The Heavenly Ascension
January 24th, 1971 @ 10:50 AM
THE HEAVENLY ASCENSION
Dr. W.A. Criswell
1-24-71 10:50 a.m.
On the radio and on television you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas. And 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 I read beginning at verse 8, "Wherefore He saith," then he quotes Psalms 68:18:
Wherefore He saith, 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 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.
This is a passage depicting the ascension of our Lord and His triumphal entry into glory, leading captivity captive and bestowing gifts, grace gifts, charismatic gifts upon men. And He ascended up far above all heavens, above the first heaven where the birds fly and the clouds pass by, above the second heaven, the Milky Way, the sidereal spheres and the innumerable immeasurable stars, up into the heaven of heavens where God has His throne, and where the Lord is preparing the Holy City, New Jerusalem that shall come down at the consummation of the age out of heaven, perfected, glorious from the hands of God.
Now, this morning we speak of that ascension of our Lord. There are five tremendous events in the life of Christ. One, His virgin birth; again, His death for our sins; again, His resurrection for our justification; again, His ascension into glory; and finally, His glorious and incomparable presence, the parousia, the coming of our Lord. Born of a virgin, died for our sins according to the Scriptures; this is the great plan and purpose of God through the ages. Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission. The manger and the cross are the two meaningful, heavenly signs and seals of God’s loving purpose toward us. He was raised for our justification, the firstfruits of those who shall be presented trophies of grace to lay at His gracious feet. He’s the Morning Star of the glory which shall yet be revealed in us. Then He ascended into heaven. How eloquently beautiful the apostle writes, "Leading captivity captive at the head of the glorious train, and giving gifts unto men." Finally, His ultimate return. Each one of the five events in the life of our Lord points to the next event and all of them to the great denouement and consummation of the age.
In this word, "He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things;" this is a reference to the passage you just read closing the Gospel of Luke and the story that begins the Book of the Acts in chapter one. The little band of apostles walking with their risen Lord up the slopes of the Mount of Olives; they’re so hushed, so quiet, so awe stricken, filled with intensest joy as they walk by the side of their risen Lord. When they come to the brow of the hill, they stop and while they converse with the Savior, He lifts up His nail pierced hands in blessing upon them. And as He blesses them, He begins to rise, and to rise, and to rise, and up, and up, and up to the region of the clouds. Then a chariot of light, the shekinah of God, the raiments of the Almighty enclothe Him, engulf Him, and He is swept out of their sight. The disciples, wonder-struck, awe-stricken, astonished, amazed, stand riveted on the brow of the mount looking up into heaven whence the Lord disappeared. They couldn’t help it, standing there steadfastly looking upward.
Many times our hearts lead us to do things that are hard to explain logically, such as going to a grave or a tomb and weeping, Cui bono, "What the benefit, what the good?" Just that our hearts dictate it, no thing of logic at all. So it is with the disciples just standing there, transfixed looking up into heaven. But they must not tarry too long. The Lord sends an interrupting angel, not with a sword or with a rod, but clothed in garments of like. And he awakens the disciples back to their work. We cannot help but ask, "Lord, why this separation from us? We need You so, and Your presence is so preciously valuable. Why leave us Lord? Why be taken away from us? We’re like the disciples at Emmaus who would constrain the Lord to tarry. Stay with us, Lord, here."
Ah, we think His one presence, just He, would be worth that of ten thousand other apostles. Just think what it would mean if our Lord were here, that He stayed here with us. Why, we could ask Him, take before Him every problem, and every decision, and the word would be the word of heavenly wisdom. Think of the miracles of His gracious hand. Think of His voice that could raise the dead. And think how He would confuse and confound His enemies. He, the leader marching at the front of a triumphant army, think of the conquests if He were here. And think of the conversion of this vile and villainous world. Oh, we say, if the Lord would just have stayed here, if He were present. Well, in His upper room talk to His disciples, one of the sentences He said was, "It is expedient for you that I go away" [John 16:7]. And if the Lord will help me, I want to point out five reasons why the Lord was ascended, taken up into heaven, separated from us, why He said, "It is expedient for you that I go away."
First, we’re not to think that the Lord has forsaken us, or that He’s lost a battle, or that He’s quit the field, or that He’s injured or hurt His flock. No, but our Lord has arisen into heaven, ascended to the throne, that from that high and holy place, He might direct the advance of His kingdom in the earth. It is the despiser’s who say that "your cause is done for. Christianity is spun out. The battle is lost for us. Our Savior is gone. There’s no trace of His miracle working hand." It is they who say that, but not we. For our Lord still lives. He has just gone up to the top of the hill. He has just ascended the throne of glory, there to survey the whole circumference of the field of conflict, and there to direct His people in their war against our darkening and spiritual foes.
