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Study Resources :: Text Commentaries :: John Walvoord :: Resurrection and Ascension of Christ

John Walvoord :: The Ascension of Christ

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This article was originally published in Bibliotheca Sacra, January - March 1964, Volume 121, Number 481, published by Dallas Theological Seminary. Used here by permission.

© 1963 Dallas Theological Seminary

The Ascension

In the general theology of the historic church, the ascension of Christ has not been given much attention. It has been overshadowed, on the one hand, by the importance of the incarnation, the death, and the resurrection of Christ; and, on the other hand, it has been eclipsed by the present work and future work of Christ. Considerable confusion has arisen relative to the nature of the ascension itself, coupled with disagreement concerning the nature of the present age stemming from the conflict between postmillennial, amillennial, and premillennial theology. In the light of these facts, the ascension becomes important, not only for its obvious significance, but also as an introduction to the present work of Christ in that it lays down a number of guidelines concerning the nature of His work prior to His second advent.

Some important distinctions must be observed if the doctrine of ascension is to be properly delineated. The present lordship of Christ in heaven should be distinguished from His future lordship, the former being introduced by the ascension and the latter being introduced by His second coming. In a similar way, the work of Christ in heaven should be distinguished from the work of Christ indwelling the saint in the present age, and both should be distinguished from the present ministry of the Holy Spirit. Each of these categories of truth must be kept in its proper bounds and yet related to each other.

The ascension is important because it constitutes the second step in the exaltation of Christ which began at the time of His resurrection. When Christ rose from the dead, He assumed a resurrection body which was suited for glorification, even though for the time being the glory was veiled in order that He might minister to His disciples. When He ascended into heaven, however, this veil was taken away, and Christ resumed His rightful place of honor in heaven with the added glory of His victory over sin and death. The ascension, therefore, marked a new step in the exaltation of Christ as well as a new phase in His ministry.

Within orthodoxy, none will question that Christ actually ascended into heaven. This was in keeping with His deity and His preincarnate glory and is supported by two lines of evidence, namely, (a) the departure of Christ from earth, and (b) the arrival of Christ in heaven. For those who accept Scriptural revelation as authoritative, there can be little doubt that these two aspects of His ascension were fulfilled. There are, however, problems in definition and in the statement of the theological significance of the ascension itself.

The Departure from Earth

One of the theological problems which arises in the doctrine of ascension is the question of its relation to the doctrine of omnipresence. The Lutheran church, following Martin Luther, has generally maintained the doctrine that the body of Christ is omnipresent in contrast to the general position of Reformed theology that Christ is omnipresent only in His deity and is local as far as His body is concerned. The arguments in favor of the locality of the humanity of Christ are well stated by Charles Hodge,1 who points out that locality is an essential attribute of any body, as an omnipresent body loses the characteristics of a body. For this reason, Christ is presented in Scripture as bodily present in heaven now even though He is spiritually present everywhere. The locality of the body of Christ is essential not only to His present ministry on the throne in heaven but also confirms the reality of the ascension itself as a bodily ascension, His second coming to the earth in glory as a bodily return, and His bodily presence in the millennial earth.

Before turning to the ascension itself, it is important to consider the question whether there were any prior ascensions to that recorded in Acts 1. A number of expositors hold that Christ ascended to heaven on the day of His resurrection and that this is implied in John 20:17 17 and Hebrews 9:6-20. Support for this concept of a prior ascension is based upon typology. In Hebrews 9:12 it is stated that Christ "through his own blood, entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption." When the high priest in the Old Testament observed the Day of Atonement, he took the blood of the sacrifice into the holy of holies and there sprinkled the mercy seat (Lev 16:14). In a similar way, it is argued that Christ on the day of resurrection, having fulfilled His sacrificial work, returned to heaven to present the blood of sacrifice in heaven itself and in this way applied the blood to the heavenly altar.

There are, however, some real problems in this interpretation. First, it tends to view the work of Christ on the cross as unfinished and requiring a presentation of blood in heaven as essential to its consummation. It would seem to be a better point of view that sacrifice for sin was finished on the cross. Subsequent benefits of His sacrifice as they are extended to people and even to heaven itself (Heb 9:23) are to be viewed as following the completion of the sacrifice. Second, Hebrews 9:12 states that He entered into the holy place "through his own blood" (dia with a genitive). The passage does not state that He took His blood with Him, but rather that it was through His shed blood or accomplished sacrifice that He was able to ascend to heaven. In fact, Scripture does not ever say that His literal blood is found in heaven. Nor is the physical blood of Christ applied to a believer. The statement in 1 John 1:7, "the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin," does not mean that the blood is physically applied to us but rather that the blood shed on Calvary is the righteous ground for the forgiveness of believers who put their trust in Christ. It is a spiritual rather than a material application. Third, this viewpoint of bringing literal blood into heaven tends to give support to the false doctrine of the perpetual offering as taught by the Roman Catholic Church and similar ideas held by some Protestants. This will be considered further under the priestly work of Christ in His present work. The concept, therefore, that Hebrews 9:12 states that Christ presented His blood in heaven seems to lack support in Scripture and creates many difficulties which are not easily dismissed.

