It was a beautiful spring afternoon in New York City. After the gloom of winter, the city was bursting back to life. We three pastors, friends from our earliest days in ministry, had just begun our annual gathering. We were on the upper West Side, on Amsterdam Avenue, and felt drawn on such a fine day to a restaurant with porch seating. As we waited for our food, we discussed recent projects. 'I’m working on a study of the ascension of Jesus,' I said. 'I want to understand more of what it means that the incarnation continues.'
'What do you mean the incarnation continues?' asked one of my friends.
'You know, that Jesus still has a human body,' I replied.
'What are you talking about?' he added, getting a bit agitated.
I went for it, 'Jesus is still in skin. Though he’s glorified in heaven, he’s still one of us.'
Suddenly my friend burst out way too loudly, 'Are you telling me that Jesus Christ sneezes?!'
A very awkward hush came over the restaurant. New Yorkers might be used to hearing the name of Jesus spoken in a loud voice, but not by somebody actually dealing with him as a real person!
'Well, actually, they talked about that in the 17th century...' I tried to answer quietly. But by then it was too late. The conversation had made all of us uncomfortable.
Have you ever thought about this? Jesus Christ still has a body. He is still joined to our humanity. Jesus is what we are going to be. He has opened the way for us to be where he is, in intimate communion with the Father through the Spirit, not only as God, but as man!
This reality is based on an essential episode of Jesus-history: he ascended into heaven. In this brief article, let’s consider just seven of the many important implications of the ascension:
As I’ve studied and taught on the ascension of Jesus, I find that this is a new thought to many Christians. A lot of us have what Douglas Farrow calls a 'drop-in' theory of the incarnation. The eternal Son of God became a human being in the womb of the Virgin Mary. He walked among us in flesh and blood. He was crucified for our sins. He rose victorious and then returned to heaven. So far so good. In our minds, though, we think that when Jesus got back to heaven, he unzipped his skin-suit and stepped out of it. I know if I had been Jesus, that’s what I would have done.
A few years ago, our children’s choir did a production of Veggie Tales, based on the videos which teach Bible stories to kids. As part of the fun, I had to wear the Larry the Cucumber suit. It was pretty disgusting. I don’t think the company we rented it from ever cleaned their costumes. It stank of all the other pastors who ever had to wear it. I couldn’t wait to be unzipped and step out of Larry the Cucumber. We might think Jesus would have felt the same way. 'Please, get this carcass off me!' But he did not. He has not thrown away the flesh he took up. That body has been transformed, as we said, but it has not been abandoned. Isn’t that wild? I can tell you this reality blew apart all the ways people thought of heaven and earth, spirit and body back then. It still does now. The Son of God has stayed joined to our humanity. He has not dropped us.
Let’s undergird this thought with three quotations.
1) Paul wrote to the Philippians that Jesus 'will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body' (Phil. 3: 21). What Jesus has now, we will have—a body suited to our humanity and also for everlasting life.
2) In the fourth century, Gregory Nazianzen declared, 'If any assert that He has now put off His holy flesh, and that His Godhead is stripped of the body, and deny that He is now with his body and will come again with it, let him not see the glory of His coming.' (To Cleondius). Well, that’s fairly direct! Jesus remains in a body and will return with one.
3) Closer to our time Karl Barth asserted that Christ maintains his 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' (Church Dogmatics, Vol. 4, pp. 100-01). Jesus keeps what we are in himself, knitted to his own being. He loves us so much he will never end his union with us.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the neglect of the doctrine of the ascension is the fantastic nature of the event. The moment of resurrection occurred hidden from human sight. The disciples saw the risen Christ alive, after the dead man had gotten up. The ascension, however, occurred before many witnesses. Jesus rose into the sky until a cloud covered him and they saw him no more. Angels standing nearby told the disciples that he had been 'taken into heaven' (Acts 1: 11), there to dwell until he would come back again in the same manner as his departure.
This ascension might make a great scene for special effects in a movie, but it more readily appears absurd to the modern imagination. We may more easily imagine a Monty Python sketch in which a cardboard cut-out of an icon of Jesus floats towards the top of the screen; one paper hand waves good-bye and a cartoon eye winks knowingly. After all, does anyone really think that heaven is a place 'up there' to which we may travel if only we had the right kind of vehicle? No, the ascension is just too physical, too public, and too apparent for our sensibilities.
