When we refer to the ascension of Christ, we are speaking of His glorious withdrawal as to His bodily presence from the earth and His entrance into heaven itself.
The subject will be considered under the following headings:
Prophecy regarding His Ascension.
Pronouncements of the Lord Jesus in relation to His Ascension.
The Reality of His Ascension.
The Results of His Ascension
For the Lord Jesus Himself
Our Response to His Ascension.
PROPHECY REGARDING HIS ASCENSION
In the Old Testament we see typical illustrations of a real man in the glory and David, for one, could speak prophetically of the exaltation of Christ at God’s right hand, "The LORD said unto my Lord, Sit Thou at My right hand, until I make Thine enemies Thy footstool" Ps.110.1. Nevertheless there would appear to be only one direct prophecy in the Old Testament as to the ascension of the Messiah, and this is to be found in Psalm 68.
Psalm 68 is the "Victory Psalm". This magnificent Psalm traces God’s march to victory, linking past victories connected with Israel to the future and final victory of God. The Messianic passage is v.18, "Thou hast ascended on high, Thou hast led captivity captive: Thou hast received gifts for men." Historically the reference is to the day when David "brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-edom into the city of David" 2 Sam.6.12. The expression "ascended on high" originally had in view the Ark of the Covenant being conducted to the summit of Mt. Zion. But although the Psalm has its historical roots in the Old Testament, its doctrinal fruits are seen in the New Testament. Thus Paul in Eph.4.8 interprets the three statements as follows:
"When He ascended up on high" – the ascension of the victorious Christ;
"He led captivity captive" – the defeat of the enemy, the annulling of the opposition;
"and gave gifts unto men" – the allocation of gifts to the church.
In this third clause there is a slight change from the wording of Psalm 68. However, the language of Peter on the Day of Pentecost answers directly to the wording of the Psalm, "Thou hast received gifts", for he states that Christ, as exalted, "received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost" Acts 2.33. The exalted Man, Christ Jesus, had received gifts which were to be distributed among men.
PRONOUNCEMENTS OF THE LORD JESUS IN RELATION TO HIS ASCENSION
It is the Gospel of John that gives to us His own statements regarding the truth of His ascension. The Lord Jesus says to His own murmuring disciples, "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where He was before?" Jn.6.62. Soon would the Son of God return to that sphere of unmingled blessedness from whence He came, but He would return there as "the Son of man." It should be noted that the Lord Jesus did not positively declare that these murmurers should "see" Him as He ascended, but He merely asked them if they would be offended at such a sight, "What and if ye shall see?" It is interesting to note how the ascension of Christ is made typically prominent in the earlier part of John ch.6 where we read "Jesus went up into a mountain", v.3, and "He departed again into a mountain Himself alone" v.15.
After His resurrection He said to Mary Magdalene, "Touch Me not; for I am not yet ascended to My Father" Jn.20.17. These words are frequently misinterpreted and wrongly applied to a secret ascension of which Scripture knows nothing. To insist that this is a reference to the presentation of the value of His work before the throne of God, prior to His "official" ascension forty days later (in order to fulfil the type of The Day of Atonement) is not in keeping with the teaching of the rest of the New Testament. In the context, the Lord Himself indicated to Mary Magdalene that His ascension would take place shortly, but "not yet", and that this would change her relationship to Him. It would no longer be a tangible, physical presence, "Touch Me not", but a spiritual presence.
"I ascend (it should be noted that here in the Gospel of John, it is in His own intrinsic power) unto My Father, and your Father; and to My God, and your God." He did not say, "I ascend unto our Father" since His Sonship is distinct and unique. The details regarding the ascension of Christ are not given by John, the reason being, perhaps, that in his Gospel, Christ is viewed as being "in the bosom of the Father" Jn.1.18 and as dwelling in heaven whilst still on earth, Jn.3.13.
THE REALITY OF HIS ASCENSION
The ascension of Christ was actual, literal and visible. There is no reference to His ascension in the Gospel of Matthew; Matthew tells us only of His death, His burial and His resurrection. This Gospel presents the portrait of a King and His kingdom; it is therefore fitting that Matthew should conclude his Gospel with the King on earth among His people. However, Mark in his Gospel takes us a stage further and relates Christ’s ascension; he sums it up in the brief statement, "He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God" Mk.16.19. The word "received" may simply be rendered "taken"; however, Paul says He was "received up in[to] glory" 1 Tim.3.16.
