“And He Ascended into Heaven…”

Give me an opportunity to teach, leave up to me to chose the topic, and what I will want to talk with you about is the ministry of the Holy Spirit.  You see, I am really quite passionate about the person and work of the Holy Spirit.  I just don’t think that Christianity “works” when the Holy Spirit is ignored.  This isn’t something that I learned from reading a book.  No, this is something that I know from my very own personal experience.  You see, I’ve tried it.  There were long and frustrating years early in my spiritual life when, with the disciples whom Paul encountered on the road to Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7), I had “not even heard that there was a Holy Spirit.”

 In the days of the merger of Barton Stone’s “Christians” and the Campbell’s “Disciples” (the 1830’s), one of the speed bumps to unity was the perception by Stone’s people that those “Campbellites” promoted a “Spiritless” form of Christianity.   And the charge sticks.  Being the reasonable people that we are, we still get nervous around “enthusiasts”“enthusiasm” originally meant “in-spiration,” to be personally indwelt and empowered by God’s very own presence and power — “Spirit-filled.”  “Decently and in order” (I Corinthians 14:40) is our Reformed inheritance, our preferred approach to things.  And since the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian and/or a congregation is by definition going to be disruptive — an interruption from the outside breaking into our lives — we have tended to exercise great caution and control when it comes to matters of the Spirit.

My Pentecostal and Charismatic friends like to describe what they have as being the “full Gospel,” and I am not inclined to disagree with them.   Liturgically, we tend to wind up the church year on Easter.  The worship run from Christmas to Easter each year in our churches is the course of the marathon that we keep.  From December to April we get Jesus Christ born, baptized, into public ministry, betrayed crucified and then raised from the dead.  As one of my priests growing up muttered in the sacristy one Easter Sunday at noon after a particularly grueling Holy Week schedule and a briefer than usual interlude between the festivities of Christmas and the demands of Easter – “Thank God that’s over!”  And I suspect that’s how we tend to think liturgically and spiritually. 

Easter is the finish line, the climax of the story, the end of the run.  Get to Easter and there’s nothing more on the calendar until Christmas rolls back around.  And this is when my “enthusiast” brothers and sisters tap me on the shoulder and remind me about their “full-er” Gospel.  There’s more to Christianity than Christmas and Easter they whisper in my ear.  There was more to Christ’s mission than just dying for our sins they want me to remember.  Certainly He was the Lamb of God who takes away our sins (John 1:29).  This is a crucial and precious Gospel truth.  But John the Baptist didn’t stop there.  He went on to tell anyone who was listening that this Jesus who was the Lamb of God was also the one who was sent to baptize in the Holy Spirit (John 1:33).  

Here’s the “full” Gospel — forgiveness and transformation — getting “saved from” sin and death, and being “saved to” newness of life.  This is what the Prophets said was coming when the Messiah would arrive on the scene (Jeremiah 33:31-34; Ezekiel 36:22-27). And this is what the Apostles preached had been accomplished in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ and that was now available through Jesus Christ to anyone who would believe (Acts 2:37-39).  It’s what we’re talking about when we say in our “Good Confession” that Jesus who is the Christ, the Son of the Living God, is our “Lord” and “Savior.”  Jesus Christ as Savior gets my sins and deals with them.  Jesus Christ as Lord takes my life and changes me, and the way Christ does this is through the Holy Spirit. 

There is simply no New Testament Christianity without Pentecost. What happened fifty days after Jesus Christ was raised from the dead is part of the Gospel too, and if we aren’t talking about it, then we don’t have a “full” Gospel.  But, you don’t get to Pentecost without also embracing Ascension Day.  What happened fifty days after Easter depends on what happened forty days after Easter.  If Easter needs Pentecost to make the gospel “full,” then Pentecost needs Ascension Day for the very same reason.  The South African theologian of mission who died way too soon, David Bosch, in his magisterial volume Transforming Mission  (Orbis 1991) wrote about what he called the “six salvific events portrayed in the New Testament” (512-518) that have to be factored into any explanation of the Gospel – what God in Jesus Christ has done for us and our salvation: (1) The Incarnation (Christmas); (2) The Cross (Good Friday) ; (3) The Resurrection (Easter Sunday); (4) The Ascension; (5) Pentecost; and (6) The Parousia (The Second Coming).  None of these “salvific events” can afford to be ignored by us spiritually if we are to have a “full” Gospel, and Bosch added, they must “never be viewed in isolation from one another.” 

In our mission, we proclaim the incarnate, crucified, resurrected, ascended Christ, present among us in the Spirit and taking us into His future as “captives in His triumphal procession” (2 Corinthians 5:14 NEB). Each of these events impinges on all the others.  Unless we hold on to this, we will communicate to the world a truncated Gospel.  The shadow of the man of Nazareth, crucified under Pontius Pilate, falls on the glory of His resurrection and ascension, the coming of His Spirit, and His Parousia.   It is the Jesus who walked with his disciples who lives as the Spirit in His church (Ephesians 2:20); it is the Crucified One who rose from the dead; it is the One who has been lifted up on the cross who has been lifted up to heaven; it is the Lamb slaughtered yet living who will consummate history. (518)
 

Without the Ascension, our Gospel is not “full.”  Without Christmas we know what’s missing from our Christianity.  Without Good Friday and Easter Sunday we know what’s missing from the Gospel.  I even suspect that we’ve talked and thought about it enough that even without Pentecost we would have a pretty good idea about what’s missing from our faith.  But what’s lost when the Ascension gets ignored?  What do we lose when the Ascension, one of the “six salvific events portrayed in the New Testament,” is not a part of our spiritual awareness and observance?  Well, let me suggest three things:

§ First of all, when the Ascension is ignored we deprive ourselves of the comfort of Christ’s High Priestly ministry.  Hebrews 4:14-16 has been an important source of reassurance for me ever since it was first shown to me by a spiritual friend early on my journey of faith –

14  Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  15  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are —yet he did not sin.  16  Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

John 17:20-26 is an example of Jesus Christ actually doing this, interceding for us, praying for us, and I get chills every time I read it.  The thought that Jesus Christ had us — had you — had me — in His mind and on His heart the night that He was betrayed is almost beyond my comprehension!  And the New Testament is quite clear that this is something that the Risen and Ascended Christ does all the time right now in heaven –

It is Christ that died, yes rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. (Romans 8:34)

Therefore, because he always lives to intercede for them, he is able to save completely those who come to God through him. (Hebrews 7:25)

For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf. (Hebrews 9:24)

The intercession of the Risen and Ascended Christ is a statement about the access that we have been given to God. It’s an expression of the reconciliation that has been established for us through Jesus Christ and an affirmation of the quality of the relationship with Him that we now enjoy.  

§ Second, when the Ascension is ignored we lack an understanding of what’s going on around us spiritually.  I think we are truly surprised by trouble.  We become Christians because of the victory that Jesus Christ has won over death and sin on the cross and in the garden tomb, and so we conclude that believing puts us on a kind of spiritual easy street.  But the truth of the matter is that becoming a Christian only puts us more fully into the fray.   In I Corinthians 15 the Apostle Paul provides us with some perspective on what God is doing in history –

20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep.  21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in turn: Christ, the first fruits then, when he comes,) those who belong to him.) 24 Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom) to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.) 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.) 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. (27 For he “has put everything under his feet.” Now when it says that “everything” has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. 28 When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

Whatever else we are being told here, this much is clear — the end is not yet!  The resurrection of Jesus Christ (Easter) is not the end of a process, but rather the beginning of one.  To borrow the familiar and useful analogy of the theologian Oscar Cullman, what happened on Good Friday and Easter was like what happened in Europe on D-Day during World War 2.  It was the decisive battle which guaranteed the enemy’s eventual defeat, but it didn’t end the war.  There was still a lot of fighting still to be done, but the death blow had been struck.  D-Day made VE Day inevitable, but with the beachhead firmly established, the fight had to be pressed.   And so Paul told us in I Corinthians 15 that Christ’s resurrection set in motion the final defeat of all of God’s enemies — but the end has not yet come.  The Risen and Ascended is now in the process of consolidating the victory that was won on Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  There are still shots being fired and hits being taken, how else can Ephesians 6:10-20 and the book of Revelation be understood? But we need not fear the outcome.  God wins.   While still a promise and not quite yet a possession, we can, with absolute confidence, say with Paul –

54 When the perishable has been clothed with the imperishable, and the mortal with immortality, then the saying that is written will come true: “Death has been swallowed up in victory.”

55 “Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”

56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.

58 Therefore, my dear brothers and sisters, stand firm. Let nothing move you. Always give yourselves fully to the work of the Lord,) because you know that your labor in the Lord is not in vain.

§ Finally, when we ignore the Ascension we are loosening the underpinnings of our hope.  The part of the Ascension narrative in the book of Acts that has always captured my attention is when “the two men in white clothing” who have appeared beside the Apostles speak – “Men of Galilee,” they asked, “why do you stand looking into the sky?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven” (1:11).  The Ascension ends with the promise that there’s one more event in the saving program that God in Jesus Christ is working out in history.  “This Jesus” — the same person we have known and loved, the One to whom we have given our hearts and dedicated our lives — “this Jesus… will come in just the same way as you have watched him go.”  The Ascension is the departure that prepares the stage for the arrival that finally fixes everything.  In the Ascension, Jesus Christ goes away so that He can come again in glory.  The Ascension creates the absence which makes a more compete presence possible.  When Jesus Christ went away it was the first step in the plan according to which He will come again.  There is not a book in the New Testament or a layer in the Biblical witness that does not include a reference to the second Coming of Jesus Christ.    As George Eldon Ladd put it, Christianity will be forever incomplete apart from the personal glorious return of Jesus Christ to finish the work of redemption that He began by being born in Bethlehem, baptized in the Jordan, tempted in the wilderness, ministering in Galilee, crucified on Calvary, raised from the Garden Tomb, ascending into heaven and sending the Holy Spirit on Pentecost.  Only one more event remains in the Bible’s scheme of redemption, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ, and the Ascension is its prelude.   DBS+

 

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