In 1961 Yuri Gagarin, a Soviet Cosmonaut, became the first man to fly in space. Later that year the leader of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, said this:
"As to paradise, we have heard a lot about it from the priests. So we decided to find out for ourselves. First we sent up our explorer, Yuri Gagarin. He circled the globe and found nothing in outer space. It's pitch dark there, he said; no Garden of Eden, nothing like heaven. So we decided to send another. We sent Gherman Titov and told him to fly for a whole day. After all, Gagarin was up there only an hour and a half. So he might have missed paradise. We told him to take a good look. Well, he took off, came back and confirmed Gagarin's conclusion. He reported there was nothing there."
The Soviet leader claimed, tongue in cheek, that they sent men into space to find out if God and heaven really existed – but they found nothing.
Tonight we come to the line in the Apostles Creed which reports quite a different experience: the ascension of Jesus Christ, a man as physically real as Yuri Gagarin, going up into the sky and into Heaven. The particular line in the creed the line is this: He [Jesus] ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
The ascension is talked about a fair bit in the Bible and so we're going to jump around the Bible a bit and think about it under three headings:
Sin is conquered forever Jesus rules forever With Jesus forever
1. Sin is Conquered Forever
Let's just read together the narrative of Jesus' ascension in the book of Acts. Please turn with me to Acts 1 which is on page 768. And we'll read from verse 4:
4 On one occasion, while he [Jesus] was eating with them, he gave them this command: "Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. 5 For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit."
6 So when they met together, they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom toIsrael?"
7 He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses inJerusalem, and in all Judea andSamaria, and to the ends of the earth."
9 After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.
So that is what we mean by 'the ascension' – Jesus, after his earthly ministry, ascending as a man into the sky. "He was taken up before their very eyes" – that is to say this really happened - "and a cloud hid him from their sight." Now it's easy to think the cloud talked of here, as nothing more than your average fluffy Cumulonimbus, but that would be somewhat short-sighted. Throughout the Bible the presence of God is often revealed in the form of a cloud. For example when the Tabernacle in the Old Testament was finished we read this:
Then the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle. Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting because the cloud had settled upon it, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle.
Similarly I believe the cloud spoken of in Acts chapter 1 is not just a cloud but the very presence and glory of God. Which makes the ascension of Jesus into the sky rather more than just a Superman stunt. It is God the Son going to be with God the Father. And that place, where they are, is what we refer to in shorthand as 'Heaven'.
Now we have to understand the ascension within the full scope of Scripture and particularly the life and work of Jesus. And taken within this context the first thing that has to be said about the ascension is that it shows that sin has been conquered forever.
Last week Dan said that Bible-believing Christians tend to think about the cross in such a way that separates it from the resurrection. We understand that Jesus died to pay for our sins on the cross but then think of the resurrection as a nice almost poetic ending, whereas the two are in fact a package of Christ's redeeming work. I would suggest we might have made exactly the same mistake with the ascension. Jesus' victory over sin was won at the cross, announced in the resurrection and sealed by the ascension.
Let me put it another way. What changes if Jesus had died on the cross, rose from the dead, appeared to the disciples, lived to around 75 and then died again? Everything changes because it makes a mockery of what Jesus is meant to have achieved. If Jesus had in the end succumb to the curse of sin, which is death, it would mean his victory through the cross and resurrection was temporary – which isn't much of a victory.
A month ago the US golfer Zach Johnson beat the Northern Irishman Graeme McDowell in a very important match play competition. However, his victory is barely remembered. That's because Zach Johnson and Graeme McDowell were playing in the Ryder Cup – which is a team event. So while Zach Johnson won his match, the United States actually ended up losing (in spectacular fashion). His victory was temporary and, ultimately, futile.
Jesus' victory over sin and death was not temporary and is not meaningless because he is still alive and reigning this very day. As surely as he physically went to be with his father he is still there right now.
