“Christ maintains his humanity to all eternity… It is a clothing which He does not put off. It is His temple which He does not leave. It is the form which He does not lose.” ~Karl Barth
For the Gospel to truly be “good news” there needs to be more to the story than life beyond the tomb; we must also hear the coronation anthem of the Living One upon the throne. Older Divines spoke of the work of Jesus in terms of “humiliation” and “exaltation,” tracing his covenant movements from glory to glory. In so doing, they drew particular attention to the facts of incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection, ascension, and his continuing heavenly session. Thus in condescending to be with us, Christ took up our humanity as the Last Adam, raising a fallen race in order to unite it mysteriously to the eternal life of God. As Athanasius said, “He became what we are so that we might become what he is.” It was through the incarnation that God pitched the true tabernacle in the person of Jesus, and it is through continuing incarnation that men are able to enter into the heavenly temple not made with hands.
To be clear, this neither denigrates the importance of the cross and resurrection, nor does it relegate them to a place of secondary importance. Rather, it establishes the very nature of their effectuality. For on the tree and in the tomb it was God in Christ reconciling the world unto himself. It is precisely because the “Word was made flesh” that the words spoken from both Calvary and the crypt have such eternal potency. To diminish the salvific nature of the incarnation serves only to undercut the rationale behind Good Friday and Easter. We are redeemed by Christ—the slain, yet living Lord—the God who took humanity into union with divinity so that we might be caught up together and made to sit with him upon his throne. Bethlehem is as metropolitan in the drama of redemption as is Jerusalem.
Our salvation is utterly dependent upon the staggering reality that the eternal Son of God came to us as a mortal man. If he did not come all the way down—down into our fallenness and weakness—then we are not all the way saved. The incarnation is the good news that Jesus fully entered into our lost and forsaken condition, taking up into himself our very humanity. God bridged the gap between us and himself. He forded the breach in our communion created by sin, and the fissure gaping with our mortal fragility and bondage to decay. As the Last Adam who did not buckle beneath God’s righteousness requirements, Christ came to live a life of faithful obedience to the Father on our behalf. Such faithfulness on his part led Jesus, in our name and in our flesh, to endure the cross which was ours to bear. Eye for eye, tooth for tooth, tree for tree, the Last Adam righteously regained what the first Adam legally lost. Consequently, his life and obedience as a man serve as the foundation of our salvation.
Ultimately the incarnation spelled the resolution of our estrangement from our Father. Our long exile was at its end. The rumors were not true; you can go home again. The wise woman from Tekoa was right: we were as water spilt upon the ground, but God had devised means whereby his banished be not expelled from him. Bethlehem marked a reconciliation of cosmic proportions. There, between ox and ass, humanity and divinity were joined together in One Hallowed Person. Behold the mystery of Immanuel—God with us! Jesus Christ constituted the unification of divine transcendence and human immanence; the Untouchable Otherness now stretches forth ten fingers and toes and lays hold upon the world of men!
But this is more than mere reconciliation; this is a revolution! This is not simply a return to Eden; this marks a new Genesis, the first day of a new creation. Whereas the first Adam was relationally near to God and covenantally bound to the Father, Jesus Christ is at once very God of very God and true man of true man. ‘For us men and our salvation,’ Christ actualized a unity of divinity and humanity that is as ontologically real as it is relational. He could effect our redemption because the incarnation made him fit to do so. He is thus the One who is apart from us as the divine Judge and near to us as the Judge judged in our place. Jesus Christ is both God and Humanity, the One in whom we discover both an asymmetry and an analogy. Transcendence and immanence find their telos in the person of the Stranger of Galilee. And after all this our fingernail has hardly left an imprint upon the surface of this incredible doctrine.
But just as true, our salvation is utterly dependent upon his continuing union with us. If God came to us where we are, but then left us and went away without taking us with him, we would yet be in our sins. If the One standing at the right hand of the Father is not as much a man as he is God then we have no hope of entering behind the veil. If Christ dropped the hypostatic union with humanity then he also dropped us, and were are left to our own devices on the dying side of the great divide.
Thankfully, a proper understanding of the ascension protects the truth of Christ’s continuing incarnation. Meditating upon this grand fact also opens the treasure house of joy to our souls. Frederick Farrar when writing concerning the ascension in his 1895 book, The Life of Christ Represented in Art, noted that the main thrust of ascension theology “is that Christ has forever taken into the Godhead the form of the Manhood.” Then he appended this enigmatic but triumphant fragment of a poem:
‘Tis the weakness in strength that I cry for!
my flesh that I seek
In the Godhead! I seek and I find it!
Oh Saul, it shall be
A Face like my face that receives thee;
a Man like to me
Thou shalt love, and be loved by forever;
a Hand like this hand
Shall throw open the gate of new Life to thee!
See the Christ stand.
“A hand like this hand shall throw open the gate of new Life to thee!” Since the incarnation continues, we are included in the very life of God. That fact lies at the epicenter of the ascension. We are not left to ourselves, not left alone. United to him by the Spirit, to the one who remains united to us, we may follow wherever he has gone.
Christ did not merely come down to earth in order to slum it for thirty-three years before shedding our skin, knocking off the dust of human clay, and then returning to the ivory palaces. The Lord Jesus descended in order to gather us up and bring us with him into the very presence of the Father on high. Ascending to heaven in earth-born clay, our champion bears the marks of our everlasting reconciliation—scars and stripes forever. The riven side beside the Father’s throne assures us that there is a place at his side for redeemed humanity. From an opened side God formed a bride for the first Adam; from an opened side God formed a bride for the Last Adam. The ascension did not simply signal a return to business as usual between God and humanity. The taking of our humanity into himself and into the presence of God was, according to T.F. Torrance, “the final reality enduring endlessly into eternity.”
The ascension of Jesus marked both end and beginning, completion and inauguration, in the person and work of Christ. Consider its relation to the Munus Triplex; the three-fold office of prophet, priest, and king. 1) The ascension is a turn in Christ’s prophetic office. It marks the end of our hearing his human voice speak on earth. He is gone. Yet the ascension provides the necessary prelude to the sending of the Holy Spirit who brings the voice of Christ to us. 2) The ascension signals the completion of Jesus’ priestly ministry of atonement, the heart of which is seen in the cross, though it includes what Calvin calls “the whole course of his obedience” from incarnation through sinless life, atoning sacrifice and resurrection triumph. The ascension is at the same time, though, the beginning of Jesus’ session in heaven; his priestly appearance on our behalf to bring the sacrifice of his life before the Father, and intercede for those he now calls his brothers. 3) The ascension completes the triumph on earth of Christ’s resurrection and the demonstration of his kingly glory. It is the crowning moment of his rising, even as it inaugurates his eternal reign as Lord, who is seated in power at the Father’s right hand. If the “good news” of Jesus concerns the King laying hold upon his kingdom, then without the ascension there is no gospel. The ascension was coronation day; that day in which the Son of Man approached the Ancient of Days and was enthroned as undisputed king of heaven and earth.
“There’s a Man in the glory
Whose Life is for me.
He overcame Satan;
From bondage He’s free.
In Life He is reigning;
How kingly is He!
His Life in the glory,
My life must be;
His Life in the glory,
My life must be.”
- Karl Barth Church Dogmatics, IV.2 § 64 (102). ↑
- Athanasius, On the Incarnation, 54 ↑
- Frederick William Farrar The Life of Christ Represented in Art, 455. ↑
- Ibid. 455 ↑
- Thomas F. Torrance A Passion for Christ, 15. ↑
- John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, Book III, 54. ↑