“Jesus saith unto her, Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” – John 20:17
The event known as the Ascension took place forty days after the Resurrection. On the day of His resurrection the Lord appeared to the women and to the two on the way to Emmaus and then to the disciples in the upper room in Jerusalem. During the following forty days the Lord appeared from time to time to the Apostles in Galilee and in Judaea and taught them many things concerning His kingdom. At the end of this time He “led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”
So the Apostles knew that He was still alive, and that He was present with them on a plane of thought above the physical. No longer could He be roughly handled. All the legions of Rome could not go out and arrest Him as in former days. To the Jews He was one who had been resisted, defeated, and put to death. He was out of physical sight and reach. But He was not out of the reach of those who cared for Him and desired His presence. He had ascended from the lowest plane where all could see Him to a plane of being where He could be seen only by the eye of faith. Yet He had come into the fullness of His power.
During the forty days following the Resurrection the Lord had a work to do. Forty is the symbol of temptation in its fullness. Before His resurrection the Lord had suffered for the sins humanity had already committed. He was wounded for the transgressions of those of His time, which included the iniquities of all previous generations. He bore them all and overcame them all. But there were sins yet to come that would appear in Christendom and wreck the church. This is indicated in the Lord’s last conversation with Peter and John when He said: “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, When thou wast young, thou girdedst thyself, and walkedst whither thou wouldest: but when thou shalt be old, thou shalt stretch forth thy hands, and another shall gird thee, and carry thee whither thou wouldest not.” During the forty days preceding His ascension the Lord completed the work on the spiritual plane which would enable Him to control these evils until the time was ripe for the Second Coming. So He could finally say: “All power is given unto me in heaven and in earth.”
The Ascension differentiates the Lord from men. This was why the Lord said to Mary, “Touch me not, for I am not yet ascended to my Father.” He came into the world to live as a man among men, bearing our griefs and carrying our sorrows, but we should not think of Him as our “Elder Brother,” nor should we think of Him as one of the angels. We must exalt Him to the highest point of belief possible. He says to us, as He said to Philip: “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father.”
Luke, in the book of Acts, gives some further details of the Ascension. He records that as the disciples gazed after the Lord when He had been lost to view, “two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.” They did not understand this message. They doubtless thought that it meant that somewhere at some time they would see Him descending to the earth again in a cloud, because a cloud had received Him out of their sight. But the cloud represents the obscure thoughts of His disciples about Him.
How obscure these thoughts still are today! Like the disciples many, although they have belief in Him, do not understand Him. But however dim our understanding, He must be thought of as God, for if we do not believe this, our worship of Him, our being baptized in His name, our partaking of the Holy Supper in memory of Him are all most irrational. They are even worse than that: they are a form of idolatry, for the first of all the commandments is that the Lord our God is one Lord and that He alone is to be worshiped. So to Mary Magdalene who, when she saw Him, would hold to Him, He said: “Touch me not.” She would have kept Him as she had known Him on earth, as her teacher, as her master, as her wisest and best of all companions, counsellors, and friends. Likewise some today think that they would like to see the Lord so return to the earth, and they think they are drawing closer to Him by trying to visualize Him as a person who actually lived on earth two thousand years ago. But such thoughts keep Him from fulfilling His Divine purpose for us. The Lord in assuming the human put on a nature like our own. But that humanity was changed, for by the glorification everything of a worldly or earthborn nature was put off, and His Humanity became one with the Divinity which created it for the purpose of our redemption and salvation. By death the last vestige of anything material or finite was put off.
Nor could the Lord remain on the plane of the spiritual where angels dwell, for He is more than an angel. He declared that He came forth from God – that is, He was God in self-manifestation – and then He added that He was returning to God. This does not mean a return through space. When one says, “I am going to sleep,” “I am going to think,” “I am going to believe this truth,” or “I am going to try to live more unselfishly,” the “going” in all such cases is a passing from one state of mind to another, without any reference to movement in space. When our Lord said to Mary Magdalene, “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God,” He was declaring that He was passing into the fullness of His Divinity. She must not try to hold Him as her familiar teacher and friend, however beloved and respected. Neither must she try to hold Him merely as one who was risen from the dead.
He was more than man, more than angel. We must try to think of Him and in our own thought and love to follow Him in the completeness of His Divine nature. To us also He says: “I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” As our Father in heaven, as our God who bowed the heavens and came down for our salvation we are to think of Him. Then we shall truly think of Him as having all power in heaven and in earth. And in such a faith there is power.
When the Lord said that He was come forth from the Father, some were offended with Him. Then He said to them: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” In these latter days the Lord has made Himself known by a way so wonderful that some again are offended with Him for having declared that He came forth from the Father. To these also, knowing their spiritual dullness and incredulity, He says: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?”
Not to an unknown God do we lift up our eyes, but to one who has made Himself known to us so clearly that if we will, we can understand Him. The ascension of the Lord forty days after the Resurrection teaches us that all power to overcome evil rests in Him. To Him, as He has made Himself known through the opening of the Word, must we look for the true growth of Christianity in the future. The ascension of the Lord with the assumption of Divine power in its fullness gives us the assurance that as we interpret the Gospel aright, apply it to life as it is, and pray for life as it should be, the church will be established in us and in the world on a sure and permanent foundation.
“Ye are my witnesses, saith the Lord, and my servant whom I have chosen: that ye may know and believe me, and understand that I am he: before me there was no God formed, neither shall there be after me,
“I, even I, am the Lord; and beside me there is no saviour.”