Message 15, Taken up into Heaven: The Ascension of Christ:
The ascension of Christ marks the pinnacle of His earthly ministry, yet it is one of the most underappreciated aspects of His work. Jesus said it would be to our advantage for Him to return to His heavenly Father. From His exalted position at the right hand of the Father, Christ poured out the Holy Spirit upon His people. In this session, Dr. W. Robert Godfrey explains the ascension of Christ in connection with the work of the Holy Spirit and the ministry of the local church.
Well, it is good to be here with you, and we have many pressing questions to consider tonight, but obviously the most pressing of all is when we think about the future, which of R.C. Sproul’s hairstyles should we encourage him to return to? Actually, I have been thinking about, a lot about R.C., because when I hear that he’s written a hundred books, it’s amazing and wonderful and humiliating. I would like you to know that I have written one hundred book titles.
I was thinking that I have a wonderful suggestion for a new book for R.C.“What are the hardest things to believe in the Bible?” What fascinates me is how wrong the world gets what’s hard to believe in the Bible. The world thinks it’s hard to believe that the sun could stand still. Now, that’s a silly thing to have trouble with. Cannot He who made the sun cause it to stand still?
Let me give you a list of what I think Christians sometimes find hard to believe in the Bible. Dr. Mohler mentioned one yesterday. It is a little hard to believe, isn’t it, that the Scripture is more true than what I might have seen with my own eyes? We know that’s true, but it’s sometimes a little hard to believe. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that all things work together for good for those that love the Lord. Some Christians have a horrible time believing that Jesus meant it when He said, “Your sins are forgiven.”
Tonight, I want to talk a little bit about another of those statements of Jesus that are hard to believe, what He said to his disciples in John 16 verse 7, “It is to your advantage that I go away.” That’s hard to believe isn’t it? He was preparing them in part for His going to the cross, but He was preparing them in particular for His ascension.
Wouldn’t it have been better if Jesus had stayed with us after His resurrection? With all the glory of the resurrection that we heard about, wouldn’t it have been better if he had stayed? But Jesus said, “It is to your advantage that I go away,” and so it must be true. And so, we want to spend a little time thinking about how is that true? In what way is that true? What is the advantage for us that Jesus has gone away?
And we are helped in understanding that if we think more about the ascension. I think, by and large, most of us as American Protestants don’t think much about the ascension. How many of you have ever been to an Ascension Day service on a Thursday, which is Ascension Day in the ecclesiastical calendar? How many of you? I can’t see you, but I’m not seeing very many hands.
We may have to have an altar call at the end to come forward and be committed to ascension. We tend to sort of rush, if we pay attention to the liturgical calendar at all, from Easter to Pentecost and forget about the ascension of our Lord. But it is striking how the Scriptures record for us and elaborate for us on the ascension.
Luke certainly does, both at the end of his Gospel and at the beginning of the book of Acts. John does. But as I was preparing for this lecture, and all evidence to the contrary, I did prepare for this lecture. As I prepared for it, I was struck by the extent to which Paul’s letter to the Ephesians is an extended meditation on and celebration of the ascension.
And I think there’s a wonderful reason for that. Paul is illustrating for us, he’s answering clearly for us why it has been advantageous that Jesus should go away to heaven. And we can think of that in terms of the identity, the Christian identity that Paul is trying to communicate clearly to those Ephesian Christians.
Now those Ephesians had a rich heritage, a strong sense of identity as Ephesians, in which they could be justly proud. I was privileged to go on a Ligonier trip. It was a marvelous trip, and one of the places we went was Ephesus, one of the great ruins preserved for us from the ancient world. And the tour dropped us off on the kind of high end of the main road of Ephesus because it’s built on the side of a mountain, and we could walk down that road and see buildings on each side and then come around the bend and see the great façade of the ancient great library of Ephesus. And then, you can continue a little further down the road, and you see the amphitheater still there where Paul preached.
