We Christians tend to think much of the incarnation of Christ around Christmas, and the Lord’s death and resurrection at Easter, but many of us neglect to give much thought to the importance of our Savior’s ascension to the right hand of God the Father almighty. Of the churches that observe a liturgical calendar of some sort, Ascension day (or Ascension Sunday) is often overlooked.
The ascension of Christ is easily one of the most neglected truths of the Christian faith. (And that is saying something!) In his book, The Christian Faith, Michael Horton writes,
“Given the place of the ascension in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles), it is surprising that it plays a relatively minor role in the faith and practice of the church. Though affirmed, it does not seem to occupy the same status as Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection.” (p.533)
We as believers should esteem the ascension of our Lord Jesus much more highly than we do – even as highly as His incarnation, death, and resurrection. For Christ’s ascension plays every bit as important a part in the accomplishment of our salvation as His incarnation, death, and resurrection does.
Not only is the historical fact of His ascension recorded for us in the Gospels (Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53) and in the book of Acts (Acts 1:1-11), but references to it are found throughout the rest of the New Testament as well.
A simple search of passages in the New Testament that speak of Christ being exalted to ‘the right hand of God’ comes up with nearly two dozen instances. A number of those quote from Psalm 110:1, which says, “The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.”).
The book of Acts, for example, refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly. You could go so far as to say that Acts cannot be properly understood apart from it. The book of Acts is often referred to as “The Acts of the Apostles,” but it might be even more appropriate to call it “The Acts of the Risen and Ascended Christ.” Luke (the writer of Acts) strongly implies that this is the true subject matter when he writes in the opening verse of the book,
“In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach,” (Acts 1:1, ESV)
The clear implication there is that the Gospel of Luke was about “all that Jesus began to do and teach” (italics added), and the book of Acts is about all that Jesus continued to do and to teach through His Apostles and His church!
The book of Hebrews also refers to Christ’s ascension numerous times. One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is that Christ is even now reigning over all things for His church and will return in glory to judge the living & the dead.
The Apostle Paul also refers to Christ’s ascension repeatedly in his letters. For example, in the book of Ephesians, he points us to it no less than three (3) times. Paul both affirms the truth of this essential Christian doctrine and applies it to us as believers. Clearly it is intended to make a difference in our lives.
This is also what Paul is doing in Colossians 3:1-4. In v.1 he says, “If then you have been raised with Christ . . . .” Now it is clear from the rest of the passage that he is not just talking about the resurrection of Christ, but His ascension as well.
Why are we to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God” (v.1)? Why are we to ‘set our minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth’ (v.2)? Paul tells us in v.3-4, where he writes,
“For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.”
It is our union with Christ and its implications for our lives as Christians that we must learn to keep in mind. We set our minds on Christ because in Him we have died. As Paul says in Galatians 2:20,
“I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.”
Our life – our real life – is not of this world, but is of heaven. Our real life is “hidden with Christ in God” (v.3). And so we must think of and set our minds on the things of heaven, and on Christ Himself, who is our righteousness, our sanctification, and even our glorification.
Not only is our life hidden with Christ for now, but in v.4 Paul says, “When Christ who is your life appears . . . .” It is when Christ comes in glory, that we shall appear with Him in glory!
Just as Christ’s resurrection is the guarantee of our own future glorious resurrection, even so His exaltation in heaven at God’s right hand is the guarantee of our future hope of heaven and glorification! So we as believers in Christ are to seek to become more and more, by the power of the Holy Spirit at work within us, what we already are in Christ.
This shows the wisdom of the writer of the Heidelberg Catechism in its treatment of the ascension of Christ. It contains no less than six (6) questions dealing with the ascension and session (or reign) of Christ! And one of them says the following:
Q.49. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us? A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.
The catechism lists three (3) ways that Christ’s ascension benefits us as believers. First, having ascended to heaven and being seated at the right hand of God, Christ is now “our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.”
This is what Paul is speaking of in Romans 8:33-34, where he writes,
“Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.” (ESV)
Notice how in the above passage in Romans, the Apostle Paul links not only Christ’s death and resurrection, but also His ascension, to the unshakable nature of our justification! Not only are we justified because Christ died for us and rose from the dead, but also because He ascended, is now seated at God’s right hand, and is interceding for us!
Who can possibly condemn us when Christ Himself is our advocate, and is interceding for us?
We find the same thing spoken of in Hebrews 7:25, where it says,
“Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them.” (ESV)
If you are a believer, you have all that you need in Christ. In Him you have justification, righteousness, sanctification, and even glorification! You have all of those things as surely as Christ died for your sins, is now risen from the dead, ascended, and seated at the right hand of God!
The second benefit that believers have because of Christ’s ascension is that “we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.” Christ is our pledge (or guarantee) of heaven. Because Christ who is our own flesh is there, we can be certain that we too will dwell there with Him as well.
And the third benefit is that Christ “sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.” The Holy Spirit, who unites us to Christ by faith, is the “corresponding pledge” or guarantee of all that we possess in Jesus Christ,
The Heidelberg Catechism here reminds us that because of Christ’s ascension we now have a pledge of heaven in heaven (Christ Himself) and a pledge of heaven with us on earth as well (the indwelling Holy Spirit). God has graciously given us a double-guarantee of all that we have in Christ!
It is because of all of these things that we are not to set our minds on earthly things, but on heaven, where Christ who is our life is, and on the glory that is to be revealed in us when He returns. We are to seek to become what we are (and will be) in Christ until that day!