Our Lord still is at the head of His people. He still directs us in our work. There in glory He is mustering those omnipotent powers and forces by which He shall someday return to this earth. He is mounting the white horse of the Apocalypse. And, it may be in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, that He will return and with Him, the hosts of glory. Our Lord has not met defeat, nor has He forsaken or forgotten us. But He has ascended that from the throne of glory and grace, He might direct His kingdom work in the earth.
Why has our Lord ascended from us into heaven? Second, that we might lift up our hearts, and our souls, and our prayers, and our dreams, and our hopes, and our visions upward, upward always heavenward and Christward and Godward. The apostle Paul wrote to the church at Philippi, "For our citizenship is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ" [Philippians 3:20]. Our citizenship, our home, our commonwealth is not here, it is in heaven. Our home, our fatherland, our country is in glory. It is again as the apostle Paul wrote to the little church at Colosse, "Set your affection upon things above, not upon the things of the earth"[Colossians 3:2]. Our hearts are ever to be Godward. The windows of our soul are ever to be opened heavenward, up there in glory. Our Head has gone to the land of the sky, and we are hid with Christ in God, and where He is, our life is, up, up, always upward. Our treasure is there. Our inheritance is there. Our reward is there. Our crown is there. By and by, our friends are there. Our family is there.
Sometimes when I’m conducting a funeral service, a memorial service, I think how tragic it would be, how sad it would be were it the other way around. That Christ were here, that Christ remained here and we were forced to go yonder. Ah, the sadness of it. If our Lord were in this earth and had remained on this planet, then in death, one by one, we all leave, we all cross over, we all pass over. Ah, what a horrifying and dismal and unhappy prospect! But God never did it that way. He did it the other way. Our Lord is there, our home is there, our inheritance is there, our citizenship is there, our commonwealth is there, our country is there, and by and by, all of our friends will be there. And by and by, all of our family will be there. By and by, everyone whom you love will be there. That’s why our Lord bids us lift up our hearts and our souls heavenward and Godward.
Third, our Lord ascended into heaven in order that we might learn to walk by faith and not by sight. If our Lord were here in this earth, there would be a perpetual unending moratorium, abrogation of faith. The whole earth would be trying, and scrounging, and elbowing, and pushing, trying to get to the Master. Faith is a matter of what we don’t see. It’s the substance of things not seen. For if we have what we can see, why would we yet hope for what we cannot see? The substance of faith is enduring as seeing the invisible. Faith is looking, seeing with the eyes of the soul. And materiality and temporality has no part in it. God wishes that they who worship Him, worship Him in spirit and in truth [John 4:24], not in materiality and corporeality and in sight. We walk by faith and not by sight.
One of the most meaningful verses that Paul ever wrote was to the church at Corinth, "While we look not at the things which are seen, the things that are seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal" [2 Corinthians 4:18]. And He ascended into glory that we might learn to walk by faith and not by sight. The more material a religion is, the more unspiritual it is. We have no priest that we can see with our naked eyes. We have no material altar. We have no sanctuary of gold or silver. We have no temple of monumental stone. We have no rites and rituals that are efficacious in mediating to us the grace of God. Our great Priest is in heaven. Our altar is in heaven. Our Sacrifice is in glory. Our sanctuary is in the sky. Our great temple is the temple of God in heaven. And these we seek by the eyes of faith.
It is a poor faith that must put its finger into the nail prints in His hand and thrust the hand in the scar in His side. And the more of that material expression of religion, the less spiritual it becomes. One of the most devastating observations that you could make in reading the Old Testament is that when Israel had their sanctuary and their altar and their priest, they were prone to idolatry, and the same is true today. The more the church makes its religious body one of materiality, one of sight, the less spiritual it becomes. For God wishes His people to worship in spirit and in truth, seeing the invisible with the eyes of the soul.
One of the tragedies it seems to me of the Christian religion is that even those two ordinances have been fraught with all kinds of religious superstition. And some say the ordinance of baptism carries with it regeneration. You are actually washed from sin in the cleansing of the water. And others will say in the Lord’s Supper we have the mediums and the efficacies of God’s grace. No! A thousand times no; and again, by the Word of God, an everlasting no! For the religion of God is ever and always spiritual, and invisible, and by faith! The soul lifts upward above this temporal world, upward, and upward, and upward, and we worship God in the spirit and in the truth, bowing at the sanctuary of heaven.
