Q. 46. How dost thou understand these words, “he ascended into heaven?”
A. Thus that Christ, in sight of his disciples, was taken up from earth into heaven; and that he continues there for our interest, until he conies again to judge the quick and the dead.
Q. 47. Is not Christ then with us even to the end of the world, as he hath promised?
A. 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.
Q. 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?
A. .Not at all; for since his 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 his human nature, and remains personally united to it.
Q. 49. Of what advantage to us is Christ’s ascension into heaven?
A. 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 our head, will also take up to himself us, his members; Hardly, that he sends us his Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we “seek the things which are above, where Christ sitteth at the right hand of God, and not the things on earth.”
The remark of Dr. Karl Barth, that Christ’s ascension into heaven is scarcely mentioned in the New Testament, and that it could just as well have been omitted from the “testimony of the forty days,” is certainly not in harmony with the abundance of the testimony found in Scripture concerning this stage in the exaltation of the Lord. And when he, virtually repudiating the idea that the ascension of our Lord was also a definite change of place, evaporates that event into the vague notion of its being “a pointing to the revelation, already come to the fore in the resurrection, viz., that Jesus Christ is the bearer of all power in heaven and on earth,” he can hardly be said to follow the line of the Apostolicum, and surely speaks a language that is quite different from that of our Catechism in the eighteenth Lord’s Day. (1).
As far as the testimony of Scripture is concerned, though in the nature of the case, the event itself of the ascension of Christ into heaven, is not as elaborately mentioned as the event of the resurrection, the fact of that ascension and its great significance are frequently emphasized in Holy Writ. The event is mentioned in Mark 16:19: So then after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.” Inwe 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.” The gospel according to John does not speak of the ascension on the fortieth day, but it mentions it repeatedly and definitely. To the murmuring Jews in Capernaum the Savior says: “Doth this offend you? What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?” . To the unbelieving Pharisees in Jerusalem, He spoke these words: “Yet a little while I am with you, and then I go unto him that sent me.” . His disciples He comforts in the well-known words: “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 and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, ye may be also. And whither I go ye know, and the way ye know.” . And again: “Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you.” . And after His resurrection, He spoke the remarkable words to the Magdalene: “Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended to my Father: but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father; and to my God, and your God.” .
The most definite testimony concerning the event of the ascension is found in: “And when he had spoken these words, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly 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.”
Besides, apart from these references to the event of the ascension into heaven on the fortieth day after the resurrection, Scripture also mentions the truth of Christ’s assumption into and being in heaven, and that not only in connection with His sitting at the right hand of God, still less as a mere sign of His having all power in heaven and on earth, but as having significance in itself, and from the viewpoint of His having entered the holiest of all as our intercessor. The apostle Peter proclaimed to the people that were gathered in Solomon’s porch: “Whom the heavens must receive until the times of the restitution of all things.”. Indicating the source of the grace which the Church receives, “according to the measure of the gift of Christ,” the apostle Paul, quoting from the sixty-eighth psalm, writes: “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.” . “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.” . Especially the epistle to the Hebrews speaks of Christ’s ascension as the entering into the sanctuary as our great high priest. “Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession.” . “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil; Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.” . “For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” . And in we read: “Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him.”
This ascension must be conceived as consisting definitely in a change of place. In His human nature Christ departed from the earth, and went into heaven, both in body and soul. After His ascension, He is, according to His human nature, no longer on earth; He is in heaven only.
This view of the ascension of Christ is strongly emphasized in the Catechism, No less than three questions and answers are devoted to the local character of our Lord’s ascension into and being in heaven. First, in question and answer forty-six, the article of the Apostolic Confession concerning the ascension is explained; and it emphasizes that Christ entered into heaven before the eyes of His disciples, and remains there until His coming again. Then, in question and answer forty-seven, this local ascension is considered in the light of His promise that He shall be with us even until the end of the world. And, lastly, in question and answer forty-eight, the objection that this definite and local conception of the ascension separates the two natures of the Lord is answered.
That the Catechism emphasizes this local character of Christ’s ascension into heaven so strongly, must be explained from the rather sharp controversy of that time, between the Reformed and Lutheran theologians, about the natures of Christ, and about the presence of Christ in the Lord’s supper.
As to the relation between the two natures of Christ, the Lutherans held what is known as the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum, the view that in Christ the one nature shared the properties of the other, more particularly so that divine attributes were imparted to the human nature of Christ. And with a view to the Lutheran theory of the bodily presence of Christ in the bread and wine of the Lord’s supper, this doctrine of the “communication of properties” was especially applied to the ubiquity of Christ’s human nature, the attribute according to which Christ, in His human body, can be present in more than one place at the same time. According to some Lutherans, this “communication of properties” took place at the time of the incarnation, but during His earthly sojourn among us the Lord emptied Himself, so that His divine power and glory remained largely concealed behind the likeness of sinful flesh. According to others, this impartation of divine attributes to the human nature belongs to His exaltation only.
By this theory Luther and the Lutherans sought to give an answer to the question, how Christ could, according to His human nature, be in heaven, and yet also be corporeally present in the signs of the Lord’s supper. His ascension means, not that He left the earth and is limited to heaven, but that His human nature became, ubiquitous.
This view was officially expressed in The Formula of Concord, a Lutheran symbol written in 1576, as follows:
“And inasmuch as the divine and human natures are personally united, that is, so as to constitute one hyphistamenon, we believe, teach, and confess that this hypostatic union is not such a conjunction or combination as that thereby neither nature had anything personally—that is, on account of the personal union—common with the other, such as the combination that takes place when two boards are glued together, where neither confers anything on the other nor receives anything from the other. But rather, here is the highest communion which God truly has with the man assumed, and from the personal union and highest and ineffable communion, which thence follows, flows all of human that is said and believed of God, and all of divine that is said and believed of the man Christ. And this union and communion of the natures the most ancient doctors of the Church have illustrated by the similitude of glowing iron, and of the union of body and soul in man.” (De Persona Christi, V).
