The Ascension of Christ: In Hebrews
Evangelicalism, properly conceived, has been from the beginning cross and gospel centered. But let us consider this question: does the doctrine of the ascension get minimized or neglected in our evangelical theologizing? The ascension of Christ is part of the gospel. Nevertheless, what role, if any, does it play in the devotional life of the believer? Does the average believer understand the significance of the ascension for the Christian life?
The purpose of this brief essay, will be to explore the theology of the ascension that the author of Hebrews lays before us and offer several suggestions for how this impacts the believer’s devotional life. While we will not be able to trace all the nuances, what should be clear is that Hebrews treats the ascension of Jesus Christ as an equally important part of God’s accomplishment of redemption in and through the Son of God. To paraphrase from the Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, in the work of ascension there remains much for Christ to do.
Let us start by examining two passages that highlight the important role of the ascension in the book of Hebrews. We will begin with Hebrews 1:1-4—
1 Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 2 but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, 4 having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Hebrews is concerned with the climax of God’s revelation of himself in the person of the Son. Now in completion of the Old Testament revelations to the prophets, God has spoken in His Son. It is the climax of salvation history. In verse 3b-4, the main clause is “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” This heavenly session of reign and rule would have been impossible without His death (3b) and by extension his resurrection (7:16b). Yet Hebrews draws attention to the reality of the ascension as the element of climax to the ‘it is finished’ of the cross.
Second, Hebrews itself tells us that the central focus of the book is the work of Christ in His heavenly ascension and session on our behalf. Hebrews 8:1 Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, 2 a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.
We cannot make sense of the work of Christ if in the completion of the cross and resurrection he has not ascended bodily to heaven where He continues as both king and priest. The ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ is a part of the one event complex that brings God’s redemption to fulfillment.
Thus, the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ draws the kingship of Christ into focus as the eternal Son is coronated as the true human king reigning over all of the Father’s creation. This is seen plainly in Hebrews as Christ's ascension and sitting into heaven. Jesus is like a king who having conquered sits down to rule his kingdom, all creation. Just as He is king, He also ascends to take his seat as priest, ascended to minister in a new eschatological perfection of a glorified human state.
Christ serves as a priest through oath having been gifted indestructible resurrection life (7:16-17). Thus a priest is appointed as a result of his perfect obedience (5:9-10; 7:28). So perfect is this mediation that it is not repetition of offerings and sacrifices—a regular standing to serve—but instead He enters having put away sin and sits down on our behalf (9:23-27). We submit, however, if Christ did not actually ascend there would be no offering of the perfected Savior’s blood on our behalf. If there was no ascension in the resurrection body, there would be no paving the way to heaven for us as a forerunner—and advance guard of glorification making it possible for the saint to become glorified and pass the judgment upon our death. Christ cannot bring his children to their glorious happy estate if He Himself does not first enter bodily into that glorious happy estate—ascending up into heaven as the ‘new creation’. In such state, all is put under His feet as He is at God’s throne. In such fashion, the offices of kingship and priesthood are intertwined.
Let us suggest four applications:
(1) The confession of Christ cannot be abandoned because there remains no other hope of salvation or climax of redemption to come. This, of course, flows from the argument of Hebrews. “14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession” (4:14). With a view to the ascension, our vision should recapture the beauty and glory of Christ. He is all I need. He is the perfect one, the reigning king.
(2) In the ascension of Jesus, I am given great confidence that I will one day stand before God. In Jesus human flesh, albeit a resurrected human body is in heaven. As Job says “yet in my flesh I shall see God” (19:26). This is because Christ in his humanity is the forerunner ascending into God’s presence leading the ‘sons of glory’.
(3) The priesthood of Christ from heaven is the basis and ground of my confident hope in my prayer life. Hebrews says: “15 For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. 16 Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Because Christ has ascended, he is our constant intercessor and advocate. He grounds our assurance in all our prayers.
(4) My worship draws me spiritually into heaven itself where Christ is both my worship leader (2:12) and the worshipped One (12:22-24). When I pray, what is going on? Sometimes we feel like we are calling out into the darkness with only the echo of our own voices. The reality is that because of Christ’s ascension and because I am tethered to and He to me, my prayers are ascending into heaven and the presence of God. What is more, in the corporate worship of God we our spiritual entering heaven as our singing goes into heaven itself. This makes private and corporate worship something far more serious than most of us regularly conceive it.
In light of these considerations, we return to our opening question: what role, if any, does the ascension of Christ in the devotional and worship life of the believer? We would argue, along with the whole of Scripture that the ascension of Jesus Christ is an essential element of the redemption work of Christ. The Messiah who does not ascend bodily into heaven is no true Messiah. If we might riff from Pauline theology on the resurrection, without the historical ascension our faith and our preaching is in vain, we are still in our sins.
Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as Interim Pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.
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