The Ascension of Christ
The ascension is a discrete element in the career of Christ the mediator. It marks his entry into supreme authority over the creation.
The ascension marks the departure of Jesus from interaction with his disciples in this world and his entrance into the realm of God. In this, he is exalted to supreme authority over the whole creation in his mediatorial capacity as the incarnate Son of God.
One recent writer has remarked that “the ascension is, I think, a subject richer and more instructive than is commonly recognized.”1 A description of the event occurs in only two places in the New Testament, both written by Luke (Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:6-11) but the New Testament refers to it in many places and it is also foreshadowed in the Old Testament.
The Old Testament Background to the Ascension
The psalms of enthronement (Psa. 24, 47, 68, 110) feature the installation of the Royal King, behind which lie the events in 2 Samuel 6 and 1 Chronicles 13-16, where David brings the ark of the covenant up to Jerusalem with shouts of joy. These psalms portray an ascent to royal sovereignty, the enthronement of Yahweh as King.
Earlier, Moses had repeatedly ascended Mount Sinai, on Yahweh’s invitation, to meet him in the clouds on behalf of the people (Exod. 19:3, 20, 24; 24:1-2, 9-11, 12-18; 32:30ff; 34:4). At the establishment of the Mosaic covenant Moses and Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, and seventy of the elders of Israel ascend Sinai (Exod. 24:9-10), see the God of Israel, and eat and drink.
Later, Elijah ends his ministry by ascension (2Kgs. 2:1-18) “into heaven,” where Yahweh dwells. He was no longer found, removed to the realm of God, a deeply mysterious event.
The Ascension in Luke-Acts
Luke concludes his first volume with these details: (i) Jesus lifts up his hands and blesses his disciples; (ii) while he blesses them he is parted from them; (iii) he is carried up into heaven. Benediction, parting, being taken up into heaven; these are the salient features.
Benediction is a priestly act, the last thing the apostles see Jesus doing. It defines his ongoing ministry. It signals that his effective blessing rests on his disciples.
The parting is decisive and differentiates this event from the resurrection appearances. This is an ongoing departure.
Jesus is passive; the Father takes him up to his right hand in heaven. Jesus, God incarnate, depended on the Holy Spirit and followed the Father’s will. The ascension mirrors the virginal conception (Luke 1:26-38); the Spirit takes the initiative.
From another angle, Luke pinpoints the ascension’s pivotal significance; as Farrow says, is “the hinge” upon which the two volumes turn.2
Jesus has taught the apostles of the imminent coming of the Spirit, and their task as his witnesses. After this Jesus is lifted up, and a cloud receives him, while he passes out of the apostles’ sight. During this sequence, they look on. He is taken up into heaven. Again, the Father takes him to be with himself, the seal of divine approval on all he has done.
There is a physical removal, a lifting up. The reference to the cloud receiving him is reminiscent of the Son of Man (Dan. 7:13-14), who comes “with the clouds of heaven” and to whom is given “dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him.” Jesus, in his ascension as the Son of Man, receives his kingdom which shall embrace “the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). The rest of Acts records how this process begins. Throughout Scripture clouds are associated with the glory of God (Luke 9:24-36; Rev. 1:7, cf. Acts 1:10-11; Exod. 13:21, 24:18; Isa. 19:1). His return will be in glory. His disappearance, concealed by a cloud, is his passing into the presence of God.
The disciples see this, taking us back to the ascension of Elijah (2Kgs. 2:1-14). There Elijah promises Elisha a double portion of his spirit – the portion of the first-born – if he sees Elijah taken up to heaven. And so he does (2Kgs. 2:11-12). Thereafter there are recorded twice as many miracles by Elisha. Here, the apostles – promised the Holy Spirit – see Jesus taken up by the Father to the glory of God in the cloud. They gaze intently; a few days later, the Spirit of Jesus is unleashed in power.
The Physics of the Ascension
On the one hand, the ascension is not to be reduced to the level of a primitive form of space-travel. Luke points us to Jesus’ removal from the immediate realm of human interaction to the presence and place of God. However, we must avoid the opposite danger of reading the event in an entirely spiritual manner. The physicality of the event is clear. The ascension affirms Jesus’ continuing humanity. Our human flesh is taken to the right hand of God, invested with the glory of God, received by the Father. That this event took place in our own time and space was necessary since what is at stake is the continuation of our humanity.
