The Heavenly Ascension
November 28th, 1976 @ 8:15 AM
THE HEAVENLY ASCENSION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-28-76 8:15 a.m.
You cannot imagine how delightful it is to stand here with an open Bible and a message from the Book and to be unhurried in its delivery. I have more time to preach this morning than at any time I have ever known at the early service. So you just be seated there in a nice, precious place and listen to the Word of the Lord. And on radio we pray God will bless the message to you. It is one from the very heart of the Bible and has an infinite meaning for us who live in this pilgrimage with our faces toward heaven.
We are speaking this morning from a passage in the Book of Acts. In our preaching through that glorious and wonderful book, we have come to verse 9 in the first chapter. And the message concerns the ascension, the return of our Lord into heaven:
And when He had spoken these things, while they beheld, He was taken up; and a cloud received Him out of their sight.
And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
Who also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen Him go into heaven.
What had happened is this: after the Lord was raised from the dead [Matthew 28:1-6], He appeared in eleven different instances, in eleven different places, to the disciples after He was raised. Sometimes it would be in Jerusalem. One time it was in Emmaus. Twice we know of it was in Galilee. And now, at the end of the eleventh time of His appearance, that is, in those forty days [Acts 1:3], we have a record of eleven different times that the Lord appeared to His disciples.
In this eleventh one, He walks with the apostles across Kidron and up the slope of the Mount of Olives. And when they came to the brow of the hill, to the top of the mount, He stopped. And those enraptured apostles gathered around Him. They were filled with a holy quiet and an intense joy, one I would think unspeakable and beyond description. And while He converses with them on the top of the Mount of Olives, He lifts up His nail-pierced hands in blessing. And with His hands raised in blessing, He was gradually parted from them [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-10]. And the shekinah of God, the chariot of the Lord, the raiment of deity clothed Him, surrounded Him, and He was received up out of their sight.
Every word in this passage is most pertinent. “And when He had spoken these things…” [Acts 1:9], and as Luke 24 says: “And had lifted up His hands to bless them, while they beheld, He was taken up, epairō” [Luke 24:50-51]. You use the word when you say a man raised his voice. You use the word epairō when you say a man lifted his hands in prayer. Epairō—He was lifted up. He was taken up. “And a cloud received Him” [Acts 1:9]. Hupolambanō—to take from underneath, to receive up, to lift up, to take up: while He stood there in blessing, “He was epairō, He was taken up” [Acts 1:9]. And the shekinah, the visible presence of the glory of God, hupolambanō, received Him from underneath—lifted up and received up, “out of their sight” [Acts 1:9]—apo, “away.” Ophthalmos, ophthalmos is the word for eyes, their eyes, while they looked, He was taken away from their natural vision. The Lord is alive! He lives! Only ophthalmos, our natural eyes, do not see Him. But He is present and He is alive, and this is the message today.
Those disciples stood there, riveted in attention. They were struck with astonishment! They were there in a wonder, as they watched the Lord taken up from beneath, lifted up, and then the shekinah glory of God taking Him from their natural eyes. And as they stood there transfixed in wonder, looking up into heaven—you know, there are many things that we do that are hard to account for and to justify. For example, someone who goes to a grave to weep: it would be very difficult to explain that it does any good, but it is just something out of the heart.
So these disciples, just standing there, transfixed in wonder and amazement, but they must not stay too long. And while they stand there, looking up into the heavens that received up to itself the Lord in its glory, there are two angels—interrupting messengers who come to the disciples. They are not armed with swords. They do not have even a rod. They are dressed in white raiment, and they ask the disciples: “Why? Why? Why stand ye here gazing into heaven?” [Acts 1:10-11].
And the angels call them to an awakening to their task in the world. “Why?” And we can ask that also? Why is our Lord taken away from our natural eyes, from the congregation of the Lord, from the table at which He would be such a worthy and honored guest? Why is He taken away from our natural sight? Why can we not see Him visibly in flesh and in bone as in His resurrected body He said He lived? [Luke 24:36-40]. Why?
