He Ascended into Heaven
He Ascended Into Heaven, and Sitteth at the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty. And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight.Acts 1:9
And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore also God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name.Philippians 2:8, 9
Oftentimes we hear the complaint that people are, despite their apparent level of education and culture, rather illiterate. It is surprising, for example, to discover that in an advanced, industrialized and modern society like the United States, with its state supported and sponsored system of schools from the primary to the university level, there are many people who can barely read at a grade-school level. I can still remember the discomfort I felt in asking a class of junior high vacation Bible school students to take turns reading the Scriptures, when I discovered that some of them were unable to read. They were illiterate, though they had been students for many years.
Though the level of illiteracy is a serious problem in the society in which we live, it is a more serious problem for the church. For in the church today we often discover a different, and even more destructive, kind of illiteracy — people do not really know what the Bible teaches or the church confesses. This can easily be illustrated in terms of the article in the creed before us, "He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty." If there is any, single article in the creed which is little known or understood, it is this one. And yet this is one of the most important things that we can confess about our Lord Jesus Christ, especially in terms of His present work — that He is the ascended and glorified King who rules over all things for the sake of His church.
I can remember an occasion when a visitor to the congregation I served as a pastor in Ontario, California, inquired about the announcement in the bulletin concerning an Ascension Day service. Though this visitor indicated that she was a professing member of a Christian church, she had almost no knowledge or understanding of this article of the creed. It had never really registered with her that, after our Lord's resurrection on the third day, He entered by way of His ascension into heaven and began, with His session at the Father's right hand, a new and decisive phase of His redeeming work in history. It appeared that her confession concerning the Lord focused upon a number of events in the distant past (He was crucified, dead, and buried, rose again on the third day) and an event still to come (He will come to judge the living and the dead); but her confession was only a blur when it came to His present circumstance and work! Sadly, this is true of many professing believers who are not literate about this important article in the creed.
For this reason it is vitally important that we pause in our consideration of the Apostles' Creed at this article and ask, what do we mean by the ascension of our Lord into heaven and His session at the Father's right hand? What does this tell us about Him and His work of salvation? How does it benefit us to believe and confess this?
The Ascension of Christ
The Apostles' Creed, when it confesses Christ's ascension into heaven after His resurrection from the dead, simply echoes the teaching of Scripture. Though the only full account of Christ's ascension is found in Acts 1:1-11, the New Testament frequently refers to or explicitly speaks of the event of Christ's return to heaven after His resurrection. For example, in the gospels we read that "He was taken up into heaven and He sat at the right hand of God" (Mark 16:19), and that "while He was blessing them, He left them and was taken up into heaven" (Luke 24:51). The apostle Paul says in 1 Timothy 3:16, "He who was revealed in the flesh ... was taken up in glory." Frequently, references to Christ's ascension speak of His returning to the Father who sent Him (John 7:34, 36; 13:3; 14:28; 16:7-10) or of His present glory and power at the Father's right hand (Ephesians 1:19-20; 1 Corinthians 15:25, 28).
The one full account of Christ's ascension in the book of Acts provides a simple, uncomplicated account of what occurred. Forty days after the event of Christ's resurrection, at the conclusion of His interim instruction to His disciples about the things concerning the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3) and His promise of the future outpouring of the Spirit upon them, He was taken up into heaven in their presence.
And after He had said these things, He was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was departing, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them; and they also said, 'Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven.'Acts 1:9-11
It is remarkable how devoid the biblical record is of speculation and excessive curiosity about the precise nature of this event. Unfortunately, the simplicity of the biblical record of Christ's ascension has not been reflected in the history of the church's reflection upon this event. Though today the tendency among some is to ridicule or declare impossible the event of Christ's physical ascension into heaven, even in the period of the Reformation considerable differences existed between Lutherans and Reformed as to the meaning of this event. Among some Lutherans the ascension was understood, not as a change in the location of Christ in His human nature from earth to heaven, but as a change of condition whereby His human nature passed into the full enjoyment and exercise of certain divine perfections, particularly omnipresence. This understanding of the ascension was associated with the view that Christ's human nature could be really present "in, with, and under" the outward elements of bread and wine in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. For Christ in His human nature to be present in this way, it was thought necessary that His human nature become "ubiquitous" or able to be really present, not in one location only (namely, heaven), but in any number of locations at the same time.
