Dr. Arnold interviews Dr. Schreiner about the doctrine of the ascension.
Topics of conversation include:
- Why is Jesus’s ascension such good news for believers?
- How did the ascension continue Jesus’s work in his role as Prophet?
- How did the ascension continue Jesus’s work in his role as Priest?
- How did the ascension continue Jesus’s work in his role as King?
- How does the doctrine of Jesus’s ascension impact other doctrines, such as his incarnation and resurrection?
Dr. Patrick Schreiner is associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross (Crossway, 2018), Matthew, Disciple and Scribe (Baker, 2019), and The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine (Lexham, 2020). Dr. Schreiner holds a PhD from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Welcome to Faith Seeking Understanding, a podcast from Phoenix Seminary—helping Christians grow in their understanding of the faith, hosted by Dr. Brian Arnold, president of Phoenix Seminary.
Brian Arnold (00:16):
At the beginning of the book of Acts, the apostles ask Jesus if it is time to restore his kingdom. Starting in Acts 1:6 we read, “So when they had come together, they asked Jesus, ‘Lord, will you, at this time restore the kingdom of Israel?’ He said to them, ‘it is not for you to know the times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you. And you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.’ And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him out of their sight.” When we think about the work of Jesus on this earth, we usually begin with Christmas and his miraculous birth, and we talk about his perfect life and the signs and wonders he performed, and the world-changing teaching he delivered. And then we move to the events of Easter and talk about Jesus’s excruciating death on the cross and his triumphant resurrection from the grave, all to conquer sin and death. And then we pull the curtains. And it’s the end of the story.
Brian Arnold (01:13):
We often don’t talk about the theological significance of Jesus’s ascension back to heaven. But what was happening with Jesus’s ascension, and why does it matter? Well, to help us understand these questions, we have Dr. Patrick Schreiner with us today. Dr. Schreiner is associate professor of New Testament and Biblical Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s the author of a number of books, including The Kingdom of God and the Glory of the Cross, Matthew, Disciple and Scribe, and the book that we’ll be talking about today—The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine. On a personal note, I’ve known Patrick since college, and we were in seminary together. And it’s exciting for me to see how God is using him in his teaching and writing ministry—already distinguishing himself as a top New Testament scholar in the field. Patrick, really thankful to have you on the show today.
Patrick Schreiner (02:01):
So good to be with you, Brian.
Brian Arnold (02:03):
So our big question today is this—why did Jesus ascend to heaven? But first I thought we might ask, why is this so neglected? I’m a church historian—especially the church fathers—and in all the creeds, they mentioned this. And in our day and age, it’s something we rarely talk about. Why is that?
Patrick Schreiner (02:22):
Yeah, it’s not neglected in all church traditions, but it seems like in the evangelical tradition, especially, it’s neglected. Maybe because it’s a weird event. We kind of don’t know what to do with it. The resurrection, I would say, we all kind of understand that’s good news, because it means Jesus lives forever. And according to 1 Corinthians 15, that means we will live forever and be raised with him. But the ascension is one of those moments where Jesus goes up to heaven and he doesn’t come back—and you just read the beginning of Acts—the disciples are kind of standing, staring up into heaven, wondering “why did this happen? We thought you were going to restore the kingdom to Israel at this point. Why is this necessary?” And so I think for a lot of people, they look at the ascension and they think, “I’m not sure why it’s good news that Jesus left, especially since we know that the final and best state is going to be being with Jesus in bodily form. We’re going to be having the messianic banquet with him, but like him leaving just doesn’t seem like a great plan. So it seems that many people just don’t really know what to do with this event.
Brian Arnold (03:29):
Yeah, I think most Christians would say, “why didn’t Jesus, just stay here? He was here, he’s God incarnate. He can live forever after the resurrection. He’s the first fruits. Why not bring that kingdom now?” And that’s exactly what the Apostles think, as you mentioned. They’re expecting now Jesus to just triumphantly take over, make his enemies his footstool, and usher in the kingdom. And he doesn’t do that. And there’s a lot of kind of theological reasons why he doesn’t do it. Because there’s a lot of benefits we have today as the church that Jesus said won’t happen unless he returns to the Father. So we have the ascension of Jesus returning, and then the session, which is him actually sitting at the right hand of Majesty. So let’s talk through some of those theological pieces that make the ascension so important. You do this under kind of the three offices of Jesus—we talk about him as Prophet, Priest, and King. So maybe for some people who’ve never heard those offices of Jesus, maybe explain those quickly. And then how each of these pertain to the ascension.
