Our Hope in the AscensionMay 18, 2023
“We must place our hope in men,” said Gandalf.
“Men!” Elrond replied. “The race of men is weak, failing. The blood of Numenor is all but spent, its pride and dignity forgotten. It is because of men that the Ring survives. I was there, three thousand years ago, when Isildur took the ring. I was there when the strength of men failed.”
This scene from J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy should remind us of the doctrine of the Ascension. Elrond was right, but Gandalf was more right. Yes, the race of men is weak. Yes, evil survives (and thrives) because one man took what he should not have taken. Yes, the strength of men failed thousands of years ago. But our hope in human flesh is not misplaced. In Tolkien's story, there is a Man—Aragorn—to sit on Gondor’s throne. Just as because of Christ's Ascension, human flesh now sits at the right hand of God.
Of all the aspects of Christ’s work in his state of exaltation, the Ascension is one of the most overlooked. Every Christian knows something about the Resurrection. Most look forward to Christ’s coming again. But few could tell you much about the Ascension. To be sure, it’s there in the Creed, but most Christians—if they consider the Ascension at all—think of it as little more than a heavenly transit system. Jesus ascended into heaven; that’s how the Son of God got back home. Although Easter is a high point in the church calendar for most Christians, Ascension Day is virtually forgotten in many Protestant traditions, including my own Reformed tradition.
This has not always been the case. Even as Calvin and Bucer moved away from many of the Catholic calendar's saint days and holy days, they still retained “Five Evangelical Feasts” in the church calendar: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension Day, and Pentecost. The Palatinate Church Order of 1563 (an influential liturgical manual from the Heidelberg area of Germany) observed Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. The Church Order coming out of the Synod of Dort (1618–19) adopted what had long been the practice of Reformed churches in the Netherlands: the observation of several feast days (including the Ascension of Christ) in addition to Sunday. In the words of Daniel Hyde, for the Reformed tradition on the continent, these evangelical feasts were “not holy but helpful.”
More important than history, of course, is the Bible. And here we find that Christ’s ascension is more prominent in Scripture than many realize. Luke describes the Ascension in the most detail, first in his Gospel and then in Acts. Peter’s Pentecost sermon is, in part, about the Ascension and enthronement of Christ. Likewise, John’s Gospel is full of references to the Ascension of the Son of Man and the importance of Jesus returning to the Father.
The Ascension is not simply about getting Jesus to heaven. It matters how Jesus ascended. He ascended locally (a real geographic place), visibly (in front of many witnesses), and bodily (not some ethereal disappearance). The manner in which Jesus ascended will be the manner in which he descends at the end of the age. The blessed appearing of our Lord Savior will be an actual appearing—in the flesh, to the earth, witnessed by multitudes.
Just as important, the Ascension is a further fulfillment and vindication of the triumph of the Resurrection. It is no wonder that the Ascension is highlighted throughout the New Testament as a necessary precursor to a number of blessings in this age of the Spirit. The Ascension is linked to the giving of Messianic gifts (Eph. 4:8-10), to the intercession of our High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16), and to the subjection of all things under Christ’s feet (1 Peter 3:22). Because Jesus is our conquering king, he is positioned to gift us with the spoils of victory. Because Jesus is seated at the right hand of God the Father, he is able to plead his finished work on our behalf. And because Jesus is enthroned on high, he is able to rule over all things in heaven and on earth.
The Heidelberg Catechism mentions three ways that Christ’s Ascension benefits us:
First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father. Second, we have our own flesh in heaven—a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven. Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a further guarantee. 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.
Each of these points is worth pondering at length, but it’s the second benefit that is most shocking. The Ascension assures us that the Incarnation is perpetual. The God who, in the fullness of time, became man, will never, for all time, cease to be a man. The ascended Christ shows us what Adam was supposed to be and what we will one day become—not the natural Son of the Father, but kingly and priestly sons of our Father given to rule on the earth (Rev. 5:10). In some countries, Ascension Day is still a national holiday. It is a pity that most Christians in America do not know such a day exists, let alone why it might be important. Even if one is not enamored with the historic church calendar, surely the Ascension itself deserves to be remembered, taught, and commemorated. Christ’s resurrection cannot be separated from his ascension, which cannot be separated from his session and his second coming. Every aspect of his work in the state of exaltation must stand or fall together.
Christ will not be less exalted if we forget about the Ascension, but our appreciation for his exaltation will be diminished. As will our appreciation for the wonder that is a crucified King on heaven’s throne. Because the God-man triumphed, our hope in men is not wishful thinking. A man with our flesh reigns in heaven. A man from our race will return as King. A man sits on Gondor’s throne, and the race of men will reign once more (2 Tim. 2:12).
This article was originally published on May 26, 2022