Those who are acquainted with the confession of Christ's ascension in the Heidelberg Catechism, will recognize that this Lutheran view of the ascension is rejected in Lord's Day 18, when it says:
Christ is true man and true God. In His human nature Christ is not now on earth; but in his divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit. He is not absent from us for a moment.
Following the Scriptures, the catechism teaches that the same Lord Jesus Christ who was raised from the dead on the third day, has ascended in the genuineness of His human nature — that nature which He shares fully and completely with us — into heaven. The problem with the Lutheran understanding of the ascension is that it teaches that Christ's human nature was changed into something different and unlike ours (we cannot be, in our human nature, everywhere present!) in His ascension.
But why is this important? And how does it benefit us? Is it essential to insist that Christ ascended into the place called heaven in our human nature, a nature exactly like ours, though without sin and glorified through His resurrection from the dead? These are questions which naturally are pressing at this point.
When these questions are pressed, we need to recognize that there is a close and inseparable connection between the events of Christ's crucifixion, death and resurrection, and the event of His ascension. There are two aspects of Christ's saving work in particular that are tied to His ascension. These are: first, His work as our Advocate or priestly intercessor at the Father's right hand; and second, His work in preparing a place for us.
One of the themes frequently associated with Christ's presence before the Father in heaven is that of His advocacy or intercession on behalf of His people, those for whom and on whose behalf He offered Himself a sacrifice for sin (Romans 8:34; 1 John 2:1). There are always two great tasks associated with the work of a priest in the Scriptures: the offering of a sacrifice for sin and intercessory prayer on behalf of those for whom the sacrifice was offered. In this work the priest stands as a Mediator between a holy God and an unholy people whose sins require such an atoning sacrifice and intercession in order for them to have fellowship with God. Now it is precisely this which is so essential to Christ's ascension. As our only high priest He is able, on the basis of His perfect and complete, once-for-all sacrifice, to make a continual and effective intercession for us (compare, for example, Hebrews 7:21-28; 8:1-2; 9:23-28)! We may approach God and His throne of grace only because of the sacrifice Christ has offered and the priestly work of intercession which He conducts "for our interest" as our Advocate before the Father! By virtue of His ascension into heaven and the presence of the Father, Christ has entered into this new phase of His high-priestly work.
Furthermore, just as Christ Himself promised, His ascension into heaven and the presence of the Father means that we have been raised with Him and made to sit with Him in the Father's presence. As our Mediator our Lord's ascension to the Father's right hand guarantees and pledges our place together with Him; here again what belongs to Him as our Lord and Savior belongs also to us! This is also why it is so important to confess that by virtue of His ascension we have One who shares our nature completely in heaven! Perhaps one of the clearest and best known biblical expressions of this is the promise our Lord gave the disciples before His ascension in John 14:1-3:
Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father's house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you; for I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you to Myself; that where I am, there you may be also.
This is the comfort which should be ours in the confession of our Lord's ascension. We now have a Mediator who intercedes for us before the Father's throne of grace. We have a Mediator, One who shares our flesh and blood and who is not ashamed to call us "brothers," who pleads our cause before the Father (compare Hebrews 2:11). We have One whose advocacy is perfect and effective, since it is impossible that the Father would be unwilling to hear the advocacy of His Son whose sacrifice and intercession perfectly and completely covers our sins. And we have the guarantee that Christ, our Head, has gone before us into heaven.
God "has raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus, in order that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.
The Heavenly Session of Christ
It is impossible, therefore, to speak of Christ's ascension and its benefits, without considering the consequence the ascension has for His present work as our Mediator. The ascension of Christ also marks the beginning of His "sitting" or heavenly session at the "right hand" of God the Father Almighty. It marks the beginning of a new stage of Christ's saving work. This saving work is not restricted to His high-priestly intercession on our behalf or preparation of a place for us in heaven with the Father. It also involves a new stage of Christ's saving work on the earth.
Notice that this article of the creed for the first time speaks of Christ's saving work in the present tense — He sits at the Father's right hand. This is His present circumstance and this accounts for the kind of saving work in which He is presently engaged. In this respect, it is not exactly correct to speak of Christ's "earthly ministry" as though it were a thing of the distant past; Christ's "earthly ministry" continues today, but in a new and glorious way. Whereas He came to us in weakness, now He rules over the earth in power and glory at the Father's right hand.
