The One who Sits is Standing

Here’s the order of our Christian faith: Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised, and Jesus was exalted. The exaltation entails the “ascension” of Christ and most of our gospel theology, not to mention gospeling itself, never mentions the ascension at all. Yet, the gospel in The King Jesus Gospel, where I don’t emphasize ascension as much as I might have, is all about ruling — so it is worth exploring just what the ascension is all about. To do this we will look at the fine book by Matt Levering, Jesus and the Demise of Death, where he has a chp on the ascension called “Sitting at the Right Hand of the Father.”

How vital is ascension in your theology? How vital is Christ’s present rule? What do you think of Levering’s exposition of “right hand” through the lens of Aquinas?

There’s a philosophical/theological problem addressed first, but this problem morphs into a fine exposition of the Son’s presence at the “right hand” of the Father.

Here’s the problem: how can Jesus be raised in the flesh to the right hand of the incorporeal Father? Some scholars of the Old Testament contend that YHWH, or the God, of the Old Testament, is corporeal — that God has a body so when it says there is a “right hand” there really is a right hand. Those scholars tend to think Christian scholars have swallowed up the original meanings of Israel’s God into later Hellenistic categories. It’s rather obvious in Christian theology that God is incorporeal, and Aquinas makes a golden Aristotelian point: it would mean divine limitation and potentiality when such are not characteristic of God.

So for Aquinas the “right hand” of God is accommodation.

All of this leads to an exceptionally interesting discussion of “sitting” and “standing”: How can Christ be sitting at the right hand and, as Stephen said, “standing” as well? Aquinas plumbs both as metaphors — something that for many of us is so patently obvious we might wonder why discuss it — and shows sitting refers to judgment and standing refers to advocacy. (And there’s a bit of a discussion that Irenaeus sees Jesus as God’s “right hand” itself in the Incarnation.)

So “right hand” refers to the glory of the Godhead; the beatitude/bliss of the Father; and judiciary power.

Then Levering explores Rev 3:21 and Eph 2:6, as well as Matt 19:28, that we will reign with the Son at the right hand, and that this is no passing image but something potent and fundamental to Christian eschatology: as those who are in the Son, who have been raised in and with him to the Father’s right hand, we will reign with Christ and share in the glory of the Son at the right hand of the Father.

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  • Mark Edward

    Praise Yah!

    Over the last few years, the ascension/exaltation of Jesus has become increasingly important in my developing theology. The event specifically means that Jesus is currently reigning. Prior to this realization, I literally always assumed that Jesus was just hanging out in heaven until whatever day God told him to put on his good robe and head back to earth. No exaltation means an idle Jesus.

  • Mike M

    I’ve wondered what it means that humans are created in God’s image and that God walked and talked with Adam in Paradise. If God is purely “spirit” how can this be? How could spirit-beings such as angels have appeared at the door of Lot?_
    Something substantive occurred at the Ascension which was foretold at the Transfiguration. Instead of spirit-being becoming flesh, flesh became spirit-like which is a wonderful promise. As for me, I plan on ruling Barrington for Jesus in the new heaven/earth.

  • HalleluYah! (Agreeing with Mark here 🙂

    I would add that it’s very clear in John 17 and again in Acts that Yahshua needed to return to the Father in order to send the Holy Spirit. In John 17:20-24 he prays that we will be one as he and the Father are one, that he gives us the glory that the Father gave him and that we’ll be with him where he is and see his glory.

    It’s very clear that although he ate and could be touched after the resurrection (eg by Thomas), his body was not quite like the fully physical one he had inhabited for thirty years or so. He could appear inside a locked room, for example. He wasn’t always easily recognisable. And it was in this curiously physical yet not physical body that he ascended.

    The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ, and in the first eleven verses of Acts it’s clear that the Spirit will arrive very soon after he ascends. ‘Do not leave Jerusalem’, he says, ‘Wait… In a few days…’. So is it fair to assume that in order for his Spirit to be upon us and in us, and for us to become his body, he must first return in some sense to the Father? It’s as if he cannot be present in us and present with us at the same time. As if he needs to be fully spiritual (not bodily) before he can live in us as his earthly body.

