This week’s excerpt from Heidelberg concerns the section from the Apostles’ Creed that deals with Christ’s ascension into heaven, recorded in Acts 1.
Q 46. How do you understand the words: “He ascended into heaven”?
A: That Christ was taken up from the earth into heaven before the eyes of his disciples and remains there on our behalf until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.
Some modern theologians have struggled with the ascension, as it seems to imply a “local” heaven, just above the stars. Writers such as John A.T. Robinson, who approached Christianity from a bit more of an existentialist viewpoint, were more likely to interpret this event symbolically, arguing that heaven isn’t “up there”, but in an altogether different realm entirely.
This, however, seems to be a misunderstanding. Believers in the ascension are not denying that heaven is an altogether different dimension. The fact, though, that the disciples witnessed him ascend into the clouds is attested to in Scripture and can’t be dismissed. This is well explained in Dr. Derek Thomas’s sermon, “Gazing into Heaven”, preached at Jackson’s First Presbyterian Church.
Q 47. Then is Christ not with us unto the end of the world, as he has promised us?
A: Christ is true man and true God. As a man he is no longer on earth, but in his divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit, he is never absent from us.
Christ keeps his promise to be with us till the end of the world, although he is not with us in the same sense that he was bodily with the apostles of the first century. Christ is present through the ministry of the Holy Spirit, as he told his disciples on the evening of his betrayal: “I will not leave you as orphans, but I will come to you.”
Q 48. But are not the two natures in Christ separated from each other in this way, if the humanity is not wherever the humanity is?
A: Not at all: for since divinity is incomprehensible and everywhere present, it must follow that the divinity is indeed beyond the bounds of the humanity which it has assumed, and is indeed nonetheless ever in that humanity as well, and remains personally united to it.
This is arguably one of the more technical sections of Heidelberg, as it delves into the complicated inter-relatedness of Christ’s divinity and humanity. The relationship between Christ’s divinity and humanity became such a controversial issue in the early church that it led to an ecumenical council, Chalcedon, which convened in 451. From that council came the doctrine that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man, and that as the God-Man, he has two natures.
Not all Christians readily accepted Chalcedon’s conclusion. The Monophysite churches of Armenia, Egypt, Syria, and Ethiopia rejected it and remained cut off from the Orthodox Church to this day. The Monophysites didn’t deny Christ’s divinity or his humanity, but they argued that these were joined together in one united nature.
The controversy was reignited during the Reformation when Lutherans argued against the Reformed church that Christ is physically present in the Lord’s Supper. Reformed Christians’ counter-argument was that Christ is physically in heaven, and that he is spiritually present in the Lord’s Supper. The debate continues today on a smaller scale.
Rev. Lane Townsend of Toomsuba Presbyterian Church (Presbytery of Mississippi–PCUSA) commented on this, saying, “We don’t believe in the physical presence, that Christ’s actual flesh and blood is here… Christ, when instituting the Supper, hadn’t suffered yet. How could he, there in the body, be physically present in the elements as he passed them out to his disciples? If he wasn’t physically present in the bread and wine when the meal was instituted, we see no Scriptural reason to say he’s present now.”
Without endeavoring to explain all of this in detail, Heidelberg encourages us to remember that Christ’s divine nature and human nature are united and can never be understood apart from each other. By saying Christ is no longer physically on earth, we are not saying he is no longer truly human. As Scripture teaches, when Christ returns, he returns as a man, showing that he didn’t simply become Man temporarily—it is an eternal incarnation.
Q 49. What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
A: First, that he is our Advocate in the presence of his Father in heaven. Second, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that he, as the Head, will also take us, his members, up to himself. Third, that he sends us his Spirit as a counterpledge by whose power we seek what is above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God, and not things here on earth.
What does Christ actually do in heaven? This question delves into explaining this by first pointing out that Christ is our Advocate (1 John 2:1-2). In other words, he speaks to the Father on our behalf; he is our intercessor and mediator. It is on account of his intercession that we don’t fall away from the faith—his prayers on our behalf keep us knitted to himself. Christ’s words are ever visible to God, as a reminder that his children will not be condemned, but pardoned.
Secondly, the fact that Christ is physically in heaven demonstrates that we too will have a physical existence in heaven. In Christianity, The after-life is not a realm of disembodied spirits. Finally, because Christ is in heaven, our focus should be on heaven, not on earthly things.