Christ Ascended, Christ Rules

Sometimes we give the impression or might be tempted to think that the last time we see Jesus in Scripture is at the end of the gospels but, of course, that is not true. We see him in Acts chapters 1 and 9 as well as in the Revelation. There are changes, however, in how often we see and where we see him. That change is recorded for us in Acts 1:9–11:

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” (ESV).

One of the earliest recorded confessions of the Christian faith occurs in 1 Timothy 3:16. It says Christ was,

…Manifested in the flesh;
Vindicated by the Spirit;
Seen by angels;
Proclaimed among the nations;
Believed on in the world;
Taken up in glory.

The ecumenical (i.e., universal) Christian confession that we know as the Apostles’ Creed has its root in this confession and in what the earliest post-apostolic Christian church called the “rule of faith” (regula fidei). We see that rule being preserved in the writings of Irenaeus, the senior pastor in Lyons, in the 170s AD. He was not inventing anything, however. He was preserving the shared confession of faith.

The Church, though dispersed throughout the whole world, even to the ends of the earth, has received from the apostles and their disciples this faith: in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven, and earth, and the sea, and all things that are in them; and in one Christ Jesus, the Son of God, who became incarnate for our salvation; and in the Holy Spirit, who proclaimed through the prophets the administrations of God, and the advents, and the birth from a virgin, and the passion, and the resurrection from the dead, and the ascension into heaven in the flesh of the beloved Christ Jesus, our Lord, and His manifestation from heaven in the glory of the Father “to gather all things in one,” and to raise up anew all flesh of the whole human race, in order that to Christ Jesus, our Lord, and God, and Savior, and King, according to the will of the invisible Father, “every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess” to Him, and that He should execute just judgment towards all (Adv. Haer. 1.10.1).

The substance of what we later know as the Apostles’ Creed is clearly present. Reading the passage aloud one can hear the same language, the same phrases, the same pattern as found in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. We find the same language elsewhere in this same work and in Tertullian in the early 3rd century. One of the fundamental affirmations of the faith is “the ascension into heaven” of Christ. In the 6th article of the Apostles’ Creed, we confess Christ “ascended to heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father almighty” (ascendit ad coelum, sedet at dexteram Dei Patris omnipotentis). The language of “sitting” is symbolic of his present heavenly rule or royal session over all things. It is ecumenical, ancient, biblical Christian truth that Christ is reigning now.

In the church calendar, this past Thursday we remembered the bodily ascension (“taken up in glory”) of our Lord Jesus Christ. The ascension in part of the complex of events by which our Lord Jesus accomplished our salvation. It marks the beginning of the end of history. We await his bodily return—pace our Dispensational friends, the Scriptures promise but one return of Christ and it will be bodily, visible, noisy, and final. Scripture says:

For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words (1 Thess 4:15–18; ESV).

There is nothing in Scripture about multiple returns of Christ nor anything about a secret rapture. That is the invention of the nineteenth century. Some of the earliest Christians expected a literal one-thousand year reign of Christ on the earth but they knew nothing about multiple returns of Christ nor anything of a secret rapture of Christians into heaven followed by a seven-year tribulation and then a millennial reign. Other early orthodox Christians understood the Revelation to be using figurative language and thus understood the 1,000 years of Revelation 20 also to be a symbolic way of referring to Christ’s present reign over all things.

We know that the apostles thought of Jesus as reigning now over all things because they said just that. In his Pentecost sermon, the Apostle Peter told the Jews gathered there:

Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day. Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says,

The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at my right hand,
until I make your enemies your footstool.”

Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2:29–36)

This part of the sermon is about who is the true king of Israel, David or Jesus and where that king is now. Peter’s argument is that David is not the king now because he is dead. The Jews knew where his tomb was. God’s promise, however, had not failed because one of David’s descendants is presently on his throne: Jesus. He is “at the right hand.” That is royal language. That is the language of session, of rule, of conquest. We know that he has conquered because, as Paul notes in Ephesians, as a conquering king he has given good gifts to men beginning with the Pentecost outpouring of the Spirit. It is not David to whom Yahweh said, “sit at my right hand” in Ps 110:1 but it was to God the Son, from all eternity, in what Reformed theologians have called the “covenant of redemption” (pactum salutis). The Father gave to the Son a people, who, in turn, came to be their substitute and their surety. He completed that work and was vindicated in his resurrection and raised to royal glory (as pictured in the Revelation). He is “Lord and Christ.”

Paul indicates the same thing in Ephesians 1:19–23,

and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.

This is all royal language. According to Paul, Christ has been raised and is now “seated” at the Father’s right hand. This is the ancient near eastern way of saying, “in power” or “in triumph.” His royal rule is magnificent it is “far above all rule and authority and dominion.” Christ is right now above every other name. According to Paul, this rule is not future. It is present. Thus, in Romans 16:20 he says, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet.”

Some contemporary (especially Dispensational) accounts of Jesus’ present reign simply do not accord with the biblical language and presentation of Jesus’ reign. This is, in part, because of assumptions about what Jesus present (millennial) reign must be, that it must involve an earthly temple or earthly power and dominion. Those things being absent many have concluded that Jesus must not be reigning now. The answer is not to deny Jesus’ present reign but to re-think what that reign must involve. How does the New Testament speak? How does the NT want us to think about it? Does the NT go at this the way our Dispensational friends do it? No. Jesus does not have to fit a predetermined vision of what a renewed Davidic kingship would look like. David was a type of Christ. He was pointing us to the reality, to Christ, to his heavenly reign to come, which we see in Christ’s ascension. David worked for Jesus. Our Lord does not work for David. The local, historical Israelite kingdom was a type of the reality that is present now.

The new heavens and new earth are yet to come. This is not the age of glory. This is the period of time between Christ’s ascension and his bodily return. He is reigning now. He is sending out his law and his gospel and through the ministry of the Word he is efficaciously calling his elect to new life and to true faith. His powerful Holy Spirit is working mysteriously and sovereignly to bring all his elect, all those for whom Christ died, to new life and when that work is done, the Son shall hand the kingdom he has formed to his Father. We must strive to bring our conception of his present reign into conformity to what Scripture says. Peter and Paul were martyred. Polycarp was martyred. The church was slaughtered in the mid-3rd century and yet here we are. The gospel is going to ends of the earth. The pagan Romans could not stop God’s Spirit and the neo-pagans and the other ancient, violent opponents (e.g., Islam) cannot stop the Spirit of Christ from calling all his elect. Now is not the time of earthly glory. That will come when Jesus returns, when every knee bows and every tongue confesses that Christ is Lord.

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  1. This definition refreshes. We are in Christ, guided and instructed by His Spirit, confessing and repenting, loving and serving Him and our neighbors, worshiping Him with gratitude, and praying as we prepare ourselves, His Bride, for His Return, ‘As In The Days of Noah’. Thank you for your dedication to us, who believe in Christ through faith by Grace.

  2. Thanks for this encouraging message. Whatever sufferings those who’s names are written in the Lamb’s book of life may endure in this life, they are practically of little importance compared to the joy that awaits us when Christ returns in glory. “But rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Luke 10:20 This is certain because Jesus, our righteousness, has ascended and reigns at the right hand of the Father.

    • Thank you and Amen! I see the Spirit shifting my understanding of suffering, works, and purpose during this time between Christ’s Ascension and His return, as I study 1&2Peter, the HC, the Creeds, Confessions and Cannons.

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