The Ascension of Our Lord
by Peter Toon
Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1984
Unless otherwise noted the Bible version used in this publication is The New King James Version.
Preface through Chapter 4 - this page, below
Introduction – Commending the Theme
1. New Testament Foundations
The fact of the Ascension; The time of the Ascension; The resurrection body of Jesus; Into heaven and at the right hand of God; The meaning of the Ascension
2. Prefigured in the Old Testament
Old Testament passages used in the New Testament; Old Testament passages used in Church liturgy
3. Jesus the King
Jesus as King before the Ascension; Jesus as King after the Ascension; Jesus is Lord
How does Christ execute the office of King, Lord, and Head?
4. Jesus the Priest
The letter to the Hebrews; Was the sacrifice of Jesus completed in space and time?; Intercession; Blessing and benediction; A royal priesthood
5. Jesus the Prophet Chapter 5 through end
Prophet in Palestine; Exalted Prophet in heaven for the world; The exalted Jesus; Recognized as Prophet by the primitive church; The Protestant understanding of Jesus as Prophet; Revelation, the exalted Christ, and the Scriptures
6. Lift up your hearts
The incomparable Christ; Looking up and looking forward; Epilogue
1. Cosmology and Theology
2. Greek Verbs Used for Ascension ad Exaltation
3. Is Resurrection Also Exaltation?
4. When Did Jesus Ascend into Heaven?
5. Church Teaching
Patristic teaching; Medieval teaching; Protestant teaching; Recent teaching; Recent developments
6. What Ascension Meant and Means to Christ Himself
This book has been written on the basis of the study which I originally did in preparing the W. H. Griffith Thomas Lectures, delivered at Dallas Theological Seminary in April 1983. The four lectures on “Historical Perspectives on the Doctrine of Christ’s Ascension” have been printed in Bibliotheca Sacra (1983–4).
In these pages I have sought to develop the biblical and theological aspects of the doctrine of the Ascension in a way that was not possible in the Lectures. Thus this book deals with the biblical presentation of the Ascension and its interpretation in the life of the Church over the centuries. Furthermore, the book seeks to present the doctrine as a viable teaching for the Church of today.
With gratitude for the kindness shown to me by the President, Faculty, and Students of Dallas Seminary, I dedicate this book to them. In particular I would like to express my appreciation to Dr. Roy Zuck and to Dr. John Hannah. To dedicate the book to my friends at Dallas Seminary does not, of course, require them to accept the whole of my presentation of the Ascension. However, I know that in the main essentials of the presentation they are wholly with me.
I also thank my bishop, the Rt. Rev. John Waine, for his encouragement and my wife, Vita, for her help and advice. Finally I owe a debt of gratitude to Ronald E. Pitkin and Paul Franklyn of Thomas Nelson for their courtesy and cooperation.
The Rectory, Boxford, Suffolk, UK.
Introduction: Commending the Theme
When you think about Jesus, what thoughts or images come into your mind? Possibly you think of him as the babe of Bethlehem, visited by shepherds and magi. You might imagine him walking the dusty roads of Galilee and Judea with his disciples, stopping here and there to teach and to heal. You may picture him on a wooden cross outside the city walls of Jerusalem praying, “Father, forgive them....” Or, you think of him as the resurrected Jesus appearing to his disciples in the garden, in the upper room, on the road to Emmaus, and by the sea of Galilee. Perhaps you look upward and see him sitting or standing at the right hand of the Father, ruling the universe. Furthermore, because you believe that he is “mysteriously” present with believers, you think of him standing alongside you, walking with you, talking to you, being at the center of the fellowship of believers, and presiding at the Lord’s Supper. Maybe you see him in heaven as the great Priest, praying that the salvation of God be fully known and received by those who believe. Or, because you think that the end of the world is near, you see him prepared to leave heaven to return to earth as the judge.
All such thoughts are valid and each of us needs to think all of them – and more of a like kind – regularly. Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Thus it is right to think of him at any point in his incarnate life, from his birth through his ministry, death, resurrection, ascension, and life in heaven, until his return to earth as Judge. In this book you are invited to think especially of Jesus Christ as the One who ascends into heaven. He is seated at the right hand of the Father and, through the Holy Spirit, is deeply involved in the creation, growth, and health of God’s Church on earth. There is much more information about the life and role of Jesus as the ascended Lord in the New Testament than most Christians realize. It will be our joyful purpose to discover this material and reflect upon it, that we may live as disciples of the living Lord Jesus.
You may have one or two lingering doubts about the value of studying and meditating upon the existence and role of the incarnate Son of God in heaven. Here are two reasons to help you recognize the importance of Jesus’ heavenly life, not only for your enjoyment of God’s salvation, but also for the mission of redemption, reconciliation, and liberation in God’s world.
First, at the level of simple arithmetic, consider that the eternal Son of God has been the incarnate Son of God for about 1985 years. His life as God is eternal, but from the womb of the virgin Mary he took upon himself our human nature and flesh. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us ... full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Thus his life as God-Man had a beginning in space and time, and for his first thirty-three years he devoted himself to fulfilling the will of the Father as the Messiah of Israel and Savior of the world. Now, as incarnate Son, he has been in heaven for over 1950 years as the victorious Savior and Messiah. His life and role as incarnate Son in heaven since the Ascension should not be neglected. It demands our prayerful attention, study, and meditation.
Second, let us not forget that the achievements of Jesus the Messiah in his ministry and work on earth would be without universal power and permanent significance, were it not for the fact that he was exalted to heaven through resurrection and ascension of his perfected and glorified body. Perhaps an illustration will bring out the importance of this point. Think of the explorer who leaves one country and discovers wonderful things in a faraway, unknown land. His discovery will be of no avail for his fellow countrymen until he returns home and describes what he has seen and found. Likewise, the incarnate Son had to return home. The Father sent him on a mission which was not complete until he returned to the Father in the manhood that he had assumed, fulfilling the will of the Father. Had Jesus not been raised from the dead or, as the resurrected Jesus, he had been lost somewhere in the created order, his mission would not have been completed.
Heaven is the place and sphere from where the universe is sustained and ruled; heaven is the place and sphere from where salvation goes forth into the world of space and time. For God’s salvation to be a universal and everlasting salvation, the incarnate Son, Jesus the Messiah, returned to heaven where he could be the source of salvation everywhere to all who believe. From heaven, through the agency of the Holy Spirit (whom the Father sends to the world in the name and for the sake of the exalted Jesus), the incarnate Son preaches the Word of God, builds up God’s church, and continues universally the divine work that began in the restricted area of Palestine. Remember that the outpouring of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2) did not occur until the incarnate Son was in heaven, enthroned as co-Regent with the Father. Recall the promise of Jesus, “I am with you always...” (Matt. 28:20). Now he is present in and through the Holy Spirit, whom Paul calls the Spirit of Christ (Rom. 8:9).
Because the heavenly life and role of the incarnate Son are obviously so important for the faith, worship, life, and witness of the people of God, you are invited in this book to think of the exalted Jesus with the help of three biblical models – King, Priest, and Prophet. These models will function as an opening door, allowing you to enter the holy of holies for a deeper knowledge of God.
Chapter 1 – New Testament Foundations
When Christians discuss the life of Jesus, they usually are thinking of the period from his birth in Bethlehem to his resurrection from the dead following the crucifixion at Calvary. This life lasted about thirty-three years and is described – with special emphasis on the last three years – in the four Gospels. There is, however, a further heavenly life of Jesus, beginning with the Ascension, which will last forever. Some information about this heavenly life of Jesus is found in the Gospels, but the greater part is provided in the Acts and Epistles. Here it is presented as brief disclosures, as if the doors of heaven were open and Christ were visible for a few moments. For example, we read of Stephen that before his martyrdom “being full of the Holy Spirit, gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God, and Jesus standing at the right hand of God, and said, ‘Look! I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” (Acts 7:55–56). And John, the writer of Revelation, had visions of the life of heaven as he was in the Spirit on the Lord’s Day on the isle of Patmos. He saw Jesus as the exalted Son of Man and heard him say, “Do not be afraid; I am the First and the Last. I am He who lives, and was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore. Amen. And I have the keys of Hades and Death” (1:18).
What is true of the actual life of Jesus is also true of the work he did and does for the Father. The Gospels describe his work as the Messiah of Israel who proclaims the kingdom of God, the suffering Servant of the Lord who gave his life as a ransom for many, and the Master who sends his disciples on a mission to preach the gospel. His work did not cease when he was raised from death. The ascended Jesus is still at work in heaven and through the Holy Spirit in our world. The major hints and descriptions of Jesus’ continued work are found in the rest of the New Testament. For example, the apostle Paul told the church in Rome that Christ is now “at the right hand of God” and there he “makes intercession for us” (Rom. 8:34). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews proclaimed that “we have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man” (8:1–2).
It is important to remember that the New Testament was written by apostolic men who were thoroughly convinced not only that Jesus was in heaven at the right hand of the Father but also that, through the Holy Spirit, they were in spiritual union with him. As Paul wrote: “Even though we have known Christ according to the flesh, yet now we know Him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation...” (2 Cor. 5:16–17). So the writers of the New Testament looked back to the earthly life of Jesus from their present faith in Jesus as the exalted Messiah in heaven, and they addressed the churches with the conviction that he would return to earth to judge the living and the dead at the end of the present age.
As you read the New Testament you cannot help but be impressed by how everything concerning Jesus must be understood in the light of his entire life. His identity and accomplishments, or the Person and Work (to use technical terms), belong intimately together and must not be prized apart, except in conceptual analysis. Therefore the actions and identity of Jesus are scripturally unified in the sense that his achievement on earth and present work in heaven are intimately related to who he is, the Word made flesh, the Son of God as Man. Thus, in approaching the study of the ascension of Jesus, we recall that we are using documents that arose from the faith, knowledge, and experience of apostolic men for whom Jesus was alive and for whom the Person and Work of Jesus were inextricably intertwined.
When we speak of the ascension of Jesus we mean the removal of Jesus from this earth and world into a different place and sphere which we call heaven. It has been traditional to think of God’s place existing above our place, so we think of the movement of Jesus into heaven as a “going up”, an ascent. Of course, we think of the Incarnation as the descent, the “coming down” of the eternal Son of God into our place to share our human nature. In this connection ascent and descent are not being used in terms of space and distance, as when we refer to space shuttles or satellites. The ascent and descent of the Son of God are journeys that cannot be measured in miles or light-years, for we are referring to the transfer from one type of place/sphere to another, and of a move from this world into the transcendent world, where God is wholly experienced and known. (See further Appendix 1 on Cosmology.)
The fact of the Ascension1
As an event witnessed by his disciples, the Ascension is briefly described in three places. We will examine these following the canonical order.
1. Mark 16:19–20.
So then, after the Lord had spoken to them, He was received up into heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them and confirming the word through the accompanying signs.
Here the resurrected Lord commissions his disciples (vv. 14–18) and then is received (analambanomai) into heaven, to occupy the place of honor and sovereignty at the right side of the Father. However, though in heavenly glory and grandeur, the Lord Jesus (by his Spirit) is still with his disciples as they engage in his mission in and to the world. Here the Ascension is followed by the Session and the sending of the Spirit. (Note: it is possible that the gospel of Mark originally ended at v. 8 and that w. 9–20 are the addition by a scribe early in the second century. If so, this account of the Ascension is probably based on Luke 24:50–53. Whatever be the truth of this matter, it is important that these verses testify clearly to the belief in the Ascension and Session within the primitive churches.)
2. Luke 24:50–53.
And He led them out as far as Bethany, and He lifted up His hands and blessed them. Now it came to pass, while He blessed them, that He was parted from them and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple praising and blessing God. Amen.
After Jesus had explained to the disciples how the Hebrew Scriptures pointed to him and his work, and after he had commissioned them to proclaim the gospel as his witnesses (vv. 44–49), he led his disciples out of the city. Then the Ascension occurred. As the gospel of Luke had begun with reference to a righteous priest, Zechariah, who was unable to give God’s blessing to the congregation of (old) Israel (1:21–22), so it closes with Jesus, the resurrected High Priest of the new covenant, giving his blessing to the new, messianic Israel. Zechariah went into the temple of Jerusalem with a prayer for the redemption of Israel; however, the disciples of Jesus go into the temple with joy and thanksgiving, for the redemption of Israel had been achieved and the new covenant had been inaugurated. As Jesus blessed them he was parted (dihistemi) from them and carried up (anapheromai) into heaven.
