Ascension Day (Acts 1)

If you follow the church calendar a bit, you may have noticed that last Thursday was a memorable day. In some countries it is actually a holiday where we commemorate the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven. Now, in between Easter and Pentecost (not to mention Christmas), Ascension day may not make it into your top three Christian holidays. And so I wanted to talk about this event using three questions: 1) What happened? 2) How can we be sure that it happened? And 3) What is the significance for us?

Sermon Manuscript

Good morning. If you follow the church calendar a bit, you may have noticed that last Thursday was a memorable day. In some countries it is actually a holiday where we commemorate the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven. Now, in between Easter and Pentecost (not to mention Christmas), Ascension day may not make it into your top three Christian holidays. And so I wanted to talk about this event using three questions: 1) What happened? 2) How can we be sure that it happened? And 3) What is the significance for us? Please open your Bibles and read with me to Acts 1:1–14.

What happened?

We are looking here at a transition period in between two major events. The first event is Easter, with the suffering, death, and burial of the Lord Jesus, followed by the resurrection. That was 40 days ago (verse 3). We know remarkably little about these 40 days, other than that the Lord “presented Himself alive (verse 3)” to many believers. You can think about the women on Resurrection Sunday, the disciples, about the couple on the road to Emmaus, about Thomas, who had to wait a week. There is a meeting on a mountain in Galilee in Matthew 28, where the Lord commissions his disciples.

Paul writes about a group of 500 people in 1 Corinthians 15, eye-witnesses of the resurrected Lord. That is the first takeaway: do you believe that the Lord Jesus lives? If you consider Him dead, that is the end of the message today for you. But if He lives, that changes everything. It is not an easy truth: we read in the gospels of close friends of the Lord and disciples who have a hard time believing that He is resurrected. They had the privilege of actual seeing, and that barely made a difference; we have to believe by faith. The other thing we know about these 40 days is that the Lord teaches “concerning the Kingdom of God”, and that is all we know.

Verse 6: So they get together at Olivet mount, and apparently the disciples were not so sure about the Kingdom teachings either, and asked whether the time for the restoration of the kingdom to Israel had come. The Lord’s direct answer is that that is not their business, it is a decision that belongs to God the Father. But He doesn’t leave them hanging, he gives the disciples an assignment: verse 8: they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes, and they will be witnesses. Witnesses of what? That they are eye-witnesses of the resurrection of the Lord, as well as of the things the Lord has said and done. And then the Lord gives a very specific order: Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. And when you read Acts, that is exactly the order in which the apostles follow the Lord’s orders.

Verse 9: And then, as the disciples are looking on, the Lord is lifted up, until a cloud blocks their view. And to leave no doubt about what happened, two angels stand next to the disciples and they tell two things: the Lord is taken up into Heaven, not in outer space or some other silly idea, and second, He will come back one day.

How do we know it happened?

In this day of misinformation and lies, it is good to take a step back and to scrutinize the text a bit, and ask ourselves the question: is this true? If Christian faith proclaims to be the truth, can it stand up to tests of the truth? Can you build your life, current and future, on this? That is important, because the Christian faith is in essence a very sober faith: it tells things as they are. God is good. Men are sinners in need of a Savior.

Peter in his second letter hammers down this idea that we are not following a rabbit trail of myths, secret stories, I-wish-this-were-true fables. There is a factual core to the Christian faith. Moreover, people are called to love and worship God with all their soul, mind, and spirit. So how do we know that this is a true event, that it actually happened? I’m going to give you a few clues that you can use to study your Bible.

Clue #1: what sort of text is this? Is this an allegory? A fable with a message? No, it is written as history. Verse 1, Luke gives an account with the purpose to write things as they happened. If you read Acts 1, there are events and places, times, dialogues; it is written in a very specific, factual way. The details matter, there is order and it looks like a description of events. This is what the disciples would have told the police if they were to declare a missing person. Fables and myths lack the specific details of time and place—they could have happened anytime, anyplace.

Clue #2: If you read the text, could this have been the result of a mass psychosis, or a conspiracy? A mass psychosis is an event where a group of people is under the influence of someone else, or hypnotized. And again, the text depicts a rationality during the event: disciples asking questions, looking up in the sky long after the Lord is gone. How about a conspiracy, where the eleven disciples would have made up a story? First of all, that raises the question where the Lord is now. Second, they would be lying, which is out of character. Third, conspiracies are very hard to maintain: people talk. Finally, note that the writer, Luke is not there himself, and he has easy access to multiple of the people who were there.

As an aside, the disciples appear quite clueless, which is not a very flattering picture of the eleven men who will be the great apostles. Look again at verse 6: From their question it is clear that they did not expect the Lord to be leaving that day. And look at verses 10 and 11, it is almost funny: the disciples are looking so intently to the sky, that it may have taken them a while to realize that there was a plus-two in their company, of angels who mildly rebuke them. If this was my biography, I would have liked to have left this conversation out…

Clue #3: is this event mentioned in other places in the same book? And yes, Peter mentions it in two speeches in the presence of the other apostles (2:33; 3:21), Stephen sees the heavens opened up and sees the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God (Acts 7:56) and Paul has a direct intervention with the Lord, and mentions this several times when he gives his testimony. All these verses are in the context of people who are by their full senses, and lack the things you would associate with conspiracies or fraud.

