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Christ’s Ascension: The Church’s Enrichment

The earthly ministry of Jesus Christ terminated at Olivet. But from this we ought not infer that the ascension is the climax (and certainly not, as the Church with its present dramatizing of Christmas and Easter is tempted to make it, the anticlimax) in Christology.

The ascension can be understood only in relation to the whole of Christology. and in fact the whole of redemptive revelation. To speak of it as a climax tends too readily to minimize what follows it and seems not fully to appreciate that Christ’s work and relation to Christianity is a continuum.

The Church has been perennially intrigued by the fact that her Head has made a spatial transition from this world to the other. That it was a change in locate Scripture does not leave in doubt. Both Old Testament prophecy and New Testament record speak of a literal removal of the body of Jesus from earth to heaven. Two Psalms passages (24:7–10, 68:18) indicate, if they mean anything at all regarding Christ’s ascension, a triumphal entry (and this was the triumphal entry) of Christ into heaven as described in Revelation 5. Peter speaks to Psalm 110:1 and with irrefutable support in the presence of David’s tomb states that since David has not ascended, it can refer only to Christ’s ascension. In the Pauline passages, to name a few, he comments in Ephesians 4 on Psalm 68: 18, interpreting it to indicate a transition from earth to heaven.

Romans 8:34, Ephesians 1:20–22, Colossians 3:1, along with other passages, all indicate Paul’s belief in a literal ascension. Hebrews contains several references to it, one of them another commentary on Psalm 110;1, and others such as 4:14, 6;20, 10:12, all alike clearly indicating the physical presence of Christ in heaven. Luke’s accounts and also that of Mark can be understood only to mean the same thing. And we ought not forget Christ’s own allusions to it. There can be no doubt that he expected to return to the Father (John 16;5, 10, 17, etc.); that he looked for an entrance again into his former glory (John 17:5); and that he intended to depart to another sphere in which be would receive his believers to the place he prepares for them (John 14:1–3).

It is hardly surprising that Christ after his resurrection did not tarry long upon earth.

The reason for the earth-visit had been realized. He had come to make a penal-substitutionary sacrifice, and that had been done. There is further Messianic work, but that will be done from the throne. Following his death and burial he found reason to linger long enough to display the restuTection body to his disciples, both singly and in groups, to enable them to testify to the fact of the restuTcction. Beyond that, there remained no more fleshly bond for him to earth.

Further, the nature of the resurrection body was such that it was more suited to the environment of heaven than of earth. Flesh and blood, in the words of Paul, do not inherit heaven. Bodies there will be in the hereafter, but changed bodies. Whether the body of Christ, as we know it to have behaved during the interval between the resurrection and the ascension, is in all points identical to the bodies that shall inherit the new heavens and new earth after the general resurrection we perhaps cannot absolutely say. Quite evidently however it was not of a piece with the world of physical interdependencies and space-time relationships into which it emerged from the tomb. (Cf. Luke 24 and John 20, 21.) Likely the stone was rolled from the grave not so much for Christ’s exit as the disciples’ entrance; the body that entered the room with the locked door would find a stone no barrier either. Likely the body needed no food. yet could receive it. And the manner of the ascension as described by Luke demonstrates that the body of Christ was not of the matter of the world surrounding it those forty days.

The translation of the body of Christ ought arouse no feeling of loss on the part of the Church.

Never did it occur to the early Church that the ascension had deprived it of something essential. To the contrary, the ascension together with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit infused new vigor into what had till then been a lackluster and bewildered group trying to adjust to the post-resurrection Christ in the pre-crucifixion manner of association. His translation, far from unsettling them, enabled them to understand that their relationship to him was not to be so much in the audible, visible, tangible, but in the mystic union which is still today the inspiring exercise of fellowship between Christ and His Church.

This is not a deprivation but an enrichment for the Church. Even in the Sacrament the value is precisely not the receiving of a frangible body, even if it be understood, as some attempt to, in a “spiritual” sense. The partaker has always a question in the partaking; and the question is: How am I about to receive Christ? The Romanist answers that while the accidental bread and wine appear unchanged, no substance of these elements remains. The substance is so changed that it is now nothing but the body and blood of Christ. Protestantism has various answers to the question, but never that. Protestantism at its best sees the imparting of Christ in more than the elements. The entire ordinance the actions of breaking and pouring, the receiving, the meditating, with the efficacious operation of the Holy Spirit—is a receiving of Christ. when the Communicant participates in true faith. Most of us would subscribe to some such statement as this, and feel that the Sacrament lacks nothing because the impartation of Christ is not in terms of the substance of his glorified and ascended body.

