The Heavenly Ascension
January 24th, 1971 @ 8:15 AM
THE HEAVENLY ASCENSION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
1-24-71 8:15 a.m.
You who are listening on the radio are sharing with us the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Heavenly Ascension. In our preaching through the Book of Ephesians, we are in the fourth chapter. And in the fourth chapter beginning at verse 8, the apostle writes:
Wherefore He saith – and then he is going to quote from the sixty-eighth Psalm and the eighteenth verse – When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive, And gave gifts unto men.
(Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended first into the lower parts of the earth?
He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things.)
The ascension of our Lord above all heavens, where did He go? Where is He? Up and up and up; the heaven of the birds and the clouds that float above our heads, the heavens of the sidereal spheres and the Milky Way, the heaven of the stars that we see at night, and the stars beyond what we cannot see, and up into the heaven of God where God dwells, where the new city, the New Jerusalem is being built. "He that descended in the lower parts of the earth, even to the grave, is also He that ascended up and up and up far above all heavens." So the message, the ascension of Christ: there are five great events in the life of our Lord; His birth, His death, His resurrection, His ascension, and His coming return.
His miraculous birth, born of a virgin [Matthew 1:23]. His death, the great purpose of God through the ages; "Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sins" [Hebrews 9:22]. The two seals of the divine love and purpose, the manger and the cross, the resurrection, the firstfruits, the Morning Star of our coming glory [Matthew 28:6]. As He died, we die. As He was raised from the dead, we shall be raised. He is the harbinger, the promise, the earnest of our own resurrection.
His ascension into glory, what a magnificent presentation [Acts 1:8-10], just one part of which we shall speak of this morning; "When He ascended up on high, He carried captivity captive and gave gifts unto men" [Ephesians 4:8]. And finally, His return [Acts 1:11]. All five of those, the one points to the other, to the other, to the other. And all four of the preceding ones point to the final one, the ascension of our Lord. "Wherefore, when He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men. Now that He ascended, what is it but that He also descended? And He that descended is the same also that ascended above all heavens."
Now what the apostle is referring to is recounted in the first chapter of the Book of Acts and in the passage you read in the twenty-fourth chapter of the Book of Luke, the ascension of our Lord. On that fortieth day after He was raised from the dead, the little band of devout disciples, apostles, were walking with our Lord up the hill called Olivet. They were filled with intense, unspeakable, indescribable joy. Their Lord, risen, raised from the dead, was walking with them. And when they came to the brow of the hill they paused. And the Lord lifted up His nail-pierced hands to bless them. And while He was blessing them, He began to rise, and to rise, and to rise, and to rise up to the clouds [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-10]. And there, a chariot of light, the shekinah of God, the raiment, the garments of the Almighty, enveloped Him, and He disappeared out of their sight.
They were wonderstruck! They were awestruck! They stood transfixed, looking up, whither our Lord had gone. So many times we do things that our hearts dictate in which there is no logical explanation at all, just standing there looking. It’s hard logically to explain some things we do, such as going to the grave or the tomb to weep. Qui bono? What the benefit? Just why? It is just something that we do. And there is no logical explanation at all. It is just our hearts lead us to do it. So those disciples standing there wonder, awestruck, just transfixed.
Then the Lord sent an angel, an interrupting messenger to waken them back to their work. Not an angel with a sword or even with a rod, but an angel dressed in luminous glory, to awaken them, and to commission them, and to give them that holy and heavenly promise that He who ascended some day will descend, the same Lord Jesus [Acts 1:10-11]. Why does He go away? Why does He not stay here with us? Ah we can think of a thousand reasons why the Lord should have stayed. Why did He go away? We need Him so desperately, all of us, and the whole world. We are like those disciples in Emmaus when He was revealed to them, they constrained Him to abide [Luke 24:29]. Oh, stay. We feel that way. Lord, stay. Thy presence is worth more to us, we think, than ten thousand apostles. Lord, Thy gracious words of wisdom; we could just ask Thee, and it would be the heavenly, heavenly answer. And Your miracle-working power, Your hands of healing, and Your voice that can even raise the dead, dear Lord, how we need Thee! Thy presence would bring consternation and confusion to the enemies of Christianity. We would be like a triumphant marching army if the Lord were here to lead us, and we need Him for conversion of the world. Lord, why do You go away? Why the ascension of our Christ?
When you think upon these things, there are some things that immediately press answers upon our hearts. And I have chosen five of them: why the ascension of our Lord, why He left us, why He returned to heaven.
First: we are not to suppose in His ascension, in His departure, that the Lord has wronged us or forgotten us, that He has injured us or hurt us, that He has left us or forsaken us. No, rather, our Lord has just ascended in order that He might more gloriously help us, succor us, encourage us, lead us, and direct our warfare against our spiritual foes.
