Ascension / Pentecost
The story is told of a rich man who left twenty-seven unfinished projects at death. He showed interest in the beginning, but he paid no attention to development and was unconcerned about the completion of his projects.
All too often, Christendom displays the same kind of attitude with respect to its commemoration of redemptive events. The day Jesus came physically to earth (Christmas) is celebrated far more than the day He physically left earth (Ascension).
This ought not be. Ascension ought to be a great day of rejoicing for the living Church, an integral feast among feasts. For, just as Christ's descent from heaven marks His humiliation, so His ascent to heaven marks His exaltation. His birth was the beginning of an earthly life that ended in death. But His ascension was the beginning of a heavenly reign that will end with a complete victory.
There are more reasons for the church's silence on Ascension. Too often, the church does not recognize that Christ's coming to earth and His going to heaven, as well as the promise of His return, are so many stages in the mighty movement of God to usher in His glorious, everlasting kingdom.
We need more awareness of the interrelationship of our church feast-days on a twofold front: first, we need to recognize much more profoundly than we do, the inseparability of advent, Christmas, passion, Good Friday, Easter, ascension, and Pentecost. In other words, the church is too prone to view her festival commemorations as isolated events rather than as the golden chain of Christ-purchased redemption in the state of humiliation and Christ-maintained redemption in the state of exaltation. The redemptive acts of salvation are one whole in the everlasting decree of God, and the failure to recognize their harmonious wholeness does serious injury to the church's consciousness of the glorious redemption provided by God in Jesus Christ.
Second, within the redemptive acts commemorated by the Church, it ought to be realized that there is a repeated element of preparation and fruition or, if you will, of promise and fulfillment. Advent ushers in Christmas; Good Friday paves the way for resurrection; ascension is fleshed out in Pentecost. In fact, as advent is to Christmas and Good Friday to Easter, so ascension is to Pentecost. Christ couldn't be plainer here: "Nevertheless I tell you the truth: It is expedient for you that I go away, for if I go not away, the Comforter (i.e., the pentecostal Spirit, cf. v. 13) will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you" (Jn. 16:7).
Hence, Ascension is a transitional feast. From one perspective, it is the necessary complement or completion of resurrection. Christ's transition to the higher life of glory, begun in resurrection, was perfected in ascension. But from another perspective, ascension is the prerequisite for Pentecost. The Spirit could not come in His fulness to open the gospel message fully to Jews and Gentiles alike until Christ first ascended into heaven. In this sense, ascension and Pentecost must be spoken of in one breath. They are two sides of the same coin: God's completing touch on historical redemption. As Good Friday and Easter form two hinges on which the door of justification is opened for the church in historical concreteness, so ascension and Pentecost are the two hinges which open the door to salvation's application. Hence our title is not "ascension and Pentecost" as separable entities but "ascension/Pentecost."
This is not to say that ascension has no significance in and of itself. On the contrary, it marks the crowning act of Jesus' work. Christ went to heaven to be crowned with honor; hence, when He had successfully completed the work which His Father had given Him to do, God highly exalted Him, giving Him a name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9). Moreover, Christ has cardinal work to perform as ascended Lord and threefold office-bearer on behalf of His church.
First, He is the believer's priestly Advocate in the presence of His Father (1 Jn. 2:1). Without His constant, intercessory advocateship, the church could not maintain herself. The church not only needs Christ to abide with her with His Godhead, majesty, grace and Spirit, as our Catechism so beautifully states, but she also needs Him to be her never-failing, ever-interceding High Priest in heaven's courts. When exercised faith is brought to focus on its exalted Intercessor, this necessity becomes self-evident. The meriting Savior who cried out, "It is finished," must also be the church's finishing Savior of maintenance and application. It is the church's comfort that Christ is the rich God-man who leaves no projects unfinished. And each elect jewel is one of His projects. Thus, ascension preaches that Christ shall not fail one of His own. It preaches the perseverance of the saints as the fruit of the persevering Christ. It preaches that His love and faithfulness are ever constant, for He ever liveth to make intercession for us (Rom. 8:34). The same Christ who never failed His church for one second in His thirty-three year sacrifice, never fails His church for one second in His ongoing, priestly intercession.
Second, Christ ascended to heaven as the kingly forerunner of His church; hence, says our Heidelberger, "we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, as the Head, will also take up to Himself, us, His members" (Q. 49). Since Christ is the Head of the church, which is His body, believers who are members of that Body will be where the Head is. Ascension teaches us that true believers are essentially in heaven already (cf. Eph. 2:6), despite the fact that unbelief often impedes their grasp of such victory. A hymnwriter says it best:
Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God's right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with Thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels,
Man with God is on the throne;
Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension
We by faith behold our own.
