Soundings

Ascension: A real event, not a myth

Mar 2003    

PART 11 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATIONS ON ‘FAITH TO LIVE BY’

But it cannot be fully described within our framework ofspace and time

WHILE much has been written on the resurrection of Christ, the literature on His ascension is very slight. Yet, the New Testament unequivocally testifies to the ascension of Christ into heaven where He is seated with God the Father.

During His earthly ministry, Jesus alluded to His ascension and returned to His Father more than once (John 6:62; 14:2, 12; 16:5, 10, 28: 20:17). Among the writers of the Gospels Luke presented the most detailed account of the ascension of Christ into heaven. In Luke 24:50-51 we read this description of the ascension: “When He has 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” (Cf. Acts 1:6-11).

Other authors of the New Testament also referred to the ascension of Christ. Writing to the Christians at Ephesus, Paul alluded to the ascension when he spoke of Christ’s resurrection and session in heaven. “That power is like the working of His mighty strength which He exerted in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms” (Eph 1:19b-20; 4:8-10; 1 Tim 3:16).

Some modern theologians have argued that the concept of the ascension is based on an outmoded cosmology and therefore the ascension should not be taken literally but should be interpreted as either a myth or a symbol. These theologians maintain that it is impossible for the modern scientific mind to take a physical ascension of Christ into outer space seriously. But to mythologise the ascension in whatever way is to introduce a radical revision to the way in which the church has always understood the event.

The church has always maintained that Jesus’ ascension is to be understood literally as His physical departure to glory, His return to His Father. But even those who wish to take the literal interpretation of the ascension seriously find it difficult to understand or envision the event. If we think of the ascension purely in the categories of space and time, then the ascended Jesus must be envisioned as floating somewhere in outer space. According to this interpretation, “heaven” itself must be interpreted as a “location”, a “place” in terms of our space-time categories.

But like the incarnation, the virgin birth and the resurrection, the ascension must be treated as a paradox. Because of the incarnation, because the Son of God really took upon Himself human flesh, the ascension cannot be simply spiritualised. Similarly, since the resurrection of Christ was a bodily resurrection, His ascension was also bodily in nature. This means that the ascension must be taken literally: the resurrected Jesus did ascend into the skies. But the ascension is more than just a reality that takes place within our space and time. The ascension, like the resurrection, signals a new beginning, the coming into being of a new reality, and thus, it cannot be fully described within our space-time framework.

The ascension is an event that is real: it is not a myth or a mere symbol that points to something else. But it is at the same time an event that is totally unique and thus, cannot be entirely contained within the categories of space and time as we know them. It is Christ’s entrance into the freedom of the exalted life.

The second statement also presents the same difficulties when we bring to it questions that are shaped by our understanding of space, that is, when we ask, “Where is the Father at whose right hand the ascended Christ is seated?”

This statement is presented in a picture language that comes from a practice commonly found in oriental courts where the chief minister would stand or sit at the king’s right hand where he would exercise the authority that was delegated to him. The writers of the New Testament also use this image to denote the authority and power of Christ (Colossians 3:1).

‘Although the Kingdom of God is currently hidden, Christ’s kingship is irrevocable, and His reign will one day be revealed to and acknowledged by all.’

The exalted Christ rules as king

This image can be traced to the Old Testament, especially the psalms where it is applied to the King of Israel: “The Lord says to my lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool’ ” (110:1). When used to describe the risen and ascended Christ, this image is meant to signal the fact that the victorious Christ is exalted and now reigns from heaven.

The theological significance of this statement should not be marginalised and underestimated. The New Testament, especially Hebrews, describes Christ as our High Priest, who has obtained God’s forgiveness for us so that we may approach the holy God with faith and confidence. In the Old Testament, the Jewish high priest enters the holy of holies of the Temple bringing with him the blood of an animal sacrifice to sprinkle on the mercy seat as a symbol of the atonement.

Christ, the High Priest of our Confession, has done the same for us, but His sacrifice is far greater than the sacrifices brought by the high priests of Israel. Christ, who is without sin, has offered up His life on the cross on behalf of the world, for the atonement of the sins of humanity. Unlike the high priests of Israel who had to offer sacrifices for their own sins as well as for the sins of the people, Christ, being sinless, had no need to do this. Unlike the high priests who had to repeat this ritual every year, Christ’s offering and sacrifice is definitive, made “once and for all” (Heb 9:12; cf. 9:25f., 28). It is a perfect and sufficient sacrifice that need never be repeated.

The Anglican Book of Common Prayer offers a succinct and lucid description of the sacrifice on the cross when it describes it as “a full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world”.

Having made available the forgiveness of God and having dealt with the guilt and shame of our sin, Christ has now “to appear for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:24). At the right hand of God, Christ continues to be our advocate to the Father (1 John 2:1), pleading our cases and defending us. Also at God’s right hand, Christ continues to intercede for us (Romans 8:34) just as He has done so during His earthly life and ministry (John 17:6-26). We must remember that this High Priest is not a stranger to temptations, having experienced them himself. Because He is one “who has been tempted in every way, just as we are – yet without sin”, He is able to identify with us and sympathise with our weaknesses. At the right hand of God, Christ is the compassionate intercessor who brings our grief, our pains and our struggles to the Father.

But ascension and session also point to the fact that at the right hand of the Father, the exalted Christ rules as king. If the first aspect of this statement points to the mercy of Christ, the second points to His authority and kingship. This kingship is presently not acknowledged by all. But although the Kingdom of God is currently hidden, Christ’s kingship is irrevocable, and His reign will one day be revealed to and acknowledged by all.

Thus Paul, writing to the Christians at Corinth, could assert that Christ “must reign until He has put all His enemies under His feet”. In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul emphasised that this would indeed be the case at the end of time. God, Paul maintained, had placed “all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills everything in every way” (Eph 1:22-23).

This prepares us for the next statement of the creed which announces that the One who is risen, ascended and seated at God’s right hand will return as Judge to bring God’s justice and Kingdom to earth.

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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