On my computer screen, I have a picture of the church the way it used to be. Now, almost every day, I walk down to see how they are making progress and each week, Benny gives us an update and it is amazing to see the progress that is being made. Think back a few months to the meeting we had when we decided to do the building project. I always am amazed at the way things happen and come together and the huge changes that come. We sit in a church meeting and that event and the decision we made there have caused something that is a huge upheaval and costs all kinds of money and creates a great impact. One event - a quiet church meeting - has great implications for all kinds of people for months to come.
Thursday of this coming week we commemorate an event that also was quiet and perhaps even obscure, but has had major implications for millennia ever since. Jesus stood with his disciples and taught them as He had done many times before. All of a sudden a cloud came down and he was taken from their sight. It seems like a small thing, a quiet thing, no big splash, but it is a great thing with huge implications.
We don’t celebrate ascension very often, perhaps because we see it as such a small thing, but we should. Perhaps next year, we can have a service on ascension day instead of thinking about it on the Sunday before. The event which happened is far too significant to miss.
Marva Dawn says, “Ascension Day is the perfect church holiday because the world can’t steal it.” The world has stolen Christmas with Santa Claus and Easter with the Easter bunny. But a Thursday celebration of an event that seems to hardly register on the calendar would not be stolen by them.
Not only would the world not be interested in it, it is also important to celebrate because of its great significance. It is one of the main events in the life of Jesus which has to do directly with our life today.
At Christmas we celebrate that he came into the world. But Christmas is past tense, he is not a baby any more.
At Easter we celebrate his death and resurrection. Easter is past tense in the sense that Jesus isn’t on the cross or in the tomb or even on earth appearing to his disciples any more.
Ascension, however, is totally present tense because Jesus ascended to the Father and that is where He is now.
The Old Testament had prophesied that Jesus would ascend. In Psalm 68:18 we read, “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.”
Jesus also prophesied that he would ascend. In debate with the religious leaders, he indicated that he would return to the Father. In John 7:33 we read, “I am with you for only a short time, and then I go to the one who sent me.” Later when he was encouraging his disciples just before he was crucified, he said in John 14:28, “You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’”
There are two passages in the Bible which speak of the event of his ascension. Many other passages speak of the reality of his being with the Father and also of the meaning of that event but only Luke 24:50 - 53 and in Acts 1:6-11 - 40 describe the actual event.
In Acts 1:6-11 which has the most detailed description, we learn that he was with his disciples. These were his last words to them in which he told them that they should expect the coming of the Holy Spirit and that they would be empowered to witness for Jesus. Then, he rose up from the earth and went up in a cloud. As they stood and watched, two angels encouraged them that he would return.
Other passages in the Bible tell us that when he ascended, he went up to a position of authority in the presence of God. In Ephesians 1:20, 21 we read, “God…seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.”
What does it mean to us today that Jesus ascended and is reigning in heaven?
I. Jesus Is Interceding For Us
Why is it so significant and so amazing that Jesus ascended to the presence of God? What is the presence of God like? We have a number of Old Testament stories that tell us that the presence of God is an amazing, holy place. It is light, it is purity it is perfection, it is unmarred by spiritual, moral or any other kind of pollution.
That holy presence was communicated when Israel was at the foot of Mount Sinai to receive the ten commandments. God told them that anything that would touch the mountain would be immediately killed. When God came down on the mountain and spoke to the people, he came down in a cloud to obscure his amazing presence. When he spoke, his voice thundered and the purity, power and majesty of the voice so frightened the people that they could not stand it and asked that Moses would speak to them instead of God.
The holy presence of God was communicated when David decided to move the ark of the covenant to Jerusalem in order to give it a more permanent home. The story is recorded in II Samuel 6. They were not careful in the way that they moved the ark and instead of having priests carry it on foot as they had in the wilderness wanderings, they put it on an ox cart. When the cart seemed about to tip, Uzzah, stretched out his hand to steady the ark and because he touched what he was not to touch, he was killed instantly. The holiness of God, represented in the ark, was so great that even touching the representation of his presence resulted in death.
The holy presence of God was communicated in the vision of Isaiah who was privileged to have a glimpse into the throne room of God. That glimpse so overwhelmed him when he saw the living creatures cry out “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty” that he recognized his sinfulness and said, “woe to me! I am ruined.”
