It is never easy to be separated a family member, dear friend, a mentor, or even a coach. Whether through death or relocation or for some other reason when we suffer such a loss the grief is genuine. Today, because of social media, that grief is often on display for the entire world to see. Regular readers will know that I am a Nebraskan and, as such, a fan of the Cornhuskers (American football team). Recently the school fired the coach and as soon as that decision was announced players took to Twitter to announce their displeasure. They may not have known it but they were grieving a loss. When practice resumes things will not be the same. Soon there will likely be new position coaches, strength coaches, a new regime, and a new playbook. As children we experienced this loss after visiting grandma and grandpa. One of my earliest memories is of looking through the rear window of our Rambler wagon as we drove away from their house. It was painful because I knew that we wouldn’t see them again for another year. As we mature we learn than separation and loss are part of life.
The disciples experienced that grief in stages. When Mary realized that the fellow with whom she was speaking was our Lord himself, she cried “Rabboni!” (teacher) and took hold of his feet (Matt 28:9). To which Jesus said, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ” (John 20:17–18). The joy of discovering Jesus’ resurrection was quickly muted by our Lord’s announcement of his coming announcement and separation from them.
After our Lord had taught his disciples about their vocation to give testimony about Jesus, about his obedient suffering, his death, and his resurrection, he ascended bodily right before their eyes. Scripture says:
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9–11; ESV)
Our Lord Jesus is one person with two distinct, inseparable natures. Each of those natures retains its natural properties. His humanity did not become divinity (deity) and his deity (godhead) did not become humanity. That is the catholic faith confessed by all Christians in all times and places as summarized by the Definition of Chalcedon (451). Those two natures are united in one person
inconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union, but rather the property of each nature being preserved, and concurring in one Person and one Subsistence, not parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son, and only begotten, God the Word, the Lord Jesus Christ.1
So, when Jesus ascended before the eyes of the disciples it was no parlor trick nor an illusion. Their senses were reporting the truth. His body actually, literally, ascended before them until he disappeared from sight. His body was in one, local place and then, after a bit, in another local place. There was a genuine separation. The disciples were puzzled, perplexed, and surely grieved by this turn of events. A great victory, the resurrection, suddenly must have seemed like a great loss. Hence the two white-robed “men” attending our Lord’s ascension remonstrated with them, “Why do you stand looking into heaven?” Jesus was bodily absent from them. Why? To what benefit? Clearly the disciples were thinking that now, in view of all the events associated with his arrest, crucifixion, and culminating in the resurrection, it must be the time to “restore the kingdom to Israel” (Acts 1:6). They were still thinking in the wrong category. They still did not understand the nature of the Kingdom of God. The time of conquering earthly enemies was fulfilled on the cross. Christ’s people are no more confined to a single nation, under a single earthly king, in a single location. No, now the advent of the Kingdom is to be announced to all the nations (v. 7) but only after the Holy Spirit has been poured out at Pentecost.
Thus, we confess:
46. How do you understand the words: “He ascended into heaven”?
That Christ, in the sight of His disciples, was taken up from the earth into heaven; and continues there in our behalf until He shall come again to judge the living and the dead.
Jesus had to leave them bodily because his work was, in an important sense, unfinished. Having secured our redemption by his perfect obedience in our place, he has now to act as our Mediator before the Father. Hebrews says: “Therefore he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance….” (Heb 9:15; ESV). Where the Old Covenant saints under Moses the mediator of the Old Covenant, had come to a mountain on fire, of smoke, and terror, in the New Covenant we have come to mountain that no human or animal can touch. We have come to Zion, the heavenly Jerusalem, rejoicing angels, “the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven,” to Jesus the Mediator of the new and better covenant (Heb 12:24). He is our perfect, Melchizedekian high priest who has the power of an indestructible life (Heb 7:16). We have an intercessor before God which reality makes all the difference for believers:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. 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 8:33–34; ESV).
Jesus must be absent from us now in order to present before the Father for us.
It is this same Jesus, the angels announced, who shall return. Just as the disciples saw him ascend, so we shall all see him return bodily. How can that be? How is it possible for people at different points on the globe see a single event at the same time? I cannot say. To be perfectly frank, I don’t much care. How could a true human be deceased for part of three days and then be perfectly healthy upon his resurrection. How was it that Lazarus was fully restored or that any of the others who were raised when Jesus died be fully restored? How was the Lord able to part the Red Sea and drown the Egyptians in it? How was the flood able to destroy the world that then was? How was God able to speak creation into existence by the power of his Word? That’s why we speak of supernatural or miraculous acts. God is capable of doing such things. If we understood all that he did he wouldn’t be God and we wouldn’t be his creatures. I’m content to wait and see. We shall get our laboratory experiment, as it were, in his good time.
Because he is ascended he has poured out his Holy Spirit on all his people. With his ascension come a number of blessings. Charles Hodge summarizes these blessings in four points:
1. In the first place He came from heaven. Heaven was his home. It was the appropriate sphere of his existence. His presence makes heaven, and therefore until this earth is purified from all evil, and has undergone its great process of regeneration, so as to become a new heavens and a new earth, this world is not suited for the Redeemer’s abode in his state of exaltation.
2. It was necessary that as our High Priest He should, after offering Himself as a sacrifice, pass through the heavens, to appear before God in our behalf. An essential part, and that a permanent one, of his priestly office was to be exercised in heaven. He there makes constant intercession for his people. As He died for our sins, He rose for our justification. All this was typified under the old dispensation. The victim was slain without in the court of the temple; the high priest bore the blood with much incense within the veil and sprinkled it on the Mercy Seat. What the high priest did in the earthly temple, it was necessary for the High Priest of our profession to do in the temple made without hands, eternal in the heavens. This is set forth with all clearness in the Epistle to the Hebrews.
3. It was expedient, our Lord said, that He should 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.” (John 16:7.) It was necessary that redemption should not only be acquired but applied. Men if left to themselves would have remained in their sins, and Christ had died in vain. The great blessing which the prophets predicted as characteristic of the Messianic period, was the effusion of the Holy Spirit. To secure that blessing for the Church his ascension was necessary. He was exalted to give repentance and the remission of sins; to gather his people from all nations and during all ages until the work was accomplished. His throne in the heavens was the proper place whence the work of saving men, through the merits of his death, was to be carried on.
4. Again our Lord told his sorrowing disciples, “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also.” (John 14:2, 3 His ascension, therefore, was necessary for the completion of His work.2
Our Lord Jesus is separated from us bodily but he is as near to us as the the Spirit and the Word. “But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart” (that is, the word of faith that we proclaim)….” (Rom 10:8; ESV). Jesus comes to us in the preached gospel and in the gospel made visible in the sacraments. We are united to him by his Holy Spirit and he is returning. The separation we are experiencing now is not permanent. Even so, come Lord Jesus (Rev 22:20)
Here are all the posts on the Heidelberg Catechism.
1. Philip Schaff, The Creeds of Christendom, with a History and Critical Notes: The Greek and Latin Creeds, with Translations, vol. 2 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1890), 63.
2. Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 634–35.