The Ascension of Christ:
His glorified body in heaven and His Spirit on earth are a pledge of our salvation
Editor: This article is from Otto Thelemann’s fine commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, An Aid to the Heidelberg Catechism, 276-286 (orig. published in Detmold, Germany, 1892; available in English and electronically from the Reformed Church in the U.S., 2004).
- What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
First, that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father in heaven. Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge, that He as the Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Third, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not things on the earth.
Christ our Intercessor in Heaven
- Christ represents us in the presence of the Father, for He presents in behalf of those who believe, who are engrafted into Him and constitute with Him one body, the righteousness which He has worked out for them, and with which their sins are covered in the sight of God. (Heb. 9:24, Rom. 8:34, 1 John 2:1)
- Because of His intercession, which is founded upon His sacrifice, our prayers offered in His name are heard by the Father. (Heb. 7:25, John 14:13)
“Because Christ through His own blood entered the sanctuary, which is not made with hands, into heaven itself, it is a certain assurance, or thereby the world is powerfully convinced, that through Christ has been accomplished eternal righteousness, as Daniel (9:24) prophesied. So that it is not only evidence of our righteousness that Christ once entered into the holy of holies, but also the fact that He abides there and appears before the Father continually in our name, is a continuous accomplishment or advancement of our righteousness; because by virtue of His only sacrifice, with which He blotted out our sins in His body through eternity, He appears righteous continually before the face of God. (Heb. 9:24)”
Christ’s Flesh our Pledge in Heaven
- Christ is exalted to heaven in our flesh, e., with His human nature, which He received from us, and which He still shares with us in His glorification. As our surety, who had offered Himself to the Father for His chosen ones already before the foundation of the world, He entered into heaven and glory, as He had entered into suffering and death (Jer. 30:21). In this we have the assurance that not only our soul, but also our glorified body will hereafter participate in eternal salvation. This assurance is further strengthened in that we stand in indissoluble life communion (head and members) with Him. “Does a head leave its member, does it not draw it after itself?” (John 12:32; 14:3, Eph. 2:6, Phil. 3:20)
“By His ascension Christ took possession of the heavenly inheritance in behalf of all His brethren (in the name of all His brethren, i.e., His believing ones), so that we now have Christ’s flesh, which is our flesh, as a sure pledge that He, as the Head, will also take up to Himself us, His members, as He promised. (John 14:2, 3; 17:24)”
Christ’s Spirit as an Earnest Upon Earth
- As Christ’s flesh, our human nature, in heaven is an assurance of our eternal salvation in Christ, so is also Christ’s spirit upon earth, the Holy Spirit in our hearts, the pledge of our salvation. Through the testimony of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:16, 17) we become conscious that we are children of God and heirs of eternal life, joint heirs with Jesus Christ, who has already received the inheritance for us and has entered upon it (Acts 2:33, 2 Cor. 1:21-22, Eph. 1:13). Through the Holy Spirit our life is hid with Christ in God; but when Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then shall we also appear with Him in glory (Col. 3:3-4). Of this the Holy Spirit assures us as an earnest. “They are pilgrims upon earth and live in heaven.” Psalm 39:12: “For I am a stranger with you, and a sojourner, as all my fathers were.”
- The gift of the Holy Spirit, the spirit of the exalted Christ is not only an earnest of assurance, but is also to admonish and incite us that by His power we may become heavenly minded (Col. 3:1-2, Matt. 6:21). “Fit your heart for the place where you would be eternally.”
“On the other hand Christ sent down another earnest (over against the earnest of our flesh in heaven) which He received not from us (as His flesh), but from the Father, viz., the Holy Spirit, that He should dwell in our body and soul, and should be an indissoluble bond between the head which is in heaven, amid us His members who are upon earth, and should assure us of the eternal inheritance in heaven.”
- Why is it added: “And sits at the right hand of God”?
Because Christ ascended into heaven for this end, that He might there appear as the Head of His Church, by whom the Father governs all things.
