When Jesus rose out of the grave, his disciples were excited. They had put all of their hopes on him, and when he had died on the cross they were desperate. His resurrection meant that his work would continue. With a Master who was even more powerful than death itself, what could stop his Kingdom from filling the earth?
But a few weeks later, Jesus ascended into heaven. The catechism (q&a. 46) summarises the event as follows: Christ, before the eyes of his disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven. After Jesus’ resurrection, his ascension into heaven was the next step in his glorification. But when it happened, the disciples stood there, staring at the sky. Dismayed. Their Lord had left them again! What were they to do?
Angels from heaven came to tell that this was not the end. And that is also the good news for us. We should know that, even though Jesus left the earth to go to heaven, he is there for our benefit. It is good for us that he is there. Meanwhile, we can live our lives confidently as Jesus’ followers, because in a very real way—
He is still with us.
1. He returned to the Father
2. He is the glorious incarnate Son
3. He is present by his Spirit
He returned to the Father
It had always been Jesus’ plan to return to heaven. In Luke 9 we read: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.” (Luke 9:51) In John, the narrative of Jesus’ suffering begins with the statement “that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.” (John 13:1) During his last meal with his disciples, Jesus explained in detail that he had to leave them, and specifically that he was “going to his Father.” (John 14:12, 28; 16:10, 28.)
Jesus’ disciples didn’t understand this. Shortly before the ascension took place, the disciples had asked: “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6) They thought that the next step after Jesus’ resurrection would be that he became king in Israel to establish the Kingdom of God physically on earth. They thought of Jerusalem as the headquarters of God’s saving work. But they were mistaken. The true headquarters, the true centre of the Kingdom of God is not on this earth, but in heaven, where God himself lives in all his glory. Jesus was not to be merely the king of all people on earth, but King of heaven as well, general of the angel armies, ruler over all powers physical and spiritual.
Jesus did not merely bring his life as a sacrifice on earth, but he brought his blood into the sanctuary of heaven itself. (Heb. 9:12) He did not only show his victory over death to his disciples on earth, but paraded as conqueror into heaven. He sat on a throne, not on Mount Zion in Jerusalem, but in the throneroom of the heavenly Zion.
That underscores his heavenly identity and how great and all-encompassing his mission is. As Jesus said to Nicodemus: “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” (John 3:13) He was sent into the world from heaven, and after completing his central mission, he returns to his Sender.
But Jesus’ return to heaven does not mean that his saving work is done. First of all, the Lord Jesus is currently at work in heaven for our benefit. The details are worked out in q&a 49-51, which we will study next time. In more than one way, it is good and necessary for us that Jesus continues his work from his throne of heaven.
Second, his departure from the earth is only temporary. Jesus himself had suggested this already in John 14:3: “If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me so that you also may be where I am.” In this time period after Jesus’ ascension, we have something to look forward to! The catechism says: Until he comes again to judge the living and the dead. As we will discuss later, the Lord Jesus will return to the earth to finalise his victory over evil, and then he will also bring heaven to the earth.
Jesus came with the plan to return to the Father, and that happened in his ascension. But he did not abandon us. He is working for our benefit at this very moment.
He is the glorious incarnate Son
Heaven is a place unlike the places in our universe. God created the heavens, but it is not part of the physical creation where we belong. You cannot specify a direction and distance and say: heaven is there. Heaven is the palace of God, and the home of many created spiritual beings, which we call angels. We know few details about this spiritual realm; the main point is that it is not physical in the way our universe is. We were created as physical beings, and the angels as spiritual beings; we don’t belong in each other’s part of creation.
Does that mean that when Jesus went to heaven, he put aside the physical, human nature he had assumed? Has he stopped being a human being with a physical body? Was his Incarnation only temporary? The answer is: No. When Jesus returned from the grave, he did not come back as a soul, a ghost, or an angel, but with a real human body, although more perfect and glorious. When he went up to heaven, the disciples saw him go up bodily. The Son of God returned to his heavenly home, but he brought with him the human nature that he assumed. How an earthly-physical body can enter heaven and adapt to the spiritual world is a question that I cannot answer; but we confess that even today, “there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ” (1 Tim. 2:5).
Jesus is still a man. The catechism emphasises this in a few ways. In q&a 49 it says that because of his ascension, “we have our flesh in heaven”; we can confidently say that one of us, human beings, is there at this moment. The ascension did not undo his incarnation. God came to the earth for our sake, but that is only half of the story; the other half is that he takes humanity to heaven. The ascension of Jesus is the first step in that wonderful process.
In q&a 47 and 48, the catechism addresses another detail that reflects a theological discussion of the past. Lutheran theologians had argued that the glorification of Jesus Christ meant that his human nature now has divine qualities. This led them to the idea that Christ’s humanity, even his body, can be everywhere in the same way that God is omnipresent. In this way of thinking, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, you can say that Christ’s body is physically here on earth. But Reformed theologians pushed back on this idea, because it confuses the human and divine natures of Christ. So the catechism explains in q&a 47 that Christ with respect to his human nature is no longer on earth. He is still a human being, and his body is still present at one place at a time. We don’t look around on earth to find the physical presence of our Lord. It is true that God is present everywhere, and the same can be said for Christ as the Son of God. But we should not confuse these divine qualities with his human nature.
