John Yates writes under the conviction that the ascension is one of the most neglected of all Christian doctrines. This brief article is written under the conviction that the ascension is one of the most neglected of all Christian doctrines. As a doctrine concerning the life of Christ its implications for our perspective on the nature of the Church and Christian ministry are numerous. Perhaps the lack of teaching on the ascension derives from the fact that apart from brief descriptions provided by Luke (Luke 24:50-52; Acts 1:9-11) the translation of Jesus to heaven is simply assumed throughout the rest of the New Testament (Acts 2:30-33; Eph 4:8-10; Heb 10:12).
Whatever the reason for overlooking the ascension, it is the pinnacle of the redemptive purpose of the Incarnation, the “taking of humanity into God” (Athanasian Creed). Unless Jesus returned to the heavenly glory he had with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5) we could never be “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet 1:4). My hope is that by focusing on the ascension we will be more deeply grasped by “the immeasurable greatness of his power towards us who believe” (Eph 1:19-20).
Ministers of the Ascended Lord
One of the most influential texts for my personal thinking on ministry relates to the ascension. “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:7-12 ESV). The ministry gifts by which Christ equips his Body relate directly to his ascended authority. As post-resurrection impartations they empower the people of God in their vocation to “fill all things” on behalf of Christ who reigns from heaven. From this perspective there can be no secular/sacred divide in Christian thinking, the vision of the ascended “Lord of glory” (James 2:1) motivates his ministers to empower all believers to take the presence of Christ into the marketplace of “all things”. The practical enacting of this vision depends on an ecclesial paradigm that transcends the differences between “High” and “Low” churchmanship.
The Church as Fullness
Of the many sermons I have heard on the nature of the Church I cannot recall one on Church as “fullness”. It is Christ ascended “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion” who is “head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.” (Ephesians 1:20-23 ESV). In the context of Paul's cosmic Christology the Church's destiny is to become as unbounded as the exalted humanity of her Lord, “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13). When the apostle decrees, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in Christ you have been brought to fullness.” (Col 2:9-10) he explains that being a member of the Church involves communion with all that Jesus has become as a glorified human being. This has many implications for how we understand and minister the means of grace.
The Supper of Glory
We are familiar with designating our communion celebration as “the Lord's Supper” (1 Cor 11:20), but it is easy to forget that the one with whom we celebrate the Supper is “the Lord of glory” (1 Cor 2:9). It was reading John Calvin's exalted sacramental theology that first activated my thinking about such wonders.
Christians enjoy a real communion with Christ's human body unimpeded by “distance of place” (Institutes, 4.17.10), this is a direct consequence of the ascension. “And, indeed we see how much more abundantly his Spirit was poured out, how much more gloriously his kingdom was advanced, how much greater power was employed in aiding his followers and discomfiting his enemies. Being raised to heaven, he withdrew his bodily presence from our sight, not that he might cease to be with his followers, who are still pilgrims on the earth, but that he might rule both heaven and earth more immediately by his power; or rather, the promise which he made to be with us even to the end of the world, he fulfilled by this ascension, by which, as his body has been raised above all heavens, so his power and efficacy have been propagated and diffused beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth.” (Institutes 2.16.14).
It is Jesus' returning to the greater glory of the Father that makes it possible for him to send the Spirit in undiminished power to his disciples across the earth (John 14:28; Acts 2:33). Through the Lord's Supper and by the Spirit “we are carried to heaven with our eyes and minds, that we may there behold Christ in the glory of his kingdom” (Institutes, 4.17.18). Unlike the position of many contemporary Evangelicals Calvin sees the Supper as far more than a mere remembrance, it is an actual feeding of our souls in the very presence of the heavenly Lord. The narrowly cognitive interpretation of Holy Communion found in many churches is a direct consequence of a failure to understand the limitless authority of the ascended Lord.
What Word is That?
A previous mentor of mine used to love provoking pastors by saying, “Do you fellas really believe that the Word you preach is the Word which created the world?” If the Word in our mouths and hearts (Rom 10:8) is actually the Word made flesh and present in the Spirit, then the glory of this Word is as illimitable. That is, the Word we minster is the presence of the ascended and glorified Lord himself, the one who will appear soon to judge the living and the dead (Rev 22:12). Unfortunately the Church abounds with many conscious or unconscious images of Christ that subtract from the immensity of the transformation effected by the cross. Jesus is no longer, for example, “the bearded and sandalled one of the Gospels” (Ortiz). The one in whose name we minister today is the one who appeared to Stephen in the glory of God (Acts 7:55), dazzled Saul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3), and whose visage induced a death-like state in the apostle John (Rev 1:17). This is the one who by his ascended glory commissions us to speak his Word.
By and large the Church in Australia has lost a vision of the greatness of who Jesus is. This vision of greatness, with all its effects, can only be restored by a deeper insight into the transformation which occurred when Jesus was “taken up in glory” (1 Tim 3:16). I am not here attempting to provoke a renewed interest in the theology of the ascension but a prayerful request to the Lord of glory for a deeper revelation of the perfection of his humanity. This after all is the destiny for which he came, died and was raised on our behalf.
John Yates divides his time between mentoring/spiritual direction and writing for his own list and website. He has helped establish several marketplace networks in WA for Christian professionals. He is a part of the pastoral team at the Church on the Rise Bassendean where he works principally with men.