The Significance of His Sitting at The Right Hand of God
“The sitting at the right hand of God is to be distinguished from His ascension into heaven. The one cannot take place without the other, they are, therefore, not the same. The article of the sitting at the right hand of God is distinguished from the preceding one in a threefold manner: 1. In it is set forth the object of the ascension; for Christ ascended into heaven that He might he seated at the right hand of God. 2. Christ sitteth continually at the right hand of God; but only once did He ascend into heaven. 3. The angels also ascend into heaven, and we shall also ascend into heaven; but neither they nor we shall sit at the right hand of the Father. Hebrews 1:13, ‘But to which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool?’ How much less did He say this to any man, except to Christ.”
- The sitting at the right hand of another has from ancient times been a mark of honor. Even today one whom we would honor is seated at our right hand.
- It is the highest mark of honor if a king should invite any one to sit on his right hand. When Bathsheba came to Solomon after his ascension to the throne, he advanced toward her, and when he seated himself upon the throne, his mother was seated at his right hand (1 Kings 2:19). The mother of Zebedee’s children made the request of the Lord: “Grant that these my two sons may sit, the one on your right hand, and the other on the left in your kingdom.” (Matt. 20:21)
- The prophets of the Old and the New Testament beheld in their visions God sitting upon a throne in heaven. (1 Kings 22:19, Isa. 6:1, Rev. 7:10)
- The right, e., the right hand, is in ordinary life preferred to the left, because we accomplish the most with it, and it is, therefore, stronger than the left. It is the right hand of the king in which he holds the scepter.
“When we speak of the right hand of God, we derive the conception from human relations, as the Scriptures also speak of other bodily members with reference to God. The expression includes a twofold significance: First, the highest power and strength, or the omnipotence of God. (Ps. 118:16, Ex. 15:6) Second, the highest dignity and honor, or the majesty of God. The latter is here intended.”
- The sitting at the right hand of God was promised to Christ (Ps.110:1). Christ Himself foretold it ( Matt. 26:64). The apostles attest it (Mark 16:19). Acts 2:34–36, “For David is not ascended into the heavens: but he saith himself, The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit you on my right hand, until I make your foes your footstool. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus, whom you have crucified, both Lord and Christ.” Ps. 110:1, “The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit you at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” Stephen beheld Christ at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55).
- Sitting at the right hand also signifies rest after labor. The sitting of Christ at the right hand of God after the work of redemption, corresponds to the rest of God the Father after the work of creation.
- The ascension of Christ was His accession to the throne, the sitting at the right hand of God indicates His reign.
“We believe thus that Christ not only ascended into heaven in His human nature, in order that He might live there, as the angels, in eternal happiness, but that He might sit down in heaven at the right hand of God, i.e., manifest Himself at the throne of God as the King of the holy angels and of saints, and as the head of the Christian Church, through whom the Father governs all things, which dignity surpasses by far the dignity of all angels and other creatures. (Heb. 1:13, Ps. 110:1)”
What is Embraced in Christ’s Reign
- Christ manifests Himself in the first place as the Head of His Church.
- He governs the Church which is His body, as by the head the human members are governed through the understanding and the will. (Col. 1:18, Eph. 1:22-23)
“On this account the exaltation of Christ in His kingdom is His induction to the highest honor, so that the Christ who before was crowned with thorns now appears openly in heaven before the angels and the saints in the most glorious light as King of the Christian Church, and as the Head of all angels and of the redeemed, that He might from thence work more powerfully in all His members than He did when He was bodily on earth; and that He might prepare them for salvation and further them daily by the service of the Church, according to the order which He had prescribed in His Word and by the power of His Spirit, with which He rules in His Church and dwells in it.”
- The Pope of Rome maintains that he is the “visible head of the Church,” the “representative of God” and the “vicar of Jesus Christ upon earth.” He makes his appeal to the words of Christ to Peter: “And I say also unto you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my Church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. And I will give unto you the keys of the kingdom of heaven: and whatsoever you shall bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatsoever you shall loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:18-19). Since it is claimed that Peter was afterward bishop of Rome, they also claim that this promise passed over to his successors, the Popes of Rome.
