On Sunday, I talked about acknowledging gaps in our faith, including our knowledge. When I woke up this morning, I realized I had gaps in my understanding of the Ascension. Today is the day that the church celebrates Jesus’s ascension into heaven, and while I’ve studied this before, it’s not the easiest concept to wrap our minds around. So I spent a little time digging, and what I found was really encouraging to me.
We’re all familiar with the concept. We say it each week in the creed: “On the third day he rose again, he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But this idea provokes some significant questions in us: Why did Jesus go back to heaven? Why, after this amazing victory over his enemies and death itself, would he go away to a place where we could no longer see him?
The apostles had a similar question in Acts 1:1-11. They assumed Jesus would establish his kingdom here, now that he had risen from the dead. But instead, he proceeded to float into the air and vanish from sight. Kind of a let down, right? But Jesus had already told them this was going to happen and that it was going to be for their benefit and ours. He said in John 16:7 that “… it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper [the Holy Spirit] will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
So, let me get this straight: the guy who is amazing to be with and does awesome miracles is about to disappear, and instead we get the Holy Spirit, whom we can’t see? And this is supposed to be to our advantage?
One thing to keep in mind is that God works in ways that are often counterintuitive to us and that we don’t always understand. But we can try to at least get a sense for why God might do things the way he does. And I think one key to understanding why Jesus had to ascend is to think about God’s presence in the world. At the beginning, his Spirit was present in an intimate way with his creation (Gen. 1:2). It was normal for him to communicate directly with humans (Gen. 3:8a). But after sin entered the world, this intimacy was broken.
Only after a long period did God establish his temple where humanity could experience his presence. This was a gift, but it was limited by the fact that you had to go to a specific place on the planet, and even then, only certain people were allowed. Then Jesus came as the true temple, the place where God’s presence could be encountered. This was a huge leap forward, because not only could you talk to him, he accepted anyone, saint/sinner, Jew/Gentile. But still – and here’s the important thing to note – access to God was limited to a particular place, namely, wherever Jesus happened to be.
But because Jesus ascended into heaven and poured out his Spirit on the earth, what we have now is a return to his original intent for his presence in the world. Now God, by his Spirit, can relate to the whole world in an intimate way, and he does so on the terms set by Jesus, terms where we relate to God based on our identity as sons and daughters reconciled to him by Christ’s work. No longer do we need to go to a specific place, accessible only by those who have the wherewithal to go there, financial or otherwise. The God revealed by Christ is accessible anywhere, any time, by his Spirit.
I’ve said before that we’re right to desire more intimacy with God, because he has plans to bring us into greater intimacy with him (Rev. 22:4). But in the meantime, while it can be difficult to walk by faith and not by sight, it’s really important for us to keep in mind that things are better than they once were. You and I can live in the D.C. area, of all places, and have direct access to the God who made us.
I’m excited to be alive during this period when we can relate to God in this way. I’m excited to encounter him in the various places I find myself today. This is one example of how acknowledging a gap in my understanding has caused my relationship with God to grow. I hope that coming to a deeper understanding of the Ascension might help you grow closer to God today, and I hope that you’ll continue to grow closer to him the more you understand the story of his love for the world.