``WE BELIEVE''


A Study of the Doctrines of the Church of God



Part Seven: ``... ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of the Father ...''



by Doug Ward





As we discussed in part six of this series, the risen Jesus Christ appeared to His disciples a number of times, proving to them the reality of His resurrection and teaching them how the scriptures had foretold many aspects of His life and ministry. Luke states that the last of these appearances occurred forty days after the resurrection (Acts 1:3), at which point Jesus ``was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight'' (v. 9, NIV). Jesus left the disciples with instructions to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, a commission to spread the gospel to all the world, and a promise that He would return in due time (vv. 4-11).

Christians from the beginning have affirmed the truth of these events recorded by Luke and have understood that Jesus now occupies an exalted position ``at the right hand of God'' (Acts 7:56). We in the Worldwide Church of God (WCG) are no exception. Longtime WCG members will remember Herbert W. Armstrong's series of World Tomorrow radio broadcasts from the 1950s on the book of Hebrews, in which he stressed that Jesus is alive and active today as our heavenly High Priest. The current WCG statement of beliefs states that Jesus ``ascended to heaven, from where he mediates between humanity and God.''

Although the ascension of Jesus is a foundational truth of Christianity, it often does not receive the attention that it deserves. In [1, p. 162], William Barclay commented that ``it is extremely unusual to hear a sermon on the Ascension. It is one of the neglected parts of the life of Christ in the ordinary teaching of the pulpit.'' Indeed, until recently I had never heard a sermon specifically devoted to the subject of the ascension; the fact that such a sermon was given in our congregation last November [5] is indicative of the current effort in WCG to come to a fuller understanding and appreciation of basic Christian doctrines.

Why is the ascension important? The aim of the present installment in our series on the Apostles' Creed is to answer this question by demonstrating both the theological and practical significance of the doctrine of the ascension.



``... at the right hand of the Father ...''



The ascension of Jesus Christ is closely tied to His resurrection. The resurrection demonstrates to us that Jesus lives, while the ascension tells us that He reigns. Together the two comprise what might be called a ``process of glorification'' in which Jesus conquered death, returned to His Father (John 20:17), and assumed His rightful place in the rulership of the Universe.

In His ascension, Christ was ``received up into glory'' (I Tim 3:16), as symbolized by His being taken up in a cloud (Acts 1:9). This cloud would have conveyed great meaning to those who witnessed His departure. It was an indication of the Shekinah, the manifestation of God's glory that had earlier overshadowed Jesus and three disciples at the Transfiguration (Matt. 17:5), accompanied the Israelites on their journey to the promised land in the form of ``a pillar of cloud'' (Exodus 13:21-22; 33:9-10), and filled the tabernacle and the temple (Exodus 40:34-35; I Kings 8:10-11). The manner of Jesus' ascension showed His disciples that He was entering an exalted status in His Father's presence.

The writers of the New Testament describe Christ's high position by saying that Jesus is now ``at the right hand of God.'' (See Matt. 22:44; 26:64; Mark 12:36; 14:62; Luke 20:42; 22:69; Acts 2:33; 5:31; 7:56; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 12:2; I Peter 3:22.) This description is taken from the first verse of Psalm 110, the psalm quoted most often in the New Testament. Here David says,



``The LORD says to my Lord: `Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.'''



Notice that there are three distinct personages in this verse: (1) David; (2)Yahweh (``the LORD''), who is the speaker in the psalm; and (3) one whom David calls ``my Lord.'' This third personage would sit at God's right hand and be given rule over all his enemies.

Christians have always identified ``my Lord'' in Psalm 110:1 as the promised Messiah. In this we follow the example of Jesus, who applied the verse to Himself in asserting that He was more than an ordinary descendant of David (Matt. 22:42-46; Mark 12:35-37; Luke 20:41-44). There are also other Messianic hints in Psalm 110 [3, pp. 94-96]. In particular, the ``mighty scepter'' with which David's Lord will rule (v. 2, NIV) is a symbol used in reference to the Messiah in Gen. 49:10.

What are the connotations of being ``seated at God's right hand''? Barclay [1, chapter 13] and McGrath [4] mention a number of aspects of the meaning of this phrase:



1. The Hebrew verb ``to sit'' implies settled possession. It is used in this way, for example, in a description of the tribe of Asher in the song of Deborah in Judges 5:



``Asher sat still at the coast of the sea, settling down by his landings'' (Judges 5:17, RSV).


The NIV translates the verb for ``sat still'' with the English word ``remained.'' When we say, then, that Jesus is sitting at God's right hand, we mean that He is firmly established in that position.



2. The verb ``to sit'' also implies rest and quiet. This meaning is evident in prophecies of the Messianic kingdom which describe each man as sitting under his own vine and fig tree. According to Micah 4:4 (NIV),


``Every man will sit under his own vine and under his own fig tree, and no one will make them afraid, for the Lord Almighty has spoken.''


