The Lord's Day Morning
February 12, 2012
“Carried Up into Heaven”
The Reverend Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III
If you have your Bibles, I'd invite you to turn with me to Luke 24, the last few verses of the gospel of Luke, beginning in verse 50, and we're going to read from verses 50 to 53, as we come to this, the end of our study in the gospel of Luke. In the last sixteen years, it's been our joy to be in the gospels — I've been able to preach through the gospel of Matthew and now the gospel of Luke. Derek has preached through Mark and John. Deliberately we've tried to be in a gospel, somewhere on a fairly frequent basis, because these gospels are at the very heart of the core of explaining Jesus’ ministry and the message of salvation. They’re also at the very heart of what it means to live the Christian life, and so we've tried to live in the gospels very regularly over the last sixteen years that the Lord has allowed us to walk together. And I'm a little misty-eyed at the thought of walking away from the gospel of Luke, but Luke leaves us with a great passage. You may feel like it's sort of tacked on at the end; it's pretty quick. Luke goes right — if you look back at the verses immediately prior to verse 50, Luke goes right from Jesus meeting with the disciples in Jerusalem on Resurrection Sunday to the ascension, whereas the other gospel writers tell us a little bit about Jesus’ sojourning with His disciples for a few days, for a few weeks, after His resurrection and before His ascension. Luke will come back and tell us more details in Acts chapter 1, but Luke has a reason why he wants to move very quickly to the ascension and you’re going to see that when we study this passage together today. Let's pray and ask for God's blessing on the reading and hearing of His Word.
Heavenly Father, we do not live by bread alone but by every word that comes from the mouth of God. This is Your Word for us, so we ask that You would feed us, Lord, by Your Spirit with Your Word. Grant that we would believe it, that we would trust You, and that we would come to understand Your truth more and so be saved and sanctified. We ask this in Jesus' name, amen.
This is God's Word. Hear it:
“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.”
Amen, and thus ends this reading of God's holy, inspired, and inerrant Word. May He write its eternal truth upon all our hearts.
Now is the reaction of the disciples here what you would have expected? Jesus has just left them and they’re happy! Is that what you would have expected? When a few weeks before, in the Upper Room, He told them that He was going to be leaving them, they all got sad and He had to start saying words of encouragement to them to keep them from being downcast and disconsolate. He had to give them words of encouragement to pep them up. Now, He actually leaves and they’re happy! Is that what you would have expected? Or are you, like me, scratching your head a little bit? Why would they go back to Jerusalem with great joy when Jesus has just left? I mean, think about it friends. If Jesus came to live and minister at First Presbyterian Church Jackson for three years, on the last day of the third year when He left, would you be happy? Many of us have just lost a dear friend, a son of this congregation, a beloved professor at Belhaven and at Reformed Theological Seminary, Knox Chamblin, and we grieve his loss. We’re not sorry for Knox; we know where Knox is. Knox is where he wants to be. He's with the Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who he spent his life serving and teaching others about. We know he's happy, but those who knew him and loved him best and especially his family feel bereft at his loss. It's a little bit like this circumstance.
JESUS ACCOMPLISHES THE MISSION OF HIS INCARNATION
How in the world could the disciples be happy in the face of the departure of Jesus? Well, there are three things that I want you to see in this passage that will go a long way to explaining why the disciples have responded the way they have responded because this passage teaches us about joy and hope and blessing. And if we could go in reverse order, if you’ll start by looking at verses 52 and 53 and then we’ll work backwards, I want you to see why Jesus’ departure gave the disciples joy, why Jesus’ departure gave the disciples joy. Do you remember how the gospel of Luke begins? It begins in the temple. Did you notice how the gospel of Luke ends? It ends in the temple with the disciples continually blessing God. What has Luke told you at the beginning of this gospel? At the beginning of this gospel he shows you a series of godly people crying out to God in song and prayer that He would send His salvation upon His people. Remember Zacharias and Elizabeth, John's parents? Remember Simeon and Anna? Remember Mary's song? Luke records all those things and the songs of the angels in the temple at the beginning of his gospel as His people cry out for God to send salvation. Then what has Luke recorded in the next twenty-four chapters? The salvation that God has sent in Jesus!
