Rev. Key is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church of Randolph, Wisconsin.
Belonging to Christ’s exaltation is His ascension into heaven. Forty days after His resurrection, our Lord Jesus Christ, in His human nature, ascended into heaven in the presence of His disciples, after having given them the promise that He would come again and take them and all His own unto Himself, that where He is, there we may be also.
The fact that Christ is no longer on earth may seem to be contrary to that which would be for our spiritual good. Wouldn’t it be better if He would have stayed to walk with us, as He did with His disciples?
But Scripture makes clear that Christ’s ascension into heaven was and continues to be extremely profitable for us.
The Historical Event
Christ’s ascension was both a historical and a wonderful event. It was an event that marked very clearly the truth that, with respect to His human nature, Jesus is no more on earth.
A change had already taken place before the ascension. Jesus was no longer with His disciples as He was before the cross.
Several times in the forty days after the resurrection He had appeared unto them and spoken with them and given them instruction concerning the things of His kingdom and their calling in the church on this earth. He commissioned them to go and teach all nations,and comforted them with the words, “And, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:19, 20).
But it also was very clear that He would not be with them in the same sense as He had been before. He no longer walked with them as before. He no longer taught the multitudes. He no longer lived among them as a Man among men. But they would be meeting here, or would be together there, and all of a sudden He would appear in their midst, coming as if out of the air.
And finally there came a time, on the fortieth day after that great day of His resurrection, when something happened which made clear to all the disciples that those appearances that the risen Lord had made would not continue. Another ten days, with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost, they would understand clearly how Jesus would now dwell in them and be with them always. But on this fortieth day, something happened which brought a physical separation between Him and them.
We read about the event in the account in Acts 1. After Jesus had given His final instructions to His disciples, we read in verses 9-11: “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? 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.”
Mark points to the fact of Christ’s ascension as attaining a definite end or purpose: “So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God” (Mark 16:19).
In Luke 24:50, 51, we read: “And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” Notice, He was parted from them. There was very definitely a physical separation that took place at that event on the mount called Olivet.
Our Lord Jesus Christ, in His human nature, departed from the earth and went to heaven. The significance of that event we shall come to presently; but Scripture clearly teaches that the ascension involved a definite change of place.
The Reformed churches have always differed with the Lutherans in this matter, as becomes evident in a study of this truth from the Reformed creeds. After the resurrection and in the ascension Christ did not become ubiquitous, as Luther said. That is, Christ’s human nature did not become everywhere present. But, on the contrary, our risen Lord departed from the earth, and entered into the place called heaven.
That ascension was a wonder. We do well to remind ourselves of that. While heaven is a definite place beyond our earthly senses, the ascension cannot be compared to taking a journey from one earthly place to another. We easily think of Jesus stretching out His arms like an airplane and suddenly “taking off,” to land in another place. But we must not forget that even this last manifestation of the Lord to His disciples on Mount Olivet was an appearance of Him who had already passed on into the resurrection-sphere, and who lived in His glorified, incorruptible spiritual body.
What the disciples saw with their eyes was that Jesus was taken up from them, as a sign to them that He had departed from them, not to walk in their midst again in the same way as He had to that point.
Don’t misunderstand. He is not absent from us. In His Godhead, and according to His divine nature, He is always present. But we speak now about Christ in His human nature, as the Son of man.
We may say indeed that it was the person of the Son of God that ascended into heaven. But that ascension was realized only in His human nature.
The Godhead is unchangeable. In His divine nature the ascension of the Son of God did not effect a change. In fact, to speak of a change of place with respect to the divine nature would be absurd. For God is immanent in all things, yet He is also the Transcendent One. He fills all things, while at the same time being far above all things. In His Godhead, Christ is everywhere present.
But according to His human nature, He is now in heaven. Once His disciples could meet Him and have earthly fellowship with Him. They could sit at the table with Him and hear Him preach and teach. They could even touch Him. But now, with our earthly eyes, we don’t see Him anymore. All earthly associations are gone. Having been taken up from earth into heaven, “He continues there for our interest until He comes again to judge the living and the dead” (Heidelberg Catechism, L.D. 18).
Christ’s Continued Presence
But even though Jesus has ascended into heaven, no more to dwell on earth in His human nature, the fact remains that with respect to His Godhead, majesty, grace, and spirit, He is at no time absent from us.
Jesus is still with us. Luther was not wrong in that. Our Lord Christ is still with us, to be sure. But He is with us in a far higher and more intimate sense than He was ever with His disciples during His earthly sojourn.
That is how the Heidelberg Catechism explains it in Q. & A. 47: “Is not Christ then with us even to the end of the world, as He hath promised? 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.”
We face here a doctrinal issue.
We have seen the truth of Scripture that our Mediator must be very God and very man in One person. The two natures of Christ, the human and the divine natures, are inseparable. That is also a matter of the church’s confession going back many centuries.
But now we speak of Christ being in heaven in His human nature, and yet being with us in His Godhead. How can we speak that way?
That certainly brings up the question, as our Catechism faces in Question & Answer 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?” The answer, however, is this: “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.”
The divine nature of Christ is beyond the limits of the human nature that He assumed, yet remains personally united to it. That is how Scripture explains this wonderful phenomenon of His ascension.
It is important, even from a practical point of view, that we lay hold of this truth by faith. Sometimes we think, “How nice it must have been to be one of the disciples, to live with Jesus, to walk with Him and talk with Him, to be able to ask Him questions and hear Him teach and preach.” But when we think that way, we are overlooking the rich blessing that God has given us, far superior to that experienced by Jesus’ disciples.
We now have the Lord Jesus not only with us, but in us by His Holy Spirit. He is present with us not only as the Creator of all things, but as the God of our salvation, who was delivered for our iniquities and raised again for our justification. He is present with us as the Christ who has accomplished the victory!
Christ is present with us now in all the glory of His sovereignty, in all the authority of His lordship over all. He is present with us now as the One who loved us unto death, even the death of the cross, and who arose that we might live, and that more abundantly.
And this is true, because after His ascension He received the Holy Spirit without measure, according to the promise His Father had given Him. Ephesians 4explains that, in fulfillment of Psalm 68, He ascended up on high, leading captivity captive, in order that He might give gifts unto men, glorious gifts, gifts of grace and forgiveness, of righteousness and holiness and love, gifts of everlasting life and glory. To that end He received the Spirit, and in that Spirit He returned to His own as He had promised, to dwell in them and to be with them forever.
He is present with us in such a way that we know His love for us. Through the Spirit’s work in our hearts, He causes us to know Him and to taste His grace, to hear His Word and to partake of all the blessings of salvation.
That presence is constant. He never leaves us nor forsakes us. He never fails to lead us through the deepest trials. He never fails to bring us back in the way of repentance from our deepest wanderings through the mire of sin, that we might once again taste of His fellowship.
And in the measure that we live by faith, and hear His Word, and walk in His way, we also experience this truth, that the ascended Christ our Savior is always present with us by His Spirit and grace.
That knowledge is indeed the fountain of the joy of faith. A tremendous blessing it is that Jesus ascended into heaven, no more to dwell on earth in His human nature, but never absent from us in His Godhead, majesty, grace, and Spirit.