WRF Member Dr. J. R. Norwood Preaches on "The Grand Departure" of Jesus
WRF Member Dr. J. R. Norwood Preaches on "The Grand Departure" of Jesus May 3, 2016 Dr. J. R. Norwood
A Grand Departure
An Ascension Day Sermon submitted to the World Reformed Fellowshipby Rev. JR Norwood, PhDPastor, Ujima Village Christian Church, New Jersey, USAPost-Doctoral Researcher, Department of Ecclesiology, North-West University, SA
Acts 1:9-11 (ESV); 9 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. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 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.”
Usually people's arrival is marked by much more than their departure. Important folk like to make a grand entrance. When a dignitary is coming to town it is their arrival that is marked with much celebration and press coverage. Even in ancient times when a conqueror returned in victory, there would usually be some sort of a parade. While there are tearful farewells when troops leave for battle, it is upon their victorious return that there is a ticker tape parade and great celebration. When movie stars arrive at award celebrations and film debuts, they roll out the red carpet and lines of photographers record their arrival.
But today we study a grand departure. Today we look at the ascension of Jesus Christ. Jesus had done many wondrous things. His entire life was a demonstration of the power of God. The whole of the Old Testament looked forward to him, anticipating his coming. Angels announced his conception and then even proclaimed his birth. From his childhood his wisdom astounded even greatest minds in Jerusalem. His baptism was marked by the manifestation of the Holy Spirit as a descending dove and by the audible voice of God the Father proclaiming him to be his beloved son in whom he was well pleased. His three-year ministry was marked by miracles: he made the lame walk; the blind see; the diseased whole; he set the demon possessed free; he even raised the dead. Jesus had walked on water, calmed a storm with a word, fed thousands with a few morsels of food, and had even gotten up from the grave himself.
Forty days after the resurrection, after numerous appearances to his disciples, it seemed that there could not be anything left for him to do. It seemed as though he had done it all. And yet, Jesus understood that there was one more critical thing that he had to do before his earthly ministry was complete. After all of the miracles, after all of the powerful teachings, after his own death and resurrection, Jesus knew that he had to leave. He knew that leaving was an important part of his mission. He knew that his destination and ministry after his departure was crucial to the future of his church. He gathered his disciples around him on the Mount of Olives and reminded them that their mission was to be his witnesses throughout the whole world… That they were to become the teachers and the preachers, the heralds of his Gospel… That those who would follow him would bear his message and continue his ministry…and, they were to do it in a way that they had never had to do it before. They were to carry out this mission knowing that he was no longer physically with them.
While his disciples watch, Jesus is taken up before their very eyes. The scripture gives precious few details about the ascension. And we must be careful how we interpret it. We know that heaven is neither up nor down, it is a spiritual realm. And yet in a spiritual sense, heaven is above where we are. It is by far better than where we are. Heaven is so much better that it can only be described through symbols and metaphors because its beauty, majesty, and magnificence is beyond our comprehension. Jesus did not ascend in an upward motion because heaven is physically up, but because from the most ancient of times heaven was rightly understood to be above and BEYOND AND BETTER than our earthly experience.
The text tells us that he was taken up. It implies that it appeared as though he began to float, rising above the witnesses. His glory began to show forth, that same glory that he had before he had come to earth as a man. The glowing Shekinah cloud of God's presence, that glorious illuminating bright cloud that had guided the children of Israel through the wilderness in the days of Moses… that glorious cloud which had entered into the holy of holies in the tabernacle and in the Temple… that heavenly brilliance that had lit the face of Moses to reflect its brightness in a fashion that frightened those who saw him. It was the brightness that had surrounded the top of the Mount of Transfiguration… this same glory began to surround Jesus himself as he ascended and disappeared from their view. The disciples were left staring up in amazement.
It is important to note that the critical moments in the life of Jesus were accompanied by the appearance of angels. Angels had announced his coming and celebrated his birth. Angels ministered to him after his forty days of fasting in the wilderness when he was tested by Satan. Angels attended him on the eve of the crucifixion as he went through the emotional turmoil of anticipating taking on the sins of all whom he would save from all over the world and throughout all time. Angels were present at the tomb and witnessed the resurrection and bore witness about it to the women who would come to anoint the body of the Lord. Now once again angels were visible. This time they stood by the disciples. They told them, in so many words, that Jesus did not leave them so that they could stand around looking up, but rather so that they could do the work of the ministry of the kingdom.
