Driving through a wooded valley on the first week of Eastertide, I watched as a burst of light penetrated the clouds. My mind wandered to the disciples on Mount Olivet, where I also once stood. It’s strange to think that on this hill a man was taken up through the clouds and out of sight. Nevertheless, Christians confess with one voice that Jesus “ascended to heaven,” not in spirit only, but also in body, “and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty. From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.”
Something of cosmic significance happened on the day of Christ’s ascension. Thomas Oden goes as far as to call it “the climactic event of salvation history.” Christ’s ascension (“he ascended”) and subsequent session (“seated at the right hand of God”) are essential Christian confessions that call for more attention.
Taken Up Into Heaven
After Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to his disciples for forty days and taught them about the kingdom (Acts 1:3). Only then was he “taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God” (Mk. 16:19, cf. Mt. 28:16). In the two-part narrative of Luke-Acts, the ascension serves as a bridge or hinge. In Luke 24:51, Jesus is taken up while blessing his disciples; in Acts 1:6-11, the account is repeated in detail as the precursor to Pentecost. “The good news of the kingdom of God” (Lk. 4:43) includes the king taking his throne.
The ascension marks the conclusion of Christ’s earthly ministry. After celebrating the cross and the empty tomb, Christians look forward to Ascension Day on the fortieth day of Easter.1 Charles Wesley’s long-forgotten hymn, “Ascension Day,” celebrates the heavenly reception of the Son:
There the pompous triumph waits:
Lift your heads, eternal gaits,
Wide unfold the radiant scene;
Take the King of glory in!
On Ascension Day, God’s people rejoice that, in the words of William Burt Pope, “the government of the Church is in His hands, as seated on the mediatorial throne: to exercise the dominion He went up, even as He came down to obtain it through death.” Our exalted Priest-King reigns and intercedes for us in his heavenly ministry.
The King Upon His Throne
Christ’s going up in the ascension corresponds to his going down in the incarnation. He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men,” then went as low as one can go: “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Php. 2:7-8).
When he couldn’t go any lower, Christ descended to the dead and proclaimed his victory to the captives: the beginning of his exaltation (1 Pet. 3:19). On the third day, “up from the grave, he arose,” putting the dark domain under his feet. The one who came down also went up and continued going up until he sat down: the final sign that he accomplished his earthly mission.
“The good news of the kingdom of God” includes the king taking his throne.
Christ’s ascension is thus the high point in his exaltation. The one who was lifted up on the cross-throne was also taken up to the celestial throne. The reed in his hand was replaced with the scepter of God, and the twenty-four elders cast down their crowns to replace the thorns upon his head (Rev. 4:10). Like David who was first anointed in exile before taking his rightful seat on the throne, Christ’s proleptic enthroning on the cross was made public when he sat down by the Majesty on high. “He who descended,” says Paul, “also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:8-10).
The Savior who rose now reigns on high that “he might fill all things” as king over the creation which he has reconciled to heaven by his blood (Col. 1:20). God has
seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things 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. (Eph. 1:20-23)
The entire universe is permeated by his divine presence. Ben Myers explains,
When the New Testament writers speak of the ascension, they are not describing Jesus’ absence but his sovereign presence throughout creation. He has not gone away but has become even more fully present. His ascent “to the right hand of the Father” is his public enthronement over all worldly power.
Christ “has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him” ( 1 Peter 3:22). The ascension “reveals a revised cosmic hierarchy with Jesus at its apex,” argues David Bryan, “that also anticipates the eschatological reordering of the world, leaving the hearer of the Gospel with a revised approach to life in a currently disordered world.” The eschatological reign has begun. We “seek first the kingdom” by living under the rule of king Jesus, in light of his soon coming, and for the purpose of extending his kingdom (Mt. 6:33).
The king will soon return to judge the living and the dead: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool’” (Ps. 110:1). The nations will kneel as an ottoman for the still-human Christ to rest his nail-scarred feet. The kingdom will come to its consummation in the new creation and Christ will dwell with us on the earth forever.