You can look out to the left, and you can see the way leading out to the sea, where the great Ephesian port was. It was one of the great cities of the ancient world. Its port meant it was a great exporter of goods from the interior of Asia Minor, and it made it a wealthy city. It was a city, therefore, of political influence in that world. It was a city of learning, as testified to that great library. It was city of entertainment, as could be seen in the amphitheater.
And it was a city of religion, numbers of temples. And just about a mile and a half from the center of the city was the great temple of Artemis, the largest building in the Greco-Roman world. How proud they must have been there in Ephesus. Four times the size of the Parthenon in Athens, one of the wonders of the ancient world. And perhaps if those Ephesians had travelled, they were used to being asked, “Where are you from?” and being able to say, “I’m an Ephesian.” And have people say, “Wow!”
Paul understood something of that kind of identity, didn’t he? He could say, when he had been arrested and was about to be flogged, he could turn to the Roman soldier about to do that and say, “Oh? Are you allowed to flog Roman citizens?” It was huge to be a Roman citizen. Huge! They were winners. They always won. They were winners. They had made Rome great. And all — Michael Reeves was a very bad influence. And all Paul had to say was, “I’m a Roman citizen,” and they trembled.
So, Paul had his identity that he could be proud of, and the Ephesians had their identity to be proud of. But I think Paul writes the letter to the Ephesians, because he’s worried whether Christians have really understood the glory of the identity of being a Christian. Because, in that day if you said to people, “I’m a Christian,” it got you nothing. Either people didn’t have any clue what you were talking about, or people despised you, or perhaps people pitied you, or perhaps people even persecuted you.
And of course that’s why, turning back to the New Testament and reading it with different eyes, this Word has such power and meaning for us today, because perhaps we’re entering into those days again when we say, “I’m a Christian,” and people will wonder what that means, or despise us, or pity us, or hate us.
And Paul has written the letter of Ephesians to help Christians grasp more fully their identity in Christ and what being a Christian really means, and he is helping them to see that particularly by meditating on the ascension. You are who you are, Christian, in light of who Christ is today for you in heaven.
And what Paul is calling all of us to is a recognition that we have to live and we have to identify ourselves by faith in what is true in heaven; not by what is true on earth, either in terms of what we see or what we experience. And Paul wanted them, as he wants us, to be filled with a sense of joy, with a sense of gratitude, with a sense of almost delirium in what we really have in Christ, who we are in Christ. The language of Paul in this letter almost trips over itself in trying to pile up the statements of how great it is to be in Christ. And so, I want to try to look with you a little bit at that.
Now, Paul himself had experienced something of that loss in his own life. Maybe he was a little worried that the Ephesians were too worried for him. In chapter 3 verse 13 he says, “I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you.” Jesus wanted His disciples to not to lose heart that He was going away. Paul wants them not to lose heart that he’s suffering, because there’s a truth that transcends that suffering, that loss.
There’s a truth that says being a Christian is not a loss, but a gain. And if it was great to be an Ephesian citizen, if it was great to be a Roman citizen, it is far greater to be a citizen of heaven. And as a citizen of heaven, it means that we are part of the heavenly temple, that Christ has made His dwelling in us and has made us a part of the household of God. It might be nice to be part of the household of Caesar, but Caesars come and go.
But to be part of the household of God is to be part of the household that never fades, that never falls into ruin, that is never visited by tourist buses, but stands forever, pristine and glorious and beautiful and alive and ours. That’s what Paul is writing about in Ephesians. And he wants to discuss that in terms, first of all, of Christ’s glory and, second of all, of Christ’s gifts.
The ascension speaks of how Christ is now glorified in heaven. He is taken up to the place from which He came. His ascension is His return home. He, for all eternity, had been glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit. And it was only in leaving that eternal glory, to be incarnated, to be humiliated, to be part of the fallen world that He had come to save sinners.
