Few things in life are more exhilarating and fulfilling than the crowning celebration of some great achievement. What makes it so, of course, is the struggle to get there; without the agony and the pain the triumph would not be as sweet. And while these moments seem to be the culmination, they are in reality transitions, for they open the way to new beginnings. With the celebration of victory comes the commencement of a new role to play--if the success is to have any lasting value.
Think of the great crowning moments down through history. I have just read about Charlemagne. After years of struggle he established his empire. Through war, legislature, education, and various other dealings, he was able to rescue the world from barbarism, violence and ignorance, and to begin to develop the dream of civilization. But on Christmas Day, 800, he was crowned supreme ruler over what is known as the Holy Roman Empire. He was able to give his empire the prestige, sanctity, and stability of Imperial and papal Rome. An incredible coronation! An amazing recognition! What a moment that must have been! It was a coronation that would have results for the next thousand years. But then, that is the point. With this coronation he began a new phase of his life-- extending, and sustaining the empire.
But as great as that may have been, it does not begin to compare with the greatest crowning triumph of all--the Ascension of Jesus Christ to the right hand of the Father in Heaven. When we consider the doctrine of the Ascension, we must not only think of it as the culmination of his earthly ministry, the crowning victory, but we must also think of it as the beginning of a new phase of his ministry.
The doctrine is not covered very well in many theology books or commentaries; all too often it seems to have been tucked away as an afterthought. Of course, if some theologians deny the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, they are not likely going to do very much with the ascension.
But even those who believe in the resurrection give little more than a nod to the Ascension and what it means. When I was studying in Cambridge in England it was an Ascension Day service that made an impression on me, perhaps because it was, well, unexpected. My professor cancelled classes for the services; and the services culminated in the choirs of St Johns College ascending to the roof top of the chapel tower to sing anthems to the exalted Christ that echoed across the skies over the city. But when I returned to the States and tried to attend an Ascension Day service in our church, I was surprised to learn that the church had completely forgotten about it. (And this was a liturgical church that was to observe these things.) They had to scurry about to put something together--for the five or six of us there.
The Ascension cannot be forgotten. It must not be ignored. For without the Ascension, the death and resurrection of Jesus would carry far less value, if any, in the plan of redemption. It is this glorious Ascension that is the culmination of the atoning work of Christ, the guarantee of his promises, the proof of his claims, and the beginning of his dominion.
The Nicene Creed affirms that Christ Jesus “ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and he shall come again with glory, to judge both the quick and the dead; whose kingdom shall have no end.” In other words, the Creed affirms what the Bible clearly teaches, that after the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, after he appeared to various people and groups, he departed from his disciples from the top of the Mount of Olives. That is, he simply ascended from the earth in the clouds and entered into the heavenly court to be exalted. The ascension teaches that there is in heaven today a “God-man,” Jesus, who is fully human and fully divine. And because he ascended into heaven, those who are alive at his second coming will be caught up to be with the Lord in the air, along with those raised from the dead. And that coming of the Lord will be in the same manner as his departure, for he will descend in the clouds with saints and angels, to judge the world. The doctrine teaches that neither time nor space interferes with our Lord’s movements; he was able to travel between earth and heaven (whether a distance or a dimension we cannot say) by his own power.
The biblical teaching on the ascension, found in several passages in the New Testament (some of which draw upon the Old Testament prophecies), presents not only the fact of the exaltation, but the several purposes for it. These must be considered in any study of the doctrine; and this survey will look at several passages, beginning with Ephesians 1. At the risk of oversimplifying a profound doctrine, I have tried to make my points on the meaning of the Ascension as clear and easy to understand as possible. They are:
I. The Son of God went home.
II. The Son of God presented His work to His Father.
III. The Son of God sat down.
IV. The Son of God sent the Spirit to continue His work.
V. The Son of God will come back.
I have deliberately tried to make these point sound very human, very anthropomorphic, because of the amazing point of the Ascension--Jesus, as resurrected and glorified human, is in heaven. If in the incarnation deity entered into the human race, in the ascension humanity (joined with deity in one person) entered into the realm of God. The implications of this for you and me are staggering.
This is the basic meaning of the Ascension--he returned to heaven, to the angels, to the glory he had before the foundation of the world (John 17). He ascended up into heaven, in his resurrected bodily form. He went from the human place on earth to the Father’s place in heaven. It was not a journey into outer space; rather, he ascended and was removed from space and time into the immediate sphere of God's holy presence.
