March 7, 2004
Nearly two thousand years have passed since Christ’s ascension. Does it still matter in the contemporary believer’s life? Alistair Begg comforts us with the conviction that because of the ascension, Jesus is not absent but all the more present and is presently pleading our case to His Father. We can therefore have a deep assurance, knowing that He will ensure that what He died for—the redemption of His own and their ultimate glory in His presence—has been completed.
Sermon Transcript: Print
I invite you to turn in your Bibles to Ephesians and to chapter 1, and we’ll read from verse 15 to the end of the chapter.
“For this reason, ever since I heard about your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love for all the saints, I have not stopped giving thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers. I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come. And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Father, we pray that as we meditate upon the truth of Christ’s ascension and as we prepare to gather around the table of Communion, that you will help us, that you will free our minds from every distracting influence and thought, and that you will come and meet with us in the way that you have promised to do. This is our great need and our humble expectation. In Jesus’ name. Amen.
Those of you who were present this morning know that we brought to a conclusion the studies that we’ve been doing for a considerable time in the Gospel of Luke. And we found ourselves in the final four verses, and we looked in a very cursory way at the whole question of the ascension. We said that it was perhaps the least considered aspect of the work of Christ, and lest we ourselves fall foul of that lack of consideration, I felt it almost incumbent upon me to turn to it on this further occasion, at least this evening, so as perhaps to instill within some of us an interest in this aspect of the work of Christ that will forge within us a desire for further study and perhaps the opportunity to learn more of all that this means. There is a wonderful book incidentally, written by Derek Prime, published by Day One Publications, entitled [Ascension: The Shout of a King], and I commend it to any and all of you who would be interested in pursuing further study in this area.
Suffice it to say that this evening, I want to consider with you just one or two aspects of the ascension as it relates to its significance for the believer in the living of the Christian life. And I have a whole host of Scripture references, and I don’t anticipate that you are going to turn them all up; you won’t be fast enough to do so. But if you care to take notes, then I will give you the references, and you can respond to them in your own time. Otherwise, of course, you could always get the tape and make use of it in the privacy of your own car or your own home.
Let me, then, just reiterate what we said this morning: first of all, that the ascension was a display of God’s mighty power. It was as much a display of God’s mighty power as was the resurrection. And we see that here in the verses that we’ve just read in Ephesians 1. We also said this morning that the ascension completed the work of Christ, proving the full acceptance by God the Father of Christ’s single sacrifice for sin. That really is the story of the book of Hebrews; it is articulated succinctly in Hebrews 10:12. We also noted that the ascension marked the return of the Lord Jesus to the Father—that for Jesus, to ascend was to return to heaven, to the glory that he had left. In John 16:5, Jesus says to those gathered with him, “Now I am going to him who sent me,” and in the ascension it was a return to the glory of all that Christ had known in eternity with the Father and with the Spirit.
What we didn’t say this morning is this: that the ascension and the consequent outpouring of the Holy Spirit made possible the numerous gifts which Christ then gave to the church. And all of the spiritual gifts which are necessary for the exercise of ministry, for the living of the Christian life, for the bearing testimony to those who do not believe, for the edification of the body, for the building up of one another—all of those gifts are gifts that come to us from the throne of the ascended Christ. And Paul, in writing to the Ephesians—if you’re opened in Ephesians, you’ll be able to turn over a page to Ephesians 4, and you will see there that “to each one of us,” verse 7, “grace has been given as Christ apportioned it.” And then he says, “This is why it says: ‘When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.’”
And as you follow down through that paragraph, Paul lists some of the gifts that he has given to his church.
What we did say this morning was this: that the ascension made possible the preparing of a place for Christians. We are familiar with that statement by Jesus: “I go to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you [to] myself; that where I am, there [you] may be also.” That, of course, is John chapter 14.
Incidentally, as an aside, I was gratified in walking out of the church building this morning to be confronted by a young couple who came and said, “What was the memory verse that you gave us five or six weeks ago? Because we’ve forgotten where that is.” That was a dreadful moment for me, I can assure you. And clutching out of the air, I said, “I think that was probably 1 Peter 3:18,” then desperately hoping that 1 Peter 3:18 said, “For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous,” and all three of us were greatly relieved to find that that was the case. So when I say, “As you know, John 14,” many of you do not know, but you will be well served by knowing and memorizing some of these passages. The same truth is made clear in Hebrews 6:20, where, in a different way, the writer says, “Jesus, who went before us, has entered” the inner sanctuary “on our behalf.”
