The Descension-Ascension of the Son of God

Dr. Brian Allison

The most prominent teaching in the Gospel of John is that of the descension-ascension of the Son of God. When we realize the various aspects of this teaching, as well as the synonymous and generally interchangeable language which the writer uses to communicate similar concepts within this teaching, we may confidently conclude that no other teaching in this Gospel is given more attention and development. Of all the writers of the New Testament, the writer of this fourth Gospel presents the most comprehensive and detailed treatment of this teaching. This paper will explore and present the Johannine teaching of the descension-ascension of the Son of God.

A Higher and a Lower Order of Existence

The Gospel of John presents a two-layer cosmology. Reality consists of a higher order (tÒ ¥nw), called heaven, and a lower order (tÒ k£tw), called earth.1 Heaven is higher than earth preeminently and perceptively, not scientifically. Jesus referred to Himself as 'coming down from heaven' (kataba…nw) (6:38), as well as to celestial beings "ascending and descending [¢naba…nontaj kaˆ kataba…nontaj]" after the heavens had been opened (1:51). The Son descended translocally (i.e., 'movement' from one place to another) and transdimensionally (i.e., 'movement' from one state to another).2 Further, these existential orders, though ontologically related (having a common origin - 1:3), are characteristically distinct. In addressing Nicodemus, Jesus said, "If I told you earthly things [t¦ ™p…geia] and you do not believe, how shall you believe if I tell you heavenly things [t¦ ™pour£nia]? And no one has ascended into heaven [¢nabšbhken e„j tÕn oÙpanÕn], but He who descended from heaven [™k toà oÙranoà katab£j], even the Son of Man" (3:12,13). A particular body of knowledge, as well as a particular form of existence, distinguishes the one order from the other. The higher order is specifically identified as the kingdom (basile…a) or realm of God. The lower order is specifically identified as simply the world (kÒsmoj) . This distinction is highlighted in Jesus' response to Pilate, "My kingdom [basile…a] is not of this world [kÒsmoj]. If My kingdom were of this world, then My servants would be fighting, that I might not be delivered up to the Jews; but as it is, My kingdom is not of this realm [™nteàqen]" (18:36). The basile…a is defined in terms of the Spirit and the intangible; the kÒsmoj is defined in terms of the flesh and the physical.3 The basile…a, which is characterized by holiness, righteousness, and peace, began to invade and intrude into this kÒsmos with the coming and very appearance of the Son of God. So, in confronting Nicodemus, Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God...Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, 'You must be born again'" (3:3,5-7). basile…a and kÒsmoj, as well as pneàma (Spirit) and s£rx (flesh), stand in an existential dichotomy with each other.

The Son of God is 'From Above'

The incarnate Son of God is identified with the higher order of existence. In instructing the Jews, Jesus remarked, "You are from below [™k tîn k£tw], I am from above [™k tîn ¥nw]; you are of this world [™k toÚtou toà kÒsmou], I am not of this world [oÙk...™k toà kÒsmou toÚtou]" (8:23; cf. 17:14,16). As Westcott notes, "He and they belonged essentially to different regions; the spring of their life, the sphere of their thoughts, were separated from the spring and the sphere of His by an infinite chasm."4 Christ has a heavenly disposition and a unique spiritual nature, though physically endowed with humanity. Both His original 'abode' and the point of identification with His essential personhood find their locus in the higher existential order, heaven. Now the Son of God actually came from the higher heavenly order of existence to the lower earthly one. Thus we read, "He who comes from above [`O ¥nwqen ™rcÒmenoj] is above all, he who is of the earth is from the earth [Ð ín ™k tÁj gÁj ™k tÁj ™stin] and speaks of the earth. He who comes from heaven [Ð ™k toà oÙranoà ™rcÒmenoj] is above all" (3:31). The divine was pleased to condescend and become identified with the material creation and the human condition.

The Son of God descended from heaven to the earth. The Johannine teaching of the ascension of Jesus Christ only derives meaning and significance on the backdrop of the prior descension of the Son of God.5 Christ ascended into heaven only because He first descended from heaven. Again, Jesus said, "And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who has descended from heaven, even the Son of Man" (3:13). The ascension referred to here is a physical one, rather than a post-resurrection one. This particular ascension has in view the entrance into heaven and the appropriation of insight and understanding into the heavenly mysteries of God. Jesus thus taught that no one has ascended into heaven through his own initiative, determination, or power in order to receive and understand the revelation of God, and has subsequently returned to the earth to declare it, but only the Son of Man who has actually been in heaven. The Son of Man knows the epistemological matters which pertain to heaven, and can subsequently disclose them, for He himself has come down from heaven. Now, the immediate context of the above utterance by Jesus was His interaction with Nicodemus, the reputed teacher of the Jews, concerning the matter of being born again of the Spirit and thus entering into the spiritual kingdom. Jesus identified this teaching on spiritual rebirth as that which pertains to matters in this cosmos - "earthly things". Being spiritually born again is an earthly truth because it pertains to that which may transpire on the earth. Subsequently, Nicodemus responded to this teaching by Jesus with consternation and doubt. He sought for clarification and Jesus, appearing surprised, responded, "Are you the teacher in Israel, and do not understand these things [that I am communicating concerning God's dealings in the earth]?" (3:10). He continued, "Truly, truly, I say unto you, we speak that which we [of the prophetic line] know, and bear witness of that which we [of the prophetic line] have seen [through God's direct revelation] and you do not receive our [prophetic] witness. If I told you earthly things [i.e., being spiritually born again] and you do not believe, how shall I tell you heavenly things [i.e., that which pertains to the heavenly counsels and the realm beyond this life and existence]?" (3:11,12). Nicodemus' inability to comprehend truth pertaining to God's ways in the earth indicated the impossibility of his comprehending truth pertaining to God's ways relative to heaven. A comprehension of heavenly truths presupposes the ability to comprehend earthly truths.

