Ascension Day – What is it?

Ascension Day is the day celebrating the bodily ascension of Jesus Christ to heaven 40 days after His resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday. This day falls on a Thursday, though many American liturgical churches (and others) celebrate on the following Sunday, the sixth Sunday following Easter. As such, the day is sometimes marked as Ascension Thursday or Ascension Sunday.

Several biblical passages are associated with this event. Standard Scripture readings for this Sunday include Acts 1:1-11; Psalm 47:2-3, 6-7, 8-9; Ephesians 1:17-23 or 4:1-13 or 4:1-7, 11-13; and Mark 16:15-20.

The ascension held a special place of importance in the early church. Mentioned in Mark 16:19, Luke 24:49, and Acts 1:3-9, it is clear Jesus revealed Himself to His followers and others over a 40 day period following the resurrection before returning to heaven. Two angels appeared following Jesus' ascension, promising Jesus would return in the same way (Acts 1:9-11).

Augustine wrote that the apostles celebrated Ascension Day. While this claim is uncertain, it is clear the Ascension was included in the earliest Christian creeds. The Apostles' Creed, for example, notes, "He ascended into heaven, sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty; from thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead."

That Jesus is the ascended Lord who reigns forever has served as an ongoing emphasis in Christian belief. For Jesus to return in the future, He has to be in heaven now. For the resurrected Jesus to be in heaven, He had to ascend there rather than enter by death. The pattern of death, burial, resurrection, ascension, return is found in numerous biblical and church historical writings, including many church creeds.

Further, the Ascension points to our own entrance into heaven. First Thessalonians 4:13-18 speaks of Christ coming for His children. The dead in Christ will rise (ascend) first, followed by all living Christians going to be with the coming Lord forever. The chapter concludes by teaching, "encourage one another with these words" (verse 18).

The Ascension points both to the completed work of Christ as well as His yet unfulfilled coming work. In it believers discover the joy of the risen Lord and the anticipation of His return. This anticipation rightly leads to holy living as well as committed service and outreach to others who have yet to believe.

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