Ascension: Looking Back, Up, and Ahead

By Eric Kampen

Looking up

As Christians, we do a great deal of looking back. This is not because we are afraid someone is going to sneak up behind us, but because certain events in the past are important for our life today. We look back especially to Christ crucified for the forgiveness of sins. This great event is commemorated every time we celebrate the Lord's Supper, where we remember his death. The remembrance of our Lord's death, of course, is accompanied by remembering his resurrection.

If we rightly understand what we see behind us, we will realize that what happened at the cross, and three days later when Jesus arose, should make us look up. Paul writes in Colossians 3:1, 2, "If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things that are above...." These words remind us that the risen Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, where he sits at God's right hand.

When we look back, we see what he has done for us. When we look up, we see what he is doing for us. Looking back comforts us and gives us reason to praise and worship him. This comfort and reason for praise and worship intensifies when we look up and think about what our Lord is busy doing for us now. His current work can be described with the familiar terms used to describe our Lord's threefold office in Lord's Day 12, namely, that he is our chief prophet and teacher, our only high priest, and our eternal king.

Our chief prophet and teacher

It should catch our attention that our Lord is described as our chief prophet and teacher. This is a reminder that we are not dependent solely on what Jesus said during his time on earth to learn about the way of salvation. We should also resist the idea that what Jesus himself said is more important than what we find elsewhere in Scripture. This is always an unfortunate impression left by red-letter Bible editions. As Paul writes to Timothy, all Scripture is breathed out by God (2 Tim 3:16). The Old Testament prophets were moved by the Spirit of Christ to speak and write what they did (2 Pet 1:21). The Lord Jesus promised his disciples the Holy Spirit, who would equip them to speak in his name. It is through the teaching of the apostles, preserved in the New Testament writings, that we see how the Lord Jesus continues in his role as chief prophet and teacher from heaven.

As the Lord Jesus continued his revelation of God's counsel and will concerning our salvation through his apostles, he saw to it that this work could continue after they were gone. In Ephesians 4:11-13, Paul mentions that beside apostles and prophets, both unique to the early church, Christ gave evangelists, shepherds, and teachers to equip the saints. This is the beginning of the ministry of the Word as the church has it to this day. Through that ministry, the apostolic message is passed on and Christ continues to reveal God's counsel and will concerning our salvation.

Our only high priest

While it is possible for the Lord Jesus to use servants to assist him in his prophetic work, this is not possible when it comes to his priestly work. This work was foreshadowed in the work of the Levitical priests. Foreshadowing, however, is not the same as fulfilling part of the work. The letter to the Hebrews mentions that the insufficiency of the Aaronic priesthood is evident in the way high priests succeeded one another and they had to make sacrifices for their own sins. It was an endless series of priests and sacrifices because they could not pay for sins. Our Lord, however, as priest after the order of Melchizedek, paid for sins once for all by his death on the cross (e.g. Heb 7:23-28; 10:1-10).

The letter to the Hebrews also teaches what the ascended Christ is doing in his role as priest. He has gone into the heavens to present the evidence of his sacrifice to the Father in the heavenly sanctuary. In heaven, he is busy continually interceding for us, his people. In Hebrews 4:14-16 it is explained how as believers, we can draw near to God through Jesus, who has gone through the heavens. In Hebrews 9:24, we read how he has appeared in the presence of God on our behalf. We can also think of the words in 1 John 2:1, where it is explained that Jesus is our advocate before the Father.

We can see how critical Christ's presence in the heavens is for our prayers. He is the all-important buffer between the Father and us. He stands there as our mediator. Because he is standing between the Father and us, the Father does not see our sins anymore. He sees only the satisfaction, righteousness and holiness of Jesus Christ, which covers us completely. Our lives are hidden in Christ.

Our eternal king

While the gospels show us the Lord Jesus functioning as prophet and priest, we do not see him in his role as king. It is not that he hid his kingship. The Lord Jesus did not receive the kingship until the completion of his sacrifice. We hear this in his words to his disciples shortly before his ascension, as he said that all authority in heaven and on earth had been given to him (Matt 28:18). Peter made that connection as well on the day of Pentecost, when he spoke of God raising Jesus from the dead and highly exalting him. He then quoted Psalm 110, "The Lord said to my Lord, 'Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool'" (Acts 2:32-35). Paul explained to the Philippians that Christ was crowned with honour and glory as a reward for all his suffering. In Hebrews 10:12 we read, "But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God." A further indication of Christ being crowned king is the vision of John in Revelation 5. He saw the Lamb, who had been slain, but raised again, taking the scroll from the hand of the one seated on the throne.

What we see then is that while upon his ascension Christ continued his task as chief prophet and teacher, he entered a new phase in his task as our only high priest, and he assumed his task as king. The ascension can be seen as a coronation, a shout of triumph to all the principalities and powers of his victory.

There is a double benefit in the Lord Jesus assuming the kingship of the universe. First, he sent the gift of the Holy Spirit. This was evident on Pentecost. Peter explains this in the passage mentioned earlier, as he said that Jesus received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, whom he had poured out on his disciples. The Holy Spirit equips those called to proclaim the gospel (cf. Eph 4:11-13) and he enables the believers to live together by giving a variety of spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12).

The second benefit is that Christ exercises his role as king in defending and preserving his church. This does not mean the church never has setbacks. The book of Acts mentions various rounds of persecutions. At the same time, it shows that the kingdom cannot be held back. It spilled out of Jerusalem into Judea and Samaria, and then marched steadily outward, even reaching Rome, the center of the Empire. The persecutions meant to stop the spread of the gospel actually sped up the spread of the gospel. The same message comes out in the book of Revelation, as it shows that in spite of much fierce opposition, the gospel is unstoppable. The book of Revelation concludes with a vision of Christ coming in glory and the establishment of a new heaven and new earth, with all enemies cast into everlasting condemnation. Two-thousand years of history have passed since the Lord was on earth, and the gospel has spread steadily over the earth, still reaching new peoples.

Looking ahead

The ascension of our Lord, therefore, makes us look up. It could be argued that by doing this, as Christians we put ourselves into a rather vulnerable position. As a wife may tell her husband, who seems more intent on taking in the sights all around him than keeping his eyes on the road, "Watch where you are going," so it may seem necessary to say to believers, "Stop looking back and up, watch where you are going." The comparison, however, does not hold. A driver should keep his eyes on the road ahead. For believers, looking back and looking up is the best way to keep safely moving ahead. Looking back, we gain confidence for it reminds us we are at peace with God in Christ crucified. Looking up, we gain confidence in knowing that we always have access to the Father through our Saviour. We gain confidence as we see that despite all the threatening clouds on the horizon, Christ is King!

Looking ahead without looking back and up is scary. Looking back and up gives us the boldness of faith to keep going through life. When we know our life is hidden in the crucified, risen, and ascended Lord, we may look forward to the day when Christ appears in glory, for we know that then we also will appear with him in glory.

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