The descension of the Son presupposes that He had a prior existence, a preexistence, associated with this higher or heavenly existential order from which He descended. In metaphorical language, the Son is identified as the bread in this preexistent state, bread being a symbol and staple of life. So we read, "For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven [Ð kataba…nwn ™k toà oÙranoà], and gives life to the world...I [Jesus] am the bread of life...This is the bread which comes down out of heaven, so that one may eat of it and not die. I am the living bread that came down out of heaven" (6:33,35a,50,51a). The Son entered the world for the sole purpose of dying a redemptive death (12:27). His coming into the world as the Messiah, bringing deliverance, had been prophesied and predicted (11:27). Consequently, His atoning work, through the foreordained death on the cross, provided the grounds by which people could be saved unto eternal life (10:10). Now the significant point of this metaphor is that in His preexistent state, the Son of God was the possibility, ground, and means of life – physical, spiritual, and eternal life. Through the Son's descension, people could now be restored unto fellowship with God and enter into His life.

So, in His preexistent state, the Son is life (that is, He is the life-giver), but He is also the Word (that is, the revealer or communicator of divine knowledge and truth). The Son reveals God to, and in, the creation, both God's person and His ways. So the Gospel begins, "In the beginning was the Word [lÒgoj], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God...All things came into being by Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. In him was life, and the life was the light of men" (1:1,3f.). The logos has no beginning - He is deity; the logos sustained a relationship with the Father God - He enjoyed divine fellowship; the logos made everything - He is the sovereign Creator. It is this same logos, in and through whom is restorative and eternal life, who descended from heaven to the earth. The existential and spiritual, not spatial, 'movement' from tÒ ¥nw to tÒ k£tw was realized and symbolized in the incarnation. We read, "And the Word [lÒgoj] became flesh [s£rx], and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth" (1:14). Accordingly, through the incarnation, the logos submitted Himself to certain self-limitations; a fact difficult to adequately explain. He became a bona fide human being.6

The Father and the Son enjoyed a pre-cosmic and intrinsically intimate relationship - "He [the logos] was in the beginning with God" (1:2). Only the Son has personally both 'seen' God's form (edoj) and heard God's voice (fwn») (5:37). The Son has actually 'seen' and heard the Father because He Himself has enjoyed the personal and essential presence of the Father (6:46 - Ð ín par¦ toà qeoà). Now the Gospel presents this pre-cosmic, intrinsically intimate relationship as one which is contextualized by mutual 'glory.' Accordingly, Christ prayed, "And now, glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was...Father, I desire that they also, whom Thou hast given Me, be with Me where I am, in order that they may behold My glory, which Thou hast given Me; for Thou didst love Me before the foundation of the world" (17:5,24). In the incarnation, the divinity of the Son became 'concealed,' not removed. Barth rightly observes that in the incarnation "no change takes place, no transubstantiation, no replacing of the Word's mode of being by another, no dissolution of the logos in sarx, and also no development of a mixture of both, but a full union in which nothing is taken away from the divine determination of the Logos and nothing is added to the creaturely and sinful determination of the sarx. He is now 'very God and very man,' not one or the other, and not a third thing between them."7 The Son did not cease to be deity8, but He did cease to express manifest divinity (eg., the incarnate Son was not manifestly omniscient. For instance, He claimed ignorance to the hour of His future parousia - Mk. 13:32). Again, in the incarnation, the Son subjected Himself to self-limitations.9 The miracles and demonstrations of power performed by the Son in the earth were achieved more through the Spirit whom He received "without measure" (3:34), than because of His deity. Hence, the Son subsequently requested of the Father to endow Him with His pre-cosmic manifest divinity, the "manifestation of the entire divine perfection and blessedness;"10 and given the intrinsic, integral, and essential unity between the Father and the Son, this paternal endowment would be tantamount to the Son actually sharing in the Father's own manifest divinity. The Son's pre-cosmic manifest glory is simply defined in terms of majestic power (cf. 2:11).11 How it is that the Son could relinquish or set aside this manifest divinity through the incarnation remains an incomprehensible mystery, but equally incomprehensibly mysterious is the fact that the Father could, in turn, bestow and reinvest that divinity.