“And that majesty, in virtue of the personal union, Christ has always had, but in the state of humiliation he divested himself of it, for which cause he truly grew in age, wisdom and favor with God and men. Wherefore he did not always make use of that majesty, but as often as seemed good to him, until after the, resurrection, he fully and forever laid aside the form of a servant, but not the human nature, and was established in the plenary use, manifestation, and revelation of the divine majesty, and in this manner entered into his glory (sqq.). Therefore now not only as God, but also as man, he knows all things, can do all things, is present to all creatures, has under his feet and in his hand all things which are In heaven, in the earth, and under the earth. That this is so, Christ Himself bears witness, saying, ( ; ): ‘All power in heaven and in earth is given unto me.’ And Paul saith ( ): ‘He ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.’ This his power, being everywhere present, he can exercise, nor is anything to him either impossible, or unknown,” idem. XI.
This doctrine is then applied to the Lutheran conception of the Lord’s supper, that of consubstantiation, as follows:
“Hence also, and indeed most easily, can he, being present, impart his true body, and his blood in the Holy Supper. Now this is not done according to the mode and attribute of human nature, but according to the mode and attribute of the right hand of God, as Luther, according to the analogy of our Christian faith, as contained in the Catechism, is wont to speak. And this presence of Christ in the Holy Supper is neither physical or earthly, nor Capernaitic; nevertheless it is most true and indeed substantial. For so read the words of the Testament of Christ: ‘This is my body,’ etc.”
All this Is not very clear, especially in view of the fact that the Formula of Concord at the same time strongly repudiates the idea that the two natures of Christ are in any wise fused into one. The Lutherans appear to seek to establish their doctrine of a communion of properties in Christ on the basis of the personal union of the two natures only. However, it is not quite clear, how from this personal union it could possibly follow that divine attributes were bestowed or communicated to the human nature. Nor is it easy to see how the human nature of Christ could really partake of such divine properties as omnipotence, omniscience, omnipresence, without becoming fused with the divine nature.
Fact is, however, that although later Lutheranism somewhat modified this theory, and although the Formula of Concord already begins to express itself somewhat ambiguously on this matter, at the time when the Heidelberg Catechism was composed the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum was strongly maintained. And according to this theory, the human nature of Christ is now, i.e. after His ascension, ubiquitous.
Now, in opposition to and distinction from this Lutheran doctrine, it must, in the light of Scripture, undoubtedly be maintained that the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ implies a change of place. He departed from one place, the earth; and he went to another place, heaven.
This it is which the Catechism means to accentuate in the Lord’s Day we are now discussing. “In the sight of his disciples he was taken up from the earth into heaven.” There he “continues for our interest, until he comes again to judge the quick and the dead.” Again, “with respect to his human nature, he is no more on earth.” And the objection that this leads to a separation of the two natures of Christ it meets by the argument that “since his 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 his human nature, and remains personally united to it.”
And that the ascension of the Savior is definitely a departure from the earth and an entrance into heaven is the plain teaching of Scripture. To His disciples the Lord said “I go away,”. The gospel according to Luke records: “He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven,” . And is very definite: “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.”
For forty days the risen Lord had remained on earth, even though the relation between Him and earthly things, as well as His fellowship with His disciples, were radically different from His sojourn among us in the state of His humiliation. Repeatedly, the disciples had seen Him. Often, during those forty days, He had appeared to them, and spoken to them of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God. And, in that period between the resurrection and the ascension, the disciples must have lived in constant expectation of seeing Him again. However, now, on the fortieth day of this wonderful period, He led them out to the mount of Olives, and from thence He was taken up from them in such a manner that they knew He had departed from them into heaven. Often, during those forty days, He had come and gone. He had appeared to them and disappeared again in a manner beyond their comprehension. This time, however, He not merely disappeared: He departed from them, and went into heaven. After this they expected Him no more. They knew that He had gone away from them.
But when all this is duly established, when we have confessed that heaven is a place as well as the earth, and not a mere abstraction; and that the ascension of the Lord means that He departed from the one place and entered into the other, and not a becoming omnipresent of His human nature; we must also warn against the danger of conceiving of the wonder of the ascension in an earthly manner.
We shall have to remind ourselves that the ascension as well as the resurrection of Christ, is a wonder.
We shall have to remember that the ascension of our Lord, although it was, indeed, a personal departure from the earth in the human nature, a moving from one place to another, is not comparable to one’s taking a journey from Chicago to New York, from one earthly place to another. Nor is what the apostles observed on Mount Olivet when their Lord was taken up from them, to be compared to what one sees when he visits an airport and watches the taking off of an airplane.
And we dare not forget, when speaking of the event of the ascension of our Savior as such, that also that last manifestation of the risen Lord to the apostles, when He led them out to the Mount of Olives, was an appearance of Him who had already passed on into the resurrection-sphere, and who lived in His incorruptible, “spiritual” body.
What was given the apostles to see on Mount Olivet, of the wonder of the ascension, was sufficient for them to know that their Lord had departed from them, and that He had gone into heaven. But every attempt to draw a picture of the event, representing the Savior as sailing up into the sky and through the clouds, must be condemned as a misrepresentation of the ascension of our Lord.
(1) Karl Barth, the Apostolic Confession, pp. 128, 136.