He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge both the quick and the dead.
The scene itself is quite simple. Jesus, having risen from the dead and appeared to his disciples over a period of forty days, is having a conversation with them. They are asking about when the kingdom is going to be restored to Israel. He tells them that it isn’t for them to know the times and season appointed by the Father. Then he tells them that they will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, and will be his witnesses, first locally and eventually to the ends of the earth. He raises his hands and blesses them, and begins to be lifted into the sky. Soon he disappears in a cloud. As they watch, two men in white robes tell them to stop straining their necks. Jesus, who was just taken into heaven, will come again in the same way.
The story in itself provides us with many wonderful truths. First, we know where Jesus is. Second, we know that he will come back some day. Third, how wonderful it is that at the last moment he could be seen with the outward eye, his hands were lifted, blessing his Church.
But this is only Scene 1. Scene 2 is described with equal vividness in Daniel 7. In his vision, Daniel sees four terrifying beasts, representing four kings that would successively rise up, rule the world, and then be destroyed. Finally, the Ancient of Days takes his seat to judge, his court filled with tens of thousands of servants. The beasts are all judged, their dominion taken away. Then, riding on the clouds of heaven appears one “like a son of man.” He is presented before the Ancient of days, and given dominion, glory, and an everlasting, indestructable kingdom, so that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.
This prophecy delightfully tells us what comes next. If our camera is set up from an earthly perspective, we see Jesus moving away until he disappears in the cloud. Then we change our camera angle so we are looking down from heaven. We see Jesus returning to heaven, riding on a cloud as his chariot. The Son of God returns as the victorious Son of Man and takes the throne. He is king, and sits form his unassailable throne over the whole earth.
Christ will return on a cloud again (Scene 3?), but we ought not to think of it as a wispy cotton-candy cloud casually floating in. This is God’s cloud-chariot, and he he comes to judge the earth, delivering his people and destroying his enemies. He will come on the clouds with power and glory, and all the tribes of the earth will mourn (Mat 24:30). “He comes up like clouds; his chariots like the whirlwind; his horses are swifter than eagles– woe to us, for we are ruined.” (Jer 4:13) With smoking nostrils and flaming mouth, he comes down under cover of clouds dark with water, flashing with fire, raining down hailstones and hot coals. (Psalm 18:8-12). This is the same battle chariot on which God rode out against the Egyptians. “The Lord is riding on a swift cloud and come to Egypt…and the heart of the Egyptians will melt within them.” (Isa 19:1)
When we say that Christ will return as he ascended, on the clouds, this is what we mean. He will come as king and judge of the world, riding on his heavenly chariot, ready to bring final deliverance to his faithful people and final punishment on all who oppose his rule. Perhaps Milton’s picture of the heavenly chariot in Paradise Lost, Book VI, will help us to take that day seriously.
So spake the Son, and into terrour chang’d
His count’nance too severe to be beheld [ 825 ]
And full of wrauth bent on his Enemies.
At once the Four spred out thir Starrie wings
With dreadful shade contiguous, and the Orbes
Of his fierce Chariot rowld, as with the sound
Of torrent Floods, or of a numerous Host. [ 830 ]
Hee on his impious Foes right onward drove,
Gloomie as Night; under his burning Wheeles
The stedfast Empyrean shook throughout,
All but the Throne it self of God. Full soon
Among them he arriv’d; in his right hand [ 835 ]
Grasping ten thousand Thunders, which he sent
Before him, such as in thir Soules infix’d
Plagues; they astonisht all resistance lost,
All courage; down thir idle weapons drop’d;
O’re Shields and Helmes, and helmed heads he rode [ 840 ]
Of Thrones and mighty Seraphim prostrate,
That wisht the Mountains now might be again
Thrown on them as a shelter from his ire.
Nor less on either side tempestuous fell
His arrows, from the fourfold-visag’d Foure, [ 845 ]
Distinct with eyes, and from the living Wheels,
Distinct alike with multitude of eyes,
One Spirit in them rul’d, and every eye
Glar’d lightning, and shot forth pernicious fire
Among th’ accurst, that witherd all thir strength, [ 850 ]
And of thir wonted vigour left them draind,
Exhausted, spiritless, afflicted, fall’n.
Yet half his strength he put not forth.
This exaltation of Christ as king is the basis of all our missionary work, the very work he commanded before ascending. As Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” (Mat 28:18-20). Our ascended Lord has taken the throne as the rightful king of the universe, and every creature owes him allegiance. Because his reign is universal, so must be the proclamation of his kingdom. This is good news for all who love him; in fact, they will reign with him in perfect peace. But it also calls for humble reverence; we have a king of infinite might and perfect justice who will indeed return as judge of the living and the dead. That being said, the Gospel is a sort of benevolent ultimatum. Do we take this seriously when we share the Gospel? Do we present the good news as an optional offer for self-improvement, or do we see it as an urgent appeal from a soon-returning king?
“Behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand. And another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to him who sat on the cloud, ‘Put in your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, for the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So he who sat on the cloud swung his sickle across the earth, and the earth was reaped.” (Rev 14:14-16)
And now, for your reading pleasure, I conclude with the Sequence for the Ascension from the Sarum Missal, as translated by A.H. Pearson.
The Almighty King, victorious on this day,
Having redeem’d the world with puissant might,
Ascended to the skies from whence He came.
After His resurrection He confirm’d
Th’ Apostles’ hearts for forty holy days,
And gave them power of remitting sins,
And sent them to baptize in all the world,
In grace of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost;
Commanding, as He sat with them at meat,
That they should not from Jerusalem depart,
But wait for gifts which had been promised—
“After not many days the Comforter,
The Spirit, I will send to you on earth;
Ye shall bear witness to Me in Judea,
And in Jerusalem, and in Samaria.”
And when He had said this, it came to pass
While they beheld, lo! He was taken up,
And a bright cloud out of their sight receiv’d Him
As towards heaven steadfastly they look’d.
And lo! to men in white apparel clad
Stood by them, saying, Wherefore gaze ye so
Into the height of heaven? for this Jesus
Who now from you to God’s right hand is taken
Shall so come, in like manner as He goeth
Th’entrusted talent’s usury to require.
O God of heaven, of sea, of earth!
Thou dost man, whom Thou createdst—
Whom by fraud and subtilty
The foe drave from Paradise,
And, captive with himself,
Dragged down to Tartarus;
Whom by Thine own blood-shedding
Thou didst as God redeem
To that same state bear back
From whence by sin he fell,
The joys of Paradise.
When Thou as Judge dost come
To doom the universe,
Grant we beseech Thee, Lord,
Eternal joys to us
In the saints’ blessed land,
In which we all to Thee
Shall Alleluia sing.