Today, Christians in the Western tradition celebrate "Ascension Day", commemorating the day of Jesus' ascension into the heavens to retake His place on His throne of glory. The church calendar marks 40 days following the day of His resurrection, according to Acts 1:3:
“He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.” (Acts 1:3 ESV)
The magnitude of the ascension is overwhelming. This was not just Jesus' "disappearing act". The place where He ascended to was not unfamiliar to Him, because that's where He had come from (John 8:14; John 16:28). He went to a physical, tangible locale in the heavens with an authentic human body that has real bones, real hands and feet, and a real face with a beard, eyes, and nose. Where He went to and what He is doing there is what is enormously significant to understand as we celebrate His ascension today.
Jesus' ascension is very different from His resurrection. Though that may seem initially obvious to us, the two events are often conflated theologically. In the first recorded sermon after He departed, Peter declares that Jesus' resurrection from the dead proves that He is the Christ, the king from David's line that would sit on a throne in Jerusalem and reign over Israel forever as God had promised (2 Samuel 7:12-16; Acts 2:30-31,36; Luke 1:32-33). This clearly has not happened yet. Secondly, the ascension testifies that Jesus is the LORD - the one true God - because He sits in the heavens on God's throne and from there poured out the Holy Spirit - something Joel the prophet said that the LORD alone would do (Acts 2:33; Joel 2:28). He sits on high awaiting the Day when His enemies will be made His footstool (Hebrews 10:13).
This distinction is extremely important to understand. Jesus did not become "king" at His ascension. There was never a time when He ceased to be the LORD of glory. He has always had all authority, power, and wisdom even as he walked the earth as a human (John 13:3, John 16:5; Matthew 28:18). He forgave sins, calmed storms, created bread and fish from nothing, and did many other things that Scripture says God alone could do. Though He appeared in the form of a lowly slave, it was He who had made the world. He was in the world and we did not know it (John 1:10).
To believe otherwise is to ascribe to a theological error called adoptionism. Jesus' exaltation to the right hand of God is a vindication of His identity before men, not a change in his identity.
The ascension is breathtaking! As the LORD, Jesus of Nazareth retook His place at the height of the heavens in His temple. Right now, a human with cheeks and a face like His mother Mary sits on high actively sustaining the heartbeat of the earth's inhabitants, causing the rain and sun to shine, opening His hand and giving food to nearly 7 billion people every day. Our brother in humanity is the world's one true God, the God of Israel. He is unspeakably glorious!
This has tremendous significance for our lives. The good news of Jesus' ascension is part of the "gospel of the glory of Christ" (2 Corinthians 4:4). This is the God that we worship and pray to. This is the God that will one day arise from His place, return to the earth, judge the nations, and establish His eschatological kingdom of justice in Jerusalem as the promised Messiah of Israel. In that Day, the LORD will be king over the earth from Jerusalem as the prophets promised (Zechariah 14:9). Until that Day, we witness to His longsuffering with the sons of men as we walk like Him and eagerly hope for His appearing.
May we both stand in awe and tremble before Him today as we remember His ascension.
For more on Peter's sermon in Acts 2 and its importance, check out this teaching.
For more understanding of heaven, see this article.