These clues are from a piece of text that is written as history, that is corroborated by the people who were there, and is in line with events from other people. No surprise to you, but the Lord lives and is in Heaven.

What is the significance for us?

There are at least five ways how Ascension Day is significant to us.

  • Why could the Lord not stay on earth? After all, He has a resurrection body, which is incorruptible, and He will never die again. It is a question you might ask. Why did the Lord have to assign the work to disciples to testify of His resurrection? Would it not be much more powerful if He Himself showed himself? The answer of course is no: faith comes from hearing and obeying the word, not from sight. If the Pharisees and the high priests did not come to faith in the Lord during his life, they would not be convinced afterwards. He did show himself to his followers, but not to any of his enemies. The same is true for us today: salvation is believing that the God raised our Lord Jesus from the dead and the reason that we are here today in Canada, is because faithful believers through the centuries have brought the good news of the Lord’s death and resurrection—He lives! Another reason why the Lord could not stay on earth is that His work on earth was done.
  • So here is another question for you: did the Lord ascend to heaven (Ascension Day), or was He being taken up? Did He leave earth, or was He taken up into Heaven? The answer is both of course (verse 9: lifted up, verse 11 taken up). But it is a matter of perspective, from earth it seems that the Lord was leaving, from heaven’s perspective the Lord Jesus was coming home. Peter expresses this actually very strongly in Acts 3:21, starting in the middle of verse 20: “…Jesus, the Christ, appointed for you, whom heaven must receive until the period of restoration of all things” Last week Pastor Josiah preached on the triumphal entry of the Lord in Jerusalem, a week before He was crucified. Can you imagine the Lord’s entry into Heaven, with thousands of angels worshiping Him as the victor over sin and death? Where the saints of old celebrate His homecoming? Where the Lord is sitting at the right hand of God the Father, the place of honor? The last time the people of Israel and the Romans saw the Lord Jesus lifted up was on the cross, in shame and pain. For the earth that is it—He died. How fitting that the Lord is lifted up and exalted for the eyes of those disciples there on the mount, in power and glory.
  • What is the Lord doing in heaven? If you continue to read in Acts, the Lord did not just leave the earth. From heaven He actively works with the apostles and every believer. And there is the miracle, that every believer is in Jesus, and the Lord lives in every believer (Romans 8). Though we do not physically see the Lord, we are intimately close to Him. That is beautifully expressed in the letters. For example, the letter to Ephesians depicts the church as a body, and the Lord Jesus as head in heavens. As a matter of fact, it is as if we are already in heaven. The letter to Hebrews expresses that the Lord is our perfect High Priest, the intercessor on our behalf by God: Hebrews 4:14-16, Hebrews 7:26. In John 14 the Lord himself states that He is preparing room for you and me, a place in the Father’s house.
  • A little later in John 16:7, the Lord told his disciples that if He does not go away, the Holy Spirit will not come to them. Mind you, this is right before the Lord dies, and he repeats that the Holy Spirit will come after He is being resurrected. The miracle of the Holy Spirit is that it is God indwelling in us, transforming and changing us into the image of the Lord Jesus. In Acts the Holy Spirit is spoken off as “power from on high”. And boy, do you see the change in the apostles from Acts 1 to Acts 2? The Bible speaks of the Holy Spirit as the Comforter—whenever we feel that this world is not our home, the Holy Spirit whispers and reminds us that our home is with the Lord, like a parent consoles a child on the road, “we are almost there”.
  • How wonderful to think about these things, and I encourage you to reflect this week on what the Lord is doing, and how we can join the Lord in his work on earth. I left the most obvious one for last, and maybe this is the most important one. The Lord is taken up in Heaven, so that one day He will come back. The two angels speak about that: This Jesus will come back in the same way, with the clouds. The Lord himself speaks of this event in Matthew 24, as the Son of Man coming on the clouds with power and great glory. The term “Son of Man” comes from an old book of the prophet Daniel, who sees visions of the future: “And behold, with the clouds of heaven One like a Son of Man was coming” Daniel 7:13. I would like to point out that this prophecy speaks about the Lord Jesus, that the Lord applies this prophecy on himself, that He is the one spoken of there, and that with Ascension Day this prophecy can now be fulfilled: there is actually a man in Heaven, with a human body. And again, all through Acts, Peter and Paul both emphasize: now is the time of mercy, now is the time to repent, now is the time to believe in the Lord Jesus. And by God’s grace, 2,000 years later there is still time to believe. Take that offer, because one day the Lord Jesus will come back. He left simple, without fanfare, in the presence of a small company. He will return in glory, as the rightful King of this earth.

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Nate and his wife Becky moved to Canada from Germany with their four children in the summer of 2019, after he accepted a job at the University of Toronto, teaching and doing research in economics. He is actively involved in the music team at Oakridge, as well as leading at the table during corporate worship.

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