The first part of the statement, "He was received [taken] up" was open to the visual observation of the disciples; however, the second part, "and sat down on the right hand of God" had to be received by faith. It is well known that the object of Mark in his Gospel is to present Christ as Jehovah’s Perfect Servant and we might question whether "the right hand of God" is the place for the Servant, surely it is the place for the Son! However, Mark is very careful, as he writes under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, to guard the Sonship of Christ and he commences his Gospel with the words "The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God" 1.1. After all, it is only true sons who can serve. Mark, in keeping with the theme of his Gospel, adds at the end, "And they went forth, and preached every where, the Lord working with them, and confirming the word with signs following" 16.20. Although ascended, He is still the active Servant.
Luke’s record in his Gospel is full of spiritual suggestion. As the Shepherd, "He led them out as far as to Bethany" Lk.24.50. The memories of this place must have been fragrant to the Lord Jesus; it was here that He was loved and worshipped. There seems to be emphasis upon the words "He led them out"; His last act was to show to His own that He would no longer be associated with a system that had sent Him to the cross.
As the Priest, "He lifted up his hands, and blessed them" Lk.24.50, suggesting to them the service He was soon to take up from His place on high. Christ did not officially become Priest until He took His place at the right hand of God, but there were priestly features about Him when He was here upon earth and it is fitting that this act is recorded by Luke, for Luke’s Gospel is the priestly gospel. It is most appropriate therefore that there are more references to the Lord Jesus praying in this gospel than in any other gospel.
Then "while He blessed them, He was parted from them" Lk.24.51. In Greek the active voice is employed, so these words are literally "He parted (separated) from them"; "and carried up into heaven". The Greek word translated "carried up" is used of leading a person up to a higher place. The ascension of the Lord Jesus produced worship, "And they worshipped Him" Lk.24.52. It should be observed that the bodily presence of Christ is not necessary in order that His people might worship Him. His ascension also gave rise to joy, "and returned to Jerusalem with great joy" Lk.24.52. A right appreciation of the ascension of Christ will have the same effect upon the Lord’s people today.
Luke furnishes us with further details in his later treatise, the Book of the Acts. It is here that we learn that a period of forty days (frequently in the Scriptures a period of testing, trial or approbation) elapsed between His resurrection and His ascension, "being seen of them forty days" Acts 1.3. Four times in Acts chapter 1, Luke says "He was taken up"; in each case it is the same Greek word as used by Mark in 16.19 but translated "received up".
The disciples’ thoughts of the immediate setting up of a manifest kingdom, "Lord, wilt Thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?" Acts 1.6, were eclipsed with the promise of present power, "ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you" Acts 1.8, and the plan outlined for their future service, "and ye shall be witnesses unto Me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth" Acts 1.8. There was also the prospect of Christ’s future return in glory, "this same Jesus, which is taken up into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven" Acts 1.11. Indeed Zechariah had prophesied, "His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives, which is before Jerusalem on the east, and the mount of Olives shall cleave in the midst thereof toward the east and toward the west" Zech.14.4.
Luke tells us, "a cloud received Him out of their sight" Acts 1.9, and this literally means "a cloud bore Him up". This was no ordinary cloud, it was the Shekinah cloud of God’s presence. It should be noted that the Aramaic word "Shekinah" is not found in the Scriptures but it means literally "residence" and was used by later Jews to express the visible Divine Presence.
There is recorded in the Book of the Acts the preaching of three principal men, namely Peter, Stephen and Paul, which confirms the great event of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God. Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, preached that the Lord Jesus had been exalted to the right hand of God, "Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted" Acts 2.33. Again, before the rulers of Israel, Peter declared, "Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour" Acts 5.31.
The message of Stephen is brought to a climax with the great truth of a man in the glory, "I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God" Acts 7.56. Paul, when recounting his conversion, testifies to the fact as he "was nigh unto Damascus … there shone from heaven a great light round about me. And I … heard a voice saying unto me, Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou Me? … I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutest" Acts 22.6-8. Paul, like Stephen, saw Christ glorified, thus he could say to the Corinthians, "have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord?" 1 Cor.9.1.
