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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Preached At:Langley Canadian Reformed Church
 Langley, B.C.
 
Title:The Ascended Christ Remains on Earth
Text:LD 18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:God The Son
 
Preached:2007
Added:2007-07-30
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 47
Hymn 1A
Hymn 30
Hymn 31
Psalm 146

Readings: Acts 1:1-11, Hebrews 9
Text: Lord's Day 18
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.


Beloved congregation of Christ,

The basic scene is probably familiar to you. Supper is over and dad asks for the Bible. This time he opens to the passage we read from Acts 1. He reads about our Lord's final moments with His disciples before being carried away by a cloud into heaven. Then the father asks his children, "So, where is the Lord Jesus Christ today?" "In heaven, of course." And indeed, that's what the text says, isn't it? He is seated at the right hand of the Father. That's also what we confess with the Apostle's Creed: the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven. But in our Heidelberg Catechism we learn that there is more here than meets the eye. Yes, indeed, our Lord did ascend into heaven. But there's more to it than that. He still remains with His church today. How and why is this so?

I preach to you God's Word as we confess it in the Catechism with this theme:

The Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, yet also remains with us on earth.

We see:

1. The fact of His ascension.
2. The character of His ascension.
3. The purpose of His ascension.

1. The fact of His ascension.

In response to the first question of our Lord's Day, the Catechism gives a very simple answer which outlines the facts of what happened at Christ's ascension. Before the eyes of His disciples, He was taken upon into heaven. A simple answer which also reflects the Biblical account of the facts. Luke told of the ascension already in his gospel, but in the passage which we read together from Acts, he gives some more details of what exactly happened.

Luke first introduces his second book, he says that his first book described all that Jesus Christ began to do and teach. Now he's going to continue with what Christ did and taught. The book really should be called the Acts of Jesus Christ through the apostles. The Christ who ascended into heaven continued to work here on earth. That is an important point which we’ll look at further. After these introductory words, Luke moves right into the account. He tells us that when they had come together at Bethany, the disciples asked the Lord Jesus a question about the kingdom of Israel. Was He now, after rising from the dead, going to establish His kingdom here on earth? Was He going to get rid of the Romans? The Lord tells them that it is not for them to know exact times or dates. They will receive power, but it will be the power of the Holy Spirit. The disciples will be Christ's witness all over the earth, beginning with Jerusalem, Judea and Samaria.

And then what happened was most amazing. Before their very eyes He was taken up into heaven by a cloud which hid Him from their sight. They stood speechless and astounded at what they’d seen. The Lord Jesus Christ who had lived and walked among them, who died on the cross and rose from the dead, now He was taken up into heaven in a way that brought back thoughts of Enoch and Elijah. Then two men dressed in white, angels, speak to them: "Men of Galilee, 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." These two messengers from God tell the disciples that the Lord Jesus Christ has gone into heaven, but He is coming back. They don't say when He will come back, but the way the angels speak, they’re telling the apostles to start the work laid out for them by Christ.

So those are the facts of the ascension. It's worth noting that Luke presents the account of Christ's ascension in a very simple way. He wants to bring across to his readers that this is an historical event. Luke is writing about something that really, truly happened.

It's important to realize that because there are many people who do question whether Jesus Christ really ascended into heaven. Who can believe that nowadays? We know that heaven is not up there in the clouds or even immediately beyond our atmosphere. Maybe the early church could believe that, but we are so much more advanced in our knowledge of the universe. So, people say, this story must have been made up.

But of course, that way of thinking doesn't take the Bible seriously. If we read the text it clearly tells us that Jesus Christ was taken up into heaven. That's also what we confess in our Catechism. The disciples saw it happen and they heard the words of the angels. They were eye and ear-witnesses. They passed the information on to Luke and he recorded it in his two books.

Yet some people question whether "heaven" in this text refers to the place where God dwells. Some say that "heaven" here is simply the sky. Jesus Christ just went up into the sky. But this is simply wrong. You could look ahead to Acts 7:55 where Stephen looks up and sees heaven opened and the Lord Jesus standing at the right hand of God. Hebrews 9:24, which we read, states that Christ entered into heaven itself. The Scriptures are clear that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven before the eyes of His disciples. We don't know or understand the details of how exactly this happened. We don't know the exact location of heaven or how the Lord Jesus Christ travelled there. Scripture doesn't tell us those things and so it's not important for us. What is important is that He did ascend into heaven, the place where God dwells. That’s the critical point of QA 46.

But yet there have always been those who have either outrightly denied it or undermined it. Even in the time the Catechism was written, there were some people who said that Jesus Christ did not actually ascend to the literal place that we call heaven. It may surprise you, but some of those people were Lutherans. At least some Lutherans maintained that heaven in the context of the ascension implies a change in condition with Christ. When the creed says that the Lord Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, they said it means that the Lord Jesus Christ took on a new character. Consequently, some Lutherans almost seemed to deny that Jesus Christ went to a literal place called heaven. At the very least, the Formula of Concord, a Lutheran confession, says that the right hand of God to which Christ ascended is not a fixed place in heaven, but rather the almighty power of God.