    Paul puts it like this – ‘Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (Col 1:27), and we are ‘in Christ’ (1 Cor 1:30)

    There’s a lot to think about on this topic. I would like to read Matt Levering’s book.

  • Fred NZ

    I agree with Mark. Jesus sitting round on a rest break, until God sends him back to earth to finish the job he failed is a problem for most theology. I was surprised that neither McKnight or Wright, with their emphasis on Jesus kingship, made a lot of the ascension, which is Jesus being crowned as king.

    If we take the kingship of Jesus seriously, it will eventually touch our eschatology. Wright has started in the right direction, but I do not think he has got there yet. We need a King Jesus eschatology. This book by a New Zealand author is the best attempt that I have seen at a dinkum King Jesus eschatology.

  • DRT

    Chris Jefferies, good points.

    Makes me wonder if the Holy Spirit is actualized in some natural way. For instance, god uses natural processes for creation, he uses natural people in Jesus, and yet I think of the Holy Spirit as simply being a magical presence. Makes me wonder if there is some sort of physics involved in the process by which Jesus was assumed and then the Holy Spirit dwells, or whether it is simply done that in that order to make a point.

  • Kenton

    I haven’t fully worked out what the ascension means in my (amateur) theology. Here’s a thought I’ve been processing: Luke is the only gospel that mentions it. (Acts does also, but I’m assuming the author of both are the same.) If he’s the “doctor” that tradition has made him out to be, he would realize that if there were a resurrected Jesus, then there would be a question of “so… where is this resurrected fellow?” In other words there’s sort of a “habeas corpus” problem. Either Luke better produce the body or explain what happened to him. The ascension answers that objection.

    Maybe that’s too simple or missing the point, but I’d be interested in hearing how others would respond.

    Another thought related to ascension: I’ve always liked what N.T. Wright said, that it is wrong to say “Jesus was fully human because He still is.”

  • Could it be that those who insist that the Father is Spirit and not corporeal fall into the same Hellenistic, dualistic categories many resist? What if the Father exists in a spiritual, non- corporeal body? Just as Jesus is locally at the Father’s right hand and yet is with us to the end of the age, so the Father is all that we have discovered him to be in the sacred text yet in a body which transcends all our known categories. Just saying….

  • Tim Keller gave a very good talk on the ascension I believe it was in January on the podcast.

  • Alan K

    Amen. Long live posts on the ascension! Long live Ascension Day worship services! Long live the prophetic ministry of Jesus Christ and his heavenly session!

    If there was ever a place that the church has shot itself in the foot it is in ignoring the ascension of Jesus Christ. No ascension? Then no sent Holy Spirit. No ascension? No leading us into worship by Jesus Christ. No ascension? No apostleship pf Jesus Christ leading the church into the world. No ascension? No lordship of Jesus Christ. The list could go on.

    Required reading for all Jesus Creed keeners: Douglas Farrow’s “Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology.” Simply outstanding.

  • Doug Hendricks

    Aside from the more “theological” stuff, what does it mean practically- right here and now, perhaps especially for those who are poor? Ruling, reigning- how so?

  • Dana Ames

    A few thoughts:

    I was under the impression that “the right hand” or “the arm” of God (and/or, per N.T. Wright the word of God) referred to God’s acts, particularly within history. If that is the case, Jesus ruling and reigning now is the action of the Father, by the Spirit. So Jesus himself being the Father’s right hand would mean the Incarnation (and, it follows, the whole Christ Event) was God’s ultimate act within history.

    What Jesus ruling and reigning now means for us is to be the kind of subjects who would serve such a King. There are some commonalities for all – the “one anothers” in the NT, for a start; there would also be differences according to the circumstances of each.

    What the Ascension also means is that a Human Being (of course more than that, but nonetheless at least that, the True Human Being) is now seated on the Throne. Ponder that for a while.

