Of the Resurrection and Ascension of Christ

by Benedict Pictet

HAVING treated of Christ's humiliation, we must pass on to his exaltation, of which there are three degrees, viz., His resurrection from the dead, his ascension into heaven, and his sitting at the right hand of God. To begin with his resurrection. Christ would not have the apostles doubt concerning it; for he not only announced it by angels to the women, but confirmed it himself by his frequent appearances, of which the scripture mentions eleven, viz., to Mary Magdalene alone, to the women on their return from the sepulchre, to the two disciples on their way to Emmaus, to Simon Peter alone, to the disciples assembled in Jerusalem, Thomas being absent, to all the disciples, eight days after, Thomas being with them, to seven disciples at the sea of Tiberias, while fishing, to the eleven disciples on a certain mountain of Galilee, to more than 500 brethren, to James by himself, and lastly to all the apostles on the day of his ascension on Mount Olivet. Besides these appearances, the miraculous outpouring of the Holy Spirit confirmed the truth of Christ's resurrection; for this was a very striking proof of his being alive. He also appeared after his ascension to Stephen, to Paul, and frequently to John, as recorded in his Revelation. 

Nor have we any reason to doubt the testimony of the apostles; no one will believe that they were deceived, since they testify of that which they had seen, and which they had handled, as it were, not once, but frequently; still less will it be believed that they intended to deceive, since by their testimony they brought upon themselves so many evils—hatred, imprisonment, stripes, and death itself, when at the same time it especially concerned them to testify the very contrary, if Christ had not really risen, because in this case they had been miserably deceived by him. This resurrection had been foretold in many places of the Old Testament. (Psalm 16:10; Isaiah 53:10, &c.) Hence Christ maintained his own resurrection from the scripture, (Luke 24:45, 46.) And Paul declares that he "rose again according to the scriptures," (1 Cor. 15:4.) It was also represented by various types, as those of Noah, Isaac, Joseph, Moses, Jonah. He rose again the third day after his burial, on the first day of the week, very early in the morning; and his resurrection was attended with an earthquake, and with the glorious presence of angels. 

Various reasons present themselves, on which the resurrection of Christ was founded. It concerned the Father's honour, that the Son, having made full satisfaction for sin, should not remain, as if guilty, under the dominion of death. The Prince of life could not continue any longer under the bonds of death, nor could the divine nature permit his body, the temple of deity, to remain under the power of death. It was also rendered necessary by all the offices which Christ had to perform. As it had been necessary for him to die, in order to purchase, it was also necessary for him to rise again, in order to apply, the blessings of salvation. The resurrection was also necessary, as the foundation of the faith and hope of the church; for "if Christ be not raised, our faith is vain, we are yet in our sins," (1 Cor. 15:17.) And so again, "If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved," (Rom. 10:9.) And Christ is said to have been "declared the Son of God with power, by the resurrection from the dead," (Rom. 1:4.) Our faith, therefore, in the divinity of Christ is confirmed by his resurrection. Moreover, he rose again by his own power, as he expressly declared, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up," (John 2:19); and also that he "had power to lay down his life, and power to take it again," (John 10:18.) Yet this resurrection is oftener ascribed to the Father, because, in the work of redemption, the Father stands in the relation of a Judge, who, as he had "delivered Christ for our offences," was bound to "raise him again for our justification." No rational person will ever believe that the disciples of Christ stole away his body from the sepulchre, as the Jews pretend. The words of the Christian poet Sedulius on this subject are worth transcribing,—

Fare, improbe custos, 

Responde, scelerata cohors; si Christus, ut audes 

Dicere, concluso furtim productus ab antro 

Sopitus jacuit, cujus jacet intus amictus? 

Cujus ad exuvias sedet angelus? anne beati 

Corporis ablator velocius esse putavit 

Solvere contextum, quam devectare ligatum? 

Quum mora sit furtis contraria, cautius ergo 

Cum Domino potuere magis sua lintea tolli.

Say, impious band of hireling keepers, say, 

If, as ye dare assert, his followers stole 

Christ's sacred body from the guarded tomb, 

Whose funeral garb is this which lies within? 

Could venturous thieves have thought it best to waste 

The time in slow unloosing of the bands, 

Nor bear away the corpse in grave-clothes wrapped? 

A long delay like this ill favours theft— 

If theft were here, far likelier had it been 

To take away the corpse and clothes and all.

His body was raised from the dead a glorious and heavenly body, free from all imperfections, both those which are merely animal, and those which sin has brought into the world. If he ate and drank after his resurrection, this did not arise from human want, but entirely from his divine condescension, and also to demonstrate the reality of his resurrection. Yet it was the same body in substance; visible, and limited within space, as before, but different in its qualities. It is also probable that his body had not that glory on earth which it now has in heaven; and in this manner he was pleased to consult the weakness of his disciples, who would have been much less able to bear the splendour of Christ's glorified body, than the Israelites the shining face of Moses, (2 Cor. 3:7). We may add that Christ was pleased to sojourn on earth forty days after his resurrection—not a shorter space of time, in order that there might be full proof of his resurrection—not a longer, lest he should countenance the error of his disciples, who imagined that they were again to enjoy the personal presence of their Lord. 

The benefits which How to us from the resurrection of Christ are, first, our Justification, (Rom. 4:25.) For God by releasing his Son from the prison of death, into which he had been cast for our sins, declared thereby that satisfaction had been made to his justice, even to the uttermost farthing. Secondly, our Sanctification; whence we are said to be "risen with him through faith of the operation of God, who raised him from the dead," (Col. 2:12). He received life, not only for himself, but also for his people; and he who purchased the gift of the Spirit by dying, conferred that gift by rising again. Thirdly, the proof and pledge of our own resurrection. Christ is "the first fruits; afterwards they that are Christ's at his coming," (1 Cor. 15:23.) "If the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you," (Rom. 8:11). 

