Most modern Lives of Christ commence at Bethlehem and end with the Ascension, but Christ's life began earlier and continued later. The Ascension is not only a great fact of the New Testament, but a great factor in the life of Christ and Christians, and no complete view of Jesus Christ is possible unless the Ascension its consequences are included. It is the consummation of His redemptive work. The Christ of the Gospels is the Christ of history, the Christ of the past, but the full New Testament picture of Christ is that of a living Christ, the Christ of heaven, the Christ of experience, the Christ of the present and the future. The New Testament passages referring to the Ascension need close study and their teaching careful observation.
I. In the Gospels.
The Ascension is alluded to in several passages in the Gospels in the course of our Lord's earthly ministry (Luke 9:31,51; John 6:62; 7:33; 12:32; 14:12,28; 16:5,10,17,28; 20:17). These passages show that the event was constantly in view, and anticipated by our Lord. The Ascension is also clearly implied in the allusions to His coming to earth on clouds of heaven (Matthew 24:30; 26:64).
If with most modern scholars we regard Mark's Gospel as ending with 16:8, it will be seen to stop short at the resurrection, though the present ending speaks of Christ being received up into heaven, of His sitting at the right hand of God, and of His working with the disciples as they went preaching the word (Mark 16:19,20). In any case this is a bare summary only. The close of the Third Gospel includes an evident reference to the fact of the Ascension (Luke 24:28-53), even if the last six words of Luke 24:51, "and was carried up into heaven" are not authentic. No difficulty need be felt at the omission of the Fourth Gospel to refer to the fact of the Ascension, though it was universally accepted at the time the apostle wrote (John 20:17). As Dr. Hort has pointed out, "The Ascension did not lie within the proper scope of the Gospels .... its true place was at the head of the Ac of the Apostles" (quoted Swete, The Ascended Christ, 2).
II. In the Acts.
The story in Acts 1:6-12 is clear. Jesus Christ was on the Mount of Olives. There had been conversation between Him and His disciples, and in the course of it He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight (Acts 1:9). His body was uplifted till it disappeared, and while they continued to gaze up they saw two men who assured them that He would come back exactly as He had gone up. The three Greek words rendered "taken up" (eperthe) (Acts 1:9); "went" (poreuomenou) (Acts 1:10); "received up" (analemphtheis) (Acts 1:11); deserve careful notice. This account must either be attributed to invention, or to the testimony of an eye-witness. But Luke's historicity now seems abundantly proved.
The Ascension is mentioned or implied in several passages in Acts 2:33; 3:21; 7:55; 9:3-5; 22:6-8; 26:13-15. All these passages assert the present life and activity of Jesus Christ in heaven.
III. In the Pauline Epistles.
In Romans 8:34 the apostle states four facts connected with Christ Jesus:
His death; His resurrection; His session at God's right hand; His intercession. The last two are clearly the culminating points of a series of redemptive acts.
While for its purpose Romans necessarily lays stress on the Resurrection, Ephesians has as part of its special aim an emphasis on the Ascension. In 1:20 God's work wrought in Christ is shown to have gone much farther than the Resurrection, and to have "made him to sit at his right hand in the heavenly places," thereby constituting Him the supreme authority over all things, and especially Head of the church (1:20-23). This idea concerning Christ is followed in 2:6 by the association of believers with Christ "in the heavenly places," and the teaching finds its completest expression in 4:8-11, where the Ascension is connected with the gift of the heavenly Christ as the crowning feature of His work. Nothing is more striking than the complementary teaching of Romans and Ephesians respectively in their emphasis on the Resurrection and Ascension.
In Philippians 2:6-11 the exaltation of Christ is shown to follow His deep humiliation. He who humbled Himself is exalted to the place of supreme authority. In 3:20 Christians are taught that their commonwealth is in heaven, "whence also we wait for a Saviour."
The emphasis placed on the second advent of Christ in 1Th is an assumption of the fact of the Ascension. Christians are waiting for God's Son from heaven (1:10) who is to "descend from heaven, with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God" (4:16).
The only allusion to the Ascension in the Pastoral Epistles is found in the closing statement of what seems to be an early Christian song in 1 Timothy 3:16. He who was "manifested in the flesh .... received up in glory."
