The Ascension of Jesus Christ

Below is something I wrote 11 years ago, as a Coloured Supplement, but slightly edited and revised. As Easter was late this year, it means Ascension Day comes nearly in June. Something on Christ's Ascension seemed most appropriate. For Ascension Day celebrates such a fundamental reality.

Dealing with doubt

A theological disease of silly skepticism but of extreme proportions infected many churches, Protestant and Roman Catholic, in the 1960s. Its legacy is still with us, having seriously affected the wider culture. One contributing factor was a little book written in 1963 by John Robinson, a former Bishop of Woolwich, and entitled Honest to God. Chapter 1 started off by seeming to deny the Ascension:

"Even such an educated man as St Luke can express the conviction of Christ's ascension - the conviction that he is not merely alive but reigns in the might and right of God - in the crudest of terms of being 'lifted' up into heaven, there to sit down at the right hand of the Most High" (Acts 1.9-11).

But these arguments of the late Bishop of Woolwich were wrong. The New Testament writers were aware of figurative speech as much as we are. The "parables", after all, were the stuff of Jesus teaching. Nor is there real evidence in the New Testament of belief in a crude three-decker universe. Such comments on the physical universe, as we have, do not imply a belief in a structured spatial universe in which "heaven" is one part of space. In the Jewish intertestamental literature as indeed in Gnostic literature you had some such ideas. But in the New Testament there is an absence of cosmological geography. In the book of Revelation at the end of the Seven Letters to the Churches you read: "after this I looked, and behold, a door standing open in heaven! And the first voice, which I heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, 'Come up here …' At once I was in the Spirit, and behold, a throne stood in heaven, with one seated on the throne" (Rev 4.1-2). There was no journeying. It was, for the writer, life in an immediate, new, spiritual order. Certainly the early Christian Fathers after the Apostolic age had no illusions. Augustine of Hippo was clear. Writing of the fact that "Christ is seated at God's right hand," he says with regard to the word "sitting": "the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but judicial power, which the majesty never fails to possess."

Modern man has not been the first to discover the power and value of metaphors or figurative language. Most use spatial language metaphorically to suggest value. We regularly use metaphors of space to indicate superior or inferior position. We say, "prices are up and wages are down." In football you are in the "top half" or, if you are Newcastle United, in the "bottom half" of the Premier League. Need I say more?

The Ascension

The early Christians, of course, did not only believe in the death and resurrection of Jesus. As they said (and we today say) in the Apostles' Creed: "I believe ... he [Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." The Resurrection was wonderful. It made it clear that Christ was victorious over sin and death following his crucifixion. But even more good news is that Christ is now truly reigning and in control of everything in heaven and on earth. That is the message of the Ascension and his Session (or his being seated at the right hand of God the Father). The writer to the Hebrews, therefore, tells us to be ...

"looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12.2).

The Ascension was the last parting of the risen Christ from his disciples who had seen him alive after the Resurrection. The difference this time was in the nature of the parting. The previous description of such a parting in Luke's Gospel seems instantaneous (Luke 24.31). At the Ascension Jesus parted "as they were looking on" (Acts 1.9). The process could be observed to a certain point. A cloud came down, probably as at the Transfiguration of Jesus. That was when, together with Peter, John and James, "a cloud [which had signified in the Old Testament the divine presence] came and overshadowed them" (Luke 9.34). So now Jesus was drawn up into the cloud and the cloud did rise. However, while the other separations of the risen Jesus from his disciples were for a few hours or days only, this was truly final. There would be no new appearances (or none of the same kind). Never again was Jesus to be with his disciples in such a way that they could even eat with, drink with, and touch, him. This was a withdrawal of Jesus from the whole order of existence that we experience this side of the grave. It completed for Jesus that process of change from this current limited and finite state that began with his Resurrection. Jesus was, indeed, returning to his Father: "I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20.17). J.I.Packer says this "withdrawal had to take place somehow; and going up, down or sideways, failing to appear or suddenly vanishing were the only possible ways. Which would signify most clearly that Jesus would henceforth be reigning in glory? That answers itself."