And so then at the end of the gospel you find the disciples back in the temple continually blessing God and going back to Jerusalem from this place at the Mount of Olives and blessing God. Why are they filled with joy? Because they have finally “gotten it.” They understand; they understand Jesus’ mission, they understand His message, they understand who He is, they understand what God has done in sending the Messiah to die, to be buried, to be raised again, and now to be ascended on high and it has given them joy. You’ll only understand this if you study the gospel of John, especially the fourteenth chapter and the sixteenth chapter. Do you remember just a few weeks before this account happened, Jesus was in the Upper Room with the disciples on the night that He was betrayed, the night before He was crucified. And He said to them that night, “I am going away, but I am sending My Comforter to be with you. And I am going away and I am sending My Comforter,” He says in John 16, “so that your joy may be full.”
And what happened to all of the disciples when He said that? They got sad.
But here, they’re on the way back to Jerusalem and they’re filled with great joy. Why? Because they finally understood what Jesus was saying to them. They finally understood God's purposes. They finally understood Jesus’ words about His humiliation and about His exaltation. They understood what God was doing — that He had answered the prayers of Elizabeth and Zacharias and Simeon and Anna and Mary and they had done what the angels had proclaimed in song. God had done what the angels had proclaimed in song. And so they were filled with great joy. They believed and it gave them joy. Jesus’ departure fulfilled what He had explained to them that God was sending Him into the world to do and they were filled with joy. It's quite extraordinary.
THE SIGNIFICENCE OF JESUS’ ASCENSION
Now, what was their joy based on? It was based on a hope in Jesus. And that's the second thing that I want you to see in this passage because Jesus’ ascension gave His disciples hope. Not only did they have great joy, they were given hope. Look at verse 51. “While He blessed them, He parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” Luke uses two phrases to describe the ascension. Jesus was “parted from them, He was sundered from them, He went off from them, He was separated from them,” and “He was carried up or taken up into heaven.” That's how Luke describes the ascension here. It's just one verse. Now he’ll elaborate on it in Acts chapter 1, but the ascension is a ground of hope, not only for these original disciples, but for all believers. The New Testament is replete with examples of how the doctrine of the ascension of Jesus Christ provides us hope. And let me just walk through, not all of them, but about six things that the New Testament says the ascension does for you and me as believers to give us hope.
And the first thing is this — the ascension shows that Christ's exaltation will one day be something that the whole world will see. In seeing Jesus exalted into heaven, the disciples are seeing something that one day the whole world will see. You remember how Paul says in Philippians 2 verses 9 to 11 that when Jesus is exalted and comes again as King, what does he say? “Every knee will bow and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of His Father.” Well guess what the disciples are getting to see with their whole eyes? As He ascends, what they are actually seeing is His enthronement. Where is Jesus going to? He is going to the right hand of God the Father Almighty. That's the control room of the universe, right? They are getting to see His enthronement ceremony. They are seeing what one day the whole world will see.
You know, every Christmas time we get to sing that wonderful hymn and we get to hear sung that wonderful hymn, “Once in Royal David's City,” and I love it when we get to the line that says, “And at last our eyes will see Him through His own redeeming love.” In other words, Cecil Alexander is telling us there that one day we're going to see Him with our own eyes and we're going to see Him like the disciples saw Him because in the next stanza Cecil Alexander says, “Not in that poor lowly stable will we see Him standing by; but we will see Him as the Lord, the Lord of all.” That's how we’ll see Him, with angels, myriads of angels around Him, falling down and worshiping Him. That's how we’ll see Him. And the disciples have been given a glimpse of His enthronement ceremony. They've been given a glimpse of what the whole world will one day see about Jesus. No wonder they were filled with joy and hope! They've seen the end of the story; at least a glimpse of it. One day He will come again and it will be just like that. He will be the Lord of glory and everybody will know it.
Secondly, the ascension of Jesus Christ vindicates Christ. It's the Father's vindication of Jesus Christ and it shows that He has accepted Jesus’ work on our behalf. What does 2 Corinthians 5:21 say? It says that, “He made Him who knew no sin.” God the Father made Him who knew no sin – the Lord Jesus Christ who had never ever committed sin — “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” God gave His Son, Jesus Christ, so that He could live a perfect life, a life that we hadn't lived, and die a death for us that we deserved, so that His righteousness would be imputed to us and we forgiven of our sins and so that His Spirit might be imparted for us and one day we would be completely glorified and sin eradicated in us and we could live with God forever. And Jesus’ ascension is, in so many words, a promise to us that as we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ we are going to go to be where He is. The Father has accepted His sacrifice. The Father has called Him to be with Him at His throne and we who trust in Him as He is offered in the Gospel will go to be with Him at the right hand, and the ascension proves that.