Jesus ascended... he went back to the place from whence he had come. Jesus ascended... he return to the courts of glory. Jesus ascended... he went back to his throne above. It was a grand departure.
Far too often Christians are guilty of ignoring the significance of the crucifixion and rushing to experience the joy of commemorating the resurrection. In this same way we have a tendency to dwell upon the resurrection and overlook the significance of the ascension. And yet Jesus emphasized the importance of his departure. The Gospel of John records that he said to his disciples, “…I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you” (John 16:7 ESV).
An appreciation of the ascension is a critical aspect of the Christian faith. We are blessed to live in a post ascension age. There are certain realities that we must consider in order to fully appreciate the importance of this event.
The ascension is important because it marks Christ's exaltation. This grand departure of our Lord is actually our witness to his enthronement. Scripture tells us that when God the Son took on flesh it began a period of his humiliation (Philippians 2:6-8). The privileges and glory, that were his from all eternity, he condescended to deny himself for the purpose of being the Lamb of God, the Lamb of sacrifice, which would take away the sins of the world. Divinity had taken on humanity, and in so doing, veiled the glory of God within the body of a man.
Now this man, who held within him the very being of God himself, was ascending to have that glory veiled no more. The crown of glory that was his would be returned to his brow. The human nature that had been taken on by his divine nature would ascend to the place of authority and honor... a place that no mere creature could rightly attain... a place of divine majesty. Jesus ascended to the throne in heaven.
There are some who are confused about two aspects of this exaltation. The first is that the Bible makes reference to Jesus being seated at the right hand of God the Father. The second is that Jesus himself promised to always be with his disciples. How could he be seated on the throne in heaven and still be at the right hand of God the Father? Isn't God on the throne himself? And how could he depart and still be with his disciples? In order to understand the answer to these questions we must also understand the nature of Christ. We must have a basic understanding of Christology.
From all eternity God exists as one in three. There is a divine communion of one being in three persons... One essence, one God, existing in a Trinity: God the Father; God the Son; God the Holy Ghost. From the very beginning in the book of Genesis, we see a plural term used to refer to God (Elohim). At the beginning of the Gospel of John we read that, "the Word was with God and the Word was God" (John 1:1).
The same characteristics and attributes that are descriptive of God the Father are also ascribed to God the Son. We are forbidden to worship anyone or anything but God himself, but at the same time we are commanded to worship Jesus Christ (John 5:22-23; Philippians 2:9-11) and we see that angels are commanded to do the same (Hebrews 1:6). It is because Jesus is God in the flesh. He is God the Son who took on a human nature. The Holy Trinity is three persons with one essence: God the Father, God the Son, God Holy Ghost. Jesus Christ is one person with two natures, both divine and human.
Whenever we discuss the activity of Jesus we must also discern which nature we are describing. As to his divine nature he never slept or grew tired... As to his human nature he became weary and he slept. As to his divine nature, he has the attribute of omnipresence - he is everywhere and every when all at once... As to his human nature he is limited by time and space and can only be in one place at a time. As to his divine nature he is omniscient… as to his human nature he confessed it there are some things he did not know.
So when we talk about his ascension and enthronement we are speaking about his human nature which can only be in one place at a time. His divine nature was always in heaven and on the earth... Everywhere all at once. His divine nature was always seated on the throne in heaven. It is his human nature that would be lifted to a place of honor and proclaimed to be “King of Kings and Lord of the Lords.” It is his human nature that assumes a position of honor and even preference, which is called God's right hand, as he is seated upon the throne in heaven. Jesus ascends to rule over heaven and earth. Jesus' human nature ascended to enjoy the glory that his divine nature knew from before time began.
That's why Paul writes in Philippians (2:9-11), “9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. "
The divine nature of God the Son always had divine authority... Now the human nature was being elevated to the position of cosmic King. That's why John writes in the book of Revelation (5:11-14),
11 Then I looked, and I heard around the throne and the living creatures and the elders the voice of many angels, numbering myriads of myriads and thousands of thousands, 12 saying with a loud voice, ‘Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!”13 And I heard every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all that is in them, saying, “To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” 14 And the four living creatures said, “Amen!” and the elders fell down and worshiped.
