This past Thursday was 40 days after Easter. On the 40th day after He rose from the dead, Jesus ascended bodily into heaven. Because this is such a great holy day, we have moved its celebration to today so that we can both ponder it a few minutes this morning and also to give our Lord praise and thanks for it.
In a sense, in some ways, Jesus’ ascension into heaven is the opposite of the resurrection. After all, when Jesus rose from the dead, He was the dark and quiet of the tomb; there were no eyewitnesses of the actual event–people only saw Him alive after the fact/ not during it; the stone had to be rolled away from the tomb to show the fact. But it was different with Jesus’ ascension into heaven, there were eyewitnesses of the actual event.
Also, with the resurrection there was great sorrow, fear, confusion, and even some joy all mixed together. But what did we read in today’s Gospel? The disciples returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And that was not a momentary thing, as St. Luke continues: They were continually in the temple courts, praising and blessing God.
But something both events have in common is that angels were there. An angel rolled away the stone to the tomb; and angels announced Jesus’ resurrection to the women at the tomb. And at the ascension, two angels announce the “what next”: Men of Galilee, why are you standing here looking up into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen Him go into heaven.
Another thing to keep in mind is that Jesus’ ascension is not like a rocket blasting off, getting higher and higher. Never think of heaven, where Jesus is as up, up and far away. In other words, don’t think of heaven in spatial terms–like when you leave your house to come to church: you are at one place at one time; and so Jesus can only be at one place at one time. No, no! Otherwise the ascension is more of a tragedy rather than a great blessing; otherwise Jesus is not with us as He promised. Instead, think of the ascension this way: Jesus ascended into heaven precisely so that He could be with His Church, with His dear Christians wherever we/ She might be. The Ascension marked in a dramatic fashion that the disciples should no longer expect any more post-resurrection appearances of Jesus–like in the upper room, at the seashore, on the road, etc. Instead, they should be assured–as we all are–of Jesus’ continued presence with them wherever they/ we go. The disciples understood this! Look at what St. Luke writes in the Gospel: [Jesus] was parted from them and was taken up into heaven. So Jesus was “gone”! But what did they do? So they worshipped Him. That is, like in oriental fashion, they got on their knees and bowed, did Him homage. How could they do that if they thought He was gone, not there, not with them? Yes, they didn’t see Him but they knew that since He ascended into heaven He could be and was with them and so they could worship Him. And so great was their joy in this that they were continually in the temple courts, praising and blessing God.
That, too, is our joy this Ascension Sunday–our crucified, risen, and ascended Lord is with us. He ascended in order to be with us. And now let us be like the disciples continually in the temple courts, praising and blessing God, that is, let us also be in church continually/ faithfully and regularly where Jesus promised to meet us: in His holy word and sacrament.
Our text from the letter to the Hebrews also gives us a glimpse at Jesus’ ascension from a different perspective from that of the disciples. It deals with the question: now that Jesus has ascended… Look at how our text begins: For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. The image here the holy writer is using is that of the OT priests. They would once a year–on the Day of Atonement– enter into the most holy place of the temple with blood of sacrifice to atone for sin. But notice that even that most holy place of the temple is but a copy of heaven. It is not the real, but only a copy, patterned after the original. So comparing Jesus with an OT priest, the apostle here compares Jesus’ ascension into heaven with the priest entering the most holy place of the temple. But notice the superiority of Jesus–His is the real and proper priesthood, of which the priests and temple were just a foreshadow and copy. Jesus is the real deal–He is the great High Priest, not entering some copy of the holy places, but the actual holy place itself–heaven.
And notice that with Jesus’ ascension, He then enters heaven victoriously. In the OT times only the High Priest could enter that most holy place of the temple, a copy of heaven. But now with His ascension, Jesus enters that heavenly original. Remember, this is Jesus–the God-man. Jesus did not stop being true man when He ascended into heaven. So now with Jesus’ ascension into heaven in triumph, He is there also as man; true man is in heaven. What a comfort for us–yes, heaven is not just for the holy Triune God and the holy angels but it is also for people! Jesus entered heaven in triumph and so too will we one day as we cling to Him in faith. Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself. That’s the ascension!
