Ascension: The Locus of Atonement in Hebrews

David Moffitt made his mark on the world of biblical studies with his impressive dissertation Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In it, he argues against the long-standing viewpoint that Jesus’ resurrection plays little role in the soteriology of the book of Hebrews. Most modern scholars have seen the crucifixion, through the lens of a sacrificial typology, as the primary place and moment of Jesus’ atoning work. Moffitt largely builds on the work of Old Testament scholars who have proven that 1) the atonement accomplished by blood offerings like Yom Kippur were not focused on the actual slaughter of the animal but on the presentation/sprinkling of the blood and that 2) the blood represents the life of the sacrifice and not its death. Thus, using a typology of Yom Kippur, Jesus’ sacrifice triggers a series of events that leads to atonement, but is itself not sufficient or primary in the accomplishment of atonement. Moffitt uses these conclusions to argue for the primacy and importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews (see a good summary and review here).

While I think Moffitt is largely on the right track and much of his exegetical work on Hebrews is incredibly important, I can’t help but wonder if there is a glaring flaw in his conclusion. That is, Jesus’ bodily resurrection does not guarantee or accomplish atonement (in Hebrews itself or in Moffitt’s reading of Hebrews). It is the ascension of the bodily resurrected Christ into Heaven which does this – as he presents his blood in the actual Holy of Holies. A post-crucifixion embodied life is certainly necessary for this, but is itself just an event in the process which leads to the atonement. A resurrected Jesus, still walking around on earth, has not truly accomplished atonement according to the typology utilized in the book of Hebrews. At many points, Moffitt seems to recognize and appreciate this, yet it never seems to make a big enough impression to truly shape his conclusion.

I preached a sermon series last year on the doctrine of the Ascension, a doctrine that is mind-bogglingly  overlooked by many churches and theologians. Western churches and theologians usually tack the Ascension on as an afterthought to the Resurrection (at best), without giving thought to the specific theological work that it accomplishes and continues to accomplish in the theo-drama of God’s redemptive plan through Christ and the Spirit.  As I studied and prepared for the series, I realized how little I knew about the biblical and theological significance of the Ascension and, even more sadly, how little significant scholarship has been written about it.

However, Hebrews stands out among all of our canonical literature as exalting the Ascension as the praiseworthy and effectual moment of atonement. In fact, the data made me go back and listen to a sermon series I preached through the book of Hebrews years before and, to my embarrassment, I practically overlooked (or downplayed) the endless references to the Ascension. Like the scholars Moffitt critiques, my attention was so focused on the crucifixion (largely because of a poor understanding of the levitical sacrificial system) that I could hardly muster the cognitive or theological energy to look anywhere else.

Now, however, not only do I see the importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews – I also see the locus of atonement as happening in heaven at the time of the ascension. Why do we give so little attention to the  ascension as opposed to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Maybe because it is more theological and metaphysical? Maybe because we’ve overlooked its importance in the Scriptures? Regardless, I can no longer deny this truth: THE ASCENSION MATTERS. While the incarnation, life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all vitally important to God’s work of salvation and to our faith – the ascension must be understood as equally important and praiseworthy.

What do you think?

Have you noticed a tendency in churches or theology to overlook or downplay the importance of Jesus’ ascension?
If so, why do you think that is?

Do you agree that perhaps there is more biblical and theological weight put on the work of Jesus’ ascension than is often recognized?

Where else, other than Hebrews, might we be downplaying the importance of the ascension in the canonical literature?

Our Past, Our Conscience, and the Blood

For many Christians, the reason we never more from “dead works to serve the living God”  (Heb 9:14) is our past. We believe the blood of the Lamb is powerful enough to cleanse us from our sins, but our conscience is left unchecked, untouched by the blood. Our conscience and its view of our past reigns over our life.

Our conscience defines us by our past. Gregg Matte, pastor at Houston’s First Baptist Church, asked this past Sunday,

“How do you fill in this blank? I am a __________.”

He was trying to get us to move from first recognizing ourselves by our roles (mom, dad, teacher, student, accountant) and to begin with our identity in Christ (I am a Christian). But for many the voice in our head fills in this blank all to easily. Our first answer is not our role or identity in Christ, but that moment, that action, that person from last week, last month, last year, last decade, last century that never allows us to move on. Through this one thing our conscience defines who we are.

Once our conscience can define us, it begins to control us. To be blunt, because that is how we deal with ourselves. We might sugarcoat what we say about others, but with ourself we never hold back. “I am a – whore, idiot, liar, thief, cheater, addict, etc.”. We still believe this is truly who we are and so it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. We cannot seem to escape our past because we keep repeating the past.

Finally, when our conscience is allowed to control our actions, we ultimately accept it will never change. We give up. Our conscience wins. We are paralyzed unable to move. If our conscience isn’t touched by the blood of the Lamb our life will never change!

Into this, Hebrews speaks a word of truth…”How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from the dead works to serve the living God.” The blood of Christ purifies you completely! You are set free of sin (9:15), cleansed from all unrighteousness (9:22), and the power of sin is destroyed (9:26). Your actions and your conscience are purified!

Let today be the day your past loses control and you are set free to serve the living God!

Lance Armstrong and the Loss of Hope

To have hope is a curious thing. It can change everything – perspective, attitude, desire, even improve health. Hope is a powerful, but that is also what makes it so dangerous. When we place our hope in something that ultimately fails, our hope will also fail.

Today’s news of Lance Armstrong stepping down as chairman of Livestrong and being let go by Nike is a reminder of how fragile hope is. Armstrong was a great source of hope for many people suffering with cancer. His recovery from cancer and triumphs in cycling were more than a great story, they gave people strength to fight, a desire to win, even the promise of victory. This is why the recent report of his decade long use of performance enhancing drugs and his involvement in their cover-up is such a big deal. To those whose hope is found in Lance Armstrong this is not the fall of another athlete, the loss of some cycling victories, or the tarnishing of a reputation – it is the failure of their hope. Just read the comments on the stories about Lance on ESPN or some other site, it does not take long to find someone we want to say is way too emotionally involved in this story, but when we realize it is not a story to them, but their source of hope, it comes it to focus. They did not lose a hero, they lost hope!

It ultimately leads us to ask questions, Where is my hope found? Will my source of hope ultimately fail? What will happen to me if I lose hope?


Better than Moses: A Sabbath Rest

We live in a culture that has a very specific mindset about work, a mindset often perpetuated in the Church:

work is accepted, hard work is expected, and overworking is a virtue.

In our brave new world, there are no longer any boundaries. We are constantly connected through technology, no time is off limits. We live in a global marketplace, with globalization no place is off limits. We can, and are often expected to, “be available” at all times, in all places, in every way…and this has become a badge of honor. “Yeah, I work 70 hours a week!” This is not a complaint, but a declaration of importance. Let me cut through the bull and say what we really mean when we say this, “I am so important that my job can’t just have me for 40 hours, the world needs 70 hours from me!”

Into this mindset steps Hebrews 3-4, and it is a confrontation. This is not gentle reminder, soft nudge, or even firm request, Hebrews is going to step on our toes, get in our face, and confront us with one truth:

Hebrews 4:3 – “For we who have believed have entered that rest”

or on the flip side

Hebrews 3:19 – “So we see that they were unable to enter because of unbelief.”

Do we as Christians know how to rest? For me this is an horrifying question, “What do you mean rest? I am a husband, a father, a professor, writing my dissertation, teaching at church, teaching in the prison! God when am I suppose to rest! Just tell me which of these I should stop doing?” Now we all have our own list and many are way longer than mine. Into this mindset, comes Hebrews and says those who believe find rest.

What do they believe? Well it is fairly simple, that Jesus is the builder of the house! We would be more comfortable with the story going something like The Three Little Pigs offering us a good moral lesson:

What kind of house are you building?

Are you working hard to build a strong house?

But Hebrews asks us do you believe Christ is the builder of the house? If so, stop trying to build it yourself and find rest. This is not legalism of have to spend this many hours a day, a week, a month, a year…but a reminder that we were created for God and everything we do is to be for him. Rest, sabbath, is having space to enjoy God.

When was the last time you had space to enjoy God?

Better than Angels: A Great Salvation

Why do we crave salvation but fear a savior? It is not just in culture, but in the church we cry out for healing, deliverance, redemption…yet we neglect to “turn our eyes upon Jesus”. Hebrews will have no part of this mindset, in fact, in many ways Hebrews is written to combat this exact mindset, longing to display the majesty of Christ because it knows the better we understand who the Savior is, the greater will identify with the salvation he offers.

In Hebrews 1:4-14, the author start by showing the ways Christ is better than the angels. He is better because he is the Son of God (1:4-6); He is better because he worshipped and served (1:6-7, 14); He is better because he is God (1:8); He is better because he is King (1:9,13); He is better because he is Creator, Everlasting and Unchanging (10-12). Hebrews starts here because we have to understand this (who Christ is!) to fully grasp what Hebrews is about the tell us.

The tension is set in Hebrews 2:8b-9a (ESV), “At present, we do not yet see everything in subjection to him. But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death…” Can you see the tension?

At present…

1. The world looks out of control. Sin is present, evil persists, promises are unrealized, pain inflicts, and chaos reigns. Nothing seems to be under His control.

2. But also, Jesus is crowned with glory and honor. He sits at the right hand of God and rules.

This is where Hebrews wants to confront us…can you believe he reigns even when everything seems out of his control? And the answer is you can’t if you seek salvation without the savior. If we neglect the greatness of our Savior, we will neglect the greatness  of our salvation.

There is no salvation without a savior, and there is no Savior but Jesus Christ. Begin with Jesus, “look full in his wonderful face, and things of earth will grow strangely dim, in the light of His glory and grace.”