This is by no means a modern development. From the beginning, there were those who doubted the resurrection of the flesh. Bodies just don’t get up from the dead, and rationally minded people have always questioned the Christian claim. Now, if there is no resurrection in the body, there is certainly no ascension in the body. Whether holding a hard-nosed Sadducee claim that this life as an ensouled body is all there is, or a Greek Gnostic belief that only the soul goes on, slipping at last from the prison of the body, many were offended by the preaching of the rising and ascending of Jesus. Any notion of the ancients as credulous unsophisticates who clung to absurdly literalistic cosmologies accounts neither for the Biblical witness nor the writings of the first five centuries. It was as hard to believe in the ascension in the flesh then as now.
The ascension, in all its glaring physicality, brings the Christian claims about Christ right into the open market of real events in space and time. We believe that the truth of Jesus Christ is what Lesslie Newbigin calls public truth, the truth about what is the case. Today, a false dichotomy between public and private truth is often drawn. The world of facts, of science and carpentry, accounting and clothes washing, comprises the realm of public truth. What is true can be known, articulated, measured and accepted by all reasonable people. The world of feelings, of religious belief, of values and opinions is placed in the arena of private truth. So we hear people say, 'These statements of faith may be true for me but I certainly would not impose them on your view of the world.' The subtext is, 'If you just leave me alone in my private beliefs, then I won’t bother you about their being true.'
But Christianity has always created upheaval by declaring that Jesus is the eternal Son of God come down to our world of dust and swiftly passing time, to the external, physical world where we actually live. He spoke in a human voice that could be heard by listeners. He healed the sick in the presence of witnesses. He was tried in a public court of law (such as it was) and crucified on the open hill where any could see. But more, this crucified Jesus rose from the dead and appeared, in the same flesh in which he had been executed, to many witnesses. We claim that this is public truth, a fact in the real world. We go on to claim that he was taken up to heaven in that same body and that there were many who saw him depart.
For Newbigin, the resurrection is the central fact around which all other facts, and all other claims to truth, must be arranged. 'Indeed, the simple truth is that the resurrection cannot be accommodated in any way of understanding the world except one of which it is the starting point' (Truth to Tell, p. 11). The Christian rule of truth has always resisted any spiritualizing of the resurrection, and the account of the ascension dramatically rules out any thought of resurrection as only an interior spiritual event in the believing church. Jesus who rose in a body, ascended in the same body. To paraphrase an ancient father, 'Now dust sits on heaven’s throne!' This fact appears in history as a great stone, around which all other streams of thought break. One may build on the stone or break against it, but it will not go away.
Near 400AD, Augustine (d. 430) commented on the nature of this ascended resurrection body and the limits on human inquiry about it:
But by a spiritual body is meant one which has been made subject to spirit in such wise that it is adapted to a heavenly habitation, all frailty and every earthly blemish having been changed and converted into heavenly purity and stability. ..But the question as to where and in what manner the Lord’s body is in heaven, is one which it would be altogether over-curious and superfluous to prosecute. Only we must believe that it is in heaven. For it pertains not to our frailty to investigate the secret things of heaven, but it does pertain to our faith to hold elevated and honorable sentiments on the subject of the dignity of the Lord’s body (A Treatise on Faith and the Creed, chp. 6).
The ascended body of Jesus has been 'adapted to a heavenly habitation,' and so shall our bodies be. All 'frailty and every earthly blemish' have been transformed. Christ Jesus the man is in heaven with God, still incarnate in a spiritual body, yet in a realm beyond our perception. To speculate further on the details of life in heaven would be 'altogether over-curious and superfluous.' It is enough to know that Christ Jesus is in heaven, still fully human and ever fully God.
While the patristic writers may not have shared our notions of cosmology, they generally refrained from speculations that extended beyond the simple, profound claims of the biblical story. Thus, their conceptions of the universe never undermine the essential theological truths borne by spatial descriptions of 'ascending' and 'descending.'
