Source: Wat het geloof verwacht (De Vuurbaak), 1998. 9 pages. Translated by Wim Kanis.

Heidelberg Catechism Lord’s Day 18 - He Ascended Into Heaven

Question 46: What do you confess when you say,
                      he ascended into heaven?

Answer 46:  That Christ,
                    before the eyes of his disciples,
                    was taken up from the earth into heaven,
                    and that he is there for our benefit
                    until he comes again
                    to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus traveled widely on earth.

He traveled to Jerusalem.1 Or to a city called Nain, and his disciples travelled with him.2 Was his ascension into heaven also an actual journey?

From earth to heaven?

Is there a heaven somewhere in the vast universe? A heaven that may be reached from earth?

Theologians of repute hesitate. The findings of space research, they say, make it impossible to believe that a human being simply ascended into heaven: not from a launching pad, not in a spaceship and not even without a space suit. In the days of Luke, people in their simplicity thought that heaven was just about right above their heads and not too far away. We are done with that ancient imagination. But is there then still a reason to believe in the ascension? It seems utterly impossible that someone in clothes befitting a mild climate could have traveled through space without any aid. What dizzying speed was needed to cover the immense distance to heaven within a somewhat reasonable time?3 They are quite right. Absolutely. This is impossible. And yet it happened!

Lifted Up Before the Eyes of His Disciples🔗

We are not going to let ourselves be caught off guard by what space experts may or may not consider as achievable. We are dealing with what a group of eleven eyewitnesses saw happening: that Jesus “was taken up as they were looking on”. Admittedly, they did not see him arrive in heaven. That was impossible because “a cloud took him out of their sight”. But they did hear with their own ears what no less than two angels were saying: “this Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven…”4

That is what we trust as truth. From a human perspective the challenges for this heavenly journey were gigantic. Insurmountable, especially in those days. But we should remember that Jesus himself said, shortly before his unique journey, that all power had been given to him in heaven and on earth.5 As a result, all the problems associated with space travel melted away before him like snow in the burning sun. So what are we grumbling about?

What About the Scriptural Evidence?🔗

The ascension of Jesus was the impressive conclusion of his life on earth. It might have been expected that the NT would call much attention to it. However, people have rightly pointed out that the coverage of this extraordinary event seems remarkably austere. This was considered to be suspicious.6 Various people understood from this that the NT apparently did not take much interest in this fact.

Let us take stock of this. We have four books about Jesus’ life on earth. But no more than two of them mention his ascension. The other two end before they got to that event. We should add that the two writers who are silent on this point are called Matthew and John. While they were the ones who had seen Jesus go up to heaven with their own eyes! Would that not have been a wonderful conclusion to their books? But they end their story without having gotten around to it.

That leaves Mark (16:19) and Luke (24:51). But in Mark it is found in a section that is placed between square brackets. That is an indication that there is some issue.

For many, therefore, that only leaves Luke. That explains why people find the coverage of the ascension so suspiciously slim. This reasoning does not impress us.

We should not test the messages by our standards. That does not fit with the reverence we should have for the word of God. Let us not imagine anything. God did not ask us how we would have liked it to be. He decided — as he did with the birth and resurrection of Jesus — in what way he wanted to make the ascension known. And when he clearly told that Jesus was going to heaven, even if only through Luke, it was incontrovertibly certain that this was the true reality. Luke even mentions the fact twice, both at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of his book of Acts.

And as far as Mark is concerned, even if it is not absolutely certain that he wrote this ending (Mark 16:9-20), it has certainly been recognized by the church from time immemorial as part of Scripture7 So there are three short messages about Jesus’ heavenly journey: two from Luke and one from Mark. For those who are counting, this seems like a rather meagre harvest but we need to add to all of this that the rest of the NT has as its premise that Jesus is enthroned in heaven. The book of Revelation notes this multiple times. But also the letter to the Hebrews portrays him as the Priest who is sitting at God’s right hand. And ultimately, that is what it is all about. The most important thing is not that he journeyed to heaven, but that he is seated in heaven at God’s right hand. The Catechism shows this as well. Later on it asks a question about the benefit of the ascension. Strictly speaking, this is about Jesus’ actual journey to heaven. Yet the answer speaks as a matter of course about Jesus being in heaven before the face of his Father. And for that fact numerous texts can be mentioned. 8

And as for Matthew not getting around to the account of the ascension: he does tell us that Jesus declares before the Jewish Council that he will sit at the right hand of Power.9 In a short while he will have arrived in heaven. And as for John, who also does not report what he himself had seen, we read in his Gospel a few times that Jesus will soon go to his Father. Particularly telling is what he says to Mary Magdalene: “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father.” 10 In an utterly convincing way the Scriptures teach that Jesus went to heaven. Matthew and John also confirm this.

