Jesus ascended and left his disciples behind. That was—and is—a good thing for all believers.
John A. Vieths
“Seems we just get started and before you know it, the time comes we have to say, ‘So long.’ ”
You understand the sentiment. Inevitably, the time must come to say good-bye. Looking back from that good-bye, it all seems so quickly gone. The holidays are over, and the visit must come to an end. After four years of school together, we have arrived at graduation day, and classmates will be headed in different directions. Junior is all grown up now. He has his first job, and it is time for him to start living on his own. After 45 or 50 years in the workforce, you are ready to hang up your spurs and start drawing on your retirement savings.
THE UNCERTAIN FUTURE
Some farewells are sad. Others can be scary. Jesus’ disciples seemed to feel a mixture of both emotions when he announced his farewell to them at the Last Supper. “Lord, why can’t I follow you now?” Peter asked (John 13:37). “Lord, we don’t know where you are going,” Thomas noted (John 14:5).
Jesus picked up on their concerns. “If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). But they were not glad. “You are filled with grief because I have said these things” (John 16:6). After three short years together, Jesus’ hand-picked leadership team was not eager to move on without Jesus visibly at the head.
Their grief was not pure sentimentalism. Humanly speaking, fear seemed reasonable based on Jesus’ own warnings. “If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. . . . If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also” (John 15:18,20). Jesus did not sugarcoat the future they faced after he left. He prepared them for it by telling it the way it was. After he left, following him was going to be hard.
It still is. Does Jesus’ decision to leave seem wise? Sometimes my heart tells me, “No.” Too often keeping our relationship going feels like maintaining a long-distance relationship. More than one affectionate couple has called it quits at the prospect of months or years of nothing but words printed on a page, a phone call from a thousand miles away, or gifts sent as tokens of affection. This takes patience and work.
It’s not wrong that we long to see Jesus face to face. Paul did: “I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far” (Philippians 1:23). That, however, does not mean we can just dismiss the printed words he has left behind. Jesus himself lives in those words in a way no romantic wordsmith every managed to inhabit his script. The signs of his affection Jesus left for us don’t sparkle like gold rings or jeweled bracelets. But baptismal waters cleanse our hearts, and bread and wine pregnant with Christ’s own body and blood nourish our souls. They don’t merely accessorize our exteriors.
Questioning Jesus’ good-bye and his return home isn’t just longing for him. Sometimes our heads think that we have a reasonable case for him to stay. Look at the mess the people he has left behind have made of his church. Look at the gains the purveyors of perversions have won. Look at the defections to atheism and agnosticism so many members of a new generation seem to be making. Look at the mission fields in which the crop seems to be rotting because no one sends and no one goes. “If Jesus were here,” we reason, “he would make this right. If Jesus were here, people would listen.”
Would they? Did they? When he walked among us and fed the masses, they still concluded, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?” (John 6:60). And many of his disciples turned back and didn’t follow him anymore.
THE COMPLETED MISSION
Here is the surprising truth about his departure that Jesus shared in the upper room: “Very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away” (John 16:7). Jesus’ Ascension isn’t a disappointment for us to get over or a problem for us to deal with. It is a blessing he intends for our good.
One blessing of Jesus’ Ascension is the exclamation mark it places on his completed work. It takes his dying gasp from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30), and amplifies its truth for our assurance. If he hadn’t accomplished all he was sent to do, he would still be here tying up the loose ends. But there are no loose ends. He fulfilled his mission in every way. That is truly good news.
Since his work is complete, we know that we have a real righteousness, a spotless life of love we can claim as our own. For more than 30 years, Jesus led a perfect life of love and obedience, without a single slip. The writer of Hebrews observed that he “has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin” (4:15).
That’s more than a neat trick or a unique talent. There are countless people who can do things that I can’t. I know artists who can draw or paint with nearly photographic accuracy. I’ve met musicians who can reproduce any composition they have ever heard and not miss a single note. I can’t do those things. Here’s the difference between those supremely gifted people and our supremely obedient Savior: Jesus has given his gift away to us all. Our lives haven’t actually become uninterrupted, unspoiled love and obedience—yet. But already we can stand before our Lord with no shame as though love and obedience is all we do, because Jesus’ perfection counts as ours. “Through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous” (Romans 5:19). And Jesus’ Ascension leaves no doubt that our borrowed obedience is complete and perfect.
Similarly, Jesus’ Ascension leaves us with no questions about the status of his payment for the sins we have committed. “When this priest [Jesus] had offered for all time one sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God.” The result? “By one sacrifice he has made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (Hebrews 10:12,14). Here too there is nothing left for Jesus to do, no unfinished business to which he must attend.
This planet is not the only place from which Jesus serves us. It is not the only place where he could work on our behalf. It is the location of a chapter in the story of his saving mission now complete. Now that he has ascended, there are more chapters in this story for us to explore.
John Vieths is pastor at Grace, Norman, Oklahoma.
This is the first article in a four-part series on Jesus’ Ascension and the work he continues to do for us.
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Author: John A. Vieths
Volume 103, Number 5
Issue: May 2016
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