He had descended into time and space when he came into the world to save sinners. What a condescension the incarnation was. This world, with all its sin and corruption, was not and is not suitable for the Son of God. But he chose to enter for our redemption. He made it abundantly clear that he was from above, whereas we are from below. His rightful place was in glory! And so he prayed that his Father would glorify him with the glory that he had before the foundation of the world. And so when his earthly task was done that prayer was answered when he returned to his heavenly home. Imagine how the angels welcomed him!
But Jesus also knew that this world was not the place for us either. Jesus taught that in his Father's house were many “rooms”, and that he was going to prepare a place for us, that where he was, there we might be also (John 14). What a marvel that is. I think the statement refers more to spiritual preparation for us than simply constructing places: it refers to all that Christ did in completing the process of our atonement so that we could be there. Thus, the main point is that he actually wants us there with him in his heavenly home. His mission here was not merely to rescue us from judgment; it was to bring us home with him, so that we might be with him evermore. How amazing is the love of our Lord!
So Jesus completed his mission to redeem his fallen creation by bringing glorified humanity into heaven at his ascension--in his own person. This is but the foretaste of things to come, for we will follow him there. In fact Ephesians says that we are already seated in the heavenlies, because we are in him. Our future is certain. All creation is his; but his new creation is precious to him. He will not relinquish it.
The significance of this aspect of the Ascension as explained by Scripture is that heaven is our home and not this world. The entire ministry of our Lord has been and continues to be to fit us for glory. So the lesson should be clear: We must live above the world and not like the world (world meaning the present world system that has no place for the Lord). The Scripture again and again tells us not to love the world, neither the things that are in the world, for it is passing away; we are not to lay up treasures here on earth where there is corruption, but in heaven; and we are not to be conformed to this world. I think these warnings go beyond material things to attitudes. We get so caught up in worldly living--the petty competitions, the little power plays, the desire for worldly fame, and the sometimes dishonest and selfish ways of gaining such. But the Word of God reminds us that our faith in Christ is the means of victory over the world. So we must not get so attached to this world, or this world's way of thinking, that we become worldly.
Rather, we must measure everything by heavenly standards, by spiritual, eternal things (2 Cor. 4). We do not belong here. Our rightful place is with Jesus in glory. The more that we grow spiritually, the more that we become like Jesus Christ, the more we will realize that we do not belong here, and that our stay here is an earthly ministry in our eternal life. This proper perspective will influence all our choices.
So Jesus would have us realize that we are to ascend with him over the present evil world. And when we say in a worship service, “Lift up your hearts,” we mean that for that little moment we transport ourselves in the spirit on the Lord's day into the heavenlies--and that is a picture of when we in fact will be lifted out of this world and into his presence. We do this by faith now; but someday in the future we shall go to our heavenly home.
Thus Paul, in writing to the Ephesians (chapter 1), lists as one very practical issue from his Ascension our INHERITANCE. How foolish to clamor for what is temporal and temporary, when we have an inheritance in heaven.
The second significant truth about the Ascension concerns Christ's atoning work, so clearly expounded in the Book of Hebrews. There are two aspects of this. First, Jesus offered himself as the perfect sacrifice. Using the imagery of the earthly temple, that shadow of the heavenly sanctuary, the very presence of God the Father, the writer explains how Jesus our high priest took the sacrifice--himself--into the presence of God, thus completing the transaction. So in heaven now, as we may perceive it, ever before the gaze of the heavenly Father is that sacrifice that takes away the sins of the world.
Moreover, in the imagery of Leviticus, Jesus presented himself as a wave offering before the Father, the firstfruit of the dead, guaranteeing that a great harvest of resurrected saints would follow--he was the first (Lev. 23 and 1 Cor. 15). So Jesus opened heaven's gate, and entered as our eternal high priest, having made once and for all complete atonement in his blood. It is done. And so in Christ we have access into the presence of God.
Second, Jesus is also our living high priest who ever lives to intercede for us. Jesus interceded for us with his blood, and now continues to intercede for us as our advocate. In his incarnation he revealed the Father to us, so that we might see God in Christ; but in his ascension he reveals us to the Father, and God sees Christ in our place, so to speak (all we can do is try to describe a heavenly reality and divine omniscience in the limitations of earthly language).
