Did the Lord Jesus ascend to heaven twice?
Scripture provides us with both the evidence and significance of a singular, visible ascension.
When the Lord Jesus appeared to Mary as described in John 20:17, He said, “I have not yet ascended to my Father.” This confirms that He hadn’t ascended between His death and resurrection. In Acts 1:2 we read the expression “until the day in which He was taken up,” a particular, singular event described as being forty days after His resurrection. Furthermore, we learn that He was “seen of them” (Act 1:3) during those forty days, but then at the time of His ascension we read that He was received “out of their sight.” He was “seen,” then after a definitive point in time He was “unseen.” From that distinctive point forward they would “see Him no more” because He had gone to the Father (Joh 16:10), departing in a very visible way with a clear destination, unlike the times during the forty days when He would “shew Himself” (Joh 21:1,14) and then would “vanish out of their sight” (Luk 24:31). This brief description gives evidence that the ascension was a singular event.
To address the matter of the seeming immediacy of His ascension in John 20:17, we suggest that this language is consistent with that of the upper room, when the Lord Jesus told His disciples, “I go to the Father” (Joh 14:12), which He later repeated (see 14:28; 16:5,10,28). The Lord Jesus spoke of this as being yet future but with complete certainty as to its fulfillment. In the upper room, the Lord Jesus spoke of His return to the Father by way of His death, burial, resurrection and ascension. While in the garden with Mary, He states the same, but then only the ascension awaited fulfillment. That event would be fulfilled forty days later.
The singular, visible ascension has a precious significance to all who belong to Him, for there is a certainty to His current exaltation. Bribery and deception were employed to mask the resurrection of Christ (Mat 28:11-15), but His disciples had already been witnesses to His resurrection and knew He was alive again. There were also witnesses to His ascension so that all who belong to Him have a firm understanding that He has left the scene of His humiliation and entered into His exaltation in heaven. Mark’s brief account of His ascension tells us He has “sat on the right hand of God” (Mar 16:19). From the Epistles we learn that in His ascension and exaltation He functions as Head of the Church (Eph 4:8-16), governs behavior in the Church (1Ti 3:15,16), serves as Great High Priest (Heb 4:14), and has authority over all (1Pe 3:22). These truths emphasize to us the significance of the singular, visible ascension of our Lord Jesus.