The ascension and session of Jesus Christ
The purpose of the ascension
This is important because these doctrines aren't taught very much today. In fact, in his Systematic Theology, Dr Lewis Sperry Chafer who was the founder of Dallas Theological Seminary noted the fact that little had really been written or developed on the significance of the ascension and session of the Lord Jesus Christ. He noted a theological reason for it. And the theological reason has to do with one's overall perspective of understanding the Bible, how one interprets the Bible. There are basically two ways in which people approach the Bible and interpret it. One the one hand there is replacement theology, the idea that in God's plan and purposes Israel failed completely when they rejected Jesus Christ as Messiah and as a result of their failure God rejected them completely, totally and finally, and replaced them with the Church. So that the Church is the heir of all the promises and covenants that were originally promises to Israel, and those covenants and promises are spiritualized so that the kingdom is now a heavenly kingdom, the land is heaven, and things of that nature. There are different branches of replacement theology, whether it is Lutheran theology or Presbyterian covenant theology, or whether it is Wesleyan theology, Roman Catholic theology; all of these different systems buy into some form of replacement theology or another. On the other hand there is dispensationalism. We are dispensationalists, we believe that there is a distinction between God's plan for Israel and God's plan for the Church and that God did not finally and totally reject Israel when they rejected Christ. He set them aside temporarily and called out a new people, the Church which is neither Jew nor Greek, we are all one in the body of Christ. That was a plan that was not prophesied or seen in the Old Testament.
If you are just approaching Scripture from a replacement theology grid, if that is your framework, then you are never going to really understand the doctrine of the current session of Christ, because to understand it you have to plug it into what comes next and its preparation for the Millennial kingdom, and how the current Church Age fits into that. So if you are not starting from the right framework you are just not going to consider it very much at all. That is why amillennialists don't talk about the Rapture.
There are a couple of other reasons today why this is not talked about very much. One is because we live in an era today when people just want to come to church and find out something that they can take home and apply this afternoon. It is just another manifestation of the narcissistic "me" generation of the late 20th century. We want shallow superficial teaching that really just impacts "me" so that I can go home and apply something. That reduces Scripture to the other problem, which is sound bytes. We live in a sound byte era today where we want to be able to encapsulate everything in one quick little sentence. Just make it one little quick talking point and I'll take that home. Don't give me any background, don't make me think, just give me little one-shot sayings so that I can reduce everything to little one-minute sound bytes. The problem with that is you can't think that way, you can't learn to think that way, you can't gain appreciation of what God is doing, and the Scripture is more significant and more deep than that. The Scripture is designed to teach us how to think, not only about our own life, not only in terms of how we can have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ in terms of salvation, but also in terms of what God is doing in the whole overall picture of history and reality. We plug into that, so history may operate at a macro level but it also operates at a micro level in terms of our individual lives. So what the Bible presents is a lot of information sometimes that you just can't cover in 15 or 20 minutes.
The ascension really sets up some unique factors for this Church Age that impact our individual spiritual life. In Acts 1:7-9 we find the central passage describing the ascension, although it is also referred to in Mark and in Luke. "And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power. But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight." Note there that His last statement before He departs has to do with the coming of the Holy Spirit. There is an integral connection between Jesus' ascension before the Holy Spirit can come. "And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven." This is the historical account of the ascension of Jesus Christ.
Anybody who thinks deeply about the ascension comes up with several questions. First of all, why did Christ have to ascend at all? Why was the ascension necessary? Why not just begin the kingdom? After all that is what the disciples expected. Why couldn't the Messiah of Israel who has now been crucified and accomplished salvation go right ahead and militarily defeat the Romans, politically establish the kingdom, and go right into the Millennial age? The second question is, why did Jesus have to ascend before sending the Holy Spirit? John 16:7. This again shows that there is an integral connection between the ascent of Jesus Christ to the right hand of God the Father and the descent of the Holy Spirit. So there is something going on here that is significant. This helps us to understand that something new is about to happen in the Church Age, and that there is this connection between Jesus at the right hand of the Father and the sending of the Holy Spirit. The third thing we learn from passages dealing with the ascension is that Jesus Christ ascended and then he gave gifts to men (Ephesians 4:7-11), specifically the leadership gifts. There is a connection not only to the sending of the Holy Spirit but also to the distribution of spiritual gifts to the Church. The fourth question to address: What is the connection between the ascension of Christ and the giving of gifts. That has an Old Testament background as well. All of this has something to do with different things that happened in the Old Testament that foreshadow, but also explain it in terms of Jesus Christ's role as the Messiah of the Old Testament.
