If you’ve ever heard either the Nicene Creed or the Apostles’ Creed, you’ve heard the phrase about Jesus, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father.”
That is a basic Christian belief, and that’s what I’d like for us to talk about today.
Jesus was born a human being in Bethlehem. He grew up, and sometime when He was in His early 30’s, He was crucified. He was buried, but He rose from the grave. His grave was empty; His body rose from the grave. Jesus then remained on earth 40 days after that, and He ascended into heaven.
The book of Acts tells us about when Jesus ascended into heaven. It tells us that Jesus and the disciples were on Mount Olivet. Jesus was talking with the disciples, and when He finished talking with them, it says “He was taken up.” It says “a cloud received Him out of their sight.” The disciples were standing there looking up in the sky as Jesus was taken up.
This is what is known as the ascension of Jesus. It’s important to realize this is saying that Jesus in His human body was taken up to heaven. The same body He had when He was alive on earth was taken up into heaven.
Both the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed talk about the ascension of Jesus. They say, “He ascended into heaven.” And, they both couple that with—“and sits at the right hand of the Father.”
So the idea is that Jesus’ real human body was taken up into heaven, and He sits at the right hand of the Father.
That idea comes from Jesus Himself. In both Matthew and Mark, the Jewish leaders get a hold of Jesus and try to find something they can use to take Him before the Roman governor Pilate and demand that Pilate have Jesus executed. The Jews question Jesus. They ask Him if He is the Son of God. Jesus answers them by saying this: “It is as you said. Hereafter you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
This same idea is found in other places in the New Testament outside the Gospels. In the book of Acts, right before the stoning of Stephen, Stephen says, “Look. I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
Other places in the New Testament also refer to this. For example, Romans 8 says that Christ is “at the right hand of God.”
That’s why it is a basic Christian belief that Jesus is at the right hand of God. There are a number of biblical references to it, some coming from Jesus Himself.
It’s easy to imagine this in your mind. It’s a scene in heaven. God’s there, seated on a big throne. And to God’s right, there’s Jesus, sitting on a smaller throne. I think that’s the way a lot of people imagine it—Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. When we hear this about Jesus ascending into heaven and sitting at the right hand of God, that’s what we think; that’s the image that comes to our mind.
This way of viewing Jesus sitting at the right hand of God connotes that Jesus is, more or less, like God’s assistant—God on the big throne; Jesus right beside God on the smaller throne. Jesus is God’s “right hand man,” as some would say.
At first glance, that’s what this idea of Jesus seated at the right hand of the Father seems to say. But is that what it really says?
Unfortunately, the Bible never clearly explains what it means that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God. So, anything we say about what it means is going to be an interpretation. Since the Bible doesn’t flat out tell us, we have to derive some kind of meaning of it, using things the Bible says in other places. People have done that in various ways.
Some people have gone back to the ancient world and looked at the various interpretations in societies back then of what the “right hand” of someone connotes. They tell us that the “right hand” of a king was often used as a metaphor of the power of the king. And so they tell us that Jesus sitting at the right hand of God means that God has given Jesus power; Jesus has been given the power of God.
They back that interpretation up with what Jesus said in the passage we looked at earlier from Matthew. In that passage, Jesus doesn’t talk about Himself as seated at the right hand of “God” or the right hand of “the Father,” Jesus talks about Himself as seated at the right hand of “the power.” People use that to back up their interpretation that what it means that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God is that God has given Jesus power.
That’s one idea. Now let’s look at another one.
Other people go back to the ancient world, and they say that the interpretation put on the “right hand” of someone doesn’t necessarily connote power, it connotes a place of great honor. They say that back in the ancient world, if someone said, “Sit here at my right hand,” they were inviting the person to sit in a place of great honor. And so these people tell us that Jesus sitting at the right hand of God means that God has elevated Jesus to a place of great honor, that God has greatly honored Jesus by placing Him in that position.
These are probably the two most popular interpretations you’ll find in Western Christianity of the meaning of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God—either that God has given Jesus power or that God has elevated Jesus to a place of great honor.
I see a big problem with both of those. The problem is that both see Jesus as a completely separate entity from God. They see God here, and they see Jesus over here at the right hand of God, two different and completely separate Beings.
That doesn’t pose much of a problem for most people in Western Christianity, because that’s the way Western Christianity, Protestant and Catholic alike, think of Jesus—as a Being completely separate from God. God is one divine being. Jesus is a completely separate divine being. In essence, Western Christianity sees two gods—the main God, the Father, and a lesser God, Jesus. The main God, the Father, is on the big throne. The lesser God, Jesus, is on the small throne.
Now of course, Western Christianity doesn’t think it looks at Jesus that way, but it does.
Ancient Christianity did not see it that way. Ancient Christianity insisted there was only one God, not a main God and an assistant.
It wasn’t until around the year 1000 that, in Western Christianity, the idea began to become popular that there are two gods, a main God and a lesser God. That’s actually what finally caused the big split in Christianity in the year 1054, when Christianity split into two parts—Roman Catholic and Orthodox, or Western and Eastern.
Western Christianity was moving in the direction of seeing Jesus as separate from God, as a second, lesser God, while in the East, they continued to insist there was only one God, that Jesus and God are identical. Finally, Western Christianity went so far in the direction of seeing two Gods that it developed into a completely different religion, and it was no longer possible for Eastern and Western Christianity to be grouped together. That was the great split in Christianity. It happened, officially, in the year 1054. Christianity split into two parts—Western Christianity, which became known as Roman Catholic Christianity, and Eastern Christianity, which became known as Orthodox Christianity.
We’ve already talked about the interpretation Western Christianity puts on Jesus sitting at the right hand of the Father. Western Christianity says, in essence, that there are two gods, a main god and a lesser god. What does Orthodox Christianity say, the version of Christianity that says there is only one God? If Orthodox Christianity believes there is only one God, what do they do with this idea of Jesus sitting at the right hand of God?
Well, let’s think about how the Bible is interpreted. To do that, let’s think about some things the Bible says. Psalm 18 says, “The Lord is my rock.” In John chapter 10, Jesus says, “I am the door.” Obviously, God is not a rock lying outside in the yard somewhere. And obviously, Jesus is not a door. Jesus is not that door over there.
Those statements are metaphors. A metaphor describes something in a way that makes a comparison. It’s not really saying something “is” something; it’s saying something is in a certain respect “like” something. So saying that Jesus is “the door” does not mean that Jesus is a literal door. It means that Jesus is like a door in the aspect of it being Him who opens the way to eternal life.
In ancient Christianity, the statement that Jesus sits at the right hand of God was interpreted the same way—as a metaphor. It was not seen as giving the impression that up in heaven there are two thrones, with the main God sitting on the big throne and the assistant God sitting on a smaller throne to the right.
So what is it a metaphor for? Well, if you believe there is only one God, then you believe that Jesus was God in human flesh. You go along with what the Bible says when it calls Jesus “Immanuel,” which means “God with us.” You go along with what Jesus said when He said, “I and the Father are one;” “He who has seen Me has seen the Father;” “Before Abraham was, I am.”
What we see when we look at Jesus is the human being that resulted when God became a human being just like us. That is the great mystery of Christianity. God Himself came here and became a human being just like us, but still, somehow, at the same time, He never ceased to be God. And so God took on our human nature. How could that happen? How could God be here, in a human body just like ours in Jesus, but yet still be God? We can’t explain it. That’s why it is The Great Mystery of Christianity.
It was God in a real human body. That’s who Jesus was. So keep that in mind. Now consider something else. We know Jesus was crucified. Here was God, the creator of the universe in a real human body, and He got killed. He was buried. Keep in mind that when God was here as one of us, His human body was a real human body, the same in every way as ours. When He got killed, He really died. His body was really dead.
But His body rose from the dead. It was a defeat of death, and it was done on the human level. Jesus’ real body rose from the dead. It wasn’t that Jesus’ spirit rose from the dead. All four Gospels are clear that Jesus’ grave was empty. His body rose from the dead, the same body He had when He was crucified.
After the resurrection, during those 40 days when Jesus was on earth, He had His real human body. During that time when Jesus was walking around talking to people after His resurrection, it was in a real human body, the same human body that had been nailed to the cross and crucified. The body that He was walking around with after the resurrection was the same body He was walking around with before He was crucified.
And now we get to the ascension, 40 days after Jesus’ resurrection, when He ascended into heaven. Notice it’s not that Jesus’ spirit ascended into heaven and His body was left lying there. His body ascended into heaven. And remember, we said that the human body He had after His resurrection was the same human body He had always had, so what ascended into heaven? A real human body. Jesus, in His real human body ascended into heaven.
And then what happened? He sits at the right hand of the Father. What is pictured as sitting at the right hand of the Father? An “assistant God?” No. A human being, a real human body. Is it a lesser God pictured sitting there at the right hand of God? No. It’s a real human being.
In ancient Christianity, and still today in Orthodox Christianity, that is the way it was seen, and it is seen as a metaphor. What it tells us is that human beings, have been elevated up into heaven and united with God. That is what sitting at the right hand of God was interpreted to mean in ancient Christianity and what it is still believed to mean in Orthodox Christianity. We—human beings—are seated in heaven with God, right now.
That’s why the Bible tells us our true home is in heaven; our true citizenship is in heaven. That’s why the Bible tells us we are children of God, joint heirs with Jesus. We are joint heirs with Jesus in the sense that He has taken our humanity up to heaven and has united it with God. That is how we are, as the Bible says, “partakers of the divine nature.” As Ephesians says, “God raised us up with Christ, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places.”
That’s what it really means to say that Jesus sits at the right hand of God. It means that humanity has been elevated, raised to heaven, joined to God, changed so that we, even today as human beings, are children of God, sons of God, changed so that where we truly belong is there in heaven with God; that’s where our true home is, our true citizenship. That’s what it means that we are “joint heirs with Jesus.”
Jesus sitting at the right hand of God means that human beings have been elevated to where we are citizens of God’s eternal kingdom, right now.
You are not just a flesh-and-blood person. You are not just an earthly creature. You are a spiritual being, and your spiritual essence is in the presence of God. It’s not that one day you will be in the presence of God; it’s that you already are with God. You just don’t realize it. And you know, that should put everything into perspective. That should put the things of the world into perspective.
People drive themselves crazy worrying about stuff that’s going on in the world. But if you’re a Christian, you’re already out of here. You already belong somewhere else. Is the world going to hell in a handbasket? Sure it is. Just look at the news. Just look at the mess in Washington. Look at the mess everywhere in the world. Just let it be. You’re not from here. This is not your home. This is not supposed to be your main concern. Your main concern is that you already are seated in heaven with Christ.
The things in this world are passing away. As the Bible says, “The world is passing away, and the lust of it, but he who does the will of God abides forever.” That’s what we should live our lives by. Put all the things that are going on in the world into perspective–it’s passing away. But you are already seated in heaven with Christ.
If we could only live as if we believed that, our lives could be so much different.