[W]hy do heroes ride off into the sunset? Wouldn’t it be better if they stayed? Who wants a hero who skips town as soon as the crisis is over? The hard stuff is what comes next. Sure you beat up the big bad guy, but what about all the little ones? What about all the problems you didn’t fix? What about the daily grind of living in a broken world? Look at you on your cool horse. Who do you think is going to clean up all that poop it left behind?
Forget the sunset. I want a hero who sticks around, not one who takes off.
But isn’t that exactly what Jesus did? His people waited thousands of years for him to come. And finally, the Messiah arrived. Then….bam! He’s gone. One minute he’s there with the disciples, and then “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).
He ascended. He left.
I can just picture the disciples standing there, staring into the sky like a bunch of kids watching all their balloons float away.
The Messiah rode off into the sunset.
What is that all about? Why wouldn’t Jesus stick around? You’d think a few thousand years would be enough waiting already. Did he really need to take off and make us wait longer? That’s like telling the kids on Christmas morning that they’ll need to wait until New Year’s to open their presents.
That’s just mean.
So something must be wrong with how I’m telling this story. The ascension isn’t a mean trick that God played on us. And it certainly isn’t about Jesus leaving us just when we needed him most. The way the Bible tells it, the ascension is fundamental to God’s story.
Luke begins the book of Acts with the ascension for a reason. In Luke’s story, which includes both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the Ascension is the critical hinge between the life/death/resurrection of Jesus (Luke) and the story of his Spirit-empowered people at work in the world (Acts). And that’s because, for the biblical authors, the Ascension is critical.
1. The King Rules
It’s really with the ascension that Jesus establishes the Kingdom. Although Jesus lived his entire life in fulfillment of God’s Kingdom promises, the ascension is key. That’s why the Bible pictures the Ascension as Jesus going up into heaven leading a host of captives (Eph. 4:8), the defeated enemies of the Kingdom. And, arriving in heaven, he sits down at the Father’s right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb 1:3). His rule has begun. The Kingdom is here! With his birth the King arrives. With his life, death, and resurrection the King redeems. With his ascension the King rules. If you stop short of the ascension, the story dies.
2. The Priest Represents
And, having returned to the father, Jesus also serves forever as our true High Priest (Heb. 9), the perfect priest who cleansed the people from their sins and will always represent them before the Father. The ascension breaks the cycle of God’s people continually needing a new priest to offer a new sacrifice. With the ascension, Jesus becomes our true priest forever.
3. The Spirit Comes
In one of the most amazing statements in the Bible, Jesus says that “it is to your advantage that I go away” (Jn. 16:5). I can think of several people who could make the world a better place just by leaving it. But Jesus? How can his departure be good for us? Because the ascension is when Jesus sends the Spirit to God’s people. His departure is good news because the Spirit is good news. So, having promised to send the Spirit once he was gone, that’s exactly what he did. After Acts 1 comes Acts 2. Jesus ascended and the Spirit came. Good news.
4. The People Serve
But now for an interesting question: Why did Jesus need to leave in order to send the Spirit? Couldn’t the Spirit have come while he was here? To be honest, I have no idea if God could have done things differently. Probably. So why do it like this? In general, I try to avoid answering “Why did God…?” questions. But I do wonder if Jesus ascended and sent the Spirit to empower God’s people so that we could do what we were always supposed to: image God in creation as his people. Jesus could have continued doing that for us. He does it far better than we ever could. But God’s plan was never to carry out our role for us. He wants us to do it. So I wonder if the ascension is about God creating space for his people to be his people and carry out their calling in the world. I don’t know, but I wonder.
5. The Future Shines
Finally, I think the ascension is a powerful reminder of our destiny. Here it’s important to remember that Jesus did not stop being human when he ascended. It’s not as though his humanity was a costume that he put on at Christmas and hastily discarded at the ascension. Jesus represents us as our High Priest forever specifically because he remains one of us forever. So the ascension points to our destiny as humans – ruling over God’s creation and manifesting his glory everywhere.
The ascension is not an optional add-on to the story, a piece that we may choose to discuss if we have any time after dealing with the more important parts. The ascension is critical. The ascension is when the King rules, the Priest represents, the Spirit comes, the People serve, and the future shines with the brilliance of God’s plan.
Jesus didn’t just ride off into the sunset, leaving us to clean up the mess he left behind. Jesus ascended to the right hand of the father so that God’s plans could be accomplished. Once we really understand that, we’ll agree that it truly was better for us that he go.
[This is an excerpt from a book that I’m writing about the gospel, Good News for the Living Dead: A Fresh Take on the Gospel Story. You can read the other excerpts and keep track of new ones as they become available on my blog.]
About Marc Cortez
Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.