Stories told of historical figures chronicle their lives and deaths; there might be some sort of epilogue or discussion of their legacy, but their story effectively ends when they die. The story of Jesus found in the gospels and recounted in the second part of the Apostles’ Creed is different, however, in that death does not mark the end of his story. Jesus is not just a person who lived an incredible life or died a noble death — he is the one who rose from the dead and 40 days later ascended into heaven! We need to remember that Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death that we deserve, but that is true because he arose (which shows us that death is not the end) and now is in heaven (showing us there is hope now and also for a coming day). People today may say the resurrection and ascension of Jesus are “unscientific,” but they are key beliefs for Christians.
The Importance of the Resurrection
In my college evangelism class, my professor pointed out that most presentations of the gospel message (the good news about what Jesus has done for us) talk about Jesus’s death on the cross but often omit discussing the resurrection. We say “Jesus died for you,” but essentially end the story there. This is a grave error, as the resurrection is what makes Jesus’s death significant. One of the best verses that discusses both his death and resurrection is Romans 4:25 which says that Jesus “was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification.” 1 Corinthians 15:17 says that our faith is futile if the resurrection was not real, and 1 Peter 1:3 links our new birth to Jesus’s resurrection.
Space does not allow a thorough explanation of the importance of the resurrection, but I can focus on the wonderful overview found in the Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 45:
- How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?
- First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he obtained for us by his death.
Second, by his power we too are already raised to a new life.
Third, Christ’s resurrection is a sure pledge to us of our blessed resurrection.
There are present and future implications of the resurrection. It shows us that we are now made right with God; Jesus did not die for his own sins but rather took the penalty for our sins. Similarly, it shows us that sin no longer has power over us; the promise of new life at the end of the age discussed in Daniel 12:1-2 is happening now in our lives. Jesus shows us that new life is possible even now. We can live and die in hope because of the resurrection, and this hope of the resurrection affects how we grieve the death of fellow believers (see 1 Thessalonians 4:13). We no longer have to live under the fear of death (see Hebrews 2:14-16); many people do not seek to live, but simply seek to avoid death, but as Christians, we can live as people who aren’t afraid of death, which allows us to truly live.
An implication of the hope of the resurrection is that Christians do not believe in reincarnation nor that we become spirit beings in eternity. Jesus’s resurrection points us to a phrase later in the Apostles’ Creed — that we believe in the resurrection of the body; we will discuss that hope later on.
The Importance of the Ascension
If Christians have a tendency to not discuss the resurrection of Jesus and its importance, how much more do Christians forget to talk or think about the ascension? I know I didn’t give it much thought until I was in seminary and studying the ascension more closely. Growing up, I knew that Jesus rose from the dead (that’s why we celebrated Easter), but I never knew what happened after that. Did Jesus die like everyone else? No, he bodily ascended to heaven and promised to return again to judge. This is important because it shows his resurrection was not a temporary resuscitation. The story of Jesus ascending to heaven is only found in the writings of Luke, but interestingly enough, it appears in both Luke 24 and Acts 1 — Luke thought it was so important he included it twice! As Michael Bird points out in What Christians Ought to Believe (p. 161), in Hebrews 6:19-20 the writers of the Hebrews say the ascension is the anchor for our souls.. While not often considered, the ascension is important, which is why it is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. In commenting on this phrase in the Apostles’ Creed, Q & A 49 of the Heidelberg Catechism notes these three ways the ascension benefits us:
First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge. By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.
The first note is that Christ is now praying for us on our behalf. He is not in heaven resting or simply waiting for his return (though that will happen, as the Creed continues), but he actively intercedes for us in heaven. We have an advocate in heaven who has gone before us (see Hebrews 6:20 and 10:19-22) so we can draw near to God without fear of condemnation (see Romans 8:34), but rather in recognition of our forgiveness (1 John 2:1). It is often said that it is all about who we know and that it’s good to have friends in high places — well, we know one who is in heaven who is acting on our behalf!
Stating that we have our flesh in heaven, is a reminder that Jesus rose bodily and left earth with his body; he did not shed his body but now is bodily in heaven. This means that our bodies are not shells to discard in hopes of being a spirit being, but something that will be transformed. Because of the ascension, we can also have confidence that Jesus is always with us as he promised the disciples in Matthew 28:20. If Jesus had not ascended, his body would only be in one place — in heaven, but because it is in heaven, it no longer has bounds; his ascension also leads to the sending of the Holy Spirit who is now in us believers (see John 14:15). That truth of the Spirit’s presence is the third benefit noted in the Catechism.
The ascension also points to the fact that heaven is our ultimate home — we look to Jesus in heaven and know that this world is not all there is and not the ultimate hope; we are not only raised, but transformed along with this world. As the Catechism notes, we should seek the things of heaven in light of this; seeking Christ is looking above.
Resurrection and Ascension Together
In many ways, Paul connects the resurrection and the ascension together in Colossians 3:1: “If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.” Because Christ was raised and we are raised with him, we should look to him and the heavenly places while we live on this earth waiting for his return. The resurrection and ascension are big deals that we should confess and reflect upon their significance.
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