The other step of Christ's exaltation is his ascension into heaven, by which, on the fortieth day after his resurrection, in the presence of his disciples, he went up with his glorified body from the earth, and from mount Olivet, through the air and the visible heavens, into the third or highest heavens. The scripture clearly records this event, when it declares that he was received, carried, or taken up into heaven, (Mark 16:19; Luke 24:51; Acts 1:9.) The prophecies concerning it are very plain. Thus, Psalm 68:18. "Thou hast ascended on high," &c. A most illustrious type of Christ ascending to heaven, was the High Priest, when entering once every year into the Holy of Holies. Add to this the translation of Enoch and Elijah to heaven; only these were carried up by the power of another; Christ ascended by his own power. The place from which he ascended was Bethany, not that town situated beyond Mount Olivet, fifteen furlongs from Jerusalem, (John 11:18.) but a tract, or part of mount Olivet. We reckon as fabulous what is related by the ancients, namely, that in the place in which Christ stood for the last time, it was not possible to lay the pavement, when the empress, Helena, built a church there; and that even the marks of his footsteps were visible. Perhaps the error arose from the words of Eusebius, who in his life of Constantine declares that Helena paid a becoming reverence to the footsteps of the Saviour; this, which was said of Judea in general was improperly applied to mount Olivet. Perhaps, also, the error arose from mistaking the words of Zechariah, "His feet shall stand in that day upon the mount of Olives." 

The cloud which received the Saviour, and carried him up to heaven, was not intended as a vehicle, like the chariot of Elijah, but was a visible symbol of the divine Majesty. Every where, says Bede, the creature does service to the Creator; the stars point out his birth, and veil him when suffering; the clouds receive him ascending, and will accompany him when returning to judgment. The heaven, to which he ascended, is not God himself, nor heavenly glory and blessedness, but the third heaven, the abode of the blessed, the sanctuary not made with hands, into which our high priest was to enter, not with the blood of others, but with his own. (Heb. 9:24.) "I go," says Christ, "to prepare a place for you, that where I am ye may be also," (John 14:3.) "Seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth," &c. (Col. 3:1.) Into this heaven Christ ascended, in the sight of his apostles, and amidst the plaudits of angels, not by a mere withdrawing of his visible presence, but by a real and local translation of his human nature, as is clearly laid down in the sacred scripture. Nor was the vast distance of the heavens from the earth any obstacle to his ascension; for although, according to the greatest astronomers, the starry heaven is distant from us upwards of ninety millions of miles, and even although the distance were greater, still we must allow it to be finite or limited; and therefore it was possible for the distance to be got over in a small space of time, since no motion of any body can be imagined so swift, but that there may be supposed a motion still swifter; and this we shall easily conceive, when we consider the divine omnipotence, and the nature of a glorified body. 

Now it concerned the glory of the Father, to raise his only begotten Son, who had suffered so many things, to that glory which he had merited. It was due to the Son himself, to rejoice in the right which he had acquired, and having gloriously vanquished his foes, to enter the temple of glory in his triumphal chariot. There it was necessary for him to appear, as a Priest, before the presence of God within the veil, after having offered his sacrifice on earth; so necessary indeed, that, as the apostle argues, "if he were on earth, he should not be a priest," (Heb. 8:4.) There, too, it was necessary that he should sit as a prophet, to teach the human race, and to erect his throne as a king, that he might hold the reins of government over the universe, and rule his church, which was to be established in every part of it. The salvation of the church also rendered his ascension necessary; for it behoved Christ to ascend, that he might open to us the kingdom of heaven, intercede on our behalf, prepare a place for us, pour out his Holy Spirit, elevate our minds to heavenly things, and assure us of our own future ascension into heaven. And therefore by this event faith and hope are strengthened, love is increased, and numberless motives to holiness are furnished to us. 

With regard to Christ's sitting at the right hand of God, which is so clearly mentioned in Scripture, (Psalm 110:1; Matt. 22:43, 44; Eph. 1:20; Rom. 8:34,) this is not to be understood literally, since God has neither a right hand nor a left hand, but figuratively, to denote the supreme dignity and dominion of Christ; the figure being borrowed from the custom of kings and great men, who placed at their right hands those to whom they wished to show distinguished honour. Thus Solomon's mother sat at his right hand, (1 Kings 2:19.) and the mother of Zebedee's children asked that her sons might sit at the right and left hand of Christ in his kingdom. Thus Suetonius relates that the emperor Nero placed Tiridates, king of Armenia, beside him on his right hand; and in the Sanhedrim, the father of the house of judgment sat at the right hand of the chief of the assembly, who communicated every thing to him. This session therefore denotes the supreme majesty and glory of Christ, who has been inaugurated as King and Head of the church, and has received "a name above every name," (Phil. 2:9, 10; Eph. 1:20; Heb. 1:3;) and also the supreme dominion which he exercises over all creatures, as Paul explains it in 1 Cor. 15:25, where the expression to sit at the right hand, is explained by that of reigning—"he must reign;" thus it denotes the regal and judicial authority of the Saviour, as kings and princes are accustomed to sit, when they exercise their authority. It may also denote his rest after the termination of his laborious work—"Sit thou at my right hand, till I make thine enemies thy footstool," says the Father, thereby as it were taking upon himself the remainder of the work, viz. the subjugation of his enemies. 


From Christian Theology by Benedict Pictet

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