Patrick Schreiner (04:28):
Yeah. According to the Old Testament, there’s three kind of offices that we would call almost anointed offices or messianic offices. And so that’s the prophetic office—they speak the Word of God, the priestly office, where they meet with God and then they bless the people, kind of with the presence of God, and then the kingly office, where you rule over God’s people. And it seems as you come to the New Testament, that Jesus fulfills all of those anointed messianic roles. So when I started thinking about—why is the ascension such an important event? I found it helpful just to think in those categories, because you can say a lot about the ascension, but I wanted to think, “why is it good news? Why is it good news that Jesus went up into the heavens and then he’s going to return?” So under each of those kind of lenses, we can kind of look at Jesus’s work and how he continues to act now, even while he’s in heaven.
Patrick Schreiner (05:22):
So one of the things I really wanted to press on is that we still believe now that Christ is active in the heavens. It’s not that he went up to the heavens and he’s just kind of twiddling his thumbs and waiting for the end and saying, “I’ll just wait around on this throne up here until everything comes to consummation.” No—he’s actively working. He’s actively working through his apostles. He’s actively working himself. He’s actively working through the church. He’s actively working through the Holy Spirit. And so then the question becomes—well, what is he doing? And we can go through each of those kind of lenses and actually zero in more on what he’s actually doing in the heavens. So that we don’t actually end up with a phrase I like to use, “an absentee Christology.” So that we have this—well, Jesus is the most important person to our faith, but in the meantime, he’s not here, so we almost neglect what he’s doing. The ascension actually draws our eyes to what Christ has not only done in the past or in the future, but what he’s doing in the present.
Brian Arnold (06:22):
So let’s flesh those out, specifically through those offices, then. What is Jesus doing for us right now? Because like you said, we put our eyes focused on Christ. We tell people constantly, you need a personal relationship with Jesus. And then it can kind of feel like the Holy Spirit is the leftovers, but we’d rather have Christ present with us. And yet Jesus said—it’s for your betterment that I go. So that I can send the Holy Spirit. Because part of the new covenant is that the Holy Spirit will actually indwell believers, which is a better thing—to have God in us, than God near us.
Patrick Schreiner (06:53):
That’s right. So yeah, if we look at the prophetic role of Jesus, what do prophets do? Prophets build up God’s people. That sometimes comes in condemnation, that sometimes comes in encouragement, reminding them of the covenant documents. And in the same way, I think Christ continues to build his church as the ascended prophet. Now then, the question becomes—how does he do that? And as you’ve already alluded to, he does that by the sending of his Spirit. And according to the Gospel of John, Jesus says it’s better…like this is why we know it’s good news, right? I think it’s John 16:7 where he says, “it’s better if I go away, so the Spirit can come.” The point is not that Jesus is no longer active, but that he’s actually acting through the Spirit. And so what he means is it’s better if Jesus leaves, because the incarnate Jesus was actually limited by space and time, by virtue of his humanity.
Patrick Schreiner (07:46):
But now the Spirit of Jesus—it’s the Spirit of Jesus that fills us. And we can now do the works and proclaim the message that Jesus did by the power of the Spirit. So he actually is able to build up his church in a—I would argue—in a better way now, because the Holy Spirit now indwells each of his followers. Like Jesus traveled a very short distance, geographic-wise—right—upon the earth. But now the Spirit is active in China, in Japan and North America, South America, et cetera. And so Jesus, the Spirit of Jesus, is actually building up his church and that’s Jesus actually acting in the heavens to build his church
Brian Arnold (08:26):
All throughout the world. It is a beautiful thing you point out there, is that when Jesus says there’s going to be people surrounding the throne from every tribe, tongue, and nation—where he was so geographically defined in the incarnation, now through the presence of the Holy Spirit, he’s everywhere. It’s a beautiful way to accomplish kind of that new covenant call of every tribe, tongue and nation. So what about in his priestly role?
Patrick Schreiner (08:50):
Yeah. So the priests would meet with God in the temple, or the tabernacle in the Old Testament. And what we see in Hebrews is that Jesus is the true, the ultimate, the better High Priest. Now what would a high priest do? Well, the high priest would go in and they would sacrifice for the people, right? They’d bring the lamb or the goat or the doves, and they’d sacrifice. And in the same sense, Jesus is our ultimate sacrifice. He is the true High Priest, but it doesn’t just end there. I think most Christians would focus on that. But what a priest would also do is he would go before the presence of Yahweh, the presence of the Father, and they would intercede for the people. And this is what we actually see in Hebrews and in Romans—that Jesus Christ, he’s actively sitting at the right hand of the Father and interceding for believers.