3. Acts 1:9–11.
Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold two men stood by them in white apparel who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”
“These things” of which Jesus spoke were the need for the disciples to wait for the gift of the Spirit and their duty to be his witnesses in and to the world. He was taken up (epeiromai), and the cloud, a symbol of the glory of God, received him (hupolambanō) by (as it were) getting underneath him, as when a dolphin assumes its rider, or when a father picks up his child. The cloud is that same cloud – the Shekinah – which descended upon the Tabernacle in the wilderness (Ex. 13:21; 40:34; 1 Kings 8:10–11). With it and through it came the glory and presence of the Lord; thus, to enter it was to go into the holy of holies, the immediate presence of the Lord. As the disciples look up and long for the return of Jesus, their friend and Master, they are told by two angelic visitors that Jesus will certainly return in glory but not yet. Meanwhile, they have a commission to fulfill – to be his witnesses throughout the world. In Acts 2 the arrival of the Spirit, who came in the name of Jesus to the new Israel, is described; and so the mission to the world began.
Luke 24:50–53 and Acts 1:3–11 have certain common features. These are (a) the presentation of the Ascension as not merely a physical departure into the sky but also an assumption into heaven (Luke 24:51b and Acts 1:11); (b) the hint that Jesus departed slowly, conveyed by the use of the imperfect tense in both Luke 24:51, “He was (slowly) carried up” and in Acts 1:10, “as He was (slowly) going” (NIV). (In contrast, on earlier occasions when Jesus left, his disappearance was sudden – for example, Luke 24:31, “He vanished”); (c) the suggestion that the Ascension marks the beginning of the Church era with the physical separation of Jesus from his disciples and their involvement in worship (Luke 24:52–53) and mission (Acts 1:6–8); and (d) the belief that the ascent into heaven is a divinely ordained act, conveyed by the use of the passive voice in the verbs denoting the actual ascent (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9).
The additional features of Acts 1:3–11 may be summarized as (a) the statement concerning forty days between the Resurrection and the Ascension (v. 3); (b) the instruction “not to depart from Jerusalem” before the “Promise of the Father” is received (v. 4); (c) the specific correlation of Jesus’ departure and the coming of the Spirit (vv. 3–4, 8–9); (d) the fuller description of the Ascension (vv. 9–11); and (e) the specific relation of the Ascension and the Second Coming (v. 11).
To the three basic accounts of the Ascension in Mark, Luke, and Acts, there must be added the statements of Jesus recorded in the gospel of John which specifically anticipate the Ascension (6:62; 20:17 using anabainō) or which imply it through reference to the lifting up and glorification of Jesus (3:14; 7:39)2 In addition, the writer to the Hebrews insists that Jesus has entered the heavenly sanctuary as the High Priest (4:14; 6:19–20; 9:12, 24 – see chapter four).
Then there are what may be termed credal statements.
1 Timothy 3:16 reads:
Who was manifested in the flesh,
Justified in the Spirit,
Seen by angels,
Preached among Gentiles,
Believed on in the world
Received up into glory (analambanomai).
This has been called a hymn in adoration of Christ and it ends with the triumphal entry into heaven. First of all, the Incarnation is celebrated, for Christ is God in human flesh. Then Christ is described as vindicated in the spiritual realm when the heavenly voice at his baptism declared, “You are my beloved Son” (Mark 1:11). Furthermore, the Holy Spirit vindicated (and still vindicates) the cause of Christ by convincing people in the world of sin, especially for their lack of saving faith in Jesus Christ (John 16:9). This Jesus, Son of God and Messiah, was also recognized by angels, both good and bad. In his triumphal procession into heaven he appeared as the victor over the evil ones and is followed and obeyed by the righteous ones.
1 Peter 3:21–22 is not a poetic hymn but points to the fundamental facts upon which Christian baptism is administered. Peter describes baptism as “the answer of a good conscience towards God through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” and of Jesus he writes: “Who has gone into (poreuomai) heaven and is at the right hand of God, angels and authorities and powers having been subject to him”. Here the entry into heaven, the coronation, and divine rulership explain the meaning of Christian baptism and the victory of Jesus in the spiritual realm of angels and archangels. Thus through baptism the believer is raised to be with the heavenly Jesus.
Ephesians 4:8–11 demands more attention. It reads:
Therefore God says: “When He ascended on high,/ He led captivity captive,/and gave gifts to men.” (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that He also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He Himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers...
Here Paul uses the verb anabainō; also he quotes Ps. 68:18 (which we shall examine in the next chapter) as a prophecy of the victorious ascension of the Messiah.
The “descent into the lower parts of the earth” may refer to the descent into Hades (see 1 Pet. 3:19–20), but more probably it refers to the state of complete destitution which he reached in his passion and death. If so, what Paul teaches here is similar to what he proclaims in Phil. 2:6–11, where he made use of an early Christian hymn to set forth the descent and ascent of the Son of God. Here in Ephesians 4 the result of the Ascension is presented with two emphases – “to fill all things” and to give spiritual gifts to human beings within the Church. “To fill all things” refers to the power of the exalted Lord Jesus, who is present through the Holy Spirit in the created order and through all space and time. Furthermore, it is in and by the Holy Spirit that the Lord Jesus gives gifts to the people of God on earth so that they are edified and strengthened for mission.
Finally, there is the important but often overlooked description of the Ascension and Exaltation in Rev. 12:1–6:
Now a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a garland of twelve stars. Then, being with child, she cried out in labor and in pain to give birth. And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great, fiery, red dragon having seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. His tail drew a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child as soon as it was born. And she bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God to His throne. Then the woman fled into the wilderness where she had a place prepared by God, that they should feed her there one thousand two hundred and sixty days.
The woman is not merely Mary, mother of Jesus, as an individual person, but Mary as the representative of the faithful people of God who longed for the arrival of the Messiah. Jesus, the child, was born not only into the family of Mary but also into the community of the faithful Israel who became the faithful people of the new covenant. The dragon is Satan, who in the present evil age has great power. His great aim is to destroy this child who is born to become the Ruler of the world, thereby removing the power and authority of Satan himself.
After the child, Jesus the Messiah, is born, he is snatched up to heaven, even to the throne of God. The verb used here – harpazō-hērasthē (aorist passive), “was caught up” – is also used in 1 Thess. 4:17 to describe Christians being caught up in the air to meet Jesus at his Second Advent as well as in 2 Cor. 12:2 where Paul tells of being caught up into the third heaven. The description in Revelation 12 moves from birth to ascension, with no mention of the ministry and passion. The main point in the vision is that Jesus, once delivered from the hostile powers which sought to attack and conquer him, is placed upon the throne in heaven. Meanwhile the Messiah’s people on earth have a difficult time but are sustained by God.
The time of the Ascension3
The “forty days” of Acts 1:3, solidified in the ecclesiastical year in terms of the forty days from Easter to Ascension-Day, have dominated the understanding of the Church for centuries as it faced the question, “When did Jesus actually ascend into heaven?” Therefore, it is commonly assumed that Jesus was raised from the dead early on Easter Sunday and then spent forty days in and around Palestine before leaving this earth on what we now call Ascension-Day.
In modem times there have been questions concerning the nature of the resurrected body of Jesus. How could Jesus be bound by space and time on earth when he now existed in and with his resurrected, spiritual body? Was it possible that the Lord of life could be confined to space and time now that he had conquered death? Nineteenth century theologians appear to have been particularly conscious of this difficulty. Some made the suggestion that there was a gradual evolution or development of the resurrected body of Jesus during the forty days. From the position of a resurrected, physical body on Easter Day, it became a transformed, spiritual body, ready to enter heavenly glory by the fortieth day. James Orr of Scotland explained it in this way:
In the interval between the Resurrection and the Ascension the body’s condition must be thought of as intermediate between these two states – no longer merely natural (the act of Resurrection itself proclaimed this), yet not fully entered into the state of glorification!
And Bishop H. L. Martensen of Denmark taught as follows:
During this interval his body was in a state of transition and of change, upon the boundary of both worlds, and possessed the impress or character both of this world and the next. Not until the moment of the Ascension can we suppose that his body was fully glorified and freed from all earthly limitations and wants, like the spiritual body of which Paul speaks in 1 Corinthians xv. 44.5
Theologians who took the forty days as the period needed for the transformation of the resurrected body of Jesus had to interpret Luke 24 not as the description of the events of one day, Easter Day, but as the description of both the events of Easter Day (vv. 1–49) and those of Ascension-Day. However, whatever the chronology of Luke 24 is, the theological difficulty remains that the resurrected body of Jesus did not by its very nature belong to this world but to the next world, and hardly needed to linger awhile for transformation into a higher form. (See the next section, “The resurrection body of Jesus.”)
Therefore, the best way to handle the biblical evidence and the theological problems is to think of one great act of God, the exaltation of Jesus from death (Hades) into heaven to sit at his right hand. This occurred on Easter morning and may be seen as having two aspects, both secret and invisible – Resurrection and Ascension. That is, Jesus was raised from the dead by the Father and then immediately received into heaven in his resurrected, spiritual body to be crowned King of kings.
If Jesus was exalted into heaven early on the Sunday morning, then we have to think of him as returning for brief periods of time on Easter Sunday and over the next forty days in order to meet his disciples and prepare them for their mission. These meetings have been traditionally called “the resurrection appearances” and there is no reason to cease such a designation. These visits came to an end with the special parting which is described in Luke 24:50–53 and Acts 1:1–11. This special appearance and departure was intended in the providence of God to be a symbolic, visible representation of the invisible, secret Ascension that already had taken place on Easter morning.
This view, that there was a secret exaltation to the Father’s right hand on Easter morning, followed by a visible demonstration to the disciples of the truth of this at a later time, deals effectively with the problem of the whereabouts of Jesus in the forty days. He was in heaven, and from there, in a variety of ways and at different times, he localized himself in space and time in order to encounter his disciples. This approach allows the possibility of taking the “forty days” literally as a period of between five and six weeks, for this is the length of time that would have been necessary for the disciples to move between Jerusalem and Galilee in connection with the Jewish festivals of Passover, Unleavened Bread, and Pentecost.
This view requires that Luke 24 describes incidents during the forty days, and that vv. 50–53 are a description of the final appearance and Ascension on the fortieth day – an event that is more fully described in Acts 1:1–11. Furthermore, this approach demands that the futuristic present, anabainō, found in John 20:17, where Jesus says to Mary, “I am ascending to My Father...”, be understood as “I am going to ascend” (in the near future, rather than immediately). It is necessary to clarify this last point because there are some scholars who believe that Jesus was raised from death on Easter morning and ascended into heaven on Easter evening (thus his words to Mary were a statement of his intentions for action later that day). This viewpoint is described in Appendix 4. In this book we are adopting the position that there was a secret ascension on Easter morning, and then on the fortieth day there was a symbolic demonstration of that ascension by Jesus for the benefit of his disciples. This approach does greatest justice to the biblical evidence.
The resurrection body of Jesus6
To think that a person could exist without a body was possible for Greeks but not for Jews. From his Hebrew background, Paul did not make a distinction between the immortal soul and the mortal body. Instead, he took the position that a human person is given the gift of immortality by God, and this is achieved through the gift of a spiritual or resurrection body. This means that a body is not a shell in which the soul is contained; rather, it is the outward, physical or spiritual expression of the whole person. While there is a physical body suited to life in space and time, so there is also a spiritual body suited to life in heaven and in the age to come (see 1 Corinthians 15). A spiritual, resurrection body is not a “pure spirit” but is called spiritual because it is a body that is wholly submitted to and directed by God who is eternal Spirit (John 4:24). In the case of Jesus, his physical body did not remain in the tomb to decay. By the power of God, his physical body was transformed into his glorified body, leaving an empty tomb after the body of Jesus was raised into heaven.
It was of great importance – considering their Jewish backgrounds – -that the disciples realized Jesus was alive in a visible body. For them, life after death meant life in a body. In the case of Jesus they needed to see that the physical body, which had disappeared from the tomb, had not been dumped or buried elsewhere but had been resuscitated and transformed by the power of God into a new body of a kind that they could see and recognize.
It was also important that the apostles emphasize in their teaching how Jesus actually appeared to them and was seen in a real body. Within a Greek culture dominated by the Roman Empire, there was always the danger of Christians accommodating the Greek idea of the immortality of the soul/spirit as the way to explain the resurrection of Jesus. Also there was the seemingly attractive heresy of docetism which held that the flesh or body of Jesus could not have been real. Many people believed that matter (thus flesh and bone) was inherently evil, and so, if attracted by the claims of Jesus Christ, they could not understand how his body was real. Thus he only seemed to possess a body. So it was that the apostles insisted on a genuine incarnation and a real resurrection.
If it be true that Jesus was exalted from the grip of death to the right hand of the Father in heaven on Easter morning, and if it be true that the appearances on and after Easter Day are those of the exalted Lord Jesus accommodating himself to the needs of his disciples by making himself visible and touchable, then that which the disciples saw was not the heavenly form of the exalted and glorified body of Jesus, but the temporary manifestation of it in a form that human eyes could appreciate. Nonetheless, there is no change in identity for the body of Jesus before his death, during his resurrection appearances, and at the right hand of the Father. After his resurrection, his essential state is that of invisibility and immateriality, but he had the power to come into visibility.
The resurrection body of Jesus is to be distinguished from the resurrected bodies of those whom Jesus brought back to life. Lazarus (John 11), the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7:11ff.), and the daughter of Jairus (Mark 5:35ff.) rose from death in order to live and physically die again. The case of the saints raised from the graves in Jerusalem on Easter Day (Matt. 27:52) is more difficult to interpret, for we do not know what kind of lives they lived after their resurrection.
Furthermore, the body of Jesus as seen by the disciples in the forty days is also to be distinguished from the body he was seen to have by Peter, James, and John at the time of the Transfiguration. The difference lies in the manner of accommodation to the disciples’ understanding and apprehension. At the Transfiguration “His clothes became shining, exceedingly white, like snow, such as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3) and “as He prayed, the appearance of his face was altered, and His robe became white and glistening” (Luke 9:29). This was prefigurement, in a way that human eyes could actually see, of the heavenly glory of Jesus as the exalted Messiah. The body which Jesus now possesses in heaven cannot be seen by human eyes for it is a spiritual, glorified body; however, Jesus has the power to make himself visible in such a way that his heavenly glory is clearly reflected and conveyed. This will be the manner of his Second Coming when he returns to judge the living and the dead.
Into heaven and at the right hand of God7
In any attempt to clarify the term "heaven," it is necessary to distinguish “heaven” from “heavens.” Paul taught that Jesus “ascended far above all the heavens.” This reflects the Hebrew way of thinking that God’s dwelling place is outside the creation, above the skies. But the heavens (skies) can also be called “heaven.” In Acts 1:11 the two men dressed in white clothing ask, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven [the skies]? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven [God’s abode], will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven [skies].”
Although they used a simple model of God’s place/sphere, (“heaven,” as being “above” and “beyond” the skies or “heavens,”) the Jews recognized that the Lord God is too great to be confined to his “heaven.” In his wonderful prayer at the dedication of the temple, Solomon said: “But will God indeed dwell on the earth [in this temple]? Behold, heaven and the heaven of heavens cannot contain You. How much less this temple which I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27). In the rest of the prayer there are various references to heaven as that place or sphere from which God will hear the prayer being offered. This suggests that the Jews had a sense of God as both transcendent and immanent, and they used a very simple model for conveying this belief. In fact it is difficult, even in our sophisticated age, to find a better model than that of “heaven” as “up there.”
The picture of the great king on his throne, with his queen or favorite son sitting at his right hand on another throne, lies behind the expression “at the right hand of.” As used in the Old Testament, especially in the Psalms, the “right hand of” is a metaphor for a position of honor, bliss, authority, power, and glory. To speak of Jesus the Messiah sitting at God’s right hand is to say that, in his role as representative Man, he has been exalted to the highest possible position in the world, and also in heaven, God’s primary dwelling. When we look at Psalm 110 in chapter two we shall return to this theme.
The writers of the New Testament picture Jesus as in heaven at God’s right hand. Some of them also express the hope that there will be a new heaven and earth. In fact the prophet Isaiah presents God as saying: “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former shall not be remembered or come to mind” (65:17). Peter expressed the conviction that “we, according to His promise, look for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13). John actually envisioned the arrival of this new dwelling and wrote: “And I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away” (Rev. 21:1). In these passages there is the proclamation of a new order of existence after the Last judgment and this is presented in terms of its new character and perfection. It appears that the glory and perfection of the transcendent world (heaven) will descend to purify, sanctify, and regenerate this universe so that it will genuinely become new heavens (skies) and new earth. Then there will be (a) the sphere in which dwell archangels, angels, and cherubim, where Christ is adored as he fully participates in and expresses the life of God; and (b) there will be the dependent sphere or reality from which all sin, evil, and imperfection have been removed, a sphere in which dwells a redeemed and perfectly righteous humanity dedicated to love and service. Between these two spheres (worlds, realities) there will be an intimate link, and that link will be the incarnate Son, the Lamb who brings light and life. The transcendent world and the subordinate world will be intimately linked, for Christ who is God and Man will dwell simultaneously in each (Revelation 21–22).
The meaning of the Ascension8
Although a large part of this book is devoted to developing a theology of the Ascension, it is necessary to provide a brief summary of the meaning of the Ascension as it is presented in the New Testament. Against this background the next chapter will make better sense and a foundation will be laid for the development in subsequent chapters of the theme of Jesus the Christ as the exalted King, Priest, and Prophet.
1. The Ascension is seen, especially by Luke, as that which necessarily follows and completes the Resurrection. There is the release from death in a new body, and then there is the removal of that body into heaven. Resurrection alone is but the first part of the total movement of Jesus from earth.9 Since the Ascension completes the Resurrection, it may also be understood as completing the mission of Jesus which began in Bethlehem when he was a baby, a mission which took specific form when he was baptized by John in the river Jordan.
2. Since Jesus died, descended into Hades, was raised from death, and ascended into heaven as the Messiah of his people, then by his resurrection and ascension, he became the firstfruits of his people. “Firstfruits” means more than the first ripe harvest and the firstborn of the herds and flocks, for contained in the first was the whole; and thus when the first was offered to God, then the whole was sanctified. So by his resurrection and ascension, Jesus as God-Man became the firstfruits that guaranteed the final redemption and sanctification of those in union with him (see 1 Cor. 15:20, 23 and Col. 1:15, 18). Furthermore, as a consequence of unity with Jesus, there is a sense in which believers have ascended with him into heaven, so that where their Head is, so are the members (Eph. 1:22; 4:15; Col. 1:18; 2:10, 19).
3. The Ascension implies exaltation. Jesus did not merely ascend into heaven to dwell, but he ascended to be exalted there. He was directed to sit at the right hand of the Father as the co-Regent. He became, as the exalted Messiah, the enthroned King of kings and Lord of lords. He reigns as the Head of creation and of the Church. In this sense the Ascension is the completion of that movement which began with the Incarnation, involved the becoming of a servant, and was completed with Jesus’ designation as Lord (God’s own name, Phil. 2:5ff.). Furthermore, the Ascension is the victorious march from Hades into heaven, for Christ entered heaven as the conqueror of sin, death, and Satan, as the One who could and would give gifts to his people (Eph. 4:7–11; 1 Pet. 3:22b).
4. Jesus ascended in order to begin his heavenly ministry as High Priest, making intercession for his people. This theme is developed by the writer of the letter to the Hebrews from the portrayal of Jesus as a priest after the order of Melchizedek; however, the intercessory ministry of Jesus is mentioned also by Paul (Rom. 8:34). Thus worship and prayer of the people of God are offered through our Lord Jesus Christ who is the exalted High Priest.
5. Jesus ascended to bestow the gift of the Spirit upon the disciples whom he had called. As Head of the Church, he is also the dispenser of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, whom the Father sends in and through the exalted Jesus to the Church. With the Spirit are given spiritual gifts for the enrichment of the Church and for the mission of the Church in the world. Acts 2 records the way in which the Spirit came in power and glory to the waiting disciples and thereby inaugurated the mission of the Church. John, chapters 14–16, records the teaching of Jesus concerning the character and work of the Spirit who is the heavenly advocate, Paτac1ete, and counsellor. Yet Jesus had to be glorified first before the Spirit could be given (John 7:39).
6. The Ascension inaugurates a new age. Jesus Christ is absent from earth in terms of bodily presence but is to be encountered and experienced in and through the Spirit. This encounter with Jesus through the Spirit is a foretaste of the fullness of life to be experienced by the people of God after the end of this evil age, when Christ returns to judge this earth and its people. With the Ascension the age to come has begun, even though it is only experienced on earth in the present evil age in part and through the Spirit. What is known now only in part will be known in full after the Last judgment that will bring this present age to an end. Thus the Ascension inaugurates the age of the “new heavens and earth,” when the new Jerusalem has descended from heaven into the reformed and regenerated old order (Revelation 21–22).
See Bibliography for full citations.
1. For this section see further Murray J. Harris, Raised Immortal (1983), chapter 3; Bruce M. Metzger, “The Ascension of Jesus Christ;” Historical and Literary Studies (1968), pp. 77ff.; A. M. Ramsey, “What was the Ascension?” Bulletin of the Studiorum Novi Testamenti Societas 2 (1951), pp. 43ff.
2. See further Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John (London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1971), pp. 383f., 840f.
3. For this section add the following to the books already noted: Pierre Benoit, Jesus and the Gospel (1974), vol. 2, pp. 209ff.; ). J. G. Davies, He Ascended into Heaven (1958), pp. 27ff.; C. F. D. Moule, “The Ascension–Acts 1.9”, Expository Times 68 (1956–57), pp. 205–7 and “The Post-Resurrection Appearances in the Light of Festival Pilgrimages,” New Testament Studies 4 (1957–58), pp. 58–61; and E A. Van Stempvoort, “The Interpretation of the Ascension in Luke and Acts”, New Testament Studies 5 (1958–59), pp. 30ff.
4. J. Orr, The Resurrection of Jesus (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1908), p. 196.
5. H. L. Martensen, Christian Dogmatics (1864), section 172.
6. See further Harris, Raised Immortal, pp. 53ff.
7. See further Ulrich Simon, Heaven in the Christian Tradition (1958); A. J. Tait, The Heavenly Session of our Lord (1912); D. M. Hay, Glory at the Right Hand: Psalm 110 in Early Christianity (1973); and W. R. G. Loader, “Christ at the Right Hand – Psalm cx in the New Testament,” New Testament Studies 24 (1977–78), pp. 199ff.
8. See further Donald Guthrie, New Testament Theology (1981), pp. 391ff. and Walter Künneth, The Theology of the Resurrection (1965), pp. 129ff.
9. It can be argued that the Resurrection of Jesus was his exaltation. (See Appendix 3.)
Chapter 2 – Prefigured in the Old Testament
The Bible of the first Christians was what we call the Old Testament. They read it in the Greek translation of the Hebrew – a version we call the Septuagint because it is said that seventy-two translators were involved in its making. Furthermore, the way in which the earliest Christians understood this Bible is not to be equated with the way in which modem, Western biblical scholarship invites us to read it. The modem emphasis is upon reading the Old Testament in its social, religious, and literary context, thereby seeking to understand what the writers intended to say and how the original hearers and readers understood that message. In contrast, the apostolic and early Christian emphasis was upon reading the Greek Bible in the light of Jesus, the crucified, risen, and exalted Messiah, Lord of the Church. This approach originated in the teaching of the resurrected Jesus who, “beginning at Moses and all the Prophets, expounded to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning Himself” (Luke 24:27; cf. vv. 44–45). As St. Augustine once said, “The New is in the old concealed: the Old is by the New revealed.”
There is no reason why these two emphases should not be found together alongside each other in the Church today. However, we tend to be pulled in one direction or another and find it difficult to hold both positions in a healthy tension. This is made worse when some biblical scholars keep telling us that it is very difficult to know exactly how the writers of the New Testament understood the Old Testament, and how necessary it is that we today have controls to guide our use of proof texts and typology. This has had the effect of making the modem Church hesitant to use passages of the Old Testament which were once used in relation to the Ascension. It is most fruitful to search for the Old Testament passages listed in the lectionaries of the patristic, medieval, and early Protestant churches for use on Ascension-Day and the days surrounding it. These indicate how clearly the Church of those times saw the Ascension and Exaltation prophesied and prefigured in the Old Testament.
Old Testament passages used in the New Testament
This is not the place to discuss the use of the Old Testament in the New Testament. This chapter will explain those passages which were used in the New Testament with respect to the Ascension, Exaltation, and Session. To these we shall add those further passages which were used in the early Church (and have been used since) in celebrating the Ascension. We proceed on the basic assumption that these passages had both a meaning for those who first heard, read, and used them, and a hidden meaning only to be recognized after the advent of the Messiah.
1. Psalm 68:18.1
You have ascended on high,
You have led captivity captive;
You have received gifts among men,
Even among the rebellious,
That the Lord God might dwell there.
When this is quoted by Paul in Ephesians it reads: “When He ascended on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men” (4:8). We note that there is a change from “you” to “he” and from receiving to giving gifts. Obviously Paul, as a rabbi trained in Jewish exegesis, and also as an apostle, felt at liberty to adjust or reinterpret statements from the sacred Scriptures in the light of his understanding of Jesus, to whom the Scriptures pointed.
The precise origin of Psalm 68 is not known. It was apparently composed for some important occasion, perhaps David’s procession with the ark from the house of Obed-Edom to Jerusalem (2 Sam. 6:12) or David’s earlier capture of the Jebusite fortress (2 Sam. 6:6). It is an exhilarating psalm of celebration, rejoicing in God’s victorious march from Egypt to Jerusalem, and in the great power of God’s kingdom and people, as God directs the flow of worshipers and vassals to Jerusalem. In verse 18, the ark is the throne of the invisible God. It leads the procession to its resting place in the newly captured city; thus, its progress is a march of victory, completing the journey begun when the tribes of Israel left Egypt under Moses many years before.
Jesus the Messiah is the son of David and the Lord of David. So it is not surprising that this psalm is seen as an analogy for a far greater ascension. Instead of an Old Testament ascension up Mount Zion to what would be the new temple of Jerusalem, it is a messianic ascension from this world into God’s heaven as the great Victor to distribute the spoils of victory (that is, to give the gifts of the Spirit to the disciples). So Paul is not merely quoting a verse. He views the whole psalm as a prefigurement of the Ascension and Exaltation of King David’s greater Son, and so adapts a verse of the psalm which, as a whole, he regards as prophetic.
2. Psalm 110:1, 4.2
The Lord said to my Lord,
“Sit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstool.”
The Lord has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek.”
This psalm is concerned with the royal house of David and would have been used in the temple for ceremonies involving one of the Davidic kings. It contains two oracles from the Lord. The first has to do with the king’s authority, which is guaranteed by the Lord, and the second has to do with his priestly or sacerdotal role and is again guaranteed by the Lord. In traditional interpretation it is generally thought that King David speaks prophetically of the enthronement in the future of the Messiah-King of Israel. The literary form is similar to the oracle given to other kings at their anointing or crowning (see 1 Sam. 10:1ff.; 2 Kings 11:12).
Psalm 110 is often quoted in the New Testament (Matt. 22:44; Mark 12:46; Luke 20:42; Acts 2:34; 1 Cor. 15:25; Heb. 5:6; 6:20; 7:7, 21;10:12f.). The writers of the New Testament saw the two oracles (vv. 1 and 4) as fundamental for Christology and upon them built their understanding of the Exaltation, Session, and Priesthood of Jesus the Christ. In the New Testament, Jesus is presented as “having sat down” at God’s right hand and continuing to sit there until his Second Coming. The right hand of a king was, in the ancient Near East, the position of great honor (Ps. 45:9; 1 Kings 2:19), of bliss (Ps. 16:11), of authority (Deut. 33:2; Ps. 48:10), and of power (Ps. 17:7; 18:35; 20:6; 21:8). After his death and resurrection, Jesus was exalted to heaven to sit down (Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12) and to be given the title of Lord (Phil. 2:11). He remains seated (Col. 1:3) as the enthroned Messiah, Lord, and co-Regent at the Father’s right hand (Rom. 8:34; 1 Pet. 3:22). And he will continue to sit until God’s work of subjugating his enemies is over, for, as Paul wrote: “He must reign until He has put all enemies under His feet.” (1 Cor. 15:25). Jesus rests from the conflict he had on earth and in Hades with sin, Satan, and death as he waits for his return to the earth as judge.
The identity of Melchizedek is supplied by Gen. 14:18–20. This reads:
Then Melchizedek king of Salem brought out bread and wine; he was the priest of God Most High. And he blessed [Abram] and said:
“Blessed be Abram of God Most High
Possessor of heaven and earth;
And blessed be God Most High,
Who has delivered your enemies
into your hand.”
And Abram gave him a tithe of all.
Salem is identified with Jerusalem in Ps. 76:2; and Melchizedek is presented in Gen. 14:18–20 as a sacral king, exercising both kingly and priestly authority in the city which was to become, in God’s providence, the holy city of Israel. The fact that Abram pays a tithe to him implies that he recognizes Melchizedek as his superior.
Melchizedek is only mentioned in the New Testament in the letter to the Hebrews (5:6, 10; 6:20; 7:1, 10–11, 15, 17). Jesus, already ascended into heaven, is presented as “priest according to the order of Melchizedek”. The latter prefigures the incarnate Son as Messiah and Priest because he is presented as king of righteousness and peace. He is unique (without parents or kin) and eternal (without beginning or end), according to the text of Genesis 14.
3. Psalm 8:6.3
You have made him to have dominion
over the works of Your hands;
You have put all things under his feet.
Psalm 8:3–8 is a poetic reflection upon the teaching of Gen. 1:26–30, the account of the creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God. The position of man as the head of creation is celebrated. Yet Jesus, the second Adam, is the Man, God’s Man. For us he is representative and substitute Man. Therefore, this psalm is cited in 1 Cor. 15:27f. where Paul, quoting v. 6, speaks of God the Father as putting “all things under His [Jesus’, second Adam’s] feet.” What will be subjected to mankind at the end of the age is already subjected to the God-Man now. Verses 4–6 of the psalm are also quoted to the same effect in Heb. 2:6–9. Jesus is now presented as crowned with glory and honor after being made a little lower than the angels and having tasted death for everyone. Thus Ps. 8:6 prefigures the rule of Jesus, as exalted Man, over all creation.
4. Psalm 2:7–9.4
“I will declare the decree:
The Lord has said to Me,
‘You are My Son,
Today I have begotten You.
Ask of Me and I will give You
The nations for Your inheritance,
And the end of the earth for Your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron;
You shall dash them in pieces like a pottor’s vessel.’”
Psalm 2 is one of the royal psalms – along with 110 and others – and would have been used in the temple, perhaps by Solomon, with reference to the Davidic kings. Here we see that the Anointed (Messiah) of the Lord speaks to announce his relation to the universal rule of the Lord. The psalm is quoted often in the New Testament. The voice from heaven made use of it at the Baptism and Transfiguration (Matt. 3:17; 17:5; 2 Pet. 1:17). Paul referred to it when preaching the Resurrection (Acts 13:33). The writer of the letter to the Hebrews saw it as a prophecy of the Exaltation (Heb. 1:1–5). Finally, v. 9, “You shall break them,” is quoted in Rev. 12:5 and 19:15 with reference to the rule of the exalted Messiah. This psalm was seen in the apostolic Church as a prophecy of the Incarnation and Exaltation of the Messiah, the Son of David.
5. Daniel 7:13–14.5
I was watching in the night visions,
And behold, One like the Son of Man,
Coming with the clouds of heaven!
He came to the Ancient of Days,
And they brought Him near before Him.
Then to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom,
That all peoples, nations, and languages should serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion,
Which shall not pass away,
And His kingdom the one
Which shall not be destroyed.
All readers of the Gospels know that Jesus chose to call himself “Son of Man.” This can be partially explained by his belief that this passage did point to the Messiah. Facing the Jewish Sanhedrin before his crucifixion, he said: “You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Here Jesus used the synonym “Power” for God and spoke of his own future exaltation and return (see also Mark 14:63 and Luke 22:69). Often this passage from Daniel has been understood in the Church as a prophecy of the kingship and kingdom of the exalted Messiah.
Old Testament passages used in Church liturgy
Since the relationship of the Ascension and Resurrection is intimate, it would have been possible to note those Old Testament passages which are quoted in the New Testament concerning the triumph of Jesus over the power of death (for example, Psalm 16:9–10). However, we have restricted ourselves to passages which were understood as prefiguring the Ascension. We now move on to look at several passages which, though not cited in the New Testament, have long been associated with the Ascension in the teaching and liturgy of the Church.
1. Psalm 24:7–10.6
Lift up your heads, O you gates!
And be lifted up, you everlasting doors!
And the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD strong and mighty,
The LORD mighty in battle.
Lift up your heads, O you gates!
And lift them up, you everlasting doors!
And the King of glory shall come in.
Who is this King of glory?
The LORD of hosts,
He is the King of glory.
This psalm was originally composed for the occasion of bringing the ark into Jerusalem. In this passage the procession has reached the gates of the city and is about to enter. The ascent of Mount Zion is thus the completion of the march from the bondage of Egypt to the center of the promised land.
The early Church saw in these lines a picture of the ascent of Jesus, the King of Glory, into heaven as the mighty Victor over death, sin, Satan, and hell. Such a picture has inspired many hymns – for example, “See the Conqueror Mounts in Triumph” by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth.
2. Psalm 47:5–9.7
God has gone up with a shout,
The LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
Sing praises to God, sing praises!
Sing praises to our King, sing praises!
For God is the King of all the earth;
Sing praises with understanding.
God reigns over the nations;
God sits on His holy throne.
The princes of the people have gathered together,
The people of the God of Abraham.
For the shields of the earth belong to God;
He is greatly exalted.
Whatever the original setting of this psalm, it certainly celebrates the universal dominion of the Lord. Because the Church believed that Jesus is God incarnate, it saw in this psalm a prefigurement of the Ascension and Exaltation of Jesus. The acclamations have often been understood as proceeding from the heavenly host welcoming the entrance of the King (Jesus) to reign in and from heaven.
3. 2 Kings 2:11.8
Suddenly a chariot of fire appeared with horses of fire and separated [Elijah and Elisha]: and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.
This removal of Elijah (by angels) in his physical body was interpreted by the Church as a prefigurement of the Ascension of Jesus. Furthermore, since the Spirit that had rested on Elijah fell later upon his disciple Elisha, there was also seen in this incident a prefigurement of the sending of the Spirit by the exalted Jesus to his disciples at the festival of Pentecost.
4. Genesis 5:24.9
Enoch walked with God; and he was not for God took him.
Here was a man who did not die but was taken directly into heaven. So it was interpreted as a further prefigurement of the Ascension.
To this list could be added three other psalms which were used in the daily offices in the medieval Church. Psalm 15 was used and interpreted as showing how Christ, the perfect Man, ascended the holy hill of God. In following him, his disciples must reflect the moral and spiritual virtues of the psalm. Psalm 21 was interpreted as pointing to Christ’s victory over death and, by his ascension, his putting all enemies to flight. Finally Psalm 108 was seen as a call to give God thanks for setting Jesus above the heavens as Lord of Jews and Gentiles.10
If we reflect upon these Old Testament passages we see that one way of developing and presenting the biblical material concerning the Ascension and heavenly life or role of the exalted Jesus is in terms of the threefold office of King, Priest, and Prophet. His role as King is seen in Ps. 68:18; 110:1; 2:7–9; 24:7–10; 47:5–9 and Dan. 7:13–14; his role as Priest is seen in Ps. 110:4; and his role as Prophet in 2 Kings 2:11. Kings, priests, and prophets were anointed with oil in the Old Testament (1 Sam. 10:1; Ex. 29:7; 1 Kings 19:16) as the outward sign of special consecration to God’s service. In the next three chapters we shall think of the exalted Jesus with the aid of biblical categories. The model of prophet, priest, and king has functioned for a long time within the Church, and so we shall be following a hallowed tradition. (See further Appendix 5.)
See Bibliography for full citations.
1. For a commentary see Derek Kidner, Psalms 1–72 (1973), p. 242.
2. See Derek Kidneг, Psalms 73–150 (1975), pp. 393–96; Hay, Psalm 110, and Loader, “Psalm cx.”
3. See Kidner, Psalms 1–72, pp. 67–68 and F. F. Bruce, The Epistle to the Hebrews (1965), pp. 34–35.
4. See Kidner, Psalms 1–72, pp. 51–52 and Bruce, Hebrews, pp. 11–12.
5. On the title “Son of Man” see, for a simple introduction, William Barclay, Jesus As They Saw Him (1962), pp. 68 ff. For a fuller treatment see the article on “Son, Son of Man...” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (1978), Vol. 3. Daniel 7 became a fixed Old Testament reading in the liturgy for Ascension-Day.
6. See Kidneг, Psalms 1–72, p. 115. Athanasius, among others, saw this psalm as prefiguring the Ascension; see Davies, He Ascended into Heaven, p. 99.
7. Psalms 1–72, pp. 177–78. Again, this is used by Athanasius as prefiguring the Ascension: see Davies, He Ascended into Heaven, p. 99.
8. For the use of the story of the ascension of Elijah by Cyril of Alexandria see Davies, He Ascended into Heaven, p.107. 2 Kings 2 became one of the fixed Old Testament lessons of the liturgy for Ascension-Day.
9. Ibid., p. 52.
10. To discover this rich tradition of the interpretation of these and other psalms (e.g., 96 and 97) as prefiguring the Ascension, it is best to turn to one of the older commentaries on the Bible-for example, that by Matthew Henry or Thomas Scott; for even more detail see The Treasury of David by Charles H. Spurgeon.
Chapter 3 – Jesus the King
To people who are familiar with traditional Christian devotion, the thought of Christ as King comes easily to mind and lips. Whatever their Church affiliation, Christians can sing Bernard of Clairvaux’s hymn, “Jesu, Rex Admirabilis”:
O Jesus, King most wonderful,
Thou conqueror renowned,
Thou sweetness most ineffable,
In whom all joys are found.
