Easter morning has come and gone, yet the resurrection bells ring still. Rightly so, for central to the Christian faith is the resurrection of Jesus. But what if the story ended there? What if Jesus had not ascended back to the Father? What would that mean for our salvation? At the risk of sounding heretical, if Jesus had not ascended to the Father, we could not be saved.
Before unpacking such a seemingly scandalous statement, we must be sure we rightly understand what it means to be saved. In other words, a biblical answer must be given to the question: what is the purpose of our salvation? What does our salvation entail? We have typically thought of salvation in terms of being saved from something, namely, sin and death. While this is true, more true and more profound is that our salvation is not simply from something, it is for something. Revelation 21.3 sheds light on what we are saved for: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.”” The presence of God with his people is the end of our salvation. This is the testimony even of the old covenant as declared in Leviticus 26.11 and Ezekiel 37.27. It is, in fact, the very purpose for which God created Adam and Eve in the beginning—to share with his image-bearing creatures the love and joy and goodness of his presence. God has been at work from the beginning to draw people into fellowship with himself.
So what does the ascension have to do God drawing people into fellowship with himself? In a way, everything. If Jesus does not ascend back to the Father, we cannot have eternal fellowship with God. There are four reasons among many this is true.
If Jesus does not ascend, our fellowship is not with the Father. In John 14.28 Jesus says, “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.” This does not mean that Jesus is somehow less God than the Father is God. Jesus is fully God and fully man. This is the great mystery of the incarnation, a truth lying beyond the firm grasp of human understanding but unapologetically proclaimed by Scripture. So when Jesus says, “for the Father is greater than I,” he is not speaking as one who is inferior in nature to the Father but as one who has been sent by the Father (John 6.57). The Father sends his Son into the world. The Son is sent by the Father into the world. In this way, the Father is greater. He is the initiator of the Son’s taking on flesh and dwelling among us (John 1.14).
But why did the Father send the Son into the world? “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17). The Son’s incarnation as Jesus and dwelling among us was necessary because we, who had fallen into sin (and therefore were already under condemnation), were unable to know and have fellowship with God. Only the Son knows and has fellowship with God (John 1.18). Therefore, he is sent by the Father, so that the knowledge of and fellowship with the Father he has as the Son, he can make available to the sons of men as a man. In order to offer the fellowship he has with the Father to us, he must return to Father with whom he has fellowship. If Jesus does not return to the Father with whom he as fellowship, the fellowship we have in Jesus will not be with the Father.
If Jesus does not ascend, the Holy Spirit does not come. Jesus declares in John 16.7, “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.” The Helper, the Holy Spirit, is the one who seals us for the day of redemption (Ephesians 4.3). Being God with the Father and the Son, the Spirit’s dwelling in us in this present age is a guarantee that God—Father, Son and Spirit—will dwell with us and we with him in the age to come. And as Jesus declares, he must ascend for this to happen. Yet it is not simply necessary, it is advantageous! It is better that Jesus ascend to the Father and for the Spirit to come than for Jesus to stay and for the Spirit not to come. To ignore the importance of Jesus’ ascension is to deny the work of the Holy Spirit—it is to deny him any place in God’s economy of salvation. But such ignorance would be a grievous error, for if the Spirit does not seal us for the day anticipated in Revelation 21.3, we have no hope of making it to the day our salvation is complete when the dwelling place of God is with us.
If Jesus does not ascend, the inheritance Jesus won for us is insecure. 1 Peter 1.3-4 states, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled and unfading, kept in heaven for you.” Therefore, we should rejoice that Jesus ascends back to the Father because he has taken all the benefits he won for us as our substitute to heaven where it will remain imperishable, undefiled and unfading until the day we acquire possession of it (Ephesians 1.14). We are not left to guard our inheritance of salvation. It is guarded and kept for us.
If Jesus does not ascend, the gospel does not go forth to the ends of the earth. Right before his ascension, Jesus says in Acts 1.8, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” God has appointed his Spirit-empowered people to be the vessel by which the gospel is carried to the ends of the earth. If Jesus does not ascend, the Church is not empowered by the Spirit, and if the Church is not empowered by the Spirit, the gospel would remain in Jerusalem and never reach the ends of the earth. And you and I never hear the gospel that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1.16).
The point of all of this is not to engage in an academic exercise. It is, prayerfully, to help us see that God has done for us in Christ far more than we can ever comprehend; and in seeing more of what God has done for us in Christ, that we would love him more; and in loving him more, that we would obey him more.