So what we are going to do is look at this like a puzzle and put together the pieces of the ascension. The first piece we will look at answers the question, Why? Why did Jesus Christ have to ascend to the right hand of God the Father and why is He now currently seated?
1) We have to recognize that when Jesus came at the first advent the Jews expected a one-coming Messiah, that He would come and establish the kingdom all at one time.
2) They expected the crown, the glorious reign of the Messiah, to come before the suffering Messiah—the crown before the cross. So when Jesus came as a rather nondescript teacher from Galilee they rejected Him because He didn't fit their preconceived notions of a glorious king. They didn't understand what Peter refers to in 1 Peter 1:10, 11: "Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and searched diligently, who prophesied of the grace that should come unto you: searching what, or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ which was in them did signify, when it testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ, and the glory that should follow." Something happens during the incarnation of Christ, and this is true of all the Gospels. What is seen is a presentation of the kingdom at the beginning of the Gospels. Jesus is presented as the Messiah to the nation and it is the offer of the kingdom. Then as time goes by there is a break, and increasing hostility toward Jesus from the religious leaders. So about two-thirds of the way through His ministry there is an official rejection of the King, e.g. Matthew 12 when they began to accuse Him of performing His miracles in the power of Satan. From that point on there is a deterioration in His relationship with the Pharisees and the Sanhedrin, leading to his crucifixion. This is important to understand because the message that Jesus is presenting is a message related to the kingdom. They reject Him. This introduces the major issue that serves as the backdrop for understanding the whole doctrine of the ascension and session, and that is the doctrine related to the kingdom. How you understand the kingdom is going to affect how you understand many passages in Scripture. What we believe is that we live in the Church Age which is going to end with the Rapture. Then the Tribulation begins, goes seven years, and ends with the literal return of Christ when He returns to the earth with His bride, rescues Israel and establishes His kingdom on the earth—1000 literal years. The kingdom is yet future. Therefore the kingdom obviously was postponed. Jesus came and offered it at the first advent, they rejected it, and then that kingdom was postponed. Now what is going to happen? That is integral to understanding what is happening today at the right hand of the Father. It is because Jesus is doing something today that was not foreseen in the Old Testament that was preparatory for the Millennial kingdom. This structures our thinking so we have a better grasp of why that spiritual life we have is so important and so crucial and what it is designed for. It is not just so we can solve problems and face the difficulties of life and have joy and happiness. So often this is how modern man in the last half of the 20th century approaches the gospel. Jesus never presented the gospel in terms of how you could have a happy life; that is a subjective orientation. The gospel is about being reconciled in experience to the eternal God of the universe who created us. It is not about helping you feel better about yourself, not a psychological experience, not about felling happy—that's true in terms of doctrine. But it is greater than that. God is doing something that is going to transform the ages and is going to bring about a culmination of everything that really began back in the garden. This happens ultimately when the second coming occurs.