Consequently, the ascension bridges our present world and that of the age to come. It is a movement, in T.F. Torrance’s words, “from man’s place to God’s place.”3 Jesus moved from regular interaction with his contemporaries to the place where God dwells, in the clouds of glory. It occurred in this world at a definite time and place but with extra dimensions to it. There is the departure but also the cloud, the severance of fellowship and the reception by the Father, and Jesus’ consequent absence until his parousia and his presence through the Spirit – there is absence and presence. It is a happening in this world that can be dated but it is also an event that occurs in the life of God and so has eternal significance
The Resurrection and the Ascension
The ascension was not simply the last of Jesus’ resurrection appearances; it is qualitatively different. In the resurrection appearances Jesus suddenly disappears, later reappearing elsewhere. Here, his departure is a concealment while the apostles watch. Moreover, it is confirmed by the angels as a continuous absence. After the resurrection, he appears in recognizable form, with enhanced powers (John 20: 11-18, 21:1-14, Luke 24:13-35) but after his ascension he is transformed (Acts 9:1-19, Rev. 1:9-20), so suffused with glory as to be unbearable. The goal towards which Jesus is heading as man is the glory of God, the right hand of the Father. There is the connection with Pentecost, connecting between the present world and the new creation in Christ.
The Ascension and Reception by the Father
The ascension is a definitive parting, for an indefinite time, to be ended only at Jesus’ return. As Farrow states, it is “a real departure,” the link between our fallen world and the new creation.4 Moreover, all Jesus did is done in union with us, his people. We were in him as he ascended to the right hand of the Father. We too are ascended in Christ; our life is hid with Christ in God (Col. 3:1-4). We are seated with him in heavenly places (Eph. 2:6-8), in the closest union and communion with Christ, reigning with him even as we suffer and struggle in our present condition.
The Ascension in the New Testament Beyond Luke-Acts
First, in John’s Gospel Jesus links his incarnation with the ascension (John 3:13, cf. 6:62). Later, Jesus reassures his disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2-3). He says he is going to the one who sent him – the Father (John 16:5; cf. 20:17). The Spirit’s indwelling of the disciples will be the permanent indwelling of all three persons of the trinity (John 14:23). Earlier in John, Jesus refers to the gift of the Holy Spirit following his glorification (John 7:37-39).
Second, Peter refers to the ascension (1Pet. 3:18-22). If, as is probable, verses 19-21 are a parenthesis, we have a progression in Peter’s thought from the crucifixion (v. 18) to the resurrection (“made alive in [or by] the Spirit” v. 18) to the ascension (v. 22).
Third, Paul argues that the church is founded on the basis of Christ’s ascension (Eph. 4:8-10, citing Psalm 68). The ascended Christ has given gifts to his church, gifts of persons, including the apostles. In the hymnic citation in 1 Timothy 3:16, which refers to the incarnation, resurrection and the preaching of the apostles, comes the phrase “taken up in glory.”
Fourthly, the ascension is crucial in Hebrews. There are many implicit references besides explicit ones. Jesus is our great high priest “who has passed through the heavens” (Heb. 4:14-16), and so is able to help us in our time of need; he is our forerunner who has entered into “the inner place behind the curtain” (Heb. 6:19-20), from where he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him (Heb. 7:25-26). He has entered “once for all into the holy place” (Heb. 9:11-12), “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Heb. 9:24). He has sat down at the right hand of God (Heb. 10:12-13). These passages trace the journey of Jesus from the cross to the right hand of God via the ascension, portraying his passage into the holy of holies, the presence of God.
Christ’s Ascension and Our Present Life
The ascension marks the boundary between two closely related pairs of contrasts. First, there is the redemptive-historical contrast of two ages: the world in Adam, from the fall onwards, subject to sin, corruption, and death, an age that is passing away; and the world in Christ, from the incarnation, resurrection and ascension onwards, which is being renewed, and is marked by life, which will last for eternity. Second, this contrast is evident in relation to creation. The creation, as made by God, was good, made in Christ,5 but it was affected by human sin and is described by Paul as currently in bondage. On the other hand, there is the new creation, from the resurrection and ascension, renewed in Christ and ultimately destined for his eternal rule.
