In 1970, Warner Brothers sold over two million records of the catchy tune, "Spirit in the Sky." A one-hit wonder, Norman Greenbaum’s song proved to be a classic. But what many may not realize is that this chic tune has something to say about Jesus and life after death.
Note some of the lyrics:
When I die and they lay me to rest
Gonna go to the place that’s the best
When I lay me down to die
Goin’ up to the spirit in the sky’¦
Prepare yourself you know it’s a must
Gotta have a friend in Jesus
So you know that when you die
He’s gonna recommend you
To the spirit in the sky’¦
Never been a sinner I never sinned
I got a friend in Jesus
So you know that when I die
He’s gonna set me up with
The spirit in the sky
Greenbaum’s catchy lyrics still describe popular belief today. In fact, all too often they sum up what many think Christianity is all about. Christianity is not about being a sinner and awful stuff like that. Christianity is just about Jesus being your buddy. Jesus hooks you up, like any good friend would, so that you get to go to the best place. What may be a surprise, however, is that this whole "spirit in the sky" business has everything to do with you and me being sinners. Oh sure, we have a friend in Jesus, and Jesus does indeed hook us up just not in the way Greenbaum ever could have imagined.
Only the Holy Can Ascend
To see why, we need to go all the way back to Psalm 24, written by King David. He opens it with two frightening questions: "Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in his holy place?" (v. 3). The answer is discouraging: "He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to what is false and does not swear deceitfully. He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation" (v. 4). It may sound simple enough, but there is no one who fits these qualifications.
The whole story of the Bible is the story of humans rebelling against a holy God, sinners who fall short of his glory and law-breakers who deserve nothing but eternal condemnation. In other words, no one can be found to ascend the hill of the Lord and take hold of salvation because no one is righteous (Rom. 3:10-18). Ever since Adam and Eve sinned and were cast out of the garden out of the presence of a holy God no one can stand in God’s holy place (Ps. 24:3), at least not without a bloody sacrifice to atone for his sin and appease divine justice. If he tries, God will destroy him (e.g., Lev. 10:1-3).
The prophet Isaiah painfully learned that when we stand in the presence of a holy God, we come to the devastating realization that we are utterly condemned (Isa. 6:5). The only solution is to somehow have our guilt taken away and our sin atoned for (Isa. 6:7). Someone who does have clean hands and a pure heart must be found to ascend the hill of the Lord and stand in God’s holy place, mediating on our behalf. Only then will we receive the blessing and righteousness from the God of our salvation that Psalm 24:5 talks about.
Just when it seemed that there was no hope, King Jesus burst through those ancient doors into the heavenly court. As our perfect high priest and spotless lamb, Jesus (and Jesus alone) was capable of ascending the hill of the Lord in order to stand in God’s holy place. In the second half of Psalm 24, David rejoices because the "king of glory returns from the battle victorious" (24:7-8). Jerusalem is to open its gates in celebration because the Lord of hosts has returned with his captives in his train (Ps. 68). As those who enjoy all the blessings of the new covenant, we know that Jesus Christ has done exactly that through his death and resurrection.
Though we are unrighteous, condemned before a holy God, the Son of God became incarnate. He lived a perfect life of obedience so that his righteousness could be imputed to our account. But that’s not all. Not only did he live for us, but he died for us, too. To quote Isaiah, he was ‘pierced for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities (53:5). He took the wrath of God that was ours, for God put him ‘forward as a propitiation by his blood (Rom. 3:25; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2). While we were God-haters, God ‘loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 John 4:10). As Paul says, ‘For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
The Father then raised Jesus from the dead (Luke 24:1-12), placing his stamp of approval upon the cross-work of his Son, publicly declaring to the world that Christ’s work was effective for accomplishing redemption. Having satisfied the wrath of God against sin (Satan’s weapon against us) and broken death’s grip (1 Cor. 15:54’55), our Savior could not be held in the tomb by the evil one. Therefore, it is Christ’s bodily resurrection that grounds our regeneration (1 Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:5-6; Col. 3:1), justification (Rom. 4:23-25; 1 Cor. 15:17), sanctification (Rom. 6:3-12; Col. 3:1-4), and future resurrection (1 Cor. 15:1-57).
Jesus ascended so the Spirit could come.
But is that the end of the story? Not at all. The last thing we read in Luke’s Gospel, and one of the first things we read in his sequel (the book of Acts), is that Jesus ascended into the sky after appearing to his disciples in his resurrected body. Christ ascended into heaven, an event we too often overlook, thinking it has little significance. Jesus not only rose from the dead and appeared to his disciples but before their very eyes, he also ascended into heaven. As Luke records, Jesus led his disciples as far as Bethany, lifted up his hands to bless them, and while doing so parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:51). In response, the disciples ‘worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (24:52).
In Acts, Luke adds that Jesus promised his disciples that they would receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon them, enabling them to be his witnesses to the end of the earth (1:8). ‘And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (1:9). As they gazed up into heaven, two men suddenly appeared in white robes, asking, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven (1:11). Our temptation is to think that the ascension is merely a bonus, something to be tacked on at the end of the cross and the resurrection. But nothing could be further from the truth. The ascension is the key to the salvation narrative.
Adapted from Matthew Barrett “Goin’ Up to the Spirit in the Sky?: The Ascension Is Not What You Think It Is.” Modern Reformation, Mar/Apr 2016. Used with permission.
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