King David's tomb is apparently in Jerusalem. In India you can go to where the cremated remains of Buddha are meant to be. The Apostle John's resting place is said to be Ephesus, modern day Turkey. You can go to Medina in Saudi Arabia and see the tomb of Mohammed. St Francis of Assisi's tomb is in Italy. Martin Luther's body is in Wittenburg,Germany. Joseph Stalin's tomb is just outside the Kremlin in Moscow. And Charles Darwin was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey.
Many millions of people will go and visit these tombs, graves and shrines every year and pay their respects to those who lie there. You can't go anywhere to find the resting place of Jesus Christ because he's not resting and he's not dead. The person in whom we put our hope has not succumb to the curse of sin, in death – he's conquered it forever. When you trust in the righteousness of Jesus, your sin is absolutely and completely dealt with. Which means two big things:
First, stop trying to fix your sin and find righteousness in other ways too. That might mean living in a constant state of guilt and unworthiness. Don't get me wrong, we are all guilty and unworthy but Christ is alive in Heaven that we might be saved out of that condition. Repentance is something we will all need to keep doing until the day we die. But repentance is moving towards Christ and towards joy, not emotionally and repeatedly punching ourselves in the face. Alternatively a lack of faith in Christ's conquering of sin can lead to precisely the other extreme. Which is a self-righteousness that accepts the forgiveness offered through the cross and then tries to improve upon it. May be that's through just trying really hard in your own strength and not leaning on God. Or may be that's through seeing you identity and sense of worth in what you're able to do, may be particularly at church or in Christian circles. Personally I find myself swinging between both these extremes. One minute being massively pleased with my accomplishments and just what a remarkable Christian I am. Then the next minute I'm in the throws of despair at just how hopeless I am.
The second big thing that knowing sin is conquered forever should bring about is a life not ruled by sin. The application point of sin being conquered forever is not 'wahay let's go sin some more!' The Bible says that every person is born as a slave to sin – sin is their master. But for the Christian they are no longer a slave to sin – they are no longer ruled by their sinful desires. They have been saved and saved that they might serve Christ – that He would be their master. That means the fact of sin being conquered forever should mean we stop messing around doing stupid things as if nothing has changed in our lives – as if Christ didn't really die, rise and ascend.
Sin is conquered forever because Jesus is alive and reigning. Which brings us to our second point:
2. Jesus Rules Forever
So we've read Luke's narrative of the ascension in Acts. The ascension of Jesus is also mentioned in numerous other places throughout the New Testament. Let's have a look at one of those now in Ephesians chapter 1 which is on page 825, reading from verse 18:
18 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, 19 and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, 20 which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 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. 22 And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.
Here, the Apostle Paul, unpacks a little more of the significance of Christ's ascension into Heaven: "That power is like the working of his" (that is God the Father's) "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". So what's the deal with being seated at the 'right hand'? The same phrase is repeated in regard to Jesus' ascension no less than fifteen times in the New Testament. All seems a bit leftist doesn't it? The Bible often refers to 'the right hand of God' as being God's strength and power. Such as in Exodus 15:
Your right hand, Lord, was majestic in power. Your right hand, Lord, shattered the enemy.
In addition, to be seated at the right hand of the king is a position of great privilege and authority. We see this most clearly when Jesus is on trial before the religious leaders:
The high priest said to him, "I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God."
"You have said so," Jesus replied. "But I say to all of you: From now on you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One…
The High Priest new exactly what Jesus was saying – He was levelling himself with God. Which why in response the High Priest cries "Blasphemy!" and Jesus is then charged with the death penalty.
Back in our Ephesians passage Paul makes the claim to authority that Jesus has absolutely explicit, verse 20:
when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, 21 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. 22 And God placed all things under his feet…
In other words, Jesus rules everything forever. Jesus did not go to Heaven and retire to a life of passivity. He rules every thing right now. But it doesn't always feel like that does it? And it wouldn't have done for the Ephesian readers either. They lived in the city of Ephesus(modern-day Turkey), which existed within the awesomely powerfully Roman empire. The Roman Empire was not always kind to it's Christian citizens and was at the time utterly pagan. In fact, the Christians in Ephesus shared a city with one of the seven ancient wonders of the ancient world – a huge pagan temple to Artemis. The rule and authority, power and dominion in Ephesus would have very much felt like the pagan Roman Empire.