Now, all of this is wrapped up in this aspect of the ascension. And it leads us to ask a very basic question: “What, then, is Jesus doing?” For surely he’s not doing nothing. So what does the ascended Christ do in his position as the Father’s right-hand man? Well, he does a tremendous amount. His job description, if you like, is vast. It’s a longer list than I could go through in the time that we have. But let me give you one or two key aspects of Christ’s present ministry.
First, he is governing the universe. Well, that would be enough in itself, wouldn’t it? He is governing the universe. Hebrews 1:3 and Ephesians 1:5–14.
Not only is he governing the universe, but he is ruling his church. It is the Lord Jesus who is the head of the church, and we read that here in Ephesians chapter 1: he has been “raised … from the dead,” he’s “seated … at [the] right hand,” he’s “far above all rule and authority” and “power and dominion, and every title that can be given …. And God [has] placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.”
And thirdly, he’s helping the members of the church that he rules. Helping the members of the church that he rules. You find this emphasis all the way through the book of Hebrews. In fact, Hebrews is probably the best sourcebook in relationship to the present work of Christ in his ascended role. Hebrews 2:18 reads as follows: “Because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.” And the same truth is applied again in a familiar verse: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are.”
In other words, tonight, as we sit in this building, surrounded perhaps by acquaintances but not necessarily by friends, feeling in our own hearts perhaps a sense of aloneness, perhaps distance from those about whom we care the most, perhaps returning to a home alone to eat alone before bed and to arise to a lonely breakfast, it is of tremendous encouragement to be reminded that “there’s not a friend like the lowly Jesus. No, not one! No, not one!” And it often takes the times of deep heartache and the plunging into despair or the difficulties of life to remind us of just what an important and wonderful thing this is, that part of the ministry of Christ tonight in his ascended role is to help the members of his church. He is our ultimate help; he is our ultimate guide. Any help that we may be to one another finds its only sufficiency inasmuch as we’re able to point people to the ultimate help that is theirs in Christ. And some of you feel the need of that help more than others.
In my reading—and I like to read different books that have poems in them—and here I found this poem called “Black Hole, A Prayer for Those Going through Dark Places,” written by a lady, interestingly, called Shirley Vickers—not our own Shirley Vickers but another one of the same name. She wrote a collection of poems before she died in 1996. She was undergoing radio- and chemotherapy treatment for cancer when she wrote as follows:
I’m right back in that limbo world again.
Can’t feel you close to me.
Can’t feel anything.
It seemed as if things were fine—
Walking in the light.
Then suddenly panic: it’s all dark:
Worries—no more than there were before—
And yet they are now so heavy.
Sucking me down—
And I’m listening to the enemy
Who is condemning me to death
With his sly lies.
Doctors tell us that feeling “low”
Is just like any other illness—
Brought on by stress, hormones, exhaustion,
Then why do I feel so guilty about it?
So powerless to drag myself out?
Where is my knowledge of you being there—
Right beside me—
Part of me?
While my feelings scream
That because I’m like this
I have failed you,
Therefore I am less than nothing—
Please give me the disciplined mind,
To refuse to entertain these trespassing thoughts—
Which have no right to be there
Because I am your child—
To wait quietly in faith,
Until my receiving equipment is repaired
And switched on again
And I can feel you
Filling me with your big heart,
And re-mobilizing me,
[Just] where you[’ve] been all the time.
Now, in what confidence can Shirley write such a poem without an ascended Christ, who is not only governing the universe and ruling his church, but he is there to help its members?
Fourthly, finally, he’s pleading our case. He’s pleading our case. Who is “our”? The “us”—“for us”—the “for us,” the “us” of “us,” is the believer in the Lord Jesus Christ. “If God be for us…” Who are the “us”? Those whom he has included in the vast company of his own, those who in repentance and faith have been added to that vast gathering that will be around the throne of heaven one day. “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Well, plenty of people can be against us. And plenty of things can be against us. And the devil is against us, and he is the accuser of the brethren. And sometimes our friends let us down and accuse us. Our own hearts accuse us. We’ve done enough in a week that is gone to accuse ourselves and know how realistic the accusation is. So what do we do? Where do we look?
