J. Gresham Machen, in his prescient and potent little book Christianity and Liberalism, argued that Christianity is “an event-centered religion.” Christianity is based on historical events. Something happened in history, and all that man is, believes, and does is based on these events—events that occurred in history. Chief among these historical events is the resurrection of Jesus Christ. As the Apostle Paul so aptly put it, if Jesus Christ was not raised from the dead, we are the world’s most pitiable fools, and rather than following Christ, we ought to “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). But because Christ has been raised from the dead, Christians frame their entire lives in the light of the resurrection. In short, we live resurrection lives—lives that reflect our hope in the resurrected Christ.
As central as the resurrection is to the Christian life, however, it is not the end of the work of Christ. After Christ was raised from the dead, He “ascended up into heaven,” as is affirmed by both the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed. The particular nuance of the ascension is that after the resurrection and the postresurrection appearances, Christ ascended up into heaven to be “seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty” (Apostles’ Creed). The resurrection was Christ’s triumph over sin and death, while the ascension seated Him upon the throne of David (2 Sam. 7), the throne that was promised to Jesus by His Father before the world began.
Jesus told His disciples multiple times that not only would He rise from the dead but that He would also ascend up into heaven in glory (e.g., John 20:17). His ascending into heaven was the necessary precursor to the sending of the Holy Spirit (Luke 24:49–52). Acts 1 not only records the ascension, but it also anticipates the coming of the Spirit just as Jesus promised in Acts 2. In order for the Spirit to descend upon the church, Jesus must first ascend up into heaven. Once the ascension occurs in history as promised, then comes the promised Holy Spirit within us as well. In short, without the ascension, there would be no abiding presence of the Holy Spirit. But because of the ascension of Jesus Christ, the Holy Spirit is with us, and because Christ is united to us by His Spirit, we are truly able to say and believe that Christ is “with [us] always, to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20).
There is another angle to the ascension—a rather practical one—that is worth considering as well. It is the idea of rescue. Psalm 68 describes God as a conquering warrior. The chapter opens with a promise: “God shall arise, his enemies shall be scattered; and those who hate him shall flee before him!” (v. 1). But the righteous, we are told, shall rejoice (v. 3). Why? Because God has come to rescue His people. He has come out of His holy temple as a man of war—a king who has left His castle in order to do battle with His enemies. Further, in Psalm 68, God has arrayed Himself for battle not simply for the purpose of crushing His enemies, but also for the purpose of rescuing His captive, forlorn people. He is the Father of the fatherless and protector of the orphan and the widow (v. 5), and He is also the God of the covenant who has come to rescue His covenant people from their foes. The war imagery in Psalm 68 is stunning and threatening. The earth quakes under God’s feet (v. 8); He scatters kings (v. 12), and then, triumphantly, He ascends once again into His holy hill and sanctuary, leading a host of captives and receiving gifts from the rescued (v. 18).