So the Son of God descended from heaven, but, more particularly, the Son of God came forth from the very presence of God. As mentioned, prior to the incarnation, the Son sustained an ineffable 'face to face' intimacy and fellowship with the Father, which was neither disturbed nor diminished with the incarnation. However, the prior intimacy and fellowship was purely spiritual, the subsequent intimacy and fellowship was spiritual and ritual (eg., Christ enjoyed fellowship, in part, through the acts of formal prayer and synagogal worship). In His descension, the Son left the presence of God (that is, the special, personal manifestation of God in heaven), in that His personhood became identified with His incarnate humanity which was confined to, and associated with, specific locality in the earth. Jesus taught, "For the Father Himself loves you, because you have loved Me, and have believed that I came forth from the Father [Óti ™gë par¦ [toà] qeoà ™xÁlqon]. I came forth from the Father, and have come into the world" (16:27,28a; cf. 6:46; 7:29; 17:8). The Son underwent a personal, and experiential, 'movement' or 'translation' from heaven to the earth, albeit inscrutable, via the incarnation, without any change or damage to His deity. He personally, not ontologically, left the manifest presence of God concentrated in heaven, though He was not bereft of any personal fellowship with God, which He continued to enjoy in His own incarnate person. This fellowship was defined not only in terms of ¢g£ph (sacrificial, committed love) (3:35), but also in terms of fil…a (affectionate, friendship love) (5:20) .

Logically so, though analytically and conceptually impenetrable, because of the delimiting and defining quality of the incarnation (that is, one becoming necessarily associated with, and marked by, time and space), the Son underwent an existential procession and a demonstrable or visible differentiation from the Father (without any diminution of deity), which was concurrent and correlative with the Son's personal, and experiential, 'movement' or 'translation' from heaven to the earth. We read, "Jesus said to them, 'If God were your Father, you would love Me; for I proceeded forth and have come from God [™gë g¦r ™k toà qeoà ™xÁlqon kai ¼kw]'" (8:42a). As Westcott correctly observes, "These words [of proceeding forth] can only be interpreted of the true divinity of the Son, of which the Father is the source and fountain. The connexion described is internal and essential, and not that of presence or external fellowship."12 The Son's local origin before His descension was heaven; His vital or subsistent origin is God Himself. The Son finds His being in the Father, though that being is eternal. The Son lives because of the Father, though the Father is not the prima causa of the Son. Though the Son sustains an existentially dependent relationship with the Father, the Son, however prohibitively paradoxical, is the causa sui (cause of Himself) and has vita in se (life in Himself). Notwithstanding, the Son lives, in the totality of His being (not simply in His humanity), "because of the Father [k¢gë zî di¦ tÕn patšra]" (6:57). The Son does not simply live physically, because of the Father, but rather He lives unitarily and holistically, because of the Father. The nature of this kind of 'living' entails an ontological unity and spiritual union with the Father – the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father (10:38; 14:10,11; 17:11,21,23).

So the Son's life is dependent upon the Father's life. The Father, as the ultimate source of all life, even "gave to the Son also to have life in Himself [kaˆ tù uƒù œdwken zw¾n œcein ™n ˜autJ]" (5:26), however paradoxical this statement may seem. As Luther wrote, "He assumed His humanity from the Virgin Mary, but His divinity he received from eternity from the Father."13 Consequently, Christ could say, "For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me...I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father" (10:17,18). The Son received His divinity from the Father inherently and eternally, not causally and temporally.

As the incarnate Son of God, this dependent character was underlined by the fact that the Son performed nothing through His "own initiative" (5:30; 8:28; 12:49), but was always responsive to, and motivated by, the Father's initiative.14 Jesus said, "Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner" (5:19). The ontological unity and spiritual union between the Father and the Son, the context in which the intrinsic dependent dynamic is realized, undoubtedly implies essential or hypostatic union. Thus Christ affirmed, "I and the Father are one" (10:30); and "If you had known Me, you would have known My Father also; from now on you know Him, and have seen Him" (14:7; cf. 12:45).

The Logos Descended to Enter the World

The eternal logos entered the world as the embodied logos who reveals and conveys divine knowledge and truth. The logos, in accord with its very nature as logos, expressly came "into the world to bear witness to the truth" (18:37). He descended to provide understanding and insight concerning God, His kingdom, and His ways. The logos of God became the light of humanity (that is, the revealer and revelation of divine knowledge and truth). We read, "In Him [logos] was life, and the life was the light of men...There was the true light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man" (1:4,9; cf. 3:19). With the Son "exegeting" the Father (1:18), religious and philosophical ignorance and stupidity are exposed and expelled. The light of the kingdom, which the logos communicates, counters and condemns the darkness of the cosmos. So Jesus self-professedly declared, "I have come as light into the world, that everyone who believes in Me may not remain in darkness" (12:46).

