Sunday, February 21, 2021

Up, Up, and Away! (Sermon 6 on the Apostles' Creed)

“I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of heaven and earth; and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day, he rose again from the dead.” That's how far we have thus far made it in our journey through the Apostles' Creed. Last Sunday, focusing on that glorious last line, we talked about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Having died on the cross, having had his body entombed while his soul descended to the underworld, on the third day of death, Jesus literally got up again. The body that had been buried in the tomb received its soul again. Jesus came to life. Jesus Christ was dead, but now he is not dead any more. He defeated Death and came out the other side, rising with a transformed body and starting an indestructible life beyond our comprehension. He vacated the tomb. And then he began appearing to the disciples – first in Jerusalem throughout the following eight days, then in Galilee after they trekked back there, and then some more in Jerusalem when they returned to the city again.

We're told, in fact, that Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Jesus could, if he'd so wished, have appeared to the disciples just one time, on the Sunday we call Easter, and then immediately stopped doing so. But he didn't. Jesus chose to tarry. He chose to tarry for that biblically significant figure: forty units of time – a standard recurring motif. Noah endured the rain for forty days (Genesis 7:12). Moses spent forty days fasting on the mountaintop with God (Exodus 24:18; 34:28). The Israelite spies infiltrated the land of the Canaanites for forty days (Numbers 13:25). Due to their negative majority report and its acceptance by the overwhelming vote of Israel, the Israelites were cursed to correspondingly spend forty years living a nomadic existence in the desert before their children could inherit the promise (Numbers 14:34). Later, for forty days, Israel waited for a champion to arise to challenge Goliath, and only then did David confront him (1 Samuel 17:16). Elijah took a forty-day pilgrimage to the mountain of revelation (1 Kings 19:8). Jonah proclaimed a forty-day window for the repentance of the Assyrians in Nineveh (Jonah 3:4). The prophet Ezekiel was tasked to signify coming judgment by lying on his side for forty days (Ezekiel 4:6). And to sum up the motif, after Jesus was baptized, he was led by the Spirit into the desert to spend forty days there, fasting and confronting the Tempter (Mark 1:13). So it makes sense for Jesus, for the sake of his New Israel, to 'fast' and 'abstain' for forty days from the wonderful destiny that awaited him. This was the forty-day window in which his disciples could learn all they needed to know about their own gospel of repentance. Like a holy anti-Goliath, Jesus appeared in the world for forty days, defying the world to supply an unholy anti-David to take him on – and it couldn't. This was Jesus' forty-day Elijah-style pilgrimage through our world before going up the heavenly mountain.

And so for that significant length of time, Jesus ministered to his disciples. He appeared numerous times for the sake of their instruction. He was seen by hundreds of eyewitnesses over the course of those forty days. But he also warned them that this was not meant to be a regular feature of their lives going forward. “I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer,” Jesus told them (John 16:10). “Now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28). Those were statements he made before the crucifixion. But even after he rose from the dead, Jesus indicated that he hadn't yet done it. However, the risen Jesus said, soon he would indeed be “ascending to my Father” (John 20:17). When the forty days were finished, his public appearances would end, the period of collective in-person education for his disciples would close, and he would take his leave. He said so himself in advance. And we believe and confess that Jesus did exactly what he said he would. For that reason, in the next line of the Apostles' Creed, we declare: “He ascended into heaven.”

What are we saying when we say that? What did it look like? Let's join the apostles and try to see what they see and hear what they hear. So here we are, on earth. These apostles, these disciples, are in Jerusalem with the risen Lord Jesus Christ, alive from the dead, living by the power of God. Luke explains that then, Jesus “led them out” from the city of Jerusalem (Luke 24:50). The word Luke chooses to use is a word the Bible typically reserves for a very special context: talking about the exodus. Luke is hinting that, before Jesus will rise like Elijah, first he is leading them in an exodus like Moses. It's fitting. There's a sort of boundary crossing that the disciples must go through. The barrier of earth and sky, even of our world and another, is about to be breached. The disciples must be liberated from earthbound thinking. So Jesus leads them out in an exodus.