And now, He is returning in the victory of the cross and the victory of the empty tomb to assume again the heavenly throne. But now even, I don’t think we really talk this way, even further glorified, but, but having displayed that glory and in marvelously deeper ways by his love demonstrated on the cross and in His resurrection, and now He’s going home, and He’s glorified. He’s received a glorious place in the heavenlies, in that heavenly realm, in that place of God.
And He’s received a place at the right hand of God. This is a royal scene. Who gets to sit at the right hand of God? Only the royal Son. And He sits on the throne. He’s enthroned there. We heard about how He’s not only putting, but has put all enemies under his feet. Psalm 110, we’re told, that the Lord will have His enemies as the footstool. It’s a sign of victory. It’s a sign of triumph. It’s a sign of overcoming. And there He is the head of the church.
Some people seem to think the head of the church is on earth. That’s not true. It’s not what the Scripture says. The Scripture says the head of the church is in heaven, glorified at the right hand of the Father, enthroned, triumphant in this glorious place, this heavenly temple. Far above, Paul says to the Ephesians, far above all rulers and powers and dominions and authorities, whether earthly or heavenly. You think you know somebody in charge? Do you think you know someone with power? Maybe, some of you do here. Maybe some of you are very well connected. I know a senator. You may know a governor. Somebody may know a president or a general.
When I’m home alone in my study, I know any number of kings. My wife worries about that. But, Paul says, it’s all peanuts. It’s all nothing compared with our glorious Christ, who’s in a glorious place, far above every conceivable rival power. Far above — Paul even says in chapter 4 verse 10, far above all the heavens. What he’s encouraging us to realize is this is an exaltation beyond anything we can really imagine.
And what Paul’s really saying, of course, is as you contemplate Christ’s glory, never forget that He’s glorified for you, with you. He’s glorified thinking about you. That’s your identity. That He who has a place above all rulers and powers and above all heavens and above any conceivable limitation, cares for you as a citizen of His kingdom and as a member of His household.
And that glorious place allows Him to give forth a glorious plenitude. It’s amazing to go through the letter to the Ephesians and underline words like ‘all’ and ‘fullness.’ He is the fullness of Him who fills all in all. What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But it’s good, isn’t it? It’s a splendid thing. It has to be a splendid thing. Fullness, that means there is no place, no space, no time, nothing where He isn’t. He’s come to fill it all up. The Father has filled up Christ. And Christ fills us up so that we might be in Him and be filled with the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
This is temple language. This is a reminder of this heavenly temple that Christ fills and how He’s filling his people as part of that heavenly temple. Remember the, the prophet Ezekiel foresaw a day, Ezekiel 43, where the Spirit would return to the temple of God and do what? Fill it up. It would be filled with the Spirit and glory of God. And this is what Paul is alluding to here in Ephesians. The glory of Christ is the fullness of Christ who fills all in all for you and for me.
And that glorious Christ is filled with power, filled with power there. The word ‘power’ and the word ‘strength,’ those are words too that would be worth reading through this epistle and underlining because they are repeated and repeated and repeated. “You Christians feel weak,” Paul is saying there in Ephesus. Maybe, there are even some Christians who feel weak in America today. And it’s as if Paul is saying, “I understand your feelings of weakness, but I want you to know the reality. The reality is this, that in the power of Christ, you are strong. That He has all power.”
In fact, Paul in Ephesians 1:19 talks about the immeasurable greatness of the power of Christ. The power of Christ is so great, it is immeasurable. Now, one of the things that modern science has done for us in really remarkable and wonderful ways is to give us the ability to measure things. We can measure light years. We can measure — see, I should have studied mathematics, we can measure things.
But what Paul is saying is if you got all the scientists in the whole world together with every measurement ability that they possess, they could not measure the greatness of the power of Christ glorified in heaven. And what that means, of course, is there’s no conceivable real resistance to His power.
That is why there is, in a certain sense, no real drama to redemptive history, at least not drama in terms of any successful resistance to Christ and to His purposes, to God and to His purposes. The devil never had an action or a purpose that in any way challenged the power of God. God is not Superman, afraid of some Kryptonite. God is not Superman, who could save the train, if only He were where the train is going over the cliff. God is everywhere. God is all-powerful, and that’s the power that our Christ has.
