A Friend in High Places: “He Ascended into Heaven and Sits at the Right Hand of God the Father Almighty”
April 25, 2004
This is one of the most remarkable statements in the Apostles’ Creed and it is also one of the most neglected areas of Christian doctrine. Even though we (along with all Christians) believe in the ascension of Christ, we tend not to think about it very much, at least when compared to the death and resurrection of our Lord. Although we would never say it this way, perhaps it doesn’t seem quite as important to us. We know that Jesus died for our sins and rose from the dead for our salvation, and we know that we couldn’t be saved without Good Friday or Easter Sunday. Where does the Ascension fit in? To many people it seems like a P.S. to the main message of the gospel—perhaps a convenient way for Christ to go back to heaven. But does it really matter today? And is it essential to our Christian faith?
We face certain difficulties when we consider the ascension of our Lord. The event itself is only briefly mentioned in Mark, Luke and Acts. By contrast both the crucifixion and the resurrection are described by all four gospel writers in detail. And because the event itself is so unusual, it is difficult for us to visualize exactly what happened. Yet it is rare to find someone who doubts the ascension of Christ. Vigorous apologetic debates have raged around the resurrection, but the ascension is not a topic of much discussion. Perhaps most people don’t think about it enough either to doubt it or to debate it.
But a quick glance at church history tells us that there is more here than meets the eye. For one thing, every major Christian creed includes the ascension of Christ. You find it in the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Athanasian Creed. The liturgical calendar always includes Ascension Day—always on a Thursday—always 40 days after Easter. This year Ascension Day falls on May 20. And both the event and doctrine behind it are highly biblical. This isn’t the first sermon I have preached on the ascension. But as I prepared this week, I came to a fresh appreciation of how many times the New Testament writers mention the ascension and its consequences. Here are just a few verses to consider:
· Luke 24:50-52 “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.”
· Acts 1:9 “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.”
· John 3:13 “No one has ever gone into heaven except the one who came from heaven—the Son of Man.”
· John 16:10 “I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer.”
· John 16:28 “I came from the Father and entered the world; now I am leaving the world and going back to the Father.”
· Ephesians 4:10 “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”
· I Timothy 3:16 “He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory.”
· Hebrews 4:14 “We have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God.”
· Hebrews 7:24-26″Because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them. Such a high priest meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens.”
· I Peter 3:21-22 “Jesus Christ has gone into heaven and is at God’s right hand—with angels, authorities and powers in submission to him.”
There are many other verses that speak of Christ’s exaltation at the Father’s right hand in heaven, and what this truth means for believers. I find it striking that the Creed gives as much space to the ascension as it does to the cross and to the resurrection. Perhaps we would have done it some other way, but the earliest Christians believed that the ascension stood on an equal basis with the events of Good Friday and Easter. The truth of Christ’s ascension answers three important questions:
What happened to Jesus?
Where did he go?
What is he doing now?
Here are three statements that answer those three questions.
I. He Ascended into Heaven
We can state what we know about the event itself in very simple terms. While Jesus is speaking to his disciples in Bethany (several miles east of Jerusalem), he blesses them, and is taken up into heaven before their eyes. They were there, they saw it, it really happened. It was not a figment of their imagination or a dream or vision. Unlike the resurrection, which no one saw as it was happening, the disciples actually saw Jesus ascend into heaven. Both Luke and Acts say that Jesus was “taken up” into heaven. The verb has the idea of being lifted straight up into the air. They saw him rise, then they saw him disappear into a cloud, then they didn’t see him at all. Note that he ascended bodily—not as a spirit, but in his glorified body. The same body that was crucified, and the same body that was raised incorruptible, in that body our Lord ascended into heaven.
What are we to make of this? When Jesus spoke to his disciples in the Upper Room, he emphasized that he was returning to his Father in heaven. John 16:28 says he left his Father to come to the earth, and now he leaves the earth to return to his Father. We can summarize the life of our Lord this way:
In Heaven once again.
By means of the ascension, Jesus’ triumphant return to heaven signaled that the days of his suffering were over at last. No more crown of thorns. No more vicious insults. No more beatings. No more cruel scourging. No more crowds screaming for his blood. No more betrayal. No more mocking. No one now spits in his face. Never again will nails be driven through his hands and his feet. Never again will a spear be thrust into his side. Never again will he cry out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Never again will his mother weep as he dies. Never again will his dead body be taken down from a cross. Never again will he be prepared for burial. Never again will he spend the night in the tomb. Jesus has done all the “Tomb Time” he’s going to do. Death and the grave are behind him forever. Put away the whip, the hammer, the nails, and fold up the linen cloth. You won’t need it anymore. He who suffered more than any man will suffer no more forever.
The “Unlimited” Christ
But there is more to consider. Because Jesus has returned to heaven, he is now liberated from all time and space limitations. Have you ever wished you could spend some time with Jesus face to face? There have been moments in my life when I have thought to myself, “If only I could see him, and talk to him, if only I could see Jesus in person, if only I could hear his voice and know that it was my Lord, what a difference that would make to me.” In those moments I feel that if I could see him, I would be strong in the face of trouble. If only I could see him, I would be brave in the face of danger. If only I could see him, my struggles would vanish. If I could only have a few minutes of his time, what a difference it would make. And I even think to myself, “I wouldn’t need to see him very long. Thirty minutes would take care of me for the next 50 years.” How good it would be if I could see my Lord and hear him speak to me. I suppose all of us have had thoughts like that from time to time. Life can be so hard, and the journey so difficult, and the struggles sometimes seem overwhelming. It would be wonderful to see him. It’s not wrong to feel that way—after all, one day we will see him face to face. There is a longing in every redeemed heart to see Jesus up close and personal. And then I consider that Jesus said, “It is better for you that I go away.” How can that be? Why couldn’t he have stayed with us? The answer goes like this. As long as Jesus stayed on earth, he was bound by the limitations of time and space. As a man, he could only be in one place at one time. If he was in Oak Park, he couldn’t be in Cicero. If he was in Cicero, he couldn’t be in Harvey. If he was Harvey, he couldn’t be in Winnetka. And if he was in Tokyo, he couldn’t be in Johannesburg. Now that he has gone back to heaven, his words have literally come true. By sending us the Holy Spirit, he is now with us all the time. “Surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). How good to know that our Lord will never leave us. When we stumble, he is there. When we fall, he is there. When we feel his presence, he is there. When we think he has left us, he is there. When we doubt him, he is there. When we forget him, he is there. When we give in to temptation, he is there. Just when we need him most, Jesus is always there. But that can only be true because he ascended to heaven.
II. He Sits at the Father’s Right Hand
The New Testament uses three words to describe Jesus, status in heaven:
He is exalted.
He is glorified.
He is enthroned.
In the ancient world, when a king wished to honor someone, he offered them a seat at his right hand. That seat was the highest seat, the greatest honor, and the supreme glory the king could confer on anyone. What does it mean to say that our Lord is now seated at the Father’s right hand? First, it means he has a permanent place in heaven. When he returned in triumph, he was given a permanent place next to the Father’s throne. Our Lord didn’t have to search for a seat in heaven. When he arrived, there was a seat with his name on it (so to speak). That seat at the Father’s right hand is his forever.
Second, it means that his work of redemption is now complete. While he was on the earth, he spoke often of “the work” of the Father (John 4:34; 9:4; 17:4). His work came to a climax when he hung on the cross, bearing the sins of the world. The Bible says that when he died, he became sin for us (II Corinthians 5:21). When he died, God poured out his wrath on Jesus even though Jesus was perfect and pure and wholly innocent. But as the sinless substitute, he took the punishment I should have received so that I might go free. Just before he died, Christ shouted out, “It is finished” (John 19:30), which literally means “paid in full.” The work was done; the debt was paid. I can never be charged with the guilt of my sins because Jesus paid it all. The ascension signifies that the Father has accepted the work of his Son. Since God has accepted Christ, nothing more can be added to what he did when he died on the cross and rose from the dead. Hebrews 10:11 reminds us that there were no chairs in the tabernacle because the priests were not allowed to sit down. They stood to perform their work because their work was never done. Every day the priest would kill another animal—signifying that the price of sin had not yet been paid. But when Christ returned to heaven, he sat down because he had offered himself as the one sacrifice for sin forever. Thank God, Jesus is seated in heaven.
Third, it means he is now in the place of supreme and highest honor in the universe. God has exalted him and given him a name that is above every name (Philippians 2:9-11). At the name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue will one day confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father. Consider what this means:
The victim has become the victor.
The crown of thorns has been replaced by the crown of eternal glory.