Where does Jesus take them? Luke tells us in the Acts of the Apostles that he takes them to the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:12). And specifically, we know that Jesus took them up, over, or around to the southeastern slope, the side opposite from Jerusalem. We know that because Luke, in closing out his Gospel, is clearer about the general vicinity where he takes them: “as far as Bethany” (Luke 24:50). Now, for attentive readers of the Gospels, Bethany should ring a pretty clear bell. Bethany was a village on the southeastern slope of the Mount of Olives. It's likely to have been a village specially devoted to the service of the poor and sick, and its name may mean 'House of Poverty,' possibly an almshouse or hospice. Bethany appears prominently in the Gospels because it's the home of Lazarus, as well as his sisters Mary and Martha (John 11:1), as well as a man called Simon the Leper (Mark 14:3) – which is why some think there may have been a leper colony there. Bethany is the village where Jesus lodged when he came to Jerusalem for that fateful Passover (Matthew 21:17). This is familiar turf. This is a spot that Jesus and his disciples have been past a number of times.

So the disciples gathered to Jesus on a little hill jutting up from that slope of the Mount of Olives, in the general vicinity of Bethany and its sister-village Bethphage. And the disciples questioned Jesus there about whether this was the time when Israel would be made great again, whether the kingdom would be restored to it (Acts 1:6). There's that earthbound thinking they had to give up in this exodus. Jesus told them that those were not the right questions for them to ask (Acts 1:7). Instead, they should be focusing their attention to the commission he was giving them. “You will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth,” Jesus says (Acts 1:8). In this, we should hear echoes of words he'd already spoken to them during that forty days, about how they must “make disciples of all nations” by “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:19-20). The truths of the gospel “should be proclaimed in [Jesus'] name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem – you are witnesses of these things” (Luke 24:47-48).

And then we read that, “lifting up his hands, he blessed them” (Luke 24:50). That should maybe raise some questions, too. Why does Jesus lift up his hands here? What does that look like? Why does he bless them? All good questions – and good questions are a good thing! To start off with, lifting up his hands is the gesture that the high priest would make. In Leviticus 9, we're told how Israel's first high priest, Aaron the brother of Moses, completes the sacrifice of his ordination, and promptly after finishing his sacrifice, it says that Aaron “lifted up his hands toward the people and blessed them” (Leviticus 9:22). This was evidently a regular procedure, as we also have record of a later high priest, Simon II, the son of Onias, and a description of how he “lifted up his hands over the whole congregation of the sons of Israel to pronounce the blessing of the Lord with his lips” (Sirach 50:20). What blessing did the high priests give? Well, in fact, God told Moses exactly what sort of blessing Aaron and his successors should use to bless the people of Israel. “Thus you shall bless the sons of Israel: You shall say to them: 'The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:23-26). Were these the words Jesus was saying over his disciples – over us? Or did he come up with a new priestly blessing?

Whatever the case, it's clear that Jesus took on the role of the high priest. Having accomplished his sacrifice, our high priest Jesus lifted up his hands and pronounced his divine blessing over the disciples as the assembly of the New Israel. God himself said, right after revealing the words of the Aaronic Benediction to Moses, that by using these words of blessing, Aaron and the later high priests would “put my name upon the sons of Israel” (Numbers 6:27). And so Jesus put his name on the people of the New Israel – and that includes us.

What happened next? Luke continues by explaining that “while he blessed them, he parted from them...” (Luke 24:51). “As they,” the disciples, “were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight” (Acts 1:9). So Jesus began to create physical distance between himself and his disciples – physical distance, yes, but not spiritual distance. This physical distance was created by Jesus rising off the ground. The power of God carried him physically upward. And then a cloud intervened, getting in the disciples' line of sight and obscuring Jesus from them. And as the cloud vanished, Jesus was no longer there.

Why did that cloud show up? Again, to appreciate that, it's good to know our Old Testament. The Bible is full of lines associating clouds with God. The psalmist explains, in Psalm 104, that God himself “makes the clouds his chariot” (Psalm 104:3). In the prophet Isaiah, we catch a glimpse of this in action, where Isaiah proclaims a prophecy about “the LORD... riding on a swift cloud” (Isaiah 19:1). A generic cloud, or a particular cloud? For that, we can turn back to the Law. Even as God led Israel to the verge of the sea, we're told that “the LORD went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way” (Exodus 13:21). After the exodus, when Israel grumbled, they were invited to approach, “and they looked toward the wilderness, and behold, the glory of the LORD appeared in the cloud” (Exodus 16:10). When they reached Mount Sinai, God announced to Moses, “Behold, I am coming to you in a thick cloud” (Exodus 19:9). Back in the camp, “the LORD descended in the cloud” (Exodus 34:5). Then, when the tabernacle was finally finished, “the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the LORD filled the tabernacle” (Exodus 40:34). What cloud took Jesus from the disciples' sight? The same glory cloud that filled tent and temple, the same cloud that is the Lord God Almighty's personal chariot – that cloud submitted to the Lord Jesus Christ. And while Jesus was still pronouncing his blessings on us, that cloud took him swiftly out of the disciples' sight.

