When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.
Luke’s gospel ends with an account of the ascension of our Lord, and his book of Acts begins with a similar account. I think that there are also five places in which Luke mentions Jesus’ ascension. You see Luke’s emphasis here in Acts on the observable and tangible nature of this event. He was taken up “before their very eyes.” This wasn’t a dream or a vision; they weren’t asleep, their eyes weren’t closed. As their eyes were glued to him he began to ascend a little, and then quite quickly a cloud of glory covered him and hid his reunion with his Father and the Spirit. Luke makes the factuality of the physical ascent of our Lord transparently clear. He says, “They were looking intently up into the sky.” The ascension was something that could have been filmed; it was as much an historic event as the virgin birth, or Jesus’ baptism, or his walking on water, or his raising of Lazarus, or his cross work and any of his resurrection appearances.
Why should I stress this? Because the modernist denies it, and that is why there is an Evangelical Movement of Wales. This is a group of individuals of whom I am one, who assert the historic Christian faith of the Bible and the creeds. I once heard the late Bishop J.A.T. Robinson, the author of the infamous Honest to God, speaking in a Methodist church. His theme was the ascension, and he patronizingly mocked Luke’s picture of Jesus ascending. “Just like a spaceman . . .” he said smiling, “ . . . like an astronaut.” He told us sitting in the pews that it didn’t really happen like that at all. This is a myth, he said, and he wanted to demythologize it. The truth that Luke was portraying in the story, he said, was real enough; it is that Jesus is the greatest and the highest. He is above everyone else, and so Luke imagines this picture of Jesus ascending up into the air, but, of course, the bishop said, it’s not intended to be taken literally. Now that is the modernist for you. He claims he believes that Jesus ascended, but he interprets it to deny that Jesus ascended up from the earth. But Luke couldn’t be more transparently clear that the ascension of Christ was an action in space and time. A crowd of witnesses were observing it intently; it happened before their very eyes.
- THE OLD TESTAMENT PREPARES US FOR THE ASCENSION OF CHRIST.
We know that both the cross of the Lord Jesus and his resurrection are displayed and predicted in the Old Testament, and there also Christians are prepared for our Lord’s ascension. The ascension of a servant of God was not a unique phenomenon. Do you remember that Elijah was also taken up into heaven? One day God told some of his angels to go to the stables of heaven and harness the horses of fire to the chariot of fire to elevate Elijah magnificently, bringing him to heaven. He ascended with a mighty wind. Apparently it started off as a perfectly normal day, Elijah and Elisha were walking along talking together, and we are told, “suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind. Elisha saw this and cried out, ‘My father! My father! The chariots and horsemen of Israel!’ And Elisha saw him no more” (2 Kings 2:11&12). So there was this preparation for the ascent of the greatest of all the prophets.
Then there was Moses who ascended Mount Sinai to receive the old covenant from God. The people remained at the foot of the mountain and not even an animal was permitted to walk onto the hillside, but Moses ascended the mountain on foot, up and up, and we are told that what in our text the apostles witnessed at the terminus of Jesus’ ascension the people had earlier witnessed at Sinai, that is, “the cloud covered it” (Ex. 24:15). Moses went there on behalf of the people he led. Moses went up and up to receive a covenant from God. Moses went there to become the people’s mediator with God. On the mountain the cloud enveloped Moses and God when they met together. That event again was preparing for the ascent of our Lord.
Then there is also that great Messianic psalm, psalm 24. Men often feel insignificant when they stand before a range of mountains like the Alps in Switzerland, or the Rockies in America, or the Himalayas (though I’ve never seen them). King David once had that consciousness of his own smallness, how tiny he was when he considered himself standing before the great holy hill of God. How intimidating it would be to climb that hill to God, and finally enter the presence of the ‘Holy, Holy, Holy’ One of Israel. David asks, “Who may ascend the hill of the LORD? Who may stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). He was conscious of his unworthiness. None but a righteous man, someone as holy as God is holy, can enter that place. And so David solemnly answers his own question “Who?” He tells us, “He who has clean hands and a pure heart, who does not lift up his soul to an idol or swear by what is false. He will receive blessing from the LORD and vindication from God his Saviour” Psalm 24:4). Did David have clean hands? No. Did David have a pure heart? No. Do I? No. Do you? No. But great David’s greater Son did. Jesus received this blessing of ascension to the Lord and vindication from God his Saviour because of his utter purity and holiness. His enemies had cried “Crucify him!” They had accused him of blasphemy and said that he was worthy of death. They mocked him as he hung there, but his Father knew him and vindicated him. He did so by lifting him up to heaven to his right hand. So Jesus ascended Mount Zion, the hill of the Lord, and was able to stand in that holy place. Christ alone was worthy before the ineffable to appear and on his naked spirit bore the uncreated beam. And so because the Messiah would ascend there then Old Testament Christians were given hope. Through him they might ascend there too. If Moses ascended that hill, and Elijah had been taken up to heaven then one day the Messiah would go before them all and he’d prepare heaven for every believer. As the psalmist prophesies in Psalm 68 says – the psalm quoted by Paul in Ephesians 4 and verse 8 and applied to the ascended Jesus – “When you ascended on high, you led captives in your train; you received gifts from men, even from the rebellious – that you, O LORD God, might dwell there” (Psalm 68:18). So the Old Testament prepares us for the Messiah’s ascension.