We’re like those two Emmaus disciples who constrained the Lord to stay, “abide with us,” they said [Luke 24:29]. We also are like that. Why is He taken away from our natural sight? To us it is expedient that He remain. In our thinking, He would be worth ten thousand apostles, if He were just here, with His words of infinite wisdom. Think of His miraculous power. We could take to Him all of our sick. He could even raise our dead. If the Lord were here, He would confound our enemies. We would be triumphant in our Christian march through the earth. We need Him for the evangelization of the people and the nations of this globe.
Why is He taken away? Think of the perplexities that He could solve and the difficulties that we encounter that He could overcome. Think of the marvelous victory that we would have if He were visibly leading the forces of the Christian army in the earth. Why is He taken away? Our Lord said in the sixteenth chapter of the Book of John, verses 6 and 7: “It is expedient for you that I go away” [John 16:6-7]. Well, how is it expedient? How is it best for us that He be taken away and hid from our natural eyes?
I can think of several reasons. Number one: our Lord is separated from us in our visible eyes as a part of the plan and the purpose of God. We are not to think—we sheep who are left here below—we are not to think that He has forgotten us, or that a tragedy or a catastrophe has overwhelmed us. What has happened is in the elective purpose and the wisdom of God. This is something the Lord has planned and that the Lord has done for us, that the Lord is taken away from our natural sight. The scorner and the despiser would say: “Your Christianity is spun out. The kingdom has come to an end. This is the abrupt conclusion of your faith. The Leader is gone, and the cause is dead. And the great advancement has been stopped. This is the concluding, catastrophic conclusion of the Christian faith. This is the end.” That’s what the despiser and the scorner and the unbeliever would say.
Actually, it is not so! Our Lord has but changed His field of surveillance and command. He is but gone up into the hills. He is but risen that He might like a general see the whole circumference of the field of battle; that He might direct us in our evangelization of the world. He has not ceased to be, nor has He left His people, nor is He disinterested in the world. He has but risen to a height from which He can direct all of the forces of the globe. Again, our Lord has been separated from us and into heaven in order that we might lift up our hearts, and our vision, and our prayers, and our hopes toward glory and away from this earth.
As Colossians 3:2 says: “Set your affections,” lift up your affections, “upon things above, not upon the things of the earth.” And as Philippians 3:20 says: “For our citizenship, our politeuma, our commonwealth, our citizenship, our kingdom is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.” Our hearts are to be lifted up, and our life is hid with Christ in heaven [Colossians 3:2-3]. All of our visions and our dreams and our hopes are not here, they are to be lifted up and into heaven.
And all of us who have found a Savior in the Lord Christ feel that upwardness in our hearts—that tug in our souls. For our life is with Christ; our home is in heaven; our destiny and our future is there and not here. And we feel that pull toward God and toward heaven in our souls. If you love Christ, you cannot but have an upwardness; an elevation, a loftiness, a Christ-wardness in your life. You just are that way: lifted up, heavenward.
I one time heard of a farmer in southern Louisiana who had captured one of those great mallard ducks. And he had put a string on its foot and staked it to the pond. And all winter long it swam with the domestic ducks out there in the pond. But when the springtime came, when the resurrection time came, those flocks of ducks that had flown south began to turn north. And as they rose from the earth, they saw that great mallard down there on the pond. And before they left, those flocks would turn in the sky and call from the heavens. Those domestic ducks didn’t hear it. They just swam on the pond, placid, quiet, uninterested. But that mallard, that wild mallard, when he heard the call from the sky, he lifted up his head; he lifted up his eyes; he lifted up his heart, and he lifted up his wings—and the stake pulled him back down, but as each flock would circle and call, each time, he’d struggle to rise. And finally, he broke the thread, the string that tied him down to the earth, and spreading his wings rose up and up and away with those great mallards, turning to the north.
That is exactly the way with the Christian: the people of the world are very content. Down here, they plan down here; they work down here; they invest down here. Their lives are down here; their interests are down here. But a child of God feels something inside of his deepest soul. It is a call upward and heavenward. And he cannot help but hear and sense and see and feel that upwardness in his life. There’s an interest in him; there’s an investment in him; there’s a longing in him for heaven and for home.
You see, as we grow older and older and older, our friends are over there. Our parents are over there. Our loved ones are over there. And if you live long enough, you will be alone in this earth. Every friend that you knew and every member of your family will be over there if you live long enough.
