My heart became hot within me. As I mused, the fire burned; then I spoke with my tongue: "O Lord, make me know my end and what is the measure of my days; let me know how fleeting I am!"

15 April 2005

Book Review - the Ascension

Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation

Gerrit Scott Dawson

This book is important, to the point of being crucial. More personally, it is for me full of promise and wonder. As all Scripture, all preaching, all faith must center on Christ, our thoughts and beliefs about Christ necessarily take the center stage of our faith. But Dawson effectively shows that I have (mostly) neglected one sterling piece to my view of Christ’s majesty: the ascension of our Lord.

He doesn’t so much point out this gap in our theology so much as he simply surveys the church with the reader and realizes that something is missing. Or, more properly, something is too present. Who can deny that the “world is too much with us”? Dawson notes the characteristics of busyness, lack of evangelism, discomfort with absolute truth about the path to God, and the sense of separation many feel between work and church. What’s the antidote? The author presents a convincing case that the ascension of Christ, though believed in theory, is not held to with passion or zeal. We are breathing the poison of this world’s syncretistic religion, yet we are too content or busy to notice. The ascension, however, demands “a deep sense of personal responsibility.” That is, if Christ really did ascend into heaven with human flesh, everything changes, all bets are off. Therefore, “A solution to the world’s being too much with us is an increased awareness of how much our true identity and life’s destination is located in heaven, followed by the change in life here on earth that comes from the transformation in vision.”

Dawson goes on to outline a theology of the ascension, asserting its concrete reality against a spiritualized view of Christ’s return to heaven. He addresses questions of when? how? where? what kind of body? how can He still be with us? and why each of these questions matter. Having defended its reality, the author shows how the ascension marks the fulfillment of Christ’s glory, His triumph, His reign, etc. Chapter 4 contains a more nuanced discussion of the ascension and the person of Christ. Then follows the question: how can we make this personal? Our union with Christ, who is our head and firstfruits, is shown to be the key to apprehending the ascension by faith.

Having accomplished an ascension theology, it remains to ask, so what? Part 3 of Jesus Ascended addresses how this epic story changes the way we live. First, Christ our Priest along with His Spirit take us to God, accomplishing atonement and adoption, clearing the way for our prayers to reach our Father who is in Heaven. Perhaps the most wonderful chapter is “Citizens of a Far Country” (Ch. 7); here, the author warmly expresses the tension in our hearts: striving to “set our minds on heaven at the same time as we plunge into the world with the message of grace.” To live out this tension with excellence means clinging to the ascended Lord, maintaining our vision of Him. That vision continually calls us homeward, calls us to become, by His power, more like our perfect older brother. We rejoice, knowing that Christ became what we are that He might make us what He is – not that we will become deified, but that we will finally become human. God’s purpose of restoring our humanity should lead to renewed passion in spiritual disciplines, especially that of holding the things of this world lightly. We are given fuel for this journey of ascension through baptism and communion and acts of obedience and charity – “we have our head in heaven, so we may drink from his living waters, the water of that far country even in this dry and parched desert of earth.” Dawson closes out the book by outlining how he led his church through these lessons and how they put it into everyday prayer and practice.

Throughout the book, stirring quotations from the church fathers are used and explained, helping to ground our theology in history as well as Scripture. Due to these quotations and a couple sections of dense theology, Jesus Ascended is a slightly difficult read, but well worth the effort. For those who believe that “God has given the exercise of all authority to the Lord Jesus Christ as the Divine Lawgiver, Governor and Judge” (RPCNA Testimony, 23:2), the doctrine of the ascension should be a bedrock of our faith – may it be so!

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