Third, the ascension initiates Jesus’ work of going to prepare a place for us. You remember how in John 14 — look at the first three verses of that passage — in John 14 Jesus tells His disciples, “I am going away, but I'm going away to prepare a place for you. And if I go away to prepare a place for you, I will come again and I will bring you there that where I am there you may be also.” The ascension is the beginning of that. Where is Jesus going to? He is going to the right hand of the Father. To do what? To begin to prepare a place for you. You know, somebody met me at the door after the early service and said, “You know, if God created the world in six days and it's been almost two thousand years since Jesus left to go and prepare a place for us, as beautiful as this world is, what must that place look like if He's been preparing it for the last two thousand years?” And that's a good question. That's a good question. I don't know the answer to it, but I know that the place that He is preparing for you is beyond your imagination. And that word began when He left in the ascension.
Fourth, the ascension guarantees the future glory that is held in reserve for the brothers because Hebrews 9:15 says “Jesus Christ is our surety.” He is our guarantee to receive the things that God has promised us. And the apostle Paul, in Ephesians chapter 2, goes so far to say this: “If you’re trusting in Jesus Christ, if you've embraced Christ in the Gospel, you are already seated with Him in heavenly places.” That is, even as Jesus after the ascension went to the right hand of God the Father Almighty, because you’re united to Him by the work of the Holy Spirit, you’re united to Him by faith, you are already, in a sense, there with Him. It is absolutely certain that you will be with Him forever. It's a guarantee of our future enjoyment of glory with Him.
Fifth, the ascension of Jesus Christ enables Him to pour out the Holy Spirit. You remember in John 14 and 16 He says, “I go so that I can send you a Comforter.” In Luke 24, we've already seen Him say, “Stay here in Jerusalem until I pour out the promise of My Father.” In Acts chapter 1, Jesus says, recounting this same passage, Jesus says to the disciples, “Wait here and I will send you the baptism of the Holy Spirit.” The Spirit is poured out, isn't He, in Acts chapter 2. In fact, as the Spirit is poured out, flames of fire appear on the heads of the apostles in Jerusalem as they’re gathered at the feast of Pentecost. So the Spirit is poured out on them. Now what is that to be a visible reminder to them of? If the Spirit has been poured out on them, where must Jesus be? He must be at the right hand — we can't see Him at the right hand of the heavenly Father, but we can see the effect of Him being at the right hand of the heavenly Father. He has poured out His Spirit on us.
Now what did the Spirit come to do? Well, the New Testament says that the Spirit came to do a lot of things, but turn with me to Ephesians 3 and look at the end of verse 16 and the beginning of verse 17. Listen to this. Let me thrown a phrase out to you: Jesus departed from us so that He could be nearer to us. I really mean that. I want you to think about it. Jesus departed from us so that He could be nearer to us. What does Paul pray for the Ephesians? And by the way, he's not just praying for the Ephesians, he's praying for you and me. What does he pray for us in Ephesians 3:16 and 17? Look at the end of verse 16. He prays so that “you would be strengthened with power by the Spirit in your inner man.” Right? That's the end of verse 16. Beginning of verse 17 — “So that” what? “So that Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith.” Did you hear what Paul just said? One reason the Spirit was poured out is so that He could strengthen you with power in your inner man, in your inmost being, in the depths of your hearts, so that what? So that Christ might dwell in your hearts by faith.
You know if Jesus were still living on earth He could be close to a few of His disciples at any given time, but by the ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit, He is near to all of His disciples all of the time because the Holy Spirit is making your heart a suitable habitation in which Christ lives. Christ departed from us so that He could be nearer to us and He is neigh unto us, He is near to us in the work of His Holy Spirit whom He poured out from the right hand of the Father.