The Ascension and Christ as King
Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as near (Mark 1:15, Matt. 4:17). It was reminiscent of the visions of Daniel of a kingdom that would overthrow all human rulers and be established for ever (Dan. 2:31-45, 7:9-14). After his resurrection he taught the apostles about the kingdom of God (Acts 1:3). It represented the rule of God over the whole of human life.
In the rest of the New Testament this theme disappears. Instead, the apostles draw attention to Jesus Christ. The primary focus of the gospel is on the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ (1Cor. 15:3). The kingdom is equated with the whole counsel of God (Acts 20:25-27), with the totality of apostolic teaching after the resurrection. The kingdom of God is embodied in the risen Christ who, upon his ascension, has been given plenipotentiary powers over the entire universe (Matt. 28:18-20, Rom. 1:3-4, Eph. 1:18-23, Phil. 2:9-11, Col. 1:15-20, Heb. 1:1-4, Rev. 1:5). The mediatorial kingdom of Christ comes into view as the fulfillment of what Jesus had proclaimed. “He must reign until he puts all his enemies under his feet” (1Cor. 15:20-25).
Barth expresses it well, in writing that Christ became wholly and utterly one with man,
not in an act of secret or even public condescension, like a king for a change donning a beggar’s rags and mingling with the crowd, but by belonging to them in every way, by being no more and no less than one of them, by having no point of reference except to them. He became one of them, not in order to renounce fellowship with them when the game was over, like the king exchanging again the beggar’s rags for his kingly robes, not in order to leave again the table where He had seated Himself with the publicans and sinners, and to find a better place, but in order to be one of them definitively as well as originally, unashamed to call them brethren to all eternity.6
From this, the incarnate Christ, “meek and lowly of heart” (Matt. 11:28-30), remaining man, is the one exalted in his ascension to the highest place as ruler of all things.
Paul writes that Jesus was highly exalted and given the supreme name of “Lord” (kurios, Phil. 2:9-11). It is not a case of a man being promoted to Godhood since he was eternally in the form of God and equal to God (v.6) and continued to be so in the days of his incarnate lowliness. Rather, as the incarnate one, nailed to the cross and now risen, he was exalted to be given the name “Lord.” At the ascension he is received by the Father and invested with sovereign, plenipotentiary authority. In that sense it is expedient that he left the disciples (John 14:1-4, 28, 16:7-15). The work of redemption will reach its culmination when Christ returns and hands over the kingdom to the Father (1Cor. 15:27-28). However, since he is one with the Father, his kingdom never ends.
The Cosmic Scope of Christ’s Kingship
Christ is heir to the cosmos (Col. 1:16). It was created in him, through him, and for him. He maintains it in being and directs it to its appointed goal. The reconciliation he achieved relates not only to the church but to the entire universe (Col. 1:19-20). This inheritance he received at his resurrection, his ascension to the Father effecting his enthronement as king. While as Son, he ruled inseparably with the Father and the Holy Spirit in the unity of the indivisible trinity, this was his investiture as king in his incarnational, mediatorial office.
In his ascension Christ publicly displays his conquest of his enemies, as in a triumphant victory procession (Eph. 4:8-10). Christ’s realm is universal. He has ascended far above the heavens and now fills all things. He has passed through his territory and has won the authority throughout his realm. From this, the cosmos will be liberated when Christ returns (Rom. 8:18-23). Meanwhile, he rules the new heavens and the new earth (Heb. 2:5-9)
The Corporate Nature of Christ’s Kingship
By his ascension Christ establishes the church, granting gifts to it for its preservation and advancement (Eph. 4:11f). All that he did and does is in union with us. We were in him in his ascension. We too have ascended to the right hand of the Father in Christ. We too sit with him in heavenly places. Christ is not king merely over a collection of disparate individuals but over his covenant people, of which individuals are a part.
- Alistair Begg, “Ascension Sunday Address”
- Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God
- Robert Godfrey, “Taken Up Into Heaven: The Ascension of Christ” (video)
- John MacArthur, “The Significance of the Ascension” (video)
- John MacArthur, “Why the Ascension Matters” (video)
- John MacArthur, “What the Ascension Accomplished” (video)
- Peter C. Orr, Exalted Above the Heavens: The Risen and Ascended Christ
- R. C. Sproul, “The Ascension of Jesus Christ” (video)
- Derek Thomas, Taken Up to Heaven
- Thomas F. Torrance. Space, Time and Resurrection. Eerdmans, 1976, 106–58.
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