It is important that we do not overlook the great significance of the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ. First, the Ascension was important for our Lord Himself: He entered into the glory of His Father and took His rightful place at the Father’s right hand, there to rule as Head of the Church and the King of kings. The Ascension meant for Him a great step ahead en route to complete victory on the Day of Judgement.
Then, it is also important for us. We now have in heaven our own flesh and blood, a High Priest who knows and sympathizes with our weaknesses and who is our immediate Advocate in the Father’s presence. This may be for us a daily comfort.
The Ascension has great consequences also for the Church and the manner in which the Church lives in this world. We can best illustrate this by relating the Ascension to the “marks of the Church” as confessed in Article 29 of our Belgic Confession.
There was a time when Christ Himself walked physically and visibly in the midst of His disciples. He instructed them personally on a face-to-face basis. They could hear His own voice and see His many miracles. Because of the Ascension this is now different. Christ is physically not in our midst anymore, but is present by His Spirit and Word. He now instructs His Church through chosen office-bearers who come in His Name and with His Word. The pure doctrine must be preached (the first mark) and only in this way is Christ’s presence in our midst realised and guaranteed. Where this preaching is neglected, Christ is not present. Therefore, the very fact of the Ascension accentuates all the more that we must maintain the pure doctrine and preach it fully, for only then are we assured that, although Christ is in heaven, He is with us really and truly.
It is significant with respect to the sacraments (the second mark). In the sacraments Christ does not come down to us physically, as the Roman Catholic doctrine would have us believe, but we partake of Him spiritually, by faith. We do eat “the proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ” (Art. 33, BC), that is we do receive the real thing, but not “by the mouth, but by the Spirit through faith”. Christ is in heaven, and we must leave Him there, and we are therefore correctly exhorted not to cling to the outward symbols, but to lift up our heart to heaven, where Christ is seated at the right hand of God.
So it is with the exercising of discipline. Discipline is fully a spiritual matter and can be done only with the Word of Christ. And the Lord gave this promise, “Whatever you bind on earth, shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth, shall be loosed in heaven” (Matt. 16:19). Church discipline is exercised on earth by responsible office-bearers, and, if this discipline is in accordance with Christ’s Word, it will be confirmed by Him in heaven. In this way He personally from out of heaven rules and guides His Church.
Christ is in heaven, and we must leave Him there. Yet He is with us by the preaching of the pure doctrine. He comes to us in the holy sacraments. He exercises Church discipline in the manner chosen by Him. False doctrine, sacramentalism, and hierarchy deny the very fact and significance of Ascension.
Let us receive our Lord as He comes to us: in the preaching of the pure doctrine, in the pure administration of the sacraments, and in Church discipline. In this way, though He is in heaven and we are on earth, He is never absent from us. And one day He will be with us physically and visibly. Then we no longer need preaching, sacraments and discipline. Until that day we will make full use of what we have and need.
Rev. C. Stam, “Ascension … and the Marks of the Church”, Clarion, Vol. 29 No 11, May 31 1980.