He is present by his Spirit
You may think that this discussion is rather technical. Is it necessary or even helpful to delve so deep into matters that, in the end, are too great for us to comprehend?
Perhaps; if we were to write a catechism for today, I would guess that q&a 48 might be left out. We would not feel the need to teach children the details of this debate with the Lutherans; there are more pressing theological issues that need teaching in our time. But we should appreciate the question behind the debate: Is Christ, then, not with us until the end of the world, as he promised us? (q. 47)
This is an all-important question. When Jesus departed from the earth, he left his disciples with this amazing promise, as part of the Great Commission. You can read this in Mat. 28:18-20. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.”
If Jesus is not bodily present with us on earth, then in what way is he here? The catechism mentions that Christ is here with respect to his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit. Part of this means that as God, he is present everywhere. But that is not all. Jesus Christ is among us in specific, concrete ways, and as his church we must be well aware of that. Otherwise we will indeed feel like he has abandoned us, as orphans without parents, as sheep without a shepherd!
Fleshing out what the catechism hints at, there are especially three ways in which we recognize Jesus Christ’s presence in this world: By his Spirit, through his Word, and in his church.
He is present by his Spirit. The Lord Jesus himself made very clear that the Holy Spirit would be his replacement on earth until he returned. “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you forever—the Spirit of truth.” (John 14:16) Jesus had been the advocate, helper, and comforter of his disciples; when he went to heaven, he promised another advocate, helper, and comforter. This is the Holy Spirit. Like Jesus Christ, the Spirit is God and he lives with us. The Holy Spirit does the same work as the Father and the Son. He is, in fact, the Spirit of Jesus Christ. Wherever the Holy Spirit is at work, it is as if the Lord himself is present and working.
We don’t look for Jesus’ physical presence on earth, but we should be eager to find his Holy Spirit. The Spirit, who opens hearts and makes people receptive to the grace of God. The Spirit, who connects us with Jesus in the bond of faith. The Spirit, who is Lord and giver of life. The Spirit, who makes sinners into saints. The Spirit, who produces heavenly love and hope and joy in people.
He is present through his Word. The Lord Jesus is no longer teaching his disciples in person. But his lessons continue. As Jesus’ disciples made disciples of their own, they faithfully passed on what the Lord had said. Peter, John, Paul, and others wrote down the teachings of Jesus and sent letters to the churches—letters we still have today. Not much later, a number of Jesus’ followers wrote books about his life and work; the four gospels, which we can read for ourselves. The teaching of Jesus still continues, through pulpits and Bible studies, through lectures and books, when believers proclaim to others what Jesus taught 2000 years ago.
Jesus is present through his Word, and the Holy Spirit plays an active role in it. The Holy Spirit has preserved the Kingdom teachings that we must know, and ensured that we have a reliable Bible today, so that we can get to know our Lord. The Holy Spirit is also the one who gives power to the written and spoken Word, who convinces people of the truth of what they read and hear.
He is present in his church. And if you want to see the presence of the Lord Jesus physically on earth, you can look at his church. Jesus called the community of believers his witnesses, his ambassadors, even his body. It belongs to the essence of what we are: representing our heavenly Lord here on earth. We speak his words, we proclaim his Kingdom, we live out his grace and love and holiness. Wherever the church proclaims the gospel and shows mercy to others, we see Jesus at work. Wherever the church is present, there Christ is present.
The Holy Spirit is involved here as well. He keeps the church focused on the Lord Jesus. He gives her energy, courage, and wisdom. He gives her gifts of love, hope, joy, and so many other things. In the power of the Holy Spirit, the church community looks more and more like the Kingdom of God, that Jesus came to bring. The work will be completed once the Lord returns; but until that time, the Spirit-led church reveals the beginning of the Kingdom life on earth.
The risen Lord Jesus went to heaven. This was an essential part of his glorification, and a necessary part of his work. But even though he is no longer on earth in a physical way, he is never absent from us. While he is in heaven completing the work of salvation and preparing for his return, he provides for us in powerful ways. His Spirit goes through the earth, to proclaim his Word and to establish his church.
If we care about the Lord Jesus, we don’t just look back to the past, when he was on earth. We look upward to heaven, where is seated in glory at the right hand of his Father, and he has not forgotten us. We look forward into the future, when he will return. And we listen to his Word and cherish his church, relying on the Holy Spirit to work in us on his behalf.
- What did Jesus’ disciples expect to happen after Jesus’ resurrection? Why were they wrong?
- Is Jesus no longer a human being now that he is in heaven?
- What promise had Jesus made in the Great Commission? (Mat. 28:20b)
- How is Jesus present on earth? Mention at least three concrete ways.
Suggested Bible reading schedule
|Monday||John 14. Why were the disciples so confused? What promises did Jesus make here?|
|Tuesday||John 16:16-33. What figures of speech does Jesus use for the time in which we live, between his ascension and his return?|
|Wednesday||Luke 24:36-53. What is the disciples’ initial response to the resurrection? What is their ultimate response to Jesus’ ascension?|
|Thursday||Matthew 28:16-20. How is Jesus keeping this promise even today?|
|Friday||Acts 1:6-14. What lesson did the disciples have to learn even at this point?|
|Saturday||Philippians 3:12-21. What present reality and what future hope do we have, that gives us courage when things are difficult?|