The Absence of the Ascension

Art Lindsley, Ph.D.

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It is certainly right to place great emphasis on Christ’s birth (Christmas), death (Good Friday), and resurrection (Easter), but to ignore or minimize what comes after these important events (the Ascension) has impoverished the church. The absence of the Ascension in our thought and practice has left us ill-equipped for our work in the world. We have failed to realize the implications of the Lordship of Christ, our empowerment for ministry and what Christ continues to do for us. All these things are wrapped up in the theology of the Ascension. In fact, the early disciples seemed to have grasped what we have missed. They were anticipating the future because of what Christ had done in the past. Jesus had taught them what to expect and they were beginning to see its realization.  If Christians today were to apply the truths of Christ’s Ascension to their everyday work life, they would experience incredible freedom and power to pursue excellence in all sectors of society – the arts and sciences, business, politics, and in every workplace. It all starts with understanding the importance of Christ’s absence.

My Absence Better than My Presence

In the account of the Ascension in Luke 24:49-53, Jesus first tells the disciples to stay in the city in order to wait for the “promise of My Father”—Pentecost (vs. 49). Then after blessing them, He ascended to heaven (vs. 50-51). But notice the surprising, counter-intuitive response of the disciples. It says, “they returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” It might make more sense if it said they returned with mourning and tears. Usually, when someone leaves on a long trip, there are tears. When soldiers go off to war, there are tears, and when they come back, there are hugs, kisses, and great joy. When my son recently went off to college for the first time, there were tears for this new stage of life and because he would not be back for a few months. There was a hole in our family, a missing piece, an absence of the music, harmonies, films he produced and adventures he initiated. How much more would the disciples miss Jesus’ presence?

So why were the disciples so joyful? My answer is that they had begun to grasp the meaning of Jesus’ teaching in the upper room discourse in John 14-17. Particularly, note John 16:7-13. In verse 7-8, it says, “But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. 8and He, when He comes, will convict the world concerning sin, righteousness and judgment.” Notice that stunning claim that “it is to your advantage that I go away.” How could that possibly be true? Could Jesus’ absence be better than His presence? Was it better that He go away than if He were to stay?

Just think of how great it was for the disciples (and would be for us, if we had been there) to see Christ’s miracles and hear His teaching from His own mouth. Imagine what it might have been like to be present at the raising of Lazarus, when Jesus said, “Lazarus, come forth,” and a man already dead four days came waddling out of the grave (John 11:43). Or imagine the feeding of the five thousand with two fish and five loaves of bread (Matt. 14:19), or His stilling the storm (Matt. 8:23f), or walking on the water (Matt. 14:22). What I would give to see those events! Or imagine hearing the Sermon on the Mount from His lips, noticing His facial expressions, seeing His eyes, hearing the tone of His voice. Wouldn’t it be great to have lived in Jesus’ day or have Him physically with us today? Why would we be better if He were to go away, rather than stay? Why is it better if He ascends to heaven rather than physically stay on earth?

Where, Who, What

I believe it is because of where Christ was going, who He was going to send in His place, and what He was going to do when He got there. Grasping the where, who, and what will open our eyes to a new horizon. Where was Christ going? To the right hand of the Father to be crowned the King of Kings and Lord of Lords (this is sometimes called the “Session”). Who was He going to send in His place? The Holy Spirit was to be poured out at Pentecost. What was Jesus going to do when He got there? Well, I suppose we could discuss many things, but one in particular—to pray for us as the great High Priest. Let’s discuss each of these and explore their relevance for our lives today.

Where

Christ was going away to be seated at the right hand of the Father (Acts 2:33-34; Acts 5:31; Mark 16:19, Luke 22:69; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, 12:2; 1 Peter 3:22). This means that He was being placed in the position of power and authority (the right hand). All authority is given to Him (Matt. 28:18). He is now the Lord of all. It is hard to exaggerate the importance of this understanding for the early disciples and for us. Peter says on Pentecost, “Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made Him both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). “Jesus is Lord,” was their earliest confession. But because of the persecution of early believers, it was hard to say so. Paul says in 1 Cor. 12:3 that no one could say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. This perhaps means that you could not say, “Jesus is Lord,” and mean it (without the Holy Spirit) or maybe that the cost of saying those words was so great that no one would do so without the help of the Spirit.