As the logos, the Son enters the world as the prophetic messenger of God. He came to deliver the personal words of God (14:24; 18:8). Hence, He only declared to His disciples and to the world that which the Father had spoken or revealed to Him (8:26). As the prophetic messenger, the Son was under moral constraint to declare God's words unadulterated. So Jesus admitted, "For I did not speak on My own initiative, but the Father Himself...has given Me commandment, what to say, and what to speak. And I know that His commandment is eternal life; therefore the things I speak, I speak just as the Father has told Me" (12:49,50). With the unique relationship that the Son sustained with the Father, the Son Himself received personal, direct, and intimate revelation from God (8:38,40). It must be emphasized that though the Son remained divine in His incarnate state, He received truth from God; this fact again underscores the concealment of the Son's divinity and His self-limitation. Jesus confessed that His teaching originated not with Himself, but with God (7:16). He confessed that He Himself was taught by the Father (8:28). That which He "heard from [the] Father," He subsequently "made known" (15:15). Now the design of the Son's prophetic ministry was to leave the hearers informed, enlightened, and thus ultimately inexcusable and culpable before God (15:22; cf. 12:48).

The Father Sent the Son Into the World

The dependency of the Son on the Father underscores the functional authority, and even functional priority, which the Father sustains over the Son in the economic Trinity, even prior to the incarnation. Thus Christ could announce that "the Father is greater than [He]" (14:28). Even in His preexistent state, the Son was subject to the Father's will, not coercively, and thus in exercising His functional authority (and priority), the Father could commission the Son to descend and go into the world. To be sure, the Father and the Son are equal in essence, nature, and attributes; but are different in their position, function, and role in the divine economy (analogous to a marriage relationship between a man and a woman). The Son is not restrictedly subordinate to the Father, but rather He was agreeably submissive to the Father's will, the inter-divine relationship being absolutely integral and harmonious. Jesus Christ descended from the Father, and from heaven, because He was paternally sent (5:23,24; 6:44; 7:18,28; 8:16,18; 11:42; 12:44; 13:20; 15:21; 17:3,21,25). Having stated, "And no one has ascended into heaven, but He who descended from heaven, even the Son of Man," Christ reiterated this fact, using interchangeable language, "For God did not send [¢postšllw] the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world should be saved through Him" (3:17). The Father appointed or charged the Son to go forth into the cosmos in order to fulfil a mission.15 The appointment of the Son for the mission was synonymous with the consecration or setting aside of the Son for service - "the Father sanctified [¢gi£zw] and sent [the Son] into the world" (10:36).16 The commissioning of the Son of God was realized in His subsequent descending. The commissioning of the Son by the Father is the occasion for the descension of the Son via the incarnation.

Now the reason for the Son's descension from heaven to the earth, which is also the reason for the Son's commissioning, was to do the will of God. The will of God is both the detailed substance and provides actual significance to the functional authority of God. Jesus declared, "For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day. For this is the will of My Father, that everyone who beholds the Son and believes in Him, may have eternal life; and I Myself will raise Him up on the last day" (6:38-40). Jesus Christ was constrained and propelled by God's will. God's will was His spiritual sustenance. This will was basically salvific. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners; He came to gather the elect. He came to purchase redemption and die for those whom the Father gave to Him, in order that they might participate in His life.

So the Father God commissioned the Son to fulfil His salvific will. Now this salvific will involved, or consisted of, performing the kingdom works of God – a demonstration of the powers of the higher existential order. So Christ said, "My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to accomplish His work [aÙtoà tÕ œrgon]" (4:34). The works of God were primarily identified with the Spirit-effectuated miracles, particularly the miracles of healing and beneficent provision. These miracles were signs and revelations of the invasion and intrusion of the kingdom of God into the cosmos. Christ had a specific assignment to fulfil. The fulfilling of God's salvific will was the actual accomplishment of God's kingdom works. In addressing the matter of witnesses which served to support the truth of the Son's identity (that is, that He is indeed the Christ, the Son of God) and His divine assignment (that is, actually being commissioned by the Father), Jesus said, "But the witness which I have is greater than that of John; for the works [t¦ œrga] which the Father has given Me to accomplish, the very works I do, bear witness of Me, that the Father has sent Me" (5:36). Now the works, though performed by Christ, were actually determined by, and sourced in, the Father (10:32 - ™k toà patrÒj). Accordingly, Jesus indicated that the works which He had been performing clearly confirmed and validated the fact that God indeed had commissioned Him. The proof of Jesus' Messiahship and divinity lay in the demonstration and accomplishment of the kingdom works. These kingdom works were simply love deeds done to the glory of God with the design of evoking belief in Jesus' redemptive and divine identity, as well as in the paternal commissioning of Him, which would ultimately lead to salvation. For instance, referring to the sickness and eventual death of Lazarus, Jesus said, "This sickness is not unto death, but for the glory of God, that the Son of God may be glorified;" concerning which He prayed, "Father, I thank Thee that Thou heardest Me. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always; but because of the people standing around I said it, that they may believe that Thou didst send Me" (11;4,41,42; also 10:25,37,38; 14:11).

