The Lord’s ascent to heaven after the forty days during which He appeared on various occasions to His own is described in detail in the first chapter of Acts: “And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven”, 1. 9-11.
Modernist notions in recent years have tended to weaken the reality of this stupendous event. Even in some evangelical circles the idea is propagated that the Lord’s ascension was “an acted parable”, that as the disciples were accustomed to think of heaven as a physical place, the Lord ascending upward until He disappeared in a cloud was simply an accommodation to their ignorance. Men in this scientific generation have dismissed heaven as a place. With their knowledge of astronomy they tend to ridicule the idea of “up there”, or “out there”. They point to the immensity of the stellar universe, and since they cannot find any trace of heaven in their telescopes they either discredit the whole idea or reduce it to a mere metaphysical conception.
But the Bible warns us against human wisdom. It says “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent”, 1 Cor. 1. 19. And, “the foolishness of God is wiser than men”, v. 25. What may appear folly to men is wiser than their wisdom.
Scripture speaks much of heaven, and this does not mean the heaven of the stars. The Lord’s prayer begins: “Our Father which art in heaven”. In the original it is more emphatic, reading literally “The Father of us, the one in the heavens”. Again He taught that heaven is God’s throne, earth is His footstool, Matt. 5. 34-35. It may well be that heaven is not made of matter as earth is, nor is it part of the physical universe but it is nevertheless real. Scripture presents it as God’s dwelling place. Paul speaks of being caught up to the third heaven, a reference to the Jewish mode of thought, which viewed the atmospheric heavens as the first, the heaven of the sun, moon and stars as the second, and beyond all this, the third heaven, the dwelling place of God. Obviously God cannot be limited to any place and yet Scripture clearly presents to us a sphere where His presence is known and enjoyed by angelic beings. To this sphere Christ ascended in His resurrection body. He did not just disappear. “For in him”, we are told, “dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily”, i.e. in a body. He has a body. It is a spiritual body for we are told in 1 Corinthians 15 that believers will be raised with spiritual bodies, and that these bodies will be like Christ’s body of glory (or glorious body), see Phil. 3. 21. Again we are told that “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”, 1 John 3. 2.
When here on earth the Lord spoke of His ascension: “What and if ye shall see the Son of man ascend up where he was before?”, John 6. 62. Again to Mary after His resurrection, “I am not yet ascended to my Father”, John 20. 17.
Peter in his first Epistle writes, He “is gone into heaven, and is on the right hand of God; angels and authorities and powers being made subject unto him”, 3. 22. It may be said that the “right hand of God” is a symbolical expression, but what really matters is what it means. It implies that Christ, the glorified Man, has the place of power and honour alongside God as the supreme Ruler of the universe. With this agree the Lord’s words in the address to Laodicea: “To him that overcometh will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne”, Rev. 3. 21.
It is obvious that in our present state of earthly limitation, when, as the apostle says, we see as through a dim window, we cannot grasp the spiritual and eternal realities of heaven as in the coming time of perfection, but we do well to adhere to the Spirit-inspired terminology of Scripture, and not allow ourselves to wander away from the truth by following human speculation.
The account of the Lord’s ascension into heaven in the first chapter of the Acts is clear and categorical. He rose from the earth in the resurrection body in which He had appeared many times to the disciples and He is coming again, as the angels promised, in like manner, in visible, bodily form. The bodily ascension and the bodily descent from heaven are linked together indissolubly and unmistakably. The descent will be as the ascent, “when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is”, 1 John 3. 2.