The despisers say, they are the ones who say, "Look, your cause is lost. Christianity has spun out. Your leader is gone, no longer His miracle-working hands. The faith is done for." Not so. Our Lord but has changed His place of commanding leadership. He has gone up to the hills. He has ascended up to the throne. There, in a more strategic place, to direct the spiritual forces and graces and gifts that He has bestowed upon us who love His name. He has not quit the battle. He has not surrendered, nor is His ultimate victory questionable, but He is just there in another place where He can survey the whole line of conflict. And against another day when He marshals the whole host of heaven, when He mounts that white horse of the Apocalypse, He will come again [Revelation 19:11]. It may be in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, with victory, with the great consummation of the age in His hands. He hasn’t forsaken us. He still leads and directs our assault against our spiritual enemies.
Second: our Lord has ascended up in the heaven in order that we might lift up our hearts, and our faces, and our hopes, and our dreams, and our visions to the glory world that is yet to come. Paul wrote to the Philippian church, "For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" [Philippians 3:20]. Our citizenship is not here. It is in heaven. The apostle wrote to the little church at Colosse, "Set your affection upon things above, not upon the things of the earth" [Colossians 3:2]. The ascension of our Lord, like those disciples on Mount Olivet, lifts up our faces and our hearts and our hopes heavenward, up there, up there. Our Lord, our Head, has gone to the glory land, and our life is hid with Christ in God, and our life is there also [Colossians 3:3]. Our treasure is there. Our inheritance is there.
Sometimes at a funeral service I think thoughts like this, "Oh dear, what if it had been the other way around? What if the Lord were here? And what if the Lord stayed here? And then we were forced in death to go there?" Oh, what a tragedy! What an unspeakable horrifying thought! Our Lord is here. Our Savior is here. And all of our friends, one by one, go there. And the circle of our family, all of them, go there.
If you live long enough, you will be a stranger in this earth. Everybody you know is gone, every friend you have ever known. Every member of your family gone. And what a terrible thing if the Lord were here and all of our friends and all of our family were there. And finally, we were forced to go there and our Lord were here. The Lord knows, and in His wisdom, He has planned what is best for us. He is there. Our inheritance is there. Our family is there. Our friends are there. Everything ultimately and finally that we hold dear will be there. And the ascension of our Lord raises our hearts to that heavenly promise, that glorious hope, that celestial and heavenly land. He ascended, and with Him every hope we have for heaven.
Third, why the ascension of our Lord: in order for God to teach us to walk by faith and not by sight. If our Lord were here in this earth, there would be a perpetual embargo and moratorium on faith. The whole earth would be fighting and scrambling and scrounging and elbowing and pushing in order to get to the Lord wherever He was. There would be no such thing as looking at, enduring, and seeing the invisible. We would be striving to reach the material and the present and the physical.
One of the purposes of God is to build in our hearts a tremendous faith, "And faith is the substance of things not seen, not seen" [Hebrews 11:1]. For what a man seeth, why does he yet hope for it? Faith means we don’t see it. It is invisible. It is something in which we have been taught and led to trust, to believe, to accept. There is not a more glorious passage in the Bible than the verse that Paul wrote to the Corinthians. "While we look not at the things which are seen, the things which are seen, but at things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal, they are passing away even the earth and the heavens, for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" [2 Corinthians 4:18]. These are the things of faith that we do not see. God would teach us to endure seeing the invisible. We have no priest on which to gaze. We have no material altar at which to worship. We have no physical temple in which God is contained. We have no particular rituals that are efficacious. Our High Priest is in heaven. Our altar is in heaven. Our sanctuary is in heaven. Our temple is in heaven. And the great expiation of our sins, the offering of blood of atonement, is in heaven.
And you mark this, the more material and physical your religion, the less spiritual it is, always. It was when Israel had a temple and a sanctuary and a priest that they were so prone to fall into idolatry, and the same thing is true today. The more the faith of God is presented materially, physically, visibly, the less spiritual it becomes. The people are taught less and less and less the true spiritual meaning of the faith, as they are led more and more and more to worship with materialities, likenesses, earthly sanctuaries, and altars, and priests.
Even the two great ordinances, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, can be laden with superstition and meanings that God never intended for it, such as baptismal regeneration, "In this you are saved." And such as, the Lord’s Supper, "In this is the efficacy of God’s grace." All of these things would God teach us, to lift up our hearts in spiritual tones and definitions. The faith is always invisible! It is a trusting; it is a committing; it is an enduring; it is a belief; and the ascension of our Lord teaches us to walk by faith and not by sight.