And Paul wants the Ephesians to grasp that because he wants them to realize if they worry about political power in the hands of persecuting Rome, God’s power is greater. If they worry about economic power in the hands of the rich and influential, God’s power is greater. If they worry about intellectual power in the hands of the rich and influential, God’s power is greater. If they worry about intellectual power in the hands of the scholars, God’s power is greater. If they worry about religious power in the hands of pagan gods and pagan priests, Christ is greater.
Do you have any worries about powers in this world? Do you worry about the power of ISIS to cut your throat? Do you worry about the power of Congress to take away your social security? Do you worry about North Korea and the atomic bomb? Do you worry about lawlessness on our streets? I have good news. Jesus is stronger. Jesus isn’t letting anything happen that happens without His purpose. That’s hard to believe. That’s why Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount said, “Don’t worry.” Don’t worry. Wait a minute. You’re worrying. Don’t worry. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things will be added to you.” Because Jesus is gloriously powerful as He is enthroned in heaven.
You know, one of the great fears in the ancient world was the fear of unknown powers. And that meant many ancient people were terribly superstitious, and they went through life trying to placate the spirits and the gods and to be sure they had good omens and to be sure they had all sorts of fortunes and tokens and rituals that would protect them. They spent, some of them at least, lots of time and money trying to ensure good luck.
Now, we’re too pious if we’re thoroughly Reformed to talk about luck. We talk about fortune instead. The great Roman goddess Fortuna which in Latin means “luck.” And Paul was aware that a temple like the Temple of Artemis was a temple erected to those who were trying to gain some kind of control really over the gods. They knew the gods didn’t care about them, but they knew the gods might get to playing with them.
And so in part you wanted to distract the gods because they had power. And in that superstitious, fearful world Paul came and said, “Don’t worry. The gods don’t have power. Power is in the hands of Jesus because He is enthroned in heaven. He is the King of Kings. He is the Lord of Lords. He is the ruler of the kings of the earth.” None of those statements are about the future; every one of them is about the present. He is enthroned in heaven now as King of Kings and Lord of Lords, as ruler of the kings of the earth. And that should encourage us so.
That should strengthen us so, because Ephesians says not only is Jesus all power, immeasurably great in His power, but He exercises His power for the well-being of His church. Do you believe that? Do you believe that in this vast universe what God is principally concerned about is the well-being of His church? That’s what Ephesians says. And do you know how God manifests His concern for the well-being of the church, one of the ways He does that is by giving the church preachers. Now, that’s just ridiculous. That has to be the last great chapter in the book of impossible things to believe that ministers have any significance at all. I’ve known ministers and they don’t amount to much.
Why are ministers highlighted by Paul? Because ministers bear the Word that Jesus is ascended, that Jesus is glorified, that Jesus has immeasurable power, that Jesus fills all things in all, that Jesus is our hope, that Jesus is our strength, that Jesus is our joy. And ministers need to bear that because ministers, like everybody else in the church, needs to be encouraged to remember that because we are so forgetful, because we are so distracted, because it’s so easy to look away from Jesus and think His going away was a loss for us in light of all the struggles, in light of all the problems that we see around us.
And Paul says Jesus is thinking about you and has given you preachers to help you remember that Jesus is thinking about you. And what a blessing that is! What a joy that is, because through the Word and through the Spirit, Jesus lives in us. That’s what Paul says here in Ephesians. Jesus lives in us. He has gone away to heaven in glory but by the power of Holy Spirit, He has come back to be with us. Now, think about that for a minute. If He had not gone away, where would He be?
Now, some of you think, ‘Well, of course, He’d be in Florida. He’d be 2000 years old and where would He be, but in Florida. But even if He were in Florida, how many of us Christians could get close to Him? Maybe you’ve stood in line at the bookstore to have a book signed. Not many of you were in my line. When Chris Larson says I have to go sign books, I say to myself, “It’s my annual humiliation.” It’s good for the soul.
