“Do not cling to me.”
This can’t be the reception Mary Magdalene was expecting when she encountered the resurrected Jesus.
Mary had been weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. You can imagine her distress, having just watched her dear friend suffer a humiliating, grisly death. Now his body was missing.
Jesus walked up to her while she investigated the empty tomb. Mary initially thought he was the gardener, but when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him! She called out, in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).
But instead of an embrace or some other warm gesture, Jesus was much more direct:
“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)
Read in the wrong light, this sounds cold, almost cruel. But in this statement, Jesus reveals his focus on his Father and also provides hope for Mary and the other disciples.
Jesus Longed for His Ascension
As you read through the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, you’ll find that Jesus focused much more on his ascension than we do. By “ascension,” I’m referring to Jesus’ bodily return to heaven after his resurrection (see Luke 24:50–51 and Acts 1:9–11).
In John 20, Jesus didn’t want Mary to think he’d be on earth forever. He didn’t want her to get attached to his resurrected form. There was still work to do.
We think of Jesus’ work for us in three distinct categories: his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus would have us add his ascension as a fourth category. And there’s no doubt this was his most anticipated work.
The Ascension Is Relational
Jesus loved his Father and longed for a reunion.
- Jesus says to his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
- “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28).
- Jesus prays to his Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).
Before his incarnation, Jesus enjoyed perfect fellowship in the immediate presence of God the Father. This is what he longed to reclaim, and it’s one reason the ascension was so important to him.
In his ascension, he would experience the unbroken presence of his Father.
Don’t miss the fact that Jesus’ ascension was a bodily ascension. This matters! It means that in the incarnation Jesus took on and identified with the human body for all time. It also means that, as the head of the new humanity, Jesus shows us the destination of the redeemed: to be with God, bodily, forever (see Revelation 21:3).
This destination should shape our longings. When our aspirations or goals are dashed, when we experience pain in body or soul, we can lift our eyes to our final home. The new heavens and the new earth await, and we will dwell with God!
The Ascension Is Functional
Though Jesus wanted the heavenly reunion that his ascension would accomplish, he also had work to do. In his ascension, Jesus accomplished and began several vital tasks for our salvation.
Jesus is coronated as King.
Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). The Old Testament background for the title “Son of God” (see Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7) makes it clear that this title has a royal meaning. By his resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the king!
If the resurrection declared Jesus to be King, then the ascension functions as his coronation ceremony. It was important that his disciples saw him depart, ascending to his throne, knowing he would return in the same fashion.
For more support of this function of the ascension, note the following:
- Jesus has conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21), where he is praised (Revelation 5:6–14).
- Peter says that God made Jesus Lord, sitting at his right hand until his enemies are his footstool (Acts 2:34–36). This is the language of a king.
- Paul writes that Jesus must reign (like a king!) until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).
Jesus sends the Holy Spirit.
We begin to learn what the ascension means when we consider what we would lose if it never happened. Here’s a huge implication: If Jesus never ascended, his followers would never have received the Holy Spirit.
Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)
Let’s not underestimate the sending of the Spirit! Because of the Spirit, we have the conversions at Pentecost, the growth and expansion of the early church, and the Bible. If the Spirit were not sent, you and I would not be Christians!
Jesus is our heavenly high priest.
Jesus’ ascension also takes him to a place of great importance. He is now at the Father’s right hand, and his ongoing work there is vital.
- The Bible tells us that Jesus is the true high priest for his people. He “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus brings his people to God for true deliverance and salvation.
- Jesus is also our heavenly advocate. He reminds his Father of his sacrifice for sin and holds our status as sons and daughters before God. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
- Jesus transcended physical limitations in his ascension. Though he keeps his human body forever, Jesus is now able to listen, rule, and heal without the familiar time and space restrictions we know.
What the Ascension Means for Us
The ascension of Jesus is a glorious fact that has scores of implications for his people. Here are a few:
As our high priest, Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, indicating that his work of sacrifice is done (Hebrews 10:11–12). Our standing with God doesn’t depend on our actions or our emotions, but on the finished work of Christ.
The enthroned king has been given all power to rule, and this power is his to dispense to his church (see Ephesians 1:15–23). Nothing can stand in the way of God’s purposes, and he will accomplish them with power, often through us.
When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from earth, the note was joyous, not mournful. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). In this one verse, Jesus gives at least three reasons for hope.
He is preparing a place for us. He will come again. He will take us to be with him.
This is the destiny for those who, by God’s grace, call on Jesus in faith.