Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in May 2014.
Forty days after rising from the dead, Jesus issued some final instructions to His disciples and ascended into heaven (Luke 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11). While Christians universally confess this strange event as an article of their faith (Apostles’ Creed; Nicene Creed; Westminster Confession of Faith 8.4; Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 53), the exaltation of Jesus to God’s right hand generally drops off our radar from there. Most struggle to understand the meaning of Jesus’ ascension, much less its practical import for daily life as His disciple.
So what is the Ascension about? Was Jesus defying the laws of gravity to provide one final proof that He was actually the Son of God? Or was it Jesus’ vertical departure to heaven where He goes to prepare a permanent home for us? If we are to recover the practical import of Jesus’ exaltation for the Christian life, then we must first explore the theological significance of this odd but awesome event.
For Luke, the Ascension wraps up the unfolding story of the Gospel (Luke 24:50-53), closing the loop Jesus publicly opened by preaching “the good news of the kingdom of God” (Luke 4:17-21, 43; 8:1). This good news, or “Gospel,” announces that God, in faithfulness to His covenant promises, sent Jesus to establish His kingship on earth. As David’s greater son, Jesus inaugurates the long-promised age of jubilee, bringing the forgiveness of sins and gift of the Spirit (Luke 4:17-21). However, like David, Jesus was anointed for office (1 Samuel 16:13; Luke 3:21-22) yet did not immediately take up His throne. This awaited the climatic confrontation between Jesus and the powers of sin and evil at the cross.
By voluntarily enduring the cross, Jesus submitted to Satan’s grab for power. While appearing victorious, Satan grossly overreached at the cross, sealing his own fate. He failed to see “the definite plan and foreknowledge of God” at work in the crucifixion (Acts 2:23). As the “Holy and Righteous One” (Acts 3:14), Jesus could not be held in death’s power (Acts 2:24); the devil had no proper legal demand against His life (Colossians 2:14). Therefore, God vindicated Jesus, raising Him from the dead, and vanquished Satan’s enslaving rule (1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 2:14). Through death and resurrection, Jesus won the holy war against evil and seized what Satan offered Him in the wilderness (Luke 4:5-7). But rather than worshiping Satan to receive authority over the kingdoms of the earth, Jesus defeated him, liberating the nations from his tyranny.
After His victorious battle, Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at God’s right hand, assuming authority over His newly won inheritance (Acts 2:33-36; Psalm 2:7-8; 110:1). In other words, Jesus’ ascension is his enthronement. Seated in the heavenly places, Jesus is enthroned above “all rule and authority and power and dominion” (Ephesians 1:20-21). Here, it is critical to note that heaven, in the Bible, is not a distant spiritual location unrelated to our world, but rather another unseen, physical dimension of God’s good creation that overlaps, and even intersects, with earth. Given this, Jesus ascends to heaven, not to escape earth, but rather to reign over it until He returns to re-create it.
As the dramatic conclusion to the announcement about the coming of God’s kingship, the Ascension completes the narrative arc of the Gospel story. With Jesus on His throne, a new state of affairs, or a royal reality, has been established on earth. Jesus is the world’s rightful ruler — He is the King of kings, Lord of lords, and Ruler of kings on earth (Revelation 1:8; 19:16).
Given the explicitly royal motifs of Jesus’ ascension, it’s crucial to consider the practical import of this reality for the Christian life. Let’s consider four different implications.
First, if Jesus reigns at God’s right hand, then the way of the cross is the way of the kingdom.
While attempting to promote reconciliation and harmony in Philippi, Paul instructs the church to live in humility, seeking the good of others over its own. Evidently, pride and self-interest were impeding the church’s life and witness. He writes: “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus.”
Paul then grounds his appeal for humility in the redemptive events of Jesus’ life. In short order, he traces the path of Jesus’ kingship from His incarnation through the cross to His exaltation over all things. He says: “[W]ho, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
If we are to recover the practical import of Jesus’ exaltation for the Christian life, then we must first explore the theological significance of this odd but awesome event.
Paul exhorts us to consider the interests of others ahead of our own because this is Jesus’ mindset and reflects the values of His kingdom. By His spirit, we are to inhabit His humble and self-sacrificial way, laying aside our selfish preoccupations and serving one another in love. While the world may deem this futile, the cross and the crown never part company for the Christian. Paul makes it clear: If Jesus is King, then the way of the cross is the way of life within the kingdom. If the Sovereign is also the Servant, then we too, as His redeemed subjects, must be servants (Mark 10:43-45).
Second, if Jesus reigns at God’s right hand, then He commissions us to subject what has been subjected to Him – everything!
As the exalted Lord, all things have been subjected to King Jesus (Psalm 8:6; 72:8; Ephesians 1:21-23; 1 Corinthians 15:27; Hebrews 2:8; 1 Peter 3:22). Nothing lies outside the scope of His dominion. He who created all things, and reconciled them through His blood, is preeminent over all things (Colossians 1:15-20). As Jesus said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).
This vision of Jesus’ reign propels us into His inheritance to subject everything that God has subjected to Him. As God’s new humanity, under the second and last Adam, our mandate is no less expansive than the commission given to our first parents to multiply images and subdue the earth (Genesis 1:28). God sends us out to colonize the earth, bringing the beliefs, practices, and values of Jesus’ kingdom to expression. Indeed, everything that belongs to our Lord Jesus by His conquest belongs within our mandate.
