We’re continuing our series on the truths expressed in the Nicene Creed, and this morning we come to the phrase about Jesus that says: “he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father”.
It’s a phrase taken straight from the Bible’s teaching. So for instance, on the Day of Pentecost, the apostle Peter, explaining the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the disciples to the watching crowd, said:
“God has raised this Jesus to life, and we are all witnesses of the fact. Exalted to the right hand of God, he has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear…” (Acts 2v32-33)
That’s Acts 2v32-33. Jesus, says Peter, has been “exalted to the right hand of God”. And later, in his first letter, Peter says that the risen Jesus is the one…
… Who has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand – with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.
Jesus ascended to the right hand of God in heaven.
What do you make of the ascension? I suspect that for many Christians, Ascension Day doesn’t feature much in their thinking. Christmas, yes; and Good Friday, and Easter Day. But Ascension Day passes us by. It shouldn’t. Whether we have a big celebratory lunch like at Christmas is neither here nor there. That doesn’t matter. But if we fail to grasp the significance of the ascension we’re in danger of stunting the growth of our Christian discipleship severely. The ascension is critically important – like the birth of Christ, and the cross, and the resurrection. The ascension is up there with them, so to speak, in terms of its significance. And by that I mean its significance for today, for the here and now, for our lives as we’ll live them this coming week. It’s impossible to overstate its importance. Because it’s the ascension that assures us that the crucified and risen Jesus is, not only alive but on the throne, ruling as King over all things, including us and our circumstances. Now.
I want to unpack that by looking at the key passage about the ascension in the New Testament, which is Acts 1v1-11. We heard that just now. You’ll find it on p1092, and I’d be grateful if you could have that open in front of you and, alongside it the outline that’s on the back of the service sheet.
You’ll see there the five points that I want to make about the ascension from those verses. And we’ll dive straight in. So:
First, IT IS A FACT OF HISTORY THAT JESUS ASCENDED INTO HEAVEN
Remember that the Book of Acts is really a sequel. This is Book Two. We’ve had Jesus on Earth. That was Luke’s Gospel. Now this is Jesus in Heaven. So Book Two begins (verses 1-2):
In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. (v1-2)
The Book of Acts lays out before our eyes the consequences of the ascension. Now Theophilus has been mentioned before, and it’s worthwhile at this point to refer back to how Luke introduces this two volume set back in Luke 1v1-4. This is how Luke explains what he’s doing:
Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who were eye-witnesses and servants of the word. Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. (Luke 1v1-4)
What’s clear from that is that Luke’s concern is to strengthen faith in Christ, but he wants to do this by ensuring that faith is based on the facts about Jesus, through accounts that are themselves based on carefully researched eye-witness testimony. That’s his approach, and it’s important to remember that as we read Volume Two: the book of Acts. Luke is dealing in history – not myth, or fantasy, or fictional story telling.
To quote a useful book written thirty years ago now by a certain David Holloway and called ‘Where Did Jesus Go?’:
There is obviously something profound about the Ascension; it is a profound mystery. But whatever we might feel unable to say about it, it was certainly, as Luke shows us, a final event. It was the last of the appearances of Christ to his disciples. It was the signal that the end of Jesus’ resurrection appearances had come.
The ascension is an unusual, indeed unique, historical fact. But Luke is clear: fact it is. This happened. If we’d been there, we’d have seen it too.
Secondly, IT IS THE CRUCIFIED AND RISEN JESUS WHO IS IN HEAVEN
This is verse 3. Here it is:
After his suffering, [Jesus] showed himself to these men and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God. (v3)
It’s striking how in v1 Luke says that in his Gospel he “wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach”. The gospels record the start of Jesus’ ministry. He hasn’t finished. But what is true is that his suffering is over – this is “after his suffering”. The victory has been won at the cross. The price for sin has been paid once for all. It is this Jesus, who died for our sins, who is at the right hand of God ruling all things. So John says:
But if anyone does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defence – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins…(1 John 2v1-2)
That’s 1 John 2v1-2. The life-transforming good news is that the King of kings today is the one who loved us so much that he laid down his life for us. So, in the words of Hebrews 4v16:
Let us approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need. (Hebrews 4v16)
And now the crucified Jesus will continue his work from heaven through the apostles and through his people. So, having seen him die, they will need an unshakeable conviction that he is alive. And Jesus gives them, says Luke, “many convincing proofs” that he has indeed been raised from the dead. How did he do that?
Jesus appeared to them on many occasions. And he appeared to many different people. And we’re not talking about vague visions of a distant figure. The risen Jesus was seen and heard and touched. And he ate and drank with the disciples. So here in verse 4 Luke says:
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command…(v4)
This was no disembodied spirit but a man of flesh and bones. Their doubts were swept away. They knew it to be true. They were certain.
And they needed to be, if they were to turn the world upside down. The testimony of those few was to cost some of them their lives, and alter the course of history.
If we in our turn are to lay down our lives in the service of Christ then we too must be convinced that Jesus who rules from heaven is the crucified and risen Jesus. And Jesus does convince us – using the apostolic eye-witness testimony and by his living unseen presence. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve sat and listened to someone telling me how they’ve come to be sure that Jesus died for our sins, was raised to life again, and is their Lord today. And this is well-grounded, certain knowledge.
It is the crucified and risen Jesus who is in heaven.
