In answer to the question: “Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?’’ the Catechism mentions a threefold benefit resulting from the glorification of our Lord for the Church on earth: He is our advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven; His presence in heaven is, to us, a pledge of our future glorification; and from His heavenly glory He send us His Spirit as an earnest, so that, principally, we are with (Him in heaven, and seek the things which are above by the power of that Spirit.
A few words must be said about each of these spiritual blessings.
That Christ is our advocate in the presence of the Father in heaven is a truth that stands closely related to what Scripture calls His intercession. About this intercession of our High Priest we wrote in our exposition of the twelfth Lord’s Day, the thirty first question, in connection with the name Christ and the offices of our Savior. We need not repeat here what was said in that connection.*
However, although the ideas of advocate and intercessor are closely related, they may also be distinguished.
The former is a more specific and limited notion than the latter. An intercessor (Furbitter) is one who prays in behalf of another (in the Bible only the verb occurs: entunchanein huper tinos); an advocate (Furspreker, Parakleetos,) is one who pleads in behalf of someone. The former, therefore, is the more general notion: the intercessory prayer of Christ covers all our needs, and results in the bestowal of all spiritual blessings upon the Church. The latter, however, the idea of advocate, a paraklete, is more limited: as our advocate Christ pleads for us, as in ourselves we are sinners and damnable before God, to obtain our justification before the bar of the Judge of heaven and earth.
Thus the term advocate or paraklete occurs, with reference to our glorified High Priest in heaven in I John 2:1. The apostle had written about the message he heard of Christ, “that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” Hence, if we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth. But walking in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanseth us from all sin. Walking in the light, we do not say that we have no sin, for then we only deceive ourselves; but we confess our sins, and thus, by faith, lay hold upon the faithfulness and justice of God, according to which He forgives us our sins, and cleanses us from all unrighteousness. Thus the apostle had written to believers, in order that they might walk in the light, and fight against sin: “My little children, these things I write unto you, that ye sin not.” However, aware of the fact that our old nature is still with us, and that, no matter how faithfully we fight the good fight of faith, sin always cleaves to the best of our works, the apostle continues: “And if any man sin:, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
It is plain, then, that the plea of Christ as our advocate in the presence of the Father concerns, particularly, His people in the world, for whom He died and obtained the forgiveness of sins and eternal righteousness; who also have been, in principle, delivered from the power and dominion of sin; who earnestly desire to be completely delivered from all corruption and unrighteousness, and who walk in the light; but who find that they are still in the body of this death, so that there are still many sins, against their will, remaining in them. Any of these sins would make them damnable before God, and would be sufficient to deprive them of the blessed fellowship with the Father, were it not for the fact, that they have a Paraklete, an Advocate with the Father in heaven, who constantly pleads their cause, defends them, and obtains from the Father the sentence of their perfect justification.
And what we said of Christ’s intercession in our discussion of Lord’s Day 12, naturally, also applies to His pleading in our behalf as our advocate with the Father in heaven.
On the one hand, we dare not deprive this activity of our heavenly Paraklete of all reality. When the Scriptures teach us that Christ is our advocate with the Father, we may not understand this as a mere, figurative expression, denoting no more than the permanent effect of His atoning sacrifice and work of obedience in our behalf. On the contrary, it means: 1. That the Son of God, and that, too, in His glorified human nature, is really in the presence of, before the face of the Father. 2. That His plea, in behalf of His still sinful people in the world, is a real activity on His part, so that He appeals to the justice and faithfulness of God, on the basis of His own work of atonement, for their perfect justification. 3. That this work of Christ in heaven, as our advocate with the Father, constitutes a real element in the economy of redemption, so that it is only in the consciousness of this function of Christ that we approach God through Him, and obtain the assurance of forgiveness and righteousness.