Can you imagine therefore the sadness and the tragedy if the Lord were here and we were over there? No! Joseph is no more in Egypt. It is time for Israel to be gone. Our Lord is not here; He is there. Our home is not here; it is there. Our inheritance is not here; it is there. Our hopes and our dreams are not here; they are there. As the old-timers used to sing:
I am a stranger here
Heaven is my home.
Earth is a desert drear,
Heaven is my home;
Sorrow and dangers stand
Round me on every hand;
Heaven is my fatherland,
Heaven is my home.
[‘I’m But a Stranger Here,” Thomas R. Taylor, 1836]
Why has the Lord gone away? In order that we might lift up our hearts, and our hopes, and our prayers, and our dreams of heaven—our home in glory [Philippians 3:20]. Why has the Lord gone away, hidden from our natural eyes? He has gone away in order that we might learn to live by faith and not by sight [2 Corinthians 5:6-7]. For the Christian message is one of inwardness, of spiritual content and reality; and not of visible things.
If our Lord were still here in the flesh, there would be a declared embargo and moratorium on faith. You know what would happen? There would be a struggle from all over this earth to get to Him: people bringing their sick, their blind, their crippled, their dead; people seeking to feast their eyes upon Him—if He were here in this earth, in this natural state. But God hath intended that our life be a spiritual life. And God hath so plainly said so in His Holy Book. For example, Paul will write: “For though this outward man perish, yet the inward man, the real man, the real you”—shall I define you as being corrupting flesh? No! The real you lives inside of a corrupting body—“For though this outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day, while we look not at the things which are seen, but at things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal” [2 Corinthians 4:16, 18]—the flower that fades; the grass that withers [Isaiah 40:8]—the whole heaven and earth that shall pass away [Matthew 24:35]. “For the things that are seen are temporal; but the things that are not seen are eternal” [2 Corinthians 4:18]. “For we know”—that is all of us who have looked in faith to Jesus—“for we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved, we have a building of God, not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For we walk by faith, not by sight” [2 Corinthians 5:1, 7].
The whole substance of the Christian faith is ever spiritual and invisible and unseen. Do you remember the word in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews concerning Moses? “For he endured, as seeing Him who is invisible” [Hebrews 11:27]. It is a spiritual faith that is the Christian faith. And the realities are invisible and unseen and spiritual. They are not material. They are not substantive.
And our whole faith is like that. Our sanctuary is in heaven, not here. Our altar is in heaven. Our sacrifice is in heaven. Our great High Priest is in heaven [Hebrews 4:14]. The whole circumference of the Christian faith is spiritual. It is with Christ in heaven. And it is a poor faith that must place our fingers into the print of the nails in His hands and thrust our hand into the scar of His riven side [John 20:24-27]. True faith, true Christianity, is always spiritual and up there with our Lord in heaven [Matthew 6:19-21; Colossians 3:1-4].
Why did the Lord go away? Why is He hid from our natural eyes? He went away in order that He might be our great, omnipotent, almighty Intercessor and Mediator [Romans 8:34; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 7:25], and Advocate [1 John 2:1]. He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high [Hebrews 1:3], in order that He might be our faithful High Priest and secure for us an unfading and eternal inheritance [Hebrews 4:14-16]. Who is it that went away? Who is it that was lifted up, raised up, and the shekinah glory of God hid Him away from our natural eyes? [Acts 1:9-10]. Who is it that went away?
The angel said: “This same Jesus . . . This same Jesus . . .” [Acts 1:11]. As the disciples stood there looking up into the glory, who is it that their eyes followed, raised in the chariot of the Lord? Was it a melting phantom? Was it a passing apparition? Did they stand there gazing up into a myth and a dream? No!!! It was the same Lord Jesus [Acts 1:11]. It is the Son of God—the Son of Mary. It is our crucified and risen Lord [Matthew 27:32-28:6]. It is the same Jesus of Nazareth who has been raised up into heaven at the right hand of the power of God [Luke 22:69; Hebrews 1:3].