Jesus faithfully and completely accomplished these assigned works, thereby fulfilling the Father's will. Again, in His high priestly prayer, He supplicated, "I glorified Thee on the earth, having accomplished the work which Thou hast given to Me to do. And now glorify Thou Me together with Thyself, Father, with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was" (17:4,5). The works of God assigned to Christ were fully accomplished, and thus the will of God had been completely satisfied, when Christ uttered on the cross, "It is finished [Tetšlestai]" (19:30). So Pink writes, "It was not the last gasp of a worn-out life. No, it was the declaration on the part of the Divine Redeemer that all for which He came from heaven to earth to do, was now done; that all which was needful to reveal the glorious character of God had now been accomplished; that everything necessary for the putting away of the sins of His people, providing for them a perfect standing before God, securing for them an eternal inheritance and fitting them for it, had all been done."17 With the assigned and prescribed kingdom works actually accomplished, the Son could now return to heaven and to His Father.

The Son Ascended to Present Himself

The Son descended 'from above' with the express design and intent of eventually ascending 'from below'. The 'coming from' necessarily entailed the 'going to.' Christ ascended physically, translocally, and transdimensionally. Metzger states, "So the ascension should not be regarded as a journey from earth to heaven that required a certain number of minutes, days, months, or years to be accomplished. In other words, the ascension, properly understood, has no more to do with astrophysics than does the incarnation."18 The ascension of Jesus Christ may only be rightly interpreted and explained as a consummative return. This fact is implied in the question by Christ to the Jews, "What then if you should behold the Son of Man ascending [¢naba…nw] where He was before [Ópou Ãn tÕ prÒteron;]?" (6:62). Thus Jesus self-consciously and resolutely professed to His disciples at the conclusion of His mission, "I came forth from the Father [™xÁlqon par¦ toà patrÕj], and have come into the world; I am leaving [¢f…hmi] the world again, and going to the Father [poreÚomai prÕj tÕn patšra]" (16:28; cf. 8:14; see also 8:21,22; 13:33,36; 14:12; 17:11,13). Again, the ascension of Christ must not be viewed as an isolated, independent, or self-contained event. According to John's Gospel, the ascension of Christ presupposes and complements the descension of Christ. The ascension is one coherent salvific act within the overall divine salvific movement. Accordingly, Jesus knew the appointed and exact "hour...that He should depart [metaba…nw] out of this world" (13:1). He knew His celestial origin, as well as His historical destination (13:3).

The fact that the Son had a God-ordained mission, and that He was to return to the Father, implies the notion of accountability. The Father had expressed His will and had commissioned the Son for special service. The Son's free and appropriate response to the Father's functional authority was one of compliance and obedience. Hence, the Son became answerable to the Father. Accordingly, the Son had to "go to Him who sent Him" (7:33; cf. 16:5).19 Having completed the work assigned to Him, the Son appeared before, and reported to, the Father.20 Thus after His resurrection, Jesus stated to Mary, "Stop clinging [M» mou ¤ptou - present middle imperative] to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father [oÜpw g¦r ¢nabšbhka prÕj tÕn patšra]; but go to My brethren, and say to them, 'I ascend to My Father ['Anaba…nw prÕj tÕn patšra - present active indicative] and your Father, and My God and your God'" (20:17). When Jesus had disclosed Himself to her, Mary was supposedly overwhelmed; and with joy, apparently began to touch Him repeatedly, most likely as an expression of affection.21 In apparent jubilant disbelief, she proceeded to touch the once crucified, but now resurrected, body of Christ. Christ responded by forbidding her such a liberty. Christ did not forbid her because His body had become untouchable after His resurrection, for He presented His body to Thomas Didymus, eight days later, and said to him, "Reach here your finger, and see My hands; and reach here your hand, and put it into My side; and be not unbelieving, but believing" (20:27). The reason why Christ forbade Mary to continue to touch Him was that He had not yet 'ascended to the Father' (20:17b).22 Only after He had ascended, would one be free to touch Him, as Thomas did. Thus, the fact that Thomas was free to touch Christ implies that Christ had actually ascended to the Father before His encounter with him. Before He could be presented to His disciples again, who would extend and apply His salvific work, Christ had to return and present Himself to God His Father. That presentation officially marked the completion and conclusion of His ministry and the mission entrusted to Him by the Father.23 The ascension subsequently extended into exaltation/session. The descension of the Son was realized in the incarnation (which entailed humiliation); the ascension of the Christ was fully realized in glorification (which entailed exaltation). In the descension, the Son assumed humanity; in the ascension, the Christ assumed manifest divinity (i.e., the authority and power of God).

One of the results of this completed ministry and mission by the Son was the investment of authority and the inherited prerogative to bestow the Holy Spirit. Prior to His death, Jesus had consoled His disciples, "But I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away [¢pšrcomai] [to the Father]; for if I do not go away, the Helper shall not come to you; but if I go, I will send [pšmpw] Him to you" (16:7). Only in 'going away', after His atoning death, would Christ receive the Holy Spirit for His people. He clearly received the Spirit on resurrection day, which means that He must have also ascended on that same day. Hence, we read "When therefore it was evening, on that [same] day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst, and said to them, 'Peace be with you'...And when He had said this, He breathed on them, and said to them, 'Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, their sins have been forgiven them. If you retain the sins of any, they have been retained'" (20:19,22). Christ ascended to the Father in the morning; He bestowed the firstfruits of the Spirit on the apostles in the evening. The Scriptures present two post-resurrection ascensions of Christ - a private and unobservable one for the sake of the Son appearing before the Father indicating that His mission had been completed, and that He had secured the Spirit's post-resurrection ministry; and a public and observable one for the sake of the apostles who were the chosen eye-witnesses to proclaim the Gospel and found the Church. As Toon argues, "This view, that there was a secret exaltation to the Father's right hand on Easter morning, followed by a visible demonstration to the disciples of the truth of this at a later time, deals effectively with the problem of the whereabouts of Jesus in the forty days...there was a secret ascension on Easter morning and then on the fortieth day there was a symbolic demonstration of that ascension by Jesus for the benefit of his disciples."24

Practical Significance

1. Jesus Christ's special abode, in the manifestation of His divinity and glory, is heaven from which He descended, where He sustains absolute hypostatic union and essential spiritual union with God the Father. He reigns through His ascension. He is the sovereign King and Lord. He rules unchallenged. His saving purposes shall be fully realized in the world through the Church. Thus Christians should have great confidence and assurance as they live and labour for the Lord Christ. Further, in light of this glorification of Christ, He is worthy of the humble worship of His creatures. Henry Martyn, an Anglican evangelical missionary of the 19th century, died when he was 31 years old because of physical exhaustion due to his intense missionary effort. When Martyn was in India ministering to Hindus and Muslims, he saw, on one occasion, a statue of a standing Mohammed before whom Jesus Christ was bowing down. With a pierced heart, Martyn bemoaned, "I cannot bear to live, if Christ is always to be dishonoured." That remark captures the essence of a healthy Christian attitude toward the person of Jesus Christ.

2. Jesus Christ is the sole revealer and revelation of God. He has brought the truth of God to the peoples of the world. He has come down to humanity and has spoken definitely and finally. All other religions, such as Buddhism or Islam are false, and thus are idolatrous. They are to be condemned, though tolerated.

3. The fact that the Son of God has been sent by the Father is an essential part of the Gospel. We read, "They [Jews] said therefore to Him [Jesus], 'What shall we do, that we may work the works of God?' Jesus answered and said to them, 'This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent'" (6:28,29). The point is even clearer in the light of John 11:41ff., "And so they removed the stone [from the tomb in which Lazarus had been buried]. And Jesus raised His eyes, and said, 'Father, I thank Thee that Thou heardest Me. And I knew that Thou hearest Me always; but because of the people standing around I said it, that they may believe that Thou didst send Me." It is an article of faith that Jesus Christ is the divine representative, the prophetic messenger of God, who was commissioned to perform a salvific mission.

4. Christ, the heavenly Sent One, in turn, sends out His people to fulfil a mission. After His resurrection, Jesus addressed His disciples, "Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you" (19:21). Christ is the model and archtype for His people, and they are to follow in His train. Though this utterance was primarily intended for the apostles, it also has significance and relevance for the whole Church throughout history. Christian believers must individually view themselves as sent ones, representatives of the Lord Jesus, whether they are in the factory, the hospital, the office, or the home.

5. In the healing of the man born blind, Jesus taught, "We must work the works of Him who sent Me, as long as it is day; night is coming, when no man can work" (9:4). A corporate responsibility exists for performing the works of God. The works of God must still be performed. The kingdom works that Jesus performed are to be continued by His disciples, and they must do them whenever they have opportunity. Similarly, as Jesus ascended after accomplishing His assigned works, Christians too, in spirit, shall ascend after accomplishing their assigned works. John Wesley confidently remarked on one occasion, "I am immortal until my work is done." The early death of such men as Murray M'Cheyne (1813-1843) and David Brainerd (1718-1747) should not be unduly bemoaned and regretted. God removed them from this life because they had presumably accomplished the works He had prescribed for them. Remember, Jesus' ministry lasted only three and one half years.

6. Jesus assured His people that they would do greater works than He. He promised, "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who believes in Me, the works that I do he shall do also; and greater works than these shall He do; because I go to the Father" (14:12). What a staggering statement! Jesus is not teaching that believers will perform more impressive or extraordinary works than He performed. There is no more impressive or extraordinary work than raising someone from the dead, which Jesus performed; but Jesus is teaching that believers will perform works that may have a greater impact and be more extensive in effect.25 Jesus laboured in Palestine, but His disciples would go throughout the whole world fulfilling the will of God and performing these kingdom works amongst all tribes, peoples, and nations. We think it is a marvellous work that someone should be raised physically from the dead, but admittedly it is a more marvellous work that one should rise from spiritual death, being born again. Jesus gives us that honourable task of being vehicles of God's grace to declare the everlasting Gospel whereby people may be converted and transformed for time and eternity.26 Jesus associated the performance of the "greater works" with His 'going to the Father,' which implies that through the bestowal of the Spirit, these greater works shall be performed. Through spiritual gifts, believers perform the 'greater works.'27

7. Believers should perform their kingdom works with passion. Christ was bound and driven to do the Father's will. On one occasion Lytton Strachey (1880-1932), the British writer who exploded Victorian hagiography, was asked what he considered to be the greatest thing in the world. In responding, he inclined his reed-like body forth, complete with owl-like eyes and a spectral beard, and in an elegant high-pitched tone he lanquidly piped up, "Why, passion, of course." Wilhelm Hegel (1770-1831), the German philosopher, wrote, "We may affirm absolutely that nothing great in the world has been accomplished without passion." Similarly, Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882), the American writer and transcendentalist philosopher, said, "Every great and commanding movement in the annals of the world is the triumph of enthusiasm. Nothing great was ever achieved without it." We live in an age of complacency and indifferentism. Such maladies also deeply affect the Church. Christians are notoriously great starters. The problem is that they are often poor finishers. Jesus resolutely and passionately completed the works that God gave Him, and believers are to follow in His train, regardless of the obstacles or opposition.


1 C.K. Barrett, The Gospel According to St. John, 2 ed., London: SPCK, 1978, p. 341.

2 Peter Toon writes, "Evangelicals have traditionally believed, taught, and confessed that heaven is both a place and a state...In insisting that heaven is both a state and a place, Christianity has usually been careful to deny any knowledge of its particular and specific spatial characteristics or of its precise relation to the physical universe." "The Meaning of the Ascension for Christ," Bibliotheca Sacra, Vol. 140, No. 560, Oct.- Dec. 1983, p. 291. Leon Morris provocatively remarks, "Only a crassly literal localization of heaven would require us to think that Jesus had to leave heaven to come to earth." The Gospel According to John, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rpt. 1971; 1987, p. 224.

3 Rudolf Bultmann, The Gospel of John. A Commentary, trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray, Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1971, p. 62.

4 B.F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St. John, Vol. II, London: John Murray, 1880, p. 130.

5 Robert Kaylor affirms that the descent and ascent of the Son belong together as a unit, and that "all of the major themes of Johannine theology are bound up with this motif." The Ascension Motif in Luke-Acts, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Fourth Gospel, Doctoral Thesis, Ann Arbor: University Micro films, Inc., 1964, p. 128. See also Joseph Haroutunian, "The Doctrine of the Ascension," Interpretation, Vol. 10, 270-281, July 1956, p. 275.

6 Marcus Dods, The Gospel of St. John, Vol. 1, 7th ed., London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903, p. 9.

7 Karl Barth, Witness to the Word. A Commentary on John 1, ed. Walther Furst, trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986, p. 91.

8 Thomas Torrance correctly states, "Now of course we cannot say that the eternal Logos became flesh in such a way that part of the Logos was excluded - that is what the early Lutherans were afraid of, for the Logos was totally incarnate - nevertheless he remained wholly himself, the Creator and Ruler and Preserver of the universe of all creaturely reality. He became man with out ceasing to be God, and so entered space and time without leaving the throne of God." Space, Time and Resurrection, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976, p. 126.

9 Elmer Towns, "The Ascension," Fundamentalist Journal, Vol. 3, No. 6, June 1984, p. 13.

10 Heinrich August Wilhelm Meyer, Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John, trans. William Urwick, trans., rev., and ed. Frederick Crombie, Winona Lake: Alpha Publications, 1979, pp. 462f. See also Herschel H. Hobbs, An Exposition of the Gospel of John, Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968, p. 240.

11 See also Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible. The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi), Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1970, p. 752.

12 Westcott, p. 136.

13 Martin Luther, Luther Works. Sermons on the Gospel of St. John, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1957, p. 323.

14 David L. Mealand, "The Christology of the Fourth Gospel," Scottish Journal of Theology, Vol. 31, No. 5, Oct. 1978, p. 459.

15 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel, Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942, p. 507.

16 Frederick Louis Godet, Commentary on the Gospel of John, Vol. II, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, n.d., p. 166. Also, E.W. Hengstenbrg, Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, trans. Cyril J. Barber, Vol. I, Minneapolis: Klock & Klock Christian Pub., Inc., rpt. 1865; 1980, p. 542.

17 Arthur W. Pink, Exposition of the Gospel of John, Vol. 3, Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1945, p. 245.

18 Bruce Metzger, "The Meaning of Christ's Ascension," Christianity Today, Vol. 10, No. 17, May 1966, p. 4. See also David P. Scaer, "Jesus Did Not Leave – He Reigns Through Us," Christianity Today, Vol. XXVI, No. 10, May 1982, p. 24.

19 David Louis Claxton, The Distinctive Emphases in the Johannine Passion Narrative As a Key to the Interpretation of John's Gospel, Doctoral Thesis, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1986, pp. 101,122.

20 Peder Borgen, "God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel," The Interpretation of John, ed., John Aston, Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986, p. 71.

21 Bruce, p. 389.

22 J.H. Bernard, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John, Vol. II, ed. A.H. McNeile, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928, p. 670.

23 See Wayne A. Meeks, "The Man From Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism," Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 91, No. 1, March 1972, p.44.

24 Peter Toon, The Ascension of Our Lord, Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1984, pp. 11f.

25 Barnaba Lindars, The Gospel of John. New Century Bible, London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972, p. 475.

26 Barrett, p. 460.

27 Bruce, p. 300.

Works Cited

a. Essays

Borgen, Peder Borgen. "God's Agent in the Fourth Gospel." The Interpretation of John. ed., John Aston. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986.

b. Periodicals

Joseph Haroutunian. "The Doctrine of the Ascension." Interpretation. Vol. 10, July 1956, 270-281.

Mealand, David L. "The Christology of the Fourth Gospel." Scottish Journal of Theology. Vol. 31, No. 5, Oct. 1978, 449-467.

Meeks, Wayne A. "The Man From Heaven in Johannine Sectarianism." Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 91, No. 1, March 1972, 44-72.

Metzger, Bruce. "The Meaning of Christ's Ascension." Christianity Today. Vol. 10, No. 17, May 1966, 3-4.

Scaer, David P. "Jesus Did Not Leave-He Reigns Through Us." Christianity Today. Vol. XXVI, No. 10, May 1982, 24-25.

Toon, Peter. "The Meaning of the Ascension for Christ." Bibliotheca Sacra. Vol. 140, No. 560, Oct.- Dec. 1983, 291-301.

Towns, Elmer. "The Ascension." Fundamentalist Journal. Vol. 3, No. 6, June 1984, 12-14.

c. Books

Barrett, C.K. The Gospel According to St. John. 2 ed. London: SPCK, 1978.

Barth, Karl. Witness to the Word. A Commentary on John 1. ed. Walther Furst. trans. Geoffrey W. Bromiley. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986.

Bernard, J.H. A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. John. Vol. II. ed. A.H. McNeile, Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1928.

Brown, Raymond. The Anchor Bible. The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi). Garden City: Doubleday & Co., Inc., 1970.

Bultmann, Rudolf. The Gospel of John. A Commentary. trans. G.R. Beasley-Murray. Oxford: Basil Black-well, 1971.

Claxton, David Louis. The Distinctive Emphases in the Johannine Passion Narrative As a Key to the Interpretation of John's Gospel. Doctoral Thesis. Ann Arbor: University Microfilms International, 1986.

Dods, Marcus. The Gospel of St. John. Vol. 1. 7th ed. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1903.

Godet, Frederick L. Commentary on the Gospel of John. Vol. II. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub.House, n.d.

Hobbs, Herschel H. An Exposition of the Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1968.

Kaylor, Robert. The Ascension Motif in Luke-Acts, the Epistle to the Hebrews, and the Fourth G ospel. Doctoral Thesis, Ann Arbor: University Microfilms, Inc., 1964.

Lenski, R.C.H. The Interpretation of St. John's Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.

Lindars, Barnaba. The Gospel of John. New Century Bible. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1972.

Luther, Martin. Luther Works. Sermons on the Gospel of St. John. ed. Jaroslav Pelikan. Saint Louis: Concordia Pub. House, 1957.

Meyer, Heinrich August Wilhelm. Critical and Exegetical Handbook to the Gospel of John. trans. William Urwick. trans., rev., and ed. Frederick Crombie. Winona Lake: Alpha Publications, 1979.

Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, rpt. 1971; 1987.

Pink, Arthur W. Exposition of the Gospel of John. Vol. 3. Grand Rapids: Zondervan Pub. House, 1945.

Toon, Peter. The Ascension of Our Lord. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Pub., 1984.

Torrance, Thomas. Space, Time and Resurrection. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1976.

Westcott, B.F. The Gospel According to St. John. Vol. II. London: John Murray, 1880.