The Apostles’ Creed affirms the belief that Christ “ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.”
Though the ascension is affirmed in this ancient confession of core Christian doctrine, it doesn’t seem to find the same importance in modern discussion of Christ’s work. The focus on what Jesus has done in the past and will do in the future leaves little room for what he’s doing in the present.
This wasn’t always the case. The New Testament writers frequently made reference to the ascension and its present implications for the church (e.g., Eph. 1:20–23; 2:8; Heb. 1:3; 8:2; Phil. 2:9). The church fathers, Kelly Kapic writes, saw the “ascension as the climax of redemption.” Later, the Heidelberg Catechism described the ascension in terms of Christ remaining in heaven “on our behalf,” as a benefit to us.
How, then, can we recover a deeper sense of all that’s offered to us in the ascension? By taking a deeper look at how Christ continues to act on behalf of his church as our ascended king, priest, and prophet.
Perhaps the most familiar language when speaking of the ascension is that of kingship. The language of being raised up and seated at God’s right hand speaks of the enthronement of Jesus over all things (Eph. 1:19–23). He is the triumphant king, the Son of David whose throne is established forever (2 Sam. 7:13) and whose enemies have been made his footstool (Ps. 110:1).
The ascended Christ actively rules his church.
Christ’s heavenly reign as ascended king must not be viewed statically, as if he passively sits. The ascended Christ actively rules his church. Christ rules his church by protecting it and destroying its enemies (Matt. 16:18; 2 Thess. 3:3). Indeed, the book of Hebrews offers encouragement to a suffering church because Christ rules from God’s right hand (Heb. 1:3; 8:2; 10:12; 12:3). Christ provides for his church through the gifts he’s given for her nourishment (Eph. 4:7–12; 5:29). Indeed, he is the king of a thriving kingdom (Mic. 4:4–5). Herman Bavinck wonderfully summarizes Christ’s ascended kingly rule: “He demonstrates his kingship in gathering, protecting, and ruling his church, leading it to eternal blessedness.”
It’s easy for us to consider Christ’s work on the cross and his subsequent resurrection as the key components of his priestly work to reconcile sinners to God. But this picture is incomplete, since the ascension stands as God’s acceptance of this offering. Christ’s continual intercession (Heb. 7:25) and advocacy (1 John 2:1)—and the work of his Spirit to sanctify believers—marks the continued application of his priestly offering. As John Murray describes it, the Christian can know that Christ’s help flows from “omnipotent compassion.” Jesus knows the intimate terrors, tensions, and toils of life—and moves to heal them.
A prophet is one who proclaims and confirms God’s words to God’s people. John begins his Gospel by speaking of Jesus as the Word (John 1:1–3). Moreover, Jesus points to himself as both the proclaimer and embodiment of truth (John 8:31–32; 14:6; 17:17–20). In the programmatic statement for his earthly ministry, Jesus casts himself as the prophetic proclaimer of the Year of Jubilee (Luke 4:16–30). The gospel portrait is clear: Jesus is both message and messenger.
This does not stop at his ascension, though; his priestly work amplifies after his ascension. At Pentecost, Jesus pours out his Spirit, whom he earlier said would lead them in truth (John 14:26; 16:13). The ascended prophet sends his Spirit on his people so that the Spirit will lead his people back to the Son. What’s more, his prophetic ministry continues in sending the Spirit to inspire the writing of Scripture (2 Cor. 13:3) and in working through this living Word to illuminate souls and draw people to himself (2 Cor. 4:6).
Christ’s ascension shows him to be the head of the church. This reveals something beautiful: as his body, the church responds and participates in his ascended ministry. Surely this affects every aspect of the church’s life, worship, and mission.
The offices of Christ work in concert to glorify God and bring his people into the presence of the blessed Trinity.
The ascended king sends forth his church to prophetically share the word of his sacrificial atonement. The ascended priest intercedes on behalf of the church to see God’s kingdom expand in the hearts of believers through God’s Word. The ascended prophet proclaims the king’s reign, secured by his priestly work, through his church. The offices of Christ work in concert to glorify God and bring his people into the presence of the blessed Trinity.
Nevertheless, the ascended Christ does not execute these offices before earthly eyes. No wonder we can sometimes feel his absence. But we hold fast to the future hope of when his rule, his priestly blessing, and his prophetic word will be immediate, when a voice from the throne will declare, “The dwelling place of God is with man” (Rev. 21:3).