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Author:Dr. Wes Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Launceston, Tasmania
 Tasmania, Australia
 
Title:The gospel promises the presence of the ascended Christ in heaven and on earth
Text:LD 18 (View)
Occasion:Regular Sunday
Topic:Comfort in a World of Pain
 
Preached:2020
Added:2020-08-09
Updated:2020-08-09
 

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Psalm 47

Hymn 39

Hymn 40

Hymn 1

Psalm 147:1,5,6

Scripture readings:  Acts 1:1-11, Hebrews 9

Catechism lesson: 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.  The meal 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’s more here than meets the eye.  Yes, Jesus 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?  Why is this good news?

That’s what we’ll be learning about this afternoon as I preach to you God’s Word:

The gospel promises the presence of the ascended Christ in heaven and on earth

We’ll learn about:

1.  The fact of his ascension.

2.  The character of his ascension.

3.  The purpose of his ascension.

In response to the first question of our Lord's Day, the Catechism gives a simple answer which outlines the facts of what happened at Christ's ascension.  Before the eyes of his disciples, he was taken up 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 we read together from Acts, he gives some more details of exactly what 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’s 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 Jesus a question about the kingdom.  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?  Jesus tells them that it isn’t for them to know exact times or dates.  They’ll receive power, but it’ll be the power of the Holy Spirit.  The disciples will be Christ's witnesses 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 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."   These two messengers from God tell the disciples that Christ has gone into heaven, but he’s coming back.  They don't say when he’ll 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 how Luke presents the account of Christ's ascension in a 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 in history, just like the resurrection and the cross. 

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’re so much more advanced in our knowledge of the universe.  So, people say, this story must have been made up, just like (they say) the story of the resurrection was 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. 

Then some people question whether "heaven" 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 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 ascended into heaven before the eyes of his disciples.  We don't know or understand the details of how exactly that happened.  We don't know the exact location of heaven or how 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. 

Loved ones, we have to hold on to the truth of Scripture.  Why?  Well, because it’s good news!  Scripture teaches us that if Christ didn’t ascend into heaven, we’d have no one to intercede for us before God's throne.   As we learn from the letter to the Hebrews, Christ has ascended into heaven to be our great High Priest, our compassionate 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.  When we sin, the human heart of Christ breaks for us, and the human voice of Christ pleads for us.  Without him there, that work wouldn’t be done.  Without the Ascension our faith would be just as much in vain as if the resurrection hadn’t taken place.  If Christ didn’t really ascend into heaven with his body, then who is our High Priest?  Without his ascent into heaven, things would be hopeless for us.  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. 

Now, it’s true that Christ's ascension isn’t easy for us to understand.  This is especially so because 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 draws 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 affirm 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 his human nature is no longer on earth.  That’s 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 Jesus has had his body anointed with expensive perfume.  This isn’t 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’s 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 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 there’s no place in the universe he can go to flee from God's presence.  God is infinite.  He fills the universe with his presence.  And so it is that since Christ is God, the same may be said for him.  His presence isn’t restricted to where his flesh is.  Because he is God, he is omnipresent.

We also need to remember the Holy Spirit and where he fits in.  In his Spirit, in the Holy Spirit, he is never absent from us.  In John 14:16-18, Christ promises that he will send the Holy Spirit to his disciples.  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 is never absent from us – he’s 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 that 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?  That was the accusation the Lutherans directed against the Reformed churches in the time the Catechism was written.  The Lutherans said 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 churches doing the same?

The background of this is the controversy over the Lord's Supper.  You might remember how the Lutherans said that Christ's body was present in, with, and under the bread and the wine.  That's why they insist that Christ did not bodily ascend into a literal heaven.  The Reformed churches denied that Christ's real flesh and blood was present in the bread and wine of the Lord's Supper – instead, Christ is truly present in a spiritual manner.  And now that's why we have these QAs in our Catechism.  It’s maintaining the biblical, Reformed position on the ascension.  It’s doing that in order also to maintain the biblical, Reformed position on the Lord's Supper.

So how do we answer that accusation of heresy from the side of the Lutherans?  The answer of QA 48 is somewhat difficult to understand.  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.  In the inside circle his humanity.  In the outside circle his divinity.  His divinity encompasses and is connected to the human nature which remains in heaven.  His divinity also extends to every place, 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.

Jesus has ascended into heaven -- we saw that from Acts 1 -- but yet he also remains with us according to his promise.  The Catechism gives a basic explanation of how it can be possible for both our Lord to be in heaven and for him to be still here with us.  The Catechism also then goes on to tell us how all of this benefits us, telling us the purpose of the ascension. 

Our Catechism is always so 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’s the advantage? 

In the first place, you could refer to what we read from Hebrews 9.  In verse 15 of that chapter we read of how 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’s like our defender.  That’s Christ.  Jesus 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.  Without him there for us, we’re 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 if we’re placing our trust in Jesus.  He is our advocate in heaven.  Believe and trust in him and then there’s no fear, then there’s peace and comfort.  That's the first benefit of which our Catechism speaks.

A 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 Christ, so we too will experience the same.  We’re guaranteed a place in heaven, 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 human flesh is already in heaven!  That 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 so 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’re rich in him.  And so, for the ascension of our Lord Jesus we can truly say, “Praise God!” AMEN.

PRAYER

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,

 




* 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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