Fourth: in the ascension of Christ, we have our great assurance and promise of our ultimate inheritance. He is there to secure it for us, and He cannot fail. One of the most unusual sentences is the way the doctor, the beloved physician Luke, begins this Book of Acts. He had written to Theophilus the story of the life of our Lord in the days of His flesh, the Book of Luke. Now he picks up his pen, and he begins the continuation of the story in the book we call the Book of Acts. So he says, listen, "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began, began both to do and to teach" [Acts 1:1]. And that is the Book of Luke, the days of His flesh. I have told you in that book, Theophilus, all that Jesus began both to do and to teach. Now he speaks of the Lord as He continues that redemptive ministry up there in glory.
What the Lord did here, the atonement for our sins and His resurrection for our justification [Romans 4:25], what He did here in the days of the flesh in this earth is a prelude of what the Lord is doing in heaven. He is there in heaven to bring to us a complete and finished redemption. He is there still loving us, and interceding for us, and helping us, and encouraging us. How do you know you will make it? How do you know but that you will fail? How do you know but that your inheritance is questionable? No, "I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish" [John 10:28]. How do you know that? We may perish. How do you know that eternal life, it may last for five years, and then be taken away from us, or in death I still don’t inherit it?
Oh no, my brother. Courage. Courage. Lift up your heart. You have a representative in heaven, a legal advocate. And had we sent somebody else to secure that heavenly inheritance for us, he might have failed, but not the Lord, not the Lord. He will never fail. And the inheritance He has promised will be given to us someday because He is there to secure it for us.
But I may die. They may place me in a sepulcher or a tomb. Then what? No matter. He died, and He was wrapped in a winding sheet, and He was placed in a sepulcher. His tomb was sealed with a seal and a guard to watch it, but the holy heavenly power of the Lord raised Him from the dead! The same holy heavenly power of God will raise us from the dead! We are with our Lord, one, He and His people. If we die, we shall be raised as He died and was raised from the dead.
This I say unto you my brethren, "If we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which sleep in Jesus will God bring with Him" [1 Thessalonians 4:14]. Our assurance of that ultimate victory is our great Master and Lord and Keeper who is in heaven will not fail.
Fourth, why the ascension of our Lord: that we might have in glory a mediator, an intercessor, a High Priest who had a human body such as we, touched with all of the feelings of our infirmities, tried in all points like as we are, who can sympathize with us and who understands us [Hebrews 4:14-16]. What an astonishing thing that the great God of the universe should be a man with a human body!
What became of the Lord Jesus? Did His body disintegrate and go back into the dust of the earth? No. What became of the Lord Jesus? Did He fade like a mist that is burned by the rising sun? Like an apparition that just disappears? What did those disciples look for, see? When the Lord went away, were they looking at a dream or at an apparition or at a myth that was disappearing? No!
When the Lord took upon Himself our humanity in Bethlehem, when He was incarnate, when He was made into a human body, when He was given flesh and blood like ours, He never laid that body aside. But when He ascended into heaven, He ascended with that human body, forever God and forever man [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11]. In the earth the man-God, Christ Jesus; ascended the God-man, Christ Jesus. He is changed in condition, but not in nature. He is the same Lord. He is a man, the God-man.
In one of the most unusual passages of Paul, he quotes a song evidently that they sang in the early Christian church, "Without controversy great is the musterion of godliness." Great is the secret of godliness. Look at it. "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the world, believed on by the Gentiles, and ascended up, received up into glory" [1 Timothy 3:16].
He was seen of angels. They knew Him. They knew Him back yonder in the ages before. They saw Him when He was incarnate. They sang the song of glory in Bethlehem when He was born. They accompanied Him back to glory. They were at the tomb when He was raised from the dead; they spake to those disciples when they saw Him ascend. And they received Him back up into heaven when He returned from whence He came, seen of angels. It was the same Lord Jesus except this; now He has a human body, a human frame, a body that has scars from the trials and the sufferings of His life, and He is in heaven, our friend, our Redeemer, a Man who has endured every trial that we shall ever know, and He is able to save us to the uttermost [Hebrews 7:25]. He understands. He sympathizes. He is our great and holy, but sweet and precious and heavenly Lord.
You don’t need to go to any saint to pray for you. You don’t need to go to any virgin to pray for you. They have to pray for themselves. Go directly to the Lord Jesus. Anywhere, a kitchen corner is as good as a cathedral, walking alone is as fine as bowing in a sanctuary, anywhere, take your heart to the Lord. Just lay bare and naked every trial and battle and trouble of your life, just take it to Jesus. He understands. He lived down here with us. He is our great human heavenly Intercessor.
