“But I believe in Jesus too,” my five-year-old said, unconvinced by my explanation why she couldn’t have some of the bread and juice.
We had slipped out of the service after I received the elements because she became rowdy with questions. I led her a little ways from the crowd and knelt down to meet her eye to eye. My hands were on her shoulders, posturing to seize the moment, until my unsatisfactory answer quickly led to a bigger talk as she continued her case.
Now staring off in her own thoughts, she replied, “Dad, I believe in Jesus, but I mean, I’ve never seen him before. I’ve never heard how he talks.”
This wasn’t a crisis. She was just stating a fact. It actually came off a little bashfully, as if her faith might not be as credible as mine because she’s never seen Jesus or heard his voice. She was thinking out in the open, not realizing that her uninhibited inquiry actually gets at heart of what we are doing here, of what it means to be Christian in this world. What was fresh to a five-year-old mind is something, I think, too few of us stop to consider. It’s the fact that we love and talk about a person with a blaring dissimilarity to everyone else we love and talk about, and that is, he’s not here. We’ve never seen Jesus.
Jesus Is Not Here
This is not a problem and it’s nothing new. Believing in the Jesus we have not seen is an early-established staple of the Christian life (1 Peter 1:8). But what occurred to me in that conversation with my daughter was how this truth is much more obvious to a little girl than to me, to many of us, I would guess. The reality strikes her that our lives revolve around a real person who is alive but unreachable. She doesn’t dismiss the fact he’s not here. Right now, Jesus really is away (John 14:28) — and that’s important.
Jesus is also with us, as he said, in the sense of his Spirit (Matthew 28:20). He has not left us or forsaken us (Hebrews 13:5). But the ministry of the Spirit isn’t the physical presence of Jesus. And this has the tendency to grip a child more than us adults. Why? I think it is probably because she hasn’t encountered the truth of God’s triune-ness like we have, and therefore, she is free from some of the glitches that can slip into our functional understanding of how the Trinity works.
I wonder if we (myself at least), because of the Spirit, assume Jesus is around in the wrong ways. That’s why we’re okay with illustrations of Jesus sitting in the pews of our churches. Or with paintings of Jesus hugging a strung-out 20-something with holes in his jeans. But these images are wrong. At best, it’s wrong because we have a glitch that blends the person of Jesus with the person of the Spirit. At worse, it’s wrong because we have turned Jesus into some disembodied human who is more like a bearded phantom than the enthroned God-Man. The truth for us to remember is the doctrinal byword that Jesus is God and the Spirit is God, but Jesus is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not Jesus. And that means, at least for the past 2,000 years, Jesus doesn’t make footprints in the sand.
Seated in the Heavenly Places
So if not here, where? Where is Jesus? The Bible tells us that Jesus is seated at the right hand of the Father in the heavenly places (Ephesians 1:20; Luke 22:69; Acts 2:33; 5:31; Romans 8:34; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:3). And his being there is good news.
In fact, the ascension of Jesus to the Father’s right hand is an indispensable aspect of the gospel. Which means, we aren’t saved unless Jesus is seated at the Father’s right hand. Which means, we aren’t saved unless Jesus is not here. Why?
In their new book, The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, Tim Chester and Jonny Woodrow give three crucial truths about Jesus’s ascension. He is the ascended priest, completing a perfect sacrifice. He is our ascended king, reigning over all. And he is the ascended man, fulfilling the glory of humanity for which we were created. The ascension matters for our salvation because if Jesus’s sacrifice is to be effective and his kingship is to be real and his humanity is to be glorified, he must be ascended.
Each of these aspects of Jesus’s ascension is glorious. But I want to focus here mainly on the kingship aspect. That’s the theme of Paul’s amazing description in Ephesians 1:20–23. And I think that’s the simplest to explain to my five-year-old, who, remember, got us into this.
Paul tells us that the Father powerfully raised Jesus and seated him at his right hand. The raising and seating are fundamentally one work. When Paul tells us in Romans that the Father declared Jesus to be the Son of God by his resurrection (Romans 1:4), he doesn’t mean this vindication comes by merely being brought back to life. The resurrection is one part of this great vindicating act — an act that also involved being highly exalted and bestowed a name that is above every name, which is the route Paul takes in Philippians 2:10 and mentions in Ephesians 1:21.
Jesus is seated above all rule and authority and power and dominion because that’s what it means to be the king of everything. That’s what it means to be the true Son of Man that Daniel speaks of in Daniel 7:13–14. And that’s the only reason someone can say: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Jesus is raised and seated to have all things put under his feet, which is the vision of the Messianic king in Psalm 110:1. Jesus is ascended! Ascended!
And here’s the part that’s literally out of this world: we are ascended with him. Just a few verses later, in Ephesians 2:6, Paul tells us that when God saved us in Christ he actually raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places. Right now, united to Jesus by faith, we are spiritually seated with him at the Father’s right hand. That’s why we seek the things that are above (Colossians 3:1). Spiritually, it’s our home. This new creation dimension of reality where Jesus is, this is where we’re from (Philippians 3:20).
So when my little girl admits she hasn’t ever seen Jesus, and that she hasn’t heard his voice, I say, “Me neither.”
I haven’t seen Jesus because part of his saving us — part of his coming and living and dying and being raised — is his being ascended and seated at the Father’s right hand where he rules over everything. I haven’t seen Jesus because he is our king from another world, a better one. And actually, it’s the world I’m from. It’s the world of God’s endless, uninhibited presence for which all of creation longs. It’s the world that Jesus himself will bring into this present one, the world that will come down from heaven and make all things new (Revelation 21:1–5). We haven’t seen Jesus, but we will see him then.