This raises the important question of what we mean by speaking of His sitting at the Father's "right hand." In the Scriptures, the language of God's "right hand" is not to be taken literally but metaphorically (note that sometimes Christ is described as "being," "standing," or even "walking" in His present work at the Father's right hand: e.g. Romans 8:34; 1 Peter 3:22; Acts 7:56; Revelation 2:1). The "right hand" of God designates a position and status of special honor and glory as well as of power and authority. Just as we even today speak of someone's "right hand" man, so we confess that Christ sits at the Father's right hand inasmuch as He participates in the Father's glory and acts on His behalf with the authority conferred upon Him.
This is why the Scriptures speak of Christ's sitting at the Father's "right hand" in terms which indicate that He has been granted the honor and privilege of exercising "all authority" and ruling over all things for the sake of His church and the coming of God's kingdom. In the so-called "Great Commission" in Matthew 28, this is expressed when Christ declares to the disciples:"All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth; go therefore and make disciples of all the nations…" (vs. 19).
The apostle Paul also expresses this in emphatic terms, when he teaches that God has,
raised Him (Christ) from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.Ephesians 1:20-23
The Heidelberg Catechism proves once again to be an excellent summary of the teaching of God's Word at this point. In its summary of the meaning of Christ's session at the Father's right hand, the catechism confesses that Christ is now the "head of His church" and the One through whom "the Father rules all things." From His exalted position Christ pours out His gifts, primarily His Spirit working through the Word, upon His church. He exercises His power and dominion on behalf of His church. Or, as the catechism so nicely puts it, He "defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies" (Lord's Day 19). In the fullness of that rightful authority which the Father has conferred upon Him in His heavenly session, Christ, our Savior and Lord, has been placed in charge of all things! "He must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25).
Our Confident Obedience in the World
This confession of the ascension and heavenly session of our Lord Jesus Christ ought to be the foundation for our confident obedience as churches and as believers in the world. Just imagine it — we live in a world which is under the authority and in the care of our Lord Jesus Christ! The same Lord who was crucified in weakness now reigns in heaven at the Father's right hand. All of history is being moved forward and directed to its God- appointed goal by the Father's beloved Son, our Savior and Lord!
I use the word confident, because there is no other way to describe the posture of the believer in the world when he lives out of the truth of this confession. Though we may face difficulties of various kinds, though we may encounter powerful spiritual forces and movements ("principalities and powers") which array themselves against Christ and His chosen people, though we may discover even within the church of Jesus Christ evidences of apostacy and infidelity — we are not afraid! We do not fear for a moment that Christ's cause or His church will be defeated. As Luther is said once to have observed, we do not tremble in our bed when we hear a leaf rustling in the wind, even though it were the devil Himself!
But I also emphasize that this produces a confident obedience. We must recognize that Christ reigns by His Word and Spirit, and that His authority is exercised primarily in the gathering, protecting and preserving of His church. This work involves the making of disciples of all the nations, "teaching them all things whatsoever I have commanded you to do them" (Matthew 28:20). Christ works today, as the ascended and reigning King, in gathering disciples who are prepared to acknowledge Him as their Lord and Savior and live in complete and faithful obedience to His every commandment!
Our perspective here has to be that of Psalm 2. God the Father has decreed that He shall give to His Son, His Anointed whom He has installed as King at His right hand, the nations as His inheritance. Christ has been enthroned and His Word goes forth in power, calling all to faith and repentance. But as the reigning King, Christ does not issue His Word and Spirit in weakness or in the form of an "offer" that may be refused with impunity. He does not "invite" people to consider His claims upon them. He does not "suggest" that we perhaps obey Him in those areas where it is convenient or where we will not find ourselves at odds with the world. Not at all! His Word, which goes forth into all the world, is a royal summons, commanding repentance (compare Acts 17:30) and calling to heartful allegiance to Him and His Kingdom. It is a royal Word, calling all to "kiss the Son, lest He become angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath may soon be kindled. How blessed are all who take refuge in Him!" (Psalm 2:12).
Undoubtedly, there is much in our confession here that goes against the grain of popular piety and the practice of many who profess to be Christians in our time. This should not surprise us or make us despair. Our confession of the ascended, reigning Christ, a confession which often forms so small and unfamiliar a part of our faith, provides the only sure basis for continued and "confident obedience" in this world — until Christ comes again!