Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 18
Question 46. How dost thou understand these words, “He ascended into heaven”?
Answer. That Christ, in sight of His disciples, was taken up from earth into heaven; and that He continues there for our interest, until He comes again to judge the quick and the dead.
Question 47. Is not Christ then with us even to the end of the world, as He hath promised?
Answer. Christ is very man and very God; with respect to his human nature, He is no more on earth; but with respect to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and spirit, He is at no time absent from us.
Question 48. But if His human nature is not present wherever His Godhead is, are not then these two natures in Christ separated from one another?
Answer. Not at all, for since the Godhead is illimitable and omnipresent, it must necessarily follow that the same is beyond the limits of the human nature He assumed, and yet is nevertheless in this human nature and remains personally united to it.
Question 49. Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?
Answer. First, that He is our advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven; secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that He, as the head, will also take up to Himself, us, His members; thirdly, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we “seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God,” and not things on earth.
The Catechism’s treatment of Christ’s ascension into heaven is quite lengthy. There are two reasons for this. The first is that the erroneous error of the Lutherans regarding the presence of Christ at the Lord’s Supper needed to be refuted. The other is that the ascension is an aspect of Christ’s work on which we Christians would do well to meditate more often. When we think of the work of Christ, we tend to focus on His suffering and death in our place, often forgetting the importance of His ascension and continued work for us. So the Catechism speaks not only of the fact and nature of Christ’s ascension, but especially of the advantage of it for us. In this article I hope to give you some things to think about with regard to Jesus’ ascension that will help you with your Christian living in this world.
The Facts of the Ascension
Along with the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Christ, the ascension is an integral part of the work of Christ.
This triumphant event in the life and ministry of Jesus was represented in the types of the Old Testament (), was a fulfillment of biblical prophecy ( ), was anticipated by Christ Himself ( ), and was confirmed and explained by angels ( ).
There are three main Scriptures that give us the historical record of the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. These are; ; and . These passages look at the ascension from the perspective of the disciples. Jesus was physically present with the disciples. He spoke with them, He blessed them, and then in His human body He rose from the earth into the sky till He disappeared from their sight. At that moment, His human nature, His physical body, was transferred from the earthly realm into heaven and the presence of God.
The Scriptures also look at the ascension of Christ from the perspective of heaven. The moment that Christ appeared in heaven He was crowned and given the position of power at God’s right hand (; ; ).
Lutherans do not deny that Christ has ascended into heaven, but in their theology they do confuse what happened to the two natures of Christ after the ascension. Lutherans teach that at the moment of His ascension, Christ’s human nature assumed the divine characteristic of omnipresence—ubiquity. In this way they can maintain that He is physically present in, with, and around the elements of bread and wine at the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper.
However, in line with the Scriptures, the Heidelberg Catechism correctly teaches that the ascension did not change the human nature of Christ, but only changed the place of that human nature. Scripture speaks only of a change of location, not a change in His nature. Christ’s body, because it is a real human body with limitations of time and space, can only be in one place at one time—and now that place is heaven.
A Lutheran will respond by asking, with question 47, “But hasn’t Christ promised to be with us till the end of the world?” Jesus Himself answers this by telling us that He went physically to heaven, so that He could be with us in a much better way (). The physical separation of Christ from His church does not mean that He is absent from them, but rather that He is present with all believers, in every place, all through history, in a much better way, that is, by His Spirit.
The theological explanation for this is twofold. First, even though Christ’s human and divine natures are still joined and can never be separated (we call this the hypostatic union), the divine nature supersedes the limits of His human body. As God, that is, in His divine nature, Christ is omnipresent. Second, because of the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Trinity (we call this perichoresis), wherever the Spirit is, there the Son is also. Just as Jesus said, “He that hath seen me hath seen the Father” (), so it is right to say that if you have the Spirit, you have the Son. The Spirit brings Christ to us ( ).
The Necessity of the Ascension
In, Jesus said to His disciples, “It is expedient for you that I go away.” “Expedient” means “to your advantage.” Jesus means that the ascension is necessary for the good of His church and believers.
Why was it necessary? The Bible gives us at least seven reasons.
1. Jesus ascended into heaven because He had finished the work that He came to do on earth. In, 11 Jesus says, “I have finished the work which thou gavest me to do” and “I come to thee, holy Father.” And so, in we read that “when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high” (see also ).
