The Grand Farewell
We pay a lot of attention to Jesus' coming into the world as a baby at Christmas. Then the fanfare was impressive: stars, angels, heavenly hosts. But Jesus left the world, too, and his leaving is cause for celebration.
A cloud took him
Jesus' ascension was witnessed by only his disciples. Three New Testament passages give accounts.
Mark 16:19-20 indicates that after Jesus commissioned his disciples, he was received into heaven and was seated at the "right hand of God." While this phrase may sound jarringly graphic to us, it is best understood as a metaphor for power and authority. In Scripture, to be "seated at the right hand of God" is to be given a supreme place of honor and authority, a role God granted symbolically to Old Testament kings (Ps. 110:1). Mark's gospel proclaims that Jesus journeyed from Earth to heaven and now reigns with the sovereign authority of God (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 8:1-2). Jesus now participates in the glory he shared with God before the world was created (John 17:5).
In Luke 24:50-53, Jesus blessed his disciples, "withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." Then "they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy" (NRSV). At this Gospel's beginning, angels announced "good news of a great joy" when Jesus was born (2:10). Now the Gospel ends with worship and praise as the disciples realize the joy of Jesus in their own community. The ascension climaxes Jesus' earthly ministry, the goal and destiny toward which he was moving (Luke 9:51).
Acts 1:9-11 is the most detailed ascension account. Luke indicates there was a 40-day interval between the resurrection and the ascension. During this time Jesus appeared to his disciples and spoke to them about the kingdom of God (1:3). Jesus instructed them to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit (1:4-5). The promised Spirit would bring them power to become Christ's "witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth" (1:8).
After Jesus promised this, "he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight" (1:9). The "cloud" refers to the glory and presence of God—just as the cloud over the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10-11) and the cloud that led the Jews through the wilderness (Exod. 13:21) represented the glory and presence of God with the people of Israel. Now Jesus is entering that same immediate presence of the Lord. He will be where God is ("heaven").
That the disciples can no longer "see" Jesus indicates the times of Jesus' physical appearances are ended. Now the crucified Christ, risen from the dead, has been "lifted up" and enters into his glory. He will no longer be visibly observed by his gathered community. Now a new relationship between Jesus and the company of believers is established. From now on Jesus will not be physically perceived but will be known through "what my Father has promised," the "power from on high" (Luke 24:49, NRSV)—the promised Holy Spirit (Acts 1:4-5).
In all these biblical accounts, Jesus is physically separated from the disciples. Then they begin their ministries of witnessing to Jesus as the Christ after the Holy Spirit is given to them. The Ascension was the prerequisite for the outpouring of the Spirit (John 7:39; 16:7). Jesus left so the Spirit could come. Now the new people of God receive the Spirit's power to proclaim Jesus as Messiah and carry out their ministries in the church.