How did they explain this? Well, you know that the Lord Jesus Christ has two natures, a human and a divine nature. Some of the Lutherans said that at His ascension, the human nature took on aspects of the divine nature. So His human nature also became present everywhere. The Formula of Concord states that “also as man…[he] is present to all creatures.” Now there is a lot behind this idea, a lot of background here and we'll discuss it some more in a few moments. For now, see how this does not fit with what we read from Hebrews 9. It so clearly says there that the Lord Jesus Christ is in heaven with no qualifications or exceptions. Elsewhere in the Scriptures, we read Christ telling His disciples that there will be a time when He is no longer bodily with them. Our Catechism sees this teaching of some Lutherans as being unscriptural and that’s why we have four QAs on Christ's ascension, whereas we only have one on the resurrection. It was an important issue in the days of Ursinus and Olevianus, the authors of our catechism.

But it continues to be important today. For today we have many liberal theologians who outright deny the ascension of Christ. They think that the church just made up these stories about a nice man named Jesus from Nazareth who taught some good things (some revolutionary things) and ended up dying as a martyr. However, unlike many Lutherans, the liberals don't take the Bible seriously on anything. They build up their ideas on the shifting sands of unbelief. With the confession of our faith, we stand against these ideas. We maintain that Christ ascended into heaven, He is there for our benefit until He returns to judge the living and the dead.

And why is it important for us to maintain this confession? Well, most obviously, because we have to hold on to the truth of Scripture. Scripture teaches us that if Jesus Christ did not ascend into heaven, we would have no one to intercede for us before God's throne. As we learn from the letter to the Hebrews, Jesus Christ has ascended into heaven to be our great High Priest. He stands between a holy God and us sinful people. He brings forward His own blood as the sacrifice to pay for our sins. He refutes all the accusations of the devil. Without Him there, that work would not be done. Without the ascension our faith would be just as much in vain as if the resurrection had not taken place. If Christ did not really ascend into heaven with His body, then who is our High Priest? Without His ascent into heaven, things would be hopeless. But you see, the Scriptures teach us that the ascension really did happen, and it was totally necessary, and thus we must also believe it today.

2. The character of His ascension.

Christ's ascension is not easy for us to understand. This is especially so because our Lord Jesus was both true God and true man. How does this all fit together? Our Catechism gives us an answer in QAs 47 and 48. QA 48 begins by drawing on the promise of Christ in Matthew 28:20. Didn't Christ say there that He would be with His disciples until the close of the age? Is He not then also with us until the end of the world?

The first thing our Catechism does is state that Christ has two natures. He is both God and man. Almost everyone will agree with that, that's been the position of the Christian church for hundreds of years. But see what our Catechism then does with that: it says that His human nature is no longer on earth. This is clear from Scripture passages such as Matthew 26:11, "The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me." This is said just after the Lord Jesus has had His body anointed with very expensive perfume. This is not going to be possible after His ascension because His flesh will be in heaven. And indeed that’s where His human nature is. Today, as we sit here, our flesh is in heaven. Imagine that! A man like us in many ways, yet without sin or the effects of sin, He is ruling over the universe! Amazing!

But there is more to it than that. Yes, with respect to His human nature He did ascend into heaven. But we confess that with respect to His divine nature, He is never absent from us. He remains with us always, exactly as He promised at the end of Matthew 28. How is this so?

Well, first of all the Lord Jesus Christ is one person of the Triune God. This is the Triune God who states in Jeremiah 23:23 that He fills heaven and earth, He is a God near at hand. In Psalm 139, David exclaims that there is no place in the universe that He can go to flee from God's presence. God, we confess in Article 1 of the Belgic Confession, is infinite. He fills the universe with His presence. And so it is that since the Lord Jesus belongs to the Triune God, the same may be said for Him. His presence is not restricted to where His flesh is. Because He is God, He is omnipresent.

And we should also not lose sight of the very important role of the Holy Spirit in this. In His Spirit, He is never absent from us. In John 14:16-18, the Lord Jesus Christ promises that He will send the Holy Spirit to His disciples. The Lord Jesus is departing, but He will return in the presence of His Holy Spirit. That's why He says, "I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you." This is important for us to understand. Christ Jesus is with us in the presence of His Spirit. In the midst of trials and troubles, we can be comforted by that fact, can't we? The Spirit leads and guides us, directs us to God's Word. In that way our Lord Jesus Christ is never absent from us -- He is with us all the way, right to the end and beyond.