But Paul is unequivocal in the extent of Christ's reign. Paul does not say the Jesus is just in charge of all your emotions, or all your values, or what you do on a Sunday, or your theology, or church. Jesus is in charge all those things but he's also in charge of everything else as well. There is no authority, human or spiritual that exists outside of the rule of Christ. Your boss, traffic wardens, parents, Fidel Castro, the next Archbishop of Canterbury and the devil himself all fall within the dominion of Jesus Christ. Every rule, every authority, every power, every dominion, every title. All things.
So how come it doesn't always feel like that? What we shouldn't imagine is that the rule of Jesus is like Star Wars where there is a tussle between two roughly equal powers of good and evil. Jesus may not always seem to be in charge but the Bible repeatedly and with piercing clarity states that he is. The rebellion against God all around us is allowed to continue by God, for a time, but that does not call into question the absolute and eternal rule of Jesus. It's a bit like when the teacher leaves the classroom for a moment and you and your school mates relax into a state of slight disorder and abandon. Only to later discover the teacher is watching from the door window and you get a right royal rocket on their return.
So when is Jesus going to fully exercise this global and absolute rule, and bring all people to account. Well that's basically exactly the same question his disciples asked him just prior to his ascension. We read it earlier:
they asked him, "Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?"
He said to them: "It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority."
In other words 'don't worry about it'. But he goes on to say exactly what we are to concern ourselves with:
"But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
Two ways this needs to hit home in our lives:
Firstly, Jesus is on the throne, not you. There are a lot of things you could worry about all around us but God did not decide to raise you from the dead and seat you at his right hand. That privilege is Jesus' and he is the one ruling. We don't believe in random events we believe in a good sovereign God who is working all things for the good of those who love him.I'm not saying really tough things don't happen and I'm not saying we shouldn't care when they do – but it is not our place to shoulder that burden. Instead we take it to Christ, the ruler of everything, and leave it at His feet.
Secondly, look after your own responsibilities. Ironically, the person who stresses about everything from the unfed guinea fowl in Paraguay, to whether it's going to rain, to the price of petrol, probably neglect what actually are their own responsibilities. Which, in a nutshell, is what we've just read Jesus say to us: "you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth."
In Matthew's account Jesus calls us to make disciples of all nations – that, by the power of the Holy Spirit, is our responsibility. If you are a Christian you are not only a disciple you are also a disciple-maker. We are to disciple one another at church and in home group, we are to talk to people who don't know Jesus that they might become disciples, we might go overseas to make disciples, we are disciple our own children. In all these things we obeying Jesus command to us – which is our responsibility.
Jesus rules because he died on the cross for our sins, rose from the dead, ascended to heaven at God's right hand – and that's exactly what we need to tell people because it is our great and real hope. Which leads me to me third point:
3. With Jesus Forever
Last point and last passage – please turn in your Bibles to page 798 and Romans 8, verse 33:
33 Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. 34 Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. 35 Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? 36 As it is written:
"For your sake we face death all day long; we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered."
37 No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. 38 For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
It's a wonderful and well known passage that we can barely scratch the surface of this evening. But note the overall theme: Nothing can separate the Christian from Jesus. The Lord Jesus and those who trust in him are inseparably joined in identity, security and purity. And notice also the absolute centrality to this fact of the cross, resurrection and ascension. Verse 34: Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.
We are with Christ in his death, in his resurrection and in his ascension. And so when we think of the ascension and Jesus going to be with God the Father, we should also think, and long for, of the day that we will also ascend to heaven and see Jesus, our saviour, on his throne. Like a young child who is carried by their parent places that they could never go themselves – so we too cling to Christ. For we were dead in our sins, but have been brought to life and can have absolute confidence in one day being with Jesus forever. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
 Exodus 40:34-35
 Exodus 15:6
 Matthew 23:63b-64a
 Romans 8:28