The spear has been replaced with the scepter of regal authority.
By seating his Son at his right hand, the Father is saying to the world, “My Son has been completely vindicated.” Now at last Jesus receives what he truly deserves.
He did not deserve to be mistreated.
He did not deserve to be mocked and humiliated.
He did not deserve to be betrayed.
He did not deserve to be beaten and savagely scourged.
He did not deserve the hammer and the nails.
He did not deserve a criminal’s death.
He did not deserve to be buried in a borrowed tomb.
But now at last, our Lord receives what he deserves—glory, laud and honor. Philippians 2:5-7 tells us that Christ “emptied himself” of the outward trappings of deity in order to take on the form of a man. He humbled himself by leaving the palaces of heaven to be born in a stable in Bethlehem. He veiled his glory and lived a life of humiliation. All of us feel it was unfair for the King of Kings to be treated so rudely by those he came to save. Do you recall that as he hung on the cross, onlookers jeered as his life ebbed away? They laughed at his pain and cried, “If you are the Son of God, save yourself” (Mark 15:29-30). The ascension means that Jesus has been vindicated in all that he came to do and his days of humiliation are over forever. In 1871 Frances Ridley Havergal wrote an ascension hymn called “Golden Harps are Sounding” that captures this truth:
Golden harps are sounding, angels voices sing,
Pearly gates are opened, opened for the King;
Jesus, King of glory, Jesus, King of love,
Is gone up in triumph, to His throne above.
He Who came to save us, He Who bled and died,
Now is crowned with glory at His Father’s side.
From the grave arisen, nevermore to die;
Jesus, King of glory, is gone up on high.
Pleading for His children in that blessed place,
Calling them to glory, sending them His grace;
His bright home preparing, faithful ones, for you;
Jesus ever liveth, ever loveth, too.
All His suffering ended, joyfully we sing,
Jesus hath ascended! Glory to our King!
III. He Intercedes for the Saints
This is where the truth of Christ’s ascension touches everyday life. First, because he lived on the earth and endured deep suffering, he knows what we are going through. This week a friend told me, “I have learned I can trust Jesus even though he knows all about me.” Think about that for a moment. He knows you through and through. He knows where you were last night, what you did, and what you thought about doing. He knows all about every dumb thing you’ve said and done (and thought) in the last week—and he still loves you. That’s good news for imperfect people who stumble and struggle our way through life.
Second, because he is now in heaven, he intercedes for us with the Father. The word “intercede” means to speak up on behalf of someone else. Christ is now in heaven praying for us. What a marvelous thought this is—and what a balm for troubled souls. When I am down in the dumps, Jesus prays for me. When I falter under the load, Jesus prays for me. When my faith gives way, Jesus prays for me. When I fight a losing battle against temptation, Jesus prays for me. There’s even more than that. Often when I am asked to pray for someone, I can’t seem to find the appropriate words and I feel as if my prayers are in vain. But Jesus in heaven comes alongside, takes my pitiful prayers and transforms them into powerful petitions before the throne of God. When I can’t pray, when the words won’t come, Jesus prays for me. Hebrews 7:24-25 adds the encouraging thought that because Jesus lives forever, he intercedes forever, which is why we are saved forever. In the Old Testament, the priests kept dying. The good ones died and the bad ones died. Just about the time you got used to a certain high priest, he died and another man took his place. But since Jesus lives forever, we can be certain that he never stops praying for us. And because he never stops praying for us, he saves us completely—to the very end.
Our Man in Heaven
Hebrews 4:14-16 calls Christ a great high priest who has gone into heaven. Because he walked on earth with us, he knows what we are going through and he is able to sympathize with us in our struggles. Because he is now in heaven, he can help in all our troubles. When we go to the throne of grace, we don’t have to worry about being turned away because Christ himself is there to meet us. He has grace to help in the time of need. People who live in big cities understand this principle well. We deal with so many different government bodies—local, state and federal—that it’s inevitable that sooner or later we’ll get in trouble one way or another. At that moment, only one question crosses the mind: “Who do I know who can help me out?” If you know someone at City Hall, suddenly your problems begin to vanish. Or you may know someone who knows someone, and if your friend will make a phone call, everything will be OK. In order to survive in today’s world, you need some friends in high places—a man on the inside, someone who knows you and is willing to help you out. Just try doing business in Chicago without a few friends in high places. You’ll drown in a sea of red tape.