That’s why a kitchen corner is as good as a cathedral to call on the name of the Lord. That’s why walking down the road or working at a counter, or in the middle of the night, or out in a desert place, there is the sanctuary of heaven, and there can a man call on the name of the Lord, and there can the saint have true fellowship and communion with God. There is our altar and throne. There is our sanctuary and Priest. There.
Why did our Lord ascend into heaven? Number three, in order that He might secure for us our inheritance. Oh, dear me, Lord. Here I am in a dark world. And here I am in a body made out of clay and dirt. Lord, how is it I could ever be assured that I’ll make it, that I’ll be there? Lord, how could it be? Here I am so far away and so prone to err. Lord, how could I ever know that I’ll be there someday? How could I? That’s why the Lord ascended into heaven, to assure unto us our inheritance. He is there to keep it for us and to see us through and to bestow it upon us. Courage, my brother, we cannot fail it.
Do you notice in the Book of Acts how the apostle, how Luke, the beloved physician, begins the work? "The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, – that is the Book of Luke writing of the story of our Lord – the former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began to do and to teach" [Acts 1:1]. In the account in the Book of Luke telling the story of the life of our Lord in the days of His flesh down here, what Jesus began to do down here in this earth; then the Book of Acts, he continues the next verse, "Until the day when he was taken up into glory." He began His work of redemption down here, down here in the days of His flesh, but He continues it, and He consummates it, and He brings it to that glorious conclusion and triumph in His work in glory.
There He completes our redemption. There He ultimately and finally saves us as the author of Hebrews says, "Wherefore He is able to save to the uttermost those who come through God by faith to Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for us" [Hebrews 7:25]. He is there to secure for us our inheritance. Why bless you, if I could choose a legal representative and send him to secure my eternal inheritance, that legal representative might fail, but not the Lord, not the Lord. He cannot fail! He said, "I give unto them eternal life; and they’ll never perish. They’ll never fail" [John 10:28]. Not I, but He, my representative, I cannot miss it, I cannot fail it. He has given it to me, and He assures it for me because He’s up there to see me through and to keep it for me.
Ah, but dear Lord, what of me? I may die before the Lord comes, and I may fall into the dust of the ground, Lord. What of mine inheritance then? Why, bless God, He died. Bless the Lord, He was buried. But praise the Lord again, He was raised from the dead. And we may know what it is to die and to be wrapped in a winding sheet and to be placed in a sepulcher. But if we die with Christ, we also know what it is to be raised with Him. Ah, Lord, our life is hid with Christ in God, and we cannot fail it. We cannot miss it. And if we die, God will raise us from the dead, even as the Holy Spirit did our Lord. "This we say unto you by the word of the Lord, we’re not to grieve, as others who have no hope. For if we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so them also which believe in Jesus will God bring with Him" [1 Thessalonians 4:13-15].
O Lord, what an infinite happiness, and what a glorious gladness to know that God will see me through. It is not a matter of my clinging to the Lord. I might lose my grip and in death might not even know when I lost it. But my inheritance is a matter of God holding fast to me which is while I’m awake, which is while I’m strong, which is also when I’m weak, which is also when I’m in a coma, and which is also when I die. Yesterday I had a sweet family call me, they were crying saying, "Our mother is dying, and the doctor says it’s just a little while. Would you come and pray with us?" So I went to the hospital and gathered the little family around and prayed with them, and there was that mother in a coma. Lord, when I might not even be awake, when I might not even know, Lord, how could I cling to it then? You see, that’s why the Lord is in glory. He’s the one who holds my hand. He’s the one who sees me through. He’s the one who keeps the inheritance for us who have placed our trust in Him. He is there to do it. He’s on the other side of the river there to receive us to Himself and to give us our golden crown.
Why did our Lord ascend into heaven? Number four, in order that we might have an Intercessor, a Mediator who understands us and sympathizes with us. He has a human body. Isn’t that the most astonishing doctrine in time or history that God who reigns over the universe is a man, is a man. What became of the body of our Lord? Dissolve away? Turn back into dust? As He ascended into heaven, was it an apparition that the apostles saw disappear? Did they look steadfastly upward at a myth or at a dream? No. In life, He was the Man-God, and in His resurrection and ascension, He is the God-Man, forever God, and forever man.
As Paul writes to Timothy, without doubt, "great is the musterion of godliness." "Without controversy – without argument – great is the mystery of godliness. What? That God was manifest in the flesh, that He was seen of angels, that He was justified in the Spirit, that He was preached to the Gentiles, that He was believed on in the world, that He was ascended, that He was received up into glory" [1 Timothy 3:16]. Isn’t that a strange thing? That’s a song the first Christian church sang. That’s a song they sang. The mystery of godliness made flesh, God made flesh, seen of angels, and I just pause at that one stanza in the song, seen of angels. Why, they’d known Him all through the eons before the world was made. They were there at the incarnation in Bethlehem. They ministered to Him in the days of His flesh. They were there at the tomb when He was raised from the dead. They were there to speak to the disciples when He ascended into heaven. And they were there in glory when He entered in, the same Lord Jesus. His condition has changed, but not His nature and not His heart. He’s the same Lord Jesus.
