Rediscovering the Ascended Life of Jesus

If 25 percent of the New Testament has the ascension of Christ as its central event and theological emphasis, why is this the most overlooked doctrine in modern evangelicalism? [1]

I don’t think I ever heard a sermon, lecture, Bible study, or song on the doctrine and implications of the ascension of Christ. I have become well versed in Jesus’ birth, his earthly life, death, resurrection, and return. Yet for most of my life, his ascended life was mostly a vague concept.

Talking about what Jesus has done and will do would be easier for most than describing where he is and what he is doing right now. If you were to ask ordinary Christians, “Why did Jesus come to earth?” they would likely respond by saying: “Jesus came to earth to die on a cross to pay for my sins so that I can go to heaven one day.” That is part of the story; it’s just not the whole story.

Prophetic Window of the Psalms

My journey of discovery into the doctrine and implications of the ascension began around 2005. I was driving to the church one morning as I began to sing a chorus in my mind inspired by Psalm 24. While I was crafting the song I began reading commentaries on this text. One in particular had something fascinating to say. The author wrote that regarding Christ’s ascension, the disciples saw his “going.” However, Psalm 24 is a prophetic window into his heavenly “arriving.” [2] That one thought set me on a creative and theological journey.

Peter himself provides precedent for this interpretation in the Book of Acts. When preaching on Pentecost, Peter quoted from Psalm 16:

I know the Lord is always with me.
I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.

No wonder my heart is glad, and I rejoice.
My body rests in safety.
For you will not leave my soul among the dead
or allow your holy one to rot in the grave.
You will show me the way of life,
granting me the joy of your presence
and the pleasures of living with you forever. (Psalm 16:8-11, NLT)

He then offered apostolic commentary:

Dear brothers, think about this! You can be sure that the patriarch David wasn’t referring to himself, for he died and was buried, and his tomb is still here among us. But he was a prophet, and he knew God had promised with an oath that one of David’s own descendants would sit on his throne. David was looking into the future and speaking of the Messiah’s resurrection. He was saying that God would not leave him among the dead or allow his body to rot in the grave. (Acts 2:29-31, emphasis mine)

The same could be said of Psalm 24. It isn’t merely an earthly enthronement liturgy; ultimately, David is looking into the future and speaking of the Messiah’s ascension. Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Who may stand in the holy place? Jesus is the only one with clean hands and a pure heart. Who is the King of glory? Not David. Jesus is the King of glory for whom the ancient, heavenly gates are opened! He is the Lord, strong and mighty!

Theological Center of Luke-Acts

When we examine the whole of Luke’s work, we see he organized Gospel and Acts around the ascension. One scholar writes, “Rightly understood, the ascension narratives of Luke . . . provide a crucial key to the unlocking of Luke’s theology and purpose.” [3]

Some have argued for a chiastic structure in Luke-Acts with the ascension at the center. [4] Luke’s Gospel begins in a Roman context, then the story moves through Samaria, Judea, to Jerusalem, and ultimately, to Jesus’ ascension on the Mount of Olives. The Book of Acts picks up with the ascension and then takes the reader on a journey with the early church in Jerusalem, then scattering throughout Judea and Samaria, and ultimately to Rome.

Luke gave the reader markers along the way, signaling the priority and importance he placed on the ascension. To begin his “travel narrative” section Luke wrote: “As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). In the Book of Acts, just before the crowd stoned Stephen, Luke let us know that Stephen saw the ascended Jesus: “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand” (Acts 7:56). Clearly, for Luke, the ascension was central, organizationally and theologically.

Lyrical Creed of the Early Church

Finally, we learn from the first Christological creeds that the ascension was a central doctrine for Paul and the early church. In his first letter to Timothy, Paul encouraged this young pastor and evangelist with wisdom and insight about ministry. Midway through his correspondence Paul wrote, “Without question, this is the mystery of our faith.” And then he quoted what many scholars believe to be an early hymn fragment:

Christ was revealed in a human body
and vindicated by the Spirit.
He was seen by angels
and announced to the nations.
He was believed in throughout the world
and taken to heaven in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)

There is poetic beauty, symmetry, and theological richness to this early hymn fragment. The series of couplets describe Christ’s incarnation; the presence of unseen realities; his revelation to this world; and, interestingly, his ascension to heaven. Though the cross, resurrection, and return of Christ are vital to the faith, they are not described in this early lyrical and creedal statement. The life of Christ is summed up in his birth and his ascension.