Another important argument for an ascension prior to Acts 1 is derived from John 20:17 in connection with Christ's appearance to Mary Magdalene. Mary mistook Christ for the gardener, but when she recognized Him, in her ecstasy she apparently clung to Him. It is for this reason that Christ said to her, "Touch me not; for I am not yet ascended unto the Father: but go unto my brethren, and say to them, I ascend unto my Father and to your Father, and to my God and your God." The expression "Touch me not" could be translated literally, "Stop clinging to me," or "Stop holding me."

The command of Christ to Mary is made more significant by the fact that when He met the women, not too long after His appearance to Mary, it is recorded that the women "came and took hold of his feet, and worshipped him" (Matt 28:9). Some have held that between these two events, His appearance to Mary and His appearance to the women, Christ ascended into heaven and that this accounts for His allowing the women to grasp Him by the feet. It is more probable that Christ rebuked Mary when she touched or clung to Him (Gr. hapto) because this was improper for her to do. By contrast, the women in Matthew 28:9 worshipped Him, bowing at His feet in a way that was in keeping with His person. The rebuke to Mary, therefore, is on the grounds that her embrace was not proper and Christ attempts instead to get her mind on the task ahead by referring to His future ascension.

Christ added to His statement to Mary the explanation, "I am not yet ascended unto the father." The word "ascend" (Gr. anabaino) is in the present tense, which permits at least two interpretations. It could be the inchoative use of the present tense, meaning that Christ was even at that moment in the process of His ascending and she was retaining Him. It is more probable, however, that it is the futuristic use of the present tense as A. T. Robertson points out.2 In his discussion of the futuristic use of the present, Robertson states "the futuristic pres. startles and arrests attention. It affirms and not merely predicts. It gives a sense of certainty."3

This fits the situation. Christ wanted to startle Mary, causing her to cease clinging to Him, and for this reason used the present tense implying certainty and spoke of the future as if it were already present. In heaven, it would be possible for Mary, as well as other saints, to have a relation to Christ which would be impossible in a material world. There is no need for an immediate ascension, but rather it is implied that a delay in the ascension would take place during which certain things would be done including Mary telling the disciples about the Lord.

One of the major difficulties in postulating an ascension on the day of resurrection is that, as the account is reconstructed, it would be necessary for this ascension to take place between the appearance to Mary and the appearance to the other women, a period of time probably less than an hour. If it is true that Christ rose from the dead shortly after sundown on the preceding day, which actually began the first day of the week, it would mean that He had lingered in the earthly sphere for a number of hours prior to meeting Mary and then had made His ascension to heaven and return in comparatively a few minutes. While it is undoubtedly possible for Christ to do something of this character, it would seem to be irreverent haste for such a tremendous act to be sandwiched in between two appearances of Christ only by minutes apart. It is, therefore, more probable that the present tense of "I ascend" refers to the ascension in Acts 1, as there does not seem to be any other ascension indicated.

There are a number of other cases where Christ used the present tense to speak of a future event. For instance, in John 14:2, "I go to prepare a place for you." It is quite clear that He did not go at that moment, nor for many days thereafter. He was referring to His going to heaven on the day of His ascension in Acts 1. The same is true of John 14:3 where Christ said "I will come again," literally, "I come again." The present tense here refers to a distant event, namely, the rapture of the church, when Christ will come for His own. It is for these and similar reasons that men who have made a careful study of this particular problem, such as W. H. Griffith Thomas,4 A. T. Robertson,5 B. F. Westcott,6 N. Dimock,7 and John Owen,8 agree that Christ did not ascend to heaven to present His blood on the day of resurrection.

If Christ did not ascend on the day of His resurrection, it remains to be proved conclusively that He did ascend into heaven forty days later as recorded in the first chapter of Acts. This historic event is confirmed, first of all, by the anticipation of Christ, by the historic record of the ascension, and by the allusions in the epistles to the ascension as a fact.

In the Gospels, there are a number of indications where Christ is anticipating His return to glory, which He referred to as the return to the glory which He once had (Luke 9:51; John 6:62; 7:33; 14:12, 28; 16:5, 10, 16, 17, 28). The ascension, because of these many references, was undoubtedly an important event in the life of Christ marking the conclusion of His earthly ministry and bringing to culmination that series of events which had begun with His incarnation. The fact that it is singled out in the thinking and prophetic ministry of Christ makes clear that the ascension was important.