As perfected, glorified human nature, and as the incarnate Son of God, Jesus has become the perfect mediator, the perfect high priest, the substitute for humans in the heavenly courts. As our high priest, Jesus presents our work, our prayers, our worship in an acceptable way to the Father. All that we do down here passes through our mediator to the Father and is thereby perfected. Without the presence of Christ in heaven, and the indwelling Spirit on earth, the worship and prayer and praise of the Church would be utterly inadequate. The high priest as our representative takes into the presence of God all that we do and offers it there for us. And God is satisfied. And when we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the Righteous One, who can declare that our sins have been paid for, once and for all.
This point speaks of the heart of the faith we have through Christ Jesus. Because of the finished work of Christ as our sacrifice, and because of the continual ministry of our Lord as high priest, we have CONFIDENCE. Our consciences have been cleansed from dead works, our sins have been placed on the scapegoat, we have been justified by his blood, and we are righteous before God. Therefore we may come boldly before the throne of grace.
So Paul makes it clear that if we believe in Jesus we are "in him." We have died to sin in his death, and we have been raised to a new life in his resurrection. If we are in Christ, we must not let sin reign in our mortal bodies, but must live to righteousness. But if we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ. Thus we have a high priest who is our mediator; and the glorious news is that there is abundant forgiveness for sins.
The Book of Hebrews (chapter 1) says that when Jesus made purification for sins he sat down. To be seated at the right hand of God the Father was the place of honor, power, and authority. In other words, the ascension meant Christ’s coronation; and his second coming will mean the beginning of his reign in actual fact. Paul in Ephesians 1 says that his exaltation was above all power and dominion and every title that can be given in this life and the life to come. Indeed, at his ascension Jesus declared, “All power is given unto me.” By this exaltation Jesus shares the universal rule of the cosmos with the Father. He especially directs all the affairs of his advancing Kingdom. But beyond that, he guides the events on earth according to his purposes. Hebrews 1 says that the whole world is being borne along by his powerful command, his spoken word.
But this is not yet the fullness of his authority. We do not yet see all things under subjection. Psalm 110 says, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’.” Jesus now awaits the fullness of the Kingdom; but soon the Father will say, “Ask of me and I will give you the nations for your inheritance” (Ps. 2). Then, Hebrews 1 says, when he (the Father) again brings his firstborn into the world, then his (the Son’s) exaltation will be seen by all, and every knee shall bow, and every tongue confess that Jesus is LORD (Phil. 2). Then the exaltation will be complete; then will be delivered unto him, as Daniel foretells, kingdom, power, glory, and dominion, for he alone is worthy (Dan. 7).
Because the Lord Jesus Christ has been seated at the right hand of the Majesty on High, he has the auhtority and the power and the dominion of heaven, and he has given to his people AUTHORITY to advance his kingdom. At his ascension Jesus gave his commission: We are his witnesses to the ends of the earth, both by what we say and what we do. We who believe in Jesus as Lord and Savior have been given the authority to extend his kingdom throughout the world. We are ambassadors of the King.
In Ephesians Paul affirms that in Christ we have already been seated in the Heavenlies. It is as if the judgment is past and the transition completed--we are already there (this is a positional truth). And this is the guarantee that we shall reign with Christ. But in our earthly service we know that our position is safe; our victory secured. And we are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus. Therefore, we may go forth with confidence and boldness, proclaiming the Good News.
Jesus said, if I do not go away, the Comforter cannot come. And when he left, he told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem until the Spirit was sent to give them power. So the point here is ENABLEMENT.
The Holy Spirit was sent into the world to continue the work of Jesus; this was an integral part of the promises of the New Covenant (Jer. 31; Ezek. 36). The Spirit came bearing the name and the characteristics of Jesus to the disciples, to guide and lead them into the mind and way of Christ, so that they might do the will of God in the way that Jesus did. Therefore, the Spirit convicts of sin, regenerates, sanctifies, illumines, and empowers. In short, the Holy Spirit applies the work of Jesus to people (see John 16).
