By Stephen Seamands
“Closed Thursday for Ascension Day”—the handwritten sign affixed to the front door of Nolt’s Bulk Food Store took me completely by surprise. My wife, Carol, and I, along with another couple, were enjoying a relaxing day trip about 50 miles from our home. We were in the Southern Fork area of Casey County, Kentucky, where a community of more than 300 “Old Order” Mennonites have lived since 1976. One of more than 20 Mennonite owned businesses, Nolt’s is known for its canned goods, homemade jams, jellies and breads, fresh spices and herbs, and handmade items like soap and hats. That’s why we had stopped at the store and we certainly weren’t disappointed. But who would have guessed anyone here in a rural community in Kentucky would close a store to observe Ascension Day. Most Protestant Christians in North America have never even heard of it.
Commemorating Christ’s ascension to heaven, Ascension Day (also known as the Feast of the Ascension) occurs each year on the Thursday forty days after Easter. Liturgically minded Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Anglican Christians observe it faithfully. For devout Roman Catholics, it’s one of the six holy days of the Christian year where mass is mandatory. In doing research, I discovered that Anabaptist groups such as the Mennonites, also have a long history of observing and holding special worship services on Ascension Day. That’s why there was a sign on Nolt’s front door announcing the store would be closed on Thursday.
No doubt, the New Testament writers would be pleased. They believed the ascension of Christ was extremely important and spoke of it often in their preaching. In fact, the Old Testament verse quoted or alluded to in the New Testament more than any other is a verse directly related to it. When I ask pastors and Christian leaders to name that verse, most of them scratch their heads. In case you are wondering, it’s Psalm 110:1: “The Lord says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.’” According to New Testament scholar, D.M. Hay, that verse is referred to in the New Testament a total of 23 times.
However, it’s not the Old Testament verse most of us would have chosen, is it? So why do they keep coming back to this particular verse and why does the ascension play such an important part in New Testament teaching and preaching? Actually, there are two major reasons.
First and foremost, they wanted to proclaim something crucially important about Jesus. Not only had he been raised from the dead, he had also been exalted to God’s right hand and enthroned as King. His time of humiliation and death was over, and with the ascension, so too were his resurrection appearances. The ascension therefore signaled a decisive transition. His early ministry is complete; his heavenly ministry has begun. As the writer of Hebrews puts it, “When he had cleansed us from our sins, he sat down in the place of honor at the right hand of the majestic God in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).
Psalm 110:1 was understood by devout Jews at the time of Christ to refer not only to Israel’s past Davidic kings, but also to the messiah who was to come. Convinced Jesus was that messiah, the early Christians therefore boldly applied it directly to him. After his earthly ministry, they proclaimed, Messiah Jesus, Son of God and Risen Lord, ascended and returned to his Lord and Father in heaven, who said to him, “Sit at my right hand until I make all your enemies your footstool.”
The New Testament writers therefore keep returning to Psalm 110:1 in order to proclaim the resurrected Christ’s exaltation to the place of honor at God’s right hand and his installation and enthronement as King. As Paul sums it up, God’s power “raised Christ from the dead and seated him in the place of honor at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms. Now he is far above any ruler or authority or power or leader or anything else . . . God has put all things under the authority of Christ and has made him head over all things for the benefit of the church” (Ephesians 1:20-22).
Celebrating and proclaiming the ascension is therefore crucial if we are to fully and properly exalt Christ. Jesus is not only risen but reigning, not only alive but sovereign, not only central but supreme. Moreover, as theologian Douglas Farrow demonstrates, whenever we fail to proclaim Christ as ascended, enthroned, and exalted, something else—our personal agendas, the world’s agendas, the church’s agendas—moves in to fill the vacuum. Mark it down, when we fail to exalt and enthrone Jesus, something or someone else inevitably assumes the throne.
