Christianity 201

April 4, 2016

What Would Jesus Do This Morning: The Ascension (Part 1)

Ascension of Jesus

Even among those who pride themselves on reading a wide variety of Christian material online, I believe if you were to check their history, 90% of Americans are reading more than 90% blogs and websites produced by other Americans. So today we ‘cross the pond’ for an article from Christian Today (not to be confused with the U.S. Christianity Today) to look at an article about a vital topic that I decided we would carry in two parts because of the length. But if you’re wanting to read it all in one go, click the link below, and then take tomorrow off.

Where is Jesus now? And what is he doing?

•••by David Robertson

Where is Jesus Now?

It’s the week after Easter.

We repeat the joyous affirmation of faith. “Christ is risen. He is risen indeed.” In St Pete’s as we have some Greeks in our fellowship we always use the Greek version – “Christos Anesti...Alithos Anesti.” But then comes the question: OK, He is Risen. Where is he then? And it’s not just the question of an inquisitive child, it should be a question for every adult and for every Christian.

The Apostles’ Creed tells us – “On the third day he rose again from the dead. He ascended into heaven and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”

AscensionSo Jesus is in heaven. But where is that and what does it mean he ascended? It’s not just non-Christians who regard this as somewhat fanciful, many Christians struggle with this idea. Is the idea that Jesus was on earth and then went up into the heavens like a spaceman? Is this not something that clearly belongs to a past where they believed in a three-tiered universe – heaven above, hell below and earth in the middle? Are we not so much wiser now?

This question is all the more important to our non-Christian friends because Christians talk about knowing Christ, having a personal relationship with Jesus, talking to Christ, and wanting to introduce them to Jesus. Unless this is just spiritual code or mumbo jumbo we need to be able to say what it means. Surely it requires a real Jesus, with a real presence and not just ‘Jesus living in my heart’ (as a child that always made me think about some weird John Malkovich-style body!)

The key to this is the biblical teaching about the Ascension. I have been enormously helped in thinking about this by my book of the week this week, Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended – the Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation. I have unashamedly relied on it for much of what follows.

1) What is the ascension?

It is stated simply in at the end of Luke’s gospel –

When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Luke 24 – NIV)

The Ascension seems such a strange doctrine. It’s hard enough to believe that Jesus physically rose from the dead. But the idea that he physically rose to heaven seems far-fetched. The usual liberal dismissal of this is expressed by Bishop Richard Holloway who says Jesus is not coming back. And the best way to honour him on his birthday is to look for him not in the skies, but in the streets of our own town. That’s one solution: deny the Ascension happened and spiritualize its meaning so that it becomes all about us.

For those who actually believe the Bible and don’t just make up their own faith the teaching is quite clear. Two Greek words are used for Ascension. One talks about Christ ascending himself, reflecting the Old Testament’s Psalms of ascent (Ps 120-134), another talks about Christ being raised up. He was raised up. An early church statement of faith is expressed in Paul’s letter to Timothy:

Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great:
He appeared in a body,
was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
was taken up in glory.

There is the key. He was taken up in glory. He was taken up to glory. Again, what does that mean? “I’ve gotta home in Gloryland that outshines the sun” – but where is Gloryland? Where did Jesus go? Where is he now?

Where did Jesus Ascend to?

Heaven. The bible uses the term heaven or heavens in different ways. It can refer to the sky above, or the vast region of stars beyond our world, or another dimension altogether – the realm of God beyond all sense perception. The Ascension does not mean that Jesus is somewhere up there in the stars – where if only we could get a spacecraft which could travel far enough and quick enough we would be able to get to him. One of those ‘ignorant’ earlier Christians, John Calvin, put it clearly: “What? Do we place Christ midway among the spheres? Or do we build a cottage for him among planets? Heaven we regard as the magnificent palace of God far outstripping all this world’s fabric.”

Heaven is the place where God is. He is of course everywhere, but this universe has been tainted by sin and it is therefore not, in Moltmann’s phrase ‘totally pervaded by his glory’. Heaven is. To put it in modern terms, heaven is another universe. Out of this world, but nonetheless real.

What does the Ascension of Jesus tell us about Jesus?

Many Christians seem to think that the Ascension means the undoing of the incarnation. God became man in Jesus, and after Jesus ascended to heaven he became God again. CS Lewis observes: “We also in our heart of hearts, tend to slur over the risen manhood of Jesus to conceive him, after death, simply returning into deity, so that the resurrection would be no more than a reversal or undoing of the incarnation.”This is an enormous error. When Jesus became man he did not cease to be God, and when he ascended he did not cease to be man. He is still the God/Man and that has enormous practical consequences for us. Karl Barth said: “The son of God maintains our humanity to all eternity. It is a clothing which he does not put off. It is his temple which he does not leave. It is the form which he does not lose.” The dust of earth now sits on the throne of heaven.

Tomorrow: What Does the Ascension Mean for Us?


David Robertson is minister of St Peters, Dundee, Scotland; director Solas CPC; husband of Annabel, father of Andrew, Becky and EJ; author, debater, broadcaster and Uni chaplain. Follow him @theweeflea

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