So that's as far as the disciples saw. Not thinking Luke's version quite dramatic enough, in the second century an unknown Christian tried to spice it up, imagining more of what the disciples might have seen and heard: “As he spoke, there was thunder and lightning and an earthquake, and the heavens divided, and a bright cloud came and took him away. And we heard the voice of many angels as they rejoiced and praised and said, 'Assemble us, O priest, in the light of glory.' And when he had come near to the firmament of heaven, we heard him say, 'Go in peace'” (Epistula Apostolorum 51).

That imaginative retelling reminds us that the action must have continued off-screen, didn't it? So what actually happened next? Luke, as he's wrapping up Volume 1 of his great work, is almost laconic in saying, very simply, that Jesus next “was carried up until heaven” (Luke 24:51). Now, in Jewish thought at the time, 'heaven' was not necessarily one place – some speculated about multiple layers, the 'seven heavens,' and gave different ideas of what might be in each. The New Testament also sometimes speaks of 'the heavens' in the plural, such as when the author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus “passed through the heavens” (Hebrews 4:14) and when Paul says that Jesus ended up “above the heavens” (Ephesians 4:10). The New Testament gives no further detail, but it is worth noting that one early Christian book called the Ascension of Isaiah – which at least one scholar thinks could date to the first century, earlier than some books in the New Testament1 – reveals how at least some early Christians imagined Jesus' journey might have continued after the disciples lost sight of him:

I saw when he sent out the twelve disciples and ascended. And I saw him, and he was in the firmament, … and all the angels of the firmament, and Satan, saw him and worshipped. … And he ascended into the second heaven, and... all the angels on the right and on the left, and the throne in the middle, worshipped him and praised him … And in the same way, he ascended into the third, and in the same way they praised him … And in the fourth heaven and also in the fifth, they spoke in exactly the same way … And I saw when he ascended into the sixth heaven that they worshipped him and praised him, but in all the heavens, the praise grew louder. And I saw how he ascended into the seventh heaven, and all the righteous and all the angels praised him... (Ascension of Isaiah 11.22-32)

Alright, so much for that. Now, however many levels there are, what happens when Jesus reaches the final one, the last stage of the journey? What happens when his destination is in front of him? To answer this, the early church turned to Psalm 24, and they read it as a prophecy of the ascension. It's no mystery why they did it. Just take a look at Psalm 24. After proclaiming that the LORD owns the whole world, it asks, “Who shall ascend the hill of the LORD, and who shall stand in his holy place?” (Psalm 24:3). But then jump down a few verses, and you'll read a dialogue: “Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in!” is the command (Psalm 24:7). So about a century after Paul, we meet a Christian teacher named Justin. Justin wanted to make the case that the prophecies of the Old Testament guarantee us that Jesus is the Messiah. And this is one of the many prophecies he reached for. Here's how Justin explained Psalm 24:

When our Christ rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, then the heavenly princes chosen by God were ordered to open the gates of heaven, that the King of Glory might enter … Now, when these heavenly princes saw that he was in appearance without beauty, honor, or glory, and not recognizing him, they asked, 'Who is this King of Glory?' And the Holy Spirit, either in his own name or in the Father's name, answered: 'The Lord of Hosts – he is the King of Glory!' 2

So, passing through these now-opened gates, Hebrews fills us in that Jesus “entered once for all into the holy places” (Hebrews 9:12). A few verses later, Hebrews explains that when the earthly temple was built, it was patterned after supernatural realities – that it was a copy. And the Holy of Holies was, the author says, a copy of the heavenly Holy of Holies, of “heaven itself” (Hebrews 9:24). When Jesus passes through the gates of heaven, he's coming into the holy places – not coming and going, like the high priests descended from Aaron, but entering in a permanent way. He makes his way into the heavenly Holy of Holies.