And what does Jesus do now that He ascended to heaven in triumph? He did so now to appear in the presence of God for us. The holy, risen and now ascended Jesus is in heaven praying for us! Think of that dear Christian–Jesus is in heaven praying and interceding for you. His work for us did not stop with the cross but continues on even this very minute. This, too, is Jesus’ role as priest, our great High Priest–a priest intercedes, prays for the people; and that’s what Jesus is doing now. A few chapters before, our apostle wrote [Hb. 7.25]: [Jesus] ever lives to make intercession for [those who come to God through Him]. St. Paul wrote [Rm 8.34]: Christ…died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God–that’s the ascension–who also makes intercession for us. Jesus is praying and continues to pray/ to intercede to God for us. And who better than Jesus? –After all, we read earlier in Hebrews [2.18] about Jesus: [since] He Himself has suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted. So what a tremendous comfort as St. John writes [1 Jn 2.1]: And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. Dear Christian, because Jesus ascended into heaven, victorious, we are never without a priestly representative before God–one who knows exactly what it is like to be one of us because He is one of us–true man but yet true God ascended triumphantly. What glorious words–for us–now to appear in the presence of God for us!
Our text: For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us. Jesus, our Great High Priest, has ascended to heaven to continue His priestly role of praying for us. That interceding “job” of a priest, Jesus continues; but there is one job of a priest that Jesus no longer does–offering sacrifice for sin. And why? Because Jesus offered the perfect, once for all sacrifice for sin, for every sin of every single people ever to live. Because He made that perfect sacrifice–Himself–on the cross, and the Father accepted that sacrifice and raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus ascended into heaven.
The OT priests would enter the most holy place of the temple, the copy of heaven, to offer sacrifices for the sin of the people. But that’s not why Jesus entered the true, heaven. Our text: Jesus ascended/ entered heaven not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another. Here we come again to Good Friday and Jesus’ death on the cross. The OT High Priests did not offer themselves; they couldn’t, instead they brought the blood of sacrificed animals. But that didn’t pay for the sins of the people. It only pointed them to God’s grace; it pointed them forward to the coming Savior who would pour out His blood for the forgiveness of the sins of all people by His perfect, once for all sacrifice for sin.
Jesus’ triumphant ascension into heaven points to the fact that His was the perfect, once for all sacrifice for sin. He ascended because His saving work/ His sacrifice was done and accomplished–once forever. Look at how the Holy Spirit puts it in our text: Jesus ascended/ entered heaven not that He should offer Himself often, as the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood of another–He then would have had to suffer often since the foundation of the world; but now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. Notice how different and superior Jesus’ sacrifice is. If His sacrifice on the cross was like that of the OT priests, He would have to offer Himself continually from the beginning of time; but Jesus’ sacrifice is once for all because it has infinite worth and value for all people of all time because it is the blood of God Himself. He came to earth, died once/ paid once for the sins of all. But now, once at the end of the ages, He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself. So when His saving work was done–when He suffered and died for our sins and rose again victorious over sin, death, devil and hell–Jesus ascended into heaven in triumph where He continues to be our Great High Priest–not offering sacrifice–that’s done– but praying/ interceding for us.
And then we hear the words of the angels to the disciples: This same Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come back the same way you have seen him go into heaven. And we hear much the same thing in our text: To those who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Yes, Jesus ascended into heaven and is there as our Great High Priest interceding for us; He is there as King ruling over all things for the good of His Church and His dear Christians. But He is coming again. The first time Jesus came, He came in mercy to deal with sin once for all. He did that as He took on human flesh and blood/ became one of us and entered into the full muck and mire of the misery of sin; He entered its depths. He suffered/ endured the worst the world, the devil and his allies could throw at Him until He was finally crucified. His entire coming the first time was in connection with sin–to deal with it and rescue us from it. His ascension into heaven showed that that work was done! Our sins have been paid for; we are reconciled to God; and with His ascension, Jesus opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers.
And now we await Jesus’ return. This time it will be in glory as Judge, apart from sin. Just as He ascended bodily into heaven, so also He will return in glory bodily. It will be His majestic and glorified body. When He returns in glory, there will be no missing Him; all will have to confess that Jesus is the true God and the Savior of the world–for the unbeliever it will be with shame and great terror, since they rejected Him; for the believer, it will be with great joy. In fact, we look forward in eager anticipation for Jesus’ return. That will be the day He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation. Then we will “in full force” enjoy the salvation Jesus won for us by His perfect once for all sacrifice for sin! On that Last Day Jesus will bring us soul and body into that true holy place–heaven–where we will be before the holy Triune God, with all the angels and saints for eternity in perfect joy and bliss. In the meantime, Jesus is giving us the fruits and benefits of His work, praying for us and leading us finally to Himself in heaven. He ascended so shall we. INJ