When Heaven met Earth

A few days ago was Ascension Day, commemorating Jesus’ bodily ascension into heaven 40 days after his resurrection. In my experience a lot of believers do not know what to do with this strange event. It seems after all the drama that had just gone by a month earlier, Jesus simply checked out and took a really long break which he is still yet to return from. The ascension of the Messiah is not an extended hiatus. He had not been exalted to the right hand of God to sit down twiddling his thumbs. There is something extremely profound that had happened in that exalted moment.

Now the ascension of Jesus does not also mean those who believe in Jesus will also go to heaven, just like he did. As true as that might be that is not what the ascension means. Jesus physically ascended into heaven after he was physically raised from the dead. His ascent was not something that happened in the afterlife but something even greater that happens after the afterlife, that is, after he had been brought back from the dead. Just as the resurrection of Jesus was a unique event so was the ascension. Contrary to relatively recent popular beliefs in Church history, in the New Testament there is no expectation that believers will in the future physically ascend to heaven.

Now the ascension is the natural progression of his resurrection. He was literally raised to rule and that is why he ascended to the right of hand God in heaven (Romans 14:9.) The Messiah Jesus had gained divine authority because his return to life was an unprecedented display of power. When you reflect on world history, all the great conquerors who have dominated the world have done so with the ultimate weapon, the power of death. All life is subject to the fear of death. Jesus’ resurrection disarmed the ultimate weapon of the despot and all would be dominators. Therefore, the Messiah’s exaltation is an unparalleled power that has now emerged in the world, which means the world is being organized very differently from what it was in the past. His passion, resurrection and ascension constitute the turning point of history, that is, the eschatological event. Paul therefore writes,

…the working of [God’s] great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. – Ephesians 1:19-21 ESV

In Paul’s mind, like many 1st century Jews, history was divided into the present age and the age to come. At the end of the present age they believed God will raise all the righteous people of God from the dead (Daniel 12:1-3.) It is this hope that Martha expresses in John 11:24. [1]Dr Craig Keener notes that many Jewish people thought that God’s greatest display of power would be when he raises them from the dead. For Paul that future end time event had been brought forward when Jesus rose from the dead. So the end of the present age and the start of a new one had already begun in Jesus. So the Messiah’s heavenly coronation is the beginning of an entirely new order which he is implementing over all things. So he has been installed above every power, he is in the process of subjecting them all to his rule from the top down. It is like being appointed to a high position in a company. Being granted the position means you have the authority but everything continues as it was until you actually occupy that position and start exercising your authority. When Jesus was raised from the dead he had gained authority over all things (Matthew 28:18.) When he ascended to heaven he occupied his divine office and from there he began to work. This is the exact opposite of an image of an idle Jesus in a listless, repetitive heaven.

In biblical cosmology, how scripture views the world, its origin, function and purpose, cosmic administration is from the top down, which is why Jesus had to ascend into his heavenly office where he could properly rule from. Heaven, which is God’s domain of reality, rules over earth which he has given to humanity as his stewards, exercising his divine rule as his creaturely representatives which is what it means to bear his image. Heaven and earth are therefore complementary parts of God’s universal domain. There are many scriptures, particularly the Psalms, that speak of the co-operation between heaven and earth. One particularly famous instance of this is Jacob’s vision of a ladder stretching from heaven to earth with angels going up and down it. It indicates busy commerce between the binary halves of God’s creation and not the mutual exclusivity we so often imagine. Now the Son of Man’s ascent to heaven represented a new relationship between them. Paul says,

He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. – Ephesians 4:10 ESV

This verse is a condensed restatement of Ephesians 1:19-23 which we referenced earlier. His exaltation from the grave was to give him universal rule which is what “he might fill all in all” means. Universal rule must be over a universal domain and that is what the Messiah’s physical ascent into heaven accomplished. A true denizen of earth had also become a full inhabitant of heaven thereby unifying both dimensions of created space, God’s realm and ours, in Jesus’ corporeal being. Since God has put everything under the Messiah’s feet then heaven is his throne and earth is his footstool. Revelation offers us an apocalyptic telescope into the future when the heavens and earth will finally be married to each other, consummating their divinely ordained union (Revelation 21:1-5.) In the biblical worldview they were truly made for each other. So instead of an incorporeal heaven that you depart for when you die, Jesus’ ascent actually means quite the opposite, just as the angels who appeared to the disciples on mount Olivet said,

And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” – Acts 1:10-11 ESV

This is what Paul was alluding to in 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 when he said we will “meet the Lord in air.” Though we do not know the precise mechanics of how it works, we will certainly not be suspended pointlessly in mid-air with Jesus. Rather, we will see him appear “in the clouds” and then descend on the earth, entering the same way he exited. Paul was evoking the imagery of a royal parade when a monarch visits a city, what was known as a Parousia, the Greek term used for King Jesus’ “Second Coming” in New Testament eschatology. The city goes out to “meet” the emperor, ushering in the royal entourage and so together the large festive crowd enters the city. So the Messiah’s permanent return is the reversal of his temporary exit. While only a select few witnessed his departure, on his arrival he will be seen by all. While he ascended alone he will descend with a majestic heavenly entourage. Therefore, those who are with the Lord and those of us who are yet to be, will both be with him on a new earth. Jesus’ return will finalize the joining of heaven to earth in a new creation where God will live among humanity who will gaze openly on his face.

In his ascent heaven had received earth and in the outpouring of the Spirit earth had received heaven. Ten days after ascending to power, Jesus first administrative act in this new, unfolding, heaven-earth reality was the outpouring of the Spirit of God. Just as the power of the Most High had overshadowed Mary in Jerusalem resulting in Jesus’ conception, Jesus’ followers, including his mother, were also cloaked with power from on high, resulting in the conception of a new fiery Messiah-shaped movement in Jerusalem that was going to take the world by storm. Just as Jesus was born of the Spirit so was his Church, the body of the Messiah Jesus, of whom God has made head over all things. Though he has physically left the earth his embodied presence continues through those of us who have received his Spirit, the same life-giving spirit that raised him from the dead. In a few days, on Pentecost, we will conclude Eastertide by celebrating our incorporation into this new-heaven earth reality.

 

[1]  Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, 2nd ed., p. 545, IVP Academic, 2014.

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