The peace that will one day fill the earth exists right now at God's throne in heaven.



3. God's right hand is a place of eternal joy, as indicated by Psalm 16:11: ``You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.''



4. God's right hand is a position of supreme honor. For instance, Solomon showed honor to his mother Bathsheba by having a throne brought for her so that she could sit at his right hand (I Kings 2:19). In this position, much higher than that of the angels (Heb. 1:13), Jesus rules over all the universe except for God the Father Himself (I Cor. 15:24-28). Christ's seat at God's right hand also represents His public vindication. The humiliation and rejection of the Cross have passed, and Jesus is exalted before heaven and earth.



5. At the right hand of God, Jesus has His Father's ear. He is now our heavenly Advocate, pleading our cause for us (Heb. 7:25). As Paul writes in Rom. 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.''



6. The place of honor at the right hand of God may also confer upon its occupant the authority to judge the world. Later in Psalm 110, we read,


``The Lord is at your right hand; he will crush kings on the day of his wrath. He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth'' (Psalm 110:5-6, NIV).


We will discuss this aspect of the work of Jesus Christ in the next installment of this series.


The martyr Stephen, shortly before his death, had a vision in which Jesus was standing, rather than sitting, at the right hand of God (Acts 7:55-56). The standing position of Jesus in this vision suggests His concern for His people and His readiness to come to our aid.



King, Priest, and Prophet



The ascension of Jesus marked the conclusion of His public ministry on earth and the inauguration of a heavenly ministry at God's right hand. No longer would Jesus walk the dusty roads of Palestine as an itinerant rabbi; instead, having broken barriers of space and time, He would now be present in all believers at every location and moment.

In His heavenly ministry, Jesus continues in His three great roles as king, priest, and prophet. We have already mentioned His rulership of the universe under God the Father. As king, He has been granted ``all authority in heaven and on earth'' (Matt. 28:18) and given ``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...'' (Phil. 2:9-10). He is now ``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'' (Eph. 1:21).

We have also touched upon His ministry as ``a great priest over the house of God'' who ``always lives to intercede'' for us (Heb. 10:21; 7:25). Christ's eternal priesthood, foretold in Ps. 110:4, is one of main themes of the book of Hebrews. In the WCG, we have traditionally considered this theme on the Day of Atonement. The sacrifice offered on the Day of Atonement by the Aaronic high priest in the Most Holy Place pointed forward to the once-for-all sacrifice of Jesus, who opened the way for us to enter God's presence freely and confidently (Heb. 9-10).

A prophet is one who speaks for God according to God's direction. Today Jesus continues to carry out the role of a prophet by means of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, He lives and works in all His disciples (John 14:16-23; Gal. 2:20; I John 3:24).

The coming of the gift of the Holy Spirit is closely connected with the ascension of Christ. Jesus promised that the Spirit would be sent to His followers (John 7:37-38; 14:16-18, 26; 16:8-14; Luke 24:49; Acts 1:5,8), but that the fulness of that gift would not arrive until after His glorification was complete (John 7:39; 16:7). Accordingly, the Spirit came on the day of Pentecost, ten days after the ascension. (For an exploration of the meanings of Pentecost, see the next three articles in this issue.)



Psalm 68 and the Gifts of the Spirit



We have seen that Psalm 110 alludes to Jesus' place at God's right hand and His eternal kingly and priestly offices. Other scriptures make reference to His prophetic office. For example, His ascension and role as Spirit-bringer were prefigured in the experience of the prophet Elijah, who was taken up into the heavens in a whirlwind in the sight of his successor Elisha. Elisha then received a ``double portion'' of the Holy Spirit (2 Kings 2:9-12). Similarly, Jesus ascended in the sight of His disciples, who soon were the recipients of a great outpouring of the Spirit.

Christians have also seen in Psalm 68:18, part of a psalm long associated with Pentecost in Jewish tradition, an allusion to both the ascension of Jesus and His subsequent descent via the Holy Spirit to grant spiritual gifts-or gifted individuals-for the equipping of the Church (see Eph. 4:7-11). In this psalm, David praises God for His mighty acts on behalf of His people, including His appearance at Mount Sinai (vv. 8, 17). Then in verse 18, David changes from talking about God in the third person to addressing Him in the second person:



``When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious-that you, O LORD God, might dwell there'' (NIV).



