Article 6—and ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father.
This article speaks of two very important works of Christ: His ascension into heaven and His sitting (session) at the right hand of God.
These two works of our Savior are very closely related to each other. It was through His ascension into heaven that Christ is seated at God’s right hand. This certainly is the teaching of Mark 16:19: “So then after the Lord had spoken to them (disciples), He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God.”
Christ ascended into heaven and is seated at God’s right hand for our salvation. This is not only the teaching of Scripture, which we hope to point out in the course of this article, but also the teaching of the Nicene Creed. In article 3 of this creed the early church taught that “for us men and for our salvation” the eternal Son of God “came down from heaven.” Having come down from heaven, the Son of God was not only incarnate through the virgin birth, He was also crucified under Pontius Pilate, suffered, was buried and rose again the third day. All this Christ did on earth for our salvation. Now, according to the creed, He Who came down from heaven to perform all these mighty works is also ascended back into heaven and sits at God’s right hand. And this too is for our salvation.
The ascension was essentially a change of place for Christ. From the time of His birth until the moment of His ascension, the dwelling place of Christ was on the earth. This was in harmony with the human nature He assumed through the virgin birth. It was flesh and blood, of the earth earthy. However, at the resurrection His body was glorified. It was changed from an earthly to a heavenly body, from a physical to a spiritual body, from a body adapted to live on the earth to a glorious body adapted to live in heaven. Consequently, Christ ascended into heaven in His glorified human nature 40 days after His resurrection. As far as His human nature is concerned, Christ is no more with us on the earth. He has departed from us and is now in heaven.
The ascension is very significant.
The ascension was, first of all, significant for Christ Himself. For Christ the ascension meant His own glorification and exaltation. Heaven is the place of glory. It is that because it is God’s dwelling place. God is in heaven in His friendship and fellowship as nowhere else. To live in heaven is to know God’s love and fellowship perfectly. To live in heaven is to enjoy God fully. And it was to that place of glory that Christ entered through His ascension. In fact, Christ was exalted to the very pinnacle of heavenly glory. None is so highly exalted as Christ. And this great glory of Christ is all the reward of God for His perfect work on earth as our mediator. Certainly this is the teaching ofPhilippians 2:8, 9: “and being found in fashion as a man, He (Christ) humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name.”
But the ascension of Christ is also very significant for the church. For Christ is not ascended into heaven as an individual, but as our representative head. For that reason Christ’s ascension into glory is principally our ascension.
To help us understand this, we may go back to Adam in paradise. Adam was the representative head of the whole human race. And that means that Adam represented all mankind in the garden. In fact, Adam represented us in such a way that when he sinned against God in the garden, we all sinned in and through him. Consequently, when Adam fell we all fell.
In like manner, Christ is now the representative head of the church and all the elect. That means that there is the closest possible relationship between Christ and His church. So close is this relationship that Christ is called the head, and the church His body. Consequently, when Christ suffered and died on the cross, the church died with Him. And when Christ arose again the third day, the church arose with Him (cf. Rom. 6:3-6). And, in like manner, when Christ ascended into heaven the elect of God also ascended with Him. Principally the ascension of Christ into glory was our ascension. We ascended in and through Him. Hence, we read in Ephesians 2:6 that God “hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus.” The Heidelberg Catechism states this very beautifully in Q & A 49 when it teaches us that through the ascension of Christ “we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the head, will also take up to himself, us, his members.” In other words, because Christ’s ascension is essentially and principally our ascension, we may know that one day we too will ascend into glory with Christ and have a share of His glory.
And this the early church evidently understood. For the early church fathers, in speaking of Christ’s ascension, emphasized that the ascension was not merely the ascension of a man but of man. In other words, when Christ ascended into heaven mankind ascended. And by mankind we understand mankind as eternally chosen to salvation, mankind as redeemed in Christ. That mankind ascended into heaven at Christ’s ascension.
And to her belief in this great work of salvation the early church gave expression when she confessed in this 6th article, “and ascended into heaven.”