To this we reply: First, the personal promise given to Peter for his good confession was fulfilled on the day of Pentecost, when the communion of Jesus Christ, the Christian Church, was first established upon the sermon of the man of rock [that is, Peter], and there were added to it about three thousand souls. (Acts 2:41) Second, the power of the keys was given by the Lord after His resurrection to the other disciples, as well as to Peter, so that he was in this respect in no way superior to them. (John 20:22-23) Third, that Peter was bishop of Rome, cannot at all be proved, but it is a tradition that arose subsequently. Fourth, even if Peter had been actually invested with the bishop’s office in Rome (an office which did not belong to the Apostolate), the bishops at Rome would have only been successors of Peter as bishop, but not of his apostolic dignity, and the personal distinction connected with it. Fifth, the Church is not in need either of a visible head, because the invisible Head (Matt. 28:20) promised to her His continual presence, neither can a sinful man administer the highest authority of God as His representative upon earth. Christ Himself, before His departure to the Father, indicated His representative upon earth, which does not exclude His immediate operation, but includes it. The Holy Spirit is alone the “representative of God” and vicar of Christ upon earth. (John 14:16; 16:14)
- Through Christ as the head of the Christian Church the Father governs all things.
- At the right hand of God Christ also superintends the government and judgment of the world. (Matt. 28:18, Heb. 1:3; 2:7-8, Eph. 1:20-21, John 5:22)
- The talk that is heard from unbelievers is very silly: “If Christ governs the world, then God the Father is superannuated (put on a stipend).” John 10:30: “I and my Father are one.” This word of Christ holds true in His humiliation, as well as in His exaltation. He had subjected Himself to the Father, and yet they were and remained one. God was in Christ and reconciled the world unto Himself (2 Cor. 5:19). The Father has now exalted Him at His right hand and has given Him all power in heaven and upon earth, and they remain one; since the Son of God governs all things, God the Father also governs the world through Him.
- What does this glory of Christ, our Head, profit us?
First, that by His Holy Spirit He pours out heavenly gifts upon us, His members; then, that by His power He defends and preserves us against all enemies.
- Although Christ is invisible to our eyes, there exists between Him and believers, who are His members, the most intimate communion which is mediated by the Holy Spirit, who dwells in Christ and in us. The Holy Spirit is the royal gift of grace, which He had promised to send after His departure to the Father in glory, that by His gifts and powers here already the glorification of the members of His kingdom might be begun (Acts 2:33, Eph. 4:8).
- The gifts of the Holy Spirit are of two kinds:
- Extraordinary—for extraordinary purposes and times, such as prophesying, speaking with tongues (in foreign languages not previously learned), and working miracles. These gifts were largely bestowed in the times of the Apostles, and will doubtless be restored again at the end of the world. In the intervening years they are not entirely withdrawn, but are only seldom manifest. (Mark 16:17-18) The fulfillment of the promise of working miracles, we may find recorded in Acts 16:18; 2:4, 11; 10:46; 28:5, 8, 1 Cor. 12:4–11.
- Ordinary—which are necessary to the salvation of every believer, g., knowledge, faith, love, hope, etc., Gal.5:22.
“The first benefit is that for the sake of Christ, and for His sake only, the Father bestows the Holy Spirit upon the elect, governs and quickens them by the preaching of the gospel through the power of the Holy Spirit, and not only adorns the entire Church with diverse gifts, but also bestows upon each member as many gifts as may be necessary to the honor and glory of the Head, to the edification of the whole body and to the happiness and salvation of its members, and to the extent to which the King Himself desires to work in each member, for His own honor and for the edification of the other members, as He says, John 15:16, ‘You have not chosen me, but I have chosen you and ordained you, that you should go and bring forth fruit.’ Therefore each member bringeth forth as much fruit as is desired by Him who has ordained the same. But no member is left without the gifts necessary to his salvation, and none remain so fruitless as not to serve to some extent the honor of God and the welfare of the body of Christ.”