Therefore, we engage our cities and schools, marketplaces and marriages, factories and farms, relationships and neighborhoods with the purpose of subjecting them to our Lord Jesus. We labor in the hope that these spheres of life will reflect, as much as possible, His good and harmonious rule (Matthew 6:10). Of course, this requires knowing what God loves and possessing the discernment to apply these values within the various relationships, institutions, and systems around us. This is no easy task. But our consuming passion is to expend our talents, resources, and energy to testify to Jesus’ kingship with the entirety of our lives. While we expect the thorns and thistles of the curse to trouble us (Genesis 3:19), we know our labors are ultimately not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58). With thanksgiving, we render the work of our hands to God as a sacrificial offering of praise (Colossians 3:17; Genesis 2:15).
Third, if Jesus reigns at God’s right hand, then we gain a unique political perspective.
As Christians, we recognize that public officials, whether dictators or democratically elected presidents, serve at the pleasure of King Jesus (Romans 13:1). Necessary for the flourishing of human society, governing authorities and institutions are God’s servants (Romans 13:4), even if they do not confess that “Jesus is Lord!” That said, many in political power fail to honor the Lord Jesus in the exercise of their office. Nonetheless, their rebellion does not alter their accountability to Him (Psalm 2:1-8; 75:1-10; Daniel 2:44-45; Acts 17:31; Revelation 1:5; 19:11-21). Jesus is the King to whom all kings will give account.
Since Jesus reigns over the rulers of the earth, we gain a unique platform for engaging with the political sphere. Though much more could be said, consider the following summary points.
First, prior to any nation-state or political party, we are servants of the world’s true Sovereign, Jesus Christ. While God may call us as individuals to identify with a political party in the American system, it is wise to examine the values and commitments of our party with great care. Human sinfulness leads us to preclude that no one party gets everything right or lines up with the values of Jesus’ reign perfectly. We need a critical distance in order to retain our integrity.
Second, without investing our ultimate hopes in any politician or reform program, we engage politically because we understand the God-given role of government in promoting a just and good society. In other words, the love of neighbor presses us to seek the right ordering of the world according to God’s standards, no matter how imperfect its implementation may be.
Third, it is a noble calling to govern (Romans 13:4). Therefore, we are to honor, obey, and pray for all in positions of authority even if we don’t agree with them (1 Timothy 2:2; 1 Peter 2:13-14; Titus 3:1). Consider this: Peter instructs the early church to honor the emperor (1 Peter 2:17) — likely the same man who put him to death!
Fourth, when governing powers oppose the reign of Jesus, we exist to remind them of their stewardship before Him. We are ambassadors representing the crown interests of Jesus’ kingdom. While honoring those in power, we cannot forsake our prophetic task among the nations of announcing that Jesus is the world’s rightful ruler.
Ultimately, we await the return of Jesus for the renewal of the world. No politician can raise the dead and cleanse creation of sin’s pollution. While God gives governing powers a substantial function, Jesus’ ascension and promised return chastises utopian dreams that involve governmental solutions. Governing powers impact our world, but they are impotent to remove the veil that has descended upon the nations (Isaiah 25:7).
Finally, if Jesus reigns at God’s right hand, then worship reorients us to this cosmic reality.
During his exile, the Apostle John saw visions of God’s heavenly throne. Typically, we think these visions exist to encourage us with details about our future life in heaven. However, for John, the heavenly visions are not merely oriented to the future. For instance, in Revelation 4:1-5, 15, the veil between heaven and earth is pulled back, and John sees God’s throne. In the midst of the throne, he sees Jesus Christ — “a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (Revelation 5:6). Myriads of angels, strange creatures, and the elders bow down in worship before this Lamb (Revelation 5:8-14). They sing a new song, celebrating: “Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Provocatively, this scene of heavenly worship offers us a picture of heaven’s present reality — Jesus Christ upon His throne! God peels back the veil between heaven and earth to reorient our perspective on earthly events in light of heavenly reality. This is the reorientation that John, and all the churches under Roman persecution, desperately needed. Such perspective provided the resources for them to persevere and serve Jesus faithfully through their trials. While Roman power seemed supreme, the heavenly vision of Jesus reigning in all authority offers an alternative perspective about the world’s true King.
So, how does this reorientation primarily happen?
When gathered for worship, God’s people “ascend” by the Spirit into the heavenly places, where we commune with the risen Christ (Colossians 3:1-4; Hebrews 12:22-24). We pull back the veil between heaven and earth, joining with the angels and all the saints, where God reorients our perspective around His throne. Significantly, corporate worship affords us the opportunity not simply to educate our minds or to reach out to our neighbors, but to enter God’s presence. We gather around His throne to give thanks and praise; to receive correction and forgiveness; to make requests and supplications; to feast, by faith, on Jesus’ body and blood; and to renew our obedience and love. Therefore, if Jesus has been exalted to God’s right hand, then worship reorients us to His kingship so that we can properly orient to the world around us.
Our Endless Task
Exalted to God’s right hand, our Lord Jesus rules over all things. To shrink the realm of Jesus’ reign cuts the nerve of the apostolic gospel that boldly proclaims, “Jesus is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36; Romans 10:12; 2 Corinthians 4:5; Philippians 2:11; Colossians 1:15-20). By faith, we confess that the sun does not set upon Jesus’ empire, and never will until the sun gives way to God’s greater glory (Revelation 21:23). Until that day, our enduring task involves proclaiming Him to the nations and enacting His lordship in every sphere of life. Nothing lies beyond the scepter of His rule; therefore, we advance, in the strength of His spirit, to subject all that has been subjected to Him, our King.
Chuck Colson serves as the pastor of Christ Church Mandarin in Jacksonville, Fla.
Illustration by Chris Koelle.