What happened at the ascension?
At the ascension Christ is elevated over the angels. We will see two things coming out of this study. The first is that the ascension completes the strategic victory of Christ on the cross. The second is how the strategic victory of Christ sets up the new dispensation.
We noted that in Acts chapter one we are told that Jesus Christ is going to come back the same way. We have pointed out that this follows the same pattern that we saw in the Old Testament when the Shekinah, which means dwelling, the presence of God, left the temple. This is pictured in Ezekiel 9:3 as going our from the holy of holies through the courtyard, and again in 10:4 there is the Shekinah moving out through the courtyard and then from the courtyard across the Kidron Valley to the mountain in 11:23 which is on the east side of the city—the Mount of Olives—and then ascends to heaven. So we see this same pattern as in Acts. When Jesus comes back at the second coming He is going to touch down on the Mount of Olives, it is going to split open, and He is going to lead His army (you and me) and go into the east gate. He is going back in the same way He came out. What is interesting is that Muslims are aware of this prophecy today and in order to keep this from happening they have boarded up the east gate so nobody can come in that way, and then assuming that the Messiah is going to respect the holy ground of a cemetery they put a cemetery outside the east gate! This is to prevent the Messiah from ever fulfilling Jewish prophecy.
How does the Bible picture the ascension? Hebrews 4:4, "Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession." Notice he mandate at the end of the verse to hold fast our profession, i.e. to hold firm to what we believe, no matter how bad things get, no matter how tough the distractions and assaults may be. The command to stand form and hold the course is based on what? That we have a high priest who passed through the heavens. So the point is, don't get into the trap of thinking the ascension is just a nice little doctrine and something nice to know, historically true, academically correct because it is what the Scriptures say. It is that but there is a purpose to it. The writer of Hebrews is saying that because this happened you stay the course. There is practical benefit to this, this is part of the application, i.e. that when things get tough and we feel overwhelmed by the details of life and the pressures of life what the writer of Hebrews is saying is, don't give up, hang in there because we have a faith that is based on the historical reality that our high priest passed through the heavens. The verb here for passing through is DIERCHOMAI [dierxomai] which literally means to pass through, go through, come through, to pass from one place to another and going through the intermediate area. It is a physical, geographical concept. In verses 14, 15, "Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin." Then we are exhorted in the next verse to come boldly before the throne of grace. So we have the challenge to hold fast; we have a recognition that we have a high priest who has been tested in all areas as we are; we are commanded to go boldly before the throne of grace. All of this is predicated on what? On the ascension. So this is a very practical doctrine to understand.
Another verse that gives us an idea of how the Scripture depicts the ascension is 1 Peter 3:22, "Who is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him." Two things to note in this verse. The first is that the verb "has gone" is the Greek word POREUOMAI [poreuomai], and that word indicates the idea of going some place as if you are going on a journey, from point A to point B. That is how this is depicted in Scripture. Jesus has not only gone through the heavens but He is pictured as going on this journey. The second thing we see in this verse is what happens consequently to this ascension. He has not only gone into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, but angels and authorities and powers—terms that are related to all the angelic beings—have been made subject to Him. The Greek verb there is HUPOTASSO [u(potassw], a military term for subordination of authority. What is pictured here is that Jesus Christ in His humanity is seated at the right hand of God, and in His humanity is in authority over all the angels. Why stress this about His humanity? Jesus Christ in His deity is eternal and possesses all the attributes of God, including His sovereignty. Therefore Jesus in His deity is certainly over all the angels, principalities and powers. He always has been and always will be. But also, Jesus in His deity doesn't sit in one location, He is omnipresent. So what we have to understand here in 1 Peter 3:22 is that what we are looking at here is Jesus in His humanity and hypostatic union with an emphasis on the human side that in His humanity He is seated at the right hand of God the Father. The presence of the humanity of Christ and the resurrection body of Christ at the right hand of God the Father has been a historical argument used against the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation where every week and in every Catholic church the wafer is turned into the body of Christ. But this violates the whole doctrine of the finite location of the human body of Christ at the right hand of God the Father. Jesus Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father during the Church Age, seated being the passive position; He is not doing anything. He is not popping up all over the place in a lot of different churches in order to celebrate the mass. The human resurrected body of Christ is not omnipresent. It is local. In His deity He is omnipresent but in His humanity He is in only one place. What this tells us is that at the helm of the universe today is a human being. That is the emphasis here. It is not on Christ in His deity here, it is on Christ in His humanity, and in His humanity He was created lower than the angels. But now He is higher than the angels.