Now, the heavenly Holy of Holies is also God's throne room. That, after all, is what the Holy of Holies in the earthly temple was supposed to represent. King David himself confessed that the Ark of the Covenant, which would become the main feature of the Holy of Holies on earth, was “the footstool of our God” (1 Chronicles 28:2). Repeatedly, when the psalmists call Israelites to go worship at the temple, the point is to “worship at his footstool” (Psalm 99:5; 132:7). The earthly Holy of Holies was an extension of the heavenly throne room of God – the picture is God sitting on his throne up in highest heaven, but stretched down to earth by resting his feet on the Ark of the Covenant, which extends his throne room down to our plane of existence. That's why the prophet Isaiah was in the temple when he had a vision of “the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and the hem of his robe filled the temple” (Isaiah 6:1).

And so when we come to Revelation, and John gets his first peek into the highest heaven, what does he say he sees? “A throne stood in heaven, with One seated on the throne, and he who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian, and around the throne was a rainbow that had the appearance of an emerald” (Revelation 4:2-3), and “from the throne came flashes of lightning and voices and peals of thunder” (Revelation 4:5). Given that the scene is saturated with worship, we should understand this throne room to be the heavenly Holy of Holies – the same one that Jesus will be entering when he ascends and passes through the gates. So what happens next?

Here we can turn back to the visions of the prophet Daniel. Seeing what was to come, he glimpse how “with the clouds of heaven, there came one like a Son of Man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (Daniel 7:13). 'One like a Son of Man' – that's Jesus. In Daniel's vision, this one-like-a-son-of-man is a figure representing true humanity, over against the pagan nations that had been reduced to the status of monstrous beasts. And faithful Israel is the true humanity. But this figure, standing in for all faithful humanity, sums it up in himself: Jesus, the true Son of Man. Rising as a true human yet soaring on the clouds of heaven as truly God, he approaches his Father, the 'Ancient of Days.' For in this scene, Daniel already saw that “thrones were placed, and the Ancient of Days took his seat: his clothing was white as snow, and the hair of his head like pure wool; his throne was fiery flames, its wheels were burning fire” (Daniel 7:9). Drawing on Daniel's vision, we can say that when Jesus entered heaven's throne-room, he presented himself to his Father. And we're about to understand why he would do that.

So this is the heavenly Holy of Holies, and we remember that Jesus took on the role of the true High Priest. He blessed his disciples, and that followed his sacrificial death on the cross. But a sacrifice has to actually be delivered. In the earthly temple, the flesh and blood had to actually be given over to God. Things weren't fully done until the offering had been presented. Jesus has died as a sacrifice (and risen again as priest), and now he needs to present that sacrificial offering as a gift to God for our salvation. Hebrews explains that Jesus entered the heavenly Holy of Holies “to appear in the presence of God on our behalf” (Hebrews 9:23). Representing us as our high priest, Jesus offered up to God the gift of himself. That's why he presented himself. And it was affirmed. It was endorsed. It was accepted. His very life was accepted by God as the perfect human gift that's worth everything. There and then, in the throne room of God, salvation was fully and truly sealed. When God accepted this gift, it made good for everything that had been done by those who keep their hands in Jesus' hands for the offering. It satisfied to forever be the worthwhile gift of the world made new. All Christian worship ever since, all true worship, has been a pointing to and participation in this one offering, from the sacrifice itself on the cross to the presentation in heaven.

What's more, Hebrews also hints that Jesus did something very particular in presenting his sacrifice. On earth, during the Day of Atonement and its rituals, Leviticus 16 explains what the high priest actually had to do. After sacrificing a bull, he was to “take some of the blood of the bull and sprinkle it with his finger on the mercy seat” (Leviticus 16:14). Then, sacrificing a goat, he had to do the same thing. He'd “bring its blood inside the veil..., sprinkling it over the mercy seat and in front of the mercy seat. Thus he shall make atonement for the Holy Place because of the uncleanness of the people of Israel and because of their transgressions, all their sins. And so he shall do for the tent of meeting, which dwells with them in the midst of their uncleannesses” (Leviticus 16:15-16). In other words, atonement had to be made for the tabernacle itself. It acted somewhat like a filter, catching and soaking up Israel's moral dirt and grime, and once a year it had to get cleaned, ritually speaking, with sacrificial blood. Just the same, also on the Day of Atonement, the high priest was to approach the altar and do the same thing with it, to “cleanse it and consecrate it from the uncleannesses of the people of Israel” (Leviticus 16:19). The high priest was therefore to “make atonement for the holy sanctuary, and he shall make atonement for the tent of meeting and for the altar, and he shall make atonement for the priests and for all the people of the assembly” (Leviticus 16:33).

