Several years ago, when naming our fledgling church plant, our core group wanted to choose a name that reflected a theological concept essential for our life and witness in metro Washington, D. C. Living in the city at the center of the world's system of power, we realized the significance of the exaltation of Jesus to God's right hand for our context. After some lively discussion, and despite some concerns about accessibility for the general public, our new parish had a name—the Church of the Ascension. The theological weight of this great event had captured our imaginations.
Through the process, I learned that Jesus' ascension is a deeply confusing issue for many Christians. What was the ascension about? Was Jesus defying the laws of gravity to provide one final proof that he is actually the Son of God? Or was it the vertical departure of Jesus' soul to heaven, where we will join him for all eternity? Questions like these revealed a misunderstanding of the ascension and a disconnect between Jesus' ascension and the gospel.
So what is the purpose of Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand? And how does it relate to the gospel?
First, Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand brings the gospel story full circle.
Designed to explain how God brings his reign to the earth, establishing his rule over the nations, Luke's Gospel concludes with Jesus' ascension (Lk. 24:50-53). The ascension wraps up the unfolding story, closing the loop Jesus publicly opened by proclaiming the good news of God's kingdom (Lk. 4:17-21, 43; 8:1). Rising from the dead, Jesus won the decisive battle, defeating death and the Devil, and has been enthroned at God's right hand where he rules over the nations.
Through his death and resurrection, Jesus took what Satan offered him in the wilderness (Lk. 4:5-7). But rather than worshiping Satan to receive authority over the nations, Jesus vanquished his power, establishing God's authority over the kingdoms of the earth. Accordingly, the disciples worshiped Jesus, recognizing that the nations and their glory belong to him and no other (Lk. 24:52; see also Mt. 4:8-9; 28:16-20). Therefore, Jesus' ascension was his enthronement. He now reigns at God's right hand until God's kingdom is fully and finally established on the earth (1 Cor. 15:20-28).
Owing to our emphasis on Jesus' atoning death, we can struggle to integrate Jesus' ascension into our gospel preaching. This tendency isolates Jesus' passion from the subsequent events of Luke's Gospel, interrupting its narrative logic. Luke intentionally links Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension in order to lead us to specific conclusions regarding Jesus' identity and task. By divorcing events designed to function as parts within a whole, we miss Luke's intentions and truncate our gospel preaching.
Our citizenship within God's kingdom requires Jesus' substitutionary death (Col. 1:13, 20-21; 2:13-14). Incorporating Jesus' ascension into our gospel preaching in no way diminishes the treachery of our sin or the significance of the cross. But emphasis on the cross apart from the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus short-circuits the overarching narrative of the gospel. Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension are indivisible, essential events within a story. Together they witness to the fulfillment of Jesus' preaching about the coming of God's kingdom to the earth through his Davidic Son.
Second, Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand means that gospel preaching proclaims a royal reality, not strictly a system of salvation's mechanics.
Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand means that preaching the gospel involves proclaiming his lordship over the world to the world. For the apostles, Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension establish a new state of affairs, or a royal reality, on earth. All people everywhere should "obey" this gospel (Acts 5:32; Rom. 1:5; 15:18; 16:26; 2 Thess. 1:8; 1 Peter 4:17), acknowledging God's reign by confessing, "Jesus is Lord!" (Acts 2:36; 10:36; 16:31; Rom. 10:9, 12; 1 Cor. 12:3; 2 Cor. 4:5; Phil. 2:11; 2 Thess. 1:8). To believe in Jesus is to confess that he is God's rightful king who, through his death and resurrection, has taken up his reign (Eph. 1:19-23; Phil. 2:8-11; 1 Timothy 3:16).
Consider the rhetorical climax of Peter's sermon on Pentecost:
This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, "The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool." Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.
Interpreting the strange work of the Spirit that morning, Peter integrates the death, resurrection, and exaltation into a cohesive account of Jesus' installation as "both Lord and Christ." Per Psalm 110:1, Jesus has taken his seat at God's right hand to rule the earth from heaven. For Peter, Jesus' cross is the way unto his throne where he presently reigns over all (1 Peter 3:18-22).
Jesus' lordship isn't just about his divinity or our personal relationship to him as the one who is sovereign over our lives. The titles ascribed by Peter identify Jesus as the Jewish Messiah—the rightful King, chosen by God, to rule the world (Ps. 2:8; 72:8, 11; Dan. 7:13-14; Zech. 9:9-10). In other words, to proclaim, "Jesus is Lord!" is to state a cosmic reality, affirming an office that Jesus occupies, not simply to express a personal opinion. And, when Peter does so, he is preaching the gospel.
