Copyright © 1994 by Westminster Theological Seminary, cited with permission.
THE LIFE OF JESUS, AFTER THE ASCENSION
(LUKE 24:50-53; ACTS 1:9-11)*
GEORGE C. FULLER
If you were to ask in a Christian library or Christian bookstore for a book
on the life of Jesus, you would find a wide selection of titles. Many authors
have written about the life of our Lord. In the
Library the cards under the "biography and life of Jesus" fill four inches
of drawer space. Almost all of these books will begin with his birth and
end with his resurrection. A few might mention his ascension to be with
But Christians praise God that Jesus is still alive; Jesus lives now. Why
then should his biography end in the year AD 30? What has he been doing
since then? What is he doing now? What is he going to do? The books
entitled The Life of Christ need a second volume. I want to work with you
in developing the contents of this second volume, to remind us all that Jesus
is alive, ministering in the presence of the Father, on behalf of his people.
We all surely recognize that the contents of our "biography" appear
elsewhere. The lectures that became William Milligan's The Ascension and
Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord were delivered in 1891, little more than 100
years ago. Peter Toon's
recent work, The Ascension of Our Lord,
tially the same ground and from a perspective more fully consistent with
that of most of us. Some works on the person and work of Jesus will touch
these subjects. And, of course, so will commentaries on many parts of the
Bible. Any book on the Christian's great and present blessings should have
clear focus on the present ministry of Jesus. But we will imagine a "biog-
raphy of Jesus," in large part to remind us that he is indeed alive now and
will continue to live throughout our history and throughout all eternity.
You may find the chapter titles in this biography a bit strange, because
they focus on the risen Jesus, in heaven. The subjects are less tangible,
* [Editor's note: This article is an address originally delivered by the author on the occasion
of his inauguration as Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary
on May 29, 1991. Appropriately, the form of the address, consonant with the character of the
appointment, reflects the homiletical interests of Professor Fuller.]
harder to grasp than those in Volume I, which talks of his birth and
miracles and teaching, his life and death. But do not be deceived. These
subjects are no less real, no less important, no less specifically set forth
in God's revelation.
Let me also make clear that each of these subjects is worthy of a lifetime
of study. What a great joy there is for the individual Christian or for the
Christian minister to devote her or his lifetime to studying what the living
Jesus is doing now. The Larger Catechism encourages us to study this
portion of Christ's life, when it says, ". . . after his resurrection . . . he, in
our nature and as our head, triumphing over enemies, visibly went up into
the highest heavens, there to receive gifts for men, to raise up our affections
thither, and to prepare a place for us, where himself is, and shall continue
till the second coming at the end of the world."
The title of the first chapter of our book has to be “Jesus Ascended.” The
ascension is assumed as a fact throughout the New Testament. Paul said, "I
desire to depart and be with Christ" (Phil 1:23). In the same letter he made
clear that "God exalted Jesus to the highest place." The entire book of
Hebrews assumes the ascension, and in the book of Revelation Jesus speaks
to John from his ascended position.
Only in two places, however, at the end of Luke and the beginning of
Acts, is the ascension specifically mentioned. In each passage Luke de-
scribes the experience of the disciples at the time of our Lord's ascension.
In Acts 1:9-11, the words "into heaven" occur four times. The disciples
were not looking "toward heaven" but actually "into heaven." Verse 11
tells us that they actually saw Jesus go into heaven. The word "saw" is
related to the English word "theater," and we can imagine that the
disciples were witnesses to a striking spectacle, making use of the entire
universe, seen and unseen, as its stage.
Jesus ascended then to a place—"into heaven." We must think of a
specific locality, however difficult that may be. It is “an abiding place,” It
is "the Father's house." It is the place where the angels present themselves
before the Father, where the resurrected Jesus is, and where risen saints
join their Savior. Heb 7:26 says that Jesus "has been exalted above the
heavens." We may understand this to mean, not that he has passed to some
far corner of the sky, beyond the last star, or among the stars, but that he
has been exalted to a place beyond and above all material creation.
We also understand that Jesus' ascension involves a change of state, as the
curtain closes, not to open again until his return. The eye of our body
cannot now see Jesus. But that in no way reduces our assurance in his
existence with the Father and in his continuing ministry. Joseph Addison
Alexander, the first professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, affirmed,
"... our Saviour did not vanish or miraculously disappear . . . but simply
passed beyond the boundary of vision" (Acts, 14).
Luke 24:52 indicates that the disciples were filled with great joy as "Jesus
was taken up into heaven." A writer of fiction might tell us that they were
THE LIFE OF JESUS, AFTER THE ASCENSION 393
sad, or mourned, or lamented the loss of their leader. But in his ascension
they saw his glorious return to the Father. They knew the power of his
blessing (v. 51); in fact, they now felt the confirmation of every promise. The
veil had been removed, however briefly; the curtain had been pulled back;
and the whole of God's plan was made clear. The cross, the humiliation,
the pain, the agony was now all victory, Jesus' victory and their victory.
And so they were filled with joy, praising God.
The first chapter of our biography of Jesus is important because it de-
scribes the ascension. But it is only the first chapter. Chapter two might be
called “Jesus Presents Himself to the Father.” This section will have to be
written very carefully. For example, if we were to title this chapter ` Jesus
Presents His Sacrifice (rather than himself) to the Father," we might write
"Every high priest made offerings, shed the blood of sacrificial animals.
But then that blood was sprinkled on the altar of God and on occasion in
the holy place of the tabernacle and the temple. Shedding blood is giving
sacrifice, giving a life; sprinkling blood is applying the sacrifice, both to
the people and also to God. Jesus must present his sacrifice in the inner
sanctuary of a temple not made with hands, beyond the heavens. Louis
Berkhof summarized: ‘Christ entered the heavenly
completed, perfect, and all-sufficient sacrifice and offered it to the Father’
(Systematic Theology, 402)."
Our chapter on Jesus' presenting his sacrifice to the Father might con-
tinue, "This presentation is the ultimate priestly act. A unique priest, after
the order of Melchizedek, he presents to the Father a sacrifice that is suf-
ficient for the sins of all of his people. That sacrifice is not only acceptable,
it is perfect. All humiliation, sorrow, pain has ended. No more will he walk
through the valley of the shadow of death; death has itself been conquered."
Some dangers do arise when we separate Jesus' sacrificial death on earth
from the presentation of that sacrifice in heaven. The words "It is finished,"
uttered before the ascension, indicate to the Father, "Your word is fulfilled,
your will is accomplished." For God's people those words mean, “Jesus is
victorious. You are victorious, too.” As he lectured at Dallas Theological
Seminary in 1983, Peter Toon argued persuasively against those who de-
fend "the doctrine of the perpetual offering of Christ in heaven to the
Father." He made clear what must be affirmed: "not only the sacrifice, but
also the offering or presentation of it, is over forever." Dr. Toon does not
want us to understand an exact parallel between Aaron's application of the
blood in the Holy of Holies on each Day of Atonement and the application
of the blood of Jesus in "the temple not made with hands."
We want to avoid the hazards of suggestion that the sacrifice of Jesus in
some way is a continuing process. So we shall reflect further on the matter,
title the chapter, "Jesus Presents Himself to the Father," and affirm the
words of Professor Murray: "Christ appears in the presence of God at the
right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens to present himself as
the perfected high priest" ("The Heavenly Priestly Activity of Christ," 6).
We shall rejoice in the reflection of John Brown, whose ministry of biblical
exegesis and application began in
Messiah . . . had finished on the cross his expiatory sacrifice, he entered
into the true holy place, to present, as it were, to God the evidence of the
completeness of the atonement he had made, and to follow it up by a
never-ceasing interposition in behalf of his people, founded on his all-
perfect atoning sacrifice."
As we work through this chapter, “Jesus Presents Himself to the Father,"
we shall be grateful for the sacrifice that is all-sufficient for our sin, indeed
for all sin, and one that is fully acceptable to the Father, so that he is both
"just and the justifier of him who has faith in Jesus." And we shall rejoice
that Jesus is in the presence of the Father.
Certainly a chapter of our book bears the title, “Jesus Receives a Crown."
It was "for the joy set before him that Jesus endured the cross, scorning its
shame, and then sat down at the right hand of God.” That crown represents
the glory of union with the Father, co-equal, co-eternal. The will of the
Father and word of the Father were fully accomplished; now the joy of the
Son with the Father is infinite.
But the crown also means that “Jesus Rules as King.” This chapter can
do no more than present an outline; it is the subject for a lifetime of study
and reflection and application. He rules in his church, and in each Christian,
and in the world. The ascension focuses on the enthronement of the King
of kings and the Lord of lords. Imagine the heavens reverberating with the
echoes of Psalm 24, as heaven's choirs celebrate the arrival of the King.
The Father "gave him a name that 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" (Phil 2:9-12). The divine work of love is completed, and the
crowning of the king is the confirmation. He is given a name above every
other name. Is it a specific name that we are to imagine? Perhaps that
name is "Jesus," "King Jesus." That's the name the angels gave him,
"for he shall save his people from their sins." It means "the Lord is our
deliverer." That name was his life. He came to give his life a ransom f'or
many. Of people like lonely, lost Zacchaeus, it was said, "The Son of
Man came to seek and to save what was lost" (Luke 19:10). Paul said,
"Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners" (1 Tim 1:15). How
appropriate would that name be for our king, "King Jesus."
Others may seem to be ruling the universe, in the world. Satan, for
example. Or enemies of the Gospel. Make no mistake. Nothing is out of the
control of King Jesus. Ultimately he alone is Lord of all. Also make no
mistake about this: each Christian yearns and prays that the kingship of
Jesus might be evident in his heart or in her life. "King of my life, I crown
THE LIFE OF JESUS, AFTER THE ASCENSION 395
him now," is a song that Christians sing from the first moment they under-
stand the gracious love of God in the cross.
As we have been looking through our Life of Jesus, Volume II, we have
found chapters on the ascension, on his presenting himself before the
Father, on the joy that surrounds his crowning and kingship. Now we find
a chapter called, “Jesus Prepares a Place for His People.”
Christians look forward to a great banquet meal with Jesus. When Jesus
praised the faith of the Roman Centurion (Matt 8:10), he said, "I say to you
that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places
at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven." At
the conclusion of the Lord's Supper, just before Peter's denial and Jesus'
arrest, he told his disciples this: "I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of
the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my
Father's kingdom." Christians rejoice in the possibility of being invited to
the wedding supper of the Lamb, as his bride, the church, is united with
him for all of eternity. He prepares a place for his people: he is making
preparation for a great reunion feast.
He also is preparing "abiding places" for his people. John 14 records
these words of Jesus: "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God;
trust also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so I
would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you." The
word translated "rooms" means "abiding places," places to find rest for
your soul, permanent homes for those whom Jesus loves and saves, his sheep,
his people. If you are a Christian, right now Jesus is preparing such a place
for you. What comfort, what joy, what assurance can be ours until we are
In another way Jesus is preparing a place for his people. Heb 9:24 tells
us that Jesus "entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's pres-
ence." Jesus is appearing now before God, for us. The meaning of this
beautiful picture in Hebrews may be that he is applying his blood to the
holy place, before the presence of God himself, so that one day we can be
there, with him, before the Father. It would be most dangerous to come
before the presence of the Father, unless Jesus were there first. We would be
consumed by the blinding light, the burning fire, the full zeal for purity and
righteousness. But Jesus is there now, applying the work of the cross, making
it possible for us to follow with him into the presence of the Father.
Praise God that Jesus is preparing a place for his people. The Bible tells
us that he is preparing a great banquet, that he is preparing an abiding
place for us in the Father's home, and that he makes it possible for sinners
like us to stand before the holy God.
By no means is that all that Jesus is doing now. We turn the page and
begin another chapter in our Life of Jesus, Volume II. This one is called,
"Jesus Intercedes for His People." In June of 1958, Professor John Murray
gave the G. Campbell Morgan Lecture at Westminster
He spoke of "The Heavenly Priestly Activity of Christ," and impressed this
upon his hearers: “Jesus in heaven is the pleader, the helper, the comforter
of those who come to God through him” ("The Heavenly Priestly Activity
of Christ," 4).
Recall Heb 4:14-16, which tells us that we have a great high priest who
has passed through the heavens. That passage tells us that Jesus is both
powerful and sympathetic. He must be both. If he were only powerful, he
would have no interest in the needs of his people. If he were only sympa-
thetic, but not powerful, he would not be able to help his people, even if
he wanted to do so. But he is both powerful and sympathetic. Heb 2:18
states, "Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help
those who are tempted." John Murray concludes a discussion of these mat-
ters with a reference to Jesus' "omnipotent compassion." Those are power-
ful and useful words. File them in the computer of your mind, but in
such manner that they will appear every time you turn on the switch--
Right now in the presence of the Father there is one who prays for his
people, for each individual. In 1 John 2:1 the disciple John wrote, "My dear
children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin,
we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense Jesus Christ, the
righteous One." Each Christian has an advocate, a lawyer representing
him or her before the Father. That advocate is Jesus.
It is apparent that the crucial question in intercession is, "Who is doing
the interceding for you; who is trying to get a job for you; who is asking
people for funds for your organization; who is it that asks a favor from
someone else for you?" The one who intercedes for his people is none
other than Jesus. So you find great comfort in him and in his relationship
with the Father.
