May 8, 1994

THE EXALTED CHRIST

After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrews 1:3).

Have you made any plans yet for this coming Thursday?  Is it marked on your calendar?  Probably not.

If I asked you about your Sunday, it would be different, of course.  It’s Mother’s Day.  You can’t forget it even if you try.  The folks who sell cards and flowers and candy won’t let you.  And I want to say to all you moms and grandmas out there:  Have a wonderful Mother’s Day.  I hope it’s a great day for families everywhere.

But now let me ask you again:  Are you getting excited about Thursday?  You may be scratching your head and wondering, What is so special about Thursday?  It’s not a public holiday, so work and school will go on as usual.  It’s not a “Hallmark holiday,” so there won’t be any cards or flowers or special dinners.  So what’s the big deal?

The Thursday which comes forty days after Easter isn’t exactly the high point of the year for most people.  With enough hints and reminders, some religious people might vaguely recall that it’s Ascension Day.  But even for most of them, it’s no big deal.  The calendar I have in front of me has lots of days marked.  It’s got Mother’s Day, of course, as well as many others.  Looking back a few months, I see it even has Groundhog Day.  But there’s no Ascension Day.  And this is a calendar with the name of a church and lots of Bible verses printed on it.  Groundhog Day makes it on the calendar, Groundhog Day even inspired a recent movie, but Ascension Day?  Very few people know when it is or pay any attention to it.

What’s Ascension Day all about?  The Bible says that after Jesus’ death and resurrection, he appeared to many people “and gave them convincing proofs that he was alive.  He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3).  On the fortieth day after Easter, Jesus was with his disciples.  According to the Bible, “he lifted up his hands and blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven.  Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24:50-52).

The Bible doesn’t give many details of how Jesus made the journey from earth to heaven.  It happened by God’s power, not human technology, and so we wouldn’t understand how God did it even if he told us.  The Bible’s emphasis isn’t on how Jesus left but on where he went.  Christ took his place with God the Father on the throne of heaven.  The Bible speaks again and again about this exaltation of Christ and about its enormous importance.

And yet the ascension is ignored by almost everyone, even by most Christians.  We tend to pay far more attention to Jesus’ birth and death and resurrection than to his ascension.  We think of what Jesus did on earth 2,000 years ago, but we don’t think much about what he is doing in heaven right now.  And what’s the result?  A faith which lacks much of the grandeur and power it ought to have, and an inability to see how our day-to-day life has anything to do with Christ.  Even people who are Christians find that their faith often seems irrelevant, so it’s no surprise if it has little impact or attraction for those who aren’t Christians at all.

Now, my main concern isn’t whether you observe Ascension Day as a special day on the calendar, though that is certainly a good thing to do.  But the really important thing is whether you have an ascension faith.  I’m glad my denomination has special services for Ascension Day because it reminds us to stay focused on the exalted Christ.  But even if you’re not part of a church tradition which observes Ascension Day each year, you need to live every day in the awareness of Christ’s ascension.  You need the exalted Christ to transform every dimension of your life.

Jesus isn’t just the man from Nazareth who taught us about God and died to take away our sins.  The Bible says, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).  Christ is supreme over the entire universe, and that inspires a sense of awe.

The apostle John was an intimate friend of Jesus during the Lord’s time on earth.  But when the exalted Christ came to John in a heavenly vision, his power and splendor were so overpowering that John fell at his feet as though dead.  John discovered that Christ is no longer a humble carpenter.  He’s not a pal we can take for granted or a buddy we can relate to casually with no sense of awe.  He is overwhelming beyond description.

But John also learned that the exalted Christ was still his friend.  As John lay there trembling, the Lord placed his hand on him and said, “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One;  I was dead, and behold, I am alive forever and ever!  And I hold the keys of death and Hades.”  Jesus is no ordinary friend, but he is a friend nevertheless.  When we know his majesty and power, we’ll be awestruck, but this sense of awe doesn’t change the fact that as a mighty King he is still just as much the friend of sinners as when he was a humble carpenter.

In heaven, Jesus is constantly representing us in bringing our prayers before God the Father.  Even in his exalted state, he is still human as well as divine.  Christ is exalted, but that doesn’t mean he’s forgotten what it’s like to live as a man in this broken world.  The Christ who has ascended and gone through the heavens is the very same Jesus who came down and lived on earth.  He knows what our troubles and temptations feel like, and he still identifies with us.  And this means we can pray with confidence, knowing he understands us.   The Bible says, Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet was without sin.  Let us then approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need” (Hebrews 4:14-16).

