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).
Some suggest that the language of “captives” refers to enemies of God who have been taken against their will—a sort of subjugated death march. A better and more likely understanding is that the “captives” in view are those who were taken captive by the enemies of God, and it is these whom God has come to rescue. That would certainly fit the theme and flow of the psalm more closely, and it would carry the idea of God as not only divine warrior but also divine rescuer. More importantly, this view also seems to accord with what Paul says in Ephesians 4, where he quotes and expounds upon Psalm 68:18. There, Paul explains how Christ fulfills Psalm 68 not simply in His resurrection, but particularly through His ascension (Eph. 4:8–10). Christ conquered sin and death (our great enemies) and led out rescued captives, whom He has not only freed but furnished with gifts. Many have stumbled over the fact that in Psalm 68:18 it says that God “received” gifts from men, but in Ephesians 4:8 Paul says God “gave” gifts to men. Which is it? Both. Those whom God liberated not only gave gifts (themselves being the gifts), but they were also furnished by the Spirit of God with gifts for service in the church and thus became the “gifts” that the resurrected and ascended Christ would give to His church for its building up. When Jesus rescued us, He re-created us for good works (Eph. 2:10), renewed us in His image (Eph. 4:23–24), and thus makes us not only recipients of the work of the Spirit but also gifts to the church as we have been gifted for service.
Thus, the ascension of Jesus Christ is much more than just a postscript to the resurrection; it is the return of the King to His rightful throne from which He furnishes His rescued people with gifts of service for use in His kingdom. The chief gift that Christ continues to give, however, is Himself. In this connection, the Westminster Shorter Catechism rather brilliantly relates the threefold offices of Christ (prophet, priest, and king) as being ministries that Christ performs “both in his estate of humiliation and exaltation” (question 23, emphasis added). In His ascended state of exaltation, Christ our Prophet continues to reveal to us “by his Word and Spirit the will of God for our salvation” (Q&A 24). As our Priest, Christ makes “continual intercession for us” (Q&A 25). And as our King, Christ is continually “subduing us to himself, ruling and defending us, and restraining and conquering all his and our enemies” (Q&A 26).
If the resurrection is the main event of history and the climax of the Christian story, the ascension is the crowning of our King as He sits upon His throne in glory. From there, He bestows many fine gifts upon us, the chief of which is union with Him through the Holy Spirit. In Christ, we find life and fitness for service to the King of kings and Lord of lords who is our divine Rescuer and the Lover of our souls. Christ’s resurrection and ascension are historical events that we not only base our faith upon but also frame our lives by. Without them, as Machen rightly argued, there is nothing left to Christianity. Yet, because these events occurred in history, the Christian faith, like the Christian life, has a sure and steadfast anchor. The ascended Christ is in heaven, and is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
This post was originally published on March 30, 2018.