In Article 53 of the Church Order of the Canadian Reformed Churches, we are told that the churches ought to commemorate the central New Covenant acts of salvation—namely, Christ’s birth, death, resurrection, ascension, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Yet, sometimes, we can feel that this is a holdover from late medieval superstition. After all, the Old Covenant feasts were all fulfilled in Christ and, in Him, we have a continual festival day by day. Because of this, one could argue that we ought not set apart time for days of commemoration. Along this same line, one could even argue that the Old Covenant sabbath day was fulfilled in Christ, and perhaps we ought to do away with Sunday too! Of course, that would be silly - and so would doing away with these special days.
Here the example of Israel should guide us. They were given a festival calendar centered on commemorating the LORD’s works of salvation. We are to learn also by this example. Thus, despite Puritan objections, Article 53 of the Church Order seems to reflect biblical wisdom.
Still, when we look at the days of commemoration, there seems to be something of an imbalance. For most, Christ’s birth gets the lion’s share of attention. As good Protestants, we also focus a lot on the cross and somewhat less on the resurrection. There is very little attention paid to the ascension of Christ. Certainly, of all the “special” services, the Thursday worship service commemorating the ascension is the least well attended, if it is commemorated on the Thursday at all.
At best, we see the ascension as how the resurrected Christ got from earth to heaven. In fact, there is very little in the New Testament that refers directly to the ascension. The accounts of the ascension are found only at the end of Luke’s Gospel and at the beginning of Acts. There are a few scattered references to the ascension throughout the other Gospels and in the Epistles.
Yet, we sense that there is something very important in the ascension of Christ. If we think back on the whole of the Bible, we see that there is a great deal in the Bible about ascending. Just think about all the significant events in the Bible that take place on high places, mountains, upper rooms, rooftops, and the like. Men and priests are always going up, ascending, to enter in before God.
Thought about in this context, the ascension follows and completes the resurrection. The resurrection reveals the meaning of the cross: victory over sin and death. The ascension, then, shows us the meaning of the resurrection: access to God. All the “going up” in the Old Testament speaks of meeting with God, of access to Him.
This begins with Garden of Eden, which is high ground with the life-giving waters flowing down. It is on a mountain that the Ark comes to rest and where God renews His covenant with Noah. Abraham goes up Mount Moriah finding first, the Angel of the LORD, and later, the ram caught in a bush. Moses goes up Horeb and hears God’s voice from the burning bush; he brings Israel to that same mountain and God speaks His Law to them. In fact, Moses is always going up. He goes up Sinai several times and finally goes up Mount Nebo.
Israel, as the LORD’s people, proclaims His Word from Gerizim and Ebal. David conquers Mount Zion and on Mount Moriah the Temple is built. Israel, whether they come from the north or south, are said to “go up” to Jerusalem and the Temple. Elijah calls the people up Mount Carmel for the renewal of the covenant. Mountains figure prominently in the prophecies of Isaiah and Ezekiel. In the New Testament, we read about the Sermon on the Mount, the Mount of Transfiguration, the Mount of Olives, and Scripture ends with the mountain city, the New Jerusalem.
There is also, in both the Old and New Testaments, a repeated emphasis on upper rooms and rooftops. We read about Saul ‘going up” to meet Samuel in 1 Samuel 9. The Last Supper, Peter’s vision and Pentecost all take place in an upper room. In fact, Pentecost is a Sinai-like event. Sinai was covered with wind, fire, and thunder. Acts 2 speaks of the same elements filling the whole house just as the Glory-Cloud filled the Tabernacle and the Temple. Thus, “high places” and all this “going up” certainly are important.
So, we see that the Bible is full of ascending. Yet, sin keeps man from going up, from ascending to meet God. Beginning with Adam’s fall, man is exiled from God’s presence. The whole history of the Old Covenant is God saving, “Come near, but not too near.” Throughout the Old Covenant, He allows His people access, but it is always limited and always with great dangers attached.
Remember Mount Sinai? Israel could not go up the mountain. They could not even touch the mountain. Because of sin, man is essentially cut off from God. All through the Old Testament there were barriers between God and man - from the cherubim with the flaming sword, to the boundaries around Sinai, to the curtains of the Tabernacle and Temple, and the Levites who guarded the sanctuary. How could man ever ascend to God?
We begin to get the answer to that question in Genesis 22. There Abraham ascended Mount Moriah and found the sacrifice prepared by the LORD. We see it again in the sacrificial system that was established at Sinai.
The first sacrifice explained in Leviticus is usually called the “whole burnt offering.” The problem with calling it that is that the Hebrew word has nothing to do with “burning”, or “wholeness”, or “offering”. Rather, it means “to go up, to ascend.” In this sacrifice, the whole animal was burned on the altar and went up in smoke. It represented ascension to God.
The animal on the altar did not represent a judgment on sin. That part of the sacrifice was taken care of when the animal’s throat was slit. It was then as dead as it was going to get and represented the need for death to take place because of sin. Then the animal would be skinned, cut into pieces, and washed with water from the laver. The water from the laver represented water from heaven, i.e. the Holy Spirit, and the washing of the animal was its symbolic resurrection.
Only after the animal was killed and washed could it be placed into the fire of God’s presence. There to be transformed into smoke which ascended in order to be part of the Cloud around God.