In order to appreciate the theme of Jesus the King in Christian worship and doctrine, we need to examine the way in which Jesus is portrayed as King in the Bible.
Jesus as King before the Ascension
The wise men came from the East to Jerusalem and asked the question: “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him” (Matt. 2:2). To their astonishment, they offered their worship in a stable. When Mary was preparing for her marriage to Joseph, she was visited by an angel who told her: “You will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name, JESUS. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:31–33).
Some thirty years later, when Jesus had been baptized by John in the river Jordan, he began his public ministry with the announcement: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe the gospel” (Mark 1:15). In the subsequent teaching of Jesus, we can see two ways in which God’s kingdom is explained.1 First, there is the teaching, taken over from the Old Testament, that God is the King, the King of righteousness and of salvation. Thus in the person, ministry, deeds, and words of Jesus, God is drawing near to his people and near to bringing in his saving rule. When answering a question from the Pharisees concerning the arrival of the kingdom, Jesus said: “You cannot tell by observation when the kingdom of God comes. There will be no saying, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘there it is!’; for in fact the kingdom of God is among you” (Luke 17:21, NEB). Then, in certain parables, Jesus presented God as King offering righteousness, salvation, and forgiveness to those who responded to his gracious invitation. Take, for example, the parable of the unforgiving servant (Matt. 18:21–35). Here the full and free forgiveness that is offered within the kingdom of heaven is contrasted with the total lack of forgiveness that can occur in human relations. Or, take the parable of the marriage feast (Matt. 22:1–14). Here the offer of salvation to the outcasts – poor, underprivileged, and deprived members of society – is emphasized through the picture of their invitation by the king to the marriage feast, a feast normally reserved for the more privileged and rich members of society.
Second, there is the messianic kingdom, centered on Jesus as the Messiah (meaning Anointed King). As they had celebrated the comprehensive kingdom and rule of God (for example, Pss. 22:28; 103:19; 145:11–13), so psalmists and prophets had prophesied the arrival of the Davidic, messianic kingdom (for example, Is. 9:6–7; 11:1–3; Jer. 23:5–6). Born to be the Messiah and King of this kingdom, Jesus was anointed by the Holy Spirit as he was baptized by John, and thus his role as Messiah began. Since he knew the nature of his kingship would be misunderstood, Jesus did not emphasize his kingly role until the final entry into Jerusalem on what we now call Palm Sunday. Fulfilling the prophecy of Zechariah (9:9) concerning the entry of the messianic king, Jesus entered the city as the king of peace, riding on a donkey. “The whole multitude of the disciples began to rejoice and praise God with a loud voice for all the mighty works they had seen, saying: ‘Blessed is the King who comes in the name of the Lord!’” (Luke 19:37–38). Five days later Jesus was nailed to a cross outside the walls of the city and on the cross was the inscription – in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew – “THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS” (Luke 23:38). At his trial, interrogated by Pilate, Jesus had said: “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight, so that I should not be delivered to the Jews; but now My kingdom is not from here.” In further explanation he added: “You say rightly that I am a king. For this cause I was born, and for this cause I have come into the world, that I should bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice” (John 18:36–37).2
If we recall that Jesus was and is the incarnate Son of God (one Person with two natures) then we have a key for summarizing the relationship of Jesus to the various concepts of the kingdom of God. The Old Testament Lord who reigns (celebrated in Psalms 7, 93, 96, 97, 99) is the New Testament Lord who is revealed as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – one God in Trinity. Thus, from the perspective of his divine nature, Jesus Christ is the King of creation, the King of the nations, reigning and ruling over all. Where he is, there also is the kingdom. On the other hand, from the perspective of his human nature, Jesus is a descendant of David and the Messiah of Israel. The messianic kingdom is not of this world. It is the specific realization in human history of the kingdom, dominion, and salvation of the Lord within Jesus and his disciples. While the kingdom of the Lord lasts forever, the kingdom of the Messiah is of a limited duration, ending with his Parousia and the judgment of the nations. As Jesus put it: “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him...” (Matt. 25:31ff.). Following the judgment, the kingdom of the Lord will continue forever in and through the new heavens and new earth. The messianic kingdom will be no more.
Jesus as King after the Ascension
According to the Gospels, Jesus proclaimed the kingdom of God as his central message. Why then, it is sometimes asked, did the apostles apparently say little about the kingdom? In the Acts of the Apostles the phrase occurs seven times, and in Paul’s fourteen epistles it occurs only fourteen times. Were the apostles unaware of Jesus’ views on the kingdom? We can only answer that they certainly shared his views; they wanted in fact only to teach what he had taught and what they knew he approved. However, they understood the teaching concerning the kingdom in the light of the Death, Resurrection, Ascension, and Session of the exalted Jesus. Their perspective was also influenced by the arrival of the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, who continues the work of Jesus on earth. Instead of discussing the kingdom of God, they spoke of the exalted Jesus as the King (or as Lord, sitting at God’s right hand), and they saw the creation of the kingdom of God on earth in human lives and community through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. The saving rule of God was for them embodied in the person of Jesus, exalted Messiah, who is given the place of honor and majesty in heaven as representative Man. Because the Holy Spirit comes into the world from the exalted and enthroned Jesus, and in his name, then the kingdom of God is known on earth where the presence and power of the Spirit is experienced.
A brief summary of the contents of the first sermons of the Christian Church recorded in the early chapters of the Acts of the Apostles help to clarify the matter. The following themes are found in Acts 2:14ff.; 3:12ff.; 4:8ff.; 7:1ff.; 10:34ff.:3
1. The prophecies of the Old Testament are fulfilled and the new age is a reality through the coming of Jesus.
2. Jesus was born of the line of King David.
3. Jesus died as the prophets had foretold in order to deliver us from sin and the present evil age.
4. Jesus was buried and therefore truly dead.
5. Jesus rose from death on the third day as the prophets had foretold.
6. Jesus is now exalted to the right hand of the Father as Messiah (King) and Lord.
7. Jesus will return to earth as judge at the end of this evil age.
8. Forgiveness and salvation are offered in the name of Jesus to those who repent and believe the good news.
Put in one sentence by Peter, the apostles proclaimed that “God has exalted [Jesus] to His right hand to be Prince and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:31). Thus Jesus the Messiah is now in heaven in the place and position of authority and honor, co-Regent with the Father, and is the One from whom salvation flows to those who believe the good news concerning him. Those who receive forgiveness and salvation also submit to God’s royal rule, for Jesus is both King and Savior.
From the primitive apostolic preaching we turn to the visions of John on the isle of Patmos. He encountered the exalted Jesus whom he described as “the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler over the kings of the earth” (Rev. 1:5). He saw the cosmic, spiritual warfare that had to be fought by Jesus against the hosts of evil in the world. The opponents of the Messiah “will make war with the Lamb, and the Lamb will overcome them, for He is Lord of lords and King of kings...” (17:14). John saw Jesus on a white horse, followed by the armies of heaven also on white horses. “Out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS” (19:15–16). Only after all his foes have been vanquished and the world and its peoples have been judged will the new heaven and the new earth come into existence. The messianic kingdom will then cease, for the whole creation will reflect the glory of God. The exalted Jesus in his deity and humanity will be the light and life of it.
This is not the place to discuss the reign of the saints with Christ for “a thousand years” (Rev. 20:4–6).4 It is enough to say that the general position adopted here can be squared easily with historic premillenialism (the view that Christ or his saints will reign over a world of peace and justice for 1,000 years before the final judgment) or postmillennialism (the view that there will be a period of latter-day glory for the Church on earth before Christ comes to judge the living and the dead) or amillennialism (the view that the present age of the Church is the Millennium). It cannot easily, however, be squared with dispensational premillennialism, since the interpretation of the “dispensations” comes into conflict with the general structure adopted here.
From the difficulties involved in the interpretation of the apocalyptic symbolism of the vision of John, we return to the words of the exalted Jesus as preserved in the gospel of Matthew: “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (28:18–20). As the exalted Messiah, Jesus has been crowned King of kings and sits at the right hand of the Father. The prophecy of Daniel concerning the kingdom of the Son of Man has been fulfilled; and, as the King over the mediatorial kingdom, Jesus has all authority in the cosmos. Therefore he can command that the gospel be preached throughout the world, that converts be made and baptized in the Triune name, that his teaching be passed on to the converts, and that in and through the Holy Spirit he will personally be present with his messengers and followers as they labor on earth until the end of the present age.
Certainly Jesus had authority as Messiah before his ascension – for example, authority to forgive sins and authority over demonic power. But now, as the triumphant Messiah, he has been invested with all authority in the whole cosmos, which means authority not only in the physical world but also in the spiritual world (where Satan, devils, and demons are encountered, and from where they influence human life and events in the physical world). He possesses the power to finish at the end of this age that work which he began when born of Mary in Bethlehem. Thus this great statement of Jesus at the end of Matthew’s gospel not only fulfills the prophecy in Dan. 7:14f. but also fulfills the promise of Jesus made earlier in this gospel: “you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power...” (26:64). It may also be taken as the fulfillment of the prophecy in Ps. 2:8, where the Lord says to the Messiah: “I will give You the nations for Your inheritance....”
Before proceeding to the teaching that Jesus is Lord, it is helpful to recall the distinction made at the end of the last section between the eternal kingdom of the Lord and the kingdom mediated by the Messiah. Reformed theologians of the sixteenth century and afterwards have been careful to distinguish between the regnum essentiale (essential reign, sometimes labeled naturale or universale) which, as the eternal Son, Christ exercises with the Father and the Holy Spirit as Lord, and the regnum personale (personal reign, sometimes known as oeconomicum) which Christ exercises as the God-Man, the exalted Messiah and King.5 This important distinction reminds us that the kingdom mediated by the earthly Jesus has an ending, but the everlasting, essential kingdom of the Lord is forever. The specific, personal, economic kingdom mediated by Christ began with his Incarnation and ends with his Second Coming.
Jesus is Lord6
The title given to Jesus in the vision of John was “King of kings and Lord of lords.” Although Paul heartily approved such a title, he chose to base much of his teaching on the truth that Jesus is Lord. He told the church in Corinth that “for us there is only one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live” (1 Cor. 8:6). With other apostles, Paul held that the revealed truth concerning the authority and power of Jesus would be better conveyed in the Roman Empire, where the Greek language was spoken, by calling Jesus “Lord,” rather than by calling him “King.” Two factors contribute to this strategy.
First, the word kyrios (Lord) was used in the Septuagint to translate the Hebrew name of God, YHWH (transliterated as “Jehovah” or “Yahweh”). In the first Christian preaching and teaching, texts from the Old Testament which refer to YHWH are attributed to Jesus without any preceding explanations (for example, Rom. 10:9–13 and Heb. 1:5–13). In Paul’s poetic description of the Incarnation and Exaltation of the Son of God the giving of the name Lord to the exalted Jesus is celebrated:
He always had the nature of God,
but he did not think that by force
he should try to become equal with God.
Instead of this, of his own free will
he gave up all he had,
and took the nature of a servant.
He became like man
and appeared in human likeness.
He was humble and walked the path
of obedience all the way to death –
his death on the cross.
For this reason God raised him
to the highest place above
and gave him the name that is greater
than any other name.
And so, in honor of the name of Jesus
all beings in heaven, on earth, and
in the world below
will fall on their knees,
and all will openly proclaim that Jesus
Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Phil. 2:6–11 TEV)7
The supreme name of Lord is the name given to Jesus, incarnate Son, and it points to his position as co-Regent. His authority and rule extend from the transcendent world of angels and archangels into this world of sinful human beings. Though this rule is not now acknowledged by all, at the end of this present evil age all creatures will openly proclaim that Jesus, the incarnate Son, is truly Lord.
When the exalted Jesus was called the kyrios there were, at first, many implications for worship, discipleship, and doctrine which were not fully realized. In reading the Old Testament, the Church was able to apply to the exalted God-Man a growing number of passages which spoke of the Lord, such as the psalms chosen for Ascension-Day (see chapter two). Led by the apostles, the Church also was able to think of the God-Man as creator and preserver of the universe. The apostle Paul spoke of the created order in this way: “For by Him all things were created that are in heaven and that are on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or powers. All things were created through Him and for Him. And He is before all things, and in Him all things consist” (Col. 1:16–17). In worship the exalted Jesus was addressed both indirectly “through our Lord Jesus Christ” and directly, “Come, Lord Jesus” (Rev. 22:20). Over the centuries Christians have freely prayed to Jesus as Lord, as well as to the Father in the name of Jesus. On the basis of these developments the Church in the fourth century produced the dogma of the Nicene Creed, that Jesus as incarnate Son is “one in Being” or “of the same substance” with the Father. (See further Appendix 5.)
