Evangelicalism, properly conceived, has been from the beginning cross and gospel centered. Even with the streams of pietism arising within certain circles, the historicity of the cross and resurrection have kept it grounded in the real world of God’s historical activity of redemption. More recently, evangelicals have paid more attention to the resurrection for the Christian life beyond just an apologetic Jesus’ crucifixion.
But let us consider this question: in all this does the doctrine of the ascension get minimized or neglected in our evangelical theologizing? Even more, while the cross should be central to the devotional life of the Christian, what role, if any, does the ascension of Christ in the devotional and worship life of the believer? Does the average believer understand the significance of the ascension for the Christian life? Far too often, one cannot help by wonder if the doctrine of the ascension is relegated to a sort of “and Jesus lived happily ever after” ending to the story of redemption.
This post will explore the theology of the ascension that the author of Hebrews lays before us and offer several suggestions for how this affects the believer’s devotional life before and with the Lord Jesus Christ. While we will not be able to trace all the nuances of Hebrews’ treatment of the ascension of Christ, what should be clear is that Hebrews treats the ascension of Jesus Christ as an equally important part of God’s accomplishment of redemption in and through the Son of God. To paraphrase from the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck: In the work of ascension there remains much for Christ to do.
Let us start by examining two passages that highlight the important role of the ascension in the book of Hebrews. We will begin with Hebrews 1:1-4—
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 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, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews is concerned with the climax of God’s revelation of himself in the person of the Son. This revelation began and continued through Old Testament prophets but now the history of revelation and redemption has reached a climax, an apex, in the ultimate revelation. God has spoken not ‘in the prophets’ but literally ‘in Son’ (1:2)—the unique person of Jesus Christ who participates and shares in all the divine glory of God (1:3).
In verse 3b-4, the main clause is “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” This heavenly session of reign and rule would, of course, have been impossible without His death (3b) and by extension his resurrection (7:16b). Yet Hebrews draws attention to the reality of the ascension as the element of climax to the ‘it is finished’ of the cross.
Here Hebrews draws on the Old Covenant day of atonement. If the Old Covenant needed a sacrifice of blood to be carried into the inner sanctum of the tabernacle, how much more does the New Covenant need a blood sacrifice that must be carried into not the earthly tabernacle but heaven itself (Heb. 9:11-14, 23-24).
Second, Hebrews itself tells us that the central focus of the book is the work of Christ in His heavenly ascension and session on our behalf—
Hebrews 8:1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.
We cannot make sense of the work of Christ if in the completion of the cross and resurrection, he has not ascended to heaven from where He is both King and Priest. The ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ is a part of the one event complex that brings God’s redemption to fulfillment. Cross-resurrection-ascent-session is the climax of eschatology as well as the accomplishment of salvation.
Thus, the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ draws the kingship of Christ into focus as it the eternal Son is coronated as the true human king reigning over all the Father’s creation. He reigns where kings like Adam and David have failed.
Following Scripture’s lead, Reformed theology has always divided the human incarnation of Jesus into two states: one of humiliation (up to and through the cross) and another of exaltation (resurrection and beyond). This is seen plainly in Hebrews as in ascension and sitting into heaven, Jesus is like a king who having conquered sits down to rule his kingdom, all creation.
The Son in the new phase of his humanity becomes “as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs” (1:4). In fact, his initial humanity was indeed “for a little while was made lower than the angels” (2:8) but now has been crowned in the coronation of His kingship:
2:7-9b You made him for a little while lower than the angels; you have crowned him with glory and honor, putting everything in subjection under his feet.”…9 But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor…
1:5 For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you”? Or again, “I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son”? [quoting Davidic enthronement passages; see also 5:5—the “begotten” refers to His appointment at exaltation]
Likewise the priesthood of Christ enters a new phase of exalted activity. We state it in this nuanced manner because (1) Christ’s death of the cross is an act of priestly mediation; yet (2) Hebrews clearly speaks of the exaltation and ascension as an appointment of Christ. Just as the king, who was king, is designated in His coronation as He ascends to take his seat, so also as priest, who was priest in his earthly ministry, ascended to minister in a new eschatological perfection of a glorified human state.
Christ is made a priest through oath having been gifted indestructible resurrection life (7:16-17). Thus a priest is appointed as a result of his perfect obedience (5:9-10; 7:28). So perfect is this mediation that it is not repetition of offerings and sacrifices—a regular standing to serve—but instead He enters having put away sin and sits down on our behalf (9:23-27). We submit, however, if Christ did not ascend their would be no offering of the perfected Savior’s blood on our behalf. If there was no ascension in the resurrection body, there would be no paving the way to heaven for us as a forerunner—and advance guard of glorification making it possible for the saint to become glorified and pass the judgment upon our death. Christ cannot bring his children to their glorious happy estate if He Himself does not first enter bodily into that glorious happy estate—ascending up into heaven as the “new creation.” In such state, all is put under His feet as He is at God’s throne. In such fashion, the offices of kingship and priesthood are intertwined.
Let us suggest three applications:
(1) The confession of Christ cannot be abandoned because there remains no other hope of salvation or climax of redemption to come. This, of course, flows from the argument of Hebrews. “14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (4:14).
Our context is not so different from what the writer human faced in his day. We too live in a day and age where Christ looses uniqueness in the eyes of those who profess. Too many Christian run seeking the new, the cool, and the hip in an effort to replace the excellencies and glory of Christ with novelties that are fleeting.
With a view to the ascension, our vision should recapture the beauty and glory of Christ. He is all I need. He is the perfect one, the reigning King. And yet in mystery of mysteries, he experience humiliation, death, shame, suffering all for us and our salvation. The Son of glory gave up the glories of heaven so that he might bring many sons to glory.
(2) The priesthood of Christ from heaven is the basis and ground of my confident hope in my prayer life. Hebrews says: “15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. ”
Because Christ has ascended, he is our constant intercessor and advocate. He grounds our assurance in all our prayers. As John Calvin somewhere notes, we are assured that the throne of grace is a throne of grace and not a throne of God’s wrath because of the beautiful heavenly intercession of the Son.
(3) My worship draws me spiritually into heaven itself where Christ is both my worship leader (2:12) and the worshipped One (12:22-24). When I pray, what is going on? Sometimes we feel like we are calling out into the darkness with only the echo of our own voices. The reality is that because of Christ’s ascension and because I am tethered to and He to me, my prayers are ascending into heaven and the presence of God. What is more, in the corporate worship of God we our spiritual entering heaven as our singing goes into heaven itself. This makes private and corporate worship something far more serious then most of us regularly conceive it.
In light of all these consideration we return again to our opening question: what role, if any, does the ascension of Christ in the devotional and worship life of the believer? Along with the whole of Scripture I believe the ascension of Jesus Christ is an essential element of the redemption work of Christ. It is a key element of the gospel as part of the one central event complex of the actions of the Messiah on behalf of His people. The Messiah who does not ascend bodily into heaven and reign is no true Messiah. If we might riff from Pauline theology on the resurrection, without the historical ascension our faith and our preaching is in vain, we are still in our sins.
Timothy Bertolet is a pastor, father, husband, Christian, loves Star Trek, Marvel, coffee and roasting, theology, and especially New Testament studies. PhD research: Hebrews. Now with beard. He blogs at http://www.thevoyages.blogspot.com. Follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet