But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” (Acts 7:55–56)
Just before he was stoned to death and became the first Christian martyr, Stephen had a vision of the ascended Christ. “I see the Son of Man standing at God’s right hand,” he exclaimed. Commonly used as a title for Jesus in the Gospels, this is the only other place in the New Testament where he is called the Son of Man. Traditionally, going back to the church fathers, it has been understood as a title that emphasizes his full humanity. Jesus is therefore both Son of God (fully divine) and Son of Man (fully human).
And although biblical scholars today have convincingly shown it had a different and wider range of meaning in first-century Judaism, I agree with those who still maintain that “the old understanding of the phrase, as a reference to the real humanity of our Lord, contains an essential element of truth.” (see Alan Richardson, ed., A Theological Word Book of the
So that’s how I’m going to use Stephen’s description—the Son of Man at God’s right hand—in this chapter. It captures the staggering truth we want to focus on: Because Jesus is ascended, humanity has been exalted and brought into the life of God. Theologian Peter Toon summed it up well: “For now there is in heaven, in the very life of God himself, a glorified humanity belonging to the eternal Son and a humanity of the same essence as shared by the whole human race. Now created human beings can be drawn nearer to God than can the holy angels, for the former possess the same human nature as the Son possesses, and so in and through him they can draw near to God.” (Peter Toon, Heaven and Hell, p. 58)
When Jesus ascended into heaven, he brought our humanity with him. As A. W. Tozer explained in a sermon, Jesus took our human nature “into the Godhead.” There human nature was “received, embraced, welcomed, and enthroned at the right hand of the Father.” (Quoted in Robert M. Solomon, Apprenticed to Jesus, 2)
In the miracle of the incarnation he became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone (John 1:14). We sing during Advent and Christmas, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail th’incarnate Deity.” (Charles Wesley, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”) But what about after his death and resurrection? Was his human flesh like a loose outer garment he had put on but now took off? In returning to heaven, did he no longer need or want it? What Stephen saw gives us the answer. The fact that the Son of Man is at God’s right hand means that the perfect union with humanity, which had begun in the incarnation, continues in heaven and throughout eternity. As Charles Wesley expressed it in another of his ascension hymns, “Though returning to his throne . . . Still He calls mankind His own.” (Charles Wesley, “Hail, the Day That Sees Him Rise”)
In his book Jesus Ascended, Gerrit Dawson went to great lengths to make this point. He quoted theologians like Karl Barth who stated that Christ the Son maintains our humanity, “to all eternity. . . It is clothing which He does not put off. It is His temple which He does not leave. It is the form which He does not lose.” (Gerrit Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 8).
Dawson underscored this because of the Gnostic tendencies in much of Christian thinking that have tended to spiritualize the ascension. How can earthly, corruptible, and decaying human flesh, it is argued, be taken up to heaven? There is no place for it there. Although the eternal Son of God assumed flesh when he became incarnate, in returning to heaven he must have sloughed it off and left it behind. Only spiritual, non-material things are fit for heaven.
However, as Dawson carefully demonstrated, ancient church fathers like Tertullian, Augustine, and John Chrysostom consistently rejected such thinking. Tertullian, for example, stood against those whom he said “excluded from . . . the court of heaven itself, all flesh and blood whatsoever.” He declared, to the contrary, that, “Jesus is still sitting there at the right hand of the Father, man, yet God . . . flesh and blood, yet purer than ours.”
To be sure, Christ is in heaven as a spiritual man with a glorified, spiritual body. Hence it is a body and, unlike our present human bodies, is no longer subject to corruption and decay. Yet it is a body nonetheless. And as theologian T. F. Torrance insisted, it is a body that makes him not less human but “more fully and truly human than any other humanity we know, for it was humanity in which all that attacks and undermines creaturely being is vanquished.” (Thomas F. Torrance, Space, Time and Resurrection, 127) The fact, then, that Christ has a spiritual body doesn’t mean he is less body, but more truly and completely body, for his physical existence has been redeemed from all that would destroy it.
In his heavenly existence, he therefore remains truly human. He does not slough off his humanity, but fully retains it. Neither is his humanity swallowed up in an infinite ocean of divinity. “When he was lifted up into heaven,” as Barth maintained, “He was not deified, or assumed into the Godhead . . . but placed as man at the side of God, in direct fellowship with Him, in full participation in His glory.” (Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, Vol 4, Part 2, 153)
The ascension, then, is not an “excarnation,” (the reverse of the incarnation, as Anthony Kelly has termed it) but as Peter Atkins suggested, is “the other end of incarnation doctrine.” (Peter Atkins, Ascension Now, 71) It means that the incarnation continues, yes, even expands, in that we who are joined to Christ are now able to enter into the life of God. For, as the church fathers consistently emphasized, if the one who sits at God’s right hand is not still fully human (as well as fully God), we will never be able to “enter the veil” and sit there with him. Dawson therefore summed it up like this: “The fully human one has gone within the veil in our name and even in our skin. United to him by the Spirit, to the one who remains united to us, we may follow where he has gone.” (Dawson, Jesus Ascended, 7)
His exaltation, and the exaltation of his humanity, thus opens the way for our exaltation, and the exaltation of our humanity. There is a Son of Man at God’s right hand! The dust of the earth has been lifted to the throne of heaven. The ascension of Jesus is therefore the foretaste and guarantee of our ascension to our originally designated royal status (Psalm 8). As Paul insisted, “Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust [Adam], we will also bear the image of the man of heaven [Christ]” (1 Cor. 15:49). Christopher Wordsworth (1807–1885) captured it beautifully in a verse of one of his hymns:
Thou hast raised our human nature
On the clouds to God’s right hand;
There we sit in heavenly places,
There with thee in glory stand.
Jesus reigns, adored by angels,
Man with God is on the throne,
Mighty Lord, in thine ascension,
We by faith behold our own.
Think of it! In the incarnation, God honors and affirms humanity by coming down and becoming human in the person of his Son. Yet in the ascension, God goes even further by raising our human nature and taking it into himself. Humanity is taken up into divinity so that now and forever, as Wordsworth said, “Man with God is on the throne.”
Steve Seamands writes more about the ascension of Jesus in The Unseen Real: Life in Light of the Ascension of Jesus. It is May 2017’s Book of the Month offer, which means when you buy at least one, you’ll get one free to sow with your order! We value reading in community and small groups, so we encourage you to take advantage of every month’s special deal. Learn more here.