IV. In Hebrews.
In Hebrews there is more recorded about the Ascension and its consequences than in any other part of the New Testament. The facts of the Ascension and Session are first of all stated (1:3) with all that this implies of definite position and authority (1:4-13). Christians are regarded as contemplating Jesus as the Divine Man in heaven (2:9), though the meaning of the phrase, "crowned with glory and honor" is variously interpreted, some thinking that it refers to the result and outcome of His death, others thinking that He was "crowned for death" in the event of the Transfiguration (Matheson in Bruce, Hebrews, 83). Jesus Christ is described as "a great High Priest, who hath passed through the heavens" (4:14), as a Forerunner who is entered within the veil for us, and as a High Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek (6:20). As such He "abideth for ever," and "ever liveth to make intercession" (7:24,25). The chief point of the epistle itself is said to be "such a high priest, who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens" (8:1), and His position there implies that He has obtained eternal redemption for His people and is appearing before God on their behalf (9:12,24). This session at God's right hand is also said to be with a view to His return to earth when His enemies will have become His footstool (10:12,13), and one of the last exhortations bids believers to look unto Jesus as the Author and Perfecter of faith who has "sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (12:2).
V. In the Petrine Epistles.
The only reference to the Ascension is in 1 Peter 3:22, where Christ's exaltation after His sufferings is set forth as the pattern and guarantee of Christian glorification after endurance of persecution.
VI. In the Johannine Writings.
Nothing is recorded of the actual Ascension, but 1 John 2:1 says that "we have an Advocate with the Father." The word "Advocate" is the same as "Comforter" in John 14:16, where it is used of the Holy Spirit. Christ is the Comforter "in relation to the Father," and the Holy Spirit is the Comforter dwelling in the soul.
All the references in the Apocalypse either teach or imply the living Christ who is in heaven, as active in His church and as coming again (Revelation 1:7,13; 5:5-13; 6:9-17; 14:1-5).
VII. Summary of New Testament Teaching.
1. The Fact:
The New Testament calls attention to the fact of Ascension and the fact of the Session at God's right hand. Three words are used in the Greek in connection with the Ascension:
anabainein (ascendere), "to go up"; analambanesthai (adsumi), "to be taken up"; poreuesthai "to go." The Session is connected with Psalms 110, and this Old Testament passage finds frequent reference or allusion in all parts of the New Testament. But it is used especially in He in connection with Christ's priesthood, and with His position of authority and honor at God's right hand (Swete, The Ascended Christ, 10-15). But the New Testament emphasizes the fact of Christ's exaltation rather than the mode, the latter being quite secondary. Yet the acceptance of the fact must be carefully noticed, for it is impossible to question that this is the belief of all the New Testament writers. They base their teaching on the fact and do not rest content with the moral or theological aspects of the Ascension apart from the historic reality. The Ascension is regarded as the point of contact between the Christ of the gospels and of the epistles. The gift of the Spirit is said to have come from the ascended Christ. The Ascension is the culminating point of Christ's glorification after His Resurrection, and is regarded as necessary for His heavenly exaltation. The Ascension was proved and demanded by the Resurrection, though there was no need to preach it as part of the evangelistic message. Like the Virgin birth, the Ascension involves doctrine for Christians rather than non-Christians. It is the culmination of the Incarnation, the reward of Christ's redemptive work, and the entrance upon a wider sphere of work in His glorified condition, as the Lord and Priest of His church (John 7:39; 16:7).
2. The Message:
We may summarize what the New Testament tells us of our Lord's present life in heaven by observing carefully what is recorded in the various passages of the New Testament. He ascended into heaven (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9); He is seated on the right hand of God (Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 10:12); He bestowed the gift of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 4:9,33); He added disciples to the church (Acts 2:47); He worked with the disciples as they went forth preaching the gospel (Mark 16:20); He healed the impotent man (Acts 3:16); He stood to receive the first martyr (Acts 7:56); He appeared to Saul of Tarsus (Acts 9:5); He makes intercession for His people (Romans 8:26; Hebrews 7:25); He is able to succor the tempted (Hebrews 2:18); He is able to sympathize (Hebrews 4:15); He is able to save to the uttermost (Hebrews 7:25); He lives forever (Hebrews 7:24; Revelation 1:18); He is our Great High Priest (Hebrews 7:26; 8:1; 10:21); He possesses an intransmissible or inviolable priesthood (Hebrews 7:24); He appears in the presence of God for us (Hebrews 9:24); He is our Advocate with the father (1John 2:1); He is waiting until all opposition to Him is overcome (Hebrews 10:13). This includes all the teaching of the New Testament concerning our Lord's present life in heaven.
There are two questions usually associated with the Ascension which need our attention.
1. Relation to the Laws of Nature:
There is no greater difficulty in connection with the Ascension than with the Resurrection, or the Incarnation. Of our Lord's resurrection body we know nothing. All we can say is that it was different from the body laid in the tomb and yet essentially the same; the same and yet essentially different. The Ascension was the natural close of Our Lord's earthly life, and as such, is inseparable from the Resurrection. Whatever, therefore, may be said of the Resurrection in regard to the laws of nature applies equally to the Ascension.
