The ascension of Jesus is just not important for Christians—it isn’t, that is, if the importance of an event is determined by how many commemorate it. Even among Roman Catholics, Christ’s ascension does not seem to attract the same attention as the assumption of Mary. The latter commemoration, in fact, has acquired many of the characteristics of Jesus’ own ascension.
Coming as it does 40 days after Easter, Ascension Day never had the good fortune to fall on a Sunday. It is forever doomed to Thursday.
The Ascension also suffers at the hands of those who see the Resurrection as a myth. Without a meaningful doctrine of a physical resurrection of Jesus, the Ascension is the first domino to fall. No Resurrection easily translates into no Ascension. If the Resurrection only means that the early church glorified Jesus as the Christ in its preaching, then the accounts of the Ascension and Jesus sitting down at God’s right hand can only be further descriptive embellishments of the basic kerygma. Both Resurrection and Ascension would be myths contrived by the church to show that these earliest Christians began to think of the earthly Jesus in exalted, almost divine, terms. They would be parables teaching in unison that Jesus had become something special in God’s sight. Already 150 years ago, Friedrich Schleiermacher, the father of neo-Protestantism, saw both the Resurrection and the Ascension as unnecessary to demonstrate that God was present in Jesus.
The Ascension is, however, embedded into the church’s worship life as all the major Protestant and Roman Catholic confessions follow the statement in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus “ascended into heaven and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” It is not a later addition to the church’s faith; writing from Rome—probably before A.D. 70—Peter states: “For Christ also died for sins once for all … through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers subject to him” (1 Peter 3:18, 21–22). The outline of our Apostles’ Creed is clearly detectable.
In this century, conservative Protestant theology has been so concerned with defending the historical character of Jesus’ virgin birth and resurrection that his ascension has received relatively little theological attention. It is handled in only a few pages—sometimes a few paragraphs—in most traditional dogmatical textbooks. Frequently it seems that the Ascension is handled in such a way that it does little more than provide the best explanation of why Jesus is not with us today as he was with his disciples after his resurrection. Others emphasize it as a doctrine offering bereaved Christians comfort in knowing that the faithful departed are with Jesus.
But there must be more to the Ascension. Without denying the value and truth of viewing it as providing a haven for Christian saints, the church must see a wider dimension for this doctrine.
The early church never understood the ascension of Jesus as a departure ceremony for a beloved teacher traveling to a distant and unknown land. Rather, it was seen as a further step in his glorification, from which the church could only benefit. Luke, the only New Testament writer to give us a graphic account of the Ascension, also points out that after the event Christ was working with his apostles (Acts 14:3). For Luke, the Ascension did not mean that Jesus was no longer with them. Describing it, he gives no indication that the disciples were in any way saddened or disappointed. On the contrary, they were elated and glorified God. The Ascension did not only mean that Jesus had entered a new dimension. It also meant that through it they were going to participate in Christ’s universal reign through their preaching of the gospel. What God had been doing through Jesus in calling men to repentance he was now going to do through them.
The full significance of the Ascension is lost if it is simply viewed as a spatial event with Jesus going from one place to another. Such an understanding would mean that it would be merely a deathlike departure for Jesus—though of course under the more pleasant circumstances of being carried into heaven bodily. But, like those who die, Jesus would actually be removed from us. Such a view would mean that we could remember him, and that in his place in heaven he could be aware of us. But he would not really be present with us.
Along with his ascension, the New Testament writers just as emphatically teach that Jesus is still present with his church. Remember, only? Luke provides the historical details of the Ascension. The longer Marcan ending (16:9–20) is generally recognized as a later addition, even though it can be considered an adequate theological reflection of the primitive apostolic doctrine. The absence of ascension details in Matthew, Mark, and John can hardly mean that they saw no use in the doctrine. They all teach Christ’s return on the Last Day, and such a return is not plausible without something resembling the Ascension.