Forgotten Feast of Today

With this clear biblical witness, how did we lose the doctrine of the ascension in the modern evangelical church? How did something so fundamental to our faith become obscured and neglected? I think this loss has come, in part, because we no longer recognize the full story of the Christian year. Most evangelical churches only celebrate Christmas and Easter, leaving out Ascension Day and the Day of Pentecost. Our Christmas pageants, Easter cantatas, Passion dramas, and atonement sermons have developed our consciousness of the virgin-born, crucified, and resurrected Jesus. But we have forgotten the ascended Christ.

In subsequent articles, I will chart a way forward in rediscovering the ascended life of Jesus, reflecting on the present ministry of Christ and the Holy Spirit as well as the present realm of heaven.


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Download “Right Hand of the Father” by Paxson and Allison Jeancake, from Wide Awake.

[1] Luke’s writings (Luke-Acts) account for 25 percent of the New Testament, a figure based on the number of words in Luke-Acts relative to the total number of words in the New Testament. Luke places the ascension at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of the Book of Acts.

[2] Henry Reardon, Christ in the Psalms (Ben Lomond, CA: Conciliar Press, 2000), 45.

[3] John F. Maile, “The Ascension in Luke-Acts,” Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986): 29-59

[4] Kenneth Wolfe, “The Chiastic Structure of Luke-Acts and Some Implications for Worship,” Southwestern Journal of Theology 22 (1980) 60-71. A chiasm is a literary device used to organize a writer’s flow of thought in the form: A, B, C, D, C, B, A.

  • Dane

    Thanks for this thoughtful article, Paxson.

    You are certainly right that Christ’s ascension is neglected. Thanks for articulating this.

    I wonder if you overstate the significance of Christ’s ascension, though, throughout the article. E.g. your opening sentence, which really is exaggerated (‘its central event and theological emphasis’); are you overstating it to make a rhetorical point? Or your interpretation of Peter’s quote of Ps 16 in Acts 2, which Peter relates explicitly to Christ’s resurrection, not ascension. The ascension is certainly more important to Luke-Acts than popular preaching and teaching indicate, but it is not more crucial to Luke’s concerns than Christ’s resurrection, or the descent of the Spirit, or inaugurated eschatology more broadly conceived.

    I encourage you to be careful not to overstate your case as you draw out what is certainly a neglected aspect of NT teaching.

    Blessings on you brother and keep up the good work. Glad we are on the same team!

  • Paxson

    Dane, I appreciate your comments; however I do not think I am overstating my case with regard to the ascension as the “central event and theological emphasis” in Luke-Acts. Many scholars have recognized this, and I continue to be stimulated by articles pertaining to this topic. (Most recently, I came across a very interesting article and quote in the June 2011 issue of JETS, p. 275).

    Furthermore, Peter does explicitly refer to the ascension just a few verses after referencing Psalm 16. In the same manner and style of commentary Peter describes how “David did not ascend into the heavens…” and then he actually references the most quoted psalm in the New Testament, Psalm 110 – a clear reference to the ascension of Christ. In a brief article it is hard to say everything!

    Finally, with regard to the cross, the resurrection, and the ascension I don’t think of any of them as being “more important” than the other. I see them all as vital and necessary events in the mission of Christ.

  • Dane

    That’s very helpful, thanks Paxson.

  • Jacob

    Robert Peterson takes up the topic of Christ’s ascension in his new book just published, Salvation Accomplished by the Son. Very helpful and insightful.

  • Michael

    I agree very much with your assessment. I had the privilege to preach such a message last year. If you are interested, here is the link:

  • Tom Miller

    Thank you for a splendid reminder. This is something I too have been learning to “refocus” on as of late.
    Just another thought as to the reason it seems to be forgotten. There is a tendancy (a big one) in the church at large to make the gospel message man centered instead of God/Christ. The ascention is one part of the story that is blatently focused and centered on Christ – thus not as palatable to the man centered tendancies so prevelent in our thinking. So it’s not as “attractive” to the masses.