The early Christians proclaimed the ascension, then, in order to say something crucial about Christ. But they also proclaimed it in order to say something crucial about themselves and the nature of their life in Christ. Having professed faith in Christ and confessed Jesus as Lord, they believed they had been joined to Christ and, as Paul repeatedly declared, were now “in Christ.” The major movements of Christ’s life were now movements they were caught up in too.
Paul spells this out in his letter to the Ephesians. We were “dead because of our sins” (Ephesians 2:5), he says, but we have been made alive through faith in Christ. Then he goes on: “He raised us from the dead along with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms because we are united with Christ Jesus” (2:6). Not only then has Christ been exalted and seated at the Father’s right hand, but because we are in Christ,
Paul says we are there too! He says the same thing in his letter to the Colossians: “Since you have been raised to new life with Christ, set your sights on the realities of heaven, where Christ sits in the place of honor at God’s right hand” (Colossians 3:1). We have died to this life, Paul insists, and our “real life is hidden with Christ in God” (3:3).
That, then, is the second reason the New Testament writers keep coming back to Psalm 110:1. They believed that not only was Jesus seated on the throne at God’s right hand, but since they were now joined to him, they too were destined and invited to sit with him on the throne (cf. Revelation 3:21).
Unfortunately, there are scores of Christians who have little or no awareness of this. Consequently, they never learn to live in Christ from the seated-on-the-throne position that’s theirs. No doubt we can be “so heavenly minded we’re no earthly good.” But according to the New Testament, if we are to be any earthly good we must be heavenly minded. That’s why focusing upon the fact and the significance of Christ’s ascension is so essential. In his book The Holiest of All, spiritual writer Andrew Murray maintains, “The knowledge of Jesus as having entered heaven for us, and taken us into union with Himself into a heavenly life is what will deliver the Christian from all that is low and feeble, and lift [us] into a life of joy and strength.”
But you may be wondering, what practical implications does Christ’s ascension really have for our lives as Christians? What difference does it really make for us each day? I could mention several, but let me simply focus on one.
Holy of Holies presence
In describing Christ’s ascension, Luke says Jesus was “taken up into a cloud” and he was “rising into heaven” (Acts 1:9-10 NLT). The cloud, most scholars agree, is reminiscent of the cloud, which descended upon the Tabernacle constructed by Moses and the people in the wilderness (Exodus 40:34) and the Temple built by Solomon (1 Kings 8:10-11). With the cloud came the glory—the shekinah—the manifest presence of God. “Thus, to enter it, was to go into the holy of holies, the immediate presence of the Lord,” writes theologian Peter Toon in The Ascension of Our Lord.
Heaven, the dwelling place of God in creation, is also closely associated in scripture with the fullness of the divine presence. Notice how the writer of Hebrews links the two together: “He entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence” (Hebrews 9:24). Heaven, then, is that place which is totally pervaded by God’s glory. In Received Up into Glory, K.C. Thompson puts it like this, “What makes heaven Heaven is the immediate and perceptible presence of God.”
“He ascended into heaven” the Apostles’ Creed says. That means the risen Jesus has returned to the place of the fullness of God’s presence. When he became incarnate, the eternal Son voluntarily laid that aside (Philippians 2:5-11) and limited himself to an awareness and experience of God’s presence through human faculties and a human consciousness. The ascension means that the period of self-renunciation and self-limitation has come to an end. In his classic work He Ascended Into Heaven, theologian J.G. Davies states that the eternal Son’s “consciousness of absolute unity and communion with the Father, which in varying manners and degrees, most notably shown in the cry of dereliction on the Cross, had been limited by the flesh, was fully restored.”
The fact that he ascended into heaven also means that Jesus is no longer limited by space and time, as he was during his earthly life when he could only be in one place at one time. As New Testament scholar and theologian N.T. Wright points out in Surprised by Hope, in biblical cosmology, heaven and earth are not two locations within the same spatial continuum, rather they are dimensions of God’s creation. And since heaven relates to earth tangentially, the one who is in heaven can be present everywhere at once on earth. The ascension therefore, Wright concludes, “means that Jesus is available, accessible, without people having to travel to a particular spot on earth to find him.”
