Main Point: The much-neglected doctrine of the Lord’s ascension is a central doctrine of the Christian faith. The Ascension is a major theme of the New Testament, a central plank in the history of redemption, and indispensable to our Salvation and life in Christ.
Heidelberg Catechism (1563)
Q. 46: How dost thou understand these words, “He ascended into heaven”?
A.: That Christ, in sight of His disciples, was taken up from earth into heaven; and that He continues there for our interest until He comes again to judge the quick and the dead.
1. The New Testament Witness to the Ascension
As we look at the gospel of Luke we quickly come to the realization that the ascension of Jesus Christ plays a very important role in how he structures both his gospel as well as the Book of Acts. If we read Luke and Acts as a single work, as it is common these days, we see that there is not simply one account of the ascension but two. Luke concludes his gospel with the Ascension, and he essentially begins the Book of Acts with the ascension as well.
So central is the ascension that earlier in Luke 9, as Jesus begins to make his way to Jerusalem, Luke describes this decisive turn in the gospel narrative as the time, “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” Did you hear that? Luke doesn’t mention the cross – as crucial as that is (no pun intended). He doesn’t mention the resurrection – as important as that is. Luke sees beyond these two events to the Ascension.
Now to be fair, atomizing the various events in the final week of our Lord’s life can have the unwanted effect of separating and chopping up what is really a whole cloth. It is sometimes better to speak of the event from the Triumphal entry to the giving of the Spirit at Pentecost as a single “Easter” event. These events are interconnected and interdependent upon one another.
But it’s not just Luke who gives attention to the Ascension. This week I started gathering a list of New Testament verses that in some fashion or other speak of the Ascension and to my surprise I had quickly amassed over four pages of New Testament verses. It quickly became apparent to me that number crunching alone shows how important this doctrine is.
Now I’m going to spare you the tedium of laying out each and every verse, but do want to give you a sense of it’s place in the Apostolic witness of the early church.
Of the four gospels – and each one makes some reference to the ascended Lord – the Gospel of John brings it up again and again.
John 1:17-18 (ESV)
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
John 3:13-14 (ESV)
No one has ascended into heaven except him who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up.
John 6:62-63 (ESV)
Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh is of no avail. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life.
John 14:1-14 (ESV)
“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”
Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.” Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.
John 20:17 (ESV)
Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ “
Later I will bring in some of the numerous places where Paul speaks of Christ’s presence in heaven and the benefits we have through that. In 1Timothy 3, Paul is most likely echoing a very early confession of the early Church.
First Timothy 3:16 (ESV)
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness:
He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated by the Spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.
And as you heard in this morning’s call to worship, the ascended Christ is the central plank in his argument for the supremacy of Christ above all things.
Hebrews 1:3-4 (ESV)
He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews 7:25-26 (ESV)
Consequently, 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. For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
Hebrews 9:11-12 (ESV)
But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent ( not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.
Hebrews 9:24 (ESV)
For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
Peter as well speaks of the ascended Lord.
First Peter 3:21-22 (ESV)
Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
And finally, Revelation includes it in the vision of the woman and her child.
Revelation 12:5-6 (ESV)
She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne, and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, in which she is to be nourished for 1,260 days.
2. The Biblical-theological Design of the Ascension
Now with all this attention given to the ascension by the New Testament, it is only proper to ask what role does the ascension play in the overall scope of redemptive history? How does the Ascension fit into the overall story of the Bible? It may surprise us to learn that the Ascension was an important issue in the Old Testament. In fact, we may actually be able to say that the Ascension of the Messiah was one of the great longings of the Old Covenant.
To get a sense of this, we must first go the Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians and one of the most important texts regarding the resurrection in chapter 15.
First Corinthians 15:42-49 (ESV)
What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body. If there is a natural body, there is also a spiritual body. Thus it is written, “The first man Adam became a living being”; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven.
There are a couple of very important things to notice here:
God designed man for development, for maturity; he planned that mankind would move forward towards the new creation, forward in maturity, from glory to greater glory. When God breathed into man the breath of life, it was a type and foreshadowing of the fully Spirit-filled, resurrected, and transfigured body.
