May 23, 2014 Broadcast


A Message by R.C. Sproul

Christians spend a great deal of time thinking about the birth, death, resurrection, and Second Coming of Jesus, but the ascension of Christ is often overlooked. Yet the ascension was the event that marked Christ's enthronement, His return to glory. In this lecture, Dr. R.C. Sproul explains why the ascension of Christ is so significant.

From the series: What Did Jesus Do?: Understanding the Work of Christ

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    Home to Glory

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    The Ascension of the Son of Man

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    The Ascension

Home to Glory

John Sartelle

“He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16). If you had been a follower of Christ in first-century Ephesus, you would have probably recited or sung those words. Those six phrases were recorded poetically by Paul as either a confession often repeated by Christians or as part of a hymn of praise sung about Jesus. There is not enough space in this brief article to mine the gold found in each of those phrases. So we will focus just on the final four words: “taken up in glory.”

Ascension Day was last month on May 21, 2009. It traditionally falls forty days after Easter, the day we celebrate the resurrection of Jesus. On Ascension Day we do not commemorate Jesus’ departure from earth. Rather, we celebrate His ascension to heaven — His return to glory — but most of us do not have that date marked. We all know the dates for Christmas and Easter. Why don’t we revel in His ascension as we do in His incarnation and resurrection? Perhaps it is because the incarnation and resurrection happened here on earth. The ascension culminated beyond our sight and hearing. We did not see it, but there was great celebration in heaven when the Son returned home. Some of our older readers remember the homecoming of soldiers after World War II. You remember the parades, the headlines, the parties. Surely those celebrations were tame compared to the celebration when Jesus, Son of God and Son of Man, came home.

He was home and His mission was completed. He was home and His work was finished. Throughout the New Testament, Jesus is pictured as seated at the right hand of the Father: “After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (Heb. 1:3). Heaven sang and rejoiced because the Lord returned victorious. The ordeal of the cross was over. Redemption had been accomplished; therefore, He was seated.

Every time we think we have not done enough — every time we are tempted to think that there is something left for us to do to win our salvation — we need to remember, Jesus is seated.

The ascended Jesus is not only seated, He is seated on a throne:

“Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:9–11).

In the book of Revelation, Jesus is represented with many different symbols: the Lamb, the warrior King, the Lion of Judah. No matter the symbol or title, where do you find Him — where is He located? He is always on the throne, reigning and ruling. The book of Revelation was written to a persecuted and suffering church to remind her that Jesus was, right then, King of kings and Lord of lords. One of the major themes of the book of Revelation is: “Jesus reigns.”

There are many Christians who believe it is their duty to fight to make the reign of Christ happen. We might as well be fighting so that the sun will rise tomorrow morning. Jesus is reigning. We do live in this world praying that our neighbors will acknowledge Christ’s reign in all of life. When Jesus returns He will not be coming to take the throne. His coming will prove His reign once and for all — that He is indeed the King.

Finally, when Jesus ascended, there was a glorious reception: “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8). In ancient cultures, the victorious general returned home from battles to great parades with the spoils of victory in his train. The triumphant Roman general entered Rome in a great chariot, wearing his toga picta lined with silver and gold. Behind him trailed the conquered kings, generals, and their armies. Paul was using the Roman parade of triumph as a metaphor picturing the glorification of Christ in heaven. He went home to glory and in His train were the conquered: sin and death. In His train was a fallen world redeemed.

In His incarnation, the Son descended into gross humiliation. He left heaven for a hovel on earth. He came as a baby to a feed trough and was forced to flee to Egypt from a petty, paranoid king. He endured a farce of a trial and was crucified on a Roman cross (too ignominious for Roman citizens) while men mocked Him and spat on Him. Such a battle had never been fought previously nor has been since. So when the King returned home He received a name that was above every name, and all of heaven rang with praise. The Lion of Judah ascended and took the scroll, and heaven cried, “Worthy are you to take the scroll.” You can spend some time in Revelation 5 if you want to read about the triumphant homecoming in more detail. However, Paul only needed four words: “taken up in glory.”  

The Ascension of the Son of Man

We have been considering how the original audience of Daniel 7 would have understood the chapter and how it should inform our application of the text today. Given what we have said about Daniel 2, it is best to view the four beasts in 7:1–8 as representing four empires—Babylon, Media-Persia, Greece, and Rome. These empires were all known to Daniel's first readers as once-mighty powers in decline (Babylon), powers ruling currently (Media-Persia), or powers gaining strength (Greece and Rome), so the chapter's original audience could actually relate to his vision. And what Daniel told them was incredible.

During the reign of the fourth empire, Rome, the Ancient of Days would judge it decisively and give an eternal kingdom to "one like a son of man" (7:9–14). Of course, this ruler is Jesus the Messiah, who was born at the height of Rome's power. He preferred the title Son of Man above all others, and today's passage indicates that Daniel 7 defined His understanding of it (Matt. 24:29–31). As the fulfillment of Daniel 7, He is fully God and rides the Almighty's cloud-chariot, yet He can also be distinguished from the Ancient of Days. Under the new covenant, we recognize Him as the Son of God, the second person of the Holy Trinity, to whom His Father grants all authority in heaven and on earth (Matt. 28:18–20).