This verse has posed a great challenge to commentators. In particular, who are the ``captives'' in this verse, and what are the ``gifts''? Kaiser [3, p. 132] points that after Israel was rebellious in the incident of the golden calf, the faithful Levites were set apart for service to God (Ex. 32:26-29). The Levites were ``given wholly'' to God and were also said to be given as gifts to Aaron and his sons to assist in their priestly duties. Thus the captives and gifts may have been the Levites themselves. Kaiser [3, p. 132] comments that ``it is not a long leap in logic to argue that, just as the Messiah in a preincarnate form had come down from heaven to meet with Moses face-to-face, so he will return to the Father because, in the meantime, he has taken captives in the form of Levites, whom he now offers to the Father as gifts to carry out the the work of the ministry in his absence.'' Similarly, Jesus has given apostles, prophets, and pastor-teachers to the Father in order to prepare the saints for works of ministry (Eph. 4:11-13).

Kaiser's explanation of Ps. 68:18 seems reasonable, but it leaves unanswered some questions about Paul's use of this verse in Ephesians 4:7-10:



``But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. This is why it says: `When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.' (What does `he ascended' mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.)'' (NIV)



Notice that in Paul's quotation of Ps. 68:18, the phrase ``received gifts from men'' is changed to ``gave gifts to men.'' What is the reason for the discrepancy between the two? In addition, why does Paul mention a descent as well as an ascent, since no descent is mentioned in Ps. 68:18? And why does Paul emphasize in Eph. 4:10 that the one who ascended and the one who descended are one and the same? These questions, which have been a source of ongoing discussion among scholars, are examined carefully in the doctoral dissertation of W. Hall Harris [2].

Harris shows that Paul, in his citation of Ps. 68:18, could well have been drawing upon a textual tradition that existed in his time but no longer survives today. A hint of this possible tradition appears in a Targum (i.e., an Aramaic paraphrase) of Ps. 68:18 which gives the verse as follows:



``You ascended to the firmament, Prophet Moses; you led captive captivity; you learned the words of Torah; you gave them as gifts to the sons of men.''



In this Aramaic version, gifts are being given, as in Paul's quotation, rather than received. Other possible evidence for the existence of an alternate version of Ps. 68:18 can be found in the writing of the second-century church father Justin Martyr. In chapters 39 and 87 of his Dialogues with Trypho , Justin quotes Ps. 68:18 to back up his contention that Christ gave special gifts to men following His ascension. The version of Ps. 68:18 cited by Justin is similar to, but not quite the same as, the one given by Paul in Eph. 4:8, indicating that Justin may not have been simply quoting Paul.

The Targumic rendering of Ps. 68:18 also reflects a Jewish tradition that the verse refers to Moses ascending Mt. Sinai, capturing the words of Torah in ``the firmament,'' and then descending the mountain to bring God's instruction to Israel. If Paul was aware of this tradition, which seems to have existed in some form in his time, then he could have had such an interpretation in mind when he wrote in Eph. 4:9 about a descent as well as an ascent.

Finally, in writing that ``he who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens,'' Paul seems to be saying that when the Holy Spirit comes to a believer, Christ is in effect descending to indwell that person. In this way, Christ will ``fill the whole universe.''

Psalm 68:18 and its use by Paul in Ephesians 4 will probably continue in the future to exercise the minds of scholars. In any case, there appears to be ample evidence that the prophetic aspect of Christ's heavenly ministry was foretold in the Hebrew scriptures.



Lessons for Us



There is much encouraging news in the doctrine of the ascension. Since Christ now dwells in us through the Spirit, He can lead us to become more and more like Him. And when we slip in our efforts to follow His lead, we can freely come to Him in prayer, knowing that our heavenly High Priest understands our current struggles (Heb. 4:14-15; 2:17-18). Jesus is our example and forerunner, and because He has been glorified, we know that a glorious future awaits us too. As our Firstfruits, He has been accepted by God for the sanctification of the entire harvest of humanity.

With a proper understanding of the ascension, we can adopt a balanced approach to life. Since Christ has risen, we set our sights on things above, knowing that we are strangers and pilgrims in this life (Col. 3:1; John 17:16; 18:36). On the other hand, we do not spend our time merely awaiting His return. He is active in our lives now and has given us much to do (Matt. 28:18-20; Acts 1:6-8).

Luke records that the disciples of Jesus ``returned to Jerusalem with great joy'' after Jesus ``left them and was taken up into heaven'' (Luke 24:51-52). Knowing and believing the wonderful truths about Christ's ascension and heavenly ministry, we share with Christian believers throughout history the joy experienced by those disciples.



to be continued ....





References:



1.
William Barclay, The Apostles' Creed for Everyman , Harper & Row, New York, 1967.

2.
W. Hall Harris III, The Descent of Christ: Ephesians 4:7-11 and Traditional Hebrew Imagery, E.J. Brill, Leiden, 1996.

3.
Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, MI, 1995.

4.
Alister E. McGrath, ``I Believe'': Exploring the Apostles' Creed, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1998.

5.
Rowlen Tucker, ``The Significance of the Ascension,'' sermon given to the Cincinnati West congregation of the Worldwide Church of God on November 13, 1999.

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