There is a human being on the throne of Heaven, our glorious resurrected Lord and Savior, King Jesus! He came to save human beings, and because of the divine grace expressed in the ascension, through our Lord and Savior, God has “… raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 2:6 ESV).
In understanding the dual of nature of Jesus, the notion of him departing and remaining both at the same time becomes easier to grasp. As to his human nature, Jesus is a resurrected human being, that's why the Bible calls him the first among many to be raised from the dead. His human nature is in heaven sitting upon the divine throne. But, his divine nature is not limited by time and space. His divine nature is omnipresent, everywhere and every when, all at once. This is how Jesus can both depart and remain at the same time. While his human nature ascends, his divine nature abides with us.
So the hymn writer could accurately testify, "I've seen the lighting flashing, I heard the thunder role, I felt sins breakers dashing trying to conquer my soul… but, I heard the voice of Jesus, telling the still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No never alone. No never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone."
Jesus is in heaven, and he is also in the midst of his disciples. He is both above and below. He returned to his place in glory, and yet still surrounds his disciples with his grace. He is on the throne in heaven, and on the throne of your heart!
The ascension is important because it reminds us of our Lord's current ministry in heaven. When Jesus ascended to heaven, he ascended as our victorious King. But he did not ascended only as our King. Jesus is also our High Priest.
When he died upon the cross, his atonement for our sins brought an end to the necessity of the priestly sacrificial system established in the days of Moses. Once every year the priests would atone for the sins of the people. That was the only time they were allowed to enter into the Holy of Holies by stepping behind the sacred veil. In the days when the Ark of the Covenant was in the Temple, they would sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice upon the covering of the Ark, which was called the mercy seat.
But now that Jesus has ascended, he has presented his own blood as a constant proof of his atoning sacrifice. Now that the he has ascended, he abides in the presence of God the Father, interceding on our behalf. The book of Hebrews (4:14-16) tells us that because we have a high Priest in heaven we may, "approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need". Jesus is our Priest and our Advocate. He understands the plight of all humanity and loves us with the power of his divinity. We receive divine grace through him.
As our King, Jesus is our judge. But thanks be to God, as our Priest he is our Advocate! He is both the judge who condemns us because of our sins, and he is our defense attorney who pleads our case and then even takes the punishment due us upon himself!
As our Priest, concerned about our salvation, he sends the Holy Spirit to regenerate those whom he shall save and transform them through the divine work of sanctification... making us righteous, holy, courageous, and full of divine fruit.
The ascension had to precede the outpouring of God's Holy Spirit because that was what Jesus would do as our Priest King from heaven... he pours out his Spirit upon all flesh. If there was no ascension, there would be no outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. If there was no ascension, there would be no empowerment of the church on earth.
Finally, The ascension is important because it points to the fact that Jesus will return. The angels stood by the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend. We must remember that everything the angels had said about Jesus had come true. An Angel told Mary and Joseph that he would be born and would be the Savior of his people… that came true. Angels told the shepherds that Jesus had been born and was lying in a manger in Bethlehem… that was true. Angel told the women at the tomb that Jesus had risen and would appear to his disciples… that came true. Now they stood with the disciples and told them that just as he departed, he would return… and that is going to come true.
There are some, who claim to be Christian, who no longer believe in the actual physical return of Jesus… but, the Bible records that the angels said he would return just as he had left… He left physically, and he will return physically! He ascended in his body, he will return in his body! The heavenly angels have not told a lie about Jesus yet… There is no reason to believe that they were telling a lie then. If you believe that he came and died and rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, then it makes no sense not to believe that he will come back just like he said!
“And, Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight, The clouds be rolled back as a scroll, The trump shall resound and the Lord shall descend… even so it is well with my soul! It is well… It is well… It is well… It is well with my soul.”
Christians have a Lord and Savior who is both above and below, in the midst and far beyond the skies! We have a redeemer who is still both divine and human, able to relate to us and able to save us... able to plead our cause and able to secure our victory by grace! We have a God who comforts and sustains us in this life, and who is preparing a place for us in eternity, that where he is - there we may be also!