The sacrifice was consumed as food for God, as a sweet smell. The ascending smoke spoke of glorification and acceptance into fellowship with God. The death and resurrection of the sacrifice prepared the way to God. What was the result of the sacrifice’s ascension? This made the worshipper accepted by God. It established a relationship of love with Him. To do that, however, the sacrifice had to be acceptable to God. It had to be a male of the right sort, without blemish, and offered in the sanctuary ordained by God.
The smoke of the Old Testament sacrifice illustrates for us the great significance of the ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ. It follows and completes the resurrection. He fulfilled all the requirements of the true Ascension Offering. The dead and resurrected Christ leads the way into the heavenly sanctuary. His death on the cross is only effective as it is presented before the Father. He is the Lamb provided by God (shades of Genesis 22 as well as Leviticus 1). He is without sin, and offered in the true temple of heaven. The Ascension is the heavenly reception of the sacrifice.
Jesus Christ came down from heaven to earth in order to take our human nature and to redeem us. He came, as the Creed reminds us, “for us men and for our salvation.” He came to earth from heaven in great humility, and He returns to heaven in triumph and glory. Jesus accomplished all that was necessary for our salvation. And He ascends to heaven in the Glory-Cloud of God’s presence with His people.
Jesus Christ ascends, however, not only as the sacrifice. True, He is the Lamb that was slain and is now alive. But Jesus also ascends as the Priest who offered the sacrifice. The importance of this is explained in Daniel 7. There Daniel was shown one “like a Son of Man” ascending to the Ancient of Days. Who would Daniel’s first readers have thought of when they read about the “Son of Man”? They would have thought of Ezekiel, who was repeatedly called the “son of man.” Who was Ezekiel? He was a prophet who was also a priest. He proclaimed the desolation of the Temple and the judgment to fall on Jerusalem. Ezekiel also proclaimed the resurrection of Israel and the restoration of God’s dwelling with His people. One could develop the typology between Ezekiel and Christ, but it is enough for this article to see that Christ ascends as the Prophet-Priest Who receives the throne.
As the Priest who is the sacrifice, Christ makes intercession before God for us. This is the ongoing work of the great High Priest that results from His ascension. He intercedes so we would be blessed as a result of His sacrifice. That sacrifice makes us acceptable to God. Because Christ is before the throne, God is gracious to us. Our prayers and worship are joined to Christ’s prayer and worship. His intercession puts us into a renewed relationship with God. We enter into the heavenly places; we already ascend the true Mount Zion.
In a similar way, we could work through Christ’s ascension in terms of His prophetic work and His kingly work. Instead, let us look at the forty day period between the resurrection and ascension. For forty days Jesus appeared to His disciples and taught them. The purpose of this period was to teach the disciples that His relationship with them after the resurrection had gone beyond what it had been before. The eleven were now His witnesses and they were being prepared to lay the foundation of His church.
But why forty days? The number forty is found often in the Bible. It often represents a period of trial and incompleteness. Luke used it in Acts as a round number with symbolic meaning. Israel was led through the waters of the Red Sea and spent forty years in the wilderness. Christ, with Whom the new Israel came into existence, was baptized in the Jordan and led by the Spirit into the wilderness where He was tempted for forty days. With these uses of the number forty, Christ is shown to be the fulfillment of the history of salvation. The symbolic use of the number forty to stress the significance of events in Christ’s life, in no way reduces or denies their historical character.
In the Book of Acts, we have the account of the new people of God. Luke uses the number forty so that we will not miss the significance of Christ’s encounters with the eleven after the resurrection. By telling us that Christ’s teaching occurred over forty days, Luke also assures us that the eleven were firmly established in that teaching. They are prepared for the climactic event: His exaltation.
Through these events, we see that the resurrection and the ascension have to do with the church. They are prepared for the giving of the Holy Spirit. In fact, what the disciples do after the ascension is decidedly “ecclesiastical.” They worship continually and publicly in the Temple, and they organize the church in the selection of Matthias. The goal of the ascension was not the salvation of individuals, but the gathering of the church.
This ecclesiastical emphasis explains why the Heidelberg Catechism aims its strongest criticism of Lutheran sacramental thinking in Lord’s Day 18, which is about the ascension; and why Lord’s Day 19, which is about Christ’s enthronement in heaven, emphasizes that the ascended and enthroned Christ ascended and took the throne primarily as Head of the Church.
One of the New Testament words for believers is “saints,” which means those with access to the sanctuary. What is interesting about the word is that it rarely, if ever, is used in the singular. When Paul writes to those who are “saints by calling” in 1 Corinthians 1:2, he is using the language of Leviticus 23:3, the holy convocations of Israel. It is not: “I am a saint; you are a saint” and so forth. Rather, as a body, as a gathered congregation, we are a holy convocation with access to the heavenly sanctuary. The ascension speaks of sanctification, but sanctification is corporate, as well as personal. We are sanctified as part of the visible gathering of God’s worshipping people. The ascension is Jesus Christ’s Temple-building work and His ascension secures the royal priesthood.
In these thoughts about Ascension Day, we have seen that the ascension is the climax of why the everlasting Son became man. As true Man, He is glorified and enters the heavenly sanctuary. In Him, Who is flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone, we are restored to fellowship with the Father. We have escaped the judgment against us and have been received again in God’s favor because the One Who is not ashamed to call us His brothers is accepted into fellowship with God for us. To paraphrase Paul, if Christ be not ascended, then our faith is in vain.
Rev. Ken Kok