2. THE SCARCITY OF THE ACCOUNTS OF CHRIST ACTUALLY ASCENDING.
Matthew doesn’t mention his ascent. Mark doesn’t mention it (except a few words in the disputed ending). But the apostle John, though he gives no account of the ascension, records Jesus speaking of it at least twice (and there must be some allusion to the ascension in his famous words, “And I if I be lifted up will draw all men unto me.” The exalted Jesus will draw all his elect to him by the gift of the Father. That phrase cannot be without some reference to the ascension). In John 6 early on in his ministry we read of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Capernaum and there he makes startling claims about himself. He is saying thing like this, “the one who feeds on me will live because of me . . . he who feeds on this bread will live for ever” (Jn 6:57&58). Those are the words of either a megalomaniac or they are the words of the living God. What was the response of his hearers? We are told, “On hearing it, many of his disciples said, ‘This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?’” Aware that his disciples were grumbling about this, Jesus said to them, “Does this offend you? What if you see the Son of Man ascend to where he was before!” (Jn. 6:61&62). He doesn’t back down an inch. Rather, he affirms to them his pre-existence. He prophesies his ascension. Then again, at the end of his ministry, John records the resurrected Christ having a conversation with Mary Magdalene, and he says to her, “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn.20:17). So in John’s gospel, quite incidentally, the ascension is taught, even though John chooses not to describe the event. Luke, however, does that, and he does so twice.
What do we make of this absence in the other gospels? It’s not unusual. You have to remember other omissions. As important an event as the virgin birth of Christ isn’t mentioned in the gospels of Mark and John, and that the letters of Paul have no reference to it. We believe that the Holy Spirit supervised the whole process of the writing of the gospels so that because certain events and miracles and sermons were going to be included by one of the evangelists there was no need for another evangelist also to record the event. If you or I were writing a gospel we certainly wouldn’t omit the Sermon on the Mount, or the resurrection of Lazarus, or the parable of the prodigal son, or the conversion of the dying thief. We would make sure that those memorable events were recorded in our version of the life of Christ, but each one of them is omitted by as many as three of the gospel writers. So the lesson is that because an event in Christ’s life, or one of his sermons, is recorded just once doesn’t suggest it’s unimportant.
Another reason for the omission of the ascension in the other gospels is this, that the climax of the gospels is the resurrection of our Lord from the grave, not the ascension. In fact the ascension is properly understood as the climax of the resurrection appearances of the Lord Jesus. Of course that is not its only significance (as we shall see), but it is this killed and resurrected man Christ Jesus, their companion for three years, the conqueror of death – who was witnessed by his disciples – was the one seen ascending to heaven. So the New Testament writers are addressing their readers and saying, “Jesus Christ is Lord. He completed the work of redemption; today he has cosmic domination and he is going to appear one day as Judge of all mankind.” The confirmation that this is true is that he rose from the dead. If the New Testament tells us that we are going to live also – we are going to be raised from our graves – then the proof of this is not Jesus’ ascension but that Christ was resurrected from the dead, the tomb was empty, the body was gone and never found, there were many appearances of our Lord and he totally transformed his fearful doubting disciples.
