Doubts and denials
The leadership in Protestant churches in the last half of the 20th century reflected the theological liberalism of the first half of the century. This led to doubts and denials of basic biblical truth. For example, in 1963 a book was published by the then Bishop of Woolwich, entitled Honest to God. Chapter 1 started off by seeming to deny the Ascension:
"Even such an educated man as St Luke can express the conviction of Christ's ascension - the conviction that he is not merely alive but reigns in the might and right of God - in the crudest of terms of being 'lifted' up into heaven, there to sit down at the right hand of the Most High" (Acts 1.9-11).
Twenty years later in 1984 the then Bishop of Durham publicly cast doubt on the empty tomb of Jesus and even referred to "conjuring tricks with bones". However, in the successful defence of the Resurrection, Christians have sometimes ignored the Ascension of Jesus and its denials. But the arguments of the late Bishop Woolwich were wrong.
The New Testament writers were aware of figurative speech as much as we are. The "parables", after all, were the stuff of Jesus teaching. Nor is there real evidence in the New Testament of belief in a crude three-decker universe. Such comments on the physical universe as we have do not imply a belief in a structured spatial universe in which "heaven" is one part of space. In the Jewish intertestamental literature as indeed in Gnostic literature you had some such ideas. But in the New Testament there is an absence of cosmological geography. In the book of Revelation at the end of the seven letters to the churches you read: "there before me was a door standing open in heaven. And the voice I had first heard speaking to me like a trumpet said, 'Come up here ... ' At once I was in the Spirit and there before me was a throne" (Rev 4.1-2). There 'was no journeying. It was, for the writer, life in an immediate, new, spiritual order. Certainly the early Christian Fathers after the Apostolic age had no illusions. Augustine of Hippo was clear. Writing of the fact that "Christ is seated at God's right hand," he says with regard to the word "sitting": "the expression indicates not a posture of the members, but judicial power, which the majesty never fails to possess."
Modern man has not been the first to discover the power and value of metaphors or figurative language. Most use spatial language metaphorically to suggest value. We regularly use metaphors of space to indicate superior or inferior position. We say, "prices are up and wages are down." In football you are in the "top half" or, if you are Newcastle United or Sunderland, in the "bottom half" of the Premier League. Need I say more?
The early Christians, of course, did not only believe in the death and Resurrection of Jesus. As they said (and we today say) in the Apostles’ Creed: "I believe ... he [Jesus Christ] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father." The Resurrection was wonderful. It made it clear that Christ was victorious over sin and death following his crucifixion. But even more good news is that Christ is now truly reigning and in control of everything in heaven and on earth. That is the message of the Ascension and his Session (or his being seated at the right hand of God the Father). The writer to the Hebrews, therefore, tells us to ...
"fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God" (Heb 12.2).
The Ascension was the last parting of the risen Christ from his disciples who had seen him alive after the Resurrection. The difference this time was in the nature of the parting. The previous description of such a parting in Luke’s Gospel seems instantaneous (Luke 24.31). At the Ascension Jesus parted "before their very eyes" (literally "with them looking"). The process could be observed to a certain point. A cloud came down, probably as at the Transfiguration of Jesus. That was when, together with Peter, John and James, "a cloud [which had signified in the Old Testament the divine presence] appeared and enveloped them" (Luke 9.34). So now Jesus was drawn up into the cloud and the cloud did rise. However, while the other separations of the risen Jesus from his disciples were for a few hours or days only, this was truly final. There would be no new appearances (or none of the same kind). Never again was Jesus to be with his disciples in such a way that they could even eat with, drink with and touch him. He was to be made real now by the Holy Spirit. For this was a withdrawal of Jesus from the whole order of existence that we experience this side of the grave. It completed for Jesus that process of change from this current limited and finite state that began with his Resurrection. Jesus was, indeed, returning to his Father: "I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God" (John 20.17). J.I.Packer says this: "withdrawal had to take place somehow and going up, down or sideways, failing to appear or suddenly vanishing were the only possible ways. Which would signify most clearly that Jesus would henceforth be reigning in glory? That answers itself."
Jesus Christ, therefore, returned to his Father not in the same way as he came. He returned as the "Word" having been "made flesh" - for ever united with human nature. But the Resurrection had so affected the physical side of Christ's human nature that his body, as recorded in the Gospels, was (even before the Ascension) independent of what we would call "the laws of nature". Now with his fully glorified body we may assume the change is complete.