In the Epistle to the Hebrews, little is said concerning Christ’s coming out of death (although the writer speaks of "the God of peace, that brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, that great Shepherd of the sheep" Heb.13.20, but much more is said about His ascension from the earth, His entry into heaven and the fact of His being seated at the right hand of God.
The cloud veiled from the sight of the disciples the passage of the Lord Jesus as He ascended, "a cloud received Him out of their sight" Acts 1.9. However, the writer to the Hebrews permits us to follow His journey, "we have a great high priest, that is passed into (through) the heavens, Jesus the Son of God" Heb.4.14. It is important to note that the Greek preposition "dia" translated "into" in the AV means "through." There are three heavens, the atmospheric heavens, the starry or celestial heavens and "the third heaven" 2 Cor.12.2, the eternal dwelling place of God. Christ alone of all the high priests that Hebrews ever knew is called a Great High Priest. Just as Aaron, in a former day, passed through the outer court of the tabernacle, then through the holy place and, once a year, into the holiest of all for the people, so Jesus, the Son of God, has passed through the atmospheric heavens and the celestial heavens. Thus not only did Christ ascend, but He passed through the heavens, beyond the limits of space.
In the opening chapter of the Bible, we read, "He (i.e. God) made the stars also" Gen.1.16, but "All things were made by Him (the Word)" Jn.1.3. We do well to consider the vastness of the starry heavens; there are stars so many light years distant from the earth that their light has not yet reached us, but as He ascended, He "passed through the heavens". Indeed He is "made higher than the heavens" Heb.7.26, which means that He is exalted above the heavens. No human mind can fully comprehend Paul’s statement, "He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things" Eph.4.10. We can only bow and worship.
While heaven rejoiced at His arrival, we on earth rejoice knowing by faith that He is there, "by His own blood He entered in once into the holy place" Heb.9.12. Although there is a distinction between the holy place ("the sanctuary" Heb.9.2) and the "Holiest of all" Heb.9.3, with reference to the earthly tabernacle, no such differentiation is made in the Epistle to the Hebrews as far as "the true tabernacle", Heb.8.2, in heaven is concerned. It should be noted that He entered in "by" or "in virtue of" His own blood, not "with" His blood, as some would have it. His entry into "the holy place" was not to procure redemption for this had already been obtained at Calvary, "having obtained eternal redemption for us" Heb.9.12.
The writer to the Hebrews goes on to say, "For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself" Heb.9.24. The heavenly sanctuary is thus not patterned after the earthly, but "the patterns of things in the heavens" Heb.9.23 were only an earthly representation or copy, for a time, of heaven’s reality. He who brought Godhood to earth has taken manhood into heaven. There is a man in the glory! Heb.9.24 defines where heaven is, "now to appear in the presence of God for us." Christ is there before the face of God, and He is there for us.
This section may therefore be summarised in the following way:
He "went up" Acts 1.10
He "passed through the heavens" Heb.4.14, RV
He "entered in" Heb.9.12
He appears "before the face of God" Heb.9.24, RV.
Paul says "He led captivity captive" Eph.4.8; in His triumphal ascension He led captive those whom He had conquered at Calvary as He passed through the domain of "the prince of the power of the air" Eph.2.2.
THE RESULTS OF HIS ASCENSION
For the Lord Jesus Himself
Although He was despised and rejected when He was here upon earth, heaven has now received the Lord Jesus and welcomed Him. God has reversed the estimation of men. Peter, when preaching on the Day of Pentecost said, "For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The LORD said unto My Lord, Sit Thou on My right hand, until I make Thy foes Thy footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God hath made that same Jesus, "both Lord and Christ" Acts 2.34-36.
It is true that Christ has full right to pre-eminence, the first place, as the Son of God, as the image of the invisible God and as the firstborn of every creature, but in resurrection and ascension the Lord Jesus has entered into a wider and more momentous supremacy. His supremacy in heaven extends far above all forms of rule, authority and power, whether present or future, whether submissive or hostile. Paul writes, "He (i.e. the Father of glory) raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under His feet" Eph.1.20-22. Peter adds his testimony, "Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto Him" 1 Pet.3.22.
