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Theological Primer: The Ascension

From time to time I make new entries in this continuing series called “Theological Primer.” The idea is to present big theological concepts in around 500 words. Today we will look at the ascension, as tomorrow marks Ascension Day in the church calendar (the 40th day of Easter), and the next Lord’s Day is Ascension Sunday.

Having triumphed over death and the devil in his resurrection, Christ ascended into heaven locally, visibly, and bodily—locally in that he spatially left earth below for heaven above, visibly in that the disciples saw with their own eyes (as a public event) that he departed from them, and bodily in that the physical flesh of the Son of God is no longer with us on earth.

We can think of Christ’s state of exaltation (as opposed to his state of humiliation) as consisting of four events, each part tracking with a phrase in the Apostles’ Creed: resurrection (he rose again from the dead), ascension (he ascended into heaven), session (and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty), and physical return (from there he will come to judge the living and the dead).

The ascension is more prominent in Scripture than we might realize. Luke describes the ascension in the most detail, first in his Gospel (Luke 24:50-53) and then in Acts (Acts 1:9-11). Peter’s Pentecost sermon on Pentecost is, in part, about the ascension and enthronement of Christ (Acts 2:32-36).

Likewise, John’s Gospel is full of references to the ascension of the Son of Man (John 3:13, 6:62) and the importance of Jesus returning to the Father (John 14:2-3; 16:5). The ascension is not simply how Jesus gets to heaven, it is a further fulfillment and vindication of the triumph of the resurrection (John 16:5; 20:17).

It’s no wonder that the ascension is highlighted throughout the New Testament, as a necessary precursor (1) to the giving of Messianic gifts (Eph. 4:8-10), (2) to the intercession of our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16), and (3) to the subjection of all things under Christ’s feet (1 Peter 3:22).

What, then, does the oft-overlooked ascension mean for us?

First, the ascension means that we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1; Rom. 8:34).

Second, the ascension means God’s people are, in a manner of speaking, already in heaven. We set our minds on things that are above, because our lives are hidden with Christ who dwells above (Col. 3:2-3).

Third, the ascension means we can receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. Once ascended to heaven, Jesus sent another Helper (John 14:16; 16:7) to give us power from on high and to be with us forever.

Fourth, the ascension means human flesh sits enthroned in heaven. God has granted all power and authority to a man (Matt. 28:19; Eph. 1:21-22). Jesus Christ is exercising the dominion that human beings were made to have from the beginning (Gen. 1:28). The ruin of the first Adam is being undone by the reign of the second.

Because of Christ’s ascension we know that the resurrection is real, the incarnation continues, Christ’s humanity lives on in heaven, the Spirit of Jesus can live in our hearts, and a flesh-and-blood, divine human being rules the universe.

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