The Session - "being seated at God's right hand" - began with the Ascension and is the true and ultimate fulfilment of Psalm 110, the most quoted part of the Old Testament in the New Testament: "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet" (Psalm 110.1). Jesus had this Psalm in mind during the last week of his earthly ministry (Mark 12.36). The early Apostles saw its fulfilment in the Ascension. This comes out in Peter's Pentecost Sermon: "Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear" (Acts 2.33).
But that Psalm 110 also talks of a "priest forever": "The Lord has sworn and will not change his mind: 'You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek'" (verse 4). The New Testament writers saw Christ's session, involving a present priestly role, as so vital. Paul says in Romans 8.34: "Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life - is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us." That means Christ, God the Son, is working with God the Father in our interest. He is the guarantor that what he died to secure for us will be ours. And Christ prays not as we do, often with a sense of uncertainty as to whether prayer will be positively answered. For he now has all "authority in heaven" (Matt 28.18). What he prays for is done! Jesus' "high priesthood" also encourages us to pray, with all our weaknesses:
"For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are - yet was without sin. Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need" (Hebrews 4.15-16).
Finally, the use of Psalm 110 by the Apostles invites us to see Jesus Christ now as truly victorious, being "high over" everything in our universe of space and time and in the realm of an eternity that is far beyond our weakest imaginings. In the ancient world, being at the right hand meant, of course, being the chief executive of the King or Emperor. Undoubtedly there is symbolic and metaphorical language being used, but in the words of H.B.Swete:
"the exaltation and glorification of the sacred manhood of our Lord, the exercise by him of all authority in heaven and on earth, the certainty of his final triumph over sin and death, are facts and the most potent facts in the life of the human race."
Christ the King
The throne imagery implies kingship. Jesus Christ is now "crowned":
"we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb 2.9).
In the Parable of the Ten Minas Jesus suggested his Ascension was like being "appointed king" (Luke 19.12). Jesus told Pilate that he was "a king" (John 18.37) but that his kingdom was "from another place". The early Christians were accused by their opponents of saying "there is another king, one called Jesus" (Acts 17.7).
As persecution increased, or was likely to increase, the more it seems believers were to focus on "the Power and Empire of Christ our Redeemer" (to quote the words of the UK Coronation Service). The book of Revelation speaks of the Ascended Christ as "the ruler of the kings of the earth" (Rev 1.5). We are also told that "on his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: King of Kings and Lord of Lords" (Rev 19.16). So when, according to Suetonius, the Emperor Domitian at Rome was wanting to be called "our Lord and God" (Dominus et Deus noster), it was clear the early church had to proclaim that the Ascended Christ was over any blasphemous Emperor. But were these statements of Christ’s kingship the hollow claims made by men and women driven to despair? "No!" said these early Christians. "For Christ exercises a real kingship at the present time in spite of all the suffering." They knew that just before his Ascension Jesus had made that amazing claim: "all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me" (Matt 28.18).
Christ had exercised "authority" in his earlier ministry (with authority being not only the right to act but also having the necessary power). He revealed his authority to forgive sins by healing the paralytic man (Mark 2.10). He was seen to teach "with authority" (Matt 7.29). He had authority over the demonic (Mark 1.27). He delegated authority to his Apostles (Mark 6.7). And he had spiritual authority to "give eternal life" (John 17.2). What was new now was that the whole creation came within the scope of Christ's authority and power. All these previous claims to authority fall significantly short of this claim to have "all authority in heaven and on earth."
All authority in heaven
Paul writes about this heavenly authority in Ephesians 1.20-22 where Christ is said now to be raised from the dead and seated at the right hand of the Father ...
"... in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church"
Whatever these spiritual or eternal realities are, Christ is above them and "far above" them. Christ has a position that has no parallel in heaven. He is not the best of any angelic beings. He is the supreme Son sharing the Father's throne. So the Philippians were told (Phil 2.9-11):
"Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, 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."
And "Lord" can stand for the divine name. So in heaven the Ascended Christ is praised by "thousands upon thousands" of worshipping angels:
"Then I looked and heard the voice of many angels, numbering thousands upon thousands, and ten thousand times ten thousand. They encircled the throne and the living creatures and the elders. In a loud voice they sang: "Worthy is the Lamb, who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honour and glory and praise!" (Rev 5.11-12).