Well, we look up. Because we have an advocate with the Father—1 John 2:1. Because—Hebrews 9:24—he is now “appear[ing] for us in God’s presence.” He is “interceding for us,” which simply means that he is intervening in our interest. He’s doing so in a way that guarantees our welfare by ensuring that what he died to secure for us actually becomes ours. That’s what it means for him to intercede on our behalf. He speaks to the Father on our behalf, and he says, “Father, I died for her. Father, I live for her. Father, I have ascended to the throne for her. Father, I kept the law in all of its obedience for her.” He pleads our case. I hope that’s an encouragement to you; it definitely is to me.
When we drag ourselves before his throne, embarrassed and bedraggled and feeling weak and inadequate, we discover it to be a throne of grace, don’t we? We discover it to be a throne of grace—a throne at which he doesn’t give us what we deserve and instead gives us what we don’t deserve.
What does it mean for Christ to be ascended? What is he doing? He’s governing the universe. He’s ruling the church. He’s helping its members. He’s pleading our case.
Well then, is it possible to summarize the effect that the ascension ought to have upon the believer’s life? Well, let me try by suggesting just two things.
That this truth of the ascension should be for us then a cause of deep-seated assurance. A cause of deep-seated assurance. The ascension doesn’t mean that Jesus is absent. It actually means that Jesus is present. He’s absent physically, present at the right hand of the Father on high, but he is with us. He is with us. And in some realistic way, “he walks with me, and he talks with me, and he tells me [that] I am his own.” And we have every legitimate right to expect that it should be so; and every reason to speak out loud in the car when we drive, when no one else is there, and celebrate his presence with us; and in the night watches, when we awake and are overwhelmed with anxiety, to say at least, if not out loud, “Lord Jesus Christ, ascended King, I thank you that you are here in this room with me and that the things that burden me and overwhelm me are your deep concern. Because you live on high to help me; I am a member of your church, Jesus.” It is a cause for deep-seated assurance—the assurance of his presence with us.
The assurance of his power in us. “It’s no longer I who live,” says Paul, “but Christ who lives in me”—that his ascension ushers in the coming of the Holy Spirit, so that we’re not left alone and that we know his power within our lives. May we know it more and more.
And also, a cause for deep-seated assurance concerning his purpose for us. He has a plan and a purpose for each of his children’s lives. Let’s make sure that we’re not closing him out of the door. Because he does come to knock at the door of the church, doesn’t he? Revelation 3:20: “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. And if anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and sup with him, and he with me. We’ll have a meal together. We’ll talk together. I’ll assure you of my presence, I’ll fill you with my power, and I will make known to you my purpose.”
It is not only a cause for deep-seated assurance, but it is also a call to wholehearted action. A call to wholehearted action. In the verses that we considered this morning, it’s quite striking that you do not find, in response to the ascension, that the disciples are rooted to the spot. You do not discover that anyone is suggesting—as they did on the Mount of Transfiguration, interestingly enough—no one is here suggesting the building of any booths. No bright spark says, “This would be a fabulous place for a monument, you know.” No. “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany,” and “lifted up his hands and blessed them,” and “while he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven,” and “then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” Their thoughts returned from Jesus gone to heaven immediately to the responsibilities and the challenges of earth. They have received their standing orders from the risen Lord. Watch them as they go, running down the road and back to Jerusalem, waiting for this enduement of power, and ready to fulfill God’s purpose, ready to plunge themselves into the stormy, murky waters of a world without God.
And that’s really what a Sunday night’s about: saying to one another, “Come on, we’re going to have to plunge headlong again into the stormy, murky waters of a world without God.” The church is not an aquarium. There’s a lot of fishy things go on, but it’s still not an aquarium.
Well, I hope you will ask, as I am asking, God to teach me a little more of what it means that Jesus is my ascended Lord and King, and as he does, that he might grant to us this deep-seated assurance and that he might extend to us this call to wholehearted action.
Father, thank you for the Bible. Thank you tonight for the reality of Christ’s ascension. Teach us what it means, Lord, and help us then to live in light of the truth we discover. We want to bring our lives to you, our gifts to you. And we do so now in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 John 14:2–3 (KJV).
 Ephesians 1:20–22 (NIV 1984).
 Hebrews 4:15 (NIV 1984).
 Johnson Oatman Jr., “No, Not One!” (1895).
 Romans 8:31 (KJV).
 See Revelation 7:9.
 Romans 8:34 (NIV 1984).
 C. Austin Miles, “In the Garden” (1913).
 Galatians 2:20 (paraphrased).
 Revelations 3:20 (paraphrased).
 Luke 24:50–52 (NIV 1984).
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.