And there's one last thing. Jesus’ resurrection draws — His ascension — draws our hearts to Him so that our desires are focused on Him. You know the author of Hebrews in Hebrews 11 says that Abraham was looking for a city that had foundations whose architect and maker was God. In other words, the author of Hebrews is saying Abraham's hope wasn't ultimately on this earth, in this world. He was looking for a city that had foundations that God had built that was going to last forever. And that's a good thing because do you know how much land Abraham owned in the Promised Land when he died? He owned his grave and Sarah's. That's how much of the Promised Land he owned. But, he was looking for a city that had foundations.
And for every believer now, we are reminded that the One who we really want to be with is at the right hand of the Father right now. That doesn't mean we don't work hard and with energy in this life. Oh no, we do! We work hard and with energy and with hope and with joy because we want to do everything as unto the Lord. But our success here, our success here, is not ultimately the reward that we're looking for. That means we can be faithful and suffer all kinds of obstacles and setbacks and failures. Our job is to be faithful because this is not where we get the final report card. This is not where we get the final reward. Our reward is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth. And our eyes are on the prize that He offers. Nothing in this earth can offer us anything that can equal what He offers because He said, “I came so give you full joy, joy inexpressible and full of glory.” And the ascension reminds us — that's where my hope is! In the end, the losses and crosses and trials and tribulations of this life can't rob me of that joy because that joy is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Nothing, nothing can take that joy away from me. We have a hope that is based on Jesus, a hope that's based on the Gospel, and no loss in this life can rob us of that joy. And no trial in this life can rob us of that joy. And no disappointment in this life can rob us of that joy because that joy is based on Jesus who is at the right hand of the Father.
JESUS FINAL ACT BEFORE HIS ASCENSION WAS TO BLESS HIS DISCIPLES
And here's the last thing I want to leave you with. In this passage we've seen the great joy that the disciples had because they finally got it, they finally understood Jesus’ words, we've seen the reason for their hope, and we've seen the hope that the ascension gives us, but there's one last thing I want you to see. You see it in verse 50. As Jesus gets them to Bethany and to the Mount of Olives and lifts His hands, He does what? He pronounces the benediction on them, just like happens every worship service on Sunday morning and Sunday evening. He's imitating, right, what the Aaronic priests did. The priests of the Old Testament were called by God, from Number 6 on, to do what? To pronounced words of blessing from God to the people. That's what they did. And Jesus lifts up His hands to bless them and as He's blessing them He is taken away. I want you to think about that for a minute.
In Genesis 1:26-28, God creates man and woman. And do you know what the first words that human beings ever heard from God were? You can peak at Genesis 1:28 but I’ll tell you — blessing. “The Lord blessed them and said…” are the first words of Genesis 1:28. The first words that human beings ever heard God speak were blessings. And two chapters later we rebelled against Him, but God still pursued us in blessing. And at the end of Genesis 11 we're told that God went to the Ur of the Chaldees and He found a son of an idolater, an idolater named Terah who had a son named Abram. And there in Ur of the Chaldees, modern-day Iraq, He called an Iraqi idolater's son and said, “You are going to be the father of My people.” And do you know what He did to that idolater's son in Genesis 12 verse 1 to 3? He blessed him. “I will bless you and make your name great and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” He pursued that idolater's son with blessing and Abram became the father of the faithful, “the father of those who believe,” the apostle Paul will say in Romans 4.
And what do you see Jesus doing here at the end of Luke? The very last thing His disciples see Jesus doing to them is blessing them. It is the last sight they have of Jesus — it is of Him blessing them. With all their bumbling and all their stumbling and all their unbelief and all their trials and tribulations, the last thing they see is Him blessing them. It's a picture of the divine Son accomplishing precisely the Father's purposes in the redemption that He has wrought and it is something that we will see again, because when He comes again He will come again to bless His people. What do we sing at Christmas time? “He comes to make His blessing flow far as the curse is found.” And here, as Jesus recedes into heaven, the last thing they see is Him blessing them. There is joy and hope and blessing in this passage for all who believe. May you receive it by faith. Let's pray.
Heavenly Father, thank You for Your Word. Thank You for the truth of Your Word. Thank You for the encouragement of Your Word. Bless us, O God, as we worship You in spirit and in truth, believing the Gospel of Your dear Son and so living in the hope that His ascension gives us. We pray this in Jesus' name. Amen.
Now let's sing about the ascension. Take your hymnals out and turn with me to number 289 and let's sing a hymn of glory.
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.