2. Jesus ascended into heaven so that He could continue His priestly work. His earthly work as Mediator was finished, but His heavenly work had yet to begin. As our great High Priest He now stands in the presence of God as our Advocate () and Mediator ( ). In this role He intercedes for us and keeps us from falling ( and ).
3. Jesus ascended into heaven as the Bridegroom going to prepare a place for His bride (). Heaven is the wonderful home, the house of many mansions, in which He is preparing a place for each of His own. It is our hope to be there with Him ( ; ).
4. Jesus ascended into heaven so that He could send the Holy Spirit. His promise to the church was to send the Comforter, but this He could not do till He ascended (; ).
5. Jesus ascended into heaven so that He might do “greater things” through us than He had done during His earthly ministry (). Jesus’ earthly body was localized. His mystical body, the church, is universal. While on earth He ministered and taught in only one place at a time. Today, through the gifts of the Spirit given to the church, He is able to work with and through millions of people at once ( ; ).
6. Jesus ascended into heaven so that every believer, everywhere, might enjoy His continued powerful and gracious presence. His promises to be with us till the end of the world (), and never to leave or forsake us ( ), could be fulfilled only if He ascended. How wonderful to know that He is with me now, in all my joys, sorrows, and temptations and through the final trial of death ( ; ; ; ).
7. Jesus ascended into heaven as a pledge of His sure and certain return. He said, “If I go . . . I will come again” (). Likewise the angels said to the perplexed disciples who stood gazing after Him, “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven” ( ). Because of the ascension, we can be quite sure that He will come again.
Advantages for Us
Each of the reasons for His ascension are also benefits for us. He ascended “for our interest.” The Catechism focuses on three ways that the ascension is for our advantage.
The first is that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father. What a consolation this is for the sinner! John says, “If any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ, the righteous” (). The word “if,” here, means “when.” When we sin, we have an Advocate. We will sin. There is still within us the principle and power of sin. And, even though all our sins were paid at the cross, the guilt of them comes over us again and again as we continue sinning in a fallen world. Then our consolation is that Jesus is our Advocate, our defense attorney, in God’s presence, turning away the wrath of God, by pleading for us on the basis of His own precious blood. This means we can come before God with assurance, even though we are sinners.
The second advantage is that we have our flesh in heaven. Our human nature, which Christ took on Himself, in which He lived, suffered, died, and rose again, is already today glorified in heaven. Christ as our Head represents us. Where He goes, we will also go. Not only will my soul, after this life, be taken up to glory, but in my flesh shall I see God. Because Christ my Savior is there, I have the right and the ability, in my own body, also to be in heaven. As a believer, I cannot wait. This is my hope!
The third advantage is that Christ, now, sends us His Spirit as an earnest. An earnest is a pledge or proof or promise that something more is sure to follow. By giving us the Spirit, God begins in us our eternal and heavenly life. The Spirit draws us away from earthly things and creates in us an attraction to heavenly treasures (). This creates a tension between our sinful flesh and our spiritual life, but is also the living proof within us that we belong in heaven. Through union with Christ we become citizens of heaven, and we long for the day when the Lord who ascended will come again and “change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body” ( ).
Perhaps we don’t meditate on the ascension of Christ very often, but we should. It defines who we are, it helps us in the struggles of life, it gives us hope, and it tells us that Christ is King and is coming again to take us to be with Him in glory.
Questions for Discussion
1. What happened to Jesus’ human nature at the moment of His ascension?
2. What do you think? Is heaven a real place, or is it enough to call it a state of spiritual existence? Give biblical evidence for your answer.
3. What do Lutherans teach about the ascension of Christ, and how do we answer this?
4. Discuss the promises and commission that Jesus gave His disciples and church at the moment of His ascension.
5. How are the physical absence of Jesus from the earth and His sitting at God’s right hand important for the church in her mission today? ()
6. Discuss how each of the seven reasons for Christ’s ascension are of benefit to us.
7. What are the primary works of the ascended Christ? What is the goal of this work?
8. The Catechism says in answer 47 that Christ “is at no time absent from us.” How does Christ’s spiritual presence present itself in the Word, in the church, and through fellow believers?
9. How do we know that we are citizens of heaven? How does this transform our existence here on earth?