Jesus Christ, therefore, returned to his Father not in the same way as he came. He returned as the "Word" having been "made flesh" - for ever united with human nature. But the Resurrection had so affected the physical side of Christ's human nature that his body, as recorded in the Gospels, was (even before the Ascension) independent of what we would call "the laws of nature". Now with his fully glorified body we may assume the change is complete.

The Session

The Session - "being seated at God's right hand" - began with the Ascension and is the true and ultimate fulfilment of Psalm 110, the most quoted part of the Old Testament in the New Testament: "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool'" (Psalm 110.1). Jesus had this Psalm in mind during the last week of his earthly ministry (Mark 12.36). The early Apostles saw its fulfilment in the Ascension. This comes out in Peter's Pentecost Sermon: "Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing" (Acts 2.33). But that Psalm 110 also talks of a "priest forever": "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek'" (verse 4). The New Testament writers saw Christ's Session, involving a present priestly role, as so vital. Paul says in Romans 8.34: "Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died - more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us." That means Christ, God the Son, is working with God the Father in our interest. He is the guarantor that what he died to secure for us will be ours. And Christ prays not as we do, often with a sense of uncertainty as to whether prayer will be positively answered. For he now has "all authority in heaven" (Matt 28.18). What he prays for is done! Jesus' "high priesthood" also encourages us to pray, with all our weaknesses:

"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are - yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need" (Hebrews 4.15-16).

Finally, the use of Psalm 110 by the Apostles invites us to see Jesus Christ now as truly victorious, being "high over" everything in our universe of space and time and in the realm of an eternity that is far beyond our weakest imaginings. In the ancient world, being at the right hand meant, of course, being the chief executive of the King or Emperor. Undoubtedly there is symbolic and metaphorical language being used, but in the words of H.B.Swete:

"the exaltation and glorification of the sacred manhood of our Lord, the exercise by him of all authority in heaven and on earth, the certainty of his final triumph over sin and death, are facts and the most potent facts in the life of the human race."

Christ the King

The throne imagery implies kingship. Jesus Christ is now "crowned":

"we see him [Jesus], who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb 2.9).

In the Parable of the Ten Minas Jesus suggested his Ascension was like being "appointed king" (Luke 19.12). Jesus told Pilate that he was "a king" (John 18.37) but that his kingdom was "not from the world". The early Christians were accused by their opponents of saying "there is another king, Jesus" (Acts 17.7).

As persecution increased, or was likely to increase, the more it seems believers were to focus on "the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer" (to quote the words of the UK Coronation Service). The book of Revelation speaks of the Ascended Christ as "the ruler of kings on earth" (Rev 1.5). We are also told that "on his robe and on his thigh he has a name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Rev 19.16). So when, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian at Rome was wanting to be called "our Lord and God" (Dominus et Deus noster), it was clear the early church had to proclaim that the Ascended Christ was over any blasphemous Emperor. But were these statements of Christ's kingship the empty claims made by men and women driven to despair? "No!" said these early Christians. "For Christ exercises a real kingship at the present time in spite of all the suffering." They knew that just before his Ascension Jesus had made that amazing claim: "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt 28.18).

Christ had exercised "authority" in his earlier ministry (with authority being not only the right to act but also having the necessary power). He revealed his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic man (Mark 2.10). He was seen to teach having "authority" (Matt 7.29). He had authority over the demonic (Mark 1.27). He delegated authority to his Apostles (Mark 6.7). And he had spiritual authority to "give eternal life" (John 17.2). What was new now was that the whole creation came within the scope of Christ's authority and power. All these previous claims to authority fall significantly short of this claim to have "all authority in heaven and on earth."

All authority in heaven

Paul writes about this heavenly authority in Ephesians 1.20-22 where Christ is said now to be raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father ...

" ...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 [God] put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church" (Eph 1.20-22).

Whatever these spiritual or eternal realities are, Christ is above them and "far above" them. Christ has a position that has no parallel in heaven. He is not the best of any angelic beings. He is the supreme Son sharing the Father's throne. So the Philippians were told (Phil 2.9-11):

"Therefore God has highly exalted him to the highest place and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father."