Question 47: Is Christ, then, not with us
                     until the end of the world,
                     as he has promised us?

Answer 47: Christ is true man and true God.
                   With respect to his human nature
                   he is no longer on earth,
                   but with respect to
                   his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit
                   he is never absent from us.

Question 48: But are the two natures in Christ
                      not separated from each other
                      if his human nature is not present
                      wherever his divinity is?                             

Answer 48: Not at all,
                         for his divinity has no limits
                         and is present everywhere.
                  So it must follow that his divinity
                       is indeed beyond the human nature
                       which he has taken on
                       and nevertheless is within this human nature
                       and remains personally united with it.


After his ascension, is Jesus still with us, yes or no? Yes he is! For this is what he promised: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”11 But equally he had spoken repeatedly of his going to heaven.12 His ascension was indeed a separation.13 How could he go to heaven and at the same time remain with us on earth?

As a Human Being Jesus Is No Longer With Us On Earth.🔗

To what extent is Jesus with us today? Like a distant friend? Someone who sends letters, and in those letters he himself “comes along”. Not really, but in a manner of speaking. Or he might call us. It is as if he is standing in the room with us, that is how clear his voice sounds. Moreover, he also says that in his thoughts he is with us. That may be of great value for us, but he himself is still a long distance away. That remains the reality. But that is not how Jesus is absent from us. He did not just send us a stack of letters in the form of the Bible. We do not just have written contact with him. Nor is he with us only in his thoughts. He is present himself, according to his deity. Also after his ascension. Just as he had promised: I am with you. I will be near you. I myself.

The Lutherans appear to take this promise of Jesus very seriously, more so than we do. According to them, Jesus is really with us today. Totally. Not only as God but also as a human being. They claim that Jesus’ human nature is completely imbued with his divine nature already since birth, comparable to a red-hot piece of iron that is imbued with the fire. Where there is iron, there is fire, and conversely where there is fire, there is iron. And so also the human nature of Jesus would be present wherever his divine nature is. As God, he is omnipresent, and therefore equally as human. Thus, despite his ascension, he is still with us on earth in bodily form, even though we do not see him. This may sound pious, but in the meantime it seriously undermines the fact that Jesus is true human because a human can never be both in heaven and with us on earth at the same time. But the NT teaches that Jesus actually went and parted from his disciples and that he will return. That is why we confess that according to his human nature, Christ is no longer on earth.

Does this mean then that we have regressed?

And is the Lutheran view, while in error, more comforting than that of our Catechism?

Fascinating questions!

Jesus Went to Heaven For Our Sake🔗

Luke tells us that the disciples who stayed behind returned to Jerusalem with great joy. Without Jesus, who had been separated from them.14

But they did not experience this as a loss. Apparently they did not feel abandoned. How did that happen? And why do we too not need to feel as if we are left alone? According to the Catechism, because he never leaves us according to his deity, majesty, grace and Spirit. That sounds impressive. Four solid words are stacked on top of each other: deity, majesty, grace, Spirit. They are meant to indicate how Jesus is really with us. One almost gets the impression that this broad enumeration is supposed to comfort us because so much still remains of Jesus’ former presence on earth. As if the loss that came with his ascension is not so bad after all for us on earth.

