Thursday, May 26, 2022

Ascension Day Hope | United with Christ Now & Always

The Ascension of Jesus Provides Everything We Desire, Need, and More

Because Jesus ascended as a real physical person from a particular time and place He brings human culture into the presence of God so that through His humanity He makes a place for people like you and me from all tribes, tongues, nations and cultures to be represented in the new heaven and earth through Him. The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God  
We can tend to read the Ascension along essentially Enlightenment lines, rather than biblical lines ... that God exists, but that He lives in a distant realm called heaven, where He looks at the human project moving along, pretty much on its own steam, on earth. On this Enlightenment reading, the Ascension means that Jesus goes up, up, and away, off to a distant and finally irrelevant place. But the biblical point is this: Jesus has gone to heaven so as to direct operations more fully here on earth. That’s why we pray, “Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Jesus has not gone up, up, and away, but rather—if I can put it this way—more deeply into our world. He has gone to a dimension that transcends but impinges upon our universe. + Robert Barron

Today, we celebrate the ascension of Jesus, our God and King. While the crucifixion and resurrection are key events in His life that most people are familiar with, Jesus' ascension is also worthy of our attention and wonder. To check out a video where I share some similar thoughts, see Ascension Devotion: Rise Up & Reign.

The Ascension is a time to see that our hope can rise again and be secure because it is a hope that rests in Jesus, the One who not only resurrected, but also ascended to the throne of grace, who continues to remember us, intercede for us, make a place for us, and fulfill His promises to us to renew this world when He returns.

The World is Full of Ascension Language Because the Hope of Ascension is a Basic Human Aspiration

The world is full of ascension language. Things can be "on the up," but they can also take a "downward turn". We want to "rise" in our career. Charities try to "lift" people out of poverty. We want to "rise above" our problems and avoid a "downward spiral". People are "lifted" out of obscurity and "rise above" the crowd. We love stories of successful people because we want to emulate the "heights" to which they have "risen". Or perhaps we want secrets that will bring them "down" in our estimation so we do not feel ascension failures by comparison.

The hope of ascension is a basic human aspiration. We want to rise above the difficulties and reach our full potential. 

Most people want to end the day with a sense of achievement. We are gripped by rags to riches stories. The Cinderella story is deeply embedded in our culture. We want to become what we were always meant to be or what we were born to be. Every human being wants to "ascend".

What Has the Ascension of Jesus Accomplished in the Story of God (also see Creation, Crisis, Covenant, Christ, Church, (New) Creation post) for us?

The ascension of Jesus is the ultimate rags to riches story. A child born in a barn becomes the king of the world. But it is not His story alone. It is the story of the restoration of humanity and the world. The story of Jesus is the story of His people, any and every person who follows Him. All believers get to participate in this rags to riches story. We ascend to become who we were born to be.

Humanity was made by God to be a royal family. Psalm 8:5-8 says: "You made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You made them rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet: all flocks and herds, and the animals of the wild, the birds in the sky, and the fish in the sea, all that swim the paths of the seas." 

