The Neglected Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension: a Dogmatic Sketch

by Thomas Haviland-Pabst

ascensionIn our last post, we briefly surveyed pertinent NT biblical teaching on Christ’s ascension. It is our purpose now, based on prior post, to provide a dogmatic sketch of Christ’s ascension. Given this reliance, we will presuppose the biblical teaching without citing it afresh. We will first concentrate on how the ascension of Christ relates to his person and work, which will be followed by some implications for us who are united to him.

Throughout we see a picture were Christ’s deity is set alongside his humanity. For examples, the book of Hebrews and Phil 2 present Christ’s person having a divine origin, as it were. Yet, Christ also, in his humanity, grew in wisdom, demonstrated his obedience to his Father, indeed, to the point of death on the cross. This death is, in turn, followed by his resurrection and ascension or exaltation. This already signals something of importance, i.e., unless one adopts an adoptionistic schema wherein Christ, formerly a mere man, is exalted to divinity by his obedience (a heretical position, we hastily add), there must be something more occurring in such passages.

Putting it differently, if Christ is God, then it follows that he does not need to be exalted; his exaltation is, as it were, superfluous. So, either Christ’s exaltation is superfluous or the adoptionist schema is correct, right? No. Rather, the biblical teaching suggests something else; something intrinsic to Christ’s work, and, as such, necessary for understanding his assumption of human flesh.

Christ, God the Son, assumed human flesh in order to perfectly reveal the Father for, as the gospel of John tells us, no one has seen the Father except the Son; and, it is only in the Son that the Father is made known. When we behold Jesus, we see the Father. Thus, Christ is the prophet of God par excellent. Moreover, Christ is the mediator between God and man; and, as such, he has reconciled men to God by his blood, but also, by his obedience. That is to say, Christ’s incarnation was a priestly work. And, finally, Christ demonstrates the rule and reign of God by his power over nature, sickness and disease, and even demonic powers which are at war with God. In summary, Christ is the prophet, priest, and king of God; and, both his deity and his humanity lend a hand in these three offices.[1]

In order to draw this out, we will concentrate on Christ’s priestly office. Christ in his incarnation was both in the full and complete presence of his Father, doing only what he saw his Father doing, and, bearing the weight of a fallen, broken creation. Thus, we see Christ enduring the suffering that is temptation, perceiving and indeed becoming the object of the rejection, exploitation and scorn of men (yes, before even the cross), and experiencing firsthand the sorrow that accompanies existing in this fallen world. So, God the Son was not one who was removed and thus at a vast distance from the fallen, sin-riddled, and God-opposed world; rather, he experienced this world first hand. But, for whose sake, we must ask? Was he resigned to such an existence, such a host of experiences, by necessity? Not in the least. Quite to the contrary, he willing took on human flesh, with all that that entailed (i.e., immersion in a sin-soaked and death-conquered environment) for our sake. How so very much is Christ’s incarnation a priestly work!

We recall that Hebrews describes Christ’s substitutionary sacrifice as a heavenly act. Christ crucified was in the very presence of his Father—indeed, how could he not be! He was laid bare, bruised and humiliated, in the presence of his God. It is not as if he was transported to some place other than the gruesome cross from which he hung. Better, he is the only one who stands in the unrestrained presence of his Father, far above all created beings; and, as such, he is the only one that provides the way to the Father. Christ is the only human that can rightfully say without qualification that he has descended from the Father for he is God. Yet, this descent (assumption) does not entail that Christ removed himself from the presence of his Father (to do so is to abrogate his deity—an impossibility); so, it is best to understand Hebrews as teaching that at the same time as he hung on the cross he was purifying the heavenly things of which the earthly tabernacle, with its corresponding sacrifices, pointed. Hence, the veil of the earthly tabernacle leading to the very presence of God (the Holy of Holies) was torn, which communicates that Christ’s sacrifice made a way for us to enter into the Father’s presence unhindered.

Yet, Christ’s priestly work doesn’t stop there. In Hebrews 9:24 we read, “For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.” Note the word “now.” Christ is now interceding for or serving as priestly mediator between God the Father and man in the unrestrained presence of God. This is where we see the person and work of Christ come into sharp relief: he is the only one that has such access to the Father for he is the Son, and, he can only bring us to this access because he is a man. That is to say, Christ, in his ascension/secession (exaltation), took our humanity into the presence of the Father; something that only he could do for it is only he that is at the same time God and man.

Since Christ’s ascension/session is deeply interwoven with his priestly work, which is, in turn, inextricably connected with his incarnation, it is best to understanding his ascension as the culmination of his inter-advent work. This is further substantiated by the fact that Christ’s prophetic and kingly offices are still exercised after his ascension. With regard to the latter, the very idea of ruling and reigning is built into his ascension above all principles, powers and authorities; with regard to the former, we see Christ still speaking to his church. Yet, even more to the point, Christ’s ascension allows the Holy Spirit to step forward, as it were. Christ then is speaking to his church through the Holy Spirit; and, the Holy Spirit is empowering Christ’s body. The prophetic and kingly function of the Spirit is clear. Moreover, the Spirit comforts us as well as interceded for us as “another advocate,” pointing to the Spirit’s priestly work, if you will. Thus, the ascension of Christ leads to a thoroughgoing Trinitarian understanding of Christ’s work as well as a pneumatologically rich one.

Turning then to our union with Christ, Christ’s ascension becomes even more relevant. We are even now seated with Christ above all other authorities and power. So, nothing in the entirety of creation can take us from the presence of God. This brings great comfort, especially if we are faced with threat to our physical safety. Moreover, as Hebrews reminds us, because Christ is interceding for us before the Father even now, our salvation will be completed. Christ’s once and for all substitution did not occur only once on this earth, only to be forgotten. Rather, it occurred in heaven and continues there, in the very presence of God; thus, it’s effectiveness to save is unhindered. Lastly, Christ, as the one seated at the right hand of the Father in glory, gives us his Spirit to equip us, but, moreover, to communicate to us (teaching, convicting, revealing). Christ, as man, has pulled us up, as it were, into the presence of God.

In sum, Christ’s ascension is the culmination of his inter-advent work as it is the continuation of his priestly, kingly, and prophetic office; indeed, it is the continuation of his incarnation. Christ was not exalted for his sake (does God need to be exalted?) but for ours. By his exaltation, we were brought near to God, and he was brought near to us. The Spirit, as God’s presence with and in us, brings the reality of this into our lives in growing measure. We await the day when Christ returns, the apocalyptic Son of Man, the theanthropos descending again to complete the salvation he began (and continues), to consummate his kingdom, and establish a new heavens and a new earth where God’s full, unrestrained presence is expressed “on earth as it is in heaven.”


[1] Of course, much more could be said here, but, for the sake of brevity, we would encourage the reader to read more extensively in this area on their own to substantiate further what we are asserting.

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