         

           

In the blessed whole of redemption. what greater wonder of Christian life is there, either within or apart from the Sacrament, than that through the operation of the Holy Spirit in the regenerated heart the believer is “in Christ.” Significant is the fact that the Church entered her golden age just after she was deprived of the physical presence of Christ and received in his place the Holy Spirit. He at once proceeded to impart Christ, not corporeally or substantially, but by reproducing in a sense the sufferings and new life of Christ in believers. Ephesians, Philippians, Corinthians…they became new creatures in Christ. Paul, and to be sure, others, were in travail with them until Christ should be formed in them. And that union with the ascended Christ has been the glory and joy of the Church. Scripture is strikingly silent on even the Sacrament’s accomplishing more than the impartation of Christ in that sense.

The import of the closing verses of Hebrews 9 and the opening of Hebrews 10 is that when no other sacrifice would suffice God created a body for Christ in which he made the one never-to-be-repeated offering. With that the body had fuHilled its purpose, and is ready for glorification and exaltation. The teleosis,1 if we may apply that term to the body of Christ, is not unto change into other elements but unto session at God’s right hand. with all that this Scriptural term implies.

And to her intense satisfaction the Church sees that in the mystic union she has her Head more fully and preciously than ever she could have llim corporeally. She sees herself both objectively and subjectively suffering with Christ. dying with Christ, living in newness of life with Christ…and is content to know that primarily this is her possession of her Head.

With the ascension there is begun a new phase in the Mediatorial work of Christ, the only possible sequel to the resurrection.

The disciples first stood nonplussed before the open tomb. At this point both the resurrection and the things into which it issued were beyond their grasp. Patiently Christ taught them, and utterances from before the crucifixion begin to come into focus in their minds…But still remains the question: Now what?

Now the ascension.

This would fulfill the constant longing Christ had had to be with the Father; this would open the way for him to send the Comforter; and this would enable him to continue the Messianic office in its next phase.

Once the disciples saw this, they could release him from the tangible relation and rejoice because he went to the Father. The Church began to understand, as Luke put it, that the Gospels were the things that Jesus began both to do and to teach while the Acts recorded the exercise of his prophetic, priestly, and royal office from heaven. She was gloriously conscious that Christ was working in and through her efforts. Saying that though we have known Christ in the flesh yet now know we him so no more, Paul evaluates his work as God’s entreaty through the Apostles (II Corinthians 5).

This is of utmost significance in our understanding of the mission of the Church today. It forces upon us a defined understanding of both the work and methods Christ expects of her. It guarantees her independence from any other sponsorship, and limits her accountability to Christ alone. And while she restricts herself to Christ and his program she is invincible (“terrible as an army with banners”), and the gates of hell will not prevail against her. She is her Master’s instrument. The Church lives on1y by his exercise of the heavenly offices, and herself exercises the same offices in the world.

There is no other adequate view of the Church.

Christ’s ascension bears heavily also upon personal eschatology. A life in mystic union with an eternal Christ can impossibly fade into oblivion. If he is eternal those who are in him are immortal. “Because I live, ye shall live also.” They will be with him, but what is even more, they will be like him (I John 3:1–3). It is inconceivable that one in whom the Holy Spirit has in a sense reproduced Christ could be sundered from him even by death.

Death is in fact a different thing for the Christian because he enters it as one who is “in Christ,”—Christ who plunged himself into that black marl, buffeted his way omnipotently through it, and emerged again out of the suffocating. hellish agony of it entire except that in the struggle he sloughed off all our sins into the morass. It is a great divine verity that if we emerged from that in Christ, we are with him in the ascension as well. “I will receive you unto myself, that where I am there ye may be also.” Redeemed humanity must be translated to his presence.

It is equally clear that man un· redeemed perishes. Man since paradise stands under the divine curse, and Scripture knows no way of lifting that sentence but by the penal· substitutionary death of Christ Scripture presents no hope of benefiting by that death but by incorporation into Christ. This is humanity’s watershed. Christ is set for the rising…or the falling…of man.

And rising in him, man is on the heights indeed.

The task of Christianity is to exhibit this ascended Christ.

That much of the display is relayed in from another world, even from a different kind of world, is not orthodoxy’s weakness. That is its strength. The redeeming Christ as presented historically in revelation is no less essential because he has shifted residence, from the natural to the supernatural. That can never render him irrelevant. That rather urges him all the more forcefully upon the attention of man. For the supernatural is indeed the ultimate.

Christ has therefore to be considered, and considered in the light of his ascension. Now that he is no longer visibly present here, the one thing mankind cannot do is relegate him to the nebulae. To say “Jesus Christ” is to say life (and not to say it is living death), just because he is, as the epistle to the Hebrews puts it, “a high priest who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens.”

1. Teleosis—goal, end, culmination.