  • Carl

    I am reminded of the Orthodox (Greek, Russian, etc.) emphasis on the resurrected, ascended and ruling Christ = Pantokrator (in the dome of many Orthodox Churches surrounded by archangels, angels, serafim, saints, etc.,2,6,19,321,381&img=IJNTHSGC23

    Very(!) schematically: Protestants = cross without Christ = emphasis on resurrection; Catholics = crucifix, cross with Christ on the cross = emphasis on suffering/atonement; Orthodox = dome with Christ as Pantokrator = emphasis on the the resurrected, ascended, and ruling Christ.

  • Steve Martin

    Thanks for bringing this problem to light.

    We follow the Christian calender in our church and the ascension is preached about every year and read about from the lecturn in our lessons.

    This is one of pluses about following the Church year instead of the secular calender.

  • Mark

    Amen, how can He “present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, if indeed you continue in the faith”(Colossians 1:22-23)without an ascension and how glorious does that truth make his ascension? Thank you – good preacher

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  • Timothy

    I fully agree that the Ascension is amazingly underplayed such that I along with 99% of churchgoers are largely unaware of the theological significance of it. Partly this is because it falls on a weekday and not on a Sunday or public holiday.
    This provokes me to question whether it is really true that the Day of Pentecost is really ignored by most evangelical churches. As it falls on a Sunday, it is observed in practically all evangelical churches in UK. Is US different? Or is it just that some segment of the evangelical churches fail to observe it?
    A passage which is about the ascension that is not mentioned by the post is Phil 2:9. In the “Christ Hymn” the death of Jesus is strikingly followed not by his resurrection but by his exaltation. Phil 3 makes it clear that the resurrection is very central to Paul’s gospel but in the “Hymn” it is peculiarly omitted. This might support the claim that Paul is drawing upon a hymn that was current then but it also has implications for the importance that the early church had for the ascension.

  • Aimee Byrd

    Thanks for the reminder. I think part of the reason for a dimmed focus on Christ’s ascension is that we kind of lump it together with the resurrection. While they certainly go together, we wouldn’t want to downplay one over the other. The Christian Calendar is very helpful in this way.

  • Rajed Dacasin

    One of the greatest resources I have from Ligonier Ministries is a CD about the importance of the ascension. R.C. said something along the lines, “If you have the birth, the life, the death, the burial, the resurrection, and have no ascension, you don’t have the gospel.” That really struck me and made me think about the importance, glory, and beauty of Christ’s ascension. In that, we as believers have an assured confidence in what our Lord said, “Where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). Great insight brother!

  • J.J.

    Perhaps Luke is the only one to mention the ascension because Luke is the only one to narrate the next three decades and the ascension explains why the risen Christ didn’t keep appearing as often as he did those first few days. That said, the present status of the exalted Christ in the heavens is emphasized in Colossians, Ephesians, Hebrews, and even Revelation… but not the ascension as an event. None of the NT writers, except Luke (and possibly John), seem to be aware of the event. Blessings to you this Advent season.

  • James S

    I always think back to some old tapes I listened to many years ago by a good bible teacher named Malcolm Smith. He always would ask “How do we know that Christ has ascended and been crowned King?
    and answer “Because we have the Holy Spirit!”
    For that reason I cannot think of the Holy Spirit without thinking that Christ has ascended and been crowned King.

  • Darren

    Thanks for posting this. And to throw in two cents… actually two books, I was really helped in appreciating the importance of the ascension (and subsequently pentecost) by Doug Farrow’s “Ascension and Ecclesia,” and Michael Horton’s “People and Place.”

  • Deof Movestofca

    I would think the answer to the opening question would be fairly obvious. While most Christians believe that Jesus ascended and believe that He rules in heaven, they don’t directly connect the two in the same way they do the crucifixion and the atonement or the resurrection as confirmation of Jesus’ teachings. IOW, they see them (Jesus’ ascension and Jesus’ ruling in heaven) as two consecutive, separate “events”. Furthermore, while tha ascension might suffice to show that Jesus had (and continues to have) divine favor, this had already been established with the resurrection. Thus, it shouldn’t be too difficult to see why some people might consider it as redundant and RELATIVELY (sorry for typing in all caps here, but I wanted to make sure that no one could possibly miss the distinction between “unimportant” and “relatively unimportant” that I am making here) unimportant.

  • bruce

    Here is a recent album of retuned hymns all focusing on the ascension!

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