    Dear John Frye, the concept of the Father having some sort of body is not to be found in ancient Christian thought. The “image of God”, the “pattern” after Whom human beings were made is always the Son. As Willard (I think) put it, God made the human being precisely the kind of being he would become incarnate *as*. (Sorry for the dangling participle!) This difficulty, and others like it, is solved with the Eastern Church’s understanding of the Essence/Persons/Energies of God (ousia/hypostasis/energia). “Essence” does not mean quite the same thing in the East as in the West. Yes, Eastern theology is “apophatic”, but that does not mean that some things about God cannot be discussed, to some degree. Anyhow, if we have some understanding of the distinctions and similarities wrt essence/persons/energies, we don’t have to posit anything like the Father having some sort of material “body”. When in doubt, consult the Cappadocians, Dionysios the Aeropatite, Maximus the Confessor and Gregory Palamas 🙂


  • Karl

    I think C.S. Lewis said it well regarding the word-picture of Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father:

    “. . . an early peasant Christian might have thought that Christ’s sitting at the right hand of the Father really implied two chairs of state, in a certain spatial relation, inside a sky-palace. But if the same man afterwards received a philosophical education and discovered that God has no body, parts . . . and therefore neither a right hand nor a palace, he would not have felt that the essentials of his belief had been altered. What had mattered to him, even in the days of his simplicity, had not been supposed details about celestial furniture. It had been the assurance that the once crucified Master was now the supreme Agent of the unimaginable Power on whom the whole universe depends. And he would recognise that in this he had never been deceived.”

  • The imagery of the ascension scene is strongly related to Daniel 7, where the Son of Man is led into God’s presence to take his seat on the throne to reign over all the nations of the world. That’s the culmination of all the messianic prophecies, that a king would come who would reign over not only Israel, but all the world. So it seems that the ascension must be critical to our faith. When we call Jesus the “Christ,” we’re saying that he’s the Messianic King who is the righteous ruler of the world.

    In Daniel 7, the books of judgment are opened as the Messiah takes his throne, because the King is also the final Judge. Whenever Jesus talks about the Son of Man, he mentions his future role of judgment.

    As much as we place Jesus in the role of advocate before his Father, the Judge, it seems like the predominant biblical image is that he will act as judge, because he’s God’s appointed King.

    I think it’s also critical to consider Matthew 9, where Jesus points out that the Son of Man also has the power to forgive sins, because he is the final judge. At the end of time, he will judge those who don’t repent, but he will also forgive the sins of those who embrace him as Lord in this life.

  • DRT (5) wrote ‘Makes me wonder if the Holy Spirit is actualized in some natural way. For instance, god uses natural processes for creation, he uses natural people in Jesus, and yet I think of the Holy Spirit as simply being a magical presence. Makes me wonder if there is some sort of physics involved in the process by which Jesus was assumed and then the Holy Spirit dwells…’

    Hmm, what an interesting idea. It seems unlikely that the One who created physics would be dependent on what he’d created in quite that way. I’ve always imagined that becoming a material part of his creation limited him in time and space but returning to be ‘where the Father is’ releases him to be everywhere at all times. Yet he can do all things. But we can only know what we are told or shown.

    Everything else is speculation. Fun, though!

  • Fred NZ

    If Jesus has ascended to the right hand of God, (symbolising power to intervene in the world) this event must have had a big impact on earth. Otherwise, Jesus is king of the spiritual realms, but not king of the earth.

  • Jon G

    I don’t know if this thread has run cold yet, but I just wanted to put my two cents in because this episode of Stephen’s has been a challenge to my non-Trinitarian viewpoint.

    Firstly, I have to question the literalness of the whole thing. Stephen was about to die – like any minute – so any report of what he saw has to be met with some skepticism. Luke wasn’t interviewing him or anything. He never actually saw what he reports Stephen saw – this was his interpretation of Stephen’s last words. Hence, any claim Stephan actually saw a physical Jesus sitting on a physical throne, next to a physical God the Father is a highly dubious report IMO.

