Free Reformed Church of Kelmscott
"CHRISTíS ASCENSION IS A SOURCE OF GREAT COMFORT FOR THE CHURCH."
Singing: (Psalms and Hymns are from the "Book of Praise"
Anglo Genevan Psalter)
Psalm 118:4; Hymn 31:1,4
Beloved Congregation of the Lord Jesus Christ!
The lives weíre given to live confronts each and every one us with the reality of sin and the results of sin. I personally, and you too, find ourselves struggling day by day against the countless sins remaining in us. I personally, and you too, find ourselves struggling too against the godlessness and wickedness embraced so eagerly by a society that rejects the God of heaven and earth. Sin in ourselves, sin in the world around us: these are the tragic realities of life in this vale of tears.
In this society, with such personal weaknesses, the Lord would have us live as His children. In this society, with such personal weaknesses, the Lord would have us raise covenant children too. Can we? Or shall we despair, shall we say that children are not worth the hassle, that living the Christian life isnít worth the struggle? Shall we give up on the world, and let it run its self-chosen course to destruction? Truly, that option is so appealing....
But Jesus, dear congregation, has ascended into heaven. The reality of that ascension gives us perspective and the courage to go on in our godless age. Precisely for that reason is it good to listen this evening to the Lordís Word about Jesusí ascension into heaven. In the struggles of this life, then, I preach to you this evening the Word of God, using this theme:
CHRISTíS ASCENSION IS A SOURCE OF GREAT COMFORT FOR THE CHURCH.
To prove the truth of this theme, we consider two points:
1 Before I go into the words of the text itself, it will be good to consider for a moment the circumstances of the people for whom Mark initially wrote his gospel. For reasons that I do not need to explain this evening, Bible scholars are agreed that Mark wrote his gospel particularly for the benefit of the church of Jesus Christ in Rome. Whether the gospel was written in the days of Neroís terrible persecution of the church or in the days leading up to that persecution makes not much difference; the church of Christ in Rome lived in a distinctly heathen society wherein was great opposition to the Christian faith and cold hatred for the Christians themselves. We understand that to live as Christians and to raise Christian families in such an environment was far from easy.
To readers in such a predicament Mark wrote his gospel. After spending 16 chapters outlining aspects of Jesusí words and works, Mark rounds off his writings with reference to Jesusí ascension into heaven. No, Mark does not tell us how the ascension happened; his readers - living as they do in the difficulties of a hostile society- have need of knowing not so much how the Lord ascended as knowing that He ascended and what that ascension meant for them. And that, brothers and sisters, is precisely what Mark tells them - and us- in the words of our text.
Jesus, says Mark according to our translations, "was received up into heaven". Concerning these words we are to notice that Jesus Himself does nothing. The words "He was received up into heaven" picture Jesus as passive, as being the object of somebody elseís action. Another acted, picked Jesus up, brought Him into heaven. Mark does not record who did the acting, who it was that transported Jesus into heaven, but we understand correctly that here the Lord God was acting. Yet the very fact that Mark does not mention God, that he instead focuses attention onto Christ alone, means that we too do well to keep our attention focused primarily on Christ.
Jesus did nothing, was passive as He was taken up into heaven. Weíre to recall: a mere six weeks ago this same Jesus had hung on the cross of Calvary, a broken wreck of a man. According to what Mark has written about the crucified Jesus, there was nothing attractive about Him; that man on the cross was rather repulsive. And He wasnít revolting to mankind alone; heaven too was disgusted by this man. So disgusted was holy God by the sin-laden Jesus that He turned His face from Him; says Mark in ch 15:
"there was darkness over the whole land..." (vs 33).
As in the plague of Egypt the Lord let darkness prevail over the land as evidence of His displeasure at the hardening of Pharaohís heart, so too on the cross of Calvary God let darkness prevail as evidence of His revulsion against Jesus of Nazareth; on account of the sins piled onto this man, God deserted Jesus completely. Then Yes, Jesus was the Son of God, had been with the Father in heaven from all eternity, but on the cross He was rejected, abandoned by holy God. As Jesus Himself said in the anguish of the darkness:
"My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?" (15:34).
But see now: the Jesus so bitterly rejected by God in heaven a mere six weeks ago on Calvary is now taken up into heaven! No, Jesus does not storm into heaven, does not knock on heavenís doors to seek entry; He does nothing. Rather, it all happens to Him, He is picked up and transported to the very heaven that had rejected Him on Calvary!
