Dr. Ray E. Heiple, Jr.
The Ascension of Christ
No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is,
the Son of Man who is in heaven.
Question 53 of the Larger Catechism, asks, “How was Christ exalted in his ascension?” It gives the answer, “Christ was exalted in his ascension, in that having after his resurrection often appeared unto and conversed with his apostles, speaking to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God, and giving them commission to preach the gospel to all nations, forty days after his resurrection, he, in our nature, and as our head, triumphing over enemies, visibly went up into the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men, to raise up our affections thither, and to prepare a place for us, where himself is, and shall continue till his second coming at the end of the world.” Last week we examined Christ’s headship over His church. This week we consider His ascension into heaven.
Although we might think of the ascension of Christ exclusively in terms of His bodily rising into heaven, the Catechism notices that prior to this literal ascent, our resurrected Lord was exalted by two particular activities. First, on several occasions He appeared to the disciples and spoke with them. Some of the disciples had seen Jesus arrested, taken prisoner, and crucified unto death. The rest heard the news shortly after. Therefore, to see Jesus alive and unharmed three days later, as many of them did, was astonishing to them. No one comes back from the cross, healthy, strong, and victorious. Jesus did, and they saw it repeatedly! These appearances manifested His victory over death, sin, the grave, and hell itself. They exalted Jesus and brought Him glory. Second, Jesus taught His apostles and commissioned them as His ambassadors. Being resurrected, Christ did not sit back and enjoy His singular triumph. He decidedly went on the offensive. He commanded the disciples to declare His victory and preach His kingdom to every creature (Mark 16:15). In giving this command Jesus asserted His authority over every other ruler, whether physical or spiritual, again manifesting His glory.
It was only after Jesus had commissioned His apostles with the message of His victory that He visibly and literally levitated up into heaven. His personal work on earth was done. It was now time for Him to go to the Father and rule all things at His right hand, leaving the proclaiming of His kingdom on earth to lesser servants. As the verse at the head of this article declares, no one has ever before (or since) ascended into heaven. How could they? Even if man were to locate heaven, how could we get there? And even if we had the physical ability to travel to heaven, how could a sinner walk into the presence of a holy God? That is the dilemma that this verse is speaking to. No mere man has, no man ever could ascend into heaven. Physical and spiritual laws prevent him for doing so. However, Jesus has power over all physical forces. Gravity and distance are no impediments to the author and sustainer of matter and space. The one who walked on water can ascend into heaven as easily as a healthy adult can stand up. Likewise, human sinfulness cannot keep Christ from heaven. Not only is He personally both sinless and righteous, but He even defeated sin and death for all of His people!
Thus, no one has the power or authority to ascend into heaven except for the Son of Man, the God-man Jesus Christ. Who not only existed before His birth, so that in His incarnation He literally “came down from heaven,” and became a man. But He also continued to remain fully God, infinite and omnipresent, so that it can be truly said that He “who came down from heaven” is also, at the same time, the one “who is in heaven”! Finally, as the captain of our salvation, Christ – the second Adam – ascended into heaven to receive gifts for us. These gifts consist ultimately in God Himself: God for us, God with us, and God inside of us. Such is the nature of what Christ has won for us – we are truly the heirs of God in Him (Gal. 4:7). The first fruits of these gifts were distributed at Pentecost when the Holy Spirit was poured out on all God’s people, empowering every believer to be a witness for Jesus Christ and fully adopting us into the family of God. Thus, the ascension of Jesus raises our affections to heaven, for that is where our Lord is, that is where our victory is fully manifested, and that is where we will be, our true home with our Lord forevermore.