According to the Book of Acts, about forty days after Jesus’ resurrection and a little over a week before Pentecost (the day the Holy Spirit indwelled those 120 believers), Jesus ascended into heaven. Luke says that Jesus rose up into the sky until his followers could no longer see him. (Acts 1:9)
The church often talks about the importance of the resurrection. And, we understand the importance of Pentecost, even if we don’t talk about it quite as much. But, what about the ascension of Jesus? Is it important? Or is it just a blip in the history of the church?
In fact, according to Jesus himself, his ascension is very important.
Several times, Jesus told his followers that he would be returning to his Father. Of course, they probably didn’t understand exactly what he meant when he said that (as demonstrated by their question in Acts 1:6.
Throughout John 14, for example, Jesus tells his followers three times that he is going to the Father. (John 14:2-3, John 14:12, John 14:28) Furthermore, in that same passage, Jesus tells them that he is going away (although not specifically “to the Father”) in John 14:18.
In this passage, while Jesus is talking about going away to the Father, he also continues to instruct his followers about another important event: The Father is sending the Holy Spirit to dwell in his children. The two events seem to be interrelated in John 14.
In John 14:16, Jesus said that he will ask the Father (while he is with him) and the Father will give them the Holy Spirit. In John 14:26, again Jesus said that the Father will send the Holy Spirit to them.
But, while the connection between Jesus going away to the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit seem related in John 14, Jesus does not directly specify that there is a relationship between the two events. However, when we get to John 16, Jesus specifically says that the sending of the Holy Spirit is directly related to his going to the Father:
I did not say these things to you from the beginning, because I was with you. But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. 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 16:4-7)
In this passage, Jesus not only connects the sending of the Holy Spirit (“Helper” in the ESV translates a word that Jesus used for the Holy Spirit earlier in John 14:16) when he goes to the Father, but he tells his followers that it is better for him to go away so that the Holy Spirit could come.
While we could speculate, Jesus does not explain why he has to go away for the Holy Spirit to come. However, it seems clear from the passage above that the two events are related. So, without the ascension of Jesus, there would be no Day of Pentecost. If Jesus did not go away to the Father (and leave his followers for about a week), then the church today would not be indwelled by the Holy Spirit.
According to Jesus, it is better for us today that we are indwelled by the Holy Spirit than for Jesus to walk among us physically. As we look back on the time when the church celebrates the resurrection of Jesus and forward to the time when the church celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit, let’s not forget that Jesus ascended, so that the Holy Spirit could come.