The Most Neglected Work of Christ (And Why It Matters)

The doctrine of the ascension of Christ is often neglected, forgotten, or collapsed into the resurrection. But it is richly profitable to the church in its own right.

The New Testament tells us that 40 days after his resurrection, Jesus in his flesh ascended into heaven, and thus completed the work that the Father had given him to accomplish.

When speaking about the work of Christ, theologians often distinguish it into the humiliation and the exaltation of Christ. In his incarnation, death, and burial, Jesus is humbled into the grave. But beginning with his resurrection, ascension, enthronement, and heavenly session, Jesus is exalted to the highest place. He is given the name above every other name, deserving of all glory, worship, and honour.

The earliest creeds of the church distinguished the various aspects of the work of Christ in his exaltation. But unfortunately, today it seems the doctrines of the ascension of Christ and his heavenly session are often neglected or forgotten.

Indeed it is hard to underestimate the significance of the fact that the physical body of Jesus is outside space and time and instead is glorified as the Son of God, seated at the right hand of the Father, ruling and reigning over all things.

Throughout the ages, this reality has been of great encouragement to the church struggling under the weight of persecution and anonymity. The same can be said for us today.

In a world where Christianity is oppressed, ignored, or mischaracterised, what great hope Christians can draw from the fact that our Saviour rules and reigns on high; that his work is complete and of utter consequence to the whole world.

Let us look at how the Scriptures shed light on the significance of the ascension and heavenly session of Jesus.

Jesus Ascended To Complete the Work of Atonement

Religious guilt is a heavy burden to bear. It is a difficult stain to wipe off the soul. The ascension completes the work of atonement that sprinkles our consciences clean and covers our guilt (Heb. 10:22).

In Leviticus 16 God lays out how the atoning sacrifice is to take place in the earthly temple. This temple is given by God to his people as a picture, or a copy, of the temple that is in heaven (Heb. 8:2). 

As the bulls or goats are sacrificed to God, bearing the sins of the people, God commands the priests to bring the blood of the offering behind the veil, into the Most Holy Place, and sprinkle it on the Mercy Seat for the forgiveness of sins (Lev. 16:14-15).

In Jesus, we have both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice. Therefore, the truer and more perfect sacrificial lamb takes his own blood to the real Most Holy Place and sprinkles it on the altar making ultimate forgiveness for sins.

With the ascension there is no more need for temporal measures; our atonement is once and for all, secure, and perfect.

As it says in Hebrews 9:11-12, “But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.”

The system of atonement set forth in the Old Testament, though itself a grace of God, was insufficient to provide eternal redemption for God’s people. Ultimately, they would sin repeatedly and need to make atonement for their sins year after year.

Because Jesus was the perfect sacrifice and because he ascended and brought his perfect blood to the Mercy Seat in the presence of God, all who are in him have “eternal redemption.” This is good news for those of us who struggle with assurance of our salvation, living under the constant fear or uncertainty that one day God’s kindness will be removed from us and we will fall out of his pleasure. With the ascension there is no more need for temporal measures; our atonement is once and for all, secure and perfect.

Jesus Ascended To Prepare a Place for Believers

Toward the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, the disciples were troubled in their hearts by what was about to happen. Jesus offers them this comforting promise about his ascension as medicine for their anxious hearts: “Let not your hearts be troubled…In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:1-3)

The medicine for their anxious hearts is the promise of a heavenly home and an eternity in the presence of Jesus. The same is true for us today. Many of us struggle with anxiety, fear, hopelessness, and depression—deeply troubled hearts. Jesus sees this and gently speaks even into this darkness and says, “Keep your eyes up. Keep your eyes on heaven.” 

The hope for a troubled heart is fixing our eyes on heaven—beyond our immediate circumstances and challenges—looking to and longing for the heavenly rest that Jesus has won for us.

In his book, A Little Book on the Christian Life, John Calvin says, “No one has made much progress in the school of Christ who doesn’t look forward joyfully both to his death and the day of his final resurrection.” 

You would do well to read that short chapter yearly and consider the exhortation to think often and joyfully of your own death and resurrection as it focuses our attention off our troubles and toward the home that Jesus has ascended to prepare for us.

Jesus Ascended to Send the Holy Spirit to Empower the Church

As Jesus continued to teach his disciples and explain more about his departure from them and what would come to pass, he comforted them by promising to send the Holy Spirit to be with them and to empower them for mission. 

Here again, the disciples are feeling heart-sick at the news of Jesus’s imminent departure from them. The Lord sees this pain and speaks to it: “because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart” (John 16:6). 

He comforts them in their sorrow by directing their attention to what they will gain though they think they will lose him. “Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). 

How is that to their advantage? Maybe we are like the disciples and the panic or fear of living alone in a world bent on our destruction sets in. Judas betrays and Peter denies; the disciples scatter at the crucifixion. They conceive of their demise as Jesus, the miracle worker, their Lord is no longer with them. What will they do? 

What wonderful news it is to have the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, pleading the benefits of my atonement with the Father whenever I sin.

Certainly, it is better to have Jesus in the flesh than to have no Jesus at all. But Jesus says he has to ascend into heaven to send the Spirit they will so desperately need.

He will be needed to animate, inhabit, encourage, and strengthen the disciples for the mission they are being sent on into all the world.

In fact, it is to their advantage that Jesus leaves them. How is that an advantage? Because the Spirit, unlike the incarnate second person of the Trinity, is not limited by the physical but can be all present, always accessible, always comforting his disciples everywhere they are, scattered throughout the world.

Jesus Ascended to Intercede For Us From Heaven

Another wonderful benefit that we often forget is that Jesus, as our High Priest in heaven, continues to intercede for us. This is known by theologians as Christ’s Heavenly Session.

The letter to the Hebrews speaks to this ongoing, present-day reality, of the work of Christ on our behalf. “But he holds his priesthood permanently because he continues forever. Consequently, he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Heb. 7:24-25). 

What wonderful news it is to have the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, pleading the benefits of my atonement with the Father whenever I sin. I must confess how infrequently this reality grips me, but even now, as you read this, you can know that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, alive and well, interceding for you. 

Remember this precious doctrine, dear friend, the next time you are wrestling with indwelling sin, feeling weak, and struggling to rest in the good promises of God.

How good to remember that my loving Saviour speaks to the Father on my behalf, “I paid for that sin, he is mine.” Though we stumble, there is no longer any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1).

Jesus Ascended To Be Enthroned as King of the Universe

Perhaps the crowning glory of Christ’s exaltation is that he ultimately ascends in his humanity in order to be the great human king with a throne in heaven that sits to the right hand of the Father’s great throne, fulfilling what is promised in 2 Samuel 7.

Remember how the temple on earth was a picture of the Heavenly Temple? So it is with King David’s throne. In his ascension, the perfect God-man Jesus was exalted in his human nature and he was given this heavenly throne as a Son of David.

Jesus has authority over all of creation and he reigns over it on behalf of the Father. This has immense implications for us, as his people. Consider the church facing persecution and suffering; Jesus reigns. Consider the enemies of Christ stopping at nothing to sow doubt and confusion; Jesus reigns. Consider the challenges of the church’s mission, the witness to the whole world; Jesus reigns. Nothing can thwart the advancement of the church and his rule over all things.

How can you be sure that these benefits are for you? The Bible tells us that by faith we are united to Christ and all that is given to Jesus is ours as well (Colossians 3:1-14). Your life is “hidden with God in Christ” and so his resurrection, his glorification, his presence with the Father, it is all yours by virtue of that union you have with him, that was accomplished in his ascension.

On this day when the church remembers the ascension of Jesus, may we learn to remember, rest, and rejoice in its benefits every day.