The Heavenly Ascension
November 28th, 1976 @ 10:50 AM
THE HEAVENLY ASCENSION
Dr. W. A. Criswell
11-28-76 10:50 a.m.
And there are thousands of you who are listening on radio and on television and with us here in God’s house; we welcome you in the name of the Lord. This is the pastor bringing the message entitled The Heavenly Ascension, and if God will help me, it is one of the most pertinent and one of the most blessed of all the messages that the pastor could find in the Word of God.
In our preaching through the Book of Acts we have come to the ninth verse, and I read it and the two following:
And when Jesus 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, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
Who said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven?
In the eleven recorded appearances of our Lord after He was raised from the dead [Matthew 28:5-7], this is the eleventh and the last [Acts 1:9-11]. From Jerusalem, with that little band of eleven apostles, our Lord walked with them across the Kidron and then up the long slope to the brow of Olivet.
And when they came to the top of the mountain the Lord paused, and the eleven apostles with Him. They stood there in rapt amazement, in a holy hush, in an intensest joy. And while the Lord spoke to them, He raised His nail-pierced hands in blessing [Luke 24:50], and as He did so the Scriptures say He was taken up [Acts 1:9], epairō—epairō is used to refer to a man who raises his voice; epairō refers to a man who raises His hands in prayer. And the word is used here, “While He extended His hands in blessing—epairō—He was lifted up, He was raised up, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him [Acts 1:9]—hupolambanō—literally, to take from underneath, and a cloud—not visible moisture, not a cloud such as you see in the sky, but the chariot of God, the shekinah glory of the Lord, the raiment of deity clothed Him, enveloped Him. And hupolambanō, to receive from underneath, to take from underneath, and a cloud lifted Him up from underneath. And out of their sight—apo, away from, ophthalmos, their eyes, ophthalmos, the word for eyes—and a cloud took Him from underneath, away from their natural eyes, ophthalmos. And when that happened they stood there, transfixed, amazed, astonished, looking up into heaven [Acts 1:9-10].
And as they stood there in transfixion, in wonder, in rapture, in amazement, behold there were two angels who came down from heaven; interrupting messengers, angels not with a sword or even a rod, but angels dressed with white raiment and said, “Why?” [Acts 1:10-11]. Standing there gazing into heaven, “Why?” Sometimes our hearts lead us into actions that are difficult to explain and more difficult to defend, like going to a grave to weep, “Why?” Does it do any good? Does it change anything? No. Just something dictated by our hearts. “Why?” And those apostles standing there in transfixion and amazement, “Why?” said the angel. “Why?” [Acts 1:9-10].
Why was our Lord taken away? He is seen no more with our visible eyes in the congregation of the righteous. And His voice, visibly, is heard no more among the saints, and His chair is empty at the table. Why is He taken away? All of us have a comrade of communion and understanding. When the two disciples at Emmaus said to our Lord, “Come and abide with us” [Luke 24:29], and they constrained Him to stay; we are like that with our Lord. “Stay with us, abide with us,” and we would constrain our Lord to do so.
Just think if He were here in the flesh, there are a thousand frustrations that we could overcome, a million difficulties that would dissolve. There would be victory in the march of the kingdom of God throughout this earth, if only the Lord were here. We think, we suppose His presence would be worth that of ten thousand apostles; if we had His words of wisdom to guide us in every decision. And think of the power of His miracle-working hands; we could bring to Him all of our sick [Matthew 11:4-5]. We could even lay our dead at His feet, and they would live again. Think of how He could confound and confront the enemies of God. And think of the evangelization of the world if only He were leading, visibly, in the flesh, this great army of Christian saints [Matthew 28:18-20]. Why? In our reading the Holy Word and in our praying over these pages, there come definite and conclusive and heavenly answers to that question, “Why the Lord was taken away into heaven and shut away from our physical eyes?”
He said in the sixteenth chapter of the Gospel of John, verses 6 and 7, “It is expedient for you that I go away” [John 16:6-7]—it is best for us—now why is it best? Number one: what has happened has come to pass in the plan and purpose and elective choice of God. His sheep down here below are not to suppose that a tragedy has overtaken us and that our Lord has forsaken us. Not so. He is there as alive, as loving, as interested, as committed to us as He ever was [Romans 8:34; Hebrews 7:25].
Now these rejecters and despisers and scorners, they say to us, “Your Christianity has spun out. The kingdom of God has come to an end. Your Lord is taken away, and you don’t know where He is or if you will ever see Him again. And His great power and miracle-working hands are no longer with you. This is the end of your way and the defeat of your message.” That’s what they way.