So, Hebrews explains, “it was necessary for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these rites.” But if that goes for the earthly copies, what about the heavenly originals? Hebrews says that it was necessary for “the heavenly things themselves” to be purified “with better sacrifices than these” (Hebrews 9:23). In the same way that the earthly high priest had to annually purify the earthly holy space and the earthly holy furniture with the sacrificial blood of earthly sacrifices, so the heavenly high priest Jesus had to once and for all purify heaven itself with the better sacrificial blood that he himself shed: the very blood of God.

But also, as our High Priest, Jesus exercises an ongoing ministry in heaven. It was specifically as our “high priest” that Jesus was “exalted above the heavens” (Hebrews 7:26). He is now “a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man” (Hebrews 8:2). And since he already offered the definitive once-and-for-all sacrifice for sins, his priestly ministry comes in the form of applying it and interceding for us. “Jesus... who died – more than that, who was raised – who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us,” Paul celebrates (Romans 8:24). For anyone who will “draw near to God through him,” Jesus “always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). That's why John, in his first vision of the ascended Jesus, saw him as a high priest walking through the heavenly temple courts, tending to the lampstands that signify churches on earth (Revelation 1:12-20; cf. 2:1). It's the natural extension of the blessing he gave his disciples as he ascended. He is still blessing us, still tending to us, still praying for us – speaking to his Father on our behalf, not at a distance, but right there from God's throne, right there in the Holy of Holies.

Now, how should we react to these truths? First and foremost, before anything else, they should give us a basis for incredible joy. Jesus himself said to his disciples, and through them to us, “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28). That is, Jesus, to come be our Savior, had to stretch himself down, take on the form of a servant, thereby distancing himself from God his Father's more visible greatness. But that is over. Jesus is no longer lowly and earthbound. Jesus is up in heaven. Jesus is with his Father – the Father he loves in a way more devotedly than any devotion in all of creation, and the Father loves him with equal commitment and self-giving, and they are together face-to-face. Jesus is in the place of perfect eternal joy. And if we love Jesus, we will rejoice for Jesus that he's there. We will celebrate out of love that Jesus is finally in that place, finally face-to-face with his Love.

Secondly, these truths should inspire and empower worship. What's the first thing the disciples did after seeing Jesus ascend toward heaven? Luke tells us that “they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). Ever since the ascension, the church has been continually worshipping Jesus. The disciples had occasionally worshipped Jesus at significant events in the Gospels, stricken with sudden fits of awe and wonder. But now the awe and wonder lasts. It sets in motion a continuous stream of worship that has proceeded, utterly unabated, to the present day. Just as Jesus has kept blessing his church down below, we have kept ascribing ultimate worth to him in praise and blessing back. All of the true worship around the globe, worship anchored in the identity of Jesus, worship even directed to Jesus or to God the Father through Jesus – it starts here. The universe of Christian worship has the lift-off of Jesus as its Big Bang. And that same explosive force should echo through our churches and our lives even now, nearly two thousand years later. The marvelous ascension of Jesus has not lost its power. The universe of Christian worship must never be allowed to be quiescent, never stagnant, much less contracting. The earth should be filled with the praises of Jesus Christ, precisely in answer to the ascension.

But also, the ascension inspired worship elsewhere than on earth. It also catalyzes the same exact worship in heaven – worship directed toward Jesus. It's when Jesus appears in highest heaven that we read in Revelation how heaven's loftiest beings “fell down before the Lamb” and “sang a new song” (Revelation 5:8-9), and millions of angels shout that Jesus is “worthy... to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Revelation 5:12). Just as Christian worship on earth became centered on Jesus in the ascension, so did worship in highest heaven and throughout all the heavens. Because that new song is still new. Millions and billions of angels are still enraptured with the beauty of Jesus and the marks of love he bears. The heart of heaven beats to the tune of his praise. The life that flourishes around the throne of God is continually swirling in ecstatic delight around the presence of Jesus. The ancient holy ones who sit in council there are still tripping over themselves, lovestruck in the presence of Jesus. The novelty has not faded. Heaven has, for going on two thousand years now, been nonstop worship, and Jesus is in the heart of it all, enthroned on the praises of heaven and their echoes arising from earth.