At the ascension, Jesus entered into that amazing presence. He did so, not because he had a right to as the Son of God, but because He had completed the work of atonement. Philippians 2 tells of his voluntary humbling. One writer commenting on Philippians 2 says, “as a man, Jesus did not assert his God-ness, having laid that completely aside.” But, “In the ascension, Jesus took up again the fullness of his God-self.”
Hebrews has much to say about this exaltation of Jesus. It picks up on the Old Testament imagery and we read in Hebrews 9:12, “He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, having obtained eternal redemption.” What does this teach us? It teaches us that unlike the Old Testament priests who had to offer sacrifices repeatedly, Jesus died once for all and because he obeyed God to the point of death and because his sacrifice was sufficient, he entered into the very holy presence of God. That Jesus was able to do that is amazing when we consider that just a few days previously, he had cried, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” When Jesus hung on the cross, he had all of the sins of the world thrust upon him, yet just a short time later, he was acceptable in the most sinless, holy place that exists. How could this be? It is because He obtained redemption by his death on the cross and so earned the right to come into God’s holy presence.
Last Sunday, we talked about Job who was considered a man of integrity and who considered himself a man of integrity. In his defence of himself, he often expressed a longing for an advocate. In Job 31:35 we read, “Oh, that I had someone to hear me!” Job believed that he was a righteous man and wanted someone to listen to his plea. He desired an advocate, a hearing with God.
How much more do we who are filled with sin need someone who will speak to God for us. There is no hope unless we have an advocate in heaven. The ascension is amazing because it tells us that Jesus is just that. Jesus is the one who has entered into heaven, not just for his own sake, but He has gone into heaven on our behalf.
Hebrews 6:20 says, “Jesus…has entered on our behalf.” Hebrews 9:24 indicates, “For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God’s presence.” Romans 8:34 also indicates, “Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.”
So here we have a most amazing implication of the ascension. Jesus is in the holy presence of God on our behalf. He is up there, right beside God and he is looking down at every one of us and saying to God - that one believes, I died for him, he is OK.(repeat) It is not our goodness that makes us acceptable to God. It is the work of Jesus Christ on the cross, his presence at the right hand of God as our advocate that allows us to live in freedom and peace because we have the advocate that Job so desperately wanted. We have someone who represents us before God and promises us acceptance on the basis of his finished work.
So whenever we feel guilty, or not good enough, all we need to do is remember what Jesus has done and know that He is in God’s presence. He is there not as our accuser, Satan is our accuser, Jesus is our defender, the one who declares us accepted before God. That is why we have assurance of salvation, that is why we can walk in peace, that is why we can have confidence with God - all because of the ascension.
II. Jesus Is With Us By The Holy Spirit
One of the things which happens in many religions is that they need to make pilgrimages in order to come near to the gods, or to have a religious experience. Hindus come from all parts of the country to visit pilgrimage sites. There sacred sites to which pilgrimages are made in the four corners of India as well as in other places. One of the five pillars of Islam is that Muslims who have the physical and financial ability should perform the pilgrimage, or hajj, to Mecca at least once in a lifetime. The hajj is distinct from other pilgrimages. It must take place during the 12th lunar month of the year, and it involves a set and detailed sequence of rituals that are practiced over the span of several days. All of the pilgrimage rituals take place in the city of Mecca and its surroundings. Even Jews speak about pilgrimages. Archaeologists believe that the Western Wall in Jerusalem, also known as the Wailing Wall, is all that remains of the Second Temple, which was destroyed in AD 70. Today, the wall remains a sacred place for Jews. Many take pilgrimages to the wall to pray and hold religious ceremonies.
One writer says, “if Jesus had not ascended, we would all have to go over to Galilee to find him.” If Jesus had not ascended, we would be taking pilgrimages often. But, Jesus has ascended and because He has, another implication is that the Holy Spirit has come down to us as the presence of God. We don’t make pilgrimages to God, He comes to us and He does so because Jesus ascended.
Jesus said in John 16:7, “But I tell you the truth: It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” Because Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, he has sent His presence, the Holy Spirit, to be with us. When I talked to the children, I asked them, “where’s Jesus?” We often talk about Jesus coming into a person’s heart. If we want to be technical, it is not Jesus who comes into our heart. Jesus is in heaven at the right hand of God, but it is the Spirit of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, who does come into our hearts and live with every believer. Jesus had to leave and it is a good thing that he did leave because now His Spirit has come into the whole world, instead of to one location on earth. Every person who belongs to Christ has a constant and daily nearness to Jesus through his Holy Spirit.
III. Jesus Gives Gifts For Service
Although we are not very familiar with the concept of “spoils of war” it is a common concept in the Bible. When there were battles and the enemy was defeated, the victor had a right to the property of the one defeated. There are a number of interesting stories in the Bible that have to do with the spoils of war. When Israel defeated Jericho, they were not to take anything from that city as the “spoils of war” because everything was dedicated to God. When David went out to recover his family and property that had been taken by a raiding band, some of his men were too tired to go on. After they recovered the spoils, including all their families and flocks, some of the warriors didn’t want to share the spoils with those who had stayed back but David wouldn’t let them get away with this. In the siege of Samaria, when several lepers decided they had nothing to lose, they walked into the enemy camp to find all the soldiers gone and all the spoils of war available for their taking, which they eventually shared.
There is an interesting passage in Ephesians 4 which uses the language of the spoils of war. In Ephesians 4:8-12, it says “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men…He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up.”
The victory which Jesus accomplished was the victory over Satan. The ascension is the triumphal celebration which recognizes that victory. The spoils of war, which are distributed, are the gifts given to the church for the purpose of building up the body of Christ.
The wonderful thing is that when these gifts of Christ are given and used for the building of the kingdom, great things happen. The spoils of war are not squandered and used up. In the kingdom of God, it is always a win-win situation. The gifts given result in a greater victory as more people come to Christ and as those who are in Christ multiply the work of God in the world. In John 14:12 we read, “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.” Isn’t that wonderful? Isn’t it amazing that because of the ascension, God’s kingdom is growing even more than when Jesus was on earth? Isn’t it wonderful that because Jesus is at the right hand of the Father, we are able, because of the gifts given to us, to do even more than Jesus did when He was on earth? Are we using the gifts He has given? Are we involved in these greater works?
IV. Jesus Is Preparing A Place For Us
Robert C. Shannon has written the following illustration, “When many savings and loan institutions failed in 1989, the federal government had to dispose of numerous properties. One was most interesting--the six acre NcCune mansion in Paradise Valley, Arizona. It was built in the 1960's by Walker NcCune for his young bride. The house contains fifty-three thousand square feet and includes an ice skating rink, an Olympic swimming pool, a fourteen car garage, its own beauty salon, guest house, and a ballroom with an $80,000 chandelier. Oddly enough, Mrs. NcCune didn't like it and refused to move in. She never lived in it. Perhaps there are others who don't like Paradise Valley, Arizona, but no one will be dissatisfied with the mansion Christ has prepared for his bride.”
The final thing I would like to mention today about the ascension is that because Jesus is in heaven, at the right hand of the Father, he is preparing a place for us. It says in John 14:2, “In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you.”
It is OK meeting here in the arena, but the other day when I was walking through the church, I was thinking, won’t it be great to be meeting here again. I look over the gravel and concrete at the construction site and I am looking forward to what will be when it is finished. A better church is being prepared for us and we are looking forward to it.
How much more are we anticipating the place that is being prepared for us because Jesus is at the right hand of God and preparing an eternal home for us. Any building project, any home here on earth will be nothing compared to what we are looking forward to in heaven.
All of these things are true and have an impact on us today. It is good for us to place these things before us and to celebrate that Jesus ascended into heaven. Because He did, He is in heaven interceding for us, He has given us His Spirit, He gifts us for service in His kingdom and He is preparing a place for us.
It is important to know where Jesus is and why He is there because it has to do with how we live today.
I invite you to praise the ascended Christ and live daily in Him!
“Thus, Christ’s ascension is a pivotal point for Luke (in Luke 24 and Acts 1)- the turn when Jesus regains his full authority as God and passes on to his people the going that he had been doing, so that we, the Church, as his Body can do, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the greater works he promised.”