Ephesians 1:20, 21, "Which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come." This tells us that Jesus Christ is seated on the throne of God, He is not seated on the throne of David. The reason for pointing this out is that in amillennial theology, which is covenant theology, or post-millennial theology, or what has now developed in the last 20 years, so-called progressive dispensationalism (which isn't progressive or dispensational), we have Jesus seated on the throne of David in Heaven. But this violates a literal, historical, grammatical interpretation of the Scripture. He is seated at the right hand of the Father waiting for the kingdom. The kingdom is on pause and something phenomenal is taking place that He is working through the Church Age. He has been elevated above all creatures. Again, this must be understood in terms of His humanity because in His deity He always was in a superior position to all of the creatures. This puts Him in a position of authority and control over the universe.
Verse 22, "And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church." Now we are getting somewhere, because where we move to now is from the ascension to the session, and that picture of the session involves subordination to the Lord Jesus Christ of all things and also giving Him something called the Church. He is the head and we are the body, and He is building this body. Jesus is seated, He is not in a position of action.
4:9, 10, "(Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.)" Jesus has ascended above all the heavens for a purpose, so that He can fill all things. And that, again, is related to His humanity. This is the whole foundation for the book of Hebrews. Over and over again in Hebrews there are allusions to the ascension and session of Jesus Christ and its current impact on the believer because that is the whole doctrine of the present priesthood of Christ is built on the ascension and session. Only Hebrews talks about the priesthood of Christ. Paul never mentions it.
1) Man is created to subdue the earth. He is created in the image of God, as a reflection of the likeness of God, so that He in divine authority rule and reign over the creation. But what happens? The image at the point becomes marred or flawed. It is not lost, we are still in the image of God. We know that because in Genesis 9 God tells Noah that if anybody sheds man's blood his blood shall also be shed because he is in the image of God. So we still have the image of God even though it is flawed by the sin nature.
2) We can't accomplish the task: "and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth." We can't do that. So what happens is, God Himself becomes a man in sinless humanity, lives a sinless life, passes the test that Adam failed, goes to the cross, and now in His humanity is elevated above all the creatures and fills all things. So what Jesus is doing beyond the work of salvation is He is fulfilling all of the divine purpose for mankind, stated in Genesis 1:26-28, and His elevation and authority over all the angels is to fill all things so that when He finally comes back at the second coming and establishes the kingdom, we are elevated with Him as members of the Church so that we have that same position and authority.
Ephesians 4:7-11 is a crucial ascension passage. This again shows that the ascension isn't just some nice little historical doctrine, that it isn't just sort of an allusion to the kingdom but that these two integral doctrines relate to what is going on today and are intensely practical in terms of our understanding of certain dynamics. Every single believer is given at least one spiritual gift. That gift will become manifested in the believer's spiritual life as he grows spiritually. As the believer grows spiritually this gift is going to start to leak out. And for the benefit of the whole body we are to serve one another, love one another, encourage one another, pray for one another, etc., and the flow out of an understanding of these spiritual gifts. But spiritual gifts aren't just something that you are to use to serve for yourself, but that is the kind of self-absorbed, arrogant attitude of a lot of people in churches today. Let's just focus on growing to spiritual maturity and serving the Lord in whatever capacity becomes available, and our spiritual gifts will begin to manifest themselves. We will begin to discover there are certain areas where we are more effective, other areas where we are less effective, and that is where we will end up concentrating. V. 11, these gifts [listed] are given for the building up and the maturity of the body of Christ until we all attain to the unity of doctrine and knowledge of the Son of God, etc. So what we see is that these gifts are given for a purpose, and that is to build maturity into the Church. But what is the foundation for understanding this? If we are going to understand the dynamics of what is supposed to happen in a local church in terms of maturity the apostle Paul and others are grounding this in the current session.
New Testament references to the ascension of Christ: Hebrews 4:14; 1:3, 13; 7:17; Acts 5:31; Hebrews 10:12, 13; Acts 2:30, 34; 3:20, 21; and John 6:62, where He connects ascension to the title "Son of Man" which is only used in the Old Testament in Daniel chapter seven. So wee see how the writers of Scripture are taking Daniel seven, Psalm 68, 110:1, 4, and Psalm 2 and weaving them all together. So what we have is an allusion to four messianic psalms in all these doctrines—Ps. 2, 89 which is the Davidic covenant, Ps. 132 which is the Davidic covenant, Ps. 110 which talks about the Melchizedekian priesthood and being seated at the right hand of the Father, plus Daniel seven.