Three passages of Scripture are dedicated to record this historic event, Mark 16:19-20; Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:6-12. Though the Mark passage is sometimes questioned on textual grounds, the Luke passage is quite clear, as is noted in Luke 24:51. "And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he parted from them, and was carried up into heaven." As Kelly points out, there is no textual basis for contradicting Luke's statements.9 In the Luke passage, the Greek word anaphero, translated "carried up," is used to describe the ascension. It is of interest that this is a different word than any of the words used in Acts 1.

The classic passage on the ascension, of course, is Acts 1:6-12 where four Greek words are used to describe various aspects of the ascension.

(a) In verse 9, it is stated, "As they were looking, he was taken up." The Greek for "taken up" is eperthe from epairo. This verb is commonly used to indicate something which is lifted up, and the word is used, for instance, in relation to hoisting a sail in Acts 27:40.

(b) In verse 9 also, it is revealed that "a cloud received him out of their sight." The Greek word for "received up" is hupelaben. As A. T. Robertson points out, it is found in the "second aorist active indicative of hupelabano, literally here 'took under him.' He seemed to be supported by the cloud."10 There seems to be some significance in the fact that clouds are mentioned not only in connection with the ascension of Christ, but also in relation to His return in power and glory to the earth (Matt 24:30; 26:64; Mark 13:26; 14:62; Luke 21:27; Rev 1:7). The reference in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 in connection with the rapture is regarded by some as not a reference to literal clouds but to the saints being raptured as constituting themselves a cloud or large group of translated saints.

(c) In verse 10 of Acts 1, a third word is used, poreuomenou, translated "as he went." It was a common word meaning to pursue a journey which would lead to the conclusion that the ascension is regarded as a departure from earth and also a journey to heaven.

(d) A fourth Greek work is used in Acts 1:11, analemphtheis, translated "received up" (cf. Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51). This is, of course, a climactic concept, the resultant action springing from the preceding event. It is almost identical in meaning to eperthe in verse 9 and is used in Acts 20:13-14 of being taken aboard a ship.

Combining the concept of the four words, the entire picture of the ascension is given. The first word, aperthe in Acts 1:9, in the passive form in which it is used, makes clear that the ascension is upward and that the Father is taking His Son to heaven. The second word, hupelaben, indicates that once Christ was in the atmospheric heaven He was received by clouds, probably a natural cloud though some, like A. C. Gaebelein, believe it is a supernatural cloud similar to that on the Mount of Transfiguration and that which filled Solomon's temple. There is no indication in the text that the cloud is other than a natural one. The third word connotes that the ascension was a journey, not merely a disappearance or a change of state, but an actual transmission from earth to heaven. The fourth word, analemphtheis, concludes the picture by indicating that Christ was received into heaven as the destination of His journey.

Subsequent to Acts 1, it is constantly assumed in Scripture that Christ is in heaven. According to Hebrews 4:14, we have "a great high priest, who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the son of God." In a similar manner in 1 Peter 3:22, Jesus Christ is described as one "who is on the right hand of God, having gone into heaven; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him." The historic record of the ascension in Acts 1 is, therefore, confirmed by subsequent statements in the New Testament.

The Arrival of Christ in Heaven

In addition to the allusions in the epistles to the ascension, there are many specific references where Christ is seen in heaven after His ascension which confirms the statement of Mark 16:19and Acts 1:11 that Christ arrived in heaven. Such an arrival is in keeping with the prophecies in which Christ anticipated this event (Luke 24:51; John 6:62; 7:33; 14:12, 28; 16:5, 10, 28).

In many passages in the New Testament, Christ is seen in heaven subsequent to His ascension. The passages are so numerous any other interpretation seems to be without foundation (Acts 2:33-36; 3:21; 7:55-56; 9:3-6; 22:6-8; 26:13-15; Rom 8:34; Eph 1:20-22; 4:8-10; Phil 2:6-11; 3:20; 1 Thess 1:10; 4:16; 1 Tim 3:16; Heb 1:3, 13; 2:7; 4:14; 6:20; 7:26; 8:1; 9:24; 10:12-13; 12:2; 1 John 2:1; Rev 1:7, 13-18; 5:5-12; 6:9-17; 7:9-17; 14:1-5; 19:11-16). This mass of Scriptural evidence is one of the reasons why there has been so little question in orthodoxy concerning the reality of the ascension of Christ. The ascension was a natural sequence of His resurrection and the details given to us concerning it are in harmony with the general truth. The ascension was (a) gradual, (b) visible, (c) bodily, and (d) Christ was received with clouds. This is of great significance because when Christ returns to the earth to establish His kingdom, His second advent has all of these same characteristics, namely, gradual, visible, bodily, and with clouds.

