He ascended into heaven

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Good morning. Before we go any further, let’s pray:

Heavenly Father, help us by your Spirit to hear, understand and believe what you teach us in your living Word about your beloved Son Jesus. In his name we pray. Amen.

Here’s a question. Have we got to grips with the fact that it’s the reality of the ascension of Jesus that means we can have hope and peace in the midst of a pandemic? Why do I say that? Well, that’s what we’re going to explore this morning. We’re continuing our series on Acts 1-2 called ‘From Easter to Pentecost – 7 weeks that changed the world’. Our focus today is Acts 1.9-14, especially 9-11 and the key event that happened between the death and resurrection of Jesus that first Easter, and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost seven weeks later. That event is the Ascension. Whenever we say together the Creed, we say this about Jesus:

On the third day he rose again;
he ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus ascended to the right hand of God the Father in heaven. So 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 is on the throne, ruling as King over all things, including us and our circumstances. Now, pandemics and all. This passage in Acts 1 is the key section in the New Testament on the Ascension. I want to make five points about the ascension from these verses – and also revisiting Acts 1.1-8 that Jon spoke about last week, because we can’t make sense of Acts 1.9-11 without Acts 1.1-8. 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 (Acts 1.1-2):

In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.

The Book of Acts lays out before our eyes the consequences of the ascension. And Luke is careful to stress that he is dealing in history not myth, or fantasy, or fictional story telling but facts. To quote a useful book written about forty 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, it is fact. 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 Acts 1.3. Here it is:

[Jesus] presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

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. 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 proofs that he has indeed been raised from the dead. This was no disembodied spirit but a man of flesh and bones. 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.

Thirdly, From heaven Jesus sends his spirit on his people

Look back at Acts 1.4-5:

And while staying with them [Jesus] ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; for John baptised with water, but you will be baptised with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”

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. They could wait with confidence because this gift had been promised. But the fulfilment of the promise had to wait until after Jesus had ascended into heaven. Then it happened, on the Day of Pentecost. And on that day Peter explained the coming of the Spirit by saying (Acts 2.33):

Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, [Jesus] has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.

The ascended Jesus pours out his Spirit on his disciples. And the same is true for us. 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, 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

Here are Acts 1.6-8:

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end 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. The message that the crucified and risen Jesus is ruling from heaven will spread 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 1.8 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. So we too are to be witnesses to what we know by faith through their testimony. 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

Here then is that final section of the passage – Acts 1.9-11:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”

So Jesus ascended to heaven. He was taken up from [them] into heaven as the angels explained.

Michael Collins died last week. He was the third man on that amazing Apollo 11 mission to land men on the moon. 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 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. The doctrine of the Trinity is important here, remember that God is three-in-one and one-in three. Where the Spirit is, there is the Son. But the God-man Jesus, body and soul, is now with God the Father in heaven. What then is the primary significance of this ascension? What difference does this make to us now? The ascension has two key lessons for us.

First, Jesus is on the throne. He is reigning now. His rule is unseen, but it is 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. So the apostle Peter, in 1 Peter 3.22, speaks of:

…Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.

Think of the impact of the pandemic around 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 it is a profound comfort in suffering and perplexity. Jesus is on the throne. That’s key lesson number one.

Key lesson number two is that Jesus will return visibly as judge and saviour to bring in the new heaven and the new earth. We don’t know when. Acts 1.7:

He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.”

But this is the great hope for creation and for the church. Jesus has promised it. These angels reaffirmed it. Jesus will come back. The apostles needed to know that Jesus had gone to heaven and would return, and so do we. What, then, is the purpose and motivating power of our lives? As we finish, here are five encouragements for us to take from these five points:

Take to heart the witness of the apostles to the fact of the ascension with ever-deepening conviction. Remember that the Lord of heaven and of history is the crucified Saviour who died for us all. Thank God for the gift of his Holy Spirit, and keep on being filled by the Spirit to equip you for service. Set your heart on a lifetime of involvement in worldwide witness to Jesus. And develop a confident faith that Jesus is the living Lord today and there is hope for tomorrow because he will one day return.

As for those first disciples, both the men and the women, including the mother of Jesus herself (Acts 1.12-14) tell us that after the ascension they went back down the hill, the Mount of Olives, and back into the city, and to their upper room HQ. And as Acts 1.14 says:

All these with one accord were devoting themselves to prayer…

And so they waited. What happened next? Come back next week for more. Let’s pray. And I’ll end with the Collect for Ascension Day – the short prayer that has been regularly prayed by believers in this country for hundreds of years. So let’s join with them and make this our own:

Grant, we pray, almighty God,
that as we believe your only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ
to have ascended into the heavens,
so we in heart and mind may also ascend
and with him continually dwell;
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

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