The Ascension of Christ

Easter has come to an end.  If anyone is keeping track, the next event on the calendar is Pentecost.  This marks the coming of the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Old Testament (OT) prophecy fifty days after “…he parted from them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51b; Acts 2:17-21; cf Joel 2:28-32a, ESV).  Pentecost remains a major turning point in redemptive history, probably second only to Christ’s first advent from our New Testament perspective.  There is one more big event still future that ushers in a whole new cosmos, but I digress from the subject.  Tangents are necessary to explore in Trigonometry, but they tend to detract from the main in writing and/or public speaking.

Jesus’ resurrection is the main event of Easter, and it provides the bedrock and impetus for gospel witness (1 Corinthians 15:17-18, ESV).  His rising from the dead fulfills OT Scripture, which points to an overall purpose or plan (1 Cor. 15:3-4; Ephesians 1:9-10, ESV).  Because the Son of God rose from the dead, the apostle Paul argues that all those in him will rise from the dead at his second coming (1 Cor. 15:22-23, ESV).  This is a glorious truth that encourages believers in their walk with Christ while grounding their assurance in him who will remain with us to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20; 1 Thessalonians 4:18, ESV).  It is wonderful and essential for the body of Christ to embrace the reality of our Savior’s resurrection and all of its implications.

Now, I must confess that exploring the practical implications of Christ’s resurrection for believers is not the subject of this post.  I apologize if that pops the balloons of my readers.  I want to explore another truth connected to Christ’s resurrection known as the ascension.  In my mind, this fact ends up lost in the shuffle between his first and second comings.  I am not saying that Christians do not know that Jesus ascended to heaven.  What I am saying is that this teaching winds up on the back burner.  For whatever the reason, Christ’s ascension does not receive the same attention like the other aspects of his earthly life.  The more I study the New Testament (NT) letters, the more I see the ascension every bit as important as the Lord’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.

In the opening verses to the book of Hebrews, the NT author includes the following statement: “…After making purification for sins, [Jesus] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Hebrews 1:3b,ESV).  I see this passage as an example of brevity.  The writer of Hebrews compresses Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and ascension into one sentence by presupposing the middle two events.  This places the emphasis on his atoning death and his ascension into heaven.  Both are central to the main thrust of the letter to the Hebrews, but I’m not attempting a commentary on it.  The main point that I want to stress is that Hebrews 1:3 depicts the power and authority intrinsic to Christ during his present session in heaven and into the age to come.

Jesus is no longer in a state of humiliation like he was during the incarnation (Philippians 2:7-8, ESV).  Instead, the suffering servant is “…high and lifted up, and…exalted…” in total fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, which predates Christ’s earthly ministry by 700-800 years (Isaiah 52:13, ESV).  Why is this important enough to devote an entire entry to it?  For starters, the Scriptures proclaim Christ’s exaltation.  Second, this inaugurates the first stage of his victory over his enemies: Satan, sin, death, and the grave.  Lastly, Christ’s ascension paved the way for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Here is a key passage penned by the apostle Paul, which touches upon those three points:                

8. “…When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”  (9. In saying, ‘He ascended,’ what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth?  10. He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. {Ephesians 4:8-10, ESV})

Time and space are running out on me in order to do justice to this dense Pauline text.  At the very least, I can attempt a brief flyover of the terrain.  If one has a decent, modern translation of the Bible with cross-references, then one will discover that the eighth verse is an OT quotation of Psalm 68:18.  This illustrates the point that the OT and NT teach Christ’s ascension.  Another way to say this is that the OT predicts the ascension while the NT presents its fulfillment in the person of Christ.  The Spirit of God inspires the apostle Paul to draw out this connection between the two testaments.  Wait, there’s more.

When the eighth verse says, “he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men,” this depicts Christ’s ascension resembling a victory procession with prisoners of war behind him.  One of the key indicators for this is right in the text itself.  According to the ESV Study Bible cross-reference for the clause, “…led a host of captives…,” this alludes to an OT passage in Judges 5:12b, which states, “…arise, Barak, lead away your captives.”  This leads to the following two points.  First, the context of Judges chapter five is that it is a song of praise by Deborah and Barak to the Lord for leading them to victory Israel’s enemies.  Their victory was so decisive that Israel had rest for forty years (Judges 5:31b, ESV).   Second, King David, who wrote the sixty-eighth Psalm, applies Judges 5:12 to a divine, Messianic figure who ascends to heaven in victory.

Now, let me see if I can tie together all of these loose ends.  In the days of the judges, Deborah and Barak deliver Israel from their enemies, which ushers in forty years of rest.  Hundreds of years later, King David comes along and composes a Psalm where he alludes to this triumphant victory in Judges as heralding a greater one to come involving a personage of importance, who ascends to heaven in triumph.  Nearly a thousand years after David, the apostle Paul sees the connection being made by his spiritual forbear and proclaims its fulfillment in Christ.  I contend that this is an example of progressive revelation.  An appropriate analogy to use is seed, sapling, and tree.  Judges 5:12 is the seed, Psalm 68:18 is the sapling, and then Ephesians 4:8 is the tree.  The first stage of Christ’s victory over Satan, sin, death, and the grave is a past event due to his ascension and exaltation.  All that remains is his second advent, which completes the last stage.

Finally, because Jesus ascended into heaven, the Spirit came down in full at Pentecost.  It was all part of the plan. The gospel of John records Jesus explaining this reality to his apostles on the eve of his suffering and death:

“Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you.  But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7, ESV).

It is never easy to say goodbye, but in this case, it is more like see you soon.  Nearly all of the apostles faced martyrdom in their lives.  Each one is in the Lord’s presence in heaven; however, there is another point that bears mentioning (2 Corinthians 5:8, ESV).  I believe that the coming of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost enabled the apostles to make sense out of Jesus telling them “I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20b, ESV).  This statement represents the height of cruelty if the apostles did not understand what bible scholars and ministers today call the trinity.  Jesus’ words presuppose that the apostles understood that the Holy Spirit and he had things in common.  The apostle Peter reveals this in his first letter where he identifies the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of Christ (1 Peter 1:11, ESV).  In the book of Acts, Luke calls him the Spirit of Jesus (Acts 16:7, ESV).

Christ’s ascension is a key doctrine of the Bible.  It might not carry the same exact, gospel weight as his bodily resurrection; yet, it occupies an important place.  Pentecost flows from the ascension, which gifts the church for witness and ministry.  The ascension points to his future, second coming.  It sets the stage for the final act.  Like all dramas, the last part tends to offer the most suspense, conflict, and reward.  This is where the questions and problems find their answers and solutions.  Human history is on its way toward the grand climax.  If there is one takeaway that comes to mind, then it is the importance of reaching the lost sheep.  The church has been given the gospel, which is the power of God unto salvation, and the Holy Spirit in order to fulfill the Great Commission.  Christ’s ascension and exaltation are the exclamation points about his power and authority over all things.  It is time to live like it.



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