Ascension Matters

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Evangelical Christians often spend time considering all the benefits won for us on the cross and in the resurrection but spend little time pondering how the ascension further secures and confirms these salvific benefits. We typically give little thought to the question: How does Christ's ascension into heaven benefit us? (Heidelberg Catechism Q.49). In this post*, we hope to consider this very issue in order to better understand how central the ascension to salvation.

The general failure to understand the importance of the ascension for the life of the believer leads to a truncated view of soteriology and the application of soteriology. While there is always the looming danger that we existentialize the objective truths of Christianity, making them mere subjective realities, there is the opposite danger that we as believers fail to recognize that these objective realities that happened to Christ in history have occurred for the benefit of those who are in union with Christ. As believers, we cannot contemplate what God has done 'in the fullness of time' without our hearts being warmed. We recognize that Good has brought the benefits of this once-for-all work unto us in order to nullify all human effort, boasting, and self-glorification. Similarly, we cannot contemplate what has been done for us in the application of salvation, without immediately considering that God has accomplished the benefits in the once-for-all of the work of Christ at the center of history.

The Ascension as an Event in the History of Salvation

At the core of salvation history is the work of the Triune God in the death-resurrection-ascension[of Christ]-and Pentecost. This event complex is divided into the two states of Christ: (1) his humiliation and (2) his exaltation. While it is certainly true that Christ cried out on the cross "It is finished", referring to his self-offering as the sacrifice to pay for sin, Christ's role in redemption continues. Just as Paul might say about the resurrection "if Christ has not been raised...you are still in our sins" (1 Cor. 15:17), so too, we might say about the ascension "if Christ has not ascended into heaven itself, we are still in our sins." Even after the work on the cross, there remains the phase of Christ's exaltation in order to apply the benefits of redemption. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck has wisely stated, "Without application, redemption is not redemption" and "In his state of exaltation there still remains much for Christ to do."1 

The Ascension and Christ's Kingship in Glorified Humanity.

Hebrews is arguably one of the most Christological books of the New Testament. It is an exposition of the person and work of Jesus as the Son of God. From the very beginning the book of Hebrews is concerned with the reality of ascension of Jesus Christ and the implications that flow from this reality. We find the Son is the one whom the Father "appointed heir of all things" (1:2) and has now "sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high" (1:3). He is the Son ascended.

The Son in his humanity was at one time lower in status than the angels. But now, after his suffering death, in his humanity he has been exalted up and crowned to rule over them and all of God's creation. He fulfills the Adamic vice-regency and the kingly mediatorship that was given to David and David's descendants. The eternal Son now incarnate fulfills the role that God intended for all humanity in the first Adam. The point is that in the exaltation (both resurrection and ascension) Jesus Christ as a true man is crowned with glory and honor.2 It is this Son, in the experience of true humanity that the Father says "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet".

The Ascension and Christ's Appointment to Priesthood

Not only is Christ's ascension into heaven his coronation to kingship on our behalf, Hebrews gives attention to how Christ's session at the right hand of God fulfills his work as our high priest. He is fully designated and coronated as high priest. He is the high priest who has passed through the heavens (Heb. 4:15; 8:1-2). Jesus Christ can only enter the Holy Place after he has accomplished our redemption. "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 (Heb. 9:11-12).

The greater more perfect tent that Jesus enters is heaven itself. In the Old Testament "Day of Atonement" the sacrifice was made and then the high priest would proceed into the Holy of Holies to make intercession. So too with Christ, the blood of Christ was shed first so that Christ could go before the throne of God. Recently L. Michael Morales has shown how the book of Leviticus and the whole Pentateuch centers on the ascension offering at the Day of Atonement. The high priest is a cultic Adam who having offered the sacrifice "ascends" into the house of God.3 In the Septuagint, Aaron's Ephod was one of 'glory and honor,' echoing the Adamic language we find in Ps. 8 and Heb 2:6-8.4

The Ascension and the New Covenant.

The ascension of Christ guarantees to us that the New Covenant has begun. It is the oath of the priesthood given to him that makes him "the guarantor of a better covenant" (Heb. 7:22). Christ's ascension into heaven guarantees the oath is fulfilled. Christ is mediating the new covenant. Because it is into the greater tabernacle, the true tabernacle and not the earthly shadow, the ascension guarantees that Christ is mediating a greater covenant than the Old Covenant of the Law. "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, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man" (Heb. 8:1-2).

