Yesterday was Ascension Day, when celebrate the ascension of Jesus to the Father in heaven after His resurrection from death (Luke 24:49-51; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:3-10). I believe the ascension is one of the most-neglected aspects of the life of Jesus with greater significance for our life with God as disciples of Jesus than we usually realize.
I wrote three posts in 2018 about the importance of the ascension for our faith because of Jesus’ reign as King, Jesus’ mediation eternally, and Jesus’ future return in glory, and would encourage you to join me in considering the significance of Jesus’ ascension.
One of my favorite works by C. S. Lewis is The Great Divorce, which is awkwardly billed on the paperback cover as “a fantastic bus ride from hell to heaven—a roundtrip for some but not for others.” Lewis’ conviction in that book, which he expresses elsewhere, is that hell is the self-conscious decision to resist heaven and God for the self. It is a subtle, sleepy drifting inward to ephemeral joys without regard for the more robust, lasting joy that comes form God.
I just finished re-reading That Hideous Strength, the third novel of Lewis’ Space Trilogy. One of the most poignant moments on this theme of the sleepy, self-conscious decision for hell comes near the end of the book, after the descent into chaos that afflicts the headquarters of N.I.C.E. (The National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments) in Belbury. Lewis writes of Wither:
He had willed with his whole heart that there should be no reality and no truth, and now even the imminence of his own ruin could not wake him. The last scene of Dr. Faustus where the man raves and implores on the edge of Hell is, perhaps, stage fire. The last moment before damnation are not often so dramatic. Often the man knows with perfect clarity that some still possible action of his own will could yet save him. But he cannot make this knowledge real to himself. Some tiny habitual sensuality, some resentment too trivial to waste on a blue-bottle, the indulgence of some fatal lethargy, seems to him at that moment more important than the choice between total joy and total destruction. With eyes wide open, seeing that the endless terror is just about to begin and yet (for the moment) unable to feel terrified, he watches passively, not moving a finger for his own rescue, while the last links with joy and reason are severed, and drowsily sees the trap close upon his soul. So full of sleep are they at the time when they leave the right way.
The moment before damnation is not necessarily something tremendous and noticeable, but apparently one more, subtle, sleepy decision for the self and lesser joys. I could not help but also hear another quote from Lewis in his essay “The Weight of Glory.”
It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
We celebrate Ascension Day this week, so I want to take this opportunity give attention to one of the most-neglected aspects of the life and ministry of Jesus. Forty days after His resurrection, after appearing many times to the disciples, Jesus ascended into heaven with the Father again (Luke 24:49-51; Mark 16:19; Acts 1:3-10). The ascension of Jesus is significant for many reasons, so over the next three days I would like to draw attention to three of these:
after His ascension Jesus is enthroned with the Father
after His ascension Jesus intercedes for us
after His ascension Jesus will return
The Apostles Creed makes important reference to the ascension of Jesus with these words: “[He] ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.” Jesus is enthroned as King in His ascension. When Jesus ascends from earth, the disciples witness of Jesus taken into the heavenly realm where God dwells: “he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:51). Stephen’s vision of the heavenly realm before his martyrdom expands this even further: “I see heaven open and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” (Acts 7:56).
With these two visions of Jesus’ ascension and the reality on the other side of it, we find in Jesus’ ascension the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14)
Jesus often referenced this passage in relation to Himself. With the ascension we see that Jesus not only enters heaven, the place where God lives and operates, but receives His appropriate enthronement at the right hand of God in an unshakable kingdom.
This is echoed in further New Testament pictures of the heavenly scenes of worship:
“To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to sit with me on my throne, just as I was victorious and sat down with my Father on his throne” (Revelation 3:21).
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb be praise and honor and glory and power, for ever and ever!” (Revelation 5:13).
The ascension of Jesus reminds us not only that God’s kingdom been inaugurated with the incarnation of Jesus, but that His throne is established at the Father’s right hand until He returns at the consummation of his kingdom at the new heaven and new earth. We know even now that Jesus reigns as King, no matter what happens around us.
Here is the prayer that I concluded my message with this past weekend at Eastbrook. I wrote this prayer as a way to reflect and weave together themes we have experienced throughout this series, Ascend.
guide us who live as exiles and strangers
upon the time-bound paths of earth;
in our trials and tribulations give us grace,
and in our overflowing joys receive praise.
Grant us faith that, walking day by day with You,
we may seek an eternal country
more than we seek the goods
of these our earthly countries.
Strengthen our drooping hands and weak knees
that we might not grow discouraged along the journey,
but might run the race set out for us
with the goal of winning the prize in the upward call in Christ Jesus.
May we run together as one –
people of every tribe, tongue, and nation –
showing Your glory to a watching world
by the way in which we love one another in grace and truth.
We pray for Your grace and strength in our journey
until the day when we round the last hill’s rise
and gaze into the Eternal City
where we will see You face to face
in the new heaven and new earth,
where all manner of things will be made new.
From time to time people ask me what resources I utilize in preparing sermons or series. This was something I encountered quite a bit with the series we just finished at Eastbrook, “Resurrection Hope,” on 1 Corinthians 15. So, let me pull aside the veil a little bit on how I approached five weeks on this brilliant chapter from Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth.
I always begin series planning far in advance with in-depth study, meditation, and prayer over the text I am approaching. In this case, I spent time reading all of 1 Corinthians, giving particular attention to observe repetition of words, key themes, and flow of logic within chapter 15. I took some time to study parallel passages in Paul’s letters, such as 1 Thessalonians 4-5 and 2 Corinthians 4-5.
For each week ahead of preaching, I studied the passage from the NIV with consultation to various other English translations (e.g., ESV, NRSV, NLT) and the Greek text via the free Logos Bible app, which has an amazing amount of study tools accessible for free.
When preparing my message this past Sunday on resurrection, I found a couple of specific resources to be very helpful for me. While I don’t recommend these without any reservation, there is much that can be gained by interacting with them:
One of those topics that we largely tend to avoid in the church today is hell. We avoid it because it’s controversial. We avoid it because it can be a confusing topic. Out of Ur, the blog-site for Leadership, has been featuring brief interviews with some current theologians and pastors on the topic of hell. Here are two of them that I found helpful.
The first is Tim Keller, Pastor at Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and author of The Prodigal God, addressing whether or not everyone will be saved by drawing from Jesus’ teaching on hell. The second clip is N. T. (Tom) Wright, Bishop of Durham, England, and one of the premier New Testament theologians of our day, speaking on what hell is like and whether it even exists.