Patrick Schreiner (09:41):
So it’s actually an amazing…it was an amazing comfort to me as I studied this and worked on this book, to just remind myself that Jesus is not only building his church, but he’s actually personally praying for his people. Romans talks about when we don’t have words to speak, it’s the Spirit that groans within us, and he gives us words to speak. In the same way, I think Jesus is up in the heavens, pleading and praying for us before the Father. And if the Father is going to listen to anyone, he’s going to listen to the Son. And that’s a huge encouragement to us. So he’s presenting his blood before the Father. He sacrificed himself for us, he’s interceding for us, but as the High Priest, he’s also giving us his blessing. So we read in the Old Testament how when the high priest would come out from the presence of God they would bless the people of God and say, “may the Lord make his face to shine upon you, may the Lord be gracious to you.” And in the same way, at the end of Luke, Jesus actually lifts up his hands and he blesses his people. And so this is an amazingly comforting doctrine—that we have our true High Priest who is interceding for us in heaven and blessing us with his presence.
Brian Arnold (10:51):
At the right hand of God, as the High Priest. As Paul says, “there’s one mediator between God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” And so this is a place where Protestant theology and Catholic theology would actually differ, as you have kind of the cult of saints, or even Mary, as some sort of an intercessor. One of the things that Protestants, I think, rightfully recovered is with the session of Christ—sitting down at the right hand of God as our intercessor. We can go directly through the Spirit to Christ, who pleads our case on behalf of the Father. So it is amazingly comforting to know that not only has he sent his Spirit to be within us, but that Spirit groans, because Christ himself is interceding for you, dear Saint. Amazing thing. And then there’s the kingly office. So how does Christ risen, ascended, and seated matter for the kingly office?
Patrick Schreiner (11:44):
Yeah. In some ways, the kingly office, I tend to think, is the pinnacle of this whole story. In a very real way, Jesus is not installed or inaugurated or coronated—whatever term you want to use—as the King of the universe, unless he ascends. And so, one of the big pushes I wanted to say in this book is the story is not over, and it’s not over at the ascension. But the story is not complete until Jesus ascends to the right hand of the Father. According to the Old Testament—Daniel 7, Psalm 2, Psalm, 110:1—the King had to ascend to the throne. And when Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he was showing that he is the King of heaven and earth. He has been installed as the King over heaven and earth, according to Daniel 7, over all the other kingdoms of the earth.
Patrick Schreiner (12:36):
And so really, we have the New Testament, we have the Christian faith because Jesus is King and Jesus is Lord. That’s our basic confession. That’s the gospel message. And so really, without the ascension, we don’t have that. That seems to be the capstone upon that story. And if you look at some of the sermons in Acts, Peter and Paul will speak about Jesus’s death, but they’ll speak more about his resurrection and his ascension, because they said—this is how he conquers death. And now he reigns forever, and you have to pledge your allegiance, your faith to him. And so this is the installation of the King, where he conquers his enemies and then he rules over the world and the church. And that’s not the end of the story. It’s not the complete end. It’s the beginning of the end, because one day that rule will be manifest. Right now it’s hidden, right? He’s hidden in the heavens. But one day he will return in the same way that he left. You spoke about at the beginning, in Acts, where he went up with the clouds of heaven. And according to the Thessalonian epistles, he returns with the clouds of heaven to finish that kingdom project. But right now we still worship the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords.
Brian Arnold (13:46):
Well, let’s talk about how that is. Let me play the skeptic for a moment, or the Apostles, even, in Acts 1—”now, is it time to restore the kingdom?” I think about, you know, something like Psalm 110, “he will make his enemies, his footstool.” So if Jesus is on the throne, and he’s the King of Kings and he’s the Lord of Lords, as we read even in Revelation, how does that play out in the world—in which we see, unfolding before us, where it doesn’t look at times like Jesus has kingship over the world?
Patrick Schreiner (14:15):
Yeah. That’s a great question. You know, in Psalm 110:1, he says, “the Lord says to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make all of your enemies, your footstool.” He has already been crowned as king, but we live in the in-between time, where he’s giving his enemies a chance to repent. And so that’s the important message that we spread to everyone, right? Jesus is welcoming all to his side. He’s saying, do you want a flourishing, blessed life? Do you want eternal happiness and peace? Do you want to see God? Do you want atonement forever? Well, he’s welcoming all to his side, but in the meantime, he’s allowing his enemies to stand. I mean, this is like the parables of the kingdom, where the wheat and the weeds grew up together. And then he says, at the end time, I will take the weeds and I will throw them into the fire.
Patrick Schreiner (15:07):
In the very same way, Jesus has not manifested his rule completely, so that there is time for those who are upon the earth to repent. And so this gives us all—this is for Christians and non-Christians, in one sense, Christians are repenting people—and so he’s giving us time to repent of our sins. And then, ultimately, he’s giving people a chance to turn to the Lord Jesus Christ and really pledge their life to him. And so, yes, you don’t see all of the enemies under his footstool yet, but he has been crowned overall. So the picture is already there, but it’s not been completely consummated yet.
Brian Arnold (15:43):
One of the concepts that you’ve been talking about, that some people might not be that familiar with, is this already-not yet idea that is pervasive throughout the entire New Testament. So the idea that some things are already kind of inaugurated, they’re already beginning, and yet we don’t see their complete fulfillment. The classic example that a lot of scholars use on this is D-Day, June 6th, 1944. As soon as the Allied forces win that battle, you already know the end of the war is coming, but it’s not yet there. And it seems with the ascension and session of Christ, it is that, to a big degree—already King of Kings, Lord of Lords, already seated on his throne, not yet what we’re going to see in the millennial period or the new heavens and the new earth.
Patrick Schreiner (16:29):
That’s right. And you know, he, in the cross and resurrection, ascension, he defeated the main enemies—death and the satanic forces, right? Our main enemies are not other people. Our main enemies are the supernatural forces and death itself. And by his resurrection…in one sense, you could say by his resurrection, he defeated death. And by his ascension, he defeated the supernatural forces, who have always been trying to claw to get to the throne of God and exalt themselves. But it’s the one who humbled himself, who is actually exalted.
Brian Arnold (16:58):
Which is why there’s now, as Hebrews says, no more need to fear death. Or 1 Corinthians 15, the death stinger has been removed through the resurrection, the ascension. So one of the things you do, which I really appreciated about this book, is you put this in conversation with other doctrines. And so I’d love to hear you flesh out a couple of those. Whether it’s the Trinity or the incarnation, or end times itself—why the ascension, this little-thought-of doctrine actually matters for what we might consider to be some bigger ticket doctrinal items.
Patrick Schreiner (17:31):
Yeah. So one of the things with the ascension that people forget is that Jesus still has a body, right? So a lot of people will think of the ascension as “oh, this is kind of like reversing his bodily form.” But actually, according to the whole New Testament, Jesus actually affirms the bodily state of Christians, the bodily state of humans, by bringing his body up to the heavens. And so Jesus still exists in fleshly form. And that is an affirmation, actually, of the incarnation. So in one very real sense, I love to meditate on how the ascension is the confirmation of our kind of bodily existence. And so it doesn’t reverse the incarnation—actually, it confirms it.
Brian Arnold (18:13):
The first fruits of resurrection, that he is in his body. He will be…let me press you right there, because I can see somebody saying, “okay, how does that happen? We’ve been to the moon. We’ve been in outer space. Where is bodily Jesus hanging out right now, in this moment in time?” Send me an answer, Patrick.
Patrick Schreiner (18:28):
It gets really complicated, because the Bible doesn’t explain it to us. Let’s just put it this way—heaven, or the highest heavens where God exists, goes beyond our conception, I think, of both time and space. And so it’s not that…I actually meditate on this a little bit—like when Jesus floated up into the sky, I was like, so when did he get the space suit? So he could actually go through the atmosphere like Neil Armstrong or whoever, right? That’s not really what the Scriptures are getting at. When the Scriptures show him ascending, it’s both in a symbolic and real reality. To ascend is just to ascend to a throne. And when he ascends to the heavens, he ascends to the highest throne. Now we can’t go up, up, up, up, up, up, up, and find the heavens, right?
Patrick Schreiner (19:15):
It goes beyond our understanding of space and time. But it must also be, in some sense, a place, because Jesus, I would say, still has that glorified body. So I want to affirm both at the same time—the glorified body of Jesus in the ascension, and recognize that he exists kind of beyond our conceptions of space and time. So we can’t go and find exactly where he is. So that’s my best attempt to explain it, because, really, the New Testament doesn’t give us a lot of scientific information upon where the highest heavens is.
Brian Arnold (19:49):
It doesn’t. And I’m going to throw us a little afield here and say, when the movie—because I remember you liked this too—the movie Interstellar came out, Kip Thorne wrote the physics behind that, and how that could be, and talking about the fabric of space. And he starts talking about fourth and fifth dimensions in that book. And he even opens up the door for like spiritual realities in those other dimensions. So…
Patrick Schreiner (20:11):
Interstellar is getting on something, you know? I mean that movie, I love that movie. I cry every time McConaughey is sitting there watching his daughter grow up, because the time is all warped, you know what I mean? And he misses her whole childhood. And that’s always like my worst fear—that I’ll miss the childhood of my children. And so like—I like bawl every time I watch that.
Brian Arnold (20:33):
Well, it may hold some answers in the realm of physics for how that happened, but either way, your point is made. It’s a theological reality that the Bible is trying to get us to see. And it is a real reality too. And Jesus will return with the clouds of heaven, when that trump sounds, and establish his kingdom here forever. So maybe relate it to one more doctrine. So we talked about the incarnation, what’s another area of theology where you could see the ascension having a significant impact?
Patrick Schreiner (21:01):
Yeah. I mean, one of the things that’s really hard for Christians is to distinguish between the resurrection and the ascension, because they both kind of seem like his victory parade, which is totally true. And so one of the things I wanted to think more carefully about was—what happens, actually, at the resurrection, and what happens at the ascension? And honestly, the shortest way I can put it is that the resurrection affirms that Jesus lives in that forever, the ascension affirms that Jesus reigns in that forever. And I find that helpful. They’re both part of his exaltation, but they are different parts of his exaltation. And so the resurrection is the victory in terms of his life, but the ascension is the victory in terms of his reign. So I go back to that. Jesus is King. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is Messiah. That is based on yes, both the resurrection and ascension. Like he can’t ascend unless he is raised from the dead.
Patrick Schreiner (21:52):
But I think we have a tendency to just talk about the resurrection, if we even get to the resurrection after the cross sometimes. And then we just kind of stop that story right afterwards. But that story is not complete until Jesus reigns at the right hand of the Father. And so we already talked about with kingship, but I find that helpful just to show that they’re both part of what I call the same script of his victory. But you can also distinguish between them, so that you can see that they’re separate events. They’re unique events in their own right. And you know, they’re actually unique events, because remember at the end of John, Mary comes to Jesus in the garden. She clings to him and he says, “don’t cling to me for I haven’t ascended to the Father.” The story’s not over. And so he’s recognizing, even after his resurrection, there’s another event that needs to happen.
Brian Arnold (22:39):
Well, Patrick I’ll admit, I had not spent much time reading on the ascension before your work came out on it, and I am thankful for it. I’ve been really helped. Is there maybe one or two other resources you’d point people to on understanding the ascension? Let me just say before you mentioned that, to anyone listening, Patrick is a very accessible writer. This book is really meant for anyone as a Christian to be able to read and understand well.
Patrick Schreiner (23:03):
Yeah, a few. I mean, a shorter book on the ascension is by Tim Chester. I think it’s called The Ascension of the Man Christ Jesus or The Ascension. I can’t remember the title right now, but it’s a great little book, and it’s short, kind of like mine. And it’s a great introduction to the ascension. If you want to kind of sink your teeth deeper into ascension theology, Douglas Farrow has Ascension and Ecclesia. It’s a great book. It’s about 300 pages, and it’s pretty tough to read, but if you want to challenge yourself, it connects Christ’s ascension to the church and kind of ecclesiology. I love that book.
Brian Arnold (23:37):
Great. Well, thanks for giving us kind of the ends of the spectrum on that. To end, I kind of want to use your own words, thinking about the significance of the ascension. You say, “without it, the story of Christ’s work is incomplete. Without it, other doctrines become misaligned. Without it, our good news is truncated. Without it, Christ is not declared Lord and Messiah.” The ascension is critical to the Christian faith, it has been part of the Christian tradition, and thinking about it, reflecting on it for the last 2000 years. Patrick, thank you for reminding us of this important doctrine.
Patrick Schreiner (24:12):
Thanks for having me. It’s been fun.
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