He ascended into heaven—that’s what it meant for Jesus. What then does it mean for those who are in Christ and have been raised up and seated with him in the heavenly realms (Ephesians 2:6)? It means that while we are on earth, through the Holy Spirit we’re “there” in heaven with him. His prayer, “Father, I want these whom you have given me to be with me where I am” (John 17:24 NLT ) is fulfilled in part even now. In his devotional book This Day with the Master, biblical scholar and evangelist Dennis Kinlaw concludes, “Through his grace, God has made it possible for me to live in His presence every moment, so that heaven actually begins for me right now in time and space.” Think of it, even now while we’re here we’re also there with him!
What’s more, the ascension means that because Christ is in heaven, he’s here—at all times and in all places—on earth with us. When Jesus commissioned his disciples just before he ascended he told them not to forget that: “And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 italics mine). Recognizing and living according to his promised presence is a tremendous spiritual blessing and asset. Jesus is always with us in actual presence. Because we are with him in heaven and he is with us on earth, that means we can live every moment of our lives in the holy of holies presence of God.
When God told Moses it was time to break camp at Mt. Sinai and go up to Canaan, Moses complained, “You have been telling me, ‘Take these people up to the Promised Land.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me” (Exodus 33:12 NLT). So God gave Moses a wonderful promise: “My Presence will go with you, and I will give you rest” (Exodus 33:14).
Now, however, because Jesus is ascended, that promise is more profoundly true and significant for us than it was for Moses. For he lived under the Old Covenant, where only once a year the high priest was allowed to enter the holy of holies, the very presence of God. But we live under the New Covenant, where Jesus, our great high priest, has opened up a new and living way. Now we have access to the holy of holies; we can live in the very presence of God every moment of every day.
To be sure, we may not be consciously aware of God or have a tangible sense of God’s manifest presence. But that doesn’t change the fact that we are seated in the heavenly realms with Christ and he is always with us. In fact, he’s as near to us right now as he was to John, when the beloved apostle laid his head on his breast during the Last Supper.
So we don’t ever have to wonder where Christ is. We don’t have to beg him to come on the scene. He is present with us even when he seems most absent. No matter how unholy the situation we may seem to be in, we can be confident that he’s with us. We are in the holy of holies with him! In The Pursuit of God, A.W. Tozer sums it up well: “Ransomed men and women need no longer pause in fear to enter the Holy of Holies. God wills that we should push on into His presence and live our whole life there. This is to be known to us in conscious experience. It is more than a doctrine to be held; it is a life to be enjoyed every moment of every day.”
If only we could seize hold of this truth and reality! We are with Christ and Christ is with us. It would transform our lives, our ministries and our congregations. The Psalmist declares, “I have set the Lord always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure…You will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand” (Psalm 16: 8-9, 11).
We must learn, then, like the Psalmist, to “set the Lord always before us” and like Brother Lawrence to “practice the presence of God.” We must learn to pay attention to God and to pray with St. Patrick, “Christ be with me, Christ within me, Christ behind me, Christ before me, Christ beside me, Christ beneath me, Christ above me.” Yet never forget, the ascension of Christ is the foundation and the guarantee of his constant presence with us. In this event, as Orthodox theologian Patrick Reardon states, “heaven and earth are joined forever.” And because God has so joined them together, nothing can ever put them asunder.
Your church may not hold special services on Ascension Day this year, but we all need to remember, celebrate and give thanks for Christ’s ascension. Because Jesus ascended into heaven, we can ascend there too—not just someday, but today and everyday. Because he ascended, he is always with us and we are with him. So let us lift up our hearts. In his presence is fullness of joy.
Stephen Seamands is Professor of Christian Doctrine at Asbury Theological Seminary. This article is from his forthcoming book, Give Them Christ: Preaching His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Return, to be published by InterVarsity Press.