When we speak of the finished work of Christ on the cross, typically we focus on his substitutionary atonement and resurrection from the dead. Indeed, these works are at the heart of the work of redemption. But what about the event that occurred 40 days after Jesus came out of the tomb—the ascension? How important is this doctrine for our salvation? Does it have practical implications? Do we give it short shrift when it comes to fully teasing out the work of Christ?
In Encounters with Jesus: Unexpected Answers to Life’s Biggest Questions (Dutton), Tim Keller argues forcefully that the ascension is a crucial, if often overlooked, aspect of the work of Christ. “Actually, it makes an enormous difference,” Keller writes. “The ascension, when understood, becomes an irreplaceable, important resource for living our lives in the world—and it’s a resource no other religion or philosophy of life holds out to us.”
Keller offers two theological reasons for the necessity of the ascension.
First, Jesus, as the unique God-man—fully human and fully divine—was going to take his place as the new king and head of the human race. Keller explains:
Now, if Jesus merely wanted to return to the Father, he could have just vanished. There were other times when he vanished immediately out of sight, as with the disciples on the road to Emmaus. But instead, at the ascension Jesus literally rises up into the clouds and disappears into the distance of the heavens. Why did he do it that way? We can only speculate, but it may have been for the same reason that we have a coronation ceremony.
Second, in the ascension Jesus left the limitations of the time-space continuum and passed into the presence of the Father. In his incarnation, Jesus was limited to one spot at one moment. If you wanted to speak with him or relate to him, you had to do it at that place. “But at the ascension,” Keller writes, “Jesus leaves the space-time continuum and passes into the presence of the Father. He is still human, still our second Adam . . . and still our Advocate—yet now he has been so glorified that everything he does has a cosmic scope . . . any time-space limitation passes away.”
Further, thanks to the ascension, Jesus is now engaged in his mediatorial work for his people across the globe.
Thus, the ascension is a critically important doctrine, one that is not a mere abstract teaching, one that has important implications for how we live. Keller traces out three vital implications of the ascension for Christian living:
- The ascended Christ is available for loving communication and fellowship. He is supremely personal.
- The ascended Christ is supremely powerful. As the ascended king, he is sovereign over every part of the created order. Keller argues: “He controls all things for the church, and therefore you can face the world with peace in your heart . . . he’s at the right hand of God as the executive director of history, directing everything for the benefit of the church. If you belong to him, then everything that happens ultimately happens for you.”
- The ascended Christ guarantees that you can know you are forgiven, accepted, and delighted in by God the Father. He is our advocate who intercedes constantly for us. Keller explains: “So when the Bible says that Jesus stands as our advocate and representative before the throne of the universe, it is a way to say that he is ascended and not just levitated. It doesn’t matter what you have been or what you have done. It doesn’t matter how flawed and foolish you are. When the eyes of God the Father look at you, they see the ascended Jesus; when they listen to you, they hear him. When God looks and listens to you, he sees and hears infinite beauty . . . He sees Jesus not sitting at the right hand but standing on his behalf, advocating for him.”
As the great creed has reminded Christians across the ages, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God, the Father almighty, from where he will return to judge the living and the dead.” Jesus went up and back into heaven, but will one day return as our conquering king.
This is the reality of which he spoke when he addressed the bewildered disciples in John 14, “And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” Thus, the Christian’s great and blessed hope, the hope of the resurrection of the dead and eternal life in the new Jerusalem, is intimately tied to Christ’s first going up. Calvin, in his Institutes, summarized the good news of the ascension in his customarily pithy style:
The Lord, by his ascension into heaven, has opened up the access to the heavenly kingdom, which Adam had shut. For having entered it in our flesh, as it were in our name, it follows . . . that we are in a manner seated in heavenly places, not entertaining a mere hope of heaven, but possessing it in our [covenantal] head.