The Lord's Ascension
by the Rev. Dr. William Woofenden
Faculty Member at the Swedenborg School of Religion in Newton, MA
In the April, 1994 Issue of Our Daily Bread

Then He led them out of the city as far as Bethany, where He raised His hands and blessed them. As He was blessing them, He departed from them and was taken up into heaven.

Luke 24:50-51

The Lord appeared several times after his crucifixion - not just on the day of resurrection, but, according to some accounts, for a period of forty days. By appearing repeatedly in this way after his death on the cross, He showed without any room for doubt that although He had laid down His life, He did indeed have power to take it again, as He had said He had - testifying in this way that He passed through death unchanged and is alive for evermore. Thus He lived out words to His disciples recorded in the Gospel of John, "Because I live, you also will live."

The last time He appeared to His disciples before His ascension was when the eleven were together in Jerusalem. It was on that occasion that He performed the wonderful act of opening their understanding so that they might understand the inner depths of the Scriptures, and see from interior light that the Word throughout tells of Him, and of how He fulfilled its prophecies.

Then He led them out of Jerusalem to the little village of Bethany, which is on the Mount of Olives. And from that mountain, hallowed by many precious associations, He raised His  hands in blessing and then departed from their sight. This even, which occurred forty days after Easter, is called the Ascension.

This was the last visible appearance of the Lord to the apostles and other disciples. It marked the finish of a work He had come to accomplish and complete. It connected Him in their minds with the giving of the Holy Spirit. But the ascension was not an event disconnected from the other works of the Lord in His life on earth. In one way of looking at it, the Lord's life was a continuous act of ascension, of which the visual ascension was a symbolic summary.

Another way of looking at it would be to note that the Lord's life on earth was a new and fuller revelation of God. Through the child Jesus, born of Mary, was to come in time the revelation of the full personhood of God.

The world of nature is full of the glory of God, beautifully referred to by the psalmist in the familiar words, "The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament shows his handiwork. Day unto day utters speech, and night unto night reveals knowledge." (19:1-2). But only in the Christ is the person of God revealed.

The Word, we read, was made flesh and dwelt among us. It was through Him that all things were made. Since the incarnation, there is no need any longer to worship God as an invisible being. No longer should He be thought of as an unembodied force, a formless cloud, or a terrifying specter. God in His divine person, as a friend, as a man of gentleness, mercy and love was revealed in Jesus Christ. A defined idea of the great Jehovah, the creator, came into the world through Him.

Yet there is an element of mystery here. The infant Jesus was not the omnipotent and omniscient God, but a helpless babe who had to be cared for and even carried hastily into Egypt for protection. But on the other hand, the revelation of the person of God began at the same point that everyone begins, as a person in infancy. And the child Jesus, we are told, "grew both in body and in wisdom, gaining favor with God and men" (Luke 2:52) as every regenerating person grows. The major difference in the processes, of course, is that we are capable at best of growing to the angelic level, whereas Jesus grew into the divine itself. He was to ascent until his visible ascension would be the sign that He had become one with the Father. In the same way, He ascended in the esteem of his followers, being gradually recognized as the person He was, even the doubting Thomas at last being able to acknowledge Him as "My Lord and God!" (John 20:28).

First He gained favor with people, winning the confidence and love of His followers before they could even begin to think of Him as the incarnate God. He calmed the sea, healed the sick, restored sight to the blind. It was by working such wonders that He showed the people the power He had - power even over life itself. In other instances He commanded even spirits of hell to obey Him. He showed His power on all planes of nature and of human life.

From being seen as wonderful and mighty, He increased in their estimation until His followers meekly and gladly sat at His feet to hear words of life and peace. He became their guide and counselor. But even so, despite the miracles and the marvelous words, they still did not understand Him or who He really was. Plainly He had said at one time, "The Father and I are one," and at another time, "Whoever has seen me has seen the Father." Despite this, the divine person remained unknown. No one as yet even began to surmise that He was indeed the mighty God, the everlasting Father.

We recall that His disciples could believe in His power to do miracles, to rule nature, even to raise the dead; but that He had the power to lay down His own life and take it up again surpassed the power of their imaginations. Though He had said, "I am the resurrection and the life," "I am the way, the truth, and the  life," the truth of these sayings was not acknowledged. So it was necessary that He appear to them after the crucifixion to show that He is imperishable, is life itself.

Words that He had spoken to them earlier gradually began to take on new meaning for them. He had, for instance, said, "The time is coming, and is already here, when all of you will be scattered...and I will be left all alone." (John 16:32) It was only after the resurrection that they began to understand what his words had really meant.

Slowly He had grown in the minds of His disciples. He had become very precious to them. They had seen that all power in heaven and earth had been committed to Him. The babe of Bethlehem had ascended in their minds and hearts until - with the ascension itself - they finally realized that God had appeared in all His fullness in the person of Jesus Christ.

Perhaps we should say a word about the ascension itself, and how we should think of it. You may have seen artists' conceptions of it that show Jesus sort of floating midway between heaven and earth! We do better to realize that the ascension was accomplished by opening the spiritual sight of the Lord's followers Their mental clouds of obscurity, of doubt and of uncertainly had at least been largely driven away. But even here, it was a cloud (representing some degree of lingering doubt) that finally hid Him from their sight. There is a very practical lesson in the ascension. Before the Lord came into the world, mankind did not believe in the power of truth and goodness. People generally believed that self-seeking and even falsity, deceit, and evil were more powerful than good and truth. Even today many people believe this and act on the principle of self-interest, putting their trust in external might. But no one need believe this.

By fulfilling the law, by living as the Word taught, Jesus vindicated the Word, showing that it has power over all things. By it He overcame all evil and falsity and raised truth and goodness to their proper status. To call attention to this, He said, "The ruler of this world has already been judged." (John 16:11) We can have faith that this is true. By faith in the Lord and His words we also can ascend. First of all we must ascend to a true idea of God and a right faith in Him, and after that we can ascend to meet His love and do as He has taught. In this ascension of thought, love and deed, the Lord comes closely present and gives us of His mighty power to help us to overcome our weaknesses and errors.

This is encouragingly and simply set forth in another Scripture, "To those who win the victory I will give the right to sit beside me on my throne, just as I have been victorious and now sit by my Father on His throne." (Rev. 3:21) Amen.

Scripture:

In the first book, Theophilius, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when He was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom He had chosen. After His suffering He presented Himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, He ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. "This," he said, "is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now."

So when they  had come together, they asked him, "Lord is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?" He replied, "It is not for you to know the times of periods that the Father has set by His own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When He had said this, as they were watching, He was lifted up, and a cloud took Him out of their sight. While He was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward Heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven."

Acts 1:1-11

Reading from Swedenborg:

As the Lord's Human was glorified, that is, made Divine, He rose again after death on the third day with His whole body, which does not take place with any man; for a man rises again solely as to the spirit, and not as to the body. In order that people may know, and no one doubt, that the Lord rose again with His whole body, He not only said so through the angels in the sepulchre, but also showed Himself to His disciples in His human body...

In order to evince still further that He was not a spirit but a Man, the Lord said to His disciples, "Have ye here any meat? And they gave Him a piece of a broiled fish, and of a honeycomb; and He took it and did eat before them."

As His body was no longer material, but Divine substantial, He came in to His disciples when the doors were shut (John 22: 19, 26); and after He had been seen He became invisible (Luke 24:31). Being such, the Lord was then taken up and sat at the right hand of God...

To "sit at the right hand of God," signifies Divine omnipotence.

Doctrine of the Lord #35

Music: Prism (Colors of Love)
1999 Bruce DeBoer