The exalted Christ represents humanity before God, and he is also reigning over the universe in accordance with God’s ultimate purpose.  God’s plan since before time began, says the apostle Paul, is “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).

There’s nothing so marvelous as being caught up in this great purpose and plan.  That’s why Paul says,

I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe.  That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come.  And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.  (Ephesians 1:17-23)

When God created the world, he decided to put everything under human authority.  He wanted men and women to rule the world on his behalf.  Isn’t that amazing?  In Psalm 8, David marvels that the mighty God who created this vast universe is interested in man and that the Lord has put everything under his feet.

In Hebrews 2, the Bible picks up on this theme and says, “In putting everything under him, God left nothing that is not subject to him.  Yet at present, we do not see everything subject to him.”  Isn’t that the truth?  So many things on earth don’t appear to be subject to human authority at all.  Floods, earthquakes, blizzards, hurricanes–we don’t control any of these things.  From huge climatic forces to tiny viruses such as HIV, to our own overpowering urges and desires, there is so much that we have not mastered at all.  We often seem helpless against the deadly powers of nature around us, and we seem just as helpless against the sinful nature within us.  In principle, God may have put everything under man’s feet, “yet at present, we do not see everything subject to him.”

“But,” continues Hebrews, “we see Jesus … crowned with glory and honor” (Hebrews 2:8-9).  When we look around, we don’t see everything subject to humanity.  But when we look up, we see one man to whom everything has been made subject.  The ultimate triumph of humanity, our authority over creation, and our victory over sin and death has already become a reality in the enthronement of Jesus Christ.  What people lost in the fall of Adam has been restored in the exaltation of Christ.

The Lord reigns, and through faith, you and I can reign with him.  The reign of the new humanity will be fully realized only when God’s new creation completely replaces the old, but meanwhile, if anyone is in Christ, he is already a new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).  We’re called to live right now in the light of the exaltation of Christ.

Shortly before his ascension to heaven, Jesus told his followers,

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.  And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20)

Notice that Jesus didn’t just say, “I have made it possible for people to be forgiven.”  He said, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.”  Jesus didn’t just tell the apostles, “Go and crusade for people to make decisions.”  He said, “Go and make disciples.”  He didn’t just say, “Teach them that if they believe in me, they will go to heaven when they die.”  He said, “Teach them to obey everything I have commanded you.”  Everything!  That’s comprehensive.  The exalted Christ isn’t just a Savior.  He is Master and Ruler, with absolute authority over all things.

A wholesome faith, then, is much more than the belief that Jesus died to bring us forgiveness and that he rose again so we could live forever.  That’s all true, of course–thank God, it’s true–but it’s not the whole truth. “After he had provided purification for sins,” says Hebrews 1:3, “he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.”  We don’t have a robust faith, a comprehensive faith until we embrace the exaltation of Christ, as well as his death and resurrection.  Christ is on the throne, and that means I must get off of my own little throne.  He is Lord of all, and that means that I must submit every part of my life to him and obey everything he has commanded.

The gospel is not just a set of facts to be believed or a gift of forgiveness to be received.  The gospel is a Majesty to be adored and an Authority to be obeyed.  The gospel is the ascended and exalted Christ, whose Holy Spirit unites his people with all that Christ is and with all that he has done–not just with his forgiveness and immortality but also with his glorious rule over all things.  The gospel is the declaration that God reigns with the purpose of bringing “all things in heaven and earth together under one head, even Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).

This means you can’t stuff the ascended Lord Jesus Christ into a little compartment of your life labeled “religion.”  He just won’t fit.  The Bible says that Jesus “who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe” (Ephesians 4:10).  Jesus came down to earth and then ascended again, not just to fill an hour on Sunday morning, not just to fill a longing for happiness, not just to fill a need for a supernatural boost, but “to fill the whole universe.”  The entire universe has been placed at the feet of the Lord Jesus Christ.  Every last bit of it will find its meaning and significance only in his fullness.  Every part of our lives must be shaped by this reality.