In the Old Testament, as well as Second Temple Jewish apocalyptic texts, heaven is the throne of God. It is the true sanctuary where the earthly tabernacle or temple is a copy of what was in heaven. Moses made it after the pattern he was shown in heaven. The one on earth is a shadow cast by the real tabernacle of heaven itself that God made (Heb. 8:5). We are assured then that Christ is the mediator of something better, a greater covenant than the Old Covenant, because he has entered in ascension to God's right hand. If the earthly tabernacle was symbolic of God's house with a throne is the holy of holies, then heaven is the place of God's true and ultimate throne. Consider the following passages out of Hebrews that speak to this:

"But as it is, Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises." (Heb. 8:6)

"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." (Heb. 9:11-12)

"Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant." (Heb. 9:15)

Christ is the greater covenant sacrifice by his death made on the cross but because he enters into the greater tabernacle, heaven itself, Christ's ascension has secured that the covenant is effective. To secure the effects of the mediation of the New Covenant the sacrificed one enters into the true tabernacle. The parallel to the Day of Atonement is striking: the sacrifice was made on the altar but then carried into the holy of Holies so that it could be placed before God's throne. So Christ dies on the cross but enters in glorified humanity offering himself before God in the throne room, 'cleansing the tabernacle' so we can draw near to God (Heb. 9:23-24). Even more, Hebrews overlaps this Day of Atonement imagery with the covenant inauguration imagery from Exodus 24. Just as Moses cleansed the people to put a covenant into effect, Christ cleanses us, entering heaven to sit down having finished his work (10:10-14). Christ is the greater Moses who has inaugurated the greater covenant in his ascension.

Whom Have I in Heaven But Thee?

"For, having entered a sanctuary not made with hands, he appears before the Father's face as our constant advocate and intercessor [Heb. 7:25; 9:11-12; Rom. 8:34]. Thus, he turns the Father's eyes to his own righteousness to avert his gaze from our sins. He so reconciles the Father's heart to us that by his intercession he prepares a way and access for us to the Father's throne." (John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, 2.16.16)

The Bible teaches us that we cannot enjoy a relationship to God apart from Christ's death, resurrection, and ascension. As a sinner, in order to be saved by grace, I need a high priest who has entered heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. God is the ruler who is exalted over all things, who 'reigns from heaven,' but we cannot approach the throne of his glory. We need the incarnate glorified Jesus to go before God the Father so that we might draw near to the Father.

The ascension is a beautiful doctrine. Its truth needs to resonate deep within our heart. It shapes our prayers and it defines our hope. We need to return again to understand the rich benefits of grace that flow from the fact that Christ has ascended into heaven on our behalf.

   

[1] Richard Gaffin, "Biblical Theology and the Westminster Standards," The Practical Calvinist: An introduction to the Presbyterian and Reformed Heritage, (Ed. Peter Lillback; Christian Focus Publications, 2002) 430. The first quote comes from Herman Bavinck Gereformeerde Dogmatiek (Kampen: Kok, 1976) 3:520 "Dempta application, redemption non est redemption" [Reformed Dogmatics, Vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2006) 523-4]; the second quote from Reformed Dogmatics Vol. 3, p.568.

[2] I have argued more extensively for  the Second Adam features in Hebrews 2 in Timothy J. Bertolet, "Obedience of the Son: Adamic Obedience as the Grounds for Heavenly Ascension in the Book of Hebrews" (Ph.D. diss, University of Pretoria, 2017) ch. 4, pp. 157-242.

[3] L. Michael Morales, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord: A Biblical Theology of Leviticus (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2015) 28-38, 167-184, esp. 175-6 & 182.

[4] Similarly, G.K. Beale has shown that Adam in the garden is both a king and a priest (Temple and the Church's Mission [Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004] 66-68)


*This is a digested version of a longer treatment by the author on the theological significance of the ascension. You can download the unedited version here

Posted May 10, 2018 @ 12:52 PM by Tim Bertolet

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