We do know that in the early church, the confession, “Jesus is Lord,” was seen as a threat to Roman authority, exemplified in emperor worship. At one point, Christians were forced to say Kaiser Kurios (“Caesar is Lord”) and put some incense on the altar, as an act of emperor worship and to curse Christ. It is not surprising that many Christians could not or would not do these things. Above all, they could not attribute ultimate Lordship to Caesar because they already had allegiance to Jesus as Lord. Thus they were persecuted, thrown to the lions, covered in pitch and set on fire as torches for Nero’s gardens, covered with animal skins and attacked by dogs. To say, “Jesus is Lord,” had radical implications for their lives.

The Lordship of Christ still has radical implications for us. Even though we may not be persecuted as many are throughout the world for their profession of faith, confessing Jesus as Lord deeply impacts our personal and public lives. Abraham Kuyper said that there is not one square inch that Christ does not say “mine.” Similarly C.S Lewis wrote:

“…there is no neutral ground in the universe; every square inch, every split second is claimed by God and counter claimed by Satan.” 1

Among other things, this impacts the way we think and the way we work. Augustine used to argue that all truth is God’s truth. Thus, we ought to learn everything we can about anything we can. Every particular truth leads us back to the God of Truth. Therefore, we need not fear exploring truth in any arena. B.B. Warfield said:

“We must not, then, as Christians assume an attitude of antagonism towards the truths of reason, or the truths of philosophy, or the truths of science, or the truths of history, or the truths of criticism. As children of the light, we must be careful to keep ourselves open to every ray of light….Let us, then, cultivate an attitude of courage as over against the investigations of the day. None should be more zealous in them than we. None should be more quick to discern truth in every field, more hospitable to receive it, more loyal to follow it whithersoever it leads. It is not for Christians to be lukewarm in regard to the investigations and discoveries of the time. Rather, the followers of the Truth indeed can have no safety in science or in philosophy, save in the arms of truth. It is for us, therefore, as Christians, to push investigation to the utmost; to be leaders in every science; to stand in the van of criticism; to be the first to catch in every field the voice of the Revealer of truth, who is also our Redeemer. The curse of the Church has been her apathy to truth, in which she has too often left to her enemies that study of nature and of history and philosophy, and even that investigation of her own peculiar treasures, the Scriptures of God, which should have been her chief concern …. She has nothing to fear from truth; but she has everything to fear, and she has already suffered nearly everything, from ignorance. All truth belongs to us as followers of Christ, the Truth; let us at length enter into our inheritance.” 2

If we confess Jesus as Lord, then we will not fear investigating any area where truth may be discovered. As Warfield points out, we should be both fearless and zealous to pursue excellence in every field. This means every area of work, or every calling, is under the Lordship of Christ and must be pursued as unto Him. This pursuit of excellence is not only faithful to our Lord, a way to give Him glory, a way to develop the potential of our gifts and abilities, but also a way to be more effective witnesses to Christ.

C.S. Lewis argues that the difficulty in any kind of direct apologetics is that, at most, we can make people listen for a half hour or so. But when they go back to the world, away from our lecture, or put down our article, “They are plunged into a world where the opposite position is taken for granted.” He maintains that the best way to counter this reality is not more little books on Christianity, but more little books by Christians on other subjects—with their Christianity latent. G.K. Chesterton says that, “Education is implication.” In other words, we remember, in most cases, not what is explicitly stated by our teachers, but what is implied in what is said. Students often pick up their relativism or pluralism not because they are argued into it, but because it is assumed everywhere in their education. Lewis says:

“Our Faith is not very likely to be shaken by any book on Hinduism. But if whenever we read an elementary book on Geology, Botany, Politics, or Astronomy, we found that its implications were Hindu, that would shake us. It is not the books written in direct defense of Materialism that make the modern man a materialist; it is the materialistic assumptions in all the other books. In the same way, it is not books on Christianity that will really trouble him. But he would be troubled if, whenever he wanted a cheap popular introduction to some science, the best work on the market was always by a Christian.  The first step to the re-conversion of this country is a series, produced by Christians, which can beat the Penguin and the Thinkers Library on their own ground. Its Christianity would have to be latent, not explicit; and of course, its science perfectly honest. Science twisted in the interests of apologetics would be sin and folly.” 3

To my knowledge, this task has never been attempted. There are plenty of books that give a distinctly Christian perspective on various disciplines. But not a series that attempts to write an excellent introduction to each field of study by an outstanding Christian author (with faith implicit or latent). When you add to this the reality that many intelligent, committed Christians respond to (for instance) political or economic issues of our nation with a less than enlightened understanding of the broader questions involved, it makes such a task even more imperative. It is this kind of discipleship for public life that the Institute for Faith, Work & Economics (IFWE) seeks to provide.

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