Now, however, someone brings in an objection to what the Catechism is teaching. Someone has learned his church history well. He's a good student of theology and knows a heresy when he spots one. We find this objection in QA 48. Doesn't the catechism separate the two natures of Christ when we say that His human nature is no longer on earth, whereas His divinity still is? This was exactly the accusation that the Lutherans directed against the Reformed people in the time the Catechism was written. The Lutherans said that the Reformed teaching about Christ's ascension was basically the heresy taught by Nestorius in the early years of the Church. He was condemned by the church because he separated Christ's two natures. And so aren't the Reformed doing the same?

The background of this is the controversy over the Lord's Supper. You remember that the Lutherans said that Christ's body was present in and under the bread and the wine. That's why they insist that Christ did not bodily ascend into a literal heaven. The Reformed denied that Christ's real flesh and blood was present in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper. And now that's why we have these QAs in our Catechism. Ursinus and Olevianus are maintaining the Biblical, Reformed position on the ascension. They're doing that in order also to maintain the Biblical, Reformed position on the Lord's Supper.

So how do they answer the accusation of heresy from the side of the Lutherans? The answer of QA 48 is somewhat difficult to understand. It can definitely be difficult to memorize, as the catechism students will no doubt agree. To put it as simple as possible, His divine nature extends beyond His human nature, but is still united with it. You could think of it as two concentric circles. His divinity encompasses or includes the human nature which remains in heaven. His divinity also extends to every place of the universe, as we saw earlier -- and that includes heaven. This then means that the divine and human natures are not separated, but still personally joined with one another.

The Lord Jesus has ascended into heaven -- we saw that from Acts 1 -- but yet He also remains with us according to His promise. The Catechism explains to us very broadly how it can be possible for both our Lord to be in heaven and for Him to be here with us. The Catechism also then goes on to tell us how all of this benefits us. We see that in our third point.

3. The purpose of His ascension.

Our catechism is often practically oriented. And so here too in QA 49 our Catechism asks what is the benefit of Christ's ascension? Since all this is true, what is the advantage?

In the first place, you could refer to what we read from Hebrews 9. In verse 15 of that chapter we read that Christ is the mediator of the new covenant. He is the one who intercedes between God and us, much like Moses did in the old covenant for the people of Israel. Closely related to the idea of "mediator" is the idea of an "advocate." An advocate is like a mediator in that he speaks up for another party in a dispute. We could say he is like a defense lawyer in a courtroom setting. Certain charges have been laid but he's going to defend his client against those charges. He has his client's best interests at heart. We would then also say that the picture of Christ as High Priest in Hebrews 9 fits that picture wouldn't we? Christ has our best interests at heart, He is our Advocate. He defends us against all the accusations of the devil. He brings forward His blood as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. The old covenant had the ever-flowing blood of goats and rams, but the new covenant has the blood of the Lamb of God which was shed once for all. That blood is brought before the Father as proof that the Son has paid the full price. We need this advocate in heaven, brothers and sisters. Without Him there for us, we are lost in our sins. Then the accusations of the devil stand, then we remain under God's wrath. But that's not true of us. He is our advocate in heaven. Believe and trust in Him and then there is no fear, then there is peace and comfort. That's the first benefit of which our Catechism speaks.

The second one is closely related. We have our flesh in heaven as a pledge. A pledge is a guarantee, or a promise. When you buy something, sometimes a guarantee comes with it, a promise that if you're not satisfied you can get your money back. So we also have a guarantee in heaven, it’s a promise. Of course, this guarantee, this promise has nothing to do with money. The promise is that just as our flesh is in heaven in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ, so we too will experience the same. We are guaranteed a heavenly homeland.

So often we forget that we don't really belong here in this world of sin, we forget that we're pilgrims. We start living as if we really belong here and it becomes rather comfortable for us here. We must not lose sight of that heavenly homeland where our inheritance waits for us. That heavenly homeland is guaranteed for us because our flesh is in heaven! This gives us hope and eager anticipation, doesn't it? It also gives us motivation to carry on as pilgrims in a land that’s not our own.

When we reflect on Christ’s ascension, we have much to be thankful for. We have a Saviour at God’s right hand who is ruling us, interceding for us, and guiding our lives with His Spirit and Word. We are rich in him. And so, for the ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ we can truly say, “Praise God!”

Let us pray:

Lord Jesus in heaven,

We praise you for ascending to the Father’s right hand before the eyes of your apostles. We thank you that you are there for our benefit until you return again to judge the living and the dead. Please return quickly to redeem us fully! We thank you for being our advocate before the Father. We’re comforted knowing that we have a sympathetic high priest in you. We thank you for your flesh and your Spirit – guarantees for us, pledges of your love. Above all, we thank you for your presence among us. We’re glad to know that each day you are near in your divinity, majesty, grace and Spirit. Guard us in your truth. Help us with your Word and Spirit to believe your promises. Help our unbelief. We pray for the glory of your Name, AMEN.




* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Wes Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

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