And last, why the ascension of our Lord; as the apostle so beautifully wrote, and as we shall preach next time, "When He ascended up on high, He led captivity captive and gave gifts unto men" [Ephesians 4:8]. Oh, dear! The Bible tries to picture that triumphant return of our Lord into heaven. You will find it, for example, in the fifth chapter of the Revelation when the Lord ascended back up into heaven taking captivity captive. And there before the adoring praise and worship of ten thousands and thousands of thousands of angels, and before the four and twenty elders – that is a symbol of the twelve patriarchs of the Old Testament, the twelve apostles of the New Testament, the redeemed of all of the ages – and before the four cherubim that represent the entire creation of God, the Lord enters glory when He ascended up into heaven, raised from the dead, bearing with Him the salvation and the redemption of all of God’s people. And there the apostle says, "He gave gifts unto men" [Ephesians 4:8], bestowing upon us our separate graces, our grace gifts.
First, the outpouring of the Holy Spirit which is the great ascension gift, the Promise of the Father fulfilled at Pentecost [Acts 2:2-4]. And then to each one of us He gives our grace gift, our spiritual endowments, you and you and you, all of us.
Last night, I had a discussion. What is this, the difference between a natural gift and a grace gift, a charismatic gift? Ah, that we had hours to speak of these things! A natural endowment, that is something that an orator might have or a politician might have or a strong man might have, a natural endowment. But a grace gift, oh, that is something God does for us. That is an endowment, a visitation from above that we receive from His gracious hand, and it completes the church. There is a purpose and a program and a plan of God for your life, and He will give you grace to do it.
Why, bless your heart, when I started preaching, did you know I would spend the afternoons crying before the Lord? I would stand up there before that little country church, and I would just try the best I could, and it was such a miserable failure. And then that afternoon, I would spend the hours crying, "Lord, I just cannot do it." But it is a grace gift. The Lord helped me, and the Lord blessed me.
You’re that way. The grace gift is not mine maybe. It is different for you. But we all have these grace gifts that the Lord bestows upon us. And when we receive it and take it, not striving to be something God never intended for us, reaching out for some selfish or ambitious goal that the Lord never chose for us, but when we receive our assignment and our gift and our grace, we are happy in the Lord, and the Lord blesses His people through you and through us.
"He ascended on high, and gave gifts unto men." You have one and you and you and all of us. And the most heavenly of all dedications is bowing in the presence of the Lord with an open uplifted hand to receive God’s assignment for us, a place, a plan, a program, a plan for you, for all of us. And when we are together in that will of God the body of the Lord is complete. The eye can’t say to the hand I don’t need you, and the foot can’t say to the head I don’t need you, but all of us are vitally, significantly necessary in the household of the Lord, making up the body of Christ.
Well, we have to quit. You know when you look at that Book and begin to read it and to study it, oh dear, how rich and how full and how precious when God speaks to us, when the Lord leads us, when we follow after the blessed will of our Savior. Does God speak to you, does He? Does the Lord bid you follow, then come this morning. "Pastor, today I give my heart to Jesus, today I am taking the Lord as my Savior, and opening my heart to him." Or, "We are putting our hearts and lives in the fellowship of this dear church, we are coming this morning." A whole family or a couple or just you, while we sing this song, come, on the first note of the first stanza, and God bless you as you come and as we stand and sing.
THE HEAVENLY ASCENSION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
I. The five great events in the story of Christ
A. His incarnation(Isaiah 7:14, Matthew 1:23)
B. His atonement for our sins (Hebrews 9:22)
C. His resurrection(1 Corinthians 15:20)
D. His ascension(Luke 24:50-51, Acts 1:9-11)
E. His return(1 Thessalonians 4:16-17)
II. Why the ascension of Christ?
A. Many times our heats lead us to do things that are hard to explain logically
1. Disciples standing riveted looking up into heaven whence the Lord disappeared(Acts 1:9-10)
2. An angel awakens the disciples back to their work (Acts 1:10-11)
III. Reasons for the ascension (John 16:7)
A. It is a part of the purpose and plan of God through the ages
1. He is directing the advance of His kingdom in the earth
B. That our hearts, minds, hopes might be centered not in earth, but in the world that is to come(Philippians 3:20, Colossians 3:2)
C. God would teach us to walk by faith, not by sight(2 Corinthians 4:18)
1. God desires that we worship Him in spirit and in truth (John 4:24)
D. That He might secure for us our inheritance(Acts 1:1-2, Hebrews 7:25, John 10:28, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-15)
E. That we might have a Mediator and Intercessorthat understands and sympathizes(1 Timothy 3:16, Acts 22:8)
F. That He might bestow upon us the ascension gifts (Ephesians 4:8, Revelation 5:9-14, 22:12, Psalm 24:7-10)
1. All of us given a measure of grace (Ephesians 4:11)