However, Rome did not fall during the first century, so how can we view God making a decisive judgment on the Roman Empire? First, given the symbolism of apocalyptic literature, the fourth beast can stand for both Rome and evil in general, and Jesus triumphed over Satan on the cross (Col. 2:15). Second, within a few hundred years of our Lord's ministry, Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. His work provided for the eventual conversion of His enemies. Finally, Rome did not crucify the Son of God—the most evil act of all—alone; rather, it worked hand in hand with the Jewish Sanhedrin, which actually instigated our Lord's execution. In AD 70, God judged this generation of impenitent Jews when He allowed the Roman general Titus to destroy Jerusalem. Today's passage, in fact, is tied in its original context to that destruction, which can be regarded as part of the entire complex of events surrounding the vindication of the Son of Man, His ascension on the clouds of heaven, and His session at the right hand of God the Father to rule and to reign over all creation (Matt. 24:15–28). Jerusalem's fall and Christ's ascension revealed Him as Lord of all, which Daniel foresaw hundreds of years beforehand.œ

The Ascension

R.C. Sproul

These men had spent three years in a state of unspeakable joy. They had witnessed what no human beings before them had ever seen in the entire course of history. Their eyes peered openly at things angels themselves longed to look into but were unable. Their ears heard what ancient saints had a fierce desire to hear with their own ears. These men were the disciples of Jesus of Nazareth. They were His students. They were His companions. Where He went, they went. What He said, they heard. What He did, they saw with their own eyes. These were the original eyewitnesses of the earthly ministry of the Son of God.

But one day, these men heard from the lips of their teacher the worst of all possible news. Jesus told them that He was leaving them. He told them that the days of their intimate companionship in this world were coming to a hasty end. Imagine the shock and profound panic that filled the hearts of these disciples when Jesus said that it was just about over.

In John 16 we read what Jesus said: “‘A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me.’ So some of his disciples said to one another, ‘What is this that he says to us, “A little while, and you will not see me, and again a little while, and you will see me”; and, “because I am going to the Father”?’ So they were saying, ‘What does he mean by “a little while”? We do not know what he is talking about.’

“Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, ‘Is this what you are asking yourselves, what I meant by saying, “A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me”? Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you’” (John 16:16–22).

Just shortly before this enigmatic statement, Jesus had said to His disciples: “But now I am going to him who sent me, and none of you asks me, ‘Where are you going?’ But because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.” (vv. 5–7).

In the first instance, Jesus says that their hearts will not simply be touched by sorrow or grief or disappointment, but there will be a fullness of sorrow that saturates the chambers of their hearts. They will be overcome with grief. Their mourning will reach the limits of its human capacity. But Jesus says the condition that they will experience will be temporary, that the sense of abandonment they may feel for a moment will give way to unspeakable joy.

Jesus also explains why He must leave them. He says that it is expedient or necessary for Him to go away so that the disciples may be filled with the Holy Spirit. What sounds like an absolute disadvantage, Jesus promises will turn into an advantage. In Acts 1:9–11 we read, “And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’” The disciples watched Jesus leave them. They gazed, staring intently into the heavens as long as their eyes had any sight of Him, at which point two angels came and asked them why they were staring into heaven. The angels then told them that the same Jesus who visibly and bodily ascended would come in like manner at a later time.

Luke tells us in his gospel account of the ascension (24:50–53): “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.” We notice here the complete fulfillment of what Jesus had predicted — the fullness of their sorrow that had completely engulfed them at the hearing of the news of His departure, had given way not only to contentment, not only to acceptance, not only to joy, but to a great and fulfilling joy. They returned from their last sight of Jesus with their hearts filled with elation. How can that be? The obvious answer is found in that the disciples came to understand the significance of the ascension. As hard as it was to fathom, they came to believe that Jesus’ absence from them was of more benefit than His bodily presence with them, the reason being where He was going and what He was about to undertake.

In John 3:13 Jesus declared, “No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.” That verse sounds difficult at first glance when we realize that in the Old Testament, Enoch ascended into heaven in the sense that he was carried there, as was Elijah when the chariots of fire lifted him up into the heavens. When Jesus speaks of ascension, He’s not speaking of merely “going up.” He is speaking of something in technical terms. He is thinking in terms of the Psalms of Ascent that celebrated the anointing of a king (Pss. 120–34). When Jesus says no one ascends into heaven, it is true that no one ascends or goes to heaven in the same manner or for the same purpose that He went there. He was lifted up on clouds of glory in order to go to His Father for the purpose of His coronation as our King — as the King of kings and the Lord of lords. He ascended into heaven to fulfill His role as our Great High Priest, interceding for His people daily. So as He sits at the right hand of the Father, exercising His lordship over the whole world and His intercession before the Father on behalf of His people, He improves our condition dramatically. Not only this, but before Pentecost could come and the Holy Spirit could be poured out upon the church, empowering the church for its missionary enterprise to the whole world, it was necessary for Christ to ascend so that together with the Father He might dispatch from heaven the Holy Spirit in all of His power.

As hard as it is to imagine, the condition that we enjoy right now on this side of the atonement, on this side of the resurrection, this side of the ascension, and this side of Pentecost is, redemptively speaking, a greater situation than that which the disciples enjoyed during their three-year tenure in the presence of the Lord Jesus. We celebrate the ascension because we celebrate our King.

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