words in the book of Acts is that little word “began” in verse one. The gospel of Luke was the report of what Jesus began to do and to teach. The book of Acts records what the Lord continued to do and to teach through his body, the church, and the work of the Holy Spirit which he sent.
On the cross, Jesus declared “It is finished” referring to with regard to the work of redemption, which was accomplished on the cross. Man’s debt for sin could now be marked “paid in full.” But Jesus did not say, “I am finished” in the sense that his work on earth was completed. The work of proclaiming salvation is still going on.
While the provision for man’s salvation was the work of our Lord which was completed on the cross of Calvary, the proclamation and application of the benefits of this work have continued through the centuries, through the church, the body of Christ. The ascension of Jesus Christ was central to the initiation and continuation of this work.
From Acts we discover that the purpose of this forty-day period was three-fold:
1. To convince the disciples of the fact of our Lord’s physical, bodily resurrection.
2. To teach and command the disciples. There was much that the disciples could not understand about the Lord until after his death and resurrection. Only after his accession and Pentecost, would they understand the great truths of the gospel. So they must wait until the promised Spirit was sent.
3. To clarify and correct the disciples understanding of the Kingdom. The disciples remained certain that it must be immanent as a literal, physical reign of the Lord upon the earth. The Lord does not correct the disciple’s concept of the Kingdom; He corrects their preoccupation with the timing of the Kingdom. Subsequently, once they had understood, the apostles preached to the Jews that if they turned to Jesus as Messiah, there would then in their own lives at that point in time, be a restoration of the Kingdom.
Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord (Acts 3:19).
The expression ‘times of refreshing,’ was understood rightly by Israel as being the time of the restoration and the establishment of God’s Kingdom upon earth.
There are some still today who seem to be more focussed about the precise timing of Jesus’ return than with godly living (2 Peter 3:11-13). This is the thrust of Acts 1:7-8. The disciples were not intended to know the exact time of the Lord’s return and the establishment of his Kingdom. But as a result of His departure, the Holy Spirit would come, and they would witness to Jesus Christ at home and abroad (John 14:7ff.).
The ascension was the final, incontestable evidence that Jesus Christ was the victor over Satan and his hosts. It is the measure of His victory, but also the measure of the power which has been bestowed upon His saints to carry out His work on earth until He returns.
But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: "When he ascended on high, he took many captives and gave gifts to his people."
(What does "he ascended" mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. (Ephesians 4:7-12).
So how does this help us?
1. Separation In one sense the ascension was the bodily separation of our Lord from his followers. But the Scriptures never record any mourning or tears concerning this. Most likely because the Lord’s departure began a time of even greater intimacy through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 28:20).
2. Consummation The work which our Lord in His physical body on earth has been finished. (Hebrews 1:3).
3. Glorification When our Lord returned to the Father it was marked with splendour and glory because of the work he had accomplished. (Philippians 2:9).
4. Confirmation The ascension of Christ is a confirmation of our faith and assurance in Christ (Hebrews 6:19-20).
5. Transition. The ascension serves as a connecting link:
Between the work of Christ in salvation and that in our sanctification; between the gospels and the epistles; between what has been accomplished by Christ and what is still being done through his Spirit. It is even a transition in the ministry of Christ as well. Having completed his work on the cross in his flesh, He now intercedes for us as a sympathetic High Priest, as One who has experienced our afflictions. (Hebrews 5:14-16).
6. Anticipation The ascension also creates in our hearts a sense of expectation. He will return, just as He departed.