Now sin interrupted this when Adam and Eve fell by eating from the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.” Instead of trusting God and maturing through faith-filled obedience (the obedience of faith as Paul calls it in Romans 1). Throughout the Old Testament the phrase “knowledge of good and evil” is always associated with kingship and the wisdom of making judgments as a king (1Kings 3:9; Deut. 4:1-8; 2Sam. 14:17; etc.).
The “knowledge of good and evil” is something good and it was something to be attained — but only through maturation and growth. And that’s where Adam and Eve failed. Implied in all of this is the idea that had they continued in faith and obedience towards God, they would have grown in maturity and judgment and God would have granted them greater privilege in passing judgment, they would have grown — thinking God’s thoughts after Him and so ascending and joining God on his throne. In Adam, the whole creation would have been transfigured to become the New Creation.
But instead, they rebelled and asserted their autonomy. They ate presumptuously — bypassing the tree of life.
But this is also one of the reasons why the Son of God became man. Christ came as the Second Adam in order to get creation back on track again, to bring us the consummation the First Adam failed to accomplish. This is why the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness by Satan is so important to the gospel writers. Christ did what Adam failed to do in resisting temptation, forsaking his own will for that of his Father’s — in faith committing himself fully to his Father in faith (as Peter tells us). Christ’s Ascension is God’s guarantee and promise to us that the whole creation will be renewed and transfigured.
The importance of the Ascension cannot be overestimated. The great hope of the Old Covenant was that the Messiah would come, that He would ascend the Throne to rule as Man over creation. This is Peter’s point in his sermon at Pentecost in Acts 2:
Acts 2:29-36 (ESV)
“Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,
” ‘The Lord said to my Lord,
Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.”
This expectation is most clearly foretold in the Old Testament in Daniel 7
Daniel 7:13-14 (ESV)
I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed.
The background to this imagery is Genesis 1. The beasts of the fifth and sixth day were subjected to the rule and dominion of man — the apex of the creation week. Adam was given the job to name the creatures — an act of supremacy. When Adam and Eve listened to the serpent they fell from their privileged status. They were removed from the garden and became like animals — wearing the skins of animals.
But remember we move from glory to glory in God’s plan of redemption. So after the flood we see that man is raised again to rule and the fear of man is set upon all animals.
These images shape the narrative of Daniel. Nebuchanezzer was like Adam – a “king of kings, to whom the God of heaven has given the kingdom, the power, and the might, and the glory.” Yet through pride, he was judged and became like an animal.
In Daniel the “Son of man” is a figure for the whole nation of Israel. This passage is the assurance to God’s people in exile that they will yet realize the purpose for which Man was created: They will ascend to universal dominion as the Son of Man — i.e. Adam.
That was the hope; that was the expectation. These hopes, these expectations eventually become expressly and concretely realized in the true Son of Man — the self-designated title of our Lord Jesus Christ. When Christ began his earthly ministry he announced himself as the “Son of Man” and at a most crucial time in his trial we see that Christ very consciously identifies himself and his ministry with the prophecy in Daniel 7:
Matthew 26:63-64 (ESV)
But Jesus remained silent. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
You see, in ourselves, we can never ascend to heaven. We can never assume the rule that our first parents lost. But in Jesus Christ, the message of Paul is that we already have ascended there.
Ephesians 1:20-22 (ESV)
that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church
Ephesians 2:6 (ESV)
and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus
Do you hear what Paul is saying? We are raised up and seated with him. This is a present reality.
3. The Practical Import of the Ascension
Q. 49: Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?
A.: First, that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven; secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, as the head, will also take up to Himself, us, His members; thirdly, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we “seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God, and not things on earth.”
Wayne [contact him] is the pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Des Moines, Iowa. He earned a Master of Arts degree in Classical Literature from Ohio State University before getting his Master of Divinity degree from Covenant Theological Seminary (’97). Before planting a church in Des Moines he served as an Associate Pastor at Grace Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana.