Our Own Flesh in Heaven

The Good News of Jesus’ Ascension

Ian Olson / 5.12.21

The ascension is commonly misunderstood in modernity and its significance often overlooked as a result, even by those who wouldn’t dismiss its historical plausibility. Why, after all, does Jesus Christ’s mission culminate not in his resurrection but with his ascension into heaven? Isn’t his rising from the dead the irruption into the present of the age to come, his victory over sin and death? Isn’t his reconciling work finished when he emerges vindicated from the tomb?

All of these things are true, but reconciliation is not God’s only aim with regard to his fallen creatures: he also purposes their glorification and this, as with every other aspect of salvation, is carried out in and by God. Jesus’s ascension, all too frequently collapsed into his resurrection, isn’t a withdrawal out of planetary history but the fulfillment of this purpose. 

But how? The Heidelberg Catechism has a wonderful statement regarding its significance for all of us here. “How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?” it asks, and answers:

First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.

Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.

Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.

Christians for the most part are familiar with Jesus’ intercession on our behalf through texts such as Romans 8:34, Hebrews 7:25, and 1 John 2:1. His heavenly enthronement and ministry is also an essential component of the Nicene Creed: “He ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand of the Father.” But if God is omnipresent, couldn’t Jesus remain on earth to fulfill this task?

It is the second element of this answer therefore that so rapturously reframes the necessity of the ascension. For the ascension isn’t a total separation of lover and beloved — it is a movement which bestows honor not only upon Jesus but upon all who belong to him. For the Son who elected to share our own nature also exalts that nature when he assumes his throne. He goes where humankind has never had direct access, the realm beyond our senses at the heart of all creation where God’s glory radiates in unfiltered resplendence and rules without hindrance. Humanity has had no dominion here before. But this changes with Jesus’s ascension, as his flesh is our flesh: the flesh which he assumed encompasses the corporate entity “us.” His session in the domain of the unseen God is the seating of Adam’s race in the dignity and dominion God has always intended for them, reigning over all creation at last. 

“Emmanuel” names not a phenomenon but the person in whom God approaches us frail, needful creatures and establishes the dwelling place and the relationship he has purposed from before anything else ever was. This person does not merely resemble us but shares every aspect of our nature — he is one of us. And it is in the flesh of the image-bearers he loves that God discloses precisely who he is.

For God’s identity is inseparable from the sending of the Son into the world and, farther back, to his binding himself to the frauds and failures who populate the world he has created. God’s love for them is unfeigned and can never be mistaken as an accident or as a risk tinged with potential regret as he already comprehended the disappointments of the race for whom he would sacrifice and unreservedly elected himself to be their redeemer. 

But while “God With Us” is decisively accomplished in the Son’s coming to us, it is completed in the triumphal entry of this son of Adam into God’s own place. For in this Godward movement humankind finally arrives at their proper place.

Jesus’s ascension spans the divide between the heavenly realm and the fallen, creaturely realm to which we are accustomed. For when the union of natures made concrete in Jesus Christ is received in God’s place, the Spirit who is the bond of love between Father and Son binds those who share the flesh and faith of Christ to him. A theology of the cross rightly emphasizes that God is at work in darkness and destitution and dishonor, but this must always be situated within the pattern of humiliation and exaltation which give shape to Jesus’s life, for a theology which would disown all glory whatsoever can only end in nihilism.

Yes, we partake in his suffering as he partook of our own, but we will also partake in his exaltation in the same way. Just as his being raised from death guarantees our being raised from death, his being raised to heaven guarantees the same for us, both now and not yet. His reception in God’s place is the prerequisite for the effusion of his Spirit, the conduit who links us to the triumphant Christ, ruling as Adam — the individual, and the race that bears his name —was meant to. In the words of John Duncan, “the dust of earth sits on the throne of heaven.” 

His ascension is not an abandonment: it is the climax of his drawing near. A human frame, fit for this world’s dimensions, has traversed the gulf between the unknown God and the painful setting we have known as home and yet never felt entirely at home within. Home becomes the reunion of God’s place and ours. Jesus’s exit and enthronement effects the transformation of our position, just as he promised: he goes “that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3).

We have been raised up and seated in the heavenly places with him (Eph 2:6), and this defamiliarizes our experience of the dreary and the dreadful. The indignity we so frequently suffer is negated in him. Instead, we find ourselves inundated with the same honor the Father has bestowed upon his Christ. The shame that characterizes so much of our existence is nullified here, and you are already and not yet glorified with him (Rom 8:30). However beleaguered or vexed by the evil one and the world you may be, you are simultaneously seated with an advocate who is closer to you than you are even to yourself. He will tend to his own better than you or I care for ourselves.

The cross and resurrection are the fundamental manifestation of who God is in himself. God holds nothing of himself back in the accomplishment of redemption for sinful creatures. There is nothing begrudging in his self-giving, There is no disappointment on his part to find that the humiliation and death of the Son was for, well, us. Are we not often afraid that the cross might come to be viewed by God as a gamble which wasn’t worth it when he takes inventory of the pitiful flotsam he has gathered up?

Might this make today, and tomorrow, and each day following the more bearable? Our identity in Christ cultivates a bifocal vision that negotiates the wreckage of here and now even as it relativizes those same vicissitudes from the cosmos’ seat of state. We are never called to minimize our problems, but we are invited to situate them within the scope of the recreating reign Jesus shares with his people, one that nourishes our hope and our perseverance.

However the travail might vex or perplex you, however your life may be marginalized or denigrated, you are simultaneously also crowned with the dignity of the ascended Christ. What is visible and tangible here is true and yet not true. There is more, and better, eagerly shared with you by the Lord who shares our flesh. Lift up your hearts, enthroned dust!