2. Localization of the Spiritual World:
The record in Ac is sometimes objected to because it seems to imply the localization of heaven above the earth. But is not this taking the narrative in too absolutely bald and literal a sense? Heaven is at once a place and a state, and as personality necessarily implies locality, some place for our Lord's Divine, yet human person is essential. To speak of heaven as "above" may be only symbolical, but the ideas of fact and locality must be carefully adhered to. And yet it is not merely local, and "we have to think less of a transition from one locality than of a transition from one condition to another. .... the real meaning of the ascension is that .... our Lord withdrew from a world of limitations" to that higher existence where God is (Milligan, Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood, 26). It matters not that our conception today of the physical universe is different from that of New Testament times. We still speak of the sun setting and rising, though strictly these are not true. The details of the Ascension are really unimportant. Christ disappeared from view, and no question need be raised either of distance or direction. We accept the fact without any scientific explanation. It was a change of conditions and mode of existence; the essential fact is that He departed and disappeared. Even Keim admits that "the ascension of Jesus follows from all the facts of His career" (quoted, Milligan, 13), and Weiss is equally clear that the Ascension is as certain as the Resurrection, and stands and fails therewith (Milligan, 14).
IX. Its Relation to Christ Himself.
The Ascension was the exaltation and glory of Jesus Christ after His work was accomplished (Philippians 2:9). He had a threefold glory:
(1) as the Son of God before the Incarnation (John 17:5);
(2) as God manifest in the flesh (John 1:14);
(3) as the exalted Son of God after the Resurrection and Ascension (Luke 24:26; 1 Peter 1:21).
The Ascension meant very much to Christ Himself, and no study of subject must overlook this aspect of New Testament teaching. His exaltation to the right hand of meant
(1) the proof of victory (Ephesians 4:8);
(2) the position of honor (Psalms 110:1);
(3) the place of power (Acts 2:33);
(4) the place of happiness (Psalms 26:11);
(5) the place of rest ("seated");
(6) the place of permanence ("for ever").
X. Its Teaching for Christians.
The importance of the Ascension for Christians lies mainly in the fact that it was the introduction to our Lord's present life in heaven which means so much in the believer's life. The spiritual value of the Ascension lies, not in Christ's physical remoteness, but in His spiritual nearness. He is free from earthly limitations, and His life above is the promise and guarantee of ours. "Because I live ye shall live also."
1. Redemption Accomplished:
The Ascension and Session are regarded as the culminating point of Christ's redemptive work (Hebrews 8:1), and at the same time the demonstration of the sufficiency of His righteousness on man's behalf. For sinful humanity to reach heaven two essential features were necessary:
(a) the removal of sin (negative); and
(b) the presence of righteousness (positive).
The Resurrection demonstrated the sufficiency of the atonement for the former, and the Ascension demonstrated the sufficiency of righteousness for the latter. The Spirit of God was to convict the world of "righteousness" "because I go to the Father" (John 16:10). In accord with this we find that in the Epistle to the He every reference to our Lord's atonement is in the past, implying completeness and perfection, "once for all."
2. High Priesthood:
This is the peculiar and special message of He. Priesthood finds its essential features in the representation of man to God, involving access into the Divine presence (Hebrews 5:1). It means drawing near and dwelling near to God. In He, Aaron is used as typical of the work, and Melchizedek as typical of the person of the priest; and the two acts mainly emphasized are the offering in death and the entrance into heaven. Christ is both priest and priestly victim. He offered propitiation and then entered into heaven, not "with," but "through" His own blood (Hebrews 9:12), and as High Priest, at once human and Divine, He is able to sympathize (Hebrews 4:15); able to succor (Hebrews 2:18); and able to save (Hebrews 7:25). See CHRIST AS KING, PRIEST, PROPHET.
The Ascension constituted Christ as Head of the church (Ephesians 1:22; 4:10,15; Colossians 2:19). This Headship teaches that He is the Lord and Life of the church. He is never spoken of as King in relation to His Body, the Church, only as Head and Lord. The fact that He is at the right hand of God suggests in the symbolical statement that He is not yet properly King on His own throne, as He will be hereafter as "King of the Jews," and "King of Kings."
In several New Testament passages this is regarded as the crowning point of our Lord's work in heaven (Romans 8:33,34). He is the perfect Mediator between God and man (1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 8:6); our Advocate with the Father (1 John 2:1). His very presence at God's right hand pleads on behalf of His people. There is no presentation, or representation, or pleading, of Himself, for His intercession is never associated with any such relation to the sacrifice of Calvary. Nor is there any hint in the New Testament of a relation between the Eucharist and His life and work in heaven. This view popularized by the late Dr. William Milligan (The Ascension, etc., 266), and endorsed from other standpoints in certain aspects of Anglican teaching (Swete, The Ascended Christ, 46), does not find any support in the New Testament. As Westcott says, "The modern conception of Christ, pleading in heaven His passion, `offering His blood,' on behalf of man, has no foundation in this epistle" (Hebrews, 230). And Hort similarly remarks, "The words, `Still .... His prevailing death He pleads' have no apostolic warrant, and cannot even be reconciled with apostolic doctrine" (Life and Letters, II, 213). our Lord's intercession is He says as in what He is. He pleads by His presence on His Father's throne, and he is able to save to the uttermost through His intercession, because of His perpetual life and His inviolable, undelegated, intransmissible priesthood (Hebrews 7:24,25).
