Christ’s ascension turns humiliation into exaltation.
Christ ascended into heaven, an event we too often overlook, thinking it has little significance. The last thing we read in Luke’s Gospel, and one of the first things we read in his sequel (the book of Acts), is that Jesus ascended into the sky after appearing to his disciples in his resurrected body. As Luke records, Jesus led his disciples as far as Bethany, lifted up his hands to bless them, and while doing so parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Luke 24:51). In response, the disciples worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy (24:52).
Prior to Jesus’s ascension in front of his disciples, he appeared to two of his followers on the road to Emmaus (Lk. 24). Believing that he was the one to redeem Israel, they were perplexed as to why Jesus could suffer defeat on a cross. Their confusion only grew when they heard the tomb was empty. Rebuking these two men for their ignorance, Jesus responded, “Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” (Luke 24:26). Jesus then took them back to the Old Testament Scriptures and showed them how the entire Old Testament pointed forward to this climactic moment in redemptive history.
Peter makes a similar point in Acts 3:19-21. He tells his listeners to repent, not only so that their sins might be blotted out, but also that God might send the Christ "appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago" (Acts 2:20-21).
Both of these passages declare that the ascension was anticipated in the Old Testament as the very means by which the crucified Christ transitioned from his state of humiliation to his state of exaltation. The ascension, in other words, is the mechanism by which Christ is fittingly lifted up as the victorious king. As a result of this ascension, Christ now sits at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning over all (Eph. 1:20’21; Heb. 10:12; Mark 16:19; Acts 2:33).
The Puritan Thomas Watson drives this point home in his book A Body of Divinity. While on earth, Jesus lay in a manger, but now he sits on his throne. On earth, men mocked him, but now angels adore him. On earth, his name was reproached, but now God has given him the name above every name (Phil. 2:9). On earth, he was in the form of a servant (John 13:4:5), but now he is dressed in the robe of a prince and kings cast their crowns before his throne. On earth, he was the man of sorrows (Isa. 53), but now he is anointed with the oil of gladness. On earth, he was crucified, but now he is crowned. On earth, he was forsaken by God (Matt. 27:46), but now he sits at God’s right hand. On earth, he had no physical beauty (Isa. 53:2), but now he is the radiance of the glory of God (Heb. 1:3). Without the ascension, there can be no exaltation of our crucified and risen Lord. Without the ascension, the king returns victorious from battle, but no ancient doors open to receive him into glory.
Christ’s ascension assures us of our past, present, and future redemption.
Not only is the ascension the indispensable means by which Christ is exalted as Lord and king, but it also demonstrates that his priestly work of redemption is secure. We tend to think of Christ’s priestly work on our behalf as limited to the cross. However, Scripture says his priestly work as mediator continues in heaven (Rom. 8:33:34; 1 Cor. 15; Eph. 4; 1 John 2:1).
In his exalted state, Christ not only is our prophet and king, but he also continues to be our priest. As Hebrews 4:4 says, we have a "great high priest who has passed through the heavens." As high priest, Jesus doesn’t minister in an earthly tabernacle or temple like the priests of old, having to enter with the blood of an animal sacrifice. He enters into the sanctuary of heaven by means of his own blood (Heb. 7:27). As the priest who never dies but holds his priesthood permanently, he is "able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them" (Heb. 7:24:25).
What great news this is for those united to Christ by faith. Though our future glorification awaits us, already God has "raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus" (Eph. 2:6:7). What a comfort this is to the believer who struggles in the fight of sanctification [growing in holiness]. As John reminds us, should we sin (and we will!), we "have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1). Since our advocate is the "propitiation for our sins" (1 John 2:2), no one can condemn us (Rom. 8:1). Paul reminds us that "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" (Rom. 8:34). Therefore, nothing can separate us from the love of Christ (Rom. 8:35). Without the ascension we have no priest at God’s right hand, making intercession for us.
The ascension is also proof that one day we will be exalted to that place of glory where Christ sits enthroned. As a result of his ascension, Christ, through the Spirit, has poured out gifts on his bride until he returns (Eph. 4:7:14; Ps. 68:18; cf. Acts 2:33). But the day will come when, as Revelation 3:21 promises, God will grant to all those who have conquered the privilege of sitting with him on his throne. The glory God has given to Christ, Christ has given to us, God’s children (John 17:22). We long for that day when we enter into the house of our Father, a house Jesus is even now preparing for us (John 14:2). Christ’s exaltation most definitely is our exaltation.
Christ's ascension introduces a new era and a new state of affairs.
Writing on the ascension presents the potential danger of collapsing the ascension into the resurrection. We don’t want to turn the ascension into a mere exclamation point at the end of the resurrection; it’s important in its own right. It introduces a new era and inaugurates a new state of affairs, one in which King Jesus reigns from his heavenly throne. While the final consummation may await us, the start of this consummation has already been inaugurated in the ascension of our king. His exaltation is the firstfruits of the great harvest to come in the new heavens and earth (2 Pet. 3:11:13).
As Christians, we must affirm not only a physical, historical, incarnate Christ but also a physical, historical, ascended Lord. Christ’s physical absence does not leave us spiritually homeless. Though he has ascended into heaven to prepare a place for us, he remains present through word and sacrament. In the meantime, his bodily absence makes us long for his bodily return when he will restore all things and establish his new creation (Acts 3:19-21).
Adapted from Matthew Barrett “Goin’ Up to the Spirit in the Sky?: The Ascension Is Not What You Think It Is.” Modern Reformation, Mar/Apr 2016. Used with permission.