And "Lord" can stand for the divine name. So in heaven the Ascended Christ is praised by "thousands upon thousands" of worshipping angels:

"Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, saying with a loud voice: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!" (Rev 5.11-12).

The Ascended Christ is also Lord over evil spiritual forces. The early Christians could say, as we can and must:

"we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places" (Eph 6.12).

Christ, however, has ultimate authority over those evil forces. As yet the Devil is not finally defeated. He is "down" but not "out". One day he will be defeated. Revelation 20 speaks of "the devil ... thrown into the lake of fire and sulphur where the beast and the false prophet were, and they will be tormented day and night forever and ever." This, too, is beyond imagining in its fearfulness. It is a warning for us of the utter seriousness of evil; but a hope that one day it will be no more. As yet these evil spiritual forces are not fully "under Christ's feet". The struggle goes on. But Christ is the ultimate victor.

All authority on earth

What, then, does it mean to say that the Ascended Christ has all authority on earth? We learn that already "the Son" of God is the one by whom ...

"all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities - all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things" (Col 1.16).

But now we are told that "in him all things hold together" (Col 1.17); and "the Son," says Hebrews 1.3, "upholds the universe by the word of his power." That is not like Atlas of mythology taking the dead weight of the world on his shoulders. No! Rather the Ascended Christ is able to be a living dynamic immanence within the created universe. In his earthly ministry Christ had a unique power over nature. He did among people "works that no one else did" (John 15.24). Ascended there would seem to be no limit, now that his manhood is glorified.

The New Testament sees the Ascended Christ as a fulfilment of Psalm 8. He is the true fulfiller of human destiny. "Man" was made "a little lower than the heavenly beings" and everything was intended to be "in subjection to him." But "at present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus [the exception, at his birth] crowned with glory and honour because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb 2.7-9). We should never be surprised by the rise of modern science and human power. But in Jesus we can now see far more than the fulfilment of all that was intended for humankind (had it not been corrupted by human sin).

Not only physical nature but also rebellious human nature is subject to the Ascended Christ's authority. In addition to Psalms 110 and Psalm 8, Psalm 2 was important for the early Christians. When they were first attacked by the religious authorities - "their rulers and elders and scribes" (Acts 4.5) - they immediately thought of Psalm 2 and the words of "our father David" ...

"Why did the Gentiles rage, and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against his Anointed" (Acts 4.25-26).

Psalm 2 had spoken of "the Son" having "the nations" as an "inheritance": "you shall break them with a rod or iron and dash them in pieces like potter's vessel" (verse 9). So to the Church at Thyatira, in the book of Revelation, the risen and ascended Christ says:

"The one who overcomes and who keeps my works until the end, to him I will give authority over the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron, as when earthen pots are broken in pieces, even as I myself have received authority from my Father" (Rev 2.26-27).

That was said to a church not suffering persecution but to a church, like churches today, being corrupted by a false prophetess (an ancient equivalent of "plausible" modern Lesbian bishops). She "is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality" (Rev 2.20). There is no suggestion that this side of Christ's return, any violence should be used by the Church. The rod of iron was thought to be an iron tipped rod used by shepherds (forcefully) to direct their sheep. However, the prayer of the early Christians in Acts 4 was not for any "shattering" but that the Lord would enable his "servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness" and that God would heal and perform miracles (Acts 4.29-30). That was their exercise of power!

Conclusion

But this current reign of the Ascended Christ has a time limit.

"Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For 'God has put all things in subjection under his feet.' But when it says, 'all things are put in subjection,' it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15.24-28).

This "kingdom" that "Christ hands over" is to be distinguished from the "kingdom" the Son has with the father that "will never end" when, indeed, the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) is all in all. Until then there is, so to speak, this temporary break in God's plan for all eternity, caused by the reality of supernatural and human sinfulness. And Jesus Christ, now Ascended and reigning, our king and high priest, "the Lamb on the Throne" is the one to whom we can look for guidance, help, correction and forgiveness. Colossians 3.1-3 says:

"If then you have been raised with Christ, 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. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God."

Therefore, we should pray the Collect for Ascension Day which is this:

"Almighty God, as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so may we also in heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever."

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