    I rather think what we are seeing is a claim by Stephan (or Luke) that Jesus, by “being at the right hand of the Father” was the way in which God actively reinstituted his Kingdom – that Jesus was the way in which God activated his plan. Jesus was God’s way of affecting the world and not describing the position that each member of the Trinity had (didn’t he see the Holy Spirit on the left hand?). Essentially, Stephan was saying that he believed that God had indeed delivered on his promise to bring the Kingdom of Heaven in the person of Jesus…that’s all the passage was meaning.

    This might be seen especially in the use of the word “ek” in 7:56 which is always translated, in this passage, as “at” (“at the right hand of the Father”) but takes on a vastly different meaning if it is translated (as I believe it is normally translated in other passages) as “out [of]”, (“out of the right hand of the Father”). I am really out of my league here, and I’ll defer to those who actually study the Greek, but if, and that may be a big IF, – if the word was actually meant to be “out of” the right hand – like a branch comes out of a tree trunk, then it may be an allusion to the Davidic branch, the shoot of Jesse, the prophesy of God raising up his own to restore the world- which might be the point of Stephen’s words.

    Also, that would put into question the eternality of Jesus because it would imply that Jesus was created (like a branch does not preexist the trunk but rather grows out of it…and yet is still 100% a part of the tree.). I see the body of Jesus as created out of and then filled by the Father. Like the Spirit of the Lord filling the temple/tabernacle…the Spirit of the Lord has filled the new temple – Jesus. This is why I don’t deny the divinity of Jesus while not accepting the idea of Trinity…Jesus is divine, because Jesus is the eternal Father living within a human temple.

    Jon G

  • Jon G

    Dana Ames in #11 ““the right hand” or “the arm” of God (and/or, per N.T. Wright the word of God) referred to God’s acts, particularly within history. If that is the case, Jesus ruling and reigning now is the action of the Father, by the Spirit. So Jesus himself being the Father’s right hand would mean the Incarnation (and, it follows, the whole Christ Event) was God’s ultimate act within history.”

    YESSSS!!! This is exactly how I would see it. Thank you for phrasing it that way. I’m saving that quote!

    And don’t worry, just because I agree with your statement doesn’t imply that you should agree with my post above. I know I’m a heretic! ;0)

  • Bev Mitchell


    I think this is why we all love this site. We talk about earthy things like creation, the role of science etc., but we do not lose sight of the spiritual reality that makes it all possible. I agree with Tom Wright when he suggests that spiritual reality and material reality are very close, perhaps even interpenetrating – we don’t know the mechanism but God indeed is with us. Now to your questions.

    Yes the ascension, the “Son’s presence at the “right hand” of the Father” is crucial to the gospel and to gospeling. The idea of the Lord who reigns which flows from this is also fundamental. And from this flows the idea of the Comforter – the one meant to reign in us, now, as we prepare to reign with him in the future.

    So I guess I would add one more step to your very helpful list, viz:  “Here’s the order of our Christian faith: Jesus lived, Jesus died, Jesus was buried, Jesus was raised, and Jesus was exalted” and Jesus sent his Spirit. The Son’s presence here on earth in the person of the Holy Spirit is as crucial to the gospel and to gospeling as all of the others. It’s an essential package.

    Or, as Ananias said to Paul, “Brother Saul, the Lord has sent me – yes, Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here – so that you may be able to see again, and receive the holy spirit.”……. Saul stayed with the disciples in Damascus for a few days. At once he proclaimed Jesus in the synagogues saying, “This really is the son of God!” (in Acts 9, from the new translation by N.T. Wright) 

  • Chris White

    Of course, Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father…But in this instant, when Stephen was gospelling, with his death so close, the first one to die for the faith, Jesus stands to welcome his brother home. A thought which unexpectedly moved me to tears. Yes, we should always recognize Jesus as King of this earth, of the heavens, of all things including ourselves–but he is also our brother who loves us, each of us. And maybe, his standing at this point was that he was identifying with humanity, with Stephen, who was taking a stand against the forces of evil Jesus came to destroy. Thank you Stephen for your stand and thank-you Jesus for your rescue and reconciliation and restoration, our regeneration and redemption.