Having ascended into heaven Christ now sits at the right hand of God.
That the ascended Christ sits on God’s right hand is taught in many passages of Holy Writ. It was prophesied already in the Old Testament Scriptures. The expression itself is found in Psalm 110:1, where David writes, “The Lord (Jehovah) said unto my Lord, Sit thou at my right hand, until I make thine enemies thy foot stool.” And although this exact expression is not found elsewhere in the Old Testament, the idea it expresses is found repeatedly. The same is true of the New Testament Scriptures. At His trial, Christ Himselfinformed the Sanhedrin that they would see the Son of man sitting on the right hand of power (Matt. 26:64). Peter, in his speech on Pentecost, informed the crowds that the same Jesus Whom they had crucified was now risen and exalted to the right hand of God (Acts 2:33). And there are more such passages.
Christ’s sitting at God’s right hand, therefore, is a thought running throughout the whole of Scripture. Christ’s sitting at the right hand of God must be understood in a figurative sense. Certainly we must not imagine that God has a right hand in the literal, physical sense of the word. Neither is there a particular place in heaven that can be designated as being at the right hand of God. Nor does God literally sit in heaven. Hence, we must understand that to sit at the right hand denotes in Scripture a position of rule and authority. In Bible times the one who sat at the right hand of the king was the one upon whom the king had bestowed great powers and authority. He was the one who virtually ran the country for the king. He was the second in command. It was this sort of position that Joseph occupied when he was made ruler of all Egypt under Pharaoh. In like manner is Christ seated at God’s right hand. At His ascension, God clothed Christ with all power and authority. Consequently, Christ rules over all things on the behalf of God. It is through Christ that God exercises His rule over all His creation. And this position Christ shall occupy for all ages and for all eternity.
This session of Christ at the right hand of God is the salvation of the church. This is due to the nature of Christ’s rule.
Christ rules, first of all, over the church. And the church He rules in His grace. Whenever we speak of the rule of a king, we must speak of laws. To rule implies the right to impose one’s will on another, or, if you will, to establish law. And this is what Christ does as King under God. He places all men under the holy law of God and requires obedience to it. However, when it comes to the church, Christ does more than to set God’s law over her members. He also works in their hearts by the power of His grace so that they willfully and cheerfully keep that law. By nature, of course, no man can keep the law and thus serve Christ.
But through the power of grace Christ changes that. He transforms the heart of every member of the church so that they become willing servants whose chief delight is to keep God’s holy commandments. This is the rule of Christ in the church and it is the salvation of the’ church. For it is in the way of willful obedience to God’s law that the church finds God’s blessing both now and eternally. But there is more. Christ also rules in the church as King under God to preserve the church in this obedience and salvation. There are spiritual powers that seek to lead the church away into sin and destruction. There is the Devil and his host. There is also the world of wicked, unbelieving men. If the church will remain faithful to the service of God and continue in the way of her salvation, she must be preserved. For the church has little strength of herself. And this Christ also does in His rule over the church. He protects and preserves her against the wiles of the devil and the onslaughts of the world so that the church is kept through the ages and will one day be glorified with Christ in heaven.
Finally, the rule of Christ serves the salvation of the church because Christ also rules over the wicked world. Over the world of ungodly men Christ rules not in His grace but in His power. That means that over the world Christ too has set the holy law of God and demands obedience. But the world, being devoid of grace, refuses to obey. It walks in open rebellion against Christ and refuses to serve Him. Nevertheless, Christ rules. And He rules them in such a way that He uses their very rebellion to accomplish His purpose. This no other king has ever accomplished. Many kings have ruled and accomplished their purposes in spite of those that rebel. But Christ accomplishes His purpose through the rebellion of the world. And when He is done using their rebellion for His own glorious designs, He casts them all into hell. And what is this grand goal of Christ for which He uses even the wickedness of the world? It is the salvation of His church!
And, sensing the essence of this truth, the early church confessed in the Nicene Creed that “for us men and for our salvation” Jesus Christ “sitteth on the right hand of the Father.”