As Paul met Him above the brightness of the Syrian sun and blinded, struck down, cried, "Who art Thou, Lord?" And He replied, "I am Jesus of Nazareth, whom thou persecutes"[Acts 22:8], there in glory, the same blessed Jesus. The human body that He took upon Himself at Bethlehem He never laid aside. And when the disciples looked and watched, and our Lord ascended up, and up, and up into the highest heaven, it was a human body, a glorified body that was raised upward, one who suffered in all points as we suffer, tried in all points as we are tried, and able to sympathize with us in all of our sorrows and trials. Our great Mediator and High Priest is one of us. Bone, flesh, body, life, experience, He knows all about us.
Last, and hastily, why did our Lord ascend into heaven? In order that He might bestow upon us those grace gifts of the Spirit. We’ll start there next Sunday, Leading Captivity Captive. Oh, what an entrÃ©, what an entrance, when the Lord went back up to glory. You have it described in the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, when the whole creation, the four cherubim, when all of the saints, the four and twenty elders, and when the angels, the thousands, thousands times thousands bow down and welcome the Son of God in Glory. He ascended into heaven that He might pour out upon us the grace gifts, the Spirit gifts. First of all, the ascension gift of the Holy Spirit Himself poured out upon the world, upon us without measure; there’s no limit to the abounding presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts. Just as much as we will let Him possess us will the Holy Spirit of God live in u – the ascension gift, the pouring out of the Spirit, the Promise of the Father at Pentecost, then the grace gifts.
Last night we were talking in our house the difference between a natural gift and a grace gift. A natural gift, the man has astuteness in business, and he can trade and make money. Or the man has great power. He’s a pugilist, or a player. Or the man is a great orator and knowledgeable and has a magnificent vocabulary, natural gifts. But there are also grace gifts, gifts that God gives to His people by which He blesses the household of faith and honors the Lord. Something that God gives us, and each one of us has a grace gift. Each one of us has a different gift. Some of us have several grace gifts, but all of us have the gifts, and when we gather together in the church, each one bringing his grace gift, what God can do through you, makes the whole church complete.
For God gives you a gift and you a gift. There’s a plan and a purpose and a program for your life. There is something to which God has called you, and when you give yourself to it, you’re happy in the Lord. When you covet some other gift and have false egotistic self ambition, then you live miserably. But when you take from God what the Lord gives you and are quiet and happy in His grace gift, ah, the church is blessed, and you’re sweet in the presence of Jesus. And we need all. The eye can’t say to the foot, "I don’t need you." The foot can’t say to the hand, "I don’t need you." And the hand can’t say to the head, "I don’t need you." All of us are needed, each in his separate gifts. It’s a grace gift. It’s something God does.
Oh, dear, I so poignantly remember when I began to preach, a teenage boy seventeen years of age in my little country church. I would stand up there in that pulpit with that little congregation of eighteen, and I’d just try my best at that morning hour and just fail so miserably. I couldn’t say it. I couldn’t frame the word to pronounce it. I couldn’t put the sentence together, just try and just fail. All that Sunday afternoon, I’d spend it somewhere crying, just bow my head and just weep and weep every Sunday afternoon. Just couldn’t. But the Lord had called me, and God gave me the grace gift to do it. And the Lord blesses the service. God is in the message, and the Lord builds the church, and God sanctifies the appeal. It’s a grace gift. It is something God does. And each one of us, there is a plan, and a place, and a purpose, and a program for you, each one of you. And when we give ourselves to it, yield to God’s call for us, He blesses you. He blesses the church, and He honors His name in the earth.
Does the Lord speak to you? Would you answer with your life? Would you? In a moment when we stand up to sing, you, "Pastor, God has spoken to me, and I’m coming. I believe there is a place and a purpose of God in my life, and I’m coming. I’m giving myself to God’s call, and here I am." A family you, a couple you, a one somebody you, make the decision to answer with your life now, and in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up coming. In the balcony down one of these stairwells, the press of people on this lower floor into the aisle and down to the front, "Here I come, pastor, and here I am." Make the decision now, and in a moment when you stand up, stand up coming. "Here I am, Pastor. Here I come." Do it now while we stand, while we sing.