It’s Ascension Day today. But I’ve never really got it. So I asked Glen to explain…
Imagine yourself back in Leviticus 16 – everything about the sacrificial system is screaming at you that you’re a sinner deserving of death. You come to the outskirts of God’s presence – the tabernacle (later rebuilt as the temple). What do you see? A slaughterhouse! Sinners queuing up with their sacrifices, priests with knives, some very distressed animals and gallons and gallons of blood. This is what it looks like when our life comes close to God’s. It’s a frightening, deadly mess.
But today is different. Today is the Day of Atonement. So watch as your High Priest sends all you sinners back to a safe distance. Watch as all the animals are shooed away. Watch as he lays his hands on the head of a “scapegoat” confessing all our sins – all your sins. Watch – cheer! – as he sends it away, carrying your sins with it. Watch as he then sacrifices another goat – this death is what such forgiveness costs. Now watch as he takes that blood with him and disappears through the curtain into the tabernacle’s inner sanctum.
The whole nation is holding its breath because right now your High Priest is going into God’s presence. He’s going through the Holy Place (which only Priests can enter) and into the Most Holy Place (which only he can enter and only on this day). He goes to show God the blood and to fill the Most Holy Place with incense. In effect the High Priest is appearing before God to say “The price is paid. Your demands, O Lord, are satisfied. Now I will fill your throne room with prayers for my people.”
One final detail to mention: As your High Priest performs these actions and makes this journey he is wearing a very special uniform. Over his heart 12 gemstones are set on his breastplate. On them are engraved the names of the sons of Israel. Think about it: your Priest is dressed up as you. Everything your Priest does, he does for you. Everywhere your Priest goes, he goes in your name and on your behalf.
This is how atonement is made (literally “at one ment”). The sacrifices by themselves do not make us “at one” with God. We become one with God because – on account of the sacrifice – our Priest has been accepted into God’s presence. And He’s carried us with Him, right on His heart.
That’s the meaning of the ascension. Our Great High Priest, Jesus has borne all our sins and made the ultimate sacrifice on the cross. Yet this, by itself, doesn’t make us “at one” with God. The work of atonement is completed when our Priest enters into God’s presence to appear for us. As Hebrews 9 says:
When Christ came as high priest of the good things that are already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not man-made, that is to say, not a part of this creation. He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption. (Heb 9:11-12)
Here’s what it means: your Christian life is not about you. It’s not even about your relationship with God. Fundamentally it’s about Christ’s relationship with God.
Think about the Old Testament priests. If they got into God’s presence, their people got there – on his heart. If their priest failed, then they fell short of God’s presence. But it wasn’t about the quality of the people. It was all about the quality of the Priest.
Same with us. Our Christian lives are rubbish. But our Priest makes the perfect sacrifice. Our sense of God’s presence comes and goes, seemingly at random. But our Priest has made the perfect journey into God’s presence. Our prayer life is terrible. But our Priest makes perfect intercession in our name. All He does, He does for us.
So watch as Jesus goes through “the curtain” and into heaven. When Jesus ascended into heaven He went as our Brother and Priest – bone of our bones and flesh of our flesh. His acceptance into heaven is our acceptance into heaven. His place at God’s right hand is our place at God’s right hand. His relationship with God is our relationship with God – for we are carried on His heart.
Before the throne of God above
I have a strong, a perfect plea
A Great High Priest whose name is love
Who ever lives and pleads for me
My name is written on His hands
My name is hidden in His heart
I know that while in heaven He stands
No power can force me to depart.