And practically, we have every reason to keep those echoes going. For even now, because of the ascension, our hope and our life are anchored in heaven, tethered to heaven. There's a reason Paul can invite us, in his letter to the Colossian Christians, to “seek the things that are above, where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1). And that reason is that “your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3). Jesus Christ has been immersed in the depths of his Father. And our lives are wherever Jesus is, so long as we abide in him. Abide in him, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. Can you think of a better security system than that? In this world, there are many threats that loom. Catastrophes. Pandemics. Unexpected diagnoses. Abrupt accidents. Political upheaval. Civic turmoil. But can any of these attack your life itself? No! Why? Because “your life is hidden with Christ in God!” And that's a beautiful truth, a marvelous assurance, that is absolutely conditional upon and rooted in the doctrine of the ascension.

And because our life is hidden there, we have a reason to prioritize what's heavenly in us over what's earthly in us. Now, when I say that, I don't mean that we should pit the 'spiritual' against the 'physical.' That's not really so biblical. But when Paul advises us to “set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2), listen to what that means, in practice, as Paul keeps writing: “Put to death, therefore, what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5). “Put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator” (Colossians 3:8-10). “Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other – as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts... and be thankful” (Colossians 3:12-15).

Think about what Paul is saying here. Those are all implications he gets, ultimately, from the ascension of Jesus – the ascension of Jesus is the springboard of Christian ethics in the here-and-now. Because Jesus is ascended, our life is hidden with him in God. And because our life has been elevated to heaven, we therefore have a very vested interest in paying attention to where our life is, because in fact, “Christ is your life” (Colossians 3:4). If Christ our Life is in heaven, we need to extinguish the earthly in ourselves and cultivate the heavenly. And by earthly character traits, Paul means vices, Paul means sins – behavior that could never have a place in heaven, behavior that puts our living at odds with our life and introduces a fundamental schism into our very being. On the contrary, Paul is saying, it's vital that we cultivate heaven within ourselves, uniting our living with our life, resolving any internal schism so that we move toward being fully integrated with Christ our Life. What does that look like? It looks like a renewed self. It looks like being truthful and spotless. It looks like opening our hearts in compassion, it looks like a gentle and patient lifestyle, it looks like a readiness to extend forgiveness and love, it looks like welcoming peace and gratitude. All of these are a breath of heaven on earth. And why shouldn't our living be a breath of heaven on earth, if our real life is now hidden with Christ who is in heaven? And as soon as we really begin to understand that, we see that the ascension is our radical key to living well.

What's more, when Jesus ascended into heaven, the gates opened for him, and they did not slam shut. The other week, we reflected on how, after the cross but before the resurrection, Jesus descended into the underworld, and that one of the things he did there was to set free the souls of the righteous, all those dead who believed in him and trusted in him. But what did he do with them then, with those liberated souls? “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive” – or, in some translations, “he led a host of captives” (Ephesians 4:8). All these who had formerly been captives in the underworld, he now led in a parade into heaven behind him. When Jesus ascended into heaven, he led Adam and Eve there, he led Abraham and Isaac and Jacob there, he led David there, he led the prophets there. And he's preparing our own rooms as priests lodging in the heavenly temple, his Father's house on high (John 14:2-4). Jesus did, after all, pray that “those also whom you've given me” – he means us – “may be with me where I am, to see my glory” (John 17:24). Jesus prayed that every faithful one who abides with him would be brought to where Jesus is – and Jesus is in heaven. If we persist in abiding in Jesus rather than falling away into the death of sin, will God refuse his Son's holy prayer? Not a chance! So by ascending into heaven, Jesus opened the gates, not just for patriarchs and prophets, but for me and you. Not only is our life in heaven, but so will be our living, if we separate from our bodies prior to his coming.

There's more that we can say about what happens next. But that will lead us into a consideration of the very next line of the Apostles' Creed. And we'll get to that. For now, let's marvel at the ascended Lord Jesus Christ, for as the Apostle Peter says, “though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8). Amen!


1 Richard J. Bauckham, “The Ascension of Isaiah: Genre, Unity, and Date,” in idem., The Fate of the Dead: Studies on Jewish and Christian Apocalypses (Brill, 1998), 389: “...the Ascension of Isaiah most probably dates from the decade 70-80 CE.”

2 Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 36.5-6; cf. also idem., 1 Apology 51

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