Christ's Triumphant Ascension
“And he led them out as far as to Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.
“And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.
“And they worshipped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
There was one thing that the Master began on Earth that He never finished. He began to pronounce a benediction, and before that benediction was completed He was carried up into Heaven. The first thing He might do when He returns would be complete that unfinished blessing. “Unto them that look for him he shall appear the second time, apart from sin unto salvation.” That carries us back to the great day of Atonement in Leviticus, chapter sixteen, when the high priest went within the veil and the congregation was outside waiting his return. After his work in the Most Holy Place was complete he came out once more to thrust aside those hanging curtains and dismiss the congregation with his high priestly benediction,
“The Lord bless thee, and keep thee;
“The Lord make his face shine upon thee, and be gracious unto thee;
“The Lord lift up his countenance upon thee, and give thee peace.”
So we are waiting, like that expectant congregation, before the hanging curtain of that High Priest. Awaiting the rest of this unfinished benediction.
Have you ever noticed the last word in the Old Testament, and compared it with the last thing in the New Testament? The Old Testament closes with a malediction. Four hundred years intervened before the close of the Old and the opening of the New Testament. How fearful it would have been to have lived under that suspended malediction. “Lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.”
But for two thousand years in the Gospel age we have been living under a gracious benediction. Oh, how much better is the new than the old. “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”
No longer under law. As many as are under the law are under the curse, but now under grace, for the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared.
So we are, this morning, under the benediction of Heaven and the word of sovereign grace. Sound it forth to a lost and dying world. “While he blessed them he was parted from them and carried up to heaven.”
Christ Carried Into Heaven
The Ascension of our blessed Lord is one of the most remarkable events that has ever happened, and yet it is mentioned in the most natural manner, if we may use such a word to describe an event that was distinctly supernatural. It took horses and chariots of fire to drag Elijah from Earth to Heaven, but our Saviour went up so naturally, so easily, so gradually, it seemed the natural thing to do. He was talking to His disciples, when perhaps John called Peter’s attention to the fact that the Master’s feet were not resting upon earth. Sure enough, there was a little space between the earth and the soles of His feet, and while He kept on talking that space was increased, and by and by His body was suspended in the air, still rising higher. Then He began to bless them. His body kept receding into space. It got smaller as it got farther away, and at last it seemed no more than the form of a child. Then it receded into the blue until it became nothing but a tiny speck in the clouds. Then a rolling bank of clouds swept by and veiled Him from their sight, and they saw Him no more.
He had taken His final leave of them and of the Earth. He was parted from them and carried up into Heaven, and they worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great sorrow, and were continually in the Temple lamenting, wringing their hands and bewailing their unhappy lot. Is that the Word of God? How do you know unless you have the Word of God in your hand? Every man, woman and child in this congregation ought to come to Divine Worship with the Bible in their hand, and keep it open throughout the service to check up the preacher and see that he keeps to his text.
How do you know the Bible does not read like that unless you have it in black and white before your eyes?
When Jesus told them He was going, how sorrow filled their hearts. What would become of them? Sheep without a shepherd, in this cold and hostile world, when their head should be taken, when their Master, their protector, their defender, their teacher would be gone. They could not comprehend the possibility of losing Him. “Because I have told you these things sorrow has filled your heart. A little while and ye shall not see me. I am going back to my Father.”
Is it any wonder that they were brokenhearted, and now He has gone and left them all alone. They worshipped Him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy and were continually in the Temple praying and praising God.
He Sends the Comforter
Have you ever heard of a funeral procession returning from the cemetery, shouting, “Hallelujah!” and singing the Doxology? Here is something like that. The Master had left them and gone to Heaven, and they went back to the Temple shouting “Hallelujah!” and singing, “Praise God from Whom all blessings flow.”
How can that be explained? What turned their sorrow into joy? What reconciled them to the prospect of His absence? Something had happened meanwhile. Now they understand the Plan, the Program, and the Purpose.
Now the future unrolled before them and they knew what the Master said when He told them, “It is expedient for you that I go away. If I go not away the Comforter will not come. But if I depart I will send him unto you.” The Comforter was coming. The Holy Spirit was on the way. The vicar of Christ to take His place, to do His work, to be everything to the disciples that the Master had been, and vastly more beside. When He left them, he left behind Him not only the promise of the Father, but the promise of His return. “I will come again.” When they watched His form receding among the clouds, suddenly two men in shining robes stood beside them and said: “This same Jesus taken from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go.” What did that mean? It means that as He went into the cloud He is coming back in the clouds. As He went publicly, visibly, literally, He is coming back in the same way to consummate the great divine purpose of human redemption.
He Led Captivity Captive
Now we are coming to our text of the morning. Ephesians 4:8, “Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.” When did He lead captivity? When He cradled His infant head on the bosom of His virgin mother? When He sat at the feast of the Passover in the Temple at the age of twelve years? When he bowed in submission in baptism in the swift flowing Jordan? When He walked and talked in Galilee and Jerusalem? When He fed the famishing multitudes on the mountain and beside the sea? When He was in dark Gethsemane? When He hung upon the tree? When He arose victor over death? No! When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men.