T. F. Torrance notes that the incarnation represents a coming of God from the place where God is to the place where humanity is (cf. Space, Time and Resurrection, pp. 128-131). By place, however, Torrance means us to think relationally rather than spatially. He cautions us against a 'receptacle' view of space as necessarily containing, or circumscribing, all of Christ. Rather, in a relational sense, God in Christ crosses the divide to enter our existence, our way of being. Then, through this union, Jesus returns, still bearing his humanity, to the place of relation described as the Father’s right hand, the 'place' of honor, glory, power and dominion
Yet, because a body necessarily occupies space, the spatial distinction is not merely metaphor, but a reality. There is a place where the human Jesus is. There is a heaven in which spiritual bodies occupy space, a created realm in which creatures are, to the limits of their capacity, in the immediate presence of God. Of course, here we are beyond the limits of language, beyond the three-dimensional thinking of our world, beyond this writer’s ability. What matters is that we hold together the reality that Jesus remains enfleshed, in a glorified, transformed body with the reality that 'where' he is, in heaven, is a realm beyond our perceptions, beyond our understanding of space and time, yet in the presence of God who is as near as our next breath.
So, while we recognize the limits of language, and the way words must point to realities beyond themselves, we summarize by saying that the ascension represents the departure of the incarnate Son of God back to the place where God is, taking human nature where it has never gone before.
In ancient days, the greatness of a king would be shown by the quality of gifts he bestowed upon his loyal subjects. Jesus in ascending was exalted by his Father. He was crowned with the name above all names (Phil 2: 9). For now Jesus is 'the blessed and only sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords' (I Tim. 6: 15). More than any earthly ruler, our reigning King showers signs of his favor on his people. The bounteous gift our Lord pours upon us is nothing less than his own Spirit!
On the day of Pentecost, the Holy Spirit shook the house with the sound as of a mighty wind. He rested on them in the form of tongues of fire above their heads and enabled them to glorify God in languages they had not known, adapted to the speech of the many ethnic groups gathered in Jerusalem. Peter stood up to explain to the gathered crowd what happened. He gave a brief history of the ministry and death of Jesus, concluding, 'This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing' (Acts 2: 32-33).
The blessed Spirit of Jesus is the royal gift beyond compare. For starters, the Spirit regenerates us (Titus 3: 5), creates faith in us (Eph. 2: 8), makes us members of Christ’s body (I Cor. 12: 13), teaches us the things of Jesus (Jn. 15: 26), lives and prays in us (Gal. 4: 6), prays for us (Rom. 8: 26), grows the qualities of Jesus in and through us (Gal. 5: 22) and empowers us for ministry (Acts 1: 9). In short, Jesus pours his Spirit upon us in order that we might 1) be taken into the Triune life of God and be given all that Jesus is and has (John 14: 20, 16: 15) and 2) be sent into the world to bring others to Christ.
The ascension is necessary to the sending of the Spirit. Jesus said, 'I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you' (Jn. 16: 7). How can this be? Think of it: if Jesus had stayed on earth after his resurrection, the number of people who could speak and be with him at any one time would be restricted to the limits of human voice and ears. The ones who could intimately speak with him or be embraced by him would be even fewer. In ascending, Jesus did not lose his human body. But he is able to relate to an unlimited number of people through the uniting work of the Holy Spirit.
In fact, because the Spirit of Jesus dwells within the souls of believers, we are actually closer in intimacy and union with Jesus than even his first disciples who had physical proximity to him! The royal gift of our ascended King is perpetual access and deepening closeness to him.
When our four children were little, they often strategized about the best way to approach me for something they wanted. For example, I know if our youngest, at age four, had ever asked me, 'Dad, would you take us to play laser tag?' she would not have been speaking for herself. The little one had no idea then what laser tag is, let alone how much she would have hated maniacal 10 year olds screaming about and pointing guns at her. But full of affection for her siblings, she would ask anything for her them. So if the older ones suspected that their recent sauciness had rendered me unfavorable toward them, they would send the tiny cute one on their behalf. She would put their request on her lips. She could be the bridge because she loved both her siblings and her parents. And they knew she had a clear channel to my heart. From an early age, we know how important it is to have someone put in a good word for us.
To a much greater degree, that’s what the ascended Jesus does in our gathered worship and individual prayers. He serves as our mediator. Jesus makes a constant connection for us as our brother in skin with his Father in heaven. Joined forever to our humanity, he brings to us, as his adopted brothers and sisters, the eternal favor he has always enjoyed from his Father as beloved Son. And he brings us into the presence of the Father who sent him to save us in the first place. Jesus offers us in himself as a love-gift to his Father. He presents us cleansed and recreated in himself.