The terms "Son of Man" which relates to the humanity of Christ, but so much more; "Son of God" which relates to His deity; "son of David, which relates to His position as the Davidic king in relation to the Davidic covenant; and the terms "King of kings and Lord of lords" are all tied together in this whole doctrine.
The Davidic covenant is seen as the foundation for understanding all these things. This is the fact that God made this contract with David that his descendants would sit on the eternal throne. Which implies that there has to be more than a human there—eternal throne, yet human beings are finite. So what do we have to have sitting on that eternal throne? These are hints that the Messiah was going to be more than just a man. It just couldn't be another human being like Solomon or like Jereboam, or any of David's other sons.
Then there is the matter of the Melchizedekian priesthood and it's fulfillment in Christ.
Old Testament background, Psalm 68:16-18. This is a Davidic psalm; it was written by David about 1000 BC, and before the Babylonian captivity, before Isaiah, Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Daniel. It is written about the same time that God gave the covenant to David. "Why do you look with envy, O mountains with many peaks, at the mountain which God has desired for His abode?" What is that talking about? It is personifying nature. (All you hills around here, why are you all looking with jealousy at that one mountain? Because that is the mountain of God chose.) What hill are we talking about? The temple mount in Jerusalem which is the mountain God chose for His abode. "Surely the Lord will dwell there forever." That should be a hint that something has to happen, because God says He is going to put Huis dwelling there forever. "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels: the Lord is among them, as in Sinai, in the holy place." We are looking at military imagery here, so the background is military. "Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them."
What is happening here? Notice there are a few changed. In Ephesians Paul says "He" ascended on high, talking about the Lord Jesus Christ, and in Psalm 68 David is addressing Yahweh's ascension on the temple mount. In His ascent of the temple mount gifts were brought to the temple, whereas in the ascension of Christ, Chrst is seen distributing gifts. So these are some of the differences between the two texts. It is not a fulfillment, not a prophesy, it is simply imagery that is being borrowed by Paul.
Verse 24, "They have seen Thy procession, O God, the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary." This is talking about the procession that occurred in 2 Samuel chapter six. In that chapter they are brining the ark from the Obed-Edom to the temple mount, and this is where the temple is going to be located. So it is a picture of a victorious ascent to the mountain top that God has chosen. The last of the Canaanite strongholds to be conquered was the city of Jerusalem that was a stronghold of the Jebusites. So finally in the early part of David's reign they defeat the Jebusites and take control of Jerusalem which is where the mountain of God is, and finally they are brining God to His resting place on the temple mount, and this is a sign and celebration of their military victory over God's enemies. So the imagery here is military victory in defeat of God's enemies, it is a psalm of praise for the victorious conquest of God's enemies, and a praise of God for what He is now going to do among the Jews.
Why does Paul pick this up? Because he is using this imagery to show that just as God took the high ground [the temple mount is the high ground in Jerusalem], when Jesus ascends to heaven over everything He has now taken the high ground. This is the same kind of thing, he is saying, as what happened in Psalm 68, that just as you have the victorious ascent of God symbolizing the final conquest of the enemies, so you have the final conquest of Jesus over His enemies at the cross, and it is signified by His ascent to the right hand of God. And in the context what happens is that as David dances before the Lord and they bring the ark into Jerusalem, what does David do in celebration? David who I a type of Christ distributes gifts to the people. He gives them food and wine and meat. And Paul is taking that whole imagery of what happened there and saying this is the same kind of thing, only greater. Just as this was such a fantastic thing that happened in relationship to Israel and is a picture of God's position of victory over the enemies of Israel, the ascension of Christ to heaven is a picture of his positional victory over all of our enemies, and He distributes gifts so that this becomes the basis for our Christian life. Because this is the strategic victory. The strategic victory is the overall victory that provides the framework for all the other tactical victories—the little battles we all fight in the Christian life. They are predicated upon the fact that Jesus has accomplished the strategic victory on the cross, and He is seated at the right hand of God the Father. And because He has been seated at the right hand of God the Father sand because He has been elevated over all the angels, because we are united with Him, that gives us the ability and potential to have victory over all the tactical battles in our life. Therefore the writer of Hebrews says, Hold fast to you confession, Don't give up, don't fail, don't wimp out in the midst of the battle, because this is what has happened.
This gives us a framework for understanding what happened at the ascension.