On the other hand, we may not so present this activity of Christ in heaven that it becomes derogatory of God’s perfections. All that is earthy and imperfect must be eliminated from Christ’s activity as our advocate with the Father. His plea in our behalf is not occasional, but constant. Above all, it is constantly perfect, both as a plea, and as to its result: the plea for our justification by our advocate in heaven is constantly granted. We may not thus present this activity of Christ, as if God were filled with wrath against His sinful people, about to inflict eternal death upon them; and that now Christ must persuade God to refrain from His wrath and to bestow upon His people righteousness and life. On the contrary, even as the Mediator in heaven constantly pleads in behalf of His people, presenting to the Father the ground of His perfect work of atonement, so the Father is constantly delighted with this plea for forgiveness and righteousness, and1 beholds His people, in the light of this plea, with an eye of everlasting mercy and eternal love.
Christ is our advocate with the Father.
And in the faith that He pleads in our behalf, we have confidence to approach the Father, confessing our sins, trusting that God is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Such is the first advantage of Christ’s ascension.
The second benefit mentioned by the Heidelberger in this connection is “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.”
We have our flesh in heaven!
By the term “flesh” here must be understood our entire human nature, as to soul and body. Christ, in His incarnation, assumed our human nature, in the likeness of sinful flesh. As such, that nature was wholly unfit to enter into heavenly glory. For not only was it of the earth earthy, but it was also corrupt through sin, under the wrath of God, lying in, the midst of death. Nor did we have the right to be delivered from the corruption of our nature, and to enter into heavenly glory. Heaven was closed to us. That nature, although without sin, yet as it was earthly, and in the likeness of sinful flesh, Christ assumed. And in that nature He obediently suffered all that was required to satisfy God’s justice, to merit for us righteousness, and to obtain the right to heavenly glory. And He, the Son of God, glorified that nature in, Himself. He took if through death into the glory of the resurrection, and having thus glorified it by His resurrection, He took it into heaven, into the sanctuary of God.
For His ascension does not mean that He put aside our human nature. The human nature is not and never shall be separated from the divine.
Our flesh, therefore, is in heaven.
It is not in heaven as “flesh”, in the form in which He assumed it, and in which we know it, but in its glorified form. It has been changed into the image of the heavenly. For “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Rut it is, nevertheless, our flesh, the real human, nature, which He took into the highest heavens, when He ascended up on high.
And it is our flesh, our nature, He took into the heaven of glory.
For Christ is our head.
His entrance into heaven does not mean that someone succeeded to glorify his own human nature, and to obtain for himself a place in glory. On the contrary, it is Christ that ascended up on high. He occupies a central position. His ascension is of central significance. He is the head of the body, the Church. As such He represents all the elect. As the head of His own in the forensic sense of the word, He entered into death, bore all our iniquities on the accursed tree, blotted out all our sins, and obtained eternal righteousness. His righteousness is our righteousness. His death is our death. His resurrection is our resurrection. And so, in that legal sense of the word, His ascension is our ascension.
That He ascended up on high means that we have the right, in Him, to follow Him in glory.
He is also the head of the body in the organic sense. We are members of His body. And we can never be separated from Him, our Head. That He went to heaven means that, centrally, we are in heaven. He will not return to us. Rut He will draw us unto Himself, that we may also be where He is. And so, we look up toward heaven, by faith, in the consciousness of our inseparable union with Christ our Head, and confess with the Heidelberg Catechism “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.”
This can never fail.
Ry His own word, He left us this pledge of His ascension. “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all unto me,”. “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again; and receive you unto myself, that where I am, there ye may be also,” . And so we lay hold upon the hope that is set before us, “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; Whither our forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec,” . And “our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his most glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself,” .
We have our flesh in heaven, a sure pledge that He shall take us with Him into His own glory.
That pledge shall be fulfilled, first, when the earthly house of this tabernacle shall be dissolved, and we shall have a house of God, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens; for then we shall, as to our soul, ever be with Him. And, in its ultimate realization, the pledge shall be fulfilled when He shall come again, in the glorious resurrection, in the heavenly creation, where the tabernacle of God shall for ever be with men.