He Took Our Humanity to Heaven
The ascension is good news for sinners: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). “The exaltation of Christ, or rather his entry to heaven, is an essential part of the saving event,” contends I. H. Marshall, since Christ went “into heaven to offer his sacrifice to God to make full and final atonement for human sin.”
Having atoned for human nature by dying on the cross as our substitute, he then exalted our humanity by taking it to heaven. Being united to him through his Spirit, Paul can say that God has already “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). If Christ has ascended, those who are in him, united to him by faith, will rise also. “For by placing in heaven the human nature which He assumed,” writes Thomas Aquinas, “Christ gave us the hope of going thither.”
Having atoned for human nature by dying on the cross as our substitute, he then exalted our humanity by taking it to heaven.
As the God-man in heaven, Christ is uniquely qualified to serve as the “one mediator between God and men” (1 Tim. 2:5; cf. Heb. 2:17). The ascended Christ is king and priest after the order of Melchizedek. In times of trouble, we look on high and know that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn. 2:1). This is “our comfort,” writes Bavinck, that “a Priest-King is seated on the throne of the universe.” In heaven, Christ fulfills his covenant offices so that we may be saved to the uttermost:
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (Heb. 8:1-2)
Our assurance of these things comes at Pentecost, which Pope refers to as “the immediate proof of the verity of the ascension, and demonstration of the authority to which it led.” We know that Jesus has taken his seat beside the Father because he poured out the Spirit as he said (Jn. 16:17). In the ascension, we see Jesus as the greater Elijah who is taken up into heaven and sends his Spirit with fire to rest upon his disciples in power (2 Kings 2:1–18).2 Christ is present with us through the selfsame Spirit who seals to our hearts all of the covenant blessings which he now mediates.
As we come to him, we “are being built up as a spiritual house, to be a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 2:5).” As our High Priest in heaven, Christ mediates our offerings, cleansing them of any taint (Ex. 29:38) so that they are wholly acceptable to the thrice-holy God. “Through him then let us continually offer up a sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of lips that acknowledge his name” (Heb. 13:15).
Seek the Things That Are Above
The ascension is full of hope and comfort. Since the beginning, Christians have united around this doctrine, one of six articles of faith confessed in 1 Timothy 3:16: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.”
On Ascension Day, we behold the king in his beauty, and “seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Col. 3:1-2). Because Christ has ascended to heaven, it is only right that we should “put to death therefore what is earthly in you” (Col. 3:5). To direct our hearts heavenward is one of three reasons given by Aquinas for why it was fitting that Christ should ascend. Recovering this glorious doctrine is one step towards the much-needed retrieval of the Christological foundations for Christian holiness.
Recovering the glorious doctrine of the ascension is one step towards the much-needed retrieval of the Christological foundations for Christian holiness.
An uttermost salvation has been provided by our exalted Priest-King, and in that we rejoice. With John Donne, we “behold the Highest, parting hence away” with the happy knowledge that it is for us and for our salvation:
Salute the last and everlasting day,
Joy at th’ uprising of this Sun, and Son,
Ye whose true tears, or tribulation
Have purely wash’d, or burnt your drossy clay.
Behold, the Highest, parting hence away,
Lightens the dark clouds, which He treads upon;
Nor doth He by ascending show alone,
But first He, and He first enters the way.
O strong Ram, which hast batter’d heaven for me!
Mild Lamb, which with Thy Blood hast mark’d the path!
Bright Torch, which shinest, that I the way may see!
O, with Thy own Blood quench Thy own just wrath;
And if Thy Holy Spirit my Muse did raise,
Deign at my hands this crown of prayer and praise.
- While we typically think of Easter as a day (Easter Sunday), Easter has been celebrated throughout church history as a fifty-day period in the liturgical calendar. The Easter season or Eastertide lasts from Easter Sunday until Pentecost Sunday.
- See Walton, “Jesus’s Ascension through Old Testament Narrative Traditions” in Ascent into Heaven in Luke-Acts: New Explorations of Luke’s Narrative Hinge.