Creation: We were made in the image of God to be kings and queens over God's world. We were crowned with glory and honor. God is the great King and His children image His glory and honor to the world through their kingship under Him. God ruled by His Word and Spirit in creating the world, subduing the chaos and forming it into a habitable home for the display of His glory. At creation the Spirit hovers over the formless void (Genesis 1:1-2). The Word of God that orders the chaos comes on the breath of the Spirit of God (Psalm 33:6). And the Spirit breathes life into a lump of clay to create the first man (Genesis 2:7). Adam and Eve as God's image-bearers then act in His likeness, filling and subduing the earth (Genesis 1:28), naming creation (Genesis 2:19-20). Humanity was to represent God's character to the world through our ruling stewardship of creation.  
Crisis: The image of God in humanity becomes marred and twisted when we rebel against God's rule. Now we exercise our rule over the world in destructive and self-serving ways. We rejected God's Word and opt instead for a self-referential rule by our own words. As a result, creation itself is subjected to frustration (Romans 8:19-21). Our status as God's royal children is lost. Ever since then we have had an inbuilt hunger to return to the throne. This is the source of our drive towards ascension. This is the reason why our language is littered with references to ascension. We know we are not what we are meant to be and we are not what we are born to be. But our own attempts at ascension are sinful. They follow the pattern of our rebellion, attempting to engulf the throne of heaven in the marred glory of humanity. The tower of Babel was the archetypal attempt to ascend to heaven to "make a name for ourselves" (Genesis 11:4). Humanity exercises rule over creation – building a tower from clay – to conquer heaven in the name of humanity. The tower was built under the continuing influence of the Serpent's words, "you will be like God" (Genesis 3:5).  The story of the tower of Babel is the story of everyone's daily attempts to ascend: to work for our glory and to restore our kingship on our terms, to control our world for our glory. We have not escaped the lies of Satan. His words still enthrall us and direct our stewardship of creation. 
Covenant: But God promises to restore humanity through His people, Israel. This hope becomes further focused in the king. Israel's king is to embody what it means to rule over the world and restore creation (Psalm 72). King Solomon, filled with wisdom, begins to look like something approaching a restored Adam. In 1 Kings 4:29-34 his wisdom includes flora and fauna. At the height of his rule justice and fruitfulness flourish under God's blessing. But Solomon's reign ends in disappointment as he pursues foreign wives and foreign gods. Isaiah 11:2, however, speaks of a coming Spirit-empowered king who will reign in righteousness: "The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD." Isaiah speaks of a man who fulfills all that humanity was designed to be, and who will be God's agent of restoration for both humanity and creation.  
Christ: Luke portrays Jesus as the Spirit-filled king and the new Adam. In Luke 3:22 He receives the Spirit at His baptism and hears the words of Psalm 2:7 spoken to God's king, "You are my Son." Jesus is "the Son of Adam" (Luke 3:38) who, filled with the Spirit, rejects the temptation of Satan in the wilderness (4:1-13). Like the first Adam this man has been declared the Son of God (3:38) and equipped with the Spirit (4:1). Satan "takes him up" in pseudo-ascension and offers Him the kingdoms of the world if He will rule under the banner of the Serpent (Luke 4:5-7). It is the same offer he made to the first Adam, to ascend to a throne under the Serpent. But this time the true Son of God rejects ruling under the Serpent and chooses a route to the throne through submission to, and dependence on, God. 
Church + (New) Creation: The ascension signals Jesus as the beginning of the new humanity who will fulfill its royal identity under God as His people, His Church. In 1 Corinthians 15 Paul presents Jesus as the true Adam (v. 22), the One who shows us what humanity was intended to be (also see Eastertide Joy | How Jesus Restores Our Humanity). Paul quotes from Psalm 8 which describes humanity's rule over creation (v. 27). Christ restores our rule over creation by defeating His enemies (vv. 24-26) and becoming subject to God (vv. 27-28). Royal order is re-established: humanity in Christ ruling, serving, and caring for creation under God. T.F. Torrance says, "The humanity of Jesus, although risen and triumphant over all decay and corruption, was fully and truly human, and indeed more fully and truly human than any other humanity we know, for it was humanity in which all that attacks and undermines creaturely and human being is vanquished." Children, women, and men who follow Jesus are growing into becoming truly human as His Church together. We reveal what humanity was intended to be when we are humble before God and each other, trust His Word, serve faithfully as Jesus our servant King did and does, and walk in step with His Spirit as we live and lay down our lives for others and this world that Jesus will one day fully restore when He returns from the throne of grace He ascended to in order to reconcile heaven and earth.  
This Gospel story declares that humanity is remade in the image of the glorified human Jesus. In the Story of God, the Gospel of Jesus makes us truly human, reclothes us in glory, fills us with His Spirit and seats us with the ascended Christ. It follows that restored humans will demonstrate their royal status by living in line with the Gospel story. Death and resurrection leading into ascension is the true journey of restored humanity. "Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with Him, we will also live with Him; if we endure, we will also reign with Him" (2 Timothy 2:11-12).

The Ascension of Jesus is the Foretaste of the Ascension of a New Humanity to Our Desired and Needed Restoration

"And just as we have borne the image of the earthly man, so shall we bear the image of the heavenly man" (1 Corinthians 15:49). Those in Christ will once again be what we were meant to be and what we were born to be. 

Douglas Farrow says, 

Redemption does not mean the prising apart of creation to liberate what is divine in it, but rather the prising open of creation to the Spirit of God that it might be filled with divine glory. ...  Salvation does not make us something other than human, but makes us rather to be human in another and truer way. 

Nick Needham also writes:

Who is the one who is a true and perfect human being? It is the Lord Jesus Christ. So how do I define human nature and its capacities? Well, surely from what I find in Christ. Jesus Christ is the true definition of humanity. And at what point in Christ's life do we set our marker and say there is the final perfect definition of what humanity is – the new born baby Jesus, the teenager Jesus, the full grown man? No, we have to go on through Christ's public ministry, his passion, his death, his resurrection, his ascension into heaven. In other words, it is the man Jesus in his final condition: ascended, glorified, exalted who finally stands before us as the perfect definition of humanity. It is only in the exalted Christ that human nature comes to its full bloom, its full flowering, its final development of powers and capacities. If I want to see what human nature is ultimately capable of I do not look at my own stunted, shattered shell of humanity. No, I look at the man Christ Jesus, risen from the dead and exalted to the right hand of the Father. That is real humanity, human nature according to God's final definition and purpose. That is human nature brought to its ultimate maturity of grace and glory.  
The ascension secures our royal identity and locates it with Jesus in the presence of the Father. Far from the ascension and absence of Jesus being a pause on the delivery of our royal identity, it is the event that secures it. Because of the ascension we are seated at the right hand of the Father (Ephesians 2:6).