Second, in the Roman Empire kyrios normally meant the owner of slaves. It conveyed the idea of absolute authority and power possessed by one person over other people (whom he had bought); and this state of affairs was guaranteed by the law of the Empire. As absolute master the Emperor himself was also called kyrios. In this context it is not surprising that Paul told the Christians in Ephesus to act as those who belonged to their Master, Jesus the Lord.
Servants, be obedient to those who are your masters according to the flesh, with fear and trembling, in sincerity of heart, as to Christ; not with eyeservice, as men-pleasers, but as servants of Christ, doing the will of God from the heart, with good will doing service, as to the Lord and not to men, knowing that whatever good anyone does, he will receive the same from the Lord, whether he is a slave or free. And you, masters, do the same things to them, giving up threatening, knowing that your own Master also is in heaven, and there is no partiality with Him (Eph. 6:5–9).
In the social structure of the time, Paul urged slaves to do their duty by remembering that they lived under the Lordship of Jesus, and he did not fail to remind their masters of the same truth. In this passage the word kyrios is used both of earthly masters (slave owners) and of the exalted Jesus.
The teaching that there is an absolute Master, enthroned in heaven, to whom human beings owe allegiance and for whom Christian disciples are to give their lives, was open to misunderstanding and exploitation when the cult of Emperor worship was strong. In the city of Thessalonica the opponents of Paul caused a commotion by getting people to chant that Paul and his associates acted “contrary to the decrees of Caesar, saying there is another king Jesus” (Acts 17:7). The confession that Jesus is the Lord also meant that there were situations in which Christians felt bound by conscience to obey their heavenly Master and disobey their earthly master. For example, Christians became martyrs for Christ their kyrios, rather than offer incense in the cult of the Emperor. They did not object to calling the Emperor kyrios for that was truly his position in earthly terms. They did object to the worship of the Emperor and to treating him as divine Lord. Paul believed that Christians should be exemplary citizens or slaves within the Empire (see Romans 13; Eph. 6:5ff.; Col. 3:22ff.), but as the satanic aspects of the cult of Emperor worship developed after Paul’s martyrdom, Christians had to disobey the state. Aspects of this new situation are conveyed by the contents of the book of Revelation. As an analogy, we may recall that Christians living in Germany or lands occupied by Germany in the 1930s and 1940s experienced a similar test of their faith and allegiance to Jesus, the Master, as the German state made demands upon them which were satanic in origin.8 They knew the cost of obeying Jesus as Lord and King.
To call Jesus the kyrios pointed to his absolute authority and power to make demands upon his disciples, but also to protect and guide them. All this and more is involved in the first Christian confession of faith – “Jesus is Lord.” So Paul could write: “We do not preach ourselves, but Christ Jesus the Lord, and ourselves your servants for Jesus’ sake (2 Cor. 4:5). To preach Jesus as Lord, enthroned at the right hand of the Father, is to preach the kingdom of God. Such preaching and teaching is effectual because it is done in the power of the Holy Spirit, who also may be called “Lord” (2 Cor. 3:17).
Alongside the teaching that Jesus is the kyrios, Paul also taught that Jesus is the kephalē (Head). Thinking of the spiritual beings who are in the service of God or Satan, Paul affirmed that the exalted Jesus is “the head of all principality and power.” Thinking of the universal sovereignty that Jesus has been given in order to protect and care for God’s church, Paul proclaimed that God “put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Eph. 1:22–23).
It is perhaps wrong to think of Paul envisioning a simple model of the head and the rest of the human body, then applying this to Jesus as the head, with the people of God who believe in Jesus being considered as the rest of the body. It is better to think of the apostle as juxtaposing two models or metaphors alongside each other. In Rom. 12:3–8 Paul had used the model of the body to describe the way in which a community or congregation of Christians should relate to each other in service and mutual help. In Col. 1:18 Paul used the model of body to refer to the whole Church, which includes every local congregation. Thus, before he came to write the letter to Ephesus, he had used the model of the whole body (including the head) for the church at either the local or the universal level. To this model he adds a second, that of Christ as kephalē, a word which, like the two sides of a coin, has two parallel meanings. It has reference not only to Christ as the Head, in the sense of Lord, but also to his role as the sustainer, life-giver and origin of grace in relation to the people of God, the Church. In Ephesians 4 the head is contrasted with the body and the body is presented as growing towards the head. Thus, “speaking the truth in love, we may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ – from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (vv. 15–16). Jesus, the exalted Lord, is the One from whom the Church receives its life and the One to whom it directs its growth.
In the human body the ligaments and the physical system work automatically. In the individual Christian, as well as in the body of Christ which envelopes the fellowship of Christians, grace does not work automatically. Christ lives in his members as they abide in him; and he dwells in their hearts by the Spirit as they dwell in him by faith. The Church is always dependent upon, and should always also be submitted to, Christ Jesus the Lord and Head. There is also a sense, though this has to be stated with care, in which the Head is dependent upon the members of the body. The ascended Lord Jesus fulfills himself in the life of his body (the Church); and only at the end of the age, when the purposes of God are completed and the number of the elect is achieved, will Christ attain the fullness of life in his body (cf. Eph. 1:22–23). Furthermore, there is a sense in which Christ, in relation to his body, is imperfect. Paul told the Colossian church: “I now rejoice in my sufferings for you and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church” (1:24). There were no deficiencies in the personal sufferings of Jesus Christ and there was no lack of worth in his sufferings. However, in and through his body, Christ still suffers, must suffer, and will suffer before the consummation of the work of God in this body (cf. 2 Cor. 12:9). Yet, as he suffers in and through his body, he also brings succor to those who are suffering; we have a High Priest who is touched with the feeling of our infirmities and tribulations (Heb. 4:15).
How does Christ execute the office of King, Lord, and Head?
This is one of the questions asked in the Westminster Larger Catechism, produced in 1647 at Westminster Abbey, London, by British theologians. In reply they wrote:
Christ executes the office of a king in calling out of the world a people to himself, and giving them officers, laws, and censures by which he visibly governs them, in bestowing saving grace upon his elect, rewarding their obedience, and correcting them for their sins, preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings, restraining and overcoming all their enemies, and powerfully ordering all things for his own glory, and their good; and also in taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God and obey not the gospel.9
Since this is an incisive summary of Scriptural teaching, we shall take it in parts.
1. Calling out of the world a people to himself. Christ sends his evangelists and his word of grace into the world of darkness. By the power of the Holy Spirit, who convinces the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment, some sinners respond to the good news, repent of their sins, and believe on the Lord Jesus. The Spirit unites such believers with Christ the Head. Consequently he unites them with all others who are united to the same Head. Local congregations of faithful Christians are to be composed of those who are joined in this manner.
2. Giving them officers, laws, and censures by which he visibly governs them. As Head of the Church, Christ gives gifts of ministry to that body, so that some are called to be apostles, others prophets, and yet others to be pastors, teachers, and evangelists. Within each congregation Christ ensures that there are those who do have ministerial or leadership gifts, and that one or two are set apart, through ordination, to be the “officers.” The basic difference between the ordained and the nonordained may be expressed in terms of a difference in responsibility, accountability, and availability. The ordained pastor, teacher, or elder (or whatever nomenclature is used) is to ensure that the congregation is governed by the principles of the revealed Word of God; and he ensures that discipline is exercised on the same basis. Since Christ has effectively set ordained ministers apart to be responsible and available for his cause, then it may be said that he governs through them. In their ministry they are accountable to him even as they may also be accountable to presbyteries or synods within the Church on earth.
3. Bestowing saving grace upon his elect. Christ is the Head in that he is the source of all God’s mercy and blessing to the Church. He grants grace to the believer through personal, spiritual communion in prayer and meditation. He bestows grace to the individual and the whole fellowship through the exercise of the gifts of ministry within the congregation – not only through preaching and teaching but through sacraments, practical service, intimate fellowship, and celebratory worship.
4. Rewarding their obedience. Christ freely gives the gift of salvation to all who repent and believe. However, the Christian life demands commitment, submission, and obedience. Here Christians differ in their levels of readiness to respond positively to the commands and demands of the exalted Lord Jesus. Thus Jesus appropriately taught about rewards for faithful servants – for example, in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5:12, 46; 6:1–2; 10:41–2). This reward will be given in heaven, but its exact nature is not disclosed in the New Testament. In fact the book of Revelation closes with Jesus saying to the churches: “Behold, I am coming quickly, and My reward is with me, to give to everyone according to his work” (22:12).
5. Correcting them for their sins. To the church of the Laodiceans the exalted King Jesus said: “As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten” (Rev. 3:19). In the letter to the Hebrews there is a quotation from the book of Proverbs (3:11–12): “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; For whom the Lord loves He chastens, and scourges every son whom he receives” (12:5–6). Because he controls the total circumstances in which a believer exists, Christ the King is able to chastise, correct, and rebuke his disciples in one or more ways; but whatever he does, he does it because he loves with an everlasting love.
6. Preserving and supporting them under all their temptations and sufferings. In a hostile world and an evil age, believers have to face temptations and sufferings. It could not be otherwise. Yet Christ the King orders their circumstances and inwardly helps them by his Spirit so that they are able to stand firm in faith and joyfully confess his name in word and in deed.
7. Restraining and overcoming all their enemies. The enemies of the people of God – be they spiritual or physical powers – are enemies of the Head of the people of God. At the right hand of the Father, Jesus Christ must reign until God has put all his enemies under his feet, thereby fulfilling the prophecy contained in Psalm 110. Before his return to earth, Jesus the Lord and King restrains the evil power of Satan and his hosts, so that what they can achieve is limited. When he appears in glory to judge the living and the dead he will overcome all his enemies and they will be judged and punished.
8. Powerfully ordering all things for his own glory and their good. Here, the familiar words of St. Paul are enough. He rejoiced because “We know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose .... For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:28, 38–39).
9. Taking vengeance on the rest, who know not God and obey not the gospel. The proclamation that Jesus is King is a message of great comfort and encouragement to the believing people of God. However, for the enemies of God, his gospel, and his people, it is a message of warning and judgment. God is holy love; but God’s wrath can be revealed, and is revealed, from heaven against those who persistently disobey him and oppose his purposes. So, fulfilling both the prophecy of Ps. 2:8–9 and the teaching in the New Testament concerning his Second Coming (for example, 2 Thess. 1:7–9), Christ the King will actually “take vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power.”
In all the uncertainties of our modern world, Christians should find great comfort in the message that Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords. If this truth is to inform our prayers and our lives, then we need to take time to think about it. Through meditation, this truth will genuinely sink deeply into our hearts and minds; and we shall be conscious always in our heavily secularistic culture,10 of that transcendent world in which Jesus the King sits at the right hand of the Father.
See Bibliography for full citations.
1. Useful books on the kingdom of God include John Gray, The Biblical Doctrine of the Reign of God (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1979); A. M. Hunter, Christ and the Kingdom (Edinburgh: St. Andrews Press, 1980); G. E. Ladd, The Gospel of the Kingdom (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978) and The Presence of the Future (1974); C. L. Mitton, Your Kingdom Come (London: Mowbrays, 1978).
2. For further comment see Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, pp. 767ff.
3. For the apostolic preaching see F. F. Bruce, The Acts of the Apostles (London: Tyndale Press, 1951), p. 69.
4. There is helpful explanation in The Meaning of the Millennium: Four Views, ed. by R. G. Clouse (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1977).
5. See further Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics (1950), pp. 488ff.
6. For further detail see the articles on “Lord” and “Head” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, (1976), Vol. 2. A popular exposition is provided by Peter Toon, Jesus Christ Is Lord (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1979).
7. R. P Martin, Carmen Christi (London: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1967) and Philippians (London: Oliphants, 1976), pp. 93ff., provides an exposition of this poem.
8. See further Karl Heim, Jesus the Lord (1959).
9. The Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1967), pp. 145–46.
10. The nature of western, secularist society is laid bare in Herbert Scholssberg, Idols for Destruction (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1983).
Chapter 4 – Jesus the Priest
Those who read the four Gospels but neglect the Epistles of the New Testament do not find that the thought of Jesus as Priest comes easily to mind. Furthermore, this thought is not prominent in the hymns found in most of the commonly used hymnbooks. In the Gospels Jesus is easily appreciated as Prophet (teacher or rabbi) and King (Master), as well as the Servant of the Lord who suffers; but, since he appears to be so different from the priests who worked in the Temple of Jerusalem, it is hard to picture him as Priest. However, it cannot be overlooked that Jesus is presented as the Lamb of God who is sacrificed (John 1:36) and that he presents himself as the suffering servant of the Lord who gives his life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). Thus the Gospels only hint in the direction of Jesus as an entirely new kind of Priest – a priest who offers himself as a unique sacrifice for human sin and then continues to live as priest. For a theology of Jesus as Priest in the Lord’s Temple we have to turn to the anonymous but apostolic letter to the Jewish Christians.