What we need in Chicago, we already have in heaven. We’ve got a Friend in High Places—the Highest Place in the universe. We’ve got a man on the inside who can help us out with all our problems. Think of it this way. When you’re in trouble, you need two things: 1) Someone who cares about your problems, and 2) Someone who can help you out. If your friend cares but isn’t in a position to help you, you’ll get sympathy but no concrete help. If your friend could help you but doesn’t care about your problem, well, that’s like not having a friend at all. What you need is someone who cares and is in a position to make things happen for you. That’s what Jesus is—a Friend in High Places who loves to come to the aid of his people.
I John 2:2 adds the encouraging truth that Christ is our attorney in heaven. He is our advocate who speaks to the Father in our defense. When the devil comes and makes a claim against us, Jesus speaks up on our behalf and pleads his own blood in our defense. The Father looks at the Son, sees his pierced hands, and says, “Case dismissed.” Let me tell you the best part of this truth: He’s never lost a case yet. No matter how much money you pay an earthly lawyer, you can never be certain of the outcome of your case. So many things can happen in the courtroom that you can’t control. Even the best lawyers lose now and then. But because Jesus has been exalted to the right hand of God the Father, he’s in the place of highest authority in the universe. He never has to appeal a decision to the Supreme Court. He is the Supreme Court—and he’s there for you and me all the time. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression “24-7″—it means 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. That’s what Jesus is. He’s our 24-7 advocate in heaven. Acts 7 shows us how this works. When Stephen preached his bold sermon before the Jewish Sanhedrin (the Supreme Court of Israel), he recited the history of the nation, showing how the Jews had consistently rejected God’s messengers. He told them they had murdered God’s Righteous Son (v. 52)! The rulers didn’t like that kind of talk so they gnashed their teeth at him. But Stephen cried out, “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56). What does it mean? On earth Stephen stands before a corrupt human court, but in heaven there is another judge. There will be another trial, but this time the judge will also be the attorney for the defense. In Roman courtrooms, the judges stood to announce the verdict. As Stephen is dying, Jesus stands to announce heaven’s verdict. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “They can kill you on earth, but I will defend you in heaven.” The world cries out, “Guilty!” but Jesus says, “You are my child. My blood covers your sins. I overturn the verdict on earth. You are welcome in heaven forever. Come and enter my Kingdom.”
Let me mention one final aspect of this truth you may not have considered. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he took his glorified humanity with him. The physical body of Christ is now in heaven, which means that someday when we are raised from the dead, we won’t be raised as spirits but as real people with our physical bodies glorified just like Jesus. He not only redeemed your soul, he also redeemed your body. If you are in Christ, you have His promise that your flesh will be renewed and gloriously raised in the resurrection. Then we all shall see him as he is, and we will be with him forever. The ascension guarantees our Christian destiny. Because he was raised, we too will be raised. Because he ascended, we too will ascend. Because he is in heaven, we will join him there someday. We will be where he is, and we know where he is because he ascended into heaven. At the moment of death the children of God can rest assured that the Christ who ascended bodily into heaven will take them to be with him—and will one day raise their bodies immortal and incorruptible (I Corinthians 15:52-53).
The Tug of Heaven
Let me close with this thought. Because of the ascension, we may rest assured that the religion of Christ is true. God has accepted him and because God accepted him, he will accept all those who trust in him. Because he is safe in heaven, we will someday be safe in heaven. We will be where he now is.
The ascension shows us how we should spend our life—looking up. The story is told of a little boy who went outside on a windy spring day to fly his new kite. As the wind blew, the kite flew higher and higher until it finally disappeared from view in the clouds far above. After a few minutes a bystander asked, “How do you know the kite is still attached to the string?” “I can feel it tugging on the string,” the boy replied. The same is true for us today. Christ is pulling us toward heaven. He is pulling us away from the earth toward our eternal home. We may not see him with our eyes but we feel his tug in our hearts. We know where he is and we know that where he is, we will someday be.
Every day Jesus tugs on our hearts, pulling us up toward heaven so that when we finally get there, we won’t feel like strangers. One day soon the Lord will give us one final tug and we’ll end up in heaven forever. Until then, let the people of God rejoice. Christ has conquered! He has won the victory and defeated every foe. This is what we mean when we say, “He ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Amen.