That the Ascension lacks attention only means the early church saw the Lord’s presence in their midst as a Christian truth as vital as the fact that through the Ascension he was no longer visibly present with them. Just as Luke could conclude his Gospel and begin the Acts of the Apostles with the ascension of Jesus, so Matthew could conclude his Gospel with Jesus’ words, “Lo, I am with you to the close of the age.” This is not a contradiction between conflicting Gospel traditions. Since ascension means removal from sight and not departure from the earth, just the opposite of departure is meant. The One who preached only in Palestine among the Jews is now preaching everywhere in his church.
The writer of the longer Marcan ending saw the harmony between ascension and Christ’s presence in his church: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went forth and preached everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that attended it. Amen” (Mark 16:19–20).
The Soviet cosmonauts probably intended to strike a blow for official Marxist atheism when they proclaimed from their first earth-circling trip that they had not seen Jesus or the apostles in heaven. But any search to the most distant part of the created universe will result in a similar disappointment at not finding the ascended Lord. The Honest to God bishop, John Robinson, made theological hay by proclaiming the demise of the alleged biblical view of the three-storied universe. Without a hell down there and a heaven up there, ascension as a spatial event becomes meaningless.
In referring to Christ’s descent to earth in the Incarnation and his ascension into heaven, the Bible is not speaking of change of a spatial nature, but of one of condition. Common expressions in our own speech include such phrases as “he is going up in the world,” or “he feels down.” Christ’s ascending into heaven and sitting down at God’s right hand mean he assumed control of the world for the benefit of his church. The apostle Paul describes Christ’s glorification as the subjection of all things in the universe to him (Phil. 2:9–11).
Ascension means not only personal glorification for the Messiah, but also for the church. The Resurrection is not only an event in history, but also it means that the Christian has already been raised with Christ. The Ascension follows the Resurrection, and it means that Jesus has taken his church with him into heaven to share in the glories he has received for his work of atonement. Christians have already died and been raised with Christ (Eph. 2:5–6), though from our vantage point in time our death and resurrection lie in the future. God, however, sees these events as having already been accomplished in Jesus. The divine and not the human perspective must be recognized as the superior and overarching reality. This gives Christian faith its confidence.
Ascension and Jesus seated at God’s right hand give tangible definition to the reconciliation that God, wrathful over sin, has accomplished in the Atonement. Our human nature, once alienated from God by sin, has been raised by Christ’s ascension to God’s right hand (Eph. 1:3).
In his ascension hymn, “See, the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph,” Christopher Wordsworth gave poetic expression to the dogmatic truth that God and man have been united in Christ:
Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand:
There we sit in heavenly places.
There with Thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels:
Man with God is on the throne.
Mighty Lord, in Thine Ascension.
We by faith behold our own.
Even though the ascension means the reality of Christ’s presence in the church rather than his absence, it also means that he is no longer visible to his church on earth. He simply is not present as he was before his crucifixion. But the different type of presence began with his resurrection, not with his ascension. For Jesus, resurrection not only means his body had overcome death, but that it was immediately assumed into glory. The risen Lord was no longer living in Jerusalem or anyplace else after his resurrection, but he had passed in one moment into the glory of his Father.
During the 40-day period between resurrection and ascension, Jesus came out of his glory to appear to his disciples and to eat, talk, and walk with them. In no way was he subject to the ordinary processes of human existence; however, for the benefit of his disciples he wanted to show that he had risen from the dead. His ascension was essentially no different from his disappearances during that 40-day period when he removed himself from their sight. This did not mean that he had gone somewhere. He appeared out of glory, and he returned to glory. But his final removal from their sight had to be so convincing that they would no longer expect him to return until his final appearing. Being lifted up from the earth and covered with the cloud, along with the message of the angels, was to convince the disciples that Jesus would no longer be visibly present among them.
There is, perhaps, some benefit in paying little attention to the Ascension, for it is just as important to believe that Jesus is still working with his church as it is to believe that he was removed from our sight. But even more important, Christians have already begun to share in his glory by being raised to God’s right hand in him.
David P. Scaer is professor of systematic theology at Concordia Theological Seminary in Fort Wayne, Indiana.
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