The letter to the Hebrews1
Jeremiah had prophesied in these words: “‘The days are coming,’ says the LORD, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah – not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt .... I will put My law in their minds and write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they shall be My people .... I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more’” Jer. 31:31–34; cf. Heb. 8:8–12). The arrival of a new covenant makes the old covenant obsolete. The whole New Testament proceeds on the assumption that Jesus brought the new covenant into existence by his death and resurrection. A new, reciprocal relationship between God the Father and believing humanity is established through Jesus Christ. And the creation of the new covenant relationship by Jesus is one of the main themes of the Lord’s Supper in the Pauline epistles (“this cup is the new covenant in My blood”-1 Cor. 11:25).
Why is a new covenant necessary? What went wrong with the old (Mosaic) covenant? It was deficient in that (a) sacrifices had to be offered annually and daily (Heb. 10:1) without any chance of cessation; and (b) the High Priest (as the representative of the entire priesthood) had to offer sacrifice for himself (since he was a sinner) before he could proceed to offer sacrifice on behalf of the people of Israel (Lev. 9:7; Heb. 7:27). The letter to the Hebrews declares that Jesus actually offered himself as the perfect, ultimate sacrifice; and he is the new and perfect High Priest. Thus the old covenant is superceded and its priesthood and sacrifices cannot bring forgiveness of sins.
To be the perfect and successful High Priest Jesus needed to bring God to humanity and to take humanity to God. In other words, he had to be the Person who was and is truly God and truly Man. This is the claim made by the letter to the Hebrews. The epistle begins with a long sentence in which the deity of the Son, his incarnation, and exaltation are majestically portrayed. “God, who at various times and in different ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high....” Here the writer explains how God’s incarnate Son is qualified to bring God to man. The exalted Son, higher than angels, archangels, and heir of all creation, has purged the sins of humanity.
On the other hand, Jesus is truly Man. The truth is not that he appeared to be Man or that his humanity was like a shell or cover surrounding his divinity. There was a genuine incarnation in which he took to himself our human nature, flesh, and bones, and thus had to grow from fetus to infant and from infant to adult. He partook of real flesh and blood (2:14) and was made perfect through the experience of genuine suffering (2:10), having learned obedience within that suffering (5:8). As Man he truly endured temptation and testing (4:15); he prayed and shed tears (5:7) and knew physical weakness (5:2). Yet throughout his life, he did not commit sin (4:15). Thus he is perfectly qualified to bring Man to God. He has no need, like the priests of the Mosaic covenant, to offer sacrifice for himself, for he is sinless. But he is wholly and fully human, real Man.
Who appointed Jesus, the incarnate Son, to be the Priest of the new order? The letter to the Hebrews answers that he was appointed by the will, decree, and oath of the Lord, as Psalm 110 testifies. This Psalm, briefly examined in chapter two, points to the dual role of Jesus as exalted Lord and exalted Priest. Verse 4 is cited at several points in Hebrews (5:6; 7:17; 7:21):
The LORD has sworn
And will not relent,
“You are a priest forever
According to the order of Melchizedek”
Melchizedek (meaning “king of righteousness”) was king of Salem (meaning “peace”) and also “priest of God, Most High,” to whom Abraham (father of Israel) paid tithes (Gen. 14:17–20).
The modem reader who faces Heb. 5:1–11 and 7:1–28 is often both intrigued and puzzled by what he reads. (Look at these passages before proceeding, in order to enter fully into the thought of the letter.) There is so little information about Melchizedek and this is put to a “strange” use. In fact, the exegesis employed by the writer of the letter is only odd to those who are unfamiliar with the exegesis of Jewish rabbis. This knowledge helps us understand several of these “strange” interpretations. Since Melchizedek has no stated parentage and genealogy he is contrasted with the priests of the Temple, who boastfully trace their ancestry back to Aaron. Furthermore, the father of Israel paid tithes to Melchizedek and also received a blessing (the greater always blesses the lesser), thereby accepting his inferiority. Jesus is not a descendant of Melchizedek but is a Priest of the same kind as Melchizedek. He is Priest by right, not by human descent; he is a Priest of an order superior to that known as the Aaronic order. He is a Priest whose priesthood is forever; and he is a Priest who blesses the people of God.
Much practical teaching in the letter to Hebrews flows from the doctrine that Jesus is a priest forever after the order of Melchizedek. “He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He ever lives to make intercession for them” (7:25). Because Jesus is the unchangeable High Priest, he has offered himself as the one, perfect, and complete sacrifice for human sin. God, having accepted this, has raised him from the dead to an everlasting priesthood of intercession in heaven. “For Christ has not entered the holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us” (9:24). Christ did not enter into the holy of holies of the Temple in Jerusalem (for this is only a type of the real holy of holies); but after his sacrificial, atoning death he was raised by God into heaven, and there he is now within the true holy of holies, God’s immediate presence. In the light of this truth we are not surprised by the following exhortation: “Therefore, brethren, having boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a High Priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water” (10:19–22). Having a Priest in heaven means that there is access to the presence of God and that efficacious intercession is being offered on our behalf.
Jesus, the exalted Priest is also the exalted King, sitting at the right hand of the Father. He, who sits at rest and in glory, ensures access for believers to God. He who reigns also prays since he is the one Person who is truly God and Man and simultaneously Priest and King. To state this is to say much but it does not exhaust the truth concerning the exalted Jesus, for in this letter he is also called the “author” (archēgos) and “finisher” or “perfector” (teleiōtēs) of our faith. “Therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and he has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (12:1–2). Not only has Jesus blazed the trail (as representative Man) into God’s presence that others may follow, but he actually makes it possible for others to follow. Not only has he called for faith but he has displayed true faith by his complete trust in the Father when he laid down his life for his people.
Was the sacrifice of Jesus completed in space and time?2
Over the last century biblical and liturgical scholars have debated whether or not the letter to the Hebrews teaches that the offering by Jesus of himself as a sacrifice has been completed on earth. Those who answer “yes” are usually of an orthodox Protestant background and those who answer “no” are usually high-church Anglicans, Lutherans, or Roman Catholics. The latter normally hold that Jesus in heaven is perpetually offering himself to the Father as the perfect sacrifice for the sins of the world. And this doctrine is then associated with the idea of the “sacrifice” involved in the Eucharist.
Much depends upon the translation and exegesis of Heb. 9:11–14, especially v. 12. Here are three translations:
NKJV Not with the blood of goats and calves but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.
NEB The blood of his sacrifice is his own blood, not the blood of goats and calves; and thus he entered the sanctuary once and for all and secured an eternal deliverance.
JB He has entered the sanctuary once and for all, taking with him not the blood of goats and bull calves, but his own blood, having won an eternal redemption.
Aaron and his successors went into the earthly “holy of holies” in the Tabernacle or Temple on the Day of Atonement “by means of the blood of goats and calves.” Christ has entered the heavenly sanctuary and perfect tabernacle dia (meaning “by” or “through”) his own blood. Despite the imprecise translation of the NKJV and the theologically motivated translation of the Jerusalem Bible, it must be emphasized that the Greek text itself does not imply that Jesus took or carried his own blood into the heavenly sanctuary when he ascended into heaven. It is only by pressing to its limits the analogy of the Day of Atonement that it is possible to argue that this text suggests that the work of atonement and expiation was not completed on the cross at Calvary. Certainly in the old covenant the Aaronic high priest first killed the victim and then took the blood into the earthly holy of holies; and having taken it in, he came out. This process was repeated annually. With Jesus the matter is different. He offered himself as a sacrifice once in space and time. When this was completed and he was raised from death, he then by his ascension entered the heavenly Sanctuary, not to take the blood and then come out, but to stay there forever as Priest-King. In fact he entered not to stand up but to sit down-signifying a completed action. So the basic idea is that he entered once and for all into the heavenly Sanctuary (“holy of holies” or “most holy place”) and thereby secures eternal redemption for his people. For this reason, as Savior, Priest, and Mediator, he is totally accepted and enthroned by the Father in heaven itself. He remains in the Sanctuary until the time appointed by the Father for his return to earth to judge the living and the dead (Heb. 9:27–28).
Two other texts have been brought into this debate as to the nature of the offering of Jesus. First there is Heb. 7:27: “He [Jesus] does not need daily as those high priests [in the Temple] to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people’s, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself.” Here “once for all” translates the Greek, ephapax, itself a stronger word than hapax (used at 6:4; 9:7, 26, 27, 28; 10:2) which means “once for all”. The most reasonable deduction from the use of ephapax (truly once for all) is that the offering of Jesus at Calvary was completed there and thus his resurrection meant that it had been accepted by the Father. Thus it cannot be everlastingly offered in the heavenly Sanctuary. Second, there is Heb 8:3: “For every high priest is appointed to offer gifts and sacrifices. Therefore it is necessary that this One [Jesus] also have something to offer.” Jesus fulfilled what the Aaronic high priesthood existed to do when he as Priest offered himself as the perfect sacrifice on the cross. As the Priest in heaven his priesthood is not of the Aaronic type but is of the order of Melchizedek; and it does not involve offering himself as a perpetual sacrifice. What Jesus had to offer was himself and this offering was made on earth outside the city walls of Jerusalem on a Roman cross. In fact, the verb translated in NKJV as “have something to offer” can be translated (since it is an aorist subjunctive) as the NEB allows: “this One too must have had something to offer.” Here the past tense “had” points to what happened on earth and excludes a perpetual offering in heaven.
This letter teaches that not only the sacrifice, but also the offering or presentation of it, is over forever. However, the royal and high-priestly intercession and benediction of the exalted Jesus which are based upon this sacrifice are present and continuous. This means we must distinguish between (a) the idea that the once-offered sacrifice is everlastingly and perpetually efficacious, and (b) the idea that, since Christ as sacrifice is identical with Christ as Priest, then he must be everlastingly and perpetually offering himself to the Father in the heavenly Sanctuary. The traditional position of Protestant exegetes can be found in the Westminster Larger Catechism. The question, “How does Christ execute the office of a priest?” encourages the following reply: “Christ executes the office of a priest in his once offering himself a sacrifice without spot to God, to be a reconciliation for the sins of his people; and in making continual intercession for them.” Here the sacrifice and the Intercession are clearly distinguished.3
Recently, there has been a determined effort by a few scholars to reintroduce the doctrine of the perpetual offering of Christ in heaven to the Father. Sometimes this is seen as the equivalent of intercession or as the basis of intercession. Often these scholars are motivated to substantiate the doctrine that the Eucharist is a sacrifice in the sense that, in and by the Spirit, those attending a Eucharist participate in and/or benefit from the perpetual offering of Christ in heaven to the Father. Thus, in this approach, the Eucharist is more than the commemoration of the ephapax sacrifice and more than a sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving; it is the offering of bread and wine to God to share in the self-offering of Christ in heaven. Dr. Swete, a noted patristic scholar, put it this way:
Our solemn memorial is assuredly made in the presence of God, and before all the company of heaven; and it proclaims the Death of the Lord, not as a past event, as we might commemorate the death of a martyr, but as a Sacrifice which lives on and is perpetually presented by Christ Himself in heaven. We have an altar which answers to the heavenly Altar at which the Great High Priest officiates. The Eucharistic rite is the nearest approach which the priestly Body of Christ on earth can make to participation in the high priestly Self-presentation of her Head in heaven. Hence it is that all spiritual sacrifices meet in this supreme Christian service – the offering of alms and oblations, the offering of praise and thanksgiving, the offering of souls and bodies.4
Other more recent writers of the Anglo-Catholic school have a more sophisticated doctrine which insists that the Eucharist commemorates the historical, once-for-all death of Jesus, which also sees the Church participating, as the body of Christ and through the Holy Spirit, in the perpetual self-offering of Jesus in heaven.5
The view that Christ is involved in perpetual self-offering is also found in the teaching of one of the leading Reformed (Barthian) theologians of our day. Professor T. F. Torrance urges that we think of the work of Christ in his heavenly priesthood under three headings: his endless self-oblation, his eternal intercession or advocacy for us, and his eternal benediction. Of the first of these, which is our present concern, he writes:
In the humanity of the ascended Christ there remains for ever before the Face of God, the Father, the one, perfect, sufficient Offering for mankind. He presents himself before the Father as the Redeemer who has united himself to us and has become our Brother. He represents us before the Father as those who are incorporated in him and consecrated and perfected together with him in one body for ever. Here we think of the ascension as the act of Christ’s self-offering to the Father in which his self-sacrifice on the Cross is backed up by his own resurrection and endless Life, and made an offering to God through Eternal Spirit.6
Torrance is apparently following William Milligan (see his position below), as well as adopting the concept of sacrifice found in the Didache (14:2). This document refers to the minhāh (Mal. 1:11, 14), a thank-offering or tribute offered to the King of kings. The concept of the incorporation of God’s people as the body of Christ is an important theme, but it is not so helpful to link it with the equation of the heavenly Intercession of Christ and the supposed self-oblation (which completes the sacrifice made at Calvary). Our solution and position regarding these matters is presented in the explication of the Intercession.