The Theological Significance of the Ascension

The ascension of Jesus Christ is significant for at least four reasons: (a) it was the end of the period of His self-limitation, characteristic of His life on earth; (b) it was the occasion for exaltation and glorification; (c) it marked the entrance of resurrected humanity in heaven; (d) it introduced His present work in heaven.

In many respects, the ascension marked the transition from the old sphere of ministry under the self-limitations of the kenosis which Christ endured on earth and the new sphere of release and glory of the ministry of Christ in heaven. While the resurrection was perhaps more important-in that it was the first step in the self-exaltation of Christ which freed Him from humiliation, weakness, and the limitations of the flesh-in the ascension, Christ returned to His infinite glory which was veiled not only during His lifetime but during the forty days of His post-resurrection ministry.

Not only did the ascension mark the end of the period of Christ's humiliation but also the end of the important ministries carried on while on earth. Completed now was His sacrificial work on the cross in which He provided a propitiation for our sins. Ended too was His prophetic work which now was to be carried on by the Holy Spirit, though His office as a prophet continued. Christ no longer was to do miracles in His bodily presence on earth, though miracles continued to be done in His name and power. The ascension, therefore, provided a climax to the period of kenosis which characterized Christ's entire life on earth.

The ascension of Christ was also an anticipation of the exaltation and glory which was to follow. The ascension, in some respects, bears the same relation to His glorification as His birth did to His humiliation. Both indicated a passage from one state to another. The new glorification which Christ entered upon His ascension included a number of important factors. (1) It marked the resumption of His preincarnate glory in keeping with His prayer in John 17:5 that He receive the glory that was His before the foundation of the world. This meant that He not only cast aside the limitations which characterized His life on earth, but that He added a positive quality of manifestation of His inherent glory of the Second Person of the Trinity. (2) In His glorifications, there was the added glory of being the Savior and Mediator who had triumphed over sin and death. While His inherent glory was unchanged, the new glory as given to Christ was based on His work rather than His person, though it included now victorious humanity as well as deity. His glorification also had the aspect of reward, in that the Father bestowed upon Him added glory in recognition of His triumph over death and sin. Hence, in Ephesians 1:20-23, it is declared that all things are under His control or dominion (cf. Heb 2:8), and Philippians 2:19 states that God "hath highly exalted him, and gave unto him the name which is above every name." (4) The glorification included His position at the right hand of the Father's throne in which He would share the dominion and glory of the Father (Ps 110:1) and would be in a position to plead for believers on the basis of His finished work on the cross.

As in the case of Enoch and Elijah in the Old Testament, the ascension of Christ indicates that Christ entered heaven bodily as a type of the rapture of the church. In the ascension, however, for the first time a resurrected man entered heaven. As such, Christ is the forerunner (Heb 6:20) of believers who would thus enter heaven either through resurrection or translation, and His presence in heaven is a pledge that every believer in Christ would also enter into the heavenly sphere. The entrance into heaven, therefore, was not simply a return to the preincarnate glory of deity but it constituted, for the first time, a glorification of humanity. As Charles Hodge expressed it, "the subject of this exaltation was the Theanthropos; not the Logos especially or distinctively; not the human nature exclusively; but the Theanthropic person."11

As previously indicated, the ascension also marked the beginning of His present work which differs dramatically from that which occurred between the incarnation and the ascension. In the present age, Christ is carrying out the peculiar purpose of God for this age, namely, the calling out of the church from both Jew and Gentile, bringing to consummation the revealed will of God for creation, for the Gentiles, as well as for other aspects of the divine program. The nature of His new work implies His presence in heaven in glory and the administration of the plan of God from heaven rather than from the earthly sphere.


Footnotes:

1. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 630-34.

2. A. T. Robertson, A Grammar of the Greek New Testament in the Light of Historical Research, 880.

3. Ibid., 870.

4. Cf. International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia, "Ascension.".

5. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament, V, 312.

6. B. F. Westcott, The Epistle to the Hebrews, 232.

7. N. Dimock, Our One High Priest on High, 17-43.

8. John Owen, The Works of John Owen, XV, 231-32.

9. William Kelly, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke, 375.

10. A. T. Robertson, Word Pictures of the New Testament, III, 11.

11. C. Hodge, Systematic Theology, II, 635.

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The Blue Letter Bible ministry and the BLB Institute hold to the historical, conservative Christian faith, which includes a firm belief in the inerrancy of Scripture. Since the text and audio content provided by BLB represent a range of evangelical traditions, all of the ideas and principles conveyed in the resource materials are not necessarily affirmed, in total, by this ministry.

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