But because Jesus is in heaven, there is no line to get to Him. There is no traveling to get to Him because Jesus has promised us that by the power of His Holy Spirit coming from Him in heaven, He lives in us in our hearts, in our lives. Each Christian has Jesus within. That’s an advantage that He went away, and He by His power accomplishes that. He is glorious in the peace that He has won for us and applies to us. Paul talks about that peace in an interesting way, doesn’t he?
In that second chapter of Ephesians, he begins about talking — he begins talking about peace almost ironically. What is the peace that Jesus won for us? Well, Paul says, “He broke down, and He abolished, and He killed.” Doesn’t sound much like peace initially, does it? He broke down the dividing walls. He abolished the ordinances that condemned us. He killed the hostility that separated us to bring peace between God and man and between Jew and Gentile. He brought peace in creating a new creature, a new man, a new creation alive in Christ. That’s the glorious peace that He has brought to His people.
And it’s because of that peace that we are citizens of heaven, that we are part of the household of God, that we are stones in His living temple. All of that is what Christ has done for us in His ascension. And because He is glorious in His ascension, He has gifts for us the apostle Paul says. You see that, don’t you, in chapter 4 of Ephesians. Chapter 4 verse 7: “But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high He led a host of captives, and He gave gifts to men.” (In saying, “He ascended”, what does it mean but that He had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.)” ”
And He gave gifts.” Paul is quoting Psalm 68. Paul was a good Psalm singer. He knew all the Psalms intimately. And his mind went to that great celebratory Psalm, Psalm 68, which talked about a great procession up Mount Zion and into the temple to worship God and to be present with God, and they saw that as a kind of ascension up Mount Zion, and they gave gifts to God. And because God had received all of these gifts, Paul is saying here, applying Psalm 68, He had gifts to give back to His people.
In a triumph, even in a Roman triumph celebrated in the city of Rome, in a triumph, the victor paraded the booty he had taken from the conquered, and then he distributed some of it as gifts to the people. And Psalm 68 is amazing in terms of who this gift-giving God really is. In Psalm 68 verse 19 we read, “Blessed be the Lord, who daily bears us up; God is our salvation. Our God is a God of salvation. To God, the Lord, belong deliverances from death.”
Here is the anticipation in the Old Testament of what God in His glory, ascended far above Zion, would possess and give to His people that He might deliver us from death and bear our burdens. What a God!
And He can do that because of His strength. At the end of Psalm 68, we read, “O kingdoms of the earth, sing to God; sing praises to the Lord, to Him who rides in the heavens, the ancient heavens; behold, He sends out his voice, His mighty voice. Ascribe power to God, whose majesty is over Israel, and whose power is in the skies. Awesome is God from His sanctuary; the God of Israel — He is the one who gives power and strength to His people. Blessed be God!”
Here is a song for the ascended Christ. Paul sings that song with the Ephesians and he uses that song to talk about how Christ glorified is One who promises gifts and has lavished gifts upon His people. And that brings us back then to the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is, in many ways, the great gift that Christ gives to His people because in that gift so many other gifts are contained.
In John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus very explicitly said to them, “It is to your advantage that I go away because if I go away I go to prepare a place for you in my heavenly temple. And if I prepare a place for you, I’ll come again to bring you to be with me. And in the meantime, I’ll send you another comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who will take what is mine and give it to you.”
I was driving once and saw a sign outside a church. I think it was a Pentecostal church, and the sign said, ‘The Holy Spirit, God with us.’ And it sort of set me thinking that that’s kind of true, well, it is true.” But I thought, “Isn’t the title ‘God with us’ usually reserved for Jesus?” Immanuel, God with us. And that led me on to think then, “Who is the Holy Spirit?” He is Christ with us. He is the One who brings Christ to us. He is the One who connects us to Christ. He connects us to Christ’s truth. He connects us to Christ’s life. He connects us to Christ’s joy.
You know, it’s very interesting in John 16 when Jesus is talking about the advantage of Him going away and about the gift of the Holy Spirit, one of the things He says is, “And when the Holy Spirit comes you can ask whatever you want in my name, and I will give it to you.” But what’s the example He uses of what we should ask for in that context? “In me, you’ll have joy.” Sometimes we hear that promise, “Ask whatever you want and I’ll give it to you” and we think of the Maserati we saw parked earlier in the day. It just shows how selfish and stupid we are.
Think of it, because we have the Holy Spirit, we can pray for joy and receive it. We can pray for truth and receive it. We can pray for life and receive it. That’s the Spirit who’s given to us who connects us to Jesus that we might possess from Jesus all that He possesses. And that Spirit brings blessings. You know, after the salutation that begins the letter, we read the most remarkable thing. Do you pause and meditate on this? I pause and I’m just flabbergasted when I read it. Ephesians 1 verse 3: “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies.”
Paul’s talking about the ascension from verse 3, and he is saying you are in the heavenlies with Christ by the Spirit, and that Spirit who has seated us with Christ in the heavenlies when He gave us spiritual life now comes to give us every blessing of the Spirit. Every spiritual blessing doesn’t mean every invisible, floaty, weird blessing. It means spiritual blessing in the sense of the blessing from the Spirit.
Do you want a blessing from the Spirit? I only heard one yes here. This is a dull group. Do you want blessing from the Spirit? Paul says — That’s better. If we did that two or three times we might actually be able to wake everybody up. Paul says you already have every blessing from the Spirit. There are lots of preachers that go around telling you that they can help you find new spiritual blessings. Well, if there is a new spiritual blessing that you don’t have, then it doesn’t come from the Spirit because here the apostle Paul says we as Christians already have by the Spirit every blessing Christ has for us. He’s not stingy. He’s lavishing on His people His, His gifts and His blessing through His Spirit.
And, another word that you can underline when you go through Ephesians is the word ‘riches’ and ‘inheritance.’ Inheritance to be greater even than what we have already because what we have now is only a deposit of what’s to come; it’s only a part of what will be fully received one day in glory. But it’s riches now, the riches of knowing Christ, the riches of having eternal life, the riches of having the promise that whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. The riches of knowing that nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.
What riches, the Son has lavished upon us in the Spirit! Riches piled upon riches. Riches of mercy, riches of grace, riches of faith, riches of maturity, growing in Christ that we will be a holy people, a blameless people, a people without spot or wrinkle. What a gift! What promise! What a blessing! How much lavished upon us.
So who are you? Who do you want to be? Do you want to be a Roman citizen? Do you want to be an Ephesian? Do you want to be a resident of Washington D.C., or even better, make it huge in Manhattan? Paul says rejoice in who you are. You are a Christian. You are a citizen of heaven. You are part of the household of God. You are a living stone in the temple that is already in heaven. You are already there with Him because you’re in Him, and you’re linked to Him by the Holy Spirit. Not bad. Not bad. You’re not poor, persecuted, and powerless, or actually maybe you are.
Maybe as this world counts things, you are poor and persecuted and powerless. But even if you are, you are a citizen of heaven and your Christ is seated far above all rulers and powers and authorities and dominions, and nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ. You are a citizen of heaven ascended in the ascended Christ. Praise God! Amen.
Let us pray. O Lord our God, it’s too good to be true, but it is true that it was good for us that He went away to be glorified and to lavish His gifts upon us in ways that we can only begin to taste and feel, experience, and imagine. But we pray tonight that each one here, hearing this word from Christ will be encouraged and strengthened. We’ll know that being a Christian is gain and not loss, and that each one of us, deep in our souls, might delight to say, “I am a Christian seated in the heavenlies in Christ, and I’ll be with Him forever in glory.” Hear us, for we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.