What that means? This ascension, beloved, can mean nothing else than that the God of heaven accepted Jesus again! This God had once rejected Jesus, rejected Him because He was made completely sin. But now this same God publicly accepted Jesus, welcomed Him into the hallowed courts of His holy presence. That could be possible only because Jesus had - in the judgment of God Himself- Jesus had perfectly paid for sin, had satisfied the wrath of God against sin. Jesus, without any action on His part, was taken up into heaven, and that event was confirmation from God Himself that He was satisfied with Jesus sacrifice. See there the cause of the ascension!
Here we need to recall the curse which the Lord God had placed on earth as a result of manís fall into sin. Youíll recall what the Lord said to Adam and Eve in Gen 3 when He sent them out of the Garden:
"Cursed is the ground for your sake....
Both thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you" (3:17f).
Beside the struggle man would experience in earning his daily keep, the Lord spoke in Gen 3 also of the difficulties one would encounter in receiving children; pregnancy, labour, raising children would all involve pain. And the life of man would end in death; sickness would be part of manís lot also. And why these troubles, these struggles in life? One reason: itís all due to that fall into sin. Sin: thatís the cause of the hunger and misery experienced by the Christians of Rome.
But God took Jesus up, Mark writes to the Romans, God took Jesus up into heaven. What that meant for the believers of Rome? This: the sins which stood between God and themselves had been taken away - else God could not have accepted again the One He had rejected six weeks earlier! The fact that Jesus was taken up into heaven, then, was reassurance for the Christians of Rome, reassurance that the sins that had put Godís curse on this life had been taken away, were forgiven! See there the comfort for these believers of Rome in the words of our text: the sins that had initially brought Godís anger onto life were taken away, and so their lives as a whole no longer withered under the burden of Godís holy wrath. For Christís sake was there forgiveness for them, and so their lives - despite the sins that still remained in themselves and in their society- their lives as a whole had perspective again. God was not distant from them, not angry with them; in heaven they had rather a Father who cared for them, who gave what they needed and either averted all evil or turned it to their benefit. That was for them the comfort flowing from the fact that Jesus was taken up into heaven.
2 But the comfort in the ascension of Christ for the Christians of Rome lay, brothers and sisters, not only in the cause of the ascension; that comfort was contained also in the effect of the ascension. Mark records more than the fact that Jesus was taken up into heaven without Himself doing anything. Mark adds that once Jesus entered heaven He immediately acted. What Jesus did? Says the text: He "sat down at the right hand of God."
Note here well, beloved, what the text says. Mark does not write that Jesus "was seated" at the right hand of God, does not say either that the Lord God showed Jesus as it were to His heavenly chair. No, Jesus is presented here as consciously acting, doing something. Scarcely has He been brought into heaven when Jesus Himself takes the initiative: He "sat down at the right hand of God."
Why? Why did Jesus take the seat Himself? Should He not have waited for His Father to show Him His place? Here, brothers and sisters, we are to recall what the Lord God had Himself said years earlier in Ps 110. Said David in that Psalm:
"The LORD said to my Lord,
ĎSit at My right hand,
Till I make Your enemies Your footstoolí" (vs 1).
Here king David was moved by the Holy Spirit to pen a psalm which recorded for the church of the Old Testament Godís plan to enthrone the coming Son of David. "The LORD said to my Lord," writes David, and with those words David the king writes about God speaking to Davidís Lord, speaking to someone greater than David the king. In the final analysis that person greater than David the king can be none else than the Son of God. To this Son God Himself gave the instruction to sit at His right hand; thatís the thrust of Ps 110. That Jesus Himself understood that this was the thrust of Ps 110 is pointed up by what Jesus said to the high priest on the night of His betrayal. Said Jesus to him:
"...you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Power" (Mk 14:62).
At His ascension into heaven, Jesus approached the throne at Godís right hand; better: when God took Jesus up into heaven, God Himself brought Him near that throne. What, then, was Jesus to do, given what the Lord God had already said in Ps 110? Given what the Lord had said in Ps 110, beloved, there was nothing else for the ascended Jesus to do but obey; He had to sit.