He does more for us than simply to pray. "To intercede" means to com-
plete a transaction with someone else on behalf of a third party, namely us.
His intercession involves a whole series of activities, including his coming to
earth from the Father, his sacrificial death, and his prayer on our behalf.
But surely prayer is included, prayer for you, for me.
At times in life, the pain is great. You may even feel that you cannot pray,
because the suffering is so intense. At those times Jesus is praying For you.
At other times, perhaps, you do not pray, when you know that you should.
Even in those times, Jesus is praying for you. Perhaps at still other times,
you pray for the wrong thing—honestly, sincerely, as well as you can know
the Lord's will, you pray for something, but it is not the right thing, for you,
for your children, for your family, for a friend. Even at those times, Jesus is
praying, but for the right thing, for the Lord's will to be done. When we
cannot pray, or do not pray, or pray for the wrong thing, Jesus prays for us.
The intercession of Jesus for his people touches areas of most serious
importance. John Murray directs our attention with these words: "The
security of salvation is bound up with his intercession and outside of his
intercession we must say that there is no salvation" ("The Heavenly
THE LIFE OF JESUS, AFTER THE ASCENSION 397
Priestly Activity of Christ," 13). But we are just surveying the various
chapters of our book and cannot look at the extensive implications of each
section. It is clear, however, that this chapter, called “Jesus Intercedes for
His People,” must be a part of The Life of Jesus, Volume II, and that we will
want to study it again and again.
But we turn the page and find another glorious chapter. It is called,
"Jesus Is with His People." He is not removed from them. That happens
at the deaths of other leaders. Great leaders die, and the nations may
mourn their deaths, because they are forever separated from their people.
It is not that way with Jesus. He is exalted, not to be separated from his
people, but so that he can be forever with them. We speak of "a man in
Christ," and we talk of "Christ in us, the hope of glory." In the person of
his Holy Spirit, Jesus is with his people. At the end of the book of Hebrews
(13:5, 8) we read of God, "Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you"
and then of Jesus himself, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and forever.”
What a blessing it is to know that Jesus is with his people.
Remember the seven letters from Jesus to the churches, found in Reve-
lation 2 and 3. Jesus walks among his churches, his people. He is present
wherever his people are, wherever two or three gather in his name. He
ministers in his people and through his people. Luke begins the Book of Acts
with these words: "In my former book [meaning the Gospel of Luke] I
wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day that he
was taken up to heaven." The Book of Acts then records the things that
Jesus continues to do, and all of church history to this moment records the
things that Jesus is still doing through his people. He is with his people, and
he is working in and through them, to bring glory to himself.
I spoke recently to Ed Clowney about Jesus' presence with his people,
and he called my attention to Heb 2:12, words about Jesus: "I will declare
your name to my brothers; in the presence of the congregation I will sing
your praises." He told me to tell you to think of Jesus holding one end of
your hymn book while you hold the other end; and Jesus joins with you in
singing the praises of the Father. Jesus is neither dead nor gone. He is not
distant. He is present, here, now, with his people.
He is with his people. He knows them. He preserves and keeps them. He
will not let them go. Praise the Lord. He knows you. He keeps you; he will
not let you go.
The last chapter in our book has this title, "Jesus Is Waiting to Come
Again." His promise is sure, certain. Listen carefully to John 14:3: "If I go
and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me
that you may also be where I am." A precious promise, repeated through-
out the Bible. "He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring
salvation to those who are waiting for him" (Heb 9:28).
The next event in God's great plan is the return of his Son. Then we who
are Christians will experience the fullness of the salvation already pur-
chased on the cross. There will be no more sickness, no more sorrow, no
more death, for these former things will have passed away. Satan will be
finally defeated; sin will be no more.
Then we shall be joined with all Christians in heaven, with Jesus. And
perhaps we shall write another book, The Life of Jesus, Volume III. It will be
filled with songs and praise, much like the music and praise of the Book of
Revelation. That book will have no last chapter, because its message will
continue throughout the timeless expanse of eternity in the presence of God.
But that book is the subject for another time.
Let me now remind you of the great blessings that we have, because Jesus
is alive. Spend your lifetime reflecting on the great chapters of this special
biography. Look at the Table of Contents: Jesus Has Ascended to the
Father; Jesus Presents Himself to the Father; Jesus Rules as King; Jesus Is
Preparing a Place for His People; Jesus Intercedes for His People; Jesus Is
with His People; Jesus Is Waiting to Come Again.
Praise the Father that the Son is alive. He has risen from the dead. He
sits at the right hand of God. Praise the Father, and praise the Son.
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