During the course of His upper room ministry, the Lord Jesus said to His own, "Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek Me: and as I said unto the Jews, Whither I go, ye cannot come; so now I say to you" Jn.13.33. Evidently He was referring to His return to the Father, which demanded His ascension. However, in the context He says, "If God be glorified in Him (the Son of man), God shall also glorify Him in Himself, and shall straightway glorify Him" Jn.13.32. Now having glorified God on the earth, the Son of man was to be immediately glorified upon ascending to heaven.
Christ’s ascension has brought about:
The Descent of the Holy Spirit
The descent of the Holy Spirit could not take place until the Lord Jesus had returned to heaven. "In the last day, that great day of the feast (of tabernacles), Jesus stood and cried, saying, If any man thirst, let him come unto Me, and drink. He that believeth on Me, as the scripture hath said, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water" Jn.7.37-38. Then John, writing under divine inspiration, adds a word of explanation, "But this spake He of the Spirit, which they that believe on Him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given; because that Jesus was not yet glorified" Jn.7.39. On the night in which He was betrayed, the Lord Jesus said to His disciples, "It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you" Jn.16.7. Indeed the descent of the Holy Spirit was evidence of Christ’s ascension and exaltation. As Peter was preaching in Jerusalem on the Day of Pentecost, he said, "Therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Ghost, He hath shed forth this, which ye now see and hear" Acts 2.33.
The Distribution of Gifts to the Church
When writing to the Ephesians, Paul quotes from Ps.68.18, "Wherefore He saith, When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men" Eph.4.8. Paul then goes on to explain, "And He gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ" Eph.4.11-12. Although apostles and prophets were foundation gifts of the church, evangelists and pastor-teachers are still with us today.
It should be observed that in each of the four passages in the New Testament epistles (Rom.12.4-8; 1 Cor.12.1-11; here in Eph.4.7-16 and 1 Pet.4.10-11) where the subject of spiritual gifts is considered, there is emphasis upon the fact that each believer has received a gift. It is the responsibility of each to fulfil the particular ministry committed to him.
The Assurance of our Place in Heaven
The writer to the Hebrews uses the expression "within the veil" Heb.6.19 and then he adds, "whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec" Heb.6.20. That the high priest should be a forerunner was a completely new concept to the Jewish mind. Under the old economy of things, the high priest went once a year on the Day of Atonement into the holiest of all in the tabernacle where no one else could follow. However for us, as believers in this present day it is different. Our High Priest is a forerunner; He has entered "for us", meaning that He has prepared the way for us. Did He not say to His own in the upper room, "I go to prepare a place for you" Jn.14.2? The entrance of the forerunner is the pledge that, one day we too shall be there with Him. He who said, "that where I am, there ye may be also" Jn.14.3, has already assured that for us, in that He has gone where we are going.
OUR RESPONSE TO HIS ASCENSION
Inevitably there are practical implications that arise from doctrinal truths. Taking into account the ascension of Christ, we should be occupied with spiritual things. In the opening verses of Colossians chapter 3 there are two imperative expressions, "seek" and "set your affection".
"Seek (i.e. keep on seeking) those things which are above" Col.3.1 – this points to the practical striving. "Those things which are above" are set in sharp contrast to "the rudiments of the world" Col.2.20, the ordinances and the precepts of men. "Those things which are above" affect our lives spiritually and morally, for they are heavenly and essentially holy. But Paul continues, "where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God." We are to be engaged with Him and those things His ascension and exaltation have initiated; it is heart occupation with Christ that motivates the believer.
"Set your affection (i.e. have your mind) on things above" Col.3.2 – this will be the inward attitude or disposition. We should have our mind on things above, in contrast to those "who mind earthly things" Phil.3.19. In the context "things on the earth" would refer to the earth-bound religiousness of men, a subject that Paul deals with in Colossians ch.2.
The believer is not to be controlled by emotion, but by the mind, as enlightened and instructed by the revelation of the mind of God in the Scriptures.
The importance of the historical fact of the bodily ascension of Christ cannot be over emphasised. This article has drawn attention to the results of His ascension as far as He is concerned and also for us. May we, in response, be taken up with "those things which are above."