In our opinion, we are not doing justice to the Catechism with this reasoning. It does not try to trivialize Jesus’ human absence by calling all attention to his continued divine presence. Taken in isolation, there is a shadow side to his ascension. A bride misses her Bridegroom and longs for his return.15 There is that aspect too. But we must not consider his ascension in isolation! Jesus, as a human being, left the earth for our good. He said it was better for us that he go. Why better? Because otherwise the Comforter, the Spirit, could not come. But is the Spirit more important to us than Jesus? Jesus did not mean that, but he did say that he could do more for us from heaven through the Spirit. On earth he could only be in one place at a time as our Saviour. He was not in Rome or Ephesus during all those years. But from heaven he is able to reach all of us anywhere in the world. From there he can be even better with us than if he were as a human being in Jerusalem or in Amsterdam today. After his ascension, his involvement with the earth did not diminish but it was strengthened: from that time on he gathered his church in all countries. He therefore did not keep his promise to be with us as best he could in spite of his ascension, but rather he fulfilled it fully because of it.16

But what demonstrable progress did his ascension then bring for us?

That is what the next question is about.

Question 49: How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?

Answer 49: First,
                         he is our Advocate in heaven
                         before his Father.
                        we have our flesh in heaven
                        as a sure pledge that he, our Head,
                        will also take us, his members,
                        up to himself.
                     he sends us his Spirit as a counter-pledge,
                     by whose power we seek
                     the things that are above,
                     where Christ is,
                     seated at the right hand of God,
                     and not the things that are on earth.

Jesus went to heaven: right to the centre of it. Where the throne of God is standing. In heaven, not all places are equal. Not everyone is equally close to God. Elijah and Gabriel are there as well, but they are not sitting at God’s right hand. Only Jesus was granted that privilege. No man or angel was given such a high position as he was. He is in heaven before his Father. He sits there at the right hand of God. Therefore his ascension into heaven is of exceptionally great value — for him but also for us.

It is the latter that we are addressing next.

Jesus Opened the Way To Heaven For Us🔗

The journey that Jesus made from the earth to God's throne in heaven was of the highest value not only for himself. Then he would be like someone who achieves to reach a tall mountain peak and reaps the fame for it. But that does not bring the fans of the mountaineer any step closer to that remote height. For them, the mountaintop remains out of reach. The man climbed up in his lonely way but he did leave a path and did not take anyone with him.

Jesus did. He reached the high heavens but draws us behind him. He paved a way from below to above. He established the connection between heaven and earth.

This subject is discussed at length in the letter to the Hebrews.17 The writer draws a parallel between Jesus in heaven and the high priest of old in the tabernacle or temple. On the great Day of Atonement the priest went into the most holy place on earth. In those days it was the anterior room of the temple: the holy of holies. There God was enthroned above the ark. No mortal could come closer to him.

The church of the OT could rejoice in it. There was access to the LORD and the way to his throne was open again. In the person of that high priest, the people could approach before God. But there were also limitations. Approaching God was reserved to that one priest — and only once in a full year. The beautiful temple, too, was no more than a provisional sanctuary, a copy of the heavenly one. Made with human hands.18The way to the real and heavenly sanctuary was not yet open.19 Christ opened that way. For he entered “into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf”.20

With his ascension into heaven he did not put an end to his work on earth, not even temporarily, but rather ensured that it would continue profitably and with immediate effect.

What does that profit mean for us?

He Pleads For Us🔗

The judgment upon our lives is passed in heaven. That is why it gives us a profound sense of peace that Jesus takes up our cause for us there: before his Father. Every day, and after every sin confessed earnestly, the decision is made that God accepts us. For the time being he is not with us on earth as a human person. But an advocate who would only come to encourage us at home would also be of no use to us. To truly help us he needs to leave us and go into the courthouse in order to plead our case before the judge. That is what Jesus is doing. Why does God allow himself to be persuaded by his plea? Earthly lawyers are looking for loopholes in the laws — but God’s law is perfect. Or they are trying to look for extenuating circumstances — but there are none. His strength is that he stands there as the lamb that has been slain.21

On that basis he pleads for acquittal. And he does so successfully. All of them are set free. That is the purpose why he went to heaven. Not to be far away from us but to have us be near him forever.

Jesus Will Take Us Up To Himself🔗

When Jesus went to heaven he connected us to that same heaven. In kitchens, schools, factories, hospitals and prisons, people were connected to heaven. Because that is where Jesus arrived as a real human being, as one of us. Therefore he represents us there. His bodily presence in heaven guarantees ours. We already have a place there, with him.22 Thus he fixed our earthly existence firmly to heaven.

