CHRIST IN HEAVEN
(The Ascension and Present Work of Christ)
The ascension and subsequent ministry of Christ may be one of the more neglected areas of doctrine relating to the Son of God. In most evangelical churches, we have special days to celebrate the birth of Christ, and His death, and His resurrection, but not His ascension. We perhaps give the day of His return to heavenly glory no notice at all. Yet the latter is vitality important, not only to our salvation, but to our ongoing life and ministry for the Lord.
As the book of Acts begins, we are told that the Lord Jesus continued to appear to His followers, teaching them, for forty days after His resurrection. Then, He ascended back into heaven once more (Acts 1:3, 9; cf. Mk. 16:19; Lk. 24:51). This occurred on a Thursday, five and a half weeks after Easter Sunday. (In many liturgical churches using the Christian calendar, the event is celebrated on the Sunday following the fortieth day.)
Though we cannot be dogmatic about it, it's possible that Christ's visible ascension described in the Word of God is only the last of two (or even more) ascensions. The Bible does not discuss this directly, but it is certainly possible. The idea is based up a couple of things.
Mary Magdalene seems to have been the first to see the risen Christ on resurrection morning. To her, the Lord said, "Do not cling to Me, for I have not yet ascended to My Father" (Jn. 20:17). Yet later, we read that His followers "came and held Him by the feet and worshiped Him," and Christ seems to have allowed it (Matt. 28:9).
It's believed by some that in between those two incidents Christ may have ascended to the Father to present Himself as the final Sacrifice for sin, just as Israel's high priest carried the blood of the atoning sacrifice into the holy of holies and applied it to the mercy seat, on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:11-16).
A further support for this idea comes from the Feast of Firstfruits in the Old Testament (Lev. 23:9-11). At the time of harvest in Israel, the first sheave of grain was to be presented to the Lord on the day after the Sabbath (i.e. the first day of the week). This could point to Christ's presentation to the Father on the day of His resurrection. Significantly, He is called in the New Testament, "the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep [in death]" (I Cor. 15:20).
Whether there is one or more "ascensions," Christ's final entry into heaven restored Him to the glory He had with the Father from all eternity (cf. Jn. 17:5). In addition, His completion of the work of redemption gave great cause for rejoicing in the heavenly sphere (Ps. 24:7-10; Phil. 2:8-9). In heaven, the Son of God took His seat at the right hand of the Father (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 1:3; I Pet. 3:22).
Believers are assured, by His presence there, that it is a place we too shall share. Someone in human flesh (albeit in a glorified, resurrection body) is in the presence of God. "That where I am, there you may be also" (Jn. 14:3; cf. Heb. 6:18-20). His current ministry deserves some careful study. At the present time, the Lord Jesus Christ is:
1) The Mediator
Christ is the One who mediates between God and man (I Tim. 2:5). This roll is anticipated in a finite way by the priests of Israel. They represented the people before God, and represented God before the people. In fulfilment of this imagery, Christ is our "great High Priest" (Heb. 4:14; 9:24). As the One who is both fully God and fully Man, He is able to perfectly identify with each, and be our means of access to God the Father (Eph. 1:6; 2:18).
2) The Intercessor and Advocate
One of the great priestly ministries of Christ in glory is to serve as our Intercessor (Heb. 7:25), and heaven's Advocate (I Jn. 2:1-2), on our behalf (Heb. 9:24). When we stumble into sin, as all Christians do, we have One who intercedes for us and represents us before God. When Satan accuses us (Rev. 12:9-10; cf. Rom. 8:33-34), the Lamb of God has only to plead the effectiveness of His shed blood. It is through His shed blood also that we receive forgiveness (I Jn. 1:7, 9).
3) The Dispenser of Grace
Associated with His priestly ministry, Christ sympathizes with our weaknesses, assisting us by giving us access to the resources of heaven, "mercy and...grace to help in time of need" (Heb. 2:18; 4:15-16; cf. Phil. 4:13, 19). Through our vital relationship with Him, and through believing prayer, we receive power for life and service (Jn. 15:5, 16).
4) The Head of the Church
The church is described as the spiritual body of Christ, a body of which He is the Head (Eph. 1:22-23; 4:4, 12; Col. 1:18; cf. I Cor. 12:12-13, 27). Though local churches and denominations may have their leaders, the Head over all is Christ–because it is His church. As He told His followers, "I will build My church" (Matt. 16:18, italics mine).
Fittingly, "all authority" is given to Him, and He commissions believers to work at building the church, under His control, and by His power (Matt. 28:18-20). Christ continues to sanctify His church, through the Word of God (Eph. 5:25-26), and "the church is subject to Christ" (Eph. 5:24).
5) The Giver of Gifts
It is the Lord Jesus who promised to send the Holy Spirit to engage in His unique Church Age ministry (Jn. 15:26; 16:7)–though God the Father is also involved in sending the Spirit (Jn. 14:26; cf. Acts 2:32-33). In order to equip His church to carry on its work, the Lord Jesus Christ gave certain gifts to the church (Rom. 12; I Cor. 12). In Ephesians, various gifted individuals are described who are specially equipped to serve the church (Eph. 4:7, 11-12).
6) The Builder
The Lord Jesus declares that there are "many mansions [dwelling places, or permanent residences]" in the heavenly city, and He told His followers that He was going to prepare a place for us there, in readiness for His return to take us to Himself (Jn. 14:2-3). What this preparation entails, we'll have to wait to find out. But the people of God may be assured that the place where we will dwell will be exactly suited to our needs.
7) The Expectant One
We are told that Christ, at the Father's right hand is "waiting [expectantly] till His enemies are made His footstool" (Heb. 10:13). He looks forward to those events that are the glorious fruit and final fulfilment of His earthly suffering. They are "the joy that was set before Him" (Heb. 12:2; cf. Eph. 5:27; Col. 3:4). These events include: His return for His church, and the raising of the dead in Christ; the rewarding of Christians; the putting down of His enemies; and His reign as Messiah-King from the earthly throne of David.
8) The Ever-present Companion
Though Christ is now seated at the Father's right hand, because He has all the attributes of deity He is also able to be present with the saints on earth (cf. Jn. 3:13). His promise to His followers is, "Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age" (Matt. 28:20; cf. Jn. 14:18, 20; Col. 1:27).
All of this and more the Lord Jesus Christ continues to accomplish for us. "Therefore by Him let us continually offer the sacrifice of praise to God, that is, the fruit of our lips, giving thanks to His name" (Heb. 13:15).