Finally, as ascended, Christ is the prophetical Sender of His Spirit. Ascension gives the church a twofold pledge: Christ's flesh in heaven as a pledge of the church's full restoration to glory and union with Christ; and the Holy Spirit as a pledge, or earnest, by whose power we "seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God, and not things on earth" (Heid. Cat., Q. 49). Hence, ascension affords a pledge in both heaven (Christ's flesh) and heart (the Holy Spirit).
The term, earnest, refers to a deposit or first installment which is in itself a pledge that the full amount will be paid later. Part of the work of the Spirit as earnest is to make believers partakers of Christ and enable them to live unto Him. By His power, they learn to deny themselves, hate sin and flee from it, and to persevere in the struggle against soul enemies. The fact that Christ has engaged in the struggle before the believer, and has been Conqueror in it, causes the believer unspeakable joy when communicated by the internally-working Spirit.
No wonder ascension is inseparable from Pentecost. Christ's return and the Spirit's full-orbed coming must transpire in this order, for God is essentially a God of order. Anyone can observe His order in creation. First comes the bud, then the flower, then the seed. There is order in redemption, too, as well as in the way in which we receive Christ's benefits. The ear hears before the heart is quickened; regeneration must transpire in order to believe; sanctification flows out of justification; maturity in Christ is gained through the gift of Spirit-wrought perseverance.
Pentecost is the feast of fulfillment. It fulfills Christ's entire mission – not only ascension. At Pentecost, the waiting disciples were filled in several respects:
- They were filled with the blessings of the Holy Spirit. They were filled with the Spirit's mighty wind, purging fire, and illuminating light, symbolic of a divine reception of the unspeakable blessings of Jehovah's covenant, justification and sanctification inclusive. They were filled with the heavenly dew of the Spirit as He descended into them, and set them apart through His anointing oil to the conscious priesthood of saints.
- They were filled with the fruits of the Spirit. "But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance" (Gal. 5:22-23a).
- They were filled with the gifts of the Holy Spirit. "They began to speak with other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance." Miraculously, articulately, and doctrinally they spoke in languages that they never knew before of the wonderful works of God through Christ.
- They were filled with the greatest work of the Spirit: to glorify the benefits and Person of Christ. Though they had experienced the commencement of this work in years gone by through Spirit-wrought room in their souls for Christ via saving conviction, in these pentecostal moments they tasted a fullness of communion with God in Christ to a degree never enjoyed before.
Heaven and earth were not separated within them in this pentecostal hour. Personally assured of vital union with God through His Son, they were persuaded that Jesus Christ was their Prophet, Priest, and King. Consciously, they no longer belonged to themselves, but to their faithful Savior, who had fulfilled all things in their behalf, and now sent His Spirit to fill them with all that He fulfilled for them. Not only a believing in, but an embracing of, Christ was wrought within them by this Spirit. God became their Father, Jesus Christ became their elder Brother, and the Spirit sealed within them that they were adopted sons of God.
- Ultimately, however, they were pentecostally filled with the Holy Spirit Himself as the Trinity's Third Person. Not only did they experience the blessings, fruits, gifts, and works of the Spirit, but also they "lived in" what the Heidelberg Catechism states so succinctly: "He is given me ... to comfort me and abide with me forever."
Unspeakable blessing! The Spirit did more than apply the benefits and Person of Christ to their souls; more than allow them to appropriate and embrace their blessed Immanuel by faith. It not only became Easter within, so that they could speak of sin-forgiveness and eternal life rights, but it became Pentecost as well: they received the Third Person Himself in their hearts as the true and eternal God, causing them to end in the Triune God with whom they were filled by the Spirit.
Filled with the Holy Ghost! All that was taken away in the first Adam was fully restored through the application of the Second Adam by the Spirit: they were privileged to embrace God Triune. In His Person, the Holy Ghost became Comforter, Sealer, and Intercessor within their souls. They were not only allowed to rest in the father-heart of God and the mediatorial-heart of the Son, but also in the Person of the Spirit, their everlasting seal and Sealer. On that day the Spirit not only sealed divine inheritance within them, but was Himself the seal in their souls. They were not only sealed by the Holy Ghost, but with the Holy Ghost, resting in Him (cf. Eph. 1:13). The Holy Spirit sealed His own Person to them on the foundation of His sealing Christ within them, Who, in turn, is sealed by the Father – "for Him hath God the Father sealed" (Jn. 6:27).
Ascension/Pentecost: the living church needs both – both an ascending Lord and a descending Spirit for needy sinners; both an interceding, exalted Lord as Advocate in heaven, and an interceding, working Spirit as Advocate in the soul; both the homecoming of Christ in heaven in unspeakable glory, and the homecoming of the Spirit in their souls with salvific power.
Ascension/Pentecost: may God grant us more realization of this twin blessing – objectively and subjectively.