The ascension has a key role in this adopting, redeeming activity. For it is the hinge in the work of Jesus as our perfect priest. The ascension links Jesus’ once-for-all atonement completed on the cross with his continuing ministry for us in heaven. So Jesus told Mary, 'Go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God,’' (Jn. 20: 17). Jesus is about to go back to heaven. But he will do so joined to his disciples by the Spirit. And more: joined to all who have faith in him in the future through the disciples’ proclamation of this gospel. Jesus may have been going back, but he went bringing us with him. Even now, he’s bringing us into his Father’s presence by offering his good word on our behalf. As Knox said, Jesus is our 'fore-speaker.' He shows up before us, speaks on our behalf and opens the way for us to draw near to the Father in him (Heb. 7: 25). And, of course, his 'word' is more than just speech—Jesus offers his whole being, and us in him, to the Father as part of the everlasting love between them.
In this sense, whenever we gather to praise the Triune God, Jesus leads our worship. He serves as a perfect go-between. The Holy Spirit connects Jesus in heaven to his people, his body, on earth. So, on the one hand, at every worship service, Jesus continues to offer the love of his Father to us. Whenever the Word is preached and the Bread is broken, Jesus reminds us that the Father’s favor pours through his Son to us. At every service around the world, Jesus still says, 'I will tell of your name to my brothers' (Heb. 2: 12). On the other hand, Jesus continues to say, 'Father, here I am, and the children you gave me' (Heb. 2: 13, par.). He offers worship with us and for us whenever we gather. He declares 'In the midst of the congregation, I will sing your praise' (Heb. 2: 12). Our worship occurs in Christ our ascended and continuing priest by means of his Spirit.
From this we realize that the purpose of Christ’s justifying us, ransoming us, and redeeming us has always been to re-engage relationship! The Triune God wants to be our God, personally related to us in an everlasting, ever-growing love. Jesus our priest made the atoning sacrifice of his sinlessly lived life in a one-time offering on the cross. That established a reconciled relationship. Now we relate to the Father in Christ. Joined to Jesus by the Spirit, we are taken up into the life of the Trinity. Never in ourselves, or by ourselves. But always for eternity in our brother and savior Jesus.
In his ascension, Jesus our high priest has gone into the true holy of holies, the very presence of his Father, as himself the offering for sin (Heb. 9: 24). That atonement has been accepted. We are reconciled to God in Christ. But he remains, as our ascended brother in flesh, at his Father’s side to maintain and deepen this relationship. 'He always lives to make intercession for us' (Heb. 7: 25). Once and for all upon the cross, Jesus our priest offered the perfect sacrifice: he offered himself, the lamb without blemish, to take away our sins. The act of atonement is complete. But in ascending, he appears now on our behalf in a continuing intercession. Why? So that what he has secured for us may be worked out in practice in our daily lives of relating to the Father through the Son and bearing forth such love in the Spirit’s power into the world.
Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate, the Roman Governor, while a bloodthirsty crowd clamored for crucifixion. Pilate simply wanted to release Jesus, but the mob pressure was strong. So he had Jesus flogged as a punishment, hoping that would satisfy the crowd and show that Jesus was helpless. He brought the battered and bloodied Jesus before the mob and said, 'Behold the man!' (John 19: 5).
Before he became Pope Benedict, Joseph Ratzinger reflected on the significance in this scene, and I will paraphrase his thought. Jesus is the image of God on earth. But he is also the image of man, used here as a summary term for all men and women, boys and girls. Jesus is what humankind is supposed to be. The devil and his powers want to tear down the image of God in man. The evil in the world loves to mock us and say, 'Look, here is what man is good for. Here is man. Disfigured. Bloodied. His only crown is that of cruel thorns. He is good only for the discard heap.'
Now think how often in our movies and stories this is the way humanity is portrayed. We look at image after image of man humiliated. Man in the gutter. Man searching and groping blindly for meaning, and finding only despair. Man acting like an animal. Man helpless before his lusts. Man violent and destroying. Materialists tell us we came from the primordial ooze. We are nothing but a speck in an indifferent universe. We are here as the result of blind forces. We matter no more than a rock or a pig. Everywhere humanity is portrayed as diminished and helpless and can only continue in self-destruction.