So let us consider briefly the mystery, the majesty and the meaning of the Ascension of the Son of God. There are three great laws of the spiritual world, that counteract three great laws of the natural world. Regeneration overcomes degeneration. Levitation conquers gravitation. Life is the antidote of death.
“For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death.”
The Ascension of the Son of God may therefore be a testimony to the original destiny of the human race. Is it not possible that God intended Adam to continue in Paradise for a full millennium of fellowship with Him, and then to be translated into Heaven for a blessed eternity?
The first man is of the Earth earthy, and one passes from the natural to the spiritual, through the operation of the Holy Spirit. But the advent of sin spoiled that program. Now man goes down into the grave. The wages of sin is death. It is appointed unto man once to die, but in every age there has been a testimony to that original destiny of humanity.
In the antediluvian age Enoch was translated, that he should not see death. In the patriarchal age Elijah went home in the chariot of fire. In the Messianic age Jesus ascended bodily into Heaven, and in the Church age, “We shall not all sleep.”
Is it written, “It is appointed unto man once to die?” Some will be excused from keeping that appointment. For, “In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trump; for the trumpet shall sound, and the dead shall be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed.” We shall be caught up in the clouds to meet the descending Lord in glory. So shall we ever be with the Lord. Not the grave, but the sky is the goal of the believer in the present age.
A Sacrificial Death
So the Saviour’s ascension is the completion of that stupendous miracle of His resurrection from the dead.
Why did He not ascend into Heaven from the Mount of Transfiguration? It would have seemed most fitting if He had. That was the climax of His earthly ministry. But had He gone to Heaven at that time He would have gone alone. More than that, had He gone to Heaven at that time, assuming that anybody had ever been admitted to Heaven, from Abel down everybody would have been turned out and Heaven would have been depopulated through all eternity.
He chose not to go that way, but to come down from that mountain top that He might pass through the gates of a sacrificial death, that when He did go to His Father He might take with Him the multitude of the redeemed. So He died for our sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God.
May we consider the possible difficulty of that Ascension. Satan, the great adversary, is the prince of the power of the air. “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against rulers of the darkness of this world, against wickedness in high places.”
The kingdom of Satan is organized. His infernal forces are mobilized in those heavenly places through which the Son of God would have to pass ere He could reach the third heaven and the throne of the living God. Do you suppose Satan would let Him through without protest and without contest? Read the tenth chapter of the book of Daniel, and you will find it took a mighty angel three weeks to fight his way down from the throne of God to the side of Daniel with an answer to the prophet’s prayer. Might it not have taken our Lord ten days at least to go from the brow of Olivet to his Father’s throne? Did He need the help of those twelve legion of angels, that He refused to summon to His help in Gethsemane?
We cannot follow Him beyond the clouds, but who knows what transpired when He passed from human vision, and went through the heavenly places into the third heaven. Why was there ten days of waiting before the Spirit of God came down? See the three mighty men of David hewing their way through the Philistine camp. See their flashing swords marking the trail by dead and dying foes.
Is there not some analogy when He ascended up on high? He spoiled principalities and power. He led captivity captive. He went through the encampment of the enemy from beginning to the end.
The twenty-fourth Psalm might have been sung, as one shining troop of angels on the battlements said:
“And the King of Glory shall come in.”
And another troop would join in reply from the other side:
“Who is this King of Glory?”
And in one great Hallelujah chorus, rolling under the arches of the golden city, came the words:
“Jehovah, the Almighty and the Everlasting God. Jesus of Nazareth, mighty in battle. He is the King of Glory.”
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
When He ascended up on high He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men. The Master always gives His choicest gifts to those nearest to Him, and His poorer and meaner gifts to those farthest away. He gave His purse to Judas. He gave His garment to the Roman soldiers. He gave His mother to His beloved disciple, but He gave His Spirit, and He gave Himself to His Church.
The crowning gift that God ever gave is the gift of the Holy Spirit. Just as the departing Elijah cast his mantle upon Elisha, so when our blessed Saviour reached the right hand of the Majesty on high. He took the mantle from off His shoulder and cast it back down upon this Earth, and it fell upon a little company of 120 disciples in the upper room on the day of Pentecost, and that is the gift of the third person of the Trinity, the fulfillment of the promise of the Father. In other words, the gift of the Holy Spirit.
“If ye then being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more shall your Heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit unto them that ask Him.”
Oh, that this sanctuary might become a great oratory just now. That every person in this company might ask the Heavenly Father to give, just now, the Holy Spirit unto them that ask Him. Have you ever asked Him? John the Baptist, said that Jesus, the Son of God, should baptize all who came to Him, with the Holy Ghost and fire. He sits in Heaven today to exercise that divine function. How many who are here today would have that divine unction?
Let us close our eyes and bow our heads and lift our hearts just now in earnest expectancy and prayer, that the enthroned and glorified Redeemer may just now give us the rich, the glorious fullness of the gift of the Holy Spirit.
—Sermon delivered at The Moody Church by Frederic W. Farr, D.D., Los Angeles, CA.