The familiar words of the Apostles’ Creed have embedded themselves in the minds of many Christians: “The third day He rose again from the dead; He ascended into heaven, and sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” The orthodox faith has always affirmed Jesus’ resurrection and ascension, so these truths are familiar to us. However, it is easy to overlook the significance of these critical events for the Christian life. Why does it matter that Christ rose from the dead, ascended into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of the Father? The Heidelberg Catechism of 1563 provides a helpful outline for this study, systematically asking and answering several key questions regarding the resurrection and ascension.
The Catechism offers a threefold answer to the question, “How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?” (Q&A 45). First, the resurrection proved Jesus’ power over sin and the grave. Christian Reformed theologian M. J. Bosma notes in his Exposition of Reformed Doctrine that Christ’s exaltation evidenced “that he had satisfied all the demands of the law, and could therefore now enter from under the wrath of God into his favor and pleasure” (167). The One who “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25) had completed his work of salvation. Furthermore, in Jesus’ resurrection, “we too are already now resurrected to a new life,” as the Catechism says. The apostle Paul writes that “just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too” are enabled to “walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4). Third, Christ’s resurrection guarantees our own. We are, as Peter says, “born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you” (1 Peter 1:3–4). The ramifications of the resurrection are too great to be ignored, for if it did not occur, the Christian’s faith is futile: “If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied” (1 Cor. 15:19).
Equally important to the Christian faith is the doctrine of Christ’s ascension. At its most basic level, this event was Jesus’ ultimate miracle; Bosma explains that it “proved that our Savior is supreme over the laws and forces of nature” (168). But the Catechism drives further into the benefits of the ascension for the church with three more application points. Seated at God’s right hand, Jesus “pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father” (Q&A 49) and “defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies” (Q&A 51). Bosma clarifies why Christ’s position at God’s right hand is significant: “This expression sets forth the supreme glorification of Christ in heaven, he is there exalted to supreme and universal glory, felicity and power over all principalities and every name that is named” (169). Second, because our own flesh now reigns in heaven, we are guaranteed that Jesus will return to take us to himself. He promises that he gives us, his sheep, “eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of [his] hand” (John 10:28). Finally, as a result of Christ’s ascension, we are granted the guarantee of the Holy Spirit, who dwells in us to carry out our sanctification. As the Catechism puts it, “By the Spirit’s power we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand” Q&A 49). We see even from this cursory study that the implications of the ascension for the Christian life are clear. As the old hymn “See, the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph” says, “Mighty Lord, in Thine ascension / We by faith behold our own.”
Given the centrality of Christ’s resurrection and ascension to our faith, it is strange that so many churches celebrate Easter while neglecting Ascension Day. The raising of Jesus for our justification is no less important than his current seat at God’s right hand for our comfort and defense. Most significantly, Jesus’ ascension reminds us of the angels’ message to the astonished disciples on the Mount of Olives: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Remembering the ascension, we eagerly await Christ’s imminent return. Once again the Heidelberg Catechism beautifully applies this doctrine to the Christian life: “In all my distress and persecution I turn my eyes to the heavens and confidently await as judge the very One who has already stood trial in my place before God and so has removed the whole curse from me. All his enemies and mine he will condemn to everlasting punishment: but me and all his chosen ones he will take along with him into the joy and glory of heaven” (Q&A 52). The certain hope of a personal resurrection gives the Christian a reason to carry out his work in this world joyfully: because of Christ’s resurrection and ascension, our labor in the Lord is not in vain (1 Cor. 15:58). *All quotations in this article of Menno J. Bosma are from Exposition of Reformed Doctrine (Grand Rapids: Smitter Book Company, 1927).
Michael Kearney a member of the West Sayville URC on Long Island, New York, studies communication and music at Geneva College in Beaver Falls, PA. He welcomes your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org