[B24] Christ's Ascension
We think of the meekness and gentleness, the tenderness and humility, of Jesus, and we cannot think too frequently, or adoringly, of these qualities; but it is a serious fault to forget, or fail to stress, the strength and courage of Jesus, the daring back of His lowliness, or the fact that, though love was His weapon, He wielded it with a knightly soldier’s hand. And now, in the realm of glory, the exalted God-man is the head, the generalissimo, of the armies of God both in heaven and on earth. He is the new Joshua to lead the chosen of God into the heavenly Canaan. He is the greater son of David to enlarge and solidify the Kingdom of God. With the ascended, enthroned Jesus as the captain of our salvation we need have no fear. Loud above the roar of every conflict His voice sounds clear and strong…
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24. Christ’s Ascension
And He led them out as far as to Bethany, and He lifted up His hands, and blessed them. And it came to pass, while he blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into heaven. And they worshipped Him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they were continually in the temple, praising and blessing God. — St. Luke 24:50—53.
We now come to consider that point of the Church’s great Creed which treats of the coronation of the Prince of life. Many times during His ministry did Jesus speak of the fact that, as He had come down from heaven, so was He to return to heaven. In the sense in which we usually think of it, earth could not be Jesus' permanent home. Indeed, there is something within which tells us that earth, as it now is, is not suited to be our permanent place of abode. There are longings, aspirations, in every awakened soul which cannot be satisfied with the things which are merely of time and sense. We need, if not a larger sphere, then more perfect conditions than this sin-cursed earth can afford, for the perfect unfolding of the life created in the image of God.
From the time of His resurrection Jesus showed more clearly than ever that He was not at home in the earth. There was an air of other-worldliness about Him which proclaimed Him a stranger here. The air about this planet of ours is always more or less impure. Poisonous vapors, smoke and dust continually contaminate it. Above these strata of noxious gases, smoke and dust is the purer, more rarefied air. There is something like this from the spiritual viewpoint. This alone would have made it so that it could not be Jesus' permanent home, nor the seat of His all-glorious throne. Love brought Him down from heaven, and kept Him here till His work was done. Then came the time for His home-going. This was the natural climax to the life He had lived, and the work He did. Let us today give further consideration to Christ’s ascension into heaven.
We will notice, in the first place, what this ascension meant to Jesus Himself; and then what it meant to His disciples, and should mean to us.
I. What Christ’s Ascension Meant To Him
Unquestionably Christ’s ascension meant very much to Him. He had been looking forward to this day with eager anticipation. His frequent use of the word Father betrays a heart-longing which could never be satisfied till He stood in the beloved Presence. On the night of the betrayal, as He consciously faced His approaching trying ordeals, His vision pierced beyond the low-hanging dark, lowering clouds to the glory which awaited the victor with the hard earned laurels, and He cried out: “Now, O Father, glorify Thou Me with Thine own self with the glory which I had with Thee before the world was.” To Mary, on the first Easter morn, when in the ecstasy of her joy she would have embraced Him, He said: “Touch Me not, for I am not yet ascended to My Father, but go to my brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto my Father, and your Father, and to my God, and your God.” While never for a moment forgetful of the fears and needs of his brethren in the flesh, and most reassuringly linking their names, and our names, with His Father’s fatherhood and Godship, Christ’s thoughts were increasingly centered in heaven, and on the throne.
First of all, let us consider the fact of the ascension itself. How simply the story is told by the Evangelists. There is no attempt at word jointing. The subject does not need it. Any attempt at human adornment would mar its simple, inherent sublimity, and heart-touching appeal.
On the fortieth day after Easter Jesus led his disciples forth as far as to Bethany. Jesus was leading his followers over familiar paths, probably up the road down which they had come with the shouting multitude the week of His crucifixion. Crossing the brow of the Mount of Olives they came to a secluded spot near which, in a depression, clustering beneath its olive trees, stood the village of Bethany. Bethany, when we read this name in connection with the ascension we cannot but wonder whether those loving friends of Jesus, who lived here, and one of whom He brought back from the grave, were not privileged to be witnesses of this final scene, and partakers of that final blessing.
What a never-to-be-forgotten scene, precious to the saints even to this distant day. Words of assurance had been spoken. Promises of power were given. The last act of the risen Lord was one of benediction. Then, while Jesus' hands were still outstretched in blessing, and words of peace were falling from His lips, He was parted from the disciples, and mounted slowly upward into heaven, until a waiting cloud veiled His withdrawing form, and finally hid Him from their sight.
The brief records say that Jesus was taken into heaven, again they say He went into heaven. There is no contradiction. As the Son of God He went into heaven by His own inherent power, by which also He could have taken, and in a sense did take, His glorified humanity with Him. But as the Son of Man, who ever exemplified His own precept that it was not becoming to exalt one’s self, He was taken into heaven by the everlasting Father.
