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“He Ascended into Heaven”: Is ‘God with us’ still with us?

11 December, 2007

b and lilyAt this time of year when we hear so much about the meaning and importance of the incarnation of the Son of God as Immanuel, God with us (and rightly so!), I thought it might be interesting to talk about the ascension–the time when Jesus left this earth to be seated at the right hand of the Father until he comes again to judge the living and the dead. The question, then, is this: In light of the ascension, is ‘God with us’ still with us?

I think it may be best (as with a lot of things, I guess) to take our cue from the Heidelberg Catechism:

Q. 49: What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven? A: First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven. Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge’ that he as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, that he sends us his Spirit as an earnest by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not things on the earth.

After the resurrection, the ascension of Christ into heaven is the second “step” (out of four in the Apostles’ Creed) in his glorification after accomplishing our salvation by his suffering and obedience. Questions 46-49 of the Heidelberg Catechism treat Christ’s ascension into heaven: what it means (46), what it doesn’t mean (47), how it relates to our understanding of Christ’s two natures (48), and the benefits we receive from his ascension (49).

It seems we often waffle in the Church today on the importance of Christ’s ascension for the Christian faith. Depending on the confessional tradition, we sometimes tend toward overemphasizing the ascension, so that the Church kind of takes everything over where Christ left off, even to the point of appointing a human representative of Christ on earth (the Pope).

On the other hand, it’s more common among Protestants to underemphasize the ascension, almost like it didn’t really happen. We talk much more about Christ being here with us right now than we do about him being seated at the right hand of the Father. That’s understandable; it’s uncomfortable for the bride to be away from the groom; we’re united to Christ by faith, true, but we’re not bodily with him right now. That creates tension. But Christ himself said that it is better for us that he leaves us and goes to the Father (John 16:7). Why? That’s what HC 49 seeks to answer. There are three benefits which believers gain by virtue of Christ’s ascension into heaven:

(1) As our Advocate in the Father’s presence, Christ intercedes for us, and rules from the right hand of the Most High on our behalf: “Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died–more than that, who was raised–who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us” (Rom 8:34). When our sins condemn us or Satan and our enemies accuse us, Christ argues on our behalf on the basis of his own righteousness given for our justification (1 Jn 2:1-2). Especially after his ascension, he is our righteous defense attorney before the judgment seat of God.

(2) Since we are members of one body of whom Christ is the head, we have Christ’s sure promise that we are really united to him as our covenant Head, so that even now we enjoy this union in the Spirit by faith (John 20:17). Again, because he has freely covenanted with us, and he is always faithful to his word, our fate is bound up with Christ’s (see Eph 2:4-6). Part of what Christ has done in his ascension in order to fully apply this salvation is to go and prepare a place for us (John 14:2), so that we may be where he is and share in his heavenly glory (14:3; 17:24). Especially after his ascension, Jesus himself prepares our heavenly home and inheritance for our sure arrival.

(3) Finally, even though Christ is bodily absent from us and that is not in and of itself desirable, Christ has not left us as orphans; he has sent his Holy Spirit to guide us into all truth (John 14:16-18; Acts 2:33). It is the Triune God who in Christ has established and anointed us, and “put his seal on us and given us his Spirit in our hearts as a guarantee” of the full salvation that is yet to come (2 Cor 1:21-22; 5:5). Christ is with us, both in his Divine nature and in his person by the Holy Spirit, and in the Lord’s Supper we commune with Christ and are fed on Christ–body and soul–by faith.

The Spirit works in the people of God to progressively conform us to Christ, who now appears in the presence of God on our behalf (Heb 9:24), to prepare us for heaven, and to orient us away from this passing evil age and ourselves toward our only Savior and the age to come.

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, non on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you will also appear with him in glory (Col 3:1-4).

So is ‘God with us’ still with us? No and Yes. No, he is not present with us face to face as he one day will be at the wedding feast of heaven; he has ascended. But Yes, he is with us by the power and presence of the Holy Spirit who seals us for the day of redemption, who is himself the life of the age to come, and together with the Father and Son, he is all our righteousness and life. If this God–this glorious Trinity, the only God–is for us and with us, who can be against us? Even at Christmas, let’s look forward to when our ascended Lord will return to take us to himself, when we will see our God face to face in the face of Jesus Christ.


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