In continuing the work of Jesus the Holy Spirit employs people to carry out the various ministries. Thus, critical to the Spirit's work is the bestowal of gifts upon His loyal subjects. Psalm 68 tells how the LORD ascended Mt. Zion to his resting place. “You have ascended on high, you have received gifts.” Paul, in Ephesians 4, interprets this passage to say that Christ, the conquering king, has ascended on High, leading a host of captives--death, sin, evil, the grave. But as a magnanimous victor he divides the booty among his followers--he gave gifts to us. To some he gave this authority; to others that place of power; to others different responsibilities. Other treasures to different people. To each person different gifts and responsibilities, so that each can help him expand and govern his kingdom.
The spiritual gifts are a direct result of the Ascension, because the ascension resulted in the sending of the Spirit. The Church must have these gifts to do the work of Christ; and it must have all of them, the routine as well as the spectacular. In the body, not every part can be an eye; there must be the leg, and the foot, and the ear. But all one body. So to in the Church, the mystical “body” of Christ. Christ's program cannot thrive without the power of the Spirit enabling the people of God to participate in his kingdom, all of the members using their gifts in the process.
The lesson here is simple: We must live by the power of the Holy Spirit. Just before Jesus ascended to heaven he announced that his followers would receive power, so that they might be his witnesses (Acts 1). The ENABLEMENT comes from the risen Christ through the Holy Spirit. Paul in Ephesians says that that power is like his own mighty strength. It is so important to emphasize the power of the Holy Spirit today--but in line with the purpose of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. It is not power for power’s sake. The focus must go beyond the Spirit to the exalted Christ. He must have the pre-eminence (Col. 1:18). And the work of the Spirit is often not seen, but gradually changing lives and bringing them into conformity with the living Christ.
To live by the power of the Holy Spirit we must be rightly related to the Spirit. That is what it means to be “spiritual.” To do this we must yield ourselves to him (make that total commitment), be obedient to his Word (make every effort to live by the Word), and be controlled by the Spirit (make spiritual perception the means by which we live out our lives). And the promise is that God's Spirit will bear fruit in our lives--the fruit of the Spirit. Then he will use us mightily in our Lord's kingdom, in whatever capacity he has given to us.
Acts 1:11 records the words of the angels that this same Jesus whom they saw go up into heaven will so come in like manner as they have seen him go up (Zech. 14). It will be an actual return of Christ into space and time; but, of course, it will be more glorious. He will come in the clouds of glory; and we who remain will ascend, along with those who are raised from the dead, all changed, to be with the Lord.
Why is He coming back? Scripture offers several reasons: (1) He will raise the dead, some to honor, and some to dishonor. Just as his resurrection was part of his ascension, so shall be that of the dead in Christ. He will not abandon their bodies to this world. The work of redemption is not complete yet. (2) He will come to receive the homage. Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that he is the Lord God of the universe (Phil. 2). They shall look on him whom they have pierced (Zech. 12). Kings will shut their mouths (Isa. 52, 53). (3) He will come to judge, putting down all evil and all enemies. All judgment is given over to the Son of Man (John 5). (4) He will renovate his creation, establish universal peace and righteousness, remove the curse, and fulfill all his promises (Isa. 11). When he completes his restorative work and demonstrates what God had intended, then he will deliver the kingdom up to the Father, and he will resume his place in the triune Godhead, that God may be all in all (1 Cor. 15).
But the ascension prepares for the second coming in glory. It will be in answer to the prayers of the ages: “Even so, come quickly Lord Jesus!” Or, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth, as in heaven.” He will not abandon this world to chaos.
And here is our HOPE. The point here is that we must live in the expectation of his coming in glory. How differently we would live, how differently we would serve, if we lived with this hope as a daily reality. For, the apostle says, those who have this hope, purify themselves.
So in his ascension, Jesus went home; and that is our home. He finished the redemptive work; and we have confidence in his blood. He sat down in the place of authority; and we have been commissioned to represent him. He sent the Spirit; and we have been enabled to do his work. And he will come again; and we look in hope for that glorious time.
The Ascension declares for all time that Jesus is the eternal Son of God and perfected and glorified man. The event was not an after-thought or an adjustment by God. It was part of the eternal plan of God that was established before creation. God determined to create human beings, enable them to triumph over evil, and to exalt them to glory. This is the glory of Christianity, that in Christ Jesus we have access into the heavenlies, now by faith, but in the future in reality. What a glorious faith! Because he ascended, so shall we; we shall stand in the presence of God, complete and perfect.