The apostolic sermons, as recorded by Luke, are not mere records of penal substitutionary atonement (Acts 2:14-39; 3:12-26; 4:8-12; 5:29-32; 10:34-43; 13:16-41; 14:15-17; 17:22-31; 20:18-35). While we can deduce the representational, substitutional, and penal nature of Jesus' death from statements within these sermons (Acts 3:18-19; 5:30; 10:39; 13:29, 38; 20:28), it seems apparent that the sermons are not extended theological discourses on the nature of the atonement.
Rather, they narrate the climax of God's covenantal promises, sworn to Israel, through the life, death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus. Sitting at God's right hand, Jesus is the reigning Lord who dispenses the Spirit and His gifts (Acts 2:33, 38; 10:44-47). As Lord, he will return to judge and renew the world (Acts 3:20-21; 10:42; 17:31). Jesus' Messianic role as judge is not bad news; it secures the liberation of the creation from sin's pollution (cf. Ps. 2:9; 98:7-9; 132:16-18; Rev. 20:11-21:8). And, at the conclusion of the sermons, the apostles summon everyone to receive the forgiveness of sins, being reconciled to God, through repentance and faith in Jesus' name (Lk. 24:46-47; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 4:12; 5:31; 10:43; 13:38; 16:31; 17:30).
Preaching this gospel involves proclaiming historical events, but gospel preaching is not some history lesson. The key redemptive events—Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension—lead to the conclusion that he is the Christ, who rules the world in accordance with God's promises to David (2 Sam. 7:10-17; Ps. 2:7-9; 132:11-12; Lk. 1:68-72; Acts 13:32-34). Gospel preaching, reformed according to Scripture, emphasizes the identity and office of Jesus as the result of his death, resurrection, and exaltation by God. Consequently, gospel preaching ends, not in history, but in the bold proclamation of the present reality of Jesus' reign and a summons to align with the true King through repentance and faith.
Third, we share in Jesus' exaltation to God's right hand where we experience the riches of God's grace.
As the exalted Lord, ruling at God's right hand, all things have been put under Jesus' feet (Ps. 8:6; Eph. 1:23; 1 Cor. 15:27; 1 Peter 3:22). Paul captured this beautifully when he prayed that the church in Ephesus:
may know . . . what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Paul wants believers to know the power God exercised in Jesus' resurrection and exaltation. He then explains how we experience this power:
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.
Dead in our sins, we once followed the Devil and the course of this world (Eph. 2:1-3). But God raised us from this grave, making us alive together with Christ. United to Jesus, his death has become our death (Eph. 1:7; Rom. 6:3-4; Col. 2:11-12; 3:3), and his life has become ours as well (Eph. 2:5-6; Rom. 6:4-5; 8:11; Col. 2:13, 19; 3:1). What is true of him is now true of us. And, though difficult to comprehend, we are seated with him in heaven now (Eph. 2:6). By God's grace, we participate in Jesus' past, present, and future life, experiencing the benefits of forgiveness (Eph. 1:7), new life in the Spirit (Eph. 1:13; 2:10; 4:24), and the hope of the world to come (Eph. 2:7). But these benefits are ours only through our union with the living, ascended Christ.
Understanding that God's riches flow into our lives through our union with the exalted Christ, our preaching will resist the errors of proclaiming salvation's benefits (soteriology) apart from salvation's history (Messianic Christology) and of proclaiming salvation's history without concern for salvation's application. Salvation is our incorporation into Christ's historical work through faith.
To the extent that we restrict the gospel to salvation's benefits, we unwittingly sever the nerve of the apostolic message. And, to the extent that we identify the gospel solely with the expiation of sin, we truncate our preaching. The riches we inherit in Christ only belong to us because Jesus has taken up his throne after conquering sin, death, and the Devil. These benefits are ours through solidarity with the reigning King who comes as a new Adam to inaugurate a new humanity (Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28; Eph. 4:24; Col. 1:18; 3:10-11).
To proclaim that Jesus is the rightful King of the world is audacious. Sitting at God's right hand, Jesus dismisses all hints of a privatized faith that accepts Jesus as one option among many or as a pragmatic means of self-actualization. To believe in him is not to hold a personal opinion, but rather to profess an objective reality that governs the world.
To be on the right side of history is to believe that Jesus is Lord. By faith, we confess that the sun does not set upon Jesus' empire, and never will until the sun gives way to God's greater glory (Rev. 21:23). All authority in heaven and earth belongs to him; therefore, go into his inheritance, calling everyone, through repentance and faith, to bring their lives into allegiance with this reality—Jesus is King!