And as such, He holds the world in His hands: “All authority is given unto Me in heaven and in earth” [Matthew 28:18]. And as such, He directs the whole circumference and gamut and spectrum of time and history. He does it! And He is our great and mighty Savior and Intercessor. For example, in the seventh chapter of Hebrews and the twenty-fifth verse: “Wherefore He is able to save to the uttermost them who come to God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” [Hebrews 7:25]. Or as in Romans 5:10: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of His Son, how much more, so being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life?” That word: “Saved by His life,” not His life down here in the earth—saved by His life in heaven—the power of Christ to give us our inheritance and to bring us in His gracious goodness to that heavenly home beyond death and beyond the grave.
How is it that I could have any assurance that I will be saved, that I won’t fall into hell finally? What if I live a life of devotion and then just before I die fall into some grievous error or iniquity or sin? How do I know I’ll get to heaven when I die? How do I know it? I know it because of Him. If I were able to send a man, a representative man to hold for me my place in glory, he might fail. But Christ will not fail. He secures for me my place in glory [John 14:3]. As He was in this earth, we are. As He was raised from the dead, we shall be. And if He tarries and there awaits for us a garden and a tomb and a winding sheet, the same power that raised Him from the dead shall raise us from the dead [Romans 8:11; 2 Corinthians 4:14].
“For the Lord Himself shall descend from the heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trump of God: and the dead in Christ shall rise first” [1 Thessalonians 4:16]. This is the promise of God for us who have found refuge and hope and salvation in Him. He is there in His all mightiness to see to it that we do not fail in our day and in our coming.
Why did He go away? “It is expedient for you (He said) that I go away: for if I do not go away, the Comforter will not come; but if I go away, I will send Him unto you” [John 16:7].
Deacon, I see you seated there on the end of the pew. If Jesus were here in the flesh, there would be a struggle on the part of everyone of us to get to Him, wherever He was. Deacon! Where are you—Jesus is [there]. And when you go to your house and shut your door, He is there in presence, in love, in power, in grace, in blessing. And deacon—you, and you, and you, and you, and you, and you—wherever you are, there He is—the Paraclete, the Helper alongside.
He is with us just as truly and as surely and as preciously as if He were here in the flesh. And as such, His ministries of blessing, and healing, and comforting, and directing are forever ours. There’s not any place that you can go that He is not. And there’s not any problem that you ever face that He cannot solve. It is just for us to bare our hearts to Him, and to lay our souls naked before Him, and to ask His benedictory hands upon us and His heavenly wisdom be ours. Jesus is alive! And He is here. And He blesses us, and strengthens us, and comforts us.
This is the paraklētos, the Paraclete, the Comforter, the presence of Jesus, the Spirit of the Lord in our hearts and in our lives. And as such, He is gathering together a new body, the mustērion, the new assembly into which the Jew, the Greek, the American, all of the families of the earth can belong [Ephesians 3:3-11]—children of the Lord, one faith; one hope; one Lord; one baptism, one love, one prayer, one vision, one dream, all of us together in the faith of Christ Jesus [Ephesian2:13-22; 4:4-5].
He has not forsaken us, nor has He done a wrong or injustice to us in going away. He has just made it for us that we are nearer heaven than we think, that we are certain of a victory when sometimes we may be discouraged. And we are one in Him and with each other. This did God plan for us when our Lord ascended into glory [Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-10].
I want to tell you how much I have enjoyed and been blessed in this hour. I have been preaching for forty minutes and have loved the unhurriedness of it. Lord, send us a cold spell every Sunday. I like it. I love to take the Book, see what it says, and see what it means. God has so many riches for us—we who are in this pilgrimage, His sheep here below.
And if in your heart you would like to be one of us, come and join today, “Pastor, I’d like for God to write my name in the Book of Life [Revelation 20:12, 15, 21:27]. I would love to be in Christ’s kingdom.” “Pastor, I would love to belong to this dear church, to be enrolled with the people of God in this holy place.” To give your heart to the Lord Jesus; to lift up your soul toward heaven; to be one of us in this fellowship, whether to be baptized into the body of Christ, or to come into the fellowship of the church by a statement or by a letter, or by a promise of a letter, or for any reason that the Spirit of Jesus would press the appeal to your heart, would you make that decision now? And in a moment when we stand up to sing, stand up walking down one of these aisles, walking down one of these stairways, “Here I am, pastor, today, I have made that decision. And I’m on the way. See, here I am.” Do it now! Make it now, while we stand and while we sing.