3) We need to understand the message that was proclaimed at the time of the incarnation. John the Baptist, Jesus, and the disciples all proclaimed the same message: "Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." That was the message of their time because Jesus is making a kingdom offer. He is presenting Himself as the glorious Messiah, the greater son of David, who is going to bring in the kingdom and they need to change their thinking (repent). The Jews had immersed themselves into a legalistic form of thinking ever since their return from Babylon in captivity. They were no longer grace oriented and the message here is that they had to change their thinking about God and how to have a relationship with God, from legalism to grace. John the Baptist came and said, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." Notice that when the Gospels begin with Christ they don't just begin with Christ. When Christ's ministry begins they start with John the Baptist, always following an Old Testament pattern. The king was always preceded buy the prophet. It was Samuel the prophet who becomes the king-maker for Saul and for David. So the same pattern is followed in the New Testament. First the prophet appears who announces the king, and then the king appears. And notice at the beginning of the Gospels John doesn't stop and explain what the kingdom is. He didn't have to. Those Jews understood what the kingdom was, that it was the Messianic Davidic kingdom that was going to come to earth and be the fulfillment of all the Old Testament covenants. When John saw the Pharisees he called them a bunch of snakes: "O generation of vipers, who hath warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" What was the wrath to come? The Tribulation, the time of Jacob's trouble, Daniel's seventieth week. What is John doing here? He doesn't understand there is going to be two advents. He is expecting since Messiah is there that all of the prophecies of the Old Testament are going to come true. He doesn't understand that there is [now] a 2000-year interval between the first and second comings. He expected to be on the verge of the Tribulation right than and there because he had the same view that the Jews did, that there was a one-coming Messiah. Matthew 3:10, he expects judgment is imminent with the presence of the Messiah. Then Jesus in Matthew 4:17, "From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." This is His message. He is presenting Himself as the Messianic, Davidic King. Then in Matthew 10:5, 6: "These twelve Jesus sent forth, and commanded them, saying, Go not into the way of the Gentiles, and into any city of the Samaritans enter ye not: but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. And as ye go, preach, saying, The kingdom of heaven is at hand." Jesus commissions the disciples and sends them out to the house of Israel. He is telling them not to take the gospel to certain classes of people, the Samaritans. This is because at this time Jesus is offering the kingdom to the Jews, it doesn't have anything to do with the Gentiles. His message is a kingdom message. The kingdom of heaven is a Jewish kingdom and they understood it that way. "The kingdom of heaven is at hand." It is imminent. So there is contingency here that is based on their volition. Always remember that God's blessings for Israel were contingent upon their volition to accept Jesus as Messiah. If they didn't they sacrificed and lost those blessings. And the same thing is true for us. God has blessings that He has set aside for us in eternity past but they are contingent upon our volition. If we choose to sty in fellowship, walk by means of the Spirit, learn doctrine, apply doctrine, then those blessings are distributed. But if we fail, if we don't stay in fellowship, if we don't learn the Word, if we are not walking by the Spirit, then those blessings will not be distributed. The emphasis here is on personal responsibility and the Jews failed.
4) Near the mid point of His ministry the Jewish religious leaders rejected Jesus as Messiah, which led to a postponement of the kingdom. This is very important because in all of the other systems what they will say is that Jesus inaugurated the kingdom and it is coming in in some way, shape or form even today. But what we believe as traditional dispensationalists is that the Bible teaches that Jesus offered the kingdom and it was postponed. The kingdom didn't begin, even in the spiritual form. It doesn't begin until the second coming. So there is a major shift in the plan. The entire Old Testament never mentioned the Church. Why? Because if the Church had been prophesied and revealed—this parenthetical age, this intercalation between the first and second advents—in the Old Testament the Jews would not have had a real dynamic choice to make at the first coming. They had a real choice to make and it made a difference. If they had accepted Jesus the Church Age would not have happened. Hint: That is why the ascension had to take place. The ascension is not really prophesied in the Old Testament because if Jesus was going to leave we would know there was going to be something going on in between. So this is all mystery doctrine for the Church. So what happened to the kingdom?
a) The postponement of the kingdom called for the postponement of the glories of the kingdom. The kingdom message is rejected, the King is rejected, and so the kingdom is postponed.
b) Postponement means the issue of the kingdom relates to the distinct plan of God for Israel and the Church. The kingdom is related to Israel, but Israel is taken off the front burner now and put on the back burner, and God's focus is on the Church. So what God is doing today in the life of you as a believer in the Church Age is directly related to what He is going to do in the future in the kingdom. And what revelation teaches is that we are being prepared to rule and reign with Christ as kings and priests to God in the Millennial kingdom. In other words, we are going to be that cadre that He comes back with to rule and administer the Millennial kingdom. But in order to be prepared to come back and rule and reign we have to grow in terms of maturity and capacity. We are in training. Even Jesus Christ had to learn obedience through the things which He suffered. Training is not fun. Sanctification is all about learning to obey God. Postponement of the kingdom means that there will be an unforeseen departure for the Messiah and a second coming. It is the rejection of the kingdom that means He is going to have to leave, and because He left it means that there is going to be a second coming.
5) In John 6:62 Jesus says, "What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?" This brings to bear a term we will have to look at in more detail. "The Son of man" is a term that is loaded with significance from the Old Testament. It doesn't just indicate His humanity. In the first place the term is only used once in relation to the Messiah, and that is in Daniel 7 where He is the Son of Man who comes from heaven to defeat the kingdoms of history going back to the Babylonian kingdom, the Persian kingdom, the Greek kingdom, and the Roman kingdom. The kingdoms of man are all represented as beasts in that passage. Then the Son of man comes and He just wipes out all these kingdoms and establishes His kingdom. So when you heard the term Son of man as a Jew you would immediately think in terms of Daniel 7 and the end of the age and the establishment of the kingdom. But what Jesus is saying here is, What if the Son of man ascends to where He was before? Wait a minute. All we saw in Daniel seven was that He was descending and establishing the kingdom. What is meant by go away? He is beginning to give foreshadow that He is going to ascend. He also says He is going to ascend to where He was before. What does that tell us? That tells us that before He was human He was in heaven. It emphasizes His pre-existent deity in heaven. In John 16:28 He clarifies: "I came forth from the Father, and am come into the world: again, I leave the world, and go to the Father." In verse 7 He tells us why: "Nevertheless I tell you the truth; It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you." He had to ascend first, so the ascension I designed to set up things that are going to happen in a unique way related to the ministry of the Holy Spirit. That is actually the thing that distinguishes the Church Age from all other ages. It is the Holy Spirit that is the dynamic of the Church Age. And this couldn't happen if Jesus had stayed on the earth. Note, too, that Jesus sends the Holy Spirit, not just the Father. The rejection of Jesus as Messiah means that Jesus had to expand His base. This doesn't mean He is replacing Israel, but since Israel rejected Him in order to continue operations on planet earth to bring unsaved to salvation the base is expanded. So there is a new people that are called out. The Jews had been called out for the purpose of being a blessing to all nations, but now they have failed by their own volition so God is going to call out a new people with a new purpose and a new destiny, and that is the Church Age.
6) The next stage is to bring in a new people to fulfill certain objectives related to the angelic conflict. This is related to the ultimate resolution of the angelic conflict and demonstrating the character of God and the grace of God through us in the Church Age.
All of this just gives us background to what happens at the ascension. Now we answer the question. Why the ascension?
a) The Old Testament envisioned one coming, not two.
c) Jewish rejection brought a postponement.
d) Since the kingdom is postponed there is now an unanticipated or unprophesied [in the Old Testament] age.
e) The Church Age, then, is unique because of the role of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual life.
Acts 1:9, "And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight." He is "taken up," aorist passive indicative of EPAIRO [e)peirw] which means He is passive, the subject is receiving the action. Jesus isn't taking off like Superman. Jesus is being received, it is an acceptance, passive to the action which indicates then reception of the Father. This is further indicated by the verb HUPOLAMBANO [u(polambanw], "a cloud received him." The cloud is the subject of that verb, "receive" is now the aorist active indicative of HUPOLAMBANO, which means that cloud performs the action of reception. Now a cloud throughout the Old Testament represents the presence of God. It often represents the glory of God. So what we see here is a visual picture of the cloud receiving Him, and that is God the Father's acceptance of Him.
a) He went physically, Acts 1:11; He is going to return physically in his human body.
b) He went up; He will come down to the same place.
c) He went up bodily; He will descend bodily in the same body.
d) He went up from the Mount of Olives; He is going to return to the Mount of Olives.
e) His coming again is not an allusion to the coming of the Holy Spirit.
f) His coming again is not an allusion to a judgment in AD 70 on Jerusalem.
g) His coming again is not an allegory of the Church.
It fits a pattern. In the Old Testament God was going to discipline Israel because of their disobedience. So Ezekiel has a vision of the departing of the glory of God from the temple. Ezekiel 9:3, "And the glory of the God of Israel was gone up from the cherub, whereupon he was, to the threshold of the house. And he called to the man clothed with linen, which had the writer's inkhorn by his side." 10:3, "Then the glory of the LORD went up from the cherub, and stood over the threshold of the house; and the house was filled with the cloud, and the court was full of the brightness of the LORD's glory." So there is this movement out of the temple. 11:23, "And the glory of the LORD went up from the midst of the city, and stood upon the mountain which is on the east side of the city." The Mount of Olives. And then where does it go. The Shekinah goes to heaven Jesus fits the same pattern. He comes out of the east side of the city, He goes to the Mount of Olives, it all fits together.