We always mark and commemorate what we believe to be important. From birthdays to anniversaries, from independence days to holidays, we will take note. The issue, therefore, is what we find to be important. Attempts to banish this reality will only have the effect of selecting the wrong things to commemorate.
When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel? And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven (Acts 1:6-11).
Summary of the Text:
The disciples asked the Lord, now that He had conquered death, if he was going to restore the kingdom to Israel. Jesus replied that it was not for them to know the (eschatological) times or seasons, for that belonged to the Father. But He then said the disciples would receive power when the Holy Spirit came upon them. But before the power was given, the authority for that power had to be established, and that is what the Ascension is all about. Jesus was taken up into heaven until a cloud received Him. While they were looking up, two men appeared and asked why they were doing that. Jesus, who was taken up, will return in the same manner. Now note two central points that we learn from this passage. First, the end times are not our direct business. Second, heaven-gazing is not our business either. We do not escape to “the end,” and we do not escape “up.” Rather, in the meantime, our time on earth is defined by these realities.
Not Quite Reformed?
For some, the logic is compelling. If we do not celebrate the festivals of Christ, then our year will be full of secular holidays. But if the logic is compelling, they somehow assume that this is a place where the Reformed tradition got it wrong. In other words, the strict regulative principle, as interpreted by some, says that we must not celebrate anything that is not directly commanded in Scripture. First, most importantly, this is not consistent with Scripture. But we should also note (incidentally) that it is actually not consistent with the history of the Reformed faith.
In the late medieval period, the calendar had become clogged with saints’ days, and this meant, of course, that meaningful commemoration became impossible. Try to imagine your family observing some kind of birthday celebration for someone every day. But when the Reformation was established, there was a strong desire to commemorate what really mattered. Under the heading of “The Festivals of Christ,” the Second Helvetic Confession “highly approved” of the practice of religiously celebrating “the memory of the Lord’s nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, and of his ascension into heaven, and the sending of the Holy Spirit.” This was important because the definition and ownership of time belonged to the First Table of the Law.
Authority and Power:
Authority without power is meaningless and impotent. But power without authority is manipulative or tyrannical. And this is why the doctrine of the Ascension is so important. Without it, attempts at evangelization are bound to degrade into various forms of deception, manipulation, or coercion.
The Scriptures settle this question, beyond all question.
First, the Ascension was prophesied by Daniel. “I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him. And there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages, should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14).
We see the same thing in the second Psalm. “I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee. Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession” (Ps. 2:7-8).
Jesus assumes it in His Great Commission. “And Jesus came and spake unto them, saying, All power [exousia, authority] is given unto me in heaven and in earth. Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen” (Matt. 28:18-20).
And the early Christians understood it this way. “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom to God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power” (1 Cor. 15:24).
Jesus is Lord:
And this is why we must return, again and again, to the basic Christian confession of faith, which is that Jesus is Lord. This does not assume a fragmented universe, with Christ put in charge of some of the pieces. Jesus is Lord is the basic personal confession, but it is only true and sound because it is the cosmic confession. In other words, Jesus saves the individual only because He has been given authority over heaven and earth.
This message was first preached in 2003.