The ascension is a neglected doctrine in most churches today. But historically this has not always been the case. Throughout most of the life of the church, the ascension has been valued and prioritized.
It’s a contemporary tendency to see the ascension as a mere accessory to the life of Jesus, as something that is perhaps elegant and even useful but ultimately unnecessary. If we look to history, we can find encouragement for reclaiming ascension doctrine for our lives.
A Vintage Doctrine
In the fourth century, both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed emphasized the ascension as much as the resurrection. The ascension, like the resurrection, is a historical event, was seen by many eyewitnesses, and has massive implications for our relationship with God.
The Heidelberg Catechism in the sixteenth century asks an important question: “How does Christ’s ascension into heaven benefit us?” (Q&A 49). The answer is threefold: first, Jesus is our advocate before the Father; second, Jesus is humanity (our own flesh) standing in the presence of God; third, on account of the ascension, the Son sends the promised Holy Spirit to His people (Pentecost).
Also in the sixteenth century, John Calvin taught that the ascension opened the way into God's presence that had been closed since the fall. This theme can be seen in the design of the tabernacle and the temple with their ornate organic elements and decorations picturing the garden where man and God enjoyed fellowship before the great rebellion. These adornments of the tabernacle and temple were earthly, temporary signs for us that the blessing of Eden will one day be restored. Humanity will again dwell with the Almighty.
A Great High Priest
It is in the ascension that we learn that Jesus passed through the heavens to enter the true temple, one made not with human hands (Heb. 9:11). Unlike earthly priests, Jesus did not need to offer a sacrifice for His own sins (7:27). Here we see all of the Old Testament imagery—the Passover lamb, the scapegoat sent to die outside the city, the sacrifice whose blood would be sprinkled in the holy place—all fulfilled in Christ.
It is in the ascension that God exalted Jesus and gave Him the name that is above every name (Phil. 2:9). I believe the ascension is the best way to understand the “lifting up of Jesus” as a comparison to Moses lifting up the serpent in the wilderness. Whoever looks in faith at Jesus’ finished work—His birth, life, ministry, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation as king—will be saved (John 3:12–15).
Jesus once asked the disciples what they might do if they saw the Son of Man ascend into heaven (6:60–68). As only Peter could do, he responded, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
The same is true for you and me. Where else can we go? We can run to Jesus who is seated in the presence of God.
Let Us Draw Near
The author of Hebrews tells us, “Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God . . . let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace” (Heb. 4:14–16). This is powerful when you consider that no one under the old covenant except the high priest was allowed to go into God’s presence, and then he could go only once a year.
God gave the children of Israel instructions for the tabernacle after He gave them His law. This is a powerful picture of divine grace. God gave them two tablets and a tent. The tablets so they might know His law, the tent so they might be forgiven when they failed to keep it.
The book of Exodus outlines the instructions for building the tabernacle, a man-made, Eden-like place where God would meet with His people. In the final scene of Exodus, God’s presence comes down and covers the tabernacle like a cloud (Ex. 40:34–38). There was now a provision, albeit temporary, for one man to meet with God on behalf of the people, once a year, on the Day of Atonement.
The imagery of a cloud is used in the New Testament as well. When Jesus ascended into heaven, Luke records that a cloud came and took Him (Acts 1:9). And regarding the end, Luke says, “They will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).
Instead of the cloud coming down as in Exodus, in the ascension a cloud takes Jesus up. This reveals a massive shift in the story of redemption. God is opening a way for humanity to again dwell with the Creator.
The life of Jesus is our guide. His incarnation shows us that He became like us. His resurrection shows us that we will become like Him. And His ascension shows us that where He is, we also will be.
So, what should be our response to the doctrine of the ascension? Let us with confidence draw near to God. Eden is again open, but this time it’s better than before. Humanity has again entered the presence of God. We’re now under the reign of the risen Son.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published on December 1, 2017.