Two thousand years of Christian culture has kneaded into the western mind the idea that Heaven is something like a civil right. “Dying and going to Heaven” is a phrase taken most especially for granted by almost everybody who shares some connection to American religious tradition. But the New Testament has something startling to say to us on this point: namely, that we have no natural right to Heaven. To be sure, God desires us to be with him for eternity (which is what “Heaven” means, not a place with pearly gates and streets of gold as in popular imagination). As Paul puts it, God “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). But, of course, mere creatures, much less fallen ones like us, can no more bridge the gap between themselves and their Creator than Hamlet can suddenly show up at Shakespeare’s front door demanding tea and cakes. That is why Jesus says, “No one has ascended into heaven but he who descended from heaven, the Son of man” (John 3:13). His point is that only in joining human nature to his divine nature can human nature hope to participate in the life of the Blessed Trinity. His point is not that he offers some technique or theory or school of mystic philosophy to make us able to pull ourselves up to Heaven by our bootstraps. It is that he himself is the way to Heaven:
“[Y]ou know the way where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” (John 14:4-6)
So in the Ascension, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:9-11). But this too is done for our sake because Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father, not to revel in narcissistic egoism, but as our pioneer. The Ascension is a divine act of trail-blazing so that this prayer may one day be fulfilled:
Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me in your love for me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, the world has not known you, but I have known you; and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them. (John 17:24-26)
Jesus: Hidden King and Great High Priest
The pattern of weaning from earthly expectation of kingship culminates in Jesus inaugurating his kingdom, not in Jerusalem as David did—“where moth and rust consume and where thieves break in and steal” (Matthew 6:19)—but in Heaven. This too fulfils the Scripture and the great vision vouchsafed to Daniel, centuries before, of the kingdom given to the coming Son of man:
[A]nd behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
And so, on several occasions, the New Testament speaks of Jesus’ Ascension using the peculiar image of a king who goes away and stays away while his kingdom is put in order for him by his servants acting in his name and with his authority. Most famously, Jesus does this in the Parable of the Pounds:
As they heard these things, he proceeded to tell a parable, because he was near to Jerusalem, and because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately. He said therefore, “A nobleman went into a far country to receive kingly power and then return. Calling ten of his servants, he gave them ten pounds, and said to them, ‘Trade with these till I come.’ (Luke 19:11-13)
We will discuss this and similar parables of judgment more later, but suffice it to say here that the picture we are given is of Jesus going to a “far country” and entrusting to his servants gifts with which they are to increase and spread his holdings in the world.
Relatedly, Paul tells the Corinthians that Jesus “must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25), again suggesting that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father” as king while we, his servants, are advancing his kingdom with the gifts he gives us.
And Peter will likewise describe Jesus as the one, “whom heaven must receive until the time for establishing all that God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old” (Acts 3:21), with the curious qualifier that we must repent and turn to him “that your sins may be blotted out, thattimes of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord” (Acts 3:19).
Final installment tomorrow…