No, our Lord has just changed His field of vision and supervision. Our Lord has just left this earth to go up the hills, there to be seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high [Hebrews 1:3]. And all authority, all power in heaven and in earth has been given unto Him [Matthew 28:11]. And from that vantage and strategic point of glory, He surveys the whole field of battle and directs His kingdom’s work in the earth. He has not forsaken us [Hebrews 13:5]. He is there for our sakes to guide and to direct us [Psalm 32:8] in all of these vast kingdom commitments and movements and strategies, and someday He is coming again [Acts 1:11]—in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at any hour, the great Leader and King of the marshal forces of God in the earth will appear [1 Corinthians 15:52].
Second: why did He leave? In order that our hearts, and our prayers, and our vision, and our hopes might be lifted upward and upward and upward, heavenward and God-ward and Christ-ward. It is as [Colossians 3:2] says, “Set your affections upon things above, not upon the things of the world.” And as Philippians 3:20 avows, “For our politeuma—our citizenship, our commonwealth—is in heaven; from whence we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Our Lord is in heaven [Acts 1:9-11]. He was raised up into glory that our hearts, and our affections, and our prayers, and our dreams, and our every prospect might be upward, God-ward, and heavenward. And to all of us who have found a Savior in Him, there is always that pull toward God, that lifting up of our faces and our hearts and our hands toward God. There is an upwardness in the Christian faith that is felt and real. We hear God’s voice call, and we sense God’s presence up and up and up and always heavenward.
I one time heard of a farmer in southern Louisiana that captured one of those great mallard ducks and tied it with a cord to a stake at the edge of the pond. And all in the wintertime that great mallard swam around there with those domestic ducks and ate from the hand of the farmer. When the springtime came, when resurrection time came, when the new life of a new year came, all of those other wild ducks that had flown south and were wintering down there in the marshes and ponds and waters of southern Louisiana, they began to rise, and circling began to fly toward the north. And when those flocks arose, they saw that great mallard down there on the pond in that farmer’s yard, and they called to him from the sky. All of those other domesticated ducks didn’t hear, didn’t see, didn’t raise their eyes to look, they just swam in complacency and placidity on the farmer’s pond. But that mallard, that great mallard, when the call was sounded from the skies, lifted up his ears, and lifted up his eyes, and lifted up his face, and then lifted up his wings and sought to rise, and that cord tied to the stake pulled him back down. But flock after flock arose, circled and called, and each time the great mallard would rise, and one time he broke the cord and joined the throng and moved toward the north.
That is exactly like the child of God. The world is content down here below; their investments are here, their life is here, their interest is here, their happiness is here, their dreams are here, their purposes are here, everything that they look forward to, all of it is here. But not a child of God. No, for he hears the call from heaven, and he lifts up his heart, and he lifts up his eyes, and he lifts up his ears, and he lifts up his hands, and he lifts up his heart; for his life is hid with Christ and God in heaven [Colossians 3:3].
Thus hath the Lord done for us who have looked in faith to Him [Ephesians 2:8], for you see all that we treasure and all that we hold dear is gathering in heaven. If you live long enough, your mother will be gone, your father will be gone, every member of your family will be gone, all of your friends will be gone, they’ll be over there. And if the Lord were here and all whom we love are over there, what an infinite sadness.
No, the Lord is there and He is waiting there, and our loved ones gradually are crossing over to there. And someday our time will come, for our inheritance is not here; it is there [1 Peter 1:4]. Our home is not here; it is there [Philippians 3:20]. All of our treasures are not here; they are there. The old-timers used to sing,
I am a stranger here,
Heav’n is my home;
Earth is a desert drear,
Heav’n is my home.
Sorrows and dangers stand round me on every hand;
Heav’n is my fatherland, Heav’n is my home.
[“I’m But a Stranger Here,” Thomas R. Taylor]
Our Lord is there, awaiting us in our day and in our time. We’re to lift up our hearts to heaven whence and whither our Lord has gone [Acts 1:9-10].
Third: why did the Lord go away? Why His ascension into glory? In order that we might learn to live by faith and not by sight [2 Corinthians 5:7]. For the Christian faith is ever one of spiritual substance and content. If the Lord were here in this world, there would be a perpetual embargo and moratorium on faith. There would be struggles, from one side of this planet to the other, to get to Him, just to look at Him, feast our eyes upon Him, to bring to Him our sick, to lay before Him our dead. It would be almost unimaginable.
But the Christian faith is not that. The Christian faith in its substance is always invisible and unseen. Remember what Paul wrote at the conclusion of the fourth chapter of 2 Corinthians:
For though this outward man perish—
made of dust and corrupting—
for though the outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day.
While we look not upon the things that are seen, but upon the things that are not seen: for the things that are seen are temporal
[2 Corinthians 4:16, 18]
The flower that fades, the grass that withers [Isaiah 40:8], the very heavens and earth shall pass away [Matthew 24:35]:
While we look not on the things that are seen, but upon the things that are not seen:
for the things that are seen are temporal—
but the things that are not seen are eternal.