Thirdly, FROM HEAVEN JESUS SENDS HIS SPIRIT ON HIS PEOPLE
Take a look now at verses 4-5:
On one occasion, while he was eating with them, [Jesus] gave this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptised with water, but in a few days you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit.” (v4-5)
They had to wait. They couldn’t act effectively to accomplish what Jesus wanted them to do without this work of the Holy Spirit in them. We too are useless to the kingdom of God without the Holy Spirit.
And this empowering was a gift from God. “Wait for the gift…” commands Jesus. All they could do was pray. They could ask, but they couldn’t make it happen. We, too, are dependent on God to give us his Spirit.
But they could wait with confidence because this gift had been promised. Right from the start, this was on God’s agenda for Jesus. Luke has already told how, before the adult Jesus burst on to the scene, John the Baptist prophecied:
“I baptise you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
That’s Luke 3v16. Jesus reiterates that here. He says to the apostles that the time has come for the fulfilment of that promise of baptism with the Holy Spirit.
And that is exactly what happened on the Day of Pentecost, when Peter explained the coming of the Spirit, as we’ve already seen, by saying:
“Exalted to the right hand of God, [Jesus] has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit and has poured out what you now see and hear…”
The ascended Jesus pours out his Spirit on his disciples. And the same is true for us. The apostle Paul is clear that, I quote:
… no one can say, "Jesus is Lord," except by the Holy Spirit.
Only by the Holy Spirit do we trust in Christ. Without the Holy Spirit we are useless to the kingdom. Paul urges believers – and us – to “be filled with the Spirit” (Ephesians 5v18). The apostles needed to be empowered by the Holy Spirit – and so do we if we’re to be useful to our ascended Lord. If we want the Holy Spirit, and if we want more of the Holy Spirit, then we should ask, and keep on asking, and we will receive.
From heaven Jesus sends his Spirit on his people.
Fourthly, FROM HEAVEN JESUS GIVES POWER TO HIS PEOPLE TO WITNESS TO HIM TO THE ENDS OF THE EARTH
Read on to verses 6-8:
So when they met together, they asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them : “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
Here is the purpose of God’s empowering gift. We’re not given the Holy Spirit for our own gratification or satisfaction. We are given the Holy Spirit for the growth of the kingdom of God and for the glory of Jesus. The apostles were to be eye-witnesses belonging to, sent by, resourced by and speaking about Jesus. We too are to be witnesses to what we know by faith through their testimony. Not that everyone has to be like Peter on the Day of Pentecost, who stood up and raised his voice and began to preach to the crowds. Communicating the message is a collective work of the body of Christ and we all have a different contribution to make. But if we have the Holy Spirit, we will be involved. That is the difference the Holy Spirit makes.
Acts 1v8 is the key to the whole book of Acts:
“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”
The message that the crucified and risen Jesus is ruling from heaven will spread in their home city. It will spread throughout their region. It will spread cross-culturally. And it will spread internationally until it has reached the ends of the earth. That’s what we see taking place as the story of these early believers unfolds. Why not make time to read through the whole book – it’s only 35 pages – and watch the ascended Christ make Acts 1v8 happen as the word spreads? I remember doing that as a student, and I trace my own enduring passion for church growth back to that experience.
Because the book of Acts, in a sense, is just the introduction. Acts 1v8 is still happening, and we’re caught up in the action by the Holy Spirit. From heaven Jesus gives power to his people to witness to him to the ends of the earth. Then finally and…
Fifthly, FROM HEAVEN JESUS WILL ONE DAY RETURN
After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they asked, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”
Jesus was taken from them “into heaven”, as the angels explained. Now we shouldn’t think of this account of the ascension as describing some sort of Apollo rocket zooming Jesus up into space and up and up until he reaches the final frontier and enters heaven. The enveloping cloud is very significant. “A cloud hid him from their sight,” says Luke. Throughout the Bible the cloud is the symbol of God’s presence and glory. There is a kind of merging of time and eternity, of earth and heaven, going on here. Jesus is entering a supernatural realm. Heaven is where God the Father is.
And that is where Jesus is now. He is with us – we experience his real presence – by the Holy Spirit, who is the Spirit of Jesus. But the God-man Jesus, body and soul, is now with God the Father in heaven.
He is reigning now. His rule is unseen, but it’s real. The ascension is, if you like, the completion of the resurrection. Jesus was raised by his Father not just to life, but to the throne of heaven.
Think of the troubled nations of the world. Think of whatever struggles you are going through in your own life. And remember the first lesson of the ascension: Jesus is now all-powerful and active. His rule is unseen for a while longer but it is real. That is a challenge to faith and service, and a profound comfort in suffering and perplexity. Jesus is on the throne.
And what’s more Jesus will return visibly as judge and saviour to bring in the new heaven and the new earth. We don’t know when. Verse 7:
“It is not for you to know the times and dates the Father has set by his own authority.” (v7)
But this is the great hope for creation and for the church. Jesus has promised it. These angels reaffirmed it: “Jesus will come back.”
So take to heart the witness of the apostles that the crucified and risen Jesus is on the throne of heaven today.
Thank him for the gift of his Spirit, and keep on asking for more and more.
Set your heart on a lifetime of involvement in worldwide witness and rejoice as you see the work of the ascended Jesus unfolding around you.
And develop a confident faith that Christ is Lord and there is hope for the world to which one day he will return.