And what did that sitting mean? According to Scripture, "sitting" is characteristic of ruling. The Pharaoh whom Moses and Aaron visited in Egypt is pictured as "sitting" on his throne (Ex 11:5; 12;29). Old king David assured Bathsheba that son Solomon would "sit on my throne" (I K 1:17,20; cf vs 24,27; 3:6; 8:25, etc). The Lordís own sovereignty over Israel is presented in terms of His "sitting" on the ark (I Sam 4:4; II Sam 6:4). So too in the vision which Isaiah saw of God; says the prophet:
"I saw the Lord sitting on a throne, high and lifted up" (Is 6:1).
David says it too of the Lord in Ps 47:
"God reigns over the nations;
God sits on His holy throne" (vs 8).
That Jesus, then, when He was taken into heaven, should "sit" means nothing else than that He became ruler, king.
See there, brothers and sisters, what it means that Jesus "sat down" in heaven. The God who had rejected Him on Calvary on account of our sins now took Jesus into heaven so that Jesus might obey the command of Ps 110 and so become ruler over all the world. Thatís the effect of the ascension: Jesus Christ is elevated to the throne of the universe!
And lest we miss the point of what it means that Jesus "sat down", Mark impresses upon us the place where Jesus sat down. He "sat down", says Mark, "at the right hand of God." Itís true that in the Bible "the right hand" is regarded as the place of honour (cf I K 2:19). But weíre to note that Mark does not say simply that Jesus sat "on the right hand side"; Mark rather tells us that Jesus sat down "on the right hand of God". And that phrase "the right hand of God" turns out to describe the concept of Godís almighty power. I read in Ps 118, for example, the following:
"The right hand of the Lord is exalted;
The right hand of the Lord does valiantly" (vs 16).
After the crossing of the Red Sea, Israel sang this of God:
"Your right hand, O Lord, has become glorious in power;
Your right hand, O Lord, has dashed the enemy in pieces" (Ex 15:6).
Isaiah says that it was with His "right hand" that the Lord created the world (Is 48:13), the psalmist tells us that it was with His "right hand" that the Lord gave Israel the promised land (Ps 44:3), and the list goes on. The "right hand of God" is in the Bible the symbol of the almighty power which God uses for the benefit of His people.
Now Mark tells us that at His ascension Jesus "sat down" - sat down where?- "at the right hand of God". And again, that Jesus sat down at Godís right hand was obedience to the instruction embodied in Ps 110; there God had said long ago that the Son was to "sit at My right hand" (vs 1). What it all means is that Jesus took for Himself what God had prepared for Him ages past; He, the Saviour of the world, received the throne of almighty power, and so become not just the Saviour of the world but also the Ruler of the world.
The apostle Paul recorded what that means in his letter to the Ephesians. Says he of the exalted position God gave to Jesus Christ:
"[He] seated [Christ] at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come. And He put all things under His feet and gave Him to be head over all things for the church..." (1:20ff).
Principalities and powers, the demons and devils, the godless authorities of this world: all, says Paul, are subject to King Jesus, subject because God has given this Victor over sin and death such an exalted position.
What, then, of all the strife characteristic of this mortal life? Certainly, the strife is real, and the Christians of Rome who first read Markís gospel knew it as well as we do. But the fact remains that on the throne of the world is not an emperor as Nero, and the events of our daily lives are not the result of chance or luck. Jesus Christ is sovereign; He who paid for your sins and mine is Lord of all. This Jesus determines from His mighty throne in heaven every event occurring on earth today; itís His hand that is behind the unrest in Jakarta this week, His hand that is behind the budget Mr Costello presented last week, His hand that is behind the decision of our state government formally to legalise abortion, His hand that governs the hearts and minds of every Australian alive today. He paid for sin, and now governs all with a view to gathering His church from every tribe and tongue and nation, in Australia too.
To be a Christian, to live the Christian life, to raise covenant children in our society: itís far from easy. But in the midst of this life, the Lord reminds us this evening of the ascension that happened so long ago, reminds us so that we might be encouraged in the faith weíve received.
And soon - thatís the promise- soon the Christ who is seated today at the right hand of God shall arise from His royal seat in order to return to earth on the clouds of heaven (Mk 14:62). Then every knee in heaven and on earth and under the earth - including those who today rule the world without regard for God- every knee shall bow before the Lord of all (Phil 2:10f). Yes, on that day (as John testifies) "every creature which is in heaven and on the earth and under the earth and such as are in the sea, and all that are in them" shall join together to sing one song, and that song is this:
"Blessing and honour and glory and power
Be to Him who sits on the throne,
And to the Lamb, forever and ever!" (Rev 5:13). Amen.