In recent years there has been a lot of talk about America as an impatient nation. We're in a hurry: we eat fast food, speed date, use self-checkout lines, access movies and TV shows via Netflix and Hulu, use abbreviations in text messages, and read more blogs and fewer books. We have gadgets and apps that immediately give us what we want—now! When it comes to waiting, as a viral video says, "Ain't nobody got time for that."
While a lot of people criticize our culture's impatience—indeed, there is much to lament about this cultural tendency—not everyone sees it as a disease that needs to be cured. In his 2010 NPR article "Impatient Nation: I Can't Wait for You to Read This," Linton Weeks classifies impatience as a virtue:
Impatience isn't always a bad thing. Sure, it can be the sign of a troubled mind. … But impatience can also be the sign of a healthy mind: Wired magazine lists impatience as a desirable characteristic in the "X-factor" that leads to success. Some of our most revered leaders are impatient people. Bill and Melinda Gates describe themselves as impatient optimists. … Impatience can be a virtue. [America's] Founding Fathers were an impatient lot. In an 1822 letter, John Adams described the writing of the Declaration of Independence: "We were all in haste," he said of the drafting committee, which included Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin. "Congress was impatient."
In other words, impatience not only causes us to get things done; it is often coupled with the optimistic thought of what could be. Impatience drives us to turn possibilities into realities. It's not simply a feeling of irritation with something that causes delay. It's a restless desire for change.
Change—isn't that what the gospel is all about? The gospel tells us that many of our longings for change are satisfied now. We don't have to wait. Forgiveness of sin is a reality—now! New life in the Spirit is a reality—now! Reconciliation with others is a reality—now!
But as much as I'd like to agree with Weeks—that impatience is a virtue and that imprudence is the real problem—I think impatience is only a quasi virtue. Patience, we're taught in Scripture, is a fruit of the Spirit—a mark of God's very character. The gospel tells us that while some of our longings are certainly satisfied now, others will be satisfied later. We're told to be patient and to trust in God. Theologians call this tension the "now-and-not-yet" reality, one in which our thirst is satisfied, but not fully. We experience salvation and its many benefits now, but we await its full reality—the resurrection of our bodies and uninhibited communion with our Triune God. We can have some things now, but for other things we have to wait. And no Christian doctrine speaks to our immediate satisfaction and our anticipation quite like the doctrine of the Ascension.
Not an Appendix
The Ascension is often underrated and undervalued by evangelicals. We make a big deal of Christ's coming at Christmas, celebrating with gifts, baked goods, and carols. With solemn services we mourn his horrific death on Good Friday. And with exuberant celebration, we rejoice in his Resurrection on Easter Sunday, with glorious services, extravagant bouquets of flowers, Easter eggs, and big hunks of glazed ham. But to Christ's farewell we give very little attention—if any at all.
Perhaps this is because the Gospel writers say almost nothing of Christ's departure. Matthew includes no direct reference to the Ascension. Both Mark's and Luke's gospels condense this event into one measly verse (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51). And John excludes the event from the ending of his gospel, though he does include several allusions—but the main focus of these texts is on the sending of the Holy Spirit, not Christ's ascension (see John 14:16–18; 16:4–15).
Perhaps they write so little about it because Christ's departure was a difficult topic of discussion. Anyone who has lost a loved one—for whatever reason—knows how tough it can be to talk about their loss. After all, they weren't just his students; they were his friends. 1 John 1:1 says, "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life." I can faintly imagine what it would have been like to live life with Christ while he was on Earth. He and his disciples traveled together, lodged together, prayed together, ate together, worked together, and ministered together. Then he was executed as a criminal. Their leader, their friend, was suddenly gone. They were trapped in fear and isolation. But then he came back to life, only to leave them again. What an emotional rollercoaster.
Not only that, the Ascension is anticlimactic. Christ's miracles, passion, crucifixion, and resurrection—that's where the drama and excitement is. His ascension, not so much.
But we're gravely mistaken to suppose the Ascension is an appendix to the real drama. Every season of Christ's incarnate life is essential for our salvation. Each event plays a unique role in Christ's mission to save fallen humanity. None of them is wasted time or energy. In his incarnation, he joined human nature to his divine person, thus reuniting the broken bond between God and humanity. In his circumcision he subjected himself to the Law, and he fulfilled it perfectly. For 30 years he lived an ordinary life and affirmed everything human. In self-sacrificing service, he reached out to sinners, outsiders, and the despised, thus setting the blueprint for the Christian life. In his death he bore our sin and took the punishment we deserved. As the Apostles' Creed confesses, he descended to the dead—that is, he experienced the depths of death and rested among the dead in order to kill death. And then he rose. In his resurrection, he broke the bonds of sin and death, and released humanity from captivity. For 40 days he showcased his resurrected body—the promise of our physical resurrection—and prepared his disciples for continuing his ministry. And then he left.
That is not the end of the Jesus story. Without the Ascension, Christ's death and resurrection mean nothing for us today. If Christ had not departed, his death would be nothing more than a distant example of self-sacrifice, his resurrection nothing more than a display of God's power in one man's life. Without Christ's ascension into heaven, his atoning work has no effect on our 21st-century lives.