- Enemies on every hand, within and without, is the lot of everyone upon earth who believes heartily on the Lord Jesus and confesses Him in word and deed. (Luke 21:17)
- But we have a powerful Head in heaven who protects and preserves His members upon earth:
- Against our own flesh. (Rom. 6:14)
- Against the world. (John 16:33)
- Against Satan. (Rom. 16:20)
- Against death. (1 Cor. 15:26)
- As powerless as are these enemies against the Head who is in heaven, so little they prevail against His members on earth. (1 Peter 1:5, John 10:28)
“The second benefit is the protection of the Church against all enemies, against sin, the flesh, the world, tyrants, unclean spirits, the secret and open instruments of these, all of whom the heavenly Father calls enemies of Christ, and with reference to whom He manifests by daily examples His power to overthrow them. In a word, we are members of the King, members, I say, of His own body, with far more certainty than the hand is a member of the body. All the hindrances which meet us in the whole world are brought into subjection to this King, that they cannot injure us; yea, that even the thoughts and counsels of all kings, princes and lords have their beginning, their fulfillment or failure in His will, and He so controls them that they must be subservient to His own glory and to the salvation of those who believe on Him. (Eph. 1:21–23) Therefore nothing from man or devil can befall believers without the will of the Lord Jesus Christ, who is seated in heaven at the right hand of the Father.”
- This truth is illustrated in the life of Frederick the Pious of the Palatinate, the father of the Heidelberg Catechism. Scarcely had the catechism been introduced into the Palatinate, when enmity arose on all sides against the Elector, especially on the part of his Lutheran co-electors and their theologians. He was accused before Emperor and Empire, and it was their intention, with the help of the Roman Catholic princes, to declare his sovereignty forfeited. They even spoke of it that it might cost him his head. To his brother Richard, who gave him the information, Frederick wrote at that time:
“I rely upon my dear and faithful Father in heaven in confident hope that His omnipotence will use me as an instrument to confess His name openly in the holy Empire of the German nation in these last times, not only with my mouth, but also by my acts. I also know that He has sufficient power to preserve me, a poor, simple (unlearned) man, and that He will preserve me through the power of the Holy Spirit, even should it come to this, that it would cost my life; for which, should it please my God and Father in heaven to use me for such honor, I should never be able to thank Him sufficiently, neither here on earth nor in eternity.”
In 1566, soon after Frederick made this declaration, the Roman Catholic Emperor at the Diet called upon him to rid his land of his catechism and of other Reformed institutions. Frederick declared before the entire assembly:
“with reference to matters of religion, which I am called upon to change and to set aside, I announce that in the sphere of faith and conscience I know but one Lord, who is the Lord of lords and King of kings; and therefore I say that this question does not pertain to ‘a cap full of flesh’ (i.e., his head), but to the soul and its salvation, which has been committed to me by my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and which I am in duty bound and prepared to preserve for Him. Therefore I cannot concede to your Imperial Majesty the right of authority over it, a right which belongs to God alone, who is its Creator. As far as my catechism is concerned, I am committed to it. It is fortified in the margin by proof-texts from the Holy Scriptures to such an extent that it may stand immoveable, and it is my hope that by the help of God it may continue so to stand. As for the rest, I comfort myself with the thought that my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ has given me, together with all who believe on Him, the assured promise that everything which I shall lose for the sake of His honor or name, shall be restored to me in the world beyond a hundredfold. With this I most humbly commend myself to the grace of your Imperial Majesty.”
Rightly did Pierre Boquin say later in his funeral sermon for Frederick the Elector: “If martyrdom consists in the righteousness of the cause, the temper of soul and joyous resignation to suffering, then we may count this splendid Elector among the martyrs of Christ.” Although the Emperor, after the Elector had departed from the Diet, declared that “the pest must be destroyed,” yet no one dared to lift a hand against the courageous confessor. The Lord at the right hand of the Father in heaven, who had given to him the heavenly gifts of faith and of courage to bear testimony, extended also His hand over him, “to protect and preserve him by His power against all enemies.”