How important is the doctrine of the ascension? Most Christians would not rank it with doctrines like the death and resurrection of Christ, which are ‘of first importance’. But is this the right way to think about this doctrine?
The Scottish missionary Andrew Murray thought not. He said the ascension was ‘the most wonderful, the crown of all the rest … in the Christian life it is the most important, the glorious fruit of all that goes before’.
Murray is supported by the ancient creeds, of course, which give a leading role to the ascension in the drama of salvation: ‘He ascended into heaven’.
I am going to set out some of the practical spiritual blessings that come to us as a result of Christ’s ascension. There are also some thorny questions related to this doctrine. When did Christ ascend? Where did he ascend to? What sort of body did he ascend with? But I will leave these questions aside to focus on the practical benefit of the ascension of our Lord.
Firstly, the ascension is essential to perseverance in grace. This is because, as a result of his ascension, Christ has received from his Father the gift of the Holy Spirit that he might bestow that gift on us (John 14:16; Acts 2:33,38).
The Holy Spirit is called the ‘first fruits’ and a ‘first instalment’ (Romans.8:23; Ephesians.1:13-14). He, along with his influence in our lives, is the guarantee of greater things to come. He keeps us by his power that we might eventually receive the inheritance reserved in heaven for us.
The Spirit is the bond or tie between ourselves and the ascended Lord. The King may be physically absent but he is present among us and within us in the person of his Spirit (John 14:16-23).
Secondly, Christ’s ascension into heaven gives us assurance that we too will ascend to be with him. Remember that when Christ ascended he did so (as one recent author has put it1) ‘in the glorified skin and bones of our nature’.
When Christ first descended to be where we are, he did so to unite his nature with ours so that we might ascend to be where he is. Because of the unbreakable union between Christ and his people, we can be sure of being where he now is! This is Paul’s point in Ephesians 2:5-7.
Nor is our own ‘ascension’ just a future prospect. There is a sense in which believers already have the privilege of being seated with Christ in heavenly places — enjoying the victory and perspective afforded by that exalted vantage point.
By virtue of our being
inChrist we have been ‘quickened’, ‘raised’ and ‘seated’ withChrist. John Stott suggests that Paul is here thinking chronologically of three events in the life of Christ in which we participate — resurrection (‘quickened’), ascension (‘raised’), and session (‘seated’).
Christ Jesus was the first to ascend to the Father but he will not be the last! This is why Paul also calls him the ‘first fruits’ (1 Corinthians 15:20), for his ascension is the pledge of a greater harvest to come, the promise that many sons will be brought to glory.
Listen to Andrew Murray once again: ‘what we see in Jesus, will be made true of man … his humanity is the revelation of what we can be; his divinity the pledge that we can be it’.
Then we draw comfort from the doctrine of the ascension knowing that there is an unceasing stream of prevailing prayer flowing to our Father in heaven (Hebrews 7:25). Christ intercedes for us with all the sympathy of a fully human heart.
The compassion that wept at the grave of Lazarus, that looked with love upon the rich young ruler, and raised the widow’s son at Nain, is the same compassion that inspires his intercession for us now.
As minister (Greek
leitourgos, ‘worship leader’) of the heavenly sanctuary (Hebrews 8:1-2) our Great High Priest brings us into the Father’s presence, that we might present our offerings of worship.
Remember this when you gather for worship on the Lord’s Day — in your tiny church with few members and no earthly pastor! Despite your smallness, Christ is in the midst and leads you to the Father, singing, ‘Father, here I am and the children you gave me! I will declare your name to them!’ (cf.Hebrews 2:12-13). Because Christ is our ‘worship leader’ a service of worship in the humblest chapel is as great an occasion as in any grand cathedral!
The Lord is King
Fourthly, the ascended Jesus is the reigning Jesus. His visible ascension was evidence of his enthronement — a public spectacle celebrating his triumph over all his enemies and ours.
We must not think that at his ascension Jesus was somehow ‘spirited away’ and dissolved into the stratosphere. No! A real man, the same man that suffered for our sake, is seated at the right hand of God, invested with all authority in heaven and on earth.
This is prophesied in Psalm 24, which calls for the gates of heaven to be lifted up so that ‘the King of glory may come in’. In Psalm 68 the ascension is likened to a victory march where the King parades the spoils of war and ‘leads captivity captive’ (cf. Ephesians 4:7ff).
Many New Testament Scriptures speak of Christ ascending to ‘the right hand of the Father’, the position of honour, rule and authority. Here Christ is seen to be both Lord and Christ (Acts 2:33-36).
Christ is reigning in ascension glory and will deliver up the kingdom to the Father, so that God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Corinthians 15:20-28).The Lord reigns! That is the message of the ascension.
We need such a message today at the practical level. Islam is on the march. We see a rising tide of secularism, paganism, and atheism. The spectre of persecution looms. The church is weak and Christians are few. What is the answer? Christ reigns!
The Lord is King! who then shall dare
resist his will, distrust his care,
or murmur at his wise decrees,
or doubt his royal promises?
1. Gerrit Dawson, in
Christ Ascended, Continuum Press