In the present our life is currently hidden with Christ (Colossians 3:1-3). Until the revelation of the sons and daughters of glory at the return of Jesus we express our royalty in the power of the ascension and through the pathway of the ascension. 

The power of the ascension is the Holy Spirit. On the day of Pentecost the completion of humanity through the crowning of Jesus coincides with the restoration of humanity through the giving of the Spirit. And the pathway of ascension is the cross. It is by taking up our cross and following Jesus that our royal status is shown in this world. Jesus demonstrated His kingship by walking the road of suffering now through the cross before receiving glory. Until our glory is revealed, restored humanity looks like crucified humanity in the sense of people who embrace the sacrifice, submission, self-denial and service modeled in the cross. 

The Gospel Story Concludes with God in His Garden City as His Life Overflows to the Whole World

The story ends with John's wonderful vision in Revelation 21:1-7 when he sees a new earth in verse 1, a new city in verse 2 and a new temple (i.e. God's dwelling place with humanity) in verse 3. A number of the dimensions and features of the city are drawn from Ezekiel 40-48, which describes the dimensions and features of a future temple. And like the Holy of Holies in Solomon's temple, the city that John sees is a perfect cube (1 Kings 6:20; Revelation 21:16-17). God's intention was always to bring temple, city and earth together perfectly. Eden was a temple garden that God intended would extend throughout the whole earth. The new creation is the ultimate realization of this: the whole earth is God's city, God's temple. An angel, says John, "carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City, Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God" (Revelation 21:10). And the bejewelled city that John describes echoes Ezekiel's vision of a new temple which itself echoes the Jerusalem temple which itself echoes Eden (Revelation 21:10-27). It is here for the final time God's people ascend "a mountain great and high" to dwell in the presence of God forever. And from the throne of the Lamb flows a life-giving river that brings healing to the nations (Revelation 22:1-5).

"Who may ascend the mountain of the LORD?" the Psalmist had asked before answering, "The one who has clean hands a pure heart" (Psalm 24:3-4). And John echoes that answer when he says: "Nothing impure will ever enter it, nor will anyone who does what is shameful or deceitful, but only those whose names are written in the Lamb's book of life" (Revelation 21:27). We may not have clean hands and a pure heart, but Christ our King does. And those who by faith are in Christ share His merits. Our names are written in His Book of life. We can ascend the holy mountain to enjoy the presence of God forever. We will ascend. And we have ascended. "God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus" (Ephesians 2:6). Christ's ascension is our ascension.

To help summarize, here are 5 things to celebrate:

1) Jesus is abundantly human and alive. He did not raise from the dead as only a spirit. And His body did not die again like Lazarus, Jairus’ daughter, the widow of Nain’s son, Eutychus, or Tabitha. Jesus’ resurrected human body will not be found because He took its glorified tangibility to heaven.
2) God’s plan for His glory filling the earth is being realized. Adam and Eve were charged with filling the earth and subduing it. Though they didn't fulfill God's mission for the earth, His gracious and powerful plan for humanity cannot be stopped. Children, women and men will reflect God’s glory in justly ruling over creation. In the Incarnation, God sends His only Son to right the course, reverse the curse, and begin the restoration of all things. Jesus, the second Adam, is fulfilling God’s plan for man to reflect divine glory in righteously caring for and reigning over creation. 
3) The ascension reveals how great the Gospel of union with Christ is. We are united with Christ through faith, and where He is we will be also. The ascension means we will go to heaven in spirit, and heaven will come to us in body. The ascension is the full fruition of the promise of Christ’s resurrection being the firstfruits of new creation for us and the entire world. The ascension holds out the promise, the blessed hope, not just of life after death, but as N.T. Wright says, life after life after death.  
4) The Incarnation is an enduring miracle. The Incarnation was a humbling of God the Son, but not a lessening of Him. With the ascension of Jesus to the throne of grace, He is forever God the King. His ascended Incarnation is part of His ongoing efforts to fill all things in His tangible Kingdom. The Incarnation is a miracle with no expiration date. 
5) Heaven is thicker than earth. Heaven is not less real than earth but more. Jesus is there, taking up material space. Heaven is the thicker reality we need to be reconciled with earth, more vibrant, more colorful, more real. 

+ This post includes adapted excerpts from Tim Chester & Jonny Woodrow's excellent little booklet The Ascension: Humanity in the Presence of God, pgs. 73-80, 91-92 and Jared C. Wilson's "5 Things the Ascension Means"

Recent posts on overviews of the Story of God found in the Bible:

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan