If we were to ask the question: Who’s in heaven? What would your answer be? I am not asking about the population of heaven generally, which includes the angels and the communion of saints, but the more specific question about the triune God. We know God is in heaven; but specifically and in trinitarian terms, who’s in heaven?
We can all affirm without reservation that God the Father and God the Holy Spirit are in heaven, but what of the eternal Son (or Logos/Word as John calls him in John 1) and Jesus Christ of Nazareth? We have several options open to us.
Option 1: Father, Son, and Spirit are in heaven
At first blush this appears to be correct and corresponds to what many of us may think when we pray to God, sing to God, and think of God. But it is incorrect as judged by Scripture and the tradition. What is missing is Jesus Christ! In effect this view eliminates the existence of Jesus altogether and negates the Incarnation. Presumably those who hold to this position believe that when Jesus ascended to the Father (Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:9-11), he left his humanity behind and went back to his original state.
The consequences of holding to such a position are that Jesus ceases to be our High Priest, ceases to mediate the presence of God to us and our presence to God, and as such, the bond between God and humanity ceases to exist. With no God-man in heaven we are left to ourselves without temple, without sacrifice, without any way to appease for our sins and enter into the acceptable presence of God. We are worse off than we were before Christ came. This issues in some of the worst forms of ministry and mission imaginable – Christianity without a Christ!
Option 2: Father, Jesus Christ, and Spirit are in heaven
This view does acknowledge the ascension of Jesus Christ and so it continues to stress the truth of 1 Timothy 3:16: “Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: he appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
The problem with this view, however, is with the start of the Incarnation. This position is known as a “kenotic Christology.” The term kenosis comes from the verb kenoō used in Philippians 2:6-7, “Who being in the form of God ... emptied (ekenōsen) himself, taking the form of a servant.” The mistaken idea here is that in order for the eternal Son to become human he had to cease being the eternal Son. In effect it argues that the Son became another person in the Incarnation.
The implications of such a theology are as atrocious as the last view, namely that had Christ divested himself of his divinity he would have no continuing identity with God and would have been a mere human. The eternal Son of God did leave his position in glory, but he did not cease to be very God of very God (Philippians 2:6). Any orthodox view of the kenosis must account for the New Testament witness that Jesus continued to be equal with the Father (“was God” John 1:1), with all the divine attributes that make up that essence (Colossians 1:19).
In the final analysis this view fails to account for Jesus’ continued identity as the eternal Son of God. The practical result of this way of thinking is that the Church and its members consider themselves as some form of extension of the Incarnation, so that we, for all intents and purposes, take Christ’s place. This is implicit in all forms of so-called “incarnational ministry,” as if we could replace Christ’s incarnation with our own physical presence and ministry!
Option 3: Father, Jesus Christ = Son, and Spirit are in heaven
The third option open to us acknowledges the errors of the first two positions. It is, however, unclear as to who is in heaven when we are thinking of the second person of the Trinity – is it Jesus Christ the man or the eternal Son? Aren’t they the same person, you ask? And yes, of course they are the same person – that is the central truth of the Incarnation, that “the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
But being the same person is different from the state that one exists in. The eternal Son does not have a body; like the Father and the Spirit he is pure spirit and thus immaterial. Jesus Christ, however, is a man, and as such he is localised in one place at one time, and has a human mind, will, and emotions. Thus to equate Jesus Christ and the eternal Son in the way this option does is to fail to adequately distinguish between the Son as God, and Jesus as God the Son incarnate.
The practical implications of this tend to either reduce and confine the eternal Son to merely a man and go back to option two, or, more commonly today, ignore the human Jesus, taking us back to option one.
In this variation, Jesus Christ is still appealed to but in a way that thinks of him as other than human, that is, radically unlike us. Attributed to Jesus are all the functions of the Son so that Jesus the man is thought to be present everywhere, for instance.
This has its most devastating effect when it comes to how we understand ministry and mission. If Jesus the man is thought to be everywhere then we might be affirming his resurrection but deny his ascension to heaven, “You have heard that I said to you, ‘I go away and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I go to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
Many fail to recognise in ministry and mission that Christ is absent in one sense and yet present in another and our calling is to witness to both God’s absence and his presence. Think here of the Eucharistic words of Christ, “Do this in remembrance of me until I come again” (Luke 22:19). We are told to “remember” Christ because he is no longer with us. He has risen and he has ascended and he currently reigns from the throne in the heavens. But this must be linked with the teaching of John 14 where we are told that Jesus will not leave us orphans in the world but will send the Holy Spirit to comfort, guide, convict, empower, and lead us in the absence of Christ’s physical presence.
Option 4: Father, Son, Jesus Christ, and Spirit are in heaven
This leaves us with one option that is biblical and orthodox, though it will no doubt surprise many to know that it is the orthodox position. Keeping the central affirmation that God is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the eternal and almighty God, we then have to summarise what needs to be affirmed about the incarnate Son Jesus Christ, and about the eternal Son or Word.
Of the eternal Son we affirm that he is God almighty, equal with the Father and the Spirit, that he is the creator and sustainer of the universe, that he is spirit, and that he is in an indissoluble bond of love and being with the Father and the Spirit both in eternity past, in the present, and into eternity future.
Of Jesus Christ we affirm that the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Son, took on human flesh in becoming man, without ceasing to be God, and lived a sinless life, died a sinner’s death for us, was bodily resurrected, and then ascended to the right hand of the throne of the Father in heaven, where he sent the Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, currently reigns, and from where he will return at his second coming.
This is a direct affirmation that the eternal Son exists beyond the finite limits of mortal flesh. Thus the Son in his complete transcendence became man, and remains transcendently the Son of God, while also man in the form of a servant. In the words of theologian Thomas F. Torrance, “He became man without ceasing to be God, and so entered space and time without leaving the throne of God.” This is why we can say that Jesus is the Lord over all creation, and ascribe to him all the attributes and prerogatives of deity – for he continues to personally exist as the eternal Son at the same time as he exists as a man.
To use an analogy we could say that the a glass full of water from the Pacific Ocean is 100% Pacific Ocean water, but not 100% of the Pacific Ocean, so the bodily Jesus Christ is 100% the person of the Son of God and yet not 100% of the Son is Jesus Christ.
And practically, that means what?
The practical implications of this theology are rich and edifying. We worship more than a man. We worship the God-man Jesus Christ who is the “image of the invisible God, the preeminent one over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). We worship the God-man Jesus the Christ who is constantly at work for us and on our behalf in intercession, benediction and communion.
As our High Priest Christ intercedes for us. He does not do so before a reluctant Father! Neither is his intercession like ours – it is not a helpless pleading. The ascended Christ’s intercession is more to be compared with the high priest in the OT, who entered the holy of holies once a year after sacrificing the sin offering. In his representative capacity he was, so to speak, bringing the 12 tribes with him into the sanctuary of God.
In a similar way, Christ, having passed through the heavens, brings us his people with him into the presence of God, and he does this since he himself not only represents man but is man himself. In his incarnation he, the Son of God, permanently united to himself our nature, our flesh and blood, and so carries it before the Father on a permanent, everlasting basis.
The ascended Christ’s continuing intercession is his constant presence with the Father as man. That is, we are never left without an advocate in heaven!
Secondly, as High Priest Christ offers the benediction over us. A benediction is not merely a prayer. While intercessory prayer is the expression of a desire that this or that happen, if it be God’s will, a benediction is a declaration of a state of affairs that actually exists and a bestowing of the reality of that state of affairs on those to whom it belongs. There is none of the hesitation or uncertainty that there is with our own intercessions.
In the case of the ascended Christ, this uncertainty is entirely absent. Christ’s priestly benediction grants to his people all that they need for salvation both in this life and in what follows.
Finally, as our High Priest Christ perfects our union and communion with God. From Jesus’ speech in John 6:47-58, and from the fact of communion with Christ in the Lord’s Supper – evident elsewhere in the NT – it follows that the ascension and the Eucharist are closely linked.
John Calvin saw this clearly. Jesus is absent from us. Yet we feed on his body and drink his blood. How? Through the Holy Spirit (John 6:63) who lifts us up to heaven. Similarly, the author of Hebrews writes that we are no longer tied to the covenant made at Mount Sinai but we have come now to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, to an innumerable company of angels, and to Jesus (Hebrews 12:18-24). The bodily ascension of Jesus is the basis for our communion with him, through the Holy Spirit, who unites things separated by distance. The Eucharist is for the church until Christ’s return.
I want to note several implications. It speaks to hardship, suffering, and a world of terror. The book of Revelation addresses such a world, and unmasks the powers that claim the allegiance of its contemporaries. The book comes from the ascended Jesus to seven weak and beleaguered churches in Asia Minor, under threat from the rampant emperor worship of the Roman Empire. It portrays the horrific forces behind the scenes but demonstrates that Christ is sovereign over all, for he is the “ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1:5).
It speaks to death. Here Christ’s ascension points us to the sure and certain hope of the resurrection to life eternal. It points to everyday living. Paul, in Colossians 3:1-4, directs us to set our minds where the ascended Christ is seated at the right hand of God, for that is where our life is located. The ascended Christ is to be the centre of our thought and the prime director of our motivations. In the NT this new focus is displayed. Far from leading to heavenly mindedness that was of no earthly use, it unleashed a flood of practical action and an extension of ministries beyond what anyone had contemplated.
It speaks to the way we treat people. Today, the corporate world treats its employees as disposable commodities. Behaviourist principles govern the way it treats people; given certain stimuli they will respond in this particular way. The ascension highlights the point that human beings are not to be equated with programmable animals. Those in Christ have ascended in him to the right hand of God.
It speaks to academic disciplines and the task of subduing the earth to the glory of God. Here the two pairs of contrasts above come into play. From the standpoint of the ascension we have the task of bringing to bear the effects of the redemptive work of Christ in a world that is subject to death because of sin. We also have the privilege of participating in the ascended Christ’s renewal of creation.
Finally, it speaks to salvation. It is right here, at this point, that we reach the goal of the Incarnation – for we are right beside Jesus, gathered up in him and included in his own self-presentation before the Father. The emphasis falls on the step-by-step recovery of the creation and creature through the obedience of Jesus, so that salvation is understood to mean that humanity is gradually redeemed and perfected through his life-acts.
To finish, I simply quote the benediction from 2 Corinthians 13:14: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.”
• Dr Myk Habets is Director of the RJ Thompson Centre for Theological Studies at Carey Baptist College.