The Grand Farewell
But how? We scurry over it so quickly in the Apostles' Creed, confessing that Jesus "ascended into heaven." But what does it mean for us?
A door to heaven
Since the fourth century, the church has celebrated Ascension Day on the sixth Thursday (or fortieth day) after Easter. Some may see the ascension as a tearful event. Jesus bids "farewell" to his disciples, signaling he will no longer be physically present with them. The joy of knowing the resurrected Jesus may have seemed short-lived.
But the disciples were not dabbing at their eyes for long, for the ascension proved a better blessing. Paul says Christ ascended so "that he might fill all things" (Eph. 4:10). John Calvin pointed out that "Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us—a presence that had been confined in a humble abode of flesh so long as he sojourned on earth. … As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth." Christ's spiritual presence is with believers wherever they are, whether trauma centers or traffic jams or on troop transports. Now we always have Christ.
Our faith receives many benefits from Christ's ascension. Calvin, the premier theologian of the Reformation, listed three:
First, Christ opens the way to the heavenly kingdom. Christ's ascension inaugurates the kingdom of God. The "age to come" has come to Earth because Jesus has ascended to heaven. Like a fairy-tale Prince Charming, this real-life Prince of Peace has awakened his cursed and sleeping people and brought them into God's happily-ever-after. The way to heaven, blocked since the sin of Adam and blocked in our own lives because of our sin, has been opened—cleared by the work of Jesus Christ, through his obedience to God, death on the cross, resurrection, and ascension to rule with God.
Jesus has "entered heaven in our flesh, as if in our name," writes Calvin. So in a sense, as Paul says, we are seated with God "in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6). Or, as Calvin again writes, "We do not await heaven with a bare hope, but in our Head [Jesus Christ] already possess it."
Second, Christ has become our Advocate and Intercessor. This is a vital New Testament theme (Heb. 7:25; 9:11-12; Rom. 8:34). The ascended Jesus is our advocate or "defense counsel." More effective than Melvin Belli, he does not rely on procedural tricks or rhetorical eloquence, but still he changes God's whole way of looking at us by standing in our place. Instead of looking on our sin, God looks on Christ's righteousness. We are sinners, to be sure. But we are redeemed sinners. We are received by God's grace in Christ as God's children because of what Jesus did for us on the cross. We have one who acts on our behalf and opens the way for us to approach God without fear. Nothing could make us bolder! Nothing can fill us with complete confidence more than knowing that Jesus supports us and mediates for us in the presence of God.
Third, Christ gives us his power. In his resurrection and ascension, Christ was raised victorious over the evil powers of sin and death. As Paul wrote, "When he ascended on high he made captivity itself a captive" (Eph. 4:8, NRSV). Christ now sits on high, according to Calvin, "transfusing us with his power" while he "daily lavishes spiritual riches" upon his people.