Paul mentions just two truths as Christian teachings of the greatest importance, that Jesus died for our sins and that he rose on the third day. He does not add the ascension because it is included in his rising on the third day and his time with his disciples. The resurrection and the ascension are all one piece. The moment Jesus rose then right away he was on his way back to his Father in heaven. That was his longing, and so he delayed a mere 40 days, meeting with his disciples before lifting up his hands in farewell and leaving them. You realize that 40 days is a micro second in the 2000 year history of the church. I calculate it was one twenty thousandth of that period. Jesus’ mind was fixed on heaven and for the last two thousand years he’s remained there. That is his home, where he is preparing a place for us to join him. Our Lord was totally focused on once again being with his Father and the Spirit and the innumerable company of angels who adore him as their Lord.
But what an impact those forty days had on his disciples. Luke reports, “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (vv.50-53). Luke says, “he left them”; he had left once already when he had breathed his last and was buried. But what a different response now! Then, when he had died and left them, their faces had been downcast (v.17). Now, see the change, “they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (v.52). This is the penultimate verse of Luke’s gospel. That is the note on which he ends, their great joy – they were praising God less than six weeks after the crucifixion. Clearly a metamorphosis has taken place in that 35 verse time span, between verse 17 and verse 52, in those forty days since his death. Their friend had been taken from them by crucifixion – “Oh! Woe!” But now they realized enough of why he had to die, and all the benefits of his sacrifice, and that even death could not keep its grip on their Lord. Their ashes of despair were changed to shouts of triumph. They rejoiced and worshiped him, and as they walked back along the road towards Jerusalem from the hill of ascension, there was excitement and laughter and anticipation of the future serving an all-conquering and all-powerful Lord. It was such a different spirit from walking away from Jerusalem almost six weeks earlier, morose and downcast. The Lord Jesus had repeatedly told them about the need for him to die: “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counsellor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7). So why do we need to appreciate the ascension of our Lord? What comforts does it have for us?
Incidentally there are three excellent books that have appeared in the last few years, written about the Ascension all of them by recent graduates of Aberystwyth University, members of the Christian Union, Gary Brady’s What Jesus is Doing Now (Evangelical Press), Derek Thomas’ Taken up to Heaven (Evangelical Press), and Tim Chester’s The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God (Christian Focus). That is an encouraging fact, that God is raising up new theologians and writers.
3. THE BLESSINGS WE GAIN SINCE CHRIST HAS ASCENDED FOR US.
i] The ascension tells us that Jesus Christ did for his Father a good and decent job of the work he’d been given to do. His Father had sent him on a mission from heaven to earth, waving good-bye to him at the gates of heaven, watching him go, his heart full of love, and now at the Ascension his Father welcomes Jesus back to glory, mission accomplished! What delight! What relief! Astronauts touch down and they climb out of their space capsules. The Cuban miners are brought up out of the depths of the earth and restored to their loved ones. John Murray and his two brothers left their home in Badbea in Sutherland to fight in the First World War hugging their good-byes to their mother and remarkable father, Alexander Murray. John was a teenager 19 years of age, and he was the only brother to return. What a welcome his father must have given him as he entered that home again, one eye socket empty, and his army days all over. What a welcome Christ received when he ascended to heaven! The voice of Almighty God sounds forth: “Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle. Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in. Who is he, this King of glory? The LORD Almighty – he is the King of glory.” (Psalm 24:7-10). All God’s ransomed people will one day receive an identical welcome – yes, the same welcome. You understand? We are going to know a reception into heaven identical with that which Christ received. And the reason for that is what the Lord has assured us, that the same love wherewith God loves his Son he loves all who are united to his Son. He has no reluctant love to a single one of his people. Not a single Christian is going to enter heaven with his tail between his legs and his head hanging down in shame. Not for one believer. Before us lies an unqualified and abundant welcome. We arrive there in Christ. Our welcome will be akin to his.
ii] The ascension of Christ tells us where he has gone and where he is now. Think of what would have happened if he’d given no information at all as to where he was going, and then simply at the end of one occasion speaking with them he had dematerialized and vanished before their eyes! It was not like that. Rather “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9). That was a cloud of glory. So we know that there is a place where Jesus is at this moment. It is where Jesus went. It is just the other side of the thin but effective veil that separates us from the sights of heaven. He is on the throne of the universe; he is reigning as King of Heaven, there at the right hand of the majesty of God. I am talking about a real place, and it is described to us as a city – in other words, not a lonely place, not a cave half way up Everest, not an uninhabited desert island, not isolated on a distant star, but a city, with bustle and activity and life and happiness. No sin, no crime and no darkness is in that city. There is peace and light there, and it has the greatest foundations. It’s not built on a fault line. It is secure for ever and ever. When it says that the streets are paved with gold it is saying that there is no poverty there; no slums, no beggars, no underprivileged, no homeless people, no cardboard city. The very tarmac is 28 carat gold .
It is a real place, as real as Cardiff or Aberystwyth, but the most delightful place that the God of joy and peace, the supreme architect of the universe, can design for his children. Heaven is not everywhere and nowhere. It is not a state. There’s a place, and my beloved ones in Christ are there, and one day by grace and through Christ I will join them, a blest inhabitant of Zion, washed in the Redeemer’s blood. Jerusalem my happy home, and in our new bodies all his elect, a vast number, will live with the utmost delight there.
iii] The ascension is the guarantee that there are future glories awaiting us after death. At death men and women are not going into nothingness; they are not going into annihilation; they are not going into sleep. They are all facing the prospect of an open-ended encounter with the living God who has been blessing them all their days. Christ’s disciples will enter the joy that is set before them. It was set before Christ, and with him, in his presence is fulness of joy, and at his right hand are pleasures for evermore. It is being set before us too. You think of another hill other than the hill of ascension. I am thinking of the Mount of Transfiguration where there was given to Christ a taste of the glory that lay before him, and who joined him there? Two believers who had been dead for many years, Moses and Elijah, the representative of the law and the representative of the prophets. And the three apostles, Peter, James and John also, with Christ in the midst. The apostles saw Moses and Elijah, and they heard them discussing Jesus’ departure to glory from Jerusalem. They were talking together, and Moses and Elijah were as alive and as individually unique as the apostles themselves. They were not ghostly spirits like Hamlet’s ghost. They were vibrant and recognizable men. They had not been vapourized or dematerialized centuries earlier. This sight of those who had gone before and were now alive and in glory was given to James in particular because he was soon to be put to death. It was to assure him of the heaven that lay before him. We will most certainly know one another in heaven. Do you think we will have less knowledge there than we have here?
iv] The ascension tells us that heaven’s gates have been opened to all the people of God, the body of Christ. The body is unbreakably joined to Jesus its head. I am thinking of the great words in Ephesians 2 and verse 6, “God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus.” Think of a huge hot air balloon straining at its cables to ascend, and Christ is the first to enter the vast basket, and then every one of his people comes to join him there. When the last and littlest ones are safe on board then the door is closed tight, the cables are released and up it goes, safely ascending higher and higher to the dwelling place of God, and there Jesus escorts them all out of the basket, and where does he take them? Not to an outpost in heaven where they can witness from afar his delightful reunion with his Father, but they accompany him to the midst of the throne of God and he cries to his Father, “Here am I and the children you have given me.” And there they are given their seats with Jesus in the heavenly realms. Where the Head is then there the body is bound to be also. As he promised us, “Where I am there you will be also.” We know where our loved ones are today who died in Christ.
We are told that our Forerunner has gone there to prepare a place for us. Now I do believe that that ‘preparation’ of his that he spoke of was basically his great atonement on Golgotha, removing all our guilt and blame and preparing us for entry into the land of pure delight where saints immortal reign. But I cannot think that that is all that there is to Jesus preparing a place for us. I am thinking of the eternal calling of all his people – our vocation in the new heavens and the new earth – that that is also being wisely and lovingly prepared for us. Where is the Shepherd going to be taking us? What is our work to be in eternity? What is our relationship to be there with all whom we especially loved? They will be our eternal brothers and sisters And what will we do together?
I cannot think that ascending and entering heaven is like going alone into the maes of the National Eisteddfod. You know how that works. As Dad you’ve gone on to park the car in a field half a mile away, and the family have gone before you onto the field where there are 20,000 people. You’ve said you will see them in half an hour at the Movement tent, and so you buy your ticket and you walk out onto the field into a crowd of strangers, not one person you’ve met before, and you wander about wondering how long will it be before you are going to bump into someone you know, feeling very lonely! I cannot believe that that is going to be the experience of a single Christian as he passes through the everlasting doors and experiences the glory that awaits us. Everything there has been prepared for us by the Saviour who’s gone before us; it is all been planned by him; our works follow us; our relationships and friendships follow us; it is all fulness of joy there, from our very crossing of the threshold and the angelic welcome we’ll receive. The pleasure is for evermore, especially the sight and conversation we will have with our dear Saviour. He will initiate it; he talks to us as individuals, doesn’t he? “Well done good and faithful servants. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” It will be like that. When you go home to your family you don’t wonder “Will I know anyone there?” It’s your beloved family and the patriarch and matriarch are going to be watching out for you and welcoming you in particular. They will be anxious that you feel at home and will be introducing you to new members of the family; “This is the baby, and this is the new boyfriend.” Heaven is not a more discourteous or unfriendly world than our own.
v] The ascension puts Christ in the place from which most suitably he can work today. Consider other important men who had lived and died. Think of Oliver Cromwell, a very great man, but what influence does he have today? There is the influence of what he once did, and the influence of the speeches and letters he wrote. That tiny, insignificant influence he has over me now. But he has no active influence today over the lives of the millions of Christians say in India or China or South America does he? He is dead. His spirit is in heaven where he is saying with all the spirits of just men made perfect, “How long Lord?” He is longing for reunion with his body and for the great day of vindication and resurrection and the destruction of the devil and the final victory over sin to come, and that is all. Jesus Christ is not impotent like those who have gone above. He is alive and active and working today for his people everywhere. He is building his church. He is making intercession for us. He is sending out his Spirit upon us. Just think of this, that he reigns in heaven over the innumerable company of angels, and they haste over land and sea at his bidding. They assist his people in every corner of the world where he has all authority. From heaven he sends his angelic messengers forth to help us all on our pilgrimage where it is often tough and where those only who endure to the end can be saved. We are still in this fallen world and tempted by the god of the world, the prince of darkness. But Christ has all authority over this world as he has also over heaven’s hosts. We have no awareness of the help the angels have been to us throughout our lives on many, many occasions, even in getting us to where we are at this moment. How they have defended us, and guided us, and protected us, all at the bidding of their Master, our Saviour. So the Lord Jesus is saving us here below, day by day from his high position above, and he is also saving us above as cares for us and takes us to the uttermost glory pleading our cause on the basis of his redeeming work.
You think of a war and there are the different fighting services, the air force controls the stealth bombers and the jet fighters and the clones. Then there’s the navy with their submarines and destroyers and landing craft and the aircraft carriers. Then there’s the army, the soldiers, the guards, the cavalry, the tank corps, the fusiliers and the marines. And then there are different officers in charge of the different services, there are squadron leaders with the air-force, and there are admirals over the navy, and there are the generals who direct the army, and no doubt there are tensions and jealousies between them about the best strategy to defeat the enemy and win that war. That is human warfare, but here is one Man, just one name given amongst the angels of heaven and the men of earth, and it is high above every other name, the Captain of our salvation, our brave and much honoured Lord of glory. He commands the hosts of heaven to do his will and he is head over all things to the church here on earth, and he also is head of the church. He rides on his great white stallion and goes forth conquering and to conquer. He urges us to trust him. “The gates of hell will not prevail against met.” Who cannot but trust in so powerful and gracious a Saviour as Christ?
vi] It is from his throne in heaven he will return one day, from the control centre of heaven and earth. “It’s the end. It’s all over. Redemption of complete.” He will get up, and he will lead the hosts of heaven to return to the earth he made. Yet even on the final day, when Jesus does come to earth, he does not leave heaven behind. He can never leave heaven without jeopardizing our salvation. Instead he brings heaven with him to create a new heaven and a new earth. He doesn’t leave heaven to collect us and take us back to heaven. He calls heaven to accompany him to earth. He brings the presence of God to the people of God so that the voice from the throne declares, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.”
So I have spoken to you of the Ascension of Jesus Christ, that we are prepared for it by the Holy Spirit speaking in the Old Testament. It is the Messiah, our Lord who is the one who has ascended to God. He has there presented himself as our representative. He is there in his perfect manhood, in his official office as the one with all authority in heaven and earth. His work commissioned by his Father has been accomplished by the Son alone. He is pleading for us at the throne of God. Everything he did on earth – living a blameless life, resisting the temptations of the devil, displaying his power over creation, conquering disease and death – he did all that for us. We were in him when he did all of that. He was loving me until the end, and he was doing all he did until his last five acts, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection, the ascension and the enthronement. So God smiles and smiles at me his child because of what Jesus has done in making everything all right between God and myself. The price of my redemption was fully paid when Jesus ascended to sit on the throne of the universe in the presence of God. He is the pledge that I shall also ascend into his presence, and also every single one of his people, even the chief of sinners, the very worst man in the world, who have all fled to Christ for refuge. Our city of refuge is now in heaven. Every one of us is seated safely there in Christ. Our presence before God is as certain as Christ’s presence there.
11th August 2013 GEOFF THOMAS