5. The Gift of the Spirit:
There is an intimate and essential connection between the Ascension of Christ and the descent of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit was given to Christ as the acknowledgment and reward of His work done, and having received this "Promise of the Father" He bestowed Him upon His people (Acts 2:33). By means of the Spirit the twofold work is done, of convincing sinners (John 16:9), and of edifying believers (John 14:12; see also John 14:25,26; 16:14,15).
It is in connection with the Ascension and our Lord's life in heaven that we understand the force of such a passage as "Lo, I am with you always" (Matthew 28:20). "He ever liveth" is the supreme inspiration of the individual Christian and of the whole church. All through the New Testament from the time of the Ascension onward, the one assurance is that Christ is living; and in His life we live, hold fellowship with God, receive grace for daily living and rejoice in victory over sin, sorrow and death.
Our Lord's life in heaven looks forward to a consummation. He is "expecting till his enemies be made his footstool" (Hebrews 10:13 the King James Version). He is described as our Forerunner (Hebrews 6:18), and His presence above is the assurance that His people will share His life hereafter. But His Ascension is also associated with His coming again (Philippians 3:20,21; 1 Thessalonians 4:16; Hebrews 9:28). At this coming there will be the resurrection of dead saints, and the transformation of living ones (1 Thessalonians 4:16,17), to be followed by the Divine tribunal with Christ as Judge (Romans 2:16; 2 Timothy 4:1,8). To His own people this coming will bring joy, satisfaction and glory (Acts 3:21; Romans 8:19); to His enemies defeat and condemnation (1 Corinthians 15:25; Hebrews 2:8; 10:13).
Reviewing all the teaching of our Lord's present life in heaven, appearing. on our behalf, interceding by His presence, bestowing the Holy Spirit, governing and guiding the church, sympathizing, helping and saving His people, we are called upon to up "lift our hearts," for it is in occupation with the living that we find the secret of peace, the assurance of access, and the guaranty of our permanent relation to God. Indeed, we are clearly taught in He that it is in fellowship with the present life of Christ in heaven that Christians realize the difference between spiritual immaturity and maturity (Hebrews 6:1; 10:1), and it is the purpose of this epistle to emphasize this truth above all others. Christianity is "the religion of free access to God," and in proportion as we realize, in union with Christ in heaven, this privilege of drawing near and keeping near, we shall find in the attitude of "lift up your hearts" the essential features of a strong, vigorous, growing, joyous Christian life.
Milligan, Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of our Lord; Swete, The Appearances of the Risen Lord; The Ascended Christ; Lacey, The Historic Christ; Lives of Christ, by Neander, B. Weiss, Edersheim, Farrar, Geikie, Gilbert; Fairbairn, Studies in the Life of Christ; Knowling, Witness of the Epistles; Bernard in The Expositor T, 1900-1901, 152-55; Bruce in The Expositor. Greek Test, I; Swete, Apostles' Creed; Westcott, Historic Faith, chapter vi; Revelation of the Risen Lord, chapters x, xi; Epesians to Hebrews; article "Ascension" in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes); Paget, Studies in the Christian Character, sermons xxi, xxii; Findlay, Things Above; article. "Priest" in Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (five volumes) (in New Testament), "Hebrews"; Davidson, Hebrews, special note on "Priesthood of Christ"; Dimock, Our One Priest on High; The Christian Doctrine of Sacerdotium; Perowne, Our High Priest in Heaven; Rotherham, Studies in He; Soames, The Priesthood of the New Covenant; Hubert Brooke, The Great High Priest; H. W. Williams, The Priesthood of Christ; J. S. Candlish, The Christian Salvation (1899), 6; G. Milligan, The Theol. of Ep. to Heb (1899), 111; R. C. Moberly, Ministerial Priesthood (1897); A. S. Peake, "Hebrews" in Century Bible; Beyschlag, New Testament Theol., II, 315; article "Ascension" in Hastings, Dictionary of Christ and the Gospels; article "Assumption and Ascension" in HDRE; article "Ascension" in JE; Charles, The Book of Enoch; The Slavonic Secrets of En; The Book of Jub; The Apocalypse of Bar; The Ascension Isaiah.; Assumption of Moses; M. R. James, "Testament of Abraham" TS, II, 2, 1892; Martensen, Christian Dogmatics.
W. H. Griffith Thomas