Most (Christian) Reformed congregations cannot get many of their members to attend an Ascension Day service on the Thursday evening ten days before Pentecost Sunday. For that reason—and because they are not quite ready to give up—many congregations have begun worshiping with other congregations on Ascension Day. In some areas the churches have even organized Ascension Day rallies.
Why bother preserving this service that has lost its prominence in so many churches? We observe Christ's ascension, marking the end of his earthly ministry and the beginning of his heavenly ministry, because it is a redemptive historical fact—part of the Christian gospel. When the
ascension goes unnoticed by most church members and all secular people, our teaching may be dangerously lopsided. For what good will it do to us and the world if we are ready to receive the Savior (Christmas) but fail to honor the King (Ascension Day)?
The Vindication of the King
In his forbearance God left the sins of the world unpunished until the Lamb of God carried them all (Rom. 3:25). But when the suffering, cross-bearing, death-tasting part of his ministry was past, Jesus ascended to the Father's throne. From there he asserts God's claims on the whole world. As the commander in chief of God's salvation army, Jesus sends his ambassadors and empowers them by the Spirit.
When Jesus went to heaven, the kingship of God became real in ever greater parts of the world. By his Word and Spirit, Jesus reclaims the world. Now that Jesus has ascended, the Father's will is going to be done on earth as it is in heaven. The times of ignorance are past. "Now he commands all people everywhere to repent" (Acts 17:30). The liberating word goes out to Athens, to Rome, and to India.
The evangelist Luke wrote two books. He closed the first volume by telling about the ascension as the end of Jesus' earthly ministry (Luke 24:50). He repeats the account of the ascension in the introduction to his second volume, because in this book (Acts) he wishes to show what Jesus does from his position of power. Luke tells the story from the perspective of earth— how else can historians report? All who read the book of the Acts of Jesus can see for themselves that the resources of heaven are now at the disposal of Jesus and that he is using them to change the nations of the world.
From the Other Side
The book of Revelation relates the mighty works of God from a different perspective— from heaven. That perspective is of particular interest with respect to the ascension. For us on this planet the ascension means that we see him go up until a cloud takes him out of sight. But the same story of the enthronement of Jesus gets a different, interpretive description in the Apocalypse (the preferred title for the book of Revelation).
Revelation 12:5 sums up the gospel in one sentence: "She gave birth to a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter. And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne." Here the point is the contest between two candidates for the throne of the world: the dragon, or the anti-Messiah, and the son of the woman. God gives the throne to the male child of the woman.
The battle between the faithful servant Jesus and the devil—a battle that we followed in the descriptions of the temptations in the desert, the struggle in Gethsemane, and the final victory of resurrection and ascension—is now shown in heavenly photographs as a "war" between Michael and the dragon (Rev. 12:7-9).
God's army wins. Not only does Christ ascend to the throne but the great dragon is thrown out of the driver's seat of the universe. He was "hurled down," says verse 9, and he is called by all his names—dragon, serpent, devil, Satan—while the door is closed on him.
The scene is followed by a liturgical interlude: "Now have come the salvation and the power and the kingdom of our God" (verse 10). We might echo this interlude in our ascension celebrations. Note, however, that the voice of the liturgist expresses heavenly sympathy for earthly inhabitants who still have to endure the struggle of the end-time (verse 12).
Start of the Millennium
From the earthly point of view the ascension of Jesus marks the beginning of the march of Christ's army and the defeat of idolatry. The heavenly power falls on a few people in Jerusalem (Acts 2). The unfinished story of the march of the gospel has its preliminary closing with the picture of a man, Paul, who sits in Rome, in his own rented house, where "boldly and without hindrance he preached the kingdom of God and taugh about the Lord Jesus Christ" (28:31).
The new historical situation that was inaugurated with the ascension and coronation of Jesus is described in apocalyptic language as a "binding of Satan" to "keep him from deceiving the nations" (Rev. 20:1-3).
Before the victory of the Lord Jesus Christ, your and my ancestors (unless yours were Jews) were blinded and bound by the deceiver. They were just as badly deceived as the "unreached peoples" today. But today the devil's power to deceive the nations is broken when the truth of the gospel is told.
During the present reign of Christ our assignment is to "boldly" extol and exhibit the blessings of the kingship of Jesus.