The ascension is often overlooked in Christ’s life. It might be because of the oft-placed emphasis on the cross and resurrection. Debates have typically centered on what Christ’s death accomplished and whether the resurrection is historically verifiable. Meanwhile, the ascension sits at the end of the couch completely ignored.
Maybe people don’t want to draw attention away from these other important events (incarnation, cross, resurrection, return). Emphasizing Christ’s ascent, however, does not denigrate these other doctrines. On the contrary, a healthy emphasis on the ascension lifts them up.
Emphasizing Christ’s ascent does not denigrate these other doctrines. On the contrary, a healthy emphasis on the ascension lifts them up.
None of these events can be separated, though they can be distinguished, and they garner even more clarity and precision as we consider how they intermingle. I aim to show how relating Christ’s ascent to the other doctrines helps balance overemphases that could creep in from focusing on one doctrine at the expense of others.
Ascension and Incarnation
The ascension is a climactic moment in Christ’s work. But how does it integrate with the incarnation? Rather than taking our eyes off Christ in the flesh, the ascent launches us back to Christ’s work on the earth. The incarnation isn’t a lesser stage that must be passed through––the ascension fulfills and continues the goal of the incarnation.
Jesus descends in the flesh and rises in the flesh to redeem flesh. Temporal, material, and physical dimensions are therefore not repudiated in the ascension; they are affirmed. In the Messiah’s ascent, flesh is brought up to the spiritual realm where God resides, showing he will forever dwell with humanity. Jesus exalts human essence and abides in perfect fellowship with God himself.
The ascension therefore verifies the incarnation. But how specifically do these two movements relate to one another? In one he descends; in another he ascends. Does the ascension reverse the incarnation? The Scriptures don’t present it this way. Rather, descending and ascending are connected––even viewed as one movement (cf. Eph. 4:9–10; Phil. 2:5–11).
Christ descended to ascend. These two acts don’t cancel each other out––they restore what was broken at the fall. Descent and ascent are a twofold movement. In one he comes in the flesh to us; in the other he brings us in the flesh to God. Christ descends in order to bring God to humanity, and he ascends to bring humanity to God.
Christ descends in order to bring God to humanity, and he ascends to bring humanity to God.
Ascension and Cross
Some might claim a focus on Jesus’s kingship and ascension could fall into the snare of neglecting the cross. If the ascent concerns Christ’s exaltation, then it would be easy to overlook his shame. Christ’s humiliation and exaltation can’t be bifurcated, though, with one overshadowing the other.
In the Scriptures, humiliation and exaltation come together. The ascension and the cross are intimately related; to separate them would distort both. Though this connection between the cross and the ascension are abundant, I’ll restrict myself to one association here.
The ascension (and resurrection) reveals the truth about the cross. Before Christ’s ascension the reality of the cross was hidden and concealed; now it’s exposed. Modern Christians have a difficult time viewing the cross as Jesus’s followers initially did. All their writings come to us after Christ’s ascent. Therefore they speak of the cross differently from how they first felt. Fear, mourning, and confusion filled their hearts when Christ was crucified. Darkness filled not only the sky but also their beings as Christ was nailed to the cross as a criminal. The cross was the greatest tragedy they’d ever encountered.
The only reason they could later speak of the cross as central to good news is because the Father vindicates Christ’s work on the cross. Only after the cross does it become clear that Christ’s humiliation becomes his pathway to glory. Humiliation and exaltation come together, but only once the exaltation is conferred. The ascension does not rend asunder the cross and the ascent. In his ascension Christ, as the forever humiliated one, becomes exalted. One must lead to the other.
The ascension and the cross are intimately related; to separate them would distort both.
The Messiah’s ascent therefore confirms and reveals the truth of Jesus’s cross. What looked like humiliation to Jews and foolishness to Greeks, God vindicates. This makes Christ’s humiliation his victory—and the centralizing force for much of the New Testament. The ascension lifted the veil on Christ’s glorious cross. It was the event of self-declaration.
Ascension and Resurrection
Maybe the hardest doctrine to distinguish the ascension from is the resurrection. Biblical authors sometimes slide from Jesus’s death to his exaltation, thereby linking both resurrection and ascension under the banner of “exaltation” (cf. Acts 5:30–31). The resurrection and the ascension belong together, for the ascension is merely a natural outworking of the resurrection.
Yet these two related events should be distinguished. When Mary clings to Jesus in his resurrected state, Jesus affirms he still needs to ascend to the Father (John 20:17). The ascension doesn’t merely extend Christ’s resurrected life; his life now resides in a new location, and that location confirms and validates his life.
The resurrection refers to Jesus being bodily raised from the dead, while the ascension refers to the movement of Christ’s exalted body from earth to heaven. In the resurrection Jesus conquered death; in the ascension he was exalted to the right hand of the Father.
The ascension isn’t a mere postscript to the resurrection. It’s an event in its own right.
Christians believe Jesus not only lives but also reigns, and will one day return. In the ascent, Christ was granted a position of unparalleled honor that he didn’t possess in the hiatus between his resurrection and ascension. The resurrection vindicates Jesus’s Messiahship and Sonship, but his exaltation makes him Lord.
Though Christ’s resurrection and ascension are part of the same script, they should also be distinguished. The resurrection vindicated Christ, but his ascent confirmed that vindication. The ascension isn’t a mere postscript to the resurrection. It’s an event in its own right.
Ascension and Eschatology
Finally, the ascension not only clarifies and elevates the incarnation, cross, and resurrection, but also anticipates Christ’s future coming. The ascension isn’t the climax or end of the story. It begins the end.
This present era has a time limit. Though the Messiah’s ascent is essential, it’s also temporary. He will return to earth to consummate all things. The parousia therefore shouldn’t be seen as merely forthcoming, but as something to be revealed that is already present. Jesus’s lordship is currently hidden in heaven. When he returns, he will make it fully visible to all the earth.
As the church cries in the present, “Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20), we confess belief in the exaltation of Jesus. Entreating him to come affirms that not every eye realizes this, and to call him Lord affirms that he already reigns. We live in the in-between time, waiting for him to finish his work.
Jesus’s return keeps the church’s eyes trained on the future day. It makes us thankful for the present ministry of the Spirit and thankful for the current victory of Christ. It keeps us longing for his return.