The Book of Ascension

On Good Friday and Easter Sunday the churches are filled. There is no doubt in the minds of most Christians that these days represent redemptive facts of great personal importance. The sacrifice of Jesus Christ on Calvary and his rising again in power on the first day of the week are clearly matters of tremendous significance which call for worship and reflection. Yes, many who rarely enter a church see to it that they attend on Easter.

Then, forty days later comes Ascension Day. What happens? Not much. There isn’t a hint of the popular interest and activity that prevail on Good Friday and Easter. Hosts of people aren’t even aware of the day and its special importance. In many communions there is no worship service on this Thursday. And where there are worship services, such services are not nearly as well attended as those that celebrate Christ’s death and his resurrection. in fact, many a minister finds it a bit hard to enter into the spirit of worship and the feeling of great importance that the fact of our Lord’s Ascension ought to stir in the heart of the believer. After Good Friday and Easter, with their special services, great crowds and exalted music, the Ascension Day service seems almost anti-climactic.

What accounts for this apathetic attitude toward the Ascension? No doubt a contributing cause is the public acclaim that marks the observance of Good Friday and Easter. Such acclaim is made up of many things. Without question many who gather to commemorate the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday and his resurrection on Easter Sunday are prompted by genuine understanding of and personal grateful devotion to the crucified and risen Saviour. But it must also be recognized as equally obvious that this broad public acclaim on Good Friday and Easter has in it such elements as traditionalism, conformity, superstition, self-commendation and commercialization.

But the comparative popularity of Good Friday and Easter is not enough to account for the apathy that so often prevails with respect to Ascension Day. Another element surely is a lack of understanding and conviction as to the place and importance of Christ’s ascension in God’s program of redemption. Many Christians, it is to be feared, have only a hazy notion on this score. Two things stand out in their minds regarding the Ascension, two things which are indeed important. On the one hand people think of the scene described in chapter one of the book of Acts, the scene in which the disciples see Jesus disappearing into the clouds. On the other hand they think of Christ’s sitting on God’s right hand interceding for his people. But how all this ties in meaningfully with Christ’s work of redemption, on this there is undoubtedly much fuzziness of mind. And where there is intellectual vagueness and fuzziness there can be no truly meaningful worship, nor genuine personal involvement in it.

What can be done about this area of mental cloudiness with respect to the ascension of Christ? The point of this little essay is to make a suggestion. The suggestion is that God’s people make a more thorough study of that book of the Bible that I would call the Book of the Ascension. The reference is to the book of Hebrews.

The book of Hebrews is commonly thought of as one of the more difficult books of the Bible. The altitude is understandable. The book is not understood through casual reading. It must be studied. A thorough study of the book is most rewarding.

He who reads the book with care soon gets a clue as to the reason for calling Hebrews the Book of the Ascension. When he gets to the third verse of the book he meets something that must cause him to wonder. Here we read: “When he had made purification for sins, he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.” The striking thing here is that Christ’s resurrection is passed over. In the author’s view the important thing to stress after Christ made his perfect offering for sin is that he ascended to glory to take his seat of highest honor at God’s right hand. This is characteristic of the book. There is very little reference to Christ’s resurrection, and much reference to the ascension.

In fact, this movement of thought from Christ’s sacrifice to his ascension and/or session at God’s right hand occurs several times in the book. Additional instances of such passing over the resurrection in this direct movement from the cross to the right hand of God are found in 9:12, 10:12, 10:19–20 and 12:2. References to the ascension/session in addition to that of 1:3 and those just given above are found in 1:13, 2:7–8 (clearly implied), 4:14, 7:25, 8:1–2, 9:24 and 13:21 (clearly implied).

There is a good reason for this frequent reference to the ascension/session and this omission of reference to Christ’s resurrection. (Christ’s resurrection is not wholly ignored—see 13:20.) The book was written to Christians who were in danger of backsliding from the faith because of persecution. Because the letter was written to Hebrews, Old Testament teaching and practice form the background of the discussion. The heart of biblical religion is the answer to the pressing question, How can sinful man enter into the presence of the holy God, the God whose law he has violated and whose just wrath he has incurred? The Old Testament presented a provisional answer to the question. This provisional answer was given in the tabernacle and temple worship and in the sacrificial system practiced there. The high point or climax of this Old Testament religious life came when the high priest, representing the people of God, entered into the very presence of God in the Holy of Holies once a year with the blood of atonement. This ceremony of the Great Day of Atonement was the wonderful and deeply meaningful culmination to which the whole system of sacrifice and worship pointed.

With his eye on that grand climactic moment of life and religion the author of the epistle to the Hebrews stresses this central point: Jesus Christ has fulfilled the basic requirement of religion and life as the true and only high priest by bringing his own blood as the perfect, once-far-all and final sacrifice for sin; and having brought this perfect sacrifice, he has entered into the true, heavenly Holy of Holies there to enter into the very presence of God on our behalf, to can yon his priestly intercessions for us.

His priesthood is an unending priesthood, bringing eternal and sure blessing to those who believe.

Therefore his priesthood is not like that of Aaron’s, subject to the frailties of the flesh and the limitations of time. Rather, Christ’s priesthood is one after the order or manner of Melchizedek, one that never ends, as the epistle’s frequent quotation of Psalm 110:4 says so plainly.

That point of fact that puts the exclamation mark of finality after Christ’s saving work is that Christ has entered into the heavenly Holy of Holies with the blood of the perfect sacrifice. Indeed, let us see it clearly—here we stand at the point that underscores the finality of Christianity, the point that signalizes the glory and the fulfillment of biblical religion, the paint that authenticates the sacrifice of Christ as the true and final sacrifice, the point that authenticates the high priestly office of Jesus Christ as the only high priest, the point that gives us “boldness to enter into the holy place,” the point at which we enter into the very presence of the living God.

Therefore, in a most interesting and pointed summation of what he has been teaching, the author says in 8:1–2, “Now, in the things which we are saying the chief point is this: We have such a high priest, who sat down on the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a minister of the sanctuary, and of the true tabernacle, which the Lord pitched, not man.”

Do you wish to gain a deeper and more stirring awareness of the importance of Christ’s ascension? Then read, study the Book of the Ascension.

The pastor of the Christian Reformed Church at Bradenton, Florida, in this essay commends the believer’s meditation on the book of HEBREWS as preparation for the true commemoration of our Lord’s ascension.