[2 Corinthians 4:18]
And remember the concluding verse, “For we know,” all of us who have looked in faith to Jesus:
For we know that if the earthly house of this tabernacle be dissolved,
we have a house not made with hands eternal in the heavens.
For we walk by faith, not by sight.
[2 Corinthians 5:1, 7]
The realities of God are always invisible and spiritual. They are eternal and never temporal [2 Corinthians 4:18]. That’s why in the Christian religion we are looking up. Our expectancy is in heaven; our sanctuary is in heaven. Actually this is a meeting house. Our altar is in heaven. Our Sacrifice is in heaven. Our great High Priest is in heaven. We have in Him a spiritual faith and a spiritual religion; it is not seen with the naked eye, the opthalmus, it is optō, hidden away from our natural eyes, that we might see with the eyes of faith [2 Corinthians 4:18].
Is not that in the eleventh chapter of the Book of Hebrews, writing of Moses? Listen. “He endured, as seeing Him who is invisible” [Hebrews 11:27]. It is a poor faith that has to place its fingers in the nail prints in His hands, that has to thrust the hand in the riven scar of His side [John 20:25-27]. It is God’s spiritual faith that we look up and see, with the eyes of the soul, into heaven where our Lord has gone [1 Thessalonians 1:10].
Why the ascension of our Savior into glory? Number four: it is because He is there, a faithful High Priest, and mighty Mediator, an omnipotent Intercessor and Savior for us who are down here in this world [Hebrews 7:25]. Our great, Almighty Representative is in heaven [Acts 7:55-56], there to secure for us an eternal salvation [John 10:28], and an everlasting inheritance [1 Peter 1:4]. Tell me, who is it that entered into heaven? Who is it that ascended from the top of Mount Olivet? [Acts 1:9-10]. Who is He?
Ah, some say that was a melting phantom and a disappearing apparition. And those disciples were standing there gazing up at a myth and a dream. Is that so? Who is this that ascended up into heaven? It is the Lord Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, and today, and for ever! [Hebrews 13:8] It is the God-man of flesh and bone [Luke 24:39]. It is the risen and resurrected Lord Jesus Christ [Matthew 28:5-7]. It is He that has entered into heaven! [Acts 1:9-10].
Do you remember [1 Timothy 3:16]? “Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels” [1 Timothy 3:16]. They had watched Him in eternity [John 1:1, 14]. They were present when He was born [Luke 2:9-15]. They continue their interest and surveillance and care and love throughout His ministry [Matthew 4:11]. They saw Him buried in the tomb [Matthew 27:57-61], when He was crucified [Matthew 27:32-50]. And they rolled away the stone [Matthew 28:2], and were present when He was raised from the dead [Matthew 28:5-7]. Seen of angels! [1 Timothy 3:16]. And they welcomed Him back to glory! [Acts 1:9-10].
If you want to read His reception in heaven, read the fifth chapter of the Apocalypse, the Revelation [Revelation 5:1-14]. If you would know how it was that He entered into heaven, read the fourth chapter of the Book of Ephesians when He ascended up on high, carrying captivity captive [Ephesians 4:8]. Seen of the angels! [1 Timothy 3:16]. It is the Lord Jesus who entered into heaven and who is there at the right hand of the Majesty on high [Hebrews 1:3]; our Brother who lived our lives, and walked our earth, and died our death, and suffered our sorrows, and wept our tears, and lived our lives, touched with the feeling, the sympathy of our infirmities [Hebrews 4:14-16].
That’s why the author of Hebrews is so bold to avow in 7 and verse 25: “Wherefore He is able to save to the uttermost them who come unto God by Him, seeing He ever liveth to make intercession for them” [Hebrews 7:25]. Or as Romans 5:10: “For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by His death, much more, being reconciled, shall we be saved by His life!” What life? The life down here in earth? No! Reconciled to God by His death, now absolutely forever saved by His life in heaven! [Romans 5:10]. He ever liveth to make intercession for us; our salvation is assured [Hebrews 7:25]. We shall certainly inherit what God hath prepared for us who have looked in faith to Him [1 Corinthians 2:9].
Think of it. If I could send a representative man to heaven to secure for me my inheritance in glory, if I could choose the ablest among men and he was my representative in glory, he might fail, but our Lord will not fail. My assurance is forever and ever. He will not fail. You see, my life down here is hid in His [Colossians 3:3], and my life in heaven is hid in Him, and whether I live here or I live there, it is the Christ life that we live. And if He tarries and there awaits for us a garden and a tomb and a winding sheet, the same Holy Spirit that raised Him from the dead shall raise us from the dead [Romans 8:11], “For the Lord Himself shall descend from heaven with a shout, with a voice of the archangel, with a trump of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first” [1 Thessalonians 4:16].