“He ascended into heaven.
“Carried up into heaven.” Heaven! What a transcendently glorious word! How the souls of the devout become enraptured by its contemplation. In all ages, in every clime, men have thought of, dreamed about, and hoped for a place somewhat like unto what the Christian has learned, by revelation, to understand by the word heaven. But the heavens of man’s invention, by whatever names they may have called them, are but poor, vulgar caricatures of God’s heaven. What this is in all of its richness and glory, and perfect adaption to the new existence of all the saints of God, no mortal in this life knows, and if we could know we would find language too beggarly to tell it. We must die and pass within the portals to find this out. And no doubt one reason why more knowledge of this place and condition has not been vouchsafed to us is that the glorious vision would unfit us for present duty. But the inspired Word gives us to understand that heaven is where God, in a special sense, has the seat of His government. It is the place which He has prepared as the place of abode for his saved and glorified children. They are not to be homeless wanderers, they are to have a home. Heaven is, according to all the evidence, not a mere state, or condition, much less is it a mere ideal conception, an effort at poetry; but a real place, the light and life and glory of which is God Himself. It is the place where the full effulgence of the Divine perfections shine forth. Heaven is the place where saved souls are brought into perfect fellowship with God, where the heart-hunger for God is satisfied. Without this there is no heaven for man. At best there is comparatively little which we can say about heaven in a descriptive way. It is enough to know that heaven is a place worthy of the exalted character of God Himself.
Into this heaven, to the seat of world-authority, the home of the ever blessed, Jesus went when He ascended. But let us not forget that the outstanding thought in the fact of His ascension is that He took His humanity, His glorified resurrection body, with Him into heaven. Forever in heaven the Son of God is our brother, wearing the glorified livery of our human nature. Forever in that celestial home God and man are inseparably united in Christ Jesus. Forever the humanity which is part of the person of the Son of God will be the point of contact between the race of men and God. In all the history of mankind, in all the category of great achievements, there is nothing so intrinsically glorious and hopeful for the children of men as the simple fact of Jesus having taken our nature into heaven.
Jesus Christ, the God-man, did not ascend into heaven as a conqueror who was going into rest and retirement. He went there in His divine-human nature to be crowned as the King of power and glory. As St. Peter says:
“The God of our fathers raised up Jesus, whom ye slew and hanged on a tree. Him hath God exalted with His right hand to be a Prince and a Saviour (Acts 5:30, 31).
We think of the meekness and gentleness, the tenderness and humility, of Jesus, and we cannot think too frequently, or adoringly, of these qualities; but it is a serious fault to forget, or fail to stress, the strength and courage of Jesus, the daring back of His lowliness, or the fact that, though love was His weapon, He wielded it with a knightly soldier’s hand. And now, in the realm of glory, the exalted God-man is the head, the generalissimo, of the armies of God both in heaven and on earth. He is the new Joshua to lead the chosen of God into the heavenly Canaan. He is the greater son of David to enlarge and solidify the Kingdom of God. With the ascended, enthroned Jesus as the captain of our salvation we need have no fear. Loud above the roar of every conflict His voice sounds clear and strong:
“Fear not: I am the First and the Last: I am He that liveth and was dead; and behold I am alive for evermore.”
II. What It Meant To The Apostles
In the light of what the Ascension meant, and still means, to Jesus Himself, let us consider what it meant to the Apostles, and should mean to us.
When Jesus went up into glory those privileged to witness the ascension were, for the time, rooted to the spot. The indications are that they stood silent, absorbed in thought, with feelings too deep for utterance. In a certain sense they may have again felt orphaned; but it was not such a feeling as sealed their lips on Good Friday, not such a feeling as mastered some of them on that first Easter day as they stood, or walked about sad and silent from sheer exhaustion and hopelessness. It was a silence wrought by the vision of unutterable glory, the silence of an adoration too profound to be, at once, formulated into human speech.
There was a time when the Apostles had built much on Jesus' visible presence with them. He was to be the source of their inspiration, the formulator of their plans, their conquering hero. But in the past forty days they had been, no doubt, much weaned from this view. Still Christ’s ascension probably came with something of a shock. And it no doubt left them with a feeling of homesickness. Jesus' going away thus gave emphatic emphasis to the fact that present scenes and conditions do not form the setting for man’s highest estate, or his permanent abode. Where Jesus had gone there, and there alone, would they attain to the blessings and glories to which all the better of the children of men aspire, and of which they had received clearer visions as they listened to the words of Jesus.
With Jesus' ascension many lessons began to take form in the minds and hearts of the Apostles. He had said to them previously: “It is expedient for you that I go away.” We probably do not yet fully grasp all that is comprised in this word, expedient. At first they scarcely understood it at all. I think that now it began to dawn on them that it was all a part of God’s glorious scheme for their and the world’s good; that Jesus' presence, in the manner in which He had been associating with them was no longer essential to the earthly measure of their happiness, or the fullest possible measure of success in the work He had given them to do. Indeed, ere many days they came to know that He was going away only to continue, in another form, His work for them; that His going away was the condition of the bestowal of blessings absolutely essential to the proper prosecution of the work He had given them to do. So, very soon, as a result of Jesus' going away, the religion of the disciples became more spiritual.
The picture which the Scriptures give us of Christ’s ascension is painted with but a few strokes, but they are masterly and effective. One inspired writer tells us that the disciples stood gazing into heaven whence Jesus had disappeared. They were entranced, drawn out of themselves heavenward. But that very fact accounts for the statement of our text that they returned to Jerusalem with great joy. When once men get the right kind of a look into heaven it gives them a joy which goes into all the affairs of life. If these men had had something of this look into heaven forty-odd days before, Good Friday would have been to them a day of sorrows, but it would not have been a day of terror. Death and the grave have altogether a different look to those who turn to them after looking into heaven.
The day of Christ’s ascension was the beginning of a new day of faith for the Apostles. I think this is indicated by the words of our text informing us that they continued in “the temple praising and blessing God.” Jesus was gone, as the writer of Acts says, “out of their sight,” but hope and joy had, that day, a new birth in their souls. They were beginning to understand; past utterances were beginning to unfold their rich meaning. He was out of their sight, they were not out of His. Out of sight, but not by way of abandoning them. Gone, but was not His last act that of raising His hands protectingly over them? His last word a blessing? Gone, but they were more certain now than ever before that heaven, and the mysterious unexplored future, had a life, a place, a blessing for them.
And with this new clarity of vision, and added measure of faith came a newborn courage. They were no longer a set of trembling men skulking in the shadows. They came out into the light of day, and avowed their faith. Jesus had triumphed. His cause was going to triumph. And that meant that they were going to triumph. This kind of conviction it is which puts the iron into men’s souls.
With a glowing faith in their hearts, and their whole being animated by the courage which is the legitimate child of faith, these men were ready for daring activity. Faith gives courage not only to bear, but to dare and do. Between Easter and Ascension but little is said of the Apostles save in their relation to Jesus as they were learning the great lessons of the reality of His resurrection. From Olivet and the look into heaven as they followed the departing Saviour, the Apostles return to Jerusalem; for did they not remember the Master’s admonition to wait till they were endued with power from on high? But while waiting they worship and confess. And just as soon as they received the fulfillment of the promise of power they began the fulfillment of the ascending Lord’s last command: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And with what heaven-born zeal, and consecrated self-forgetfulness they did this work! Stripes and imprisonment could not dampen their ardor, fire and sword could not seal their lips or turn them from their Christ-appointed way. And what was the secret of their unfaltering courage, of their willingly made sacrifices? Just this, they did not give up their heavenward look; their affections were set on the things of heaven, where Christ sits on the throne of power and glory at the right hand of the Father.
The most enduring work in this world, the only work which endures eternally, is done by the men and women whose thoughts, whose hearts, are in heaven. Only those whose souls swell with hope have the heart to bear, to endure, to persevere in these great fundamental tasks the fruitage of which heaven alone fully reveals. To the heavenward gazing disciples the angels said: “This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.” And then they knew they should get their eternal reward.
This is a beautiful picture. We love to contemplate it. But it is not a picture to lull us to sleep, rather to fire us with a heaven-born life and energy. The lapse of almost nineteen hundred years makes but little difference betyeen us and those early disciples so far as the fundamental lessons are concerned which the ascension of Jesus teaches.
The passing centuries have only helped to emphasize the truth that heaven is the only proper place for a Savior who was to draw the people of all the nations unto Himself. How could these scattered millions of every tongue and every clime have come to, or keep company with, the One Shepherd if He had set up His throne in visible fashion on the earth? Comparatively few at anyone time would have been privileged to see or hear Him. So He set up His throne in heaven alike unseen to all, but alike accessible to all. And as discipleship depends on no kind of material relationship, or ocular demonstrations; but on faith, wrought by the Spirit’s operations, so Jesus went into heaven where all must come, not now in body but in spirit. And all those who would have faith, and courage, and resolute activity in Christian service, must spend much time on Olivet, in contemplating Christ’s ascension.
To be benefited by a study of Christ’s ascension, we must consider it not only as an event of centuries long gone by, as a truth of other years. As a fact of history the ascension is of the long ago, the purpose of the ascension is a fact of the living present. He went to the throne to rule over us and for us, to be the object of our faith, the inspiration of our courage, the sustaining power of our activity. We are not to stand idly gazing into heaven, but, in the midst of an active life, to be often and livingly looking to the place to which Jesus went, and from which He is to come again with our reward.
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- Author: “Golladay, Robert Emory”
- Title: “The Apostles' Creed”
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