That is the second advantage of the ascension of our Lord, mentioned by the Heidelberg Catechism.
Yet, there is a sense in which we may rejoice in our present being in heaven with Him. For so the Scriptures declare: “God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, quickened us together with Christ (by grace are ye saved) ; And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus”.
This is true, because He, the heavenly Lord, sent unto us the earnest of His Spirit. The Catechism mentions this as the third benefit of Christ’s ascension: “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.” For Christ, when He ascended up on high, leading captivity captive, full of the riches of grace for all His people, received the Spirit, that through Him He might bestow all the blessings of salvation upon His people. And1 on the day of Pentecost, He poured out that Spirit upon and into His Church. Through that Spirit He dwells in them, and works in them the first- fruits of salvation.
It is the Spirit of the heavenly Lord.
And through that Spirit, we become partakers of His heavenly life. All that are regenerated by the Spirit of Christ, partake of the life of their heavenly Lord. That life is resurrection-life. It is the life of heaven. In virtue of that life, they are even now citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, not only because they have citizens’ rights, but also because, in principle they partake of the life of that city.
Because of this principle of heavenly life, wrought in them by the Spirit of their heavenly Lord, they even now “sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.”
And they have become strangers and pilgrims in the earth.
The life of the believers in the world, therefore, is a continuous tension: the tension of hope. In hope they groan. For not only the whole creation, “but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body. For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is not hope: for what a man seeth why doth he yet hope for? But if we hope for that we see not, then do we with patience wait for it,”. And again: “For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven: If so be that being clothed we shall not be found naked. For we that are in this tabernacle do groan, being burdened: not for that we would be unclothed, but clothed upon, that mortality might be swallowed up of life.’”
Our life here, in virtue of the first fruits, the earnest of the Spirit, is in constant tension.
For, on the one hand we are of the earth earthy. We have our earthly house, our earthly body and soul, our earthly relationships and friendships. And we are strongly, with a thousand ties, attached to the earth and to the things that are earthy. We do not desire to be unclothed. Yet, on the other hand, there is our heavenly Lord, who gave us His heavenly Spirit, and who made us partakers of His own heavenly life, ever drawing us unto Himself, so that we are strangers in the earth, and even now our conversation is in heaven. In virtue of this drawing power of our heavenly Lord, through the Spirit He hath given us, we long to be with Him, to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven.
And the latter is victorious.
A tension is the life of the believer, not as if he were betwixt two equally strong powers of attraction. On the contrary, in virtue of the new principle of heavenly life, he is very really a citizen of heaven. He longs for deliverance. But it is the tension of a new, victorious life in the midst of the death; the drawing of His heavenly Lord he experiences while he is still in his earthly nature. To be with Christ, he knows, is far better!
Thus, that Spirit of Christ, is an earnest to us.
He is the first fruits of the final harvest. Just as the first fruits which Israel brought to the Lord in the temple was part of the harvest, and a pledge that the full harvest would presently be reaped and gathered into the barns; so the first fruits of the Spirit are an earnest of our final salvation, when we shall receive the full adoption unto children, and be forever with Christ our Lord in heavenly glory.
And so, by the power of that indwelling Spirit we do, indeed, seek the things which are above, where Christ is sitting on the right hand of God. His heavenly Lordship we seek to realize even in our earthly life. For, while we are still present in the body, and, therefore, absent from the Lord, yet longing to be present with Him, we seek to be pleasing to Him. We hear His voice, we love His good commandments, we fight against sin, within and without, and we daily put on the new man, which after God is created in righteousness and holiness. We labor to enter into the rest. And while confessing that we are sojourners and strangers in the earth, we declare plainly that we seek a country, the heavenly country of our heavenly Lord, the city that hath foundations, whose builder and artificer is God.
And thus, in the sound sense of the word, the ascension of our Lord means that the life of those that are His is, even while they are still in this world, otherworldly.
Their conversation is in heaven.
*Cf. Vol. III, The Death of the Son of God, p. 114ff.