The Ascended Christ is also Lord over evil spiritual forces. The early Christians could say, as we can and must:
"our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms" (Eph 6.12).
Christ, however, has ultimate authority over those forces. As yet the Devil is not finally defeated. He is "down" but not "out". One day he will be defeated. Revelation 20 speaks of "the devil ... thrown into the lake of burning sulphur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever." This, too, is beyond imagining in its fearfulness. It is a warning for us of the utter seriousness of evil; but a hope that one day it will be no more. As yet these evil spiritual forces are not fully "under Christ's feet". The struggle goes on. But Christ is the ultimate victor.
All authority on earth
What, then, does it mean to say that the Ascended Christ has all authority on earth? We learn that "the Son" of God is the one by whom ...
"all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. He is before all things" (Col 1.16).
But now "in him all things hold together" (Col 1.17); and "the Son," says Hebrews 1.3, is "sustaining all things by his powerful word." That is not like Atlas of mythology taking the dead weight of the world on his shoulders. No! Rather the Ascended Christ is able to be a living dynamic immanent within the created universe. In his earthly ministry Christ had a unique power over nature. He did among people "what no one else did" (John 15.24). Ascended there would seem to be no limit, now that his manhood is glorified.
The New Testament sees the Ascended Christ as a fulfilment of Psalm 8. He is the true fulfiller of human destiny. "Man" was "made a little lower than the angels" and everything was intended to be "subject to him. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to him. But we see Jesus [the exception], who was made a little lower than the angels [at his birth], now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone" (Heb 2.7-9). We should never be surprised by the rise of modern science and human power. But in Jesus we can now see far more than the fulfilment of all that was intended for humankind (had it not been corrupted by human sin).
Not only physical nature but also rebellious human nature is subject to the Ascended Christ’s authority on earth. In addition to Psalms 110 and Psalm 8, Psalm 2 was important for the early Christians. When they were first attacked by the religious authorities - "the rulers, elders and teachers of the law" (Acts 4.5) - they immediately thought of Psalm 2 and the words of ...
"... our father David: 'Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One'" (Acts 4.25-26).
Psalm 2 had spoken of "the Son" having "the nations" as an "inheritance": "you will rule them with an iron sceptre; you will dash them to pieces like pottery" (verse 9). So to the Church at Thyatira, in the book of Revelation, the risen and ascended Christ says:
"To him who overcomes and does my will to the end, I will give authority over the nations - 'He will rule them with an iron sceptre; he will dash them to pieces like pottery' - just as I have received authority from my Father" (Rev 2.26-27).
That was said to a church not suffering persecution but to a church, like churches today, being corrupted by a false prophetess (an ancient equivalent of the American Bishop Gene Robinson, currently doing the rounds of the British media, having left his wife and children to live with his male partner). "By her teaching she misleads my servants into sexual immorality" (Rev 2.20). There is no suggestion that this side of Christ's return, any violence should be used by the Church. The iron sceptre was thought to be an iron tipped rod used by shepherds (forcefully) to direct their sheep. However, the prayer of the early Christians in Acts 4 was not for any "shattering" but that the Lord would enable his "servants to speak your word with great boldness" and that God would heal and perform miracles (Acts 4.29-30). That was their exercise of power!
But this current reign of the Ascended Christ has a time limit:
"then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he 'has put everything under his feet. ' Now when it says that 'everything' has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all" (1 Cor 15.24-28).
The kingdom that "Christ hands over" is to be absorbed in that greater kingdom the Son has with the Father that "will never end" (Luke 1.33; Heb 1.8). Then, indeed, the triune God (Father, Son and Holy Spirit) will be all in all. Until then, in this current phase caused by the reality of supernatural and human sinfulness, Jesus Christ ascended and reigning is our king and high priest; "the Lamb on the Throne"; and the one to whom we should look for guidance, help, correction, forgiveness and ultimate restoration. Colossians 3.1-3 says:
"Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God."
Therefore, we should pray the Collect for Ascension Day:
"Almighty God, as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens, so may we also in heart and mind thither ascend and with him continually dwell; who is alive and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever."