We know the story well. On many occasions after Easter, Jesus appeared plainly to many people, especially to His disciples. Then, about forty days post-resurrection, before their very eyes, He was taken up into heaven. But what meaning does this unparalleled event take on for Jesus’ followers, up to and including us? Like Jesus, we are born, but without a virginal, Spirit-conceived circumstance. Like Jesus’ life, we face tests. But we fail most of ours. Like Jesus, we will really die — unless He first returns — though our deaths lack any cosmic and sacrificial significance. Like Jesus, our bodies will shake off death’s grip, but only because Jesus Himself first conquered death. Those events connect significantly with our lives of faith. But how does the ascension and session of Jesus Christ impact our faith right now? What difference does this doctrine add to our spiritual lives? Please excuse the crass, straight talk, but I maintain that in the ascension, the human nature of believers gets a promotion. Let’s see how.
Long ago, Saint Augustine identified the tension of being in Christ and living on earth. He characterized it as a restlessness, unabated until we see Jesus face to face. Paul sensed that irresoluble pressure: “yet I am hard-pressed between the two, my desire is to depart,” as in leave earth, but to remain here, he concluded, is more necessary (Phil. 1:23). John sensed also that tension: “beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared” (1 John 3:2). As spiritual beings, we likewise seek transcendence that can be found singularly in Jesus Christ. We know we cannot physically levitate or bodily elevate ourselves to get to the higher place of communion with God, like that overplayed, trite but true gospel refrain of the 1990s, “Lord, lift us up where we belong.”
This restlessness is exacerbated by human sin. The Reformers taught that sin is never inactive and never gives us a break. When my son was seven years old, his teacher advised my wife and me to take him to a specialist to have him tested. She suspected that though he was scoring well academically he was showing traits of being, as she termed it, “hyperactive, attention-deficit disordered.” The more John Jr.’s specialist described his traits, the more I sense them in myself also, and in many people I know, and, come to think of it, the entire Christian culture. We are restless, impulsive, and easily distracted in our lives of discipleship. Some of this is Satan fanning the flames of original sin, and rendering us spiritually ADHD. We have a paradoxical impetuosity for more.
How does the ascension of Christ inform our best selves, our Holy Spirit-induced desire, our sanctified sense, that we were created for more, created to go beyond ourselves? A deeper understanding of this key doctrine will give us a clue. Jesus did not ascend primarily to gain exit from earth. I believe He went up in a way that transforms the human nature of believers, making us into “partakers of His divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).
Saint Paul’s letters have little mention of the Lord’s lifting-up because this teaching was indisputably established early as a core Christian dogma: simply, almost as a liturgical formula, the nascent church confessed that Jesus “was manifested in the flesh … proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, [and] taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). By the time John the Evangelist is marooned in exile on Patmos, his vision of Christ Jesus is not geographically defined by earth, but is enthroned in paramount glory, encircled by symbols of total strength: light, stars, and gold; with vocal chords like “the roar of many waters;” holding the keys of life and death, “and alive forevermore” (Rev. 1:9–20). There are yet some who drive false wedges between Jesus’ experience on the cross and the glorification of Jesus, but, if the biblical and historical Jesus Christ is the One in whom we believe, teach, and confess, we need to take another look. The theology of the cross is precisely the true theology of the glory of Christ. His purpose, His person, and His performance are seamless. When we try to separate God’s actions on Good Friday from God’s actions on Ascension Thursday, we risk getting stuck in a paralysis of analysis, or creating another god. The Father is one, His Son is one, and the work of salvation is one — not lopsided and lumpy. The whole sweep captures in a unity what Jesus did for us and for our salvation.
In my opinion, many Christians tip the balance on either the suffering side or the exaltation side. Some comfortably meditate on the Suffering Servant at the wondrous cross, but become awkward with talk of the King of Glory. In their discomfiture they miss Jesus when He is seated in the eternal sphere above and beyond the limits of time and space: “therefore know for certain that God made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:36). They also miss out on the personal faith benefit. Indeed, the contemporary Christian church remembers and teaches too little on this topic. Perhaps we forget that the right hand of God, the place of Christ’s session, is everywhere (dextra Dei ubique est). Christ’s reign is not locked to a throne in heaven. Think of the African American spiritual “He’s got the whole world in his hands.” From His right hand, Jesus’ rule is vested now with absolute authority. With an unflinching fist, Jesus the Judge will prove deadly to death and scorching toward the sneering Enemy: “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:40). And that, ironically, is where a largely unexplored blessing begins for believers.
As a fully human being, Jesus takes human nature, body and soul, to the right hand of God, and seats it and us with Him, in the place of greatest glory. Leo the Great, a fifth-century bishop of Rome, gentlemanly in character and sincere in spirituality, taught often of this sense of Christ’s rising through the ranks of angels and archangels into a realm never before traversed by human nature. Leo, in fact, suggests that the cataclysmic character of the creation’s Fall — when in Adam’s fall we sinned all — is not only reversed but is superseded by the ascension. We, who were little lower than the angels (Ps. 8:5), because of the ascension are now higher than angels, even judging angels (1 Cor. 6:3). Here’s the difference: because of the ascension of Jesus, the human nature of God’s people, their honor and glory, gets elevated to a status that is greater than what they ever knew prior to the Fall.
Dr. Kent Heimbigner, a Texas pastor, preaches profoundly and precisely on this point: “What we see in the ascension is the elevation of our human nature to be more than it ever was, even before the fall of mankind.” God not only reverses the curse, but glorifies the dignity of humanity, and by faith in the ascension of Christ, this gift belongs to us personally.
Yet our gaze now is neither toward our navels, nor skyward (Acts 1:11), but toward the close of this age. Jesus’ followers’ final picture of their Rabbi and Redeemer was on the eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives — the God-man was leaving them, but not without His blessing them (Luke 24:50). And He’s coming back in the same way, with blessing and power. Our eyes are fixed on this prize. Our faith bolts toward that “soon and very soon” day, when Jesus comes in unbridled, angel-escorted holiness. In a typically Greek way of speaking, Luke picks up the character of the gloriously ascended Christ. Aristophanes was cloaked with audacity. Homer was attired in strength. Plutarch was outfitted with dignity and riches. Our Lord is clothed with power! (Luke 24:49). Full of power, He will fulfill His promise to bring His servants into the fullness of where He is (John 12:26), and into the fullness of His kingdom.
Again, Saint Augustine, in the closing sentences of his massive City of God, describes the resolution of our restlessness as it is absorbed into a vision of glory, (and these words will preach): “There we shall rest and we shall see. We shall see and we shall love. We shall love and we shall praise. Behold what shall be in the end and shall not end. For what other thing is our end, but to come to that kingdom of which there is no end.”
With raw conviction we fix our faith on God’s Word: “we know that when he appears we will be like him” (1 John 3:2).