On the Day of Atonement the Aaronic high priest, having sprinkled blood on the mercy seat in the holy of holies, interceded with God for the people of Israel before returning to them to give the blessing. So it is not surprising to read that the exalted Jesus “ever lives to make intercession (entygchein) for those whom he is able to save to the uttermost” (Heb. 7:25, author’s translation). Paul put it like this: “It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession (entygchanei) for us” (Rom. 8:34). The Aaronic high priest stood to intercede, but Jesus is seated at rest and in honor as he intercedes. (Compare also Romans 8. The indwelling Spirit is twice described as interceding for the people of God – vv. 27 and 34.)
Though exalted, Jesus remains Man. As Man he prayed when on earth. Some of his prayers are recorded in the Gospels – for example, after the return of the seventy disciples (Luke 10:21–24), at the Last Supper (the high-priestly prayer of John 17), and in the garden of Gethsemane (Luke 22:42). It is natural to assume that as (representative and substitute) Man he should pray in heaven and that his prayer should be intercessory – on behalf of those for whom he died, rose, and ascended into heaven. Yet his posture in heaven must be remembered – he does not pray on bended knee but as the seated Priest-King.
In popular religion Jesus has often been presented as pleading his cause before a reluctant or hesitant heavenly Father. In some of the mosaics in the catacombs Jesus is portrayed with strong cries and tears pleading our cause in heaven.8 A similar image is often found in popular hymns. For example, in the hymn “I Know That My Redeemer Lives;” there are the lines:
He lives to bless me with his love,
And still He pleads for me above.
This approach works from the wrong picture of prayer – perhaps the description of Jesus praying in Gethsemane (which is misunderstood), or the image of an Old Testament prophet seeking to persuade God to change his mind in respect to the judgment of a nation or people. Jesus is in heaven as the incarnate Son, as co-Regent, and as our brother, representative, and advocate. His intercession is not that of pleading before either a reluctant or a sympathetic heavenly Father. Bearing this in mind, it may be said that three serious interpretations of the Intercession have been taught within God’s church over the centuries.
First, there is the position adopted by the Greek Fathers as they responded to the Arian heresy of the fourth and fifth centuries.9 Arians claimed that since Jesus prayed to the Father in heaven, he must be subordinate to him in his essential nature. In reply, the Greek Fathers taught that the heavenly Intercession was not to be understood literally but rather as a way of stating the heavenly expression of the love of Christ for his body, the Church. While it is true, of course, that Christ loves his people, this explanation is weak and does not take the use the verb “to intercede” seriously. The Apostle Paul and the writer to the Hebrews deliberately chose the verb entygchanō (to intercede, appeal, plead) to indicate some form of action. It cannot be merely passive in meaning.
Second, there is the position adopted by the Western Fathers and taken up in recent times by various theologians (for example, Swete, Milligan, and Torrance) that the Intercession is the offering. In the words of William Milligan, “The Intercession and the Offering cannot be separated from each other. The offering is itself a continuous intercession; the continuous intercession implies the offering is a present thing.”10 Dr. Milligan also believed that the verb entygchanō means “every act by which the Son, in dependence on the Father, and in the Father’s name, and with perfect concurrence of the Father, takes His own with Him into the Father’s presence, in order that whatever He Himself enjoys in the communications of His Father’s love may become also theirs.”11 Here there is the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, a doctrine developed by Dr. J. B. Torrance.12 It will be argued below that the doctrine of the vicarious humanity of Christ, Priest-King, is entirely correct but it is wrong to equate the Intercession with the offering.
Third, it is possible that the Intercession is the reality of the glorified Lord Jesus, considered as Priest, seated at the Father’s right hand as the Savior and representative of his people. Bishop Westcott expresses it this way:
The modem conception of Christ pleading in heaven His Passion, ‘offering His blood’, on behalf of men, has no foundation in the Epistle to the Hebrews. His glorified humanity is the eternal pledge of the absolute efficacy of His accomplished work. He pleads, as older writers expressed the thought, by His Presence on the Father’s Throne. Meanwhile men on earth in union with Him enjoy continually through His Blood what was before the privilege of one man on one day in the year (i.e., the Aaronic high priest).13
For Westcott the efficacious intercession proceeds on the basis of an accomplished work and a divine sovereignty. The sacrifice has been completed but the fruit of it remain inexhaustible; the purification of sins has been made but the application of it is for all time.
Another way of presenting this third possibility is to develop the concept of intercession through the further concept of the vicarious humanity of Jesus, exalted Priest. As glorified Man, Jesus adores, praises, worships, and offers thanksgiving to the Father. He asks that the Father will give the Holy Spirit to those who believe and bring them into eternal salvation. As glorified Man with a vicarious humanity, Jesus prays the prayers of all his people; all prayer, be it praise or petition, is “through our Lord Jesus Christ.” This is not pleading with a reluctant Father but it is the sweet communion of the incarnate Son with the Father in the name of, and for the sake of, believing humanity. Such prayer proceeds because of the accomplished work of Christ on the cross and because he is glorified, exalted Man, who sits at the right hand of the Father. So two seemingly opposed pictures have to be put together, that of the incarnate Son possessing divine sovereignty, and that of the incarnate Son (with a vicarious humanity) offering his own and his people’s prayer to the Father. The truth is in the paradox discerned so well in the words of Bishop Moule:
Scripture represents Jesus as interceding, not as a suppliant, but with the majesty of the accepted and glorified Son once slain. He does not stand before the throne, but is seated on it.... It is vain, of course, to ask how in detail He thus acts for us. The essence of the matter is His union with His people, and His perpetual presence, in that union, with the Father, as the once slain Lamb.14
Of all the ways of presenting the Intercession, this seems to be the best.
Blessing and benediction15
We have already noted that, on leaving the holy of holies the Aaronic high priest blessed the congregation:
The LORD bless you and keep you;
The LORD make His face shine upon you,
And be gracious to you;
The LORD lift up His countenance upon you,
And give you peace (Num. 6:24–26).
In Hebrew the six verbs are in the cohortative imperfect – in the form of a desire for blessing and not in the promise of blessing. This preserves the freedom of the Lord and suggests that Aaronic priests can only pray for the divine blessing, not dispense it.
In contrast, Jesus, a Priest for ever after the order of Melchizedek, truly blesses his people (as he did when ascending, Luke 24:51) even as Melchizedek blessed Abraham. In fact, Abraham was told that through him all the nations would be blessed. Paul explains that this blessing came through Abraham’s great descendant, Jesus the Messiah (Galatians 3), “that the blessing of Abraham might come upon the Gentiles in Christ Jesus” (v. 14). Now from heaven, Jesus, Priest-King, gives his royal blessing to his people by giving them both the gift of his Spirit and the fruit, virtues, and gifts which arise because of this primary gift. He blesses them by being with them (through the Spirit) always, “even to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Because the blessing is a royal blessing, this work of heavenly benediction includes some of those benefits and privileges that we noted in the last chapter as a part of the kingly rule of the Church. Also one major aspect of blessing – “make His face shine upon you” (that is, God’s self-revelation) – overlaps with the work of the exalted Jesus as Prophet (revealer of the Word of God). We shall take up this theme in the next chapter.
A royal priesthood16
Writing to the churches of Asia, John said: “To Him who loved us and washed us from our sins in His own blood, and has made us a kingdom of priests to His God and Father, to Him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev. 1:5–6, author’s translation; cf. 5:10; 20:6). Writing also to a group of churches in the same area, Peter said: “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ .... You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light...” (1 Peter 2:4–10). Here the community of Christians, the congregation of the faithful when it functions as a body in corporate worship, is described as “a kingdom of priests;” a “holy priesthood;” and a “royal priesthood.” Because Christ is the exalted Priest, his body, the Church, participates in that priesthood and so collectively may be described as a royal and holy priesthood. The concept of priesthood in the New Testament is not concerned with the right of the individual believer to enter God’s presence, but is rather concerned with the role of the whole people of God as the people who engage in worship, praise, thanksgiving, intercession, and prayer. That is, the people who come to God the Father, in and through the incarnate Son (High Priest), offer their worship through the eternal Spirit.
Already we have suggested that the exalted Jesus, as Man, is in perfect communion with the Father and is perfectly and everlastingly offering worship, praise, and thanksgiving to him. The Church on earth is a royal priesthood since it too offers worship and prayer to the Father, and it does so because of the vicarious humanity of the Lord Jesus.17 True worship and prayer are not only through Jesus Christ but also in him, in his vicarious humanity. He is certainly the perfect mediator between God and man, but he is also Priest since he represents us as the second Adam, included in him. If, through the Spirit we are united with Christ in his worship of the Father, then our adoration, praise, and thanksgiving are perfected and our intercessions or petitions for the Church and the world are joined to his perfect intercession, based on his completed, redemptive work of Calvary.
This approach to worship is presupposed, for example, in the Liturgy for the Eucharist in the new Church of England Service Book (1980). The minister who is presiding prays in these words:
Accept through him, our great high priest,
this our sacrifice of thanks and praise;
and as we eat and drink these holy gifts
in the presence of your divine majesty,
renew us by your Spirit,
inspire us with your love,
and unite us in the body of your Son,
Jesus Christ our Lord.
Through him and with him and in him,
by the power of the Spirit,
with all who stand before You in earth and heaven,
we worship you, Father almighty,
in songs of everlasting praise.18
The key words here (for our purpose) are “through ... with ... in” the exalted Jesus. We pray through him as our mediator, with him as our elder brother, and in him as our Priest, because he possesses our humanity.
To worship in this way is the way of grace, the way that is wholly based on the gospel. It releases, through the indwelling spirit within the worshipers, genuine celebration together with love, joy, and peace. Regrettably, too many people think that worship is something that they themselves do in the church building. Worship is their effort, their activity, and their achievement. Of course there is a real sense in which worship is based on our action, but there is also a real sense in which worship is what the Spirit does in and through us. This point connects with the teaching of Paul who wrote: “We do not know what we should pray for as we ought, but the Spirit Himself makes intercession for us with groanings which cannot be uttered” (Rom. 8:26). And he further explained: “He who searches the hearts knows what the mind of the Spirit is, because He makes intercession for the saints according to the will of God” (v. 27). Worship and intercession that is not inspired and led by the Spirit leads to weariness, boredom, frustration, and meaninglessness. To say this is not to say that all formal or liturgical worship is wrong. Rather, it is to say that only as the hearts and minds of the worshipers are attuned to Christ and led by His Spirit can worship truly be that of a royal priesthood.
See Bibliography for full citations.
1. See further “Priest” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (1976), vol. 3, pp. 32ff., and literature listed there.
2. See further, A. J. Tait, Heavenly Session, chap. III.
3. Westminster Confession of Faith and Larger and Shorter Catechisms (1967), p. 149.
4. H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ (1922), pp. 48–49.
5. These are discussed by E. L. Mascall, Christ, the Christian and the Church (1967), pp. 158ff.
6. T. F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection (1976), p. 115.
7. Tait, Heavenly Session, chap. IV.
8. See further the article “Katakomben” in Lexikon fur Theologie and Kirche, 10 vols., ed. by J. Hofer and K. Rahner (Freiburg: Herder, 1957–1965), Vol. 6: cols. 20–44.
9. Tait, Heavenly Session, pp. 151–156.
10. W. Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord (1891), p. 160.
11. Ibid., p. 159.
12. J. B. Torrance, “The Vicarious Humanity of Christ”, in The Incarnation (1981), pp. 127ff.
13. Westcott as cited by Tait, Heavenly Session, p. 173.
14. Bishop Moule, Outlines of Christian Doctrine (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1890), p. 103. A further way of presenting this third possibility is to see Christ answering accusations against his people. As E. A. Litton, Introduction to Dogmatic Theology (1893), p. 233, wrote:
The Savior appears perpetually before God for us, opposing the virtue of His sacrifice to the accusations of the law and Satan, and claiming the just recompense of what He suffered on our behalf. And with Him the Father is always well pleased. Regarding Him in this capacity, the challenge of the Church throughout the ages is, “Who is He that condemneth? It is Christ that died, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us (Rom. viii. 34).”
15. See further “Blessing” in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology (1976), Vol. 1, pp. 206ff.
16. See further C. Eastwood, The Royal Priesthood of the Faithful (London: Epworth Press, 1963) and The Priesthood of all Believers (London: Epworth Press, 1969).
17. J. B. Torrance, “Vicarious Humanity,” pp. 136–137.
18. Alternative Service Book (1980), p. 132.
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