Christ said, "But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away." (John 16:7). To the disciples this must have sounded absurd. How is it good that Christ left? After all, he is Immanuel, God with us. How is his absence better than his presence?
They didn't understand at the time, but Christ's departure would turn possibilities into realities. It brought about the change they wanted but couldn't have until he left.
Securing and Applying Redemption
In his masterful lectures on Christ's atonement (published in Atonement: The Person and Work of Christ), theologian Thomas F. Torrance reminds us that in the Old Testament liturgy of the Day of Atonement, the most important part of the atonement was done within the veil, beyond human sight, in the Holy of Holies. After the high priest had made a sacrifice on the altar, he took some of the blood beyond the veil and sprinkled it on the "atonement cover," and then made intercession for the people of Israel.
The Letter to the Hebrews tells us that Jesus entered "the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands. … [H]e entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption" (9:11–12). Just as atonement under the Old Covenant was secured beyond the veil in the tabernacle, so Christ, our Great High Priest, secures our atonement in his ascension, by taking his sacrificed and resurrected body into "heaven itself" (Heb. 9:24). As Torrance says, this is a mystery. It cannot be spelled out. We don't fully understand the mechanics of Christ's atoning work. But Hebrews tells us that Christ's ascension into heaven has made our redemption a reality. He took humanity into the presence of God, forever re-uniting the broken bond between God and humanity. Our at-one-ment with God was finally and forever secured.
But what good is this to us as individuals? How do we know that Christ's atoning work and the re-union between God and humanity actually affects us?
The night before Christ's death, he told his disciples, "Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" (John 16:7). Jesus ascended so that he could send us the Holy Spirit, the one who unites us to Christ and applies his atoning work, and all of its benefits, to our lives.
First, the Holy Spirit gives us new life. Paul says in Romans 8:11, "If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of his Spirit who lives in you." As the Nicene Creed confesses, the Holy Spirit is "the Lord, the giver of life." Whereas Jesus obtains new life for us in his resurrection, the Holy Spirit gives us that new life when he enters our hearts.
The Holy Spirit also justifies us. There is no competition between being justified by Christ and being justified by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son (Rom. 8:9–11), and we are justified by the Spirit of God (1 Cor. 6:11). In justification, God declares us righteous and extends Christ's righteousness to us through the work of the Spirit. Christ's atoning work accomplishes forgiveness of sins, and the Holy Spirit extends that forgiveness to each believer.
The Holy Spirit also sanctifies us. Sanctification is the ongoing work of the Spirit in our lives. In sanctification, the Holy Spirit wars against our sinfulness and conforms us to the image of Christ. Thus, the Spirit applies Christ's righteousness to our lives and enables us to live as Christ lived.
24/7 Access to Jesus
When Jesus was on Earth, he was limited by space and time, like any other human. If people wanted to access him—to ask him a question, to seek his healing, to hear him preach—they had to travel to wherever he was.
But we don't have to. The Ascension has given us what we want—instant access. Although Jesus is no longer physically present on Earth, his statement "I am with you" (Matt. 28:20) indicates a new, spiritual presence. He is no longer limited by physical boundaries. Nor is he merely a historical figure, just a man who lived 2,000 years ago. As philosopher Søren Kierkegaard said in his book Practice in Christianity, Christ is our contemporary. He is present to us all. We have unobstructed access to Jesus, all the time.
As Torrance says, "It is through the Spirit that we can think of Christ as historically absent and as actually present." Though we are disconnected by space and time, the Spirit connects us to Christ, who is seated in heaven. We are with him, and he is with us (Eph. 2:6; Matt. 28:20).
While Christ's ascension guarantees certain aspects of our salvation now, there are others that we patiently await.
We wait for Christ's full presence—spiritual and bodily. Immediately after Jesus ascended into heaven, two angels appeared to the disciples and said, "'Men of Galilee … why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven'" (Acts 1:11). The Ascension promises Christ's return. And we long for his return, sometimes impatiently. Though we have uninterrupted access to Jesus now, we will one day see him face to face. We can talk with loved ones through apps like Apple's Facetime or Skype. But nothing compares to being with one another in person. We taste the sweetness of Christ's spiritual presence here and now through the power of the Holy Spirit. But at his second coming we will experience his presence in its fullness.
We also wait for our resurrected bodies. As a result of Christ's ascension, our bodies are destined for glory. When Christ ascended, he took his resurrected body into heaven, into the presence of God. 1 Corinthians 15:22–23 says, "For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him." John also says, "But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is" (1 John 3:2). When Christ returns, we will be made alive with him, and we will be made like him—that is, we will receive resurrected bodies like his. On that day, our entire salvation will be made complete. There will be no more waiting, no more longing. The change we long for now will no longer be a hope; it will be a reality.
The Ascension, then, is far from an addendum to the real gospel drama. It is a pivotal moment in salvation history, one in which we are guaranteed change here and now, and promised change in the future. And for that reason, it is worth celebrating.
Kevin P. Emmert is an assistant editor at Christianity Today. You can follow him on Twitter @Kevin_P_Emmert.