This is where the ascension is so important. Jesus is the one man who lived out perfectly the image of God in a human being. The final picture we have of Jesus is not the battered, rejected, disgraced Jesus. It is the triumphant, radiant Jesus ascending into heaven. 'Behold the man' must be said not only before the crucifixion. It must be said at the ascension. Look, there is man, man as he was meant to be, going to communion with God. There is man, meant to reign in heaven and to judge angels. There is man restored in glory, the very image of the eternal God. So Benedict tells us that to truly understand what people are, you have to look not just where we came from and where we wallow and slop now, you have to consider where we can go in Christ. Our destiny in Jesus is man in communion, man in glory and harmony, man in loving dominion over a flourishing earth, man restored to a glorious destiny. The ascension is the guarantee, the down payment on all God is going to do to restore his redeemed race. Behold the man! If we are in Christ, we are meant for heaven. We are bound for glory. Our destiny is not the gutter; it is the mansions of the high king where we will live as his sons and daughters (Joseph Ratzinger, Images of Hope, pp. 57-60).
The ascension tells us our destiny is upwards. That means we do not seek to find life in the deathliness of a world trying to live without God. We live from our ascended Christ, drawing upon his Spirit, trusting that his values of forgiveness, forbearance, and all the fruit of the Spirit are the path to life. In this way we seek Christ through prayer and worship, study and fellowship. Jesus ascended ever draws us to look up from ourselves to Christ our life. We lift our eyes to Jesus who is in heaven, and know, by great mystery, that because we are in Christ, we are seated with him in the heavenlies (Eph. 2: 6).
But that spiritual vision does not remove us from the world. The ascension also tells us that our mission here on earth is outwards. It actually sends us out to the least and the lost. By staying wedded to our humanity, Jesus affirms that he is still concerned about these flesh and blood humans in the world. He did not drop our humanity from himself. Nor has he fled his love for the world for which he gave his life. To live daily from the ascended Christ is to live constantly for others, sharing in his mission to humanity.
Augustine articulated this balance beautifully when he wrote,
Christ-God is the country whither we go; Christ-Man is the Way whereby we go…He has now risen again, and ascended into heaven, there He is, and sits at the right Hand of the Father: and here He is needy in His poor…He is at once above, and below; above in Himself, below in His; above with His Father, below in us….Have Christ above bestowing his bounty, recognize Him here in need. Here he is poor, there He is rich. (Sermons on Selected Texts, 73.3).
'Christ-God is the country whither we go.' The realization of the wonderful communion with his Father which he has opened to us is our goal. We get to that far country through his descent to us as man. Our union with 'Christ-man' is strengthened when we love him by loving his poor. Because the Son of God walked among us in flesh he yet retains, he has established the worth of all flesh. Declaring himself to be fed and clothed when his disciples feed and clothe even the 'least of these’ (Matt 25: 40), Jesus founded the Christian ethic of love for the needy. Moreover, he articulated the link between loving action and spiritual ascent. They are to be inseparable.
The most daring and engaged ministries of compassion and evangelism will mark churches living in vivid awareness of the continuing incarnation of Jesus. Our Lord is in heaven, but he is also here among the least of the least. Remaining incarnate, he directs us to cherish all those with whom he is a brother after the flesh. Thus, no one is to be left out of the sphere of the church living in the power of the Spirit of the ascended Jesus.
The late 19th century Scottish theologian William Milligan wrote:
The glorified Lord is human as well as Divine. Even at the right hand of God He is still the man Christ Jesus. The feelings, the emotions, the sympathies of His heart are exactly what they were when He welcomed the first symptoms of contrition in the woman who came to Him in Simon’s house, or when He wept over the unbelief of Jerusalem. Even now He would leave no penitent uncheered, no mourner uncomforted, no friend unloved, no little child unblessed; and in all this He is the truly human as well as the Divine Priest of men… When the Church keeps this in view there is no human want or weakness strange to her. It is her part to heal every wound and to wipe away every tear. (The Ascension of our Lord, 258, 288).
The heavenly life of Christ directs us away from pursuing the world with its goods, its corridors of power and arenas of entertainment, as an end in itself, but at the same time sends us right into the world with all the sympathies of our Lord to the least and the lost.
Yes, the ascension of Jesus remains a neglected doctrine. Recovering it may well ignite some tense conversations in New York restaurants, or seminary classes, or church halls. But the ascension is absolutely vital to our hope and to our mission. Jesus is still in skin. He has not dropped us, so we may enter our service in this world with all the joy and optimism of a well-grounded, eternal hope.
Gerrit Scott Dawson is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Baton Rouge, LA, USA. He is author of Jesus Ascended (Continuum, 2004).