Ascension Day: an ongoing reminder of eternal life
I find the New Testament book of Hebrews to be the most important book in the New Testament. Why? Because if one book was removed from the New Testament, Hebrews would leave the largest gap. Each New Testament book brings something unique to the biblical witness, but Hebrews uniquely covers themes that are critical to the Christian faith concerning who Jesus is.
I am thinking about this as we look forward to Ascension Day next week on May 25. If you are unfamiliar with Ascension Day, it remembers Jesus’ ascension into heaven 40 days after the resurrection. Any biblical Christian will tell you of the critical importance of Jesus’ virgin birth, his death on the cross and his resurrection at Easter, but few include Ascension Day. Not only is the gospel incomplete without the ascension, it is because of the ascension that we have a lasting hope.
The account of the ascension is found in Acts 1. After Jesus gave his disciples some final instructions, “he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (9-11).
We can easily read these verses as being nothing more than the accounting of how it happened, but Hebrews teaches us that it is much more. Among other things, it testifies to us of how the ascension of Christ is critical for the hope that is ours in Christ.
Maybe you know that Jesus died for our sins so that those who believe in him may inherit eternal life — my question is, “Where can you find hope between now and then?” Hebrews opens by telling us that Jesus is not only superior to the angels and the prophets, but that the sacrifice he offered on the cross for sinners was also superior to the ones offered previously. The “how” has to do with the ascension.
Hebrews 9 tells us that Christ’s sacrifice was superior in two ways. First in that it was the sacrifice of a human life, not an animal, and second, that because of the resurrection and ascension, it brings us everlasting hope: “He used his own blood, not the blood of goats and bulls, for the sacrifice. He went into the most holy place and offered this sacrifice once and for all to free us forever” (12).
The letter reminds us of how the Lord commanded his people to offer sacrifices to atone for their sins — not to make them righteous, but to point them to the perfect sacrifice that the Messiah would make: “How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God! For this reason, Christ is the mediator of a new covenant, that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance — now that he has died as a ransom to set them free from the sins committed under the first covenant” (Hebrews 9:14-15).
This is important because we learn that under the Levitical system, both the priest and the sacrifice were wanting. Hebrews alone reveals how Jesus is both our priest and sacrifice; we need both for the hope of our salvation. It is Jesus’ superiority in all things that gives us hope. How? Because while death limited the service of the former priests, God raised Jesus from the dead and because he has ascended into heaven, he is able to continually intercede for us: “Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:23-25).
Ascension Day does more than to simply remind us that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father — it testifies of how he continues to live and intercede on our behalf. He is not an impersonal power or force, he is the living Lord who shed his blood for you and me so that we may have eternal life. Knowing this gives us a lot to celebrate on Ascension Day!