We are identified with Him, and He is alive, and we cannot die. Tonight at 7:30 o’clock I shall preach on Death: Terrible or Triumphant. O Lord, what it is to live for Thee, to die with Thee, to be raised with Thee, and to ascend into heaven with Thee.
Five, and last: why did our Lord ascend into heaven? Not only is it the plan and purpose of God for us [John 16:6-7]; not only is it that we lift up our hearts and our visions and our prayers heavenward [Philippians 3:20; Colossians 3:2]; not only is it that we might learn to live by faith and not by sight [2 Corinthians 5:7]; and not only is He there to assure our inheritance that we shall make it [1 Peter 1:4]. Shall I fall into hell? Shall I live for Christ and then before I die, fall into some abysmal sin or iniquity and fail of the gates of glory? No, sir. No, sir. He is there to assure that I shall make it too. Now number five: why did the Lord go away? “It is expedient for you,” He said, “that I go away: for if I go not away,” the paraklētos, the Paraclete, the King James Version translates the untranslatable word, “the Comforter will not come; but if I go away, I will send Him unto you that He may abide with you for ever” [John 16:7], parakaleō, the Helper, the One alongside, the One who is here, here, here. “If I go away, I will send Him unto you,” even the Spirit of truth—the Spirit of Jesus, “that He may abide with you for ever” [John 14:16-17].
If our Lord were here in the flesh, as I said a moment ago, the entire world would be striving to get to Him. Where is the Lord? He is here. Each one of you, He is with you [1 Corinthians 6:19-20]. If there are two thousand of us here today, and two thousand of us bow our heads to say grace at the table at our noonday meal, guess who will be listening? He will, for He is with each one of us wherever in the world that we are.
And if at the same time Dr. Naylor bows in Bangalore, India, and prays God to bless the genius of her hand as she operates in our Baptist hospital, at that same time I may be kneeling at my desk asking God to bless me as I expound this Word of the Lord, and she will feel His presence in Bangalore. Many times I feel His presence so deeply that I weep, yet I am perfectly alone. Wherever we are, there He is. “It is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go away, I will send Him, the Spirit of Jesus, the paraklētos [John 16:7], that He may abide with you for ever” [John 14:16-17].
Do you want to know the way? He will tell you. Ask Him. Do you need strength for some assignment that’s beyond you? Ask Him. Do you need grace when maybe the doctor says it is terminal? Ask Him. He will be there to sustain. And do you need assurance that when this body is laid in the grave that His Spirit will take you to heaven, send angels for your soul?
O precious cross! O glorious crown! O resurrection day!
The angels from the stars come down and bear my soul away.
[from “Must Jesus Bear the Cross Alone,” Thomas Shepherd]
That’s why He went away into heaven, preparing for the day of our coming, and walking, and working, and comforting, and helping, and ministering by our sides, that we might be assured of our heavenly inheritance [1 Peter 1:4].
After the service was over this morning, I told the people, in a great art museum I saw a picture that I wished I could exhibit here in this church. It was a picture of Christ Among the Lowly; that was the title of it. The artist had drawn a very poor home and a very poor family, and there in the picture, they’re seated at a table, a father and a mother and those ragged children, and they were bowing their heads, saying grace over those few crumbs. And the artist had drawn, up above them, the Savior with His hands extended in blessing. You tell me, had you rather be in a palatial home without Jesus, or had you rather be in that poor man’s cottage and the Lord’s hand extended in blessing up above? That’s the riches we have in Christ Jesus, and they are ours for ever and ever [Colossians 2:3].
And that’s what we would share with you this day: to open your heart heavenward and God-ward and let the Lord Jesus live in your soul and in your home and in your life, walking by your side, leading you in the path of glory, assuring you of a home in heaven. And it is ours for the taking from His gracious and nail-pierced hands [Romans 10:9-10, 13].
Would you receive Him today? Would you? [Ephesians 2:8]. However the Spirit shall press the appeal to your heart, make the decision now and answer with your life. “Pastor, the Lord would have me be baptized into the fellowship of His church and I’m on the way.” “Pastor, the Lord has bid us to place life and family, children and home with you in the communion of this precious congregation, and we’re coming.” A family, a couple, or just you, there’s a stairway; walk down it. Here’s an aisle; come down it. Make the decision now, giving your heart to Jesus, putting your life with us in the church, or answering some call from heaven, and when we stand in a moment to sing, stand answering with your life: “Here I am, pastor. Look, I’m standing here by your side.” Do it now; make it now; come now, while we stand and while we sing.