Hebrews 6:19 uses a telling image: we have hope. That hope is like an anchor. That anchor, in this case, does not fall down until it finds support on the seabed. It went up and found a hold in heaven where Jesus is. He attached it to God’s throne. It is “safe and secure”. In the midst of all dangers and fears, we are safely anchored. The connection is in place. Jesus made it to the other side and also attached our lives to it. He reached the top of the mountain and connected us with that summit. In heaven he claims a place for us. Do we, on our part, take this into account?

Jesus takes care of that too.

Seeking the Things That Are Above🔗

With every fibre of our being we are bound to the earth. That is where we live. That is where we have our work. If we want to go on vacation, we look for a nice spot somewhere on this earth. When we intend to build a church we look for a piece of land here on earth. Where else? Yet Christ ensures that we look for what is above, and not what is on earth. He sends his Spirit and this Spirit, through the gospel, aims to get us to seek the things that are above. Yet the consequence of it is not that we should consider our earthly life as unimportant. The Spirit does convince us, however, that an earth without heaven offers no future and cannot truly bring joy.

Why is heaven so indispensable? Because Christ is there! And he holds the future of the earth in his hands. That includes ours. For this reason we orient ourselves toward heaven.T23 There is our homeland.24

That may mean that Paul in prison longs to depart.25 A person who is sick and experiencing great pain may look forward to the end. But someone who stands in the fullness of life must equally seek what is above. Also those who go on a hike on the beach, or on a ski trip. Also young people who are looking for a house, or a job, somewhere on earth. A businessman looks for an outlet for his products, possibly far away, but always on earth. A horticulturist looks at his lettuce plants and gazes down at the earth.

But faith expects it from heaven, even for all these earthly things. Our planet is connected to heaven. Christ joined it to his throne and took earth in tow. This world, with its offices and factories, its operating rooms and nursing homes, sails in the wake of heaven. Even a smouldering earth stays the heavenly course, for we are always moving in the right direction.

Until it is: as in heaven, so on earth.


  1. ^ Luke 13:22.
  2. ^ Luke 7:11.
  3. ^ For questions regarding the local character of the ascension see, e.g., F.W.A. Korff, Christologie II, 281-284.
  4. ^ Acts 1:11.
  5. ^ Matthew 28:18.
  6. ^ E. Brunner, Dogmatik II, 397; H. Berkhof, Christelijk geloof. 334,335.
  7. ^ .J. VanBruggen, Marcus, 395f, 413f, who arrives at the conclusion (based on various arguments) that it is not proven that this section would not have been written by Mark himself.
  8. ^ Text references are: Romans 8:34; Hebrews 4:14; 7:23-25; 9:24.
  9. ^ Matthew 26:64.
  10. ^ John 20:17.
  11. ^ Matthew 28:20.
  12. ^ John 7:33; 14:2, 3, 28; 16:5, 7, 10, 17.
  13. ^ Luke 24:51.
  14. ^ Luke 24:51, 52.
  15. ^ Revelation 22:17.
  16. ^ John 16:7.
  17. ^ Hebrews 8:1, 2.
  18. ^ Hebrews 9:23, 24.
  19. ^ Hebrews 9:8.
  20. ^ Hebrews 9:24.
  21. ^ Revelation 5:6.
  22. ^ Ephesians 2:6.
  23. ^ he Catechism purposefully adopts expressions from Paul in Colossians 3:1, 2. Therefore, it is important to note that Paul is not arguing here for world avoidance. On the contrary, he turns against the people who proclaim their motto of “do not handle; do not taste; do not touch”, 2:21.
    They promoted an austere life with as much abstinence as possible. The remarkable thing is that they did not seem to be looking for things on earth! Yet Paul also says to these people that they should not seek what is on earth. Because that is what they did! They sought their salvation in purely material things, even if it was not by immersing themselves in these but by abstaining from them. There are two wrong ways to expect too much from this earthly life: by living life to the full but also—and this is what the Apostle is referring to  — by seeking salvation in distancing oneself from earthly pleasures. Our happiness is not found in living life to the fullest, nor in forcibly ignoring earthly things, but only in heaven, in Christ. See also H. Ridderbos, Commentaar op het NT, on Colossians 3:1, 2.
  24. ^ Philippians 3:20.
  25. ^ Philippians 1:23.

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