Knowing the exalted Christ will affect your work.  You don’t work just to get a paycheck or advance your career.  You don’t work just to meet the demands of your supervisor.  “Whatever you do,” says the Bible, “work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward.  It is the Lord Christ you are serving” (Colossians 3:23-24).

Knowing the exalted Christ will also shape your approach to education.  Before you decide where to enroll your children for school next fall, ask yourself:  Should my children learn to think about all sorts of subjects in a place where Jesus isn’t even mentioned?  Or should they have an education where the Lord is supreme in every area of study, where every thought is made obedient to Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5)?  I want my children to have a Christian education, because I believe not only in the crucified Jesus who saves our souls, but also in the exalted Christ who rules our lives and shapes our worldview.

The exalted Christ claims everything in the universe as his own.  He asserts his authority over you and me and everyone else and over every aspect of our lives.  There is not one person free of the obligation to recognize Christ as Lord and Master.  There is not one moment you live, not one relationship you value, not one decision you make, not one dollar you spend, not one subject you study, not one job you work at, not one leisure activity you enjoy, that is exempt from the rule of Christ.  There is not one aspect of life, not one square inch of creation, of which Christ does not say, “Mine!”

And so the only proper response is that you and I seek to submit all things to him and to resist all competitors to Christ.  We do this in the awareness that he must reign until he has put every last enemy under his feet, including death.  He will destroy every competing dominion, authority, and power until his victory is complete.  Then the end will come when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father.  Christ will submit himself along with the entire universe to his Father, “so that God may be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28).  That is where the universe is headed, and so you and I had better get on board right now.

We must be ready to say with the Book of Revelation, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign forever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).  “Hallelujah!  For our Lord God Omnipotent reigneth” (Revelation 19:6).

Hallelujah!  We’ve seen that the exalted Christ inspires a faith that is awe-filled and confident and comprehensive.  Here’s one more thing:  he inspires a faith that is courageous.  If you feel intimidated by the world around you, maybe it’s time you got to know the exalted Christ.

The Bible tells of an occasion shortly after Jesus’ ascension.  The apostles were arrested and threatened and told to stop talking about Jesus.  But they went right back to preaching.  So the high priest had them brought back in.  He told the apostles, “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name.  Yet you have filled Jerusalem with your teachings.”  But Peter and the other apostles replied,

We must obey God rather than men!  The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead–whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree.  God exalted him to his right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel.  We are witnesses of these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.

When you believe that God has exalted Jesus as Prince and Savior and that through his Holy Spirit you have a share in God’s great plan for the world, you have a courage that is beyond intimidation.  Why give up in the face of challenges?  Why cave into peer pressure or persecution, when you know that Christ has all power in heaven and on earth?  Why go along with the losing side?  The exalted Christ gives you and me the courage to say, “We must obey God rather than men!”

I know that I’m talking to some people who aren’t Christians at all.  Maybe you don’t take Jesus seriously; you think religion is just a matter of each person’s private feelings; Ascension Day means no more to you than Groundhog Day.  Or maybe you find Jesus fascinating, but you’re not willing to let him run your life.  Well, if that’s your situation, you need to know that the exalted Christ is someone you can’t ignore forever.  He is in charge of the universe whether you believe it or not, whether you like it or not, and the day is coming when you will answer to him.  You need to repent of your past and recognize who is in charge and submit your life to him right now.

I’m also talking to many Christians.  You trust that Jesus died to save you, you believe that his resurrection means you’ll live forever, but meanwhile, something is missing from your faith.  You need a fresh awareness of the exalted Christ.  If you’re bored, his grandeur will renew your sense of awe.  If your prayer life is weak, his intercession will renew your confidence.  If your faith seems irrelevant to everyday life, his supreme authority and all-embracing plan will renew the comprehensiveness and relevance of faith to every part of your life.  If you’re timid, his power and victory will give your courage in the face of negative pressure.  So if you want a truly robust faith, celebrate the ascension of Jesus, and give yourself fully to the exalted Christ.

PRAYER

Father in heaven, we praise you for your eternal plan to bring all things together in submission to Christ.  We praise you, Lord Jesus, for becoming one of us, for conquering sin and death, and for exalting our flesh and blood to the heights of heaven.  We rejoice in your reign, and we long for the day when God will be all in all.  Until then, O God, rule in our hearts and lives by your Holy Spirit, that we may worship and trust and obey you now and forever, through Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.