50 When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. 52 Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. 53 And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God. (Luke 24:50-53)
Beloved congregation of Christ,
When our son was about 3 or 4 months old, he was easily amused. (By the way, I checked with him if I could mention this in my sermon and he said it was okay). We lived in a small basement suite in Hamilton and he had his crib in a very tiny room with a sliding door. One day, he was lying in his crib and I came past the room rather suddenly and he just started giggling uncontrollably. This caught my attention because I’d never heard a baby giggle like that before. After he calmed down, I backed up a few steps and tried it again. Same thing. Then I tried it with some added expression; I threw in a “Boo!” Well, that just about made him bust a gut. Not only was it endlessly amusing to him, Rose and I also found it incredibly delightful. I still get tears of joy when I think back to it.
But what does that have to do with the Ascension? Well, why did our son find peek-a-boo so amusing? It has to do with something called object permanence. Up until a certain age, if babies can’t see something, it doesn’t exist. Our son found it so amusing because to his little mind, I was a magician. I could make myself disappear, I was the incredible existing/non-existing Dad. I’m sure some of you have had similar experiences with your kids. At a certain age, kids develop object permanence and then peek-a-boo isn’t amusing anymore. But before then, if they can’t see it, it doesn’t exist.
Sometimes we’re that way when it comes to our Saviour Jesus Christ. He has ascended up into heaven. He is no longer on earth where we can see him and touch him. Does that mean that he has vanished from existence? No, Scripture tells us that he has a human body and soul in heaven at God’s right hand. He has a beating heart, blood that flows through veins and arteries, lungs that inflate and deflate with every breath, eyes that blink, a brain with neurons that fire. But we can’t see all this with our own eyes and so we sometimes have a difficult time with its reality. We tend to think of Christ being at God’s right hand as an abstract theological truth, rather than a physical reality. Sometimes we have a problem with object permanence.
Here is where we have to learn to believe and trust the Word of our Father. He assures us that his Son Jesus has not simply vanished into non-existence with his ascension. With our text of this evening, God comforts us with the truth that Christ has ascended into heaven and this is for our benefit. With this passage from Luke, we discover that our ascended High Priest continually blesses his church. We’ll see that he does this by:
- Reminding us of his atonement
- Reassuring us of his presence
- Revitalizing us to his praise
Our passage is very brief and to the point. Christ went out with his closest disciples to Bethany on the Mount of Olives, only about 3 kilometres from the city of Jerusalem. There he lifted up his hands to bless them. Here we are at the end of Christ’s time on earth and this is the first time that we read of him giving this sort of blessing. Yes, he placed his hands on the little children and blessed them, but that was a different sort of blessing. Here he is standing and lifting up his hands to bless.
This is the blessing of a priest, the sort of blessing that we read about in Leviticus 9. In verse 22, we read that Aaron lifted his hands toward the people and blessed them. The High Priest could do this because the sacrifices had been made. Atonement had been offered for the sins of the people. There was reconciliation with God. This priestly blessing or benediction was not optional. Rather, it was the necessary conclusion to the atoning work of the priest in the tabernacle and later the temple.
Now as Jesus stands on the Mount of Olives he adopts the same posture as Aaron the High Priest. He doesn’t shake each of their hands and say good-bye to them as individuals (as we might expect he would), instead he lifts up his hands and blesses his people as a whole. He can do this because the sacrifice of his flesh and blood has been made. Atonement has been offered, once and for all, for the sins of all who believe. Through the sacrifice of the Lamb of God, there is reconciliation and peace with God. With his arms outstretched, the Lord Jesus is portrayed here as our great High Priest.
This is also captured in the structure of Luke’s Gospel. You’ll remember that the gospel begins with a priest. Zechariah was going to perform his service in the temple, but before he could, an angel of the Lord stopped him in his tracks and gave him some amazing news. Zechariah was unable to complete his service, he was unable to bless the people. Now at the end of Luke’s Gospel, we find a priest who completed his service, who made his sacrifice and who was able to bless the people more richly than any other priest ever could.
This blessing of Jesus Christ was not only given for the apostles who directly received it, but also for us. He went up into heaven with his arms outstretched. In other words, this is a continual blessing being poured out on God’s people in every age and place, this is a blessing for the holy catholic church. This blessing tells us and all believers that the sacrifice Christ made is trustworthy and dependable. By giving his blessing the Lord Jesus confirmed that the curse was gone and sin was gone.
It was a wordless blessing, Luke doesn’t tell us that he said anything. That’s because he himself had become the blessing. As he stood there and as he ascended into heaven, they could see the wounds in his hands. He was saying, “I have been dead, and in dying I was made a curse for you. Now I have fully removed the curse and my Father has acquitted me and you. Now I can be bold to bless you and pronounce all your sins forgiven. I can boldly announce that you are right with my Father!” Hear what he says to you this evening as you see him revealed in this text. See your great High Priest ascending into heaven and lavishing you with his blessing. This blessing is not just a “I wish you all the best as I go on my way,” but it is a declaration or impartation of welfare, peace and power.
When we reflect on this continual blessing of Christ, how can we not also think of the connection with the blessing that we receive at the end of every worship service? There too, we don’t just receive best wishes and a fond farewell from God. Think about this every time you hear the blessing, think about it this evening as you receive the blessing: the blessing is possible because the sacrifice has been made. The blessing is not just a farewell, it’s not a wish but a powerful statement of what God has done and promises to do. So, for instance, tonight we will hear the words of 2 Cor. 13:14, “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.” That sounds like a prayer or a wish, but it is a blessing from God. God is promising to give you his presence in the grace of Jesus Christ. God is promising to give you the presence of his love. God is promising to be with you in the presence of the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. And again he can make these beautiful promises because of the suffering and death of Jesus Christ. It all comes back to him, even at the end of our worship service. Everything points to him! And that’s why we can say our hearty “Amen!” after the benediction.
So as Christ continually blesses his church he reminds us of his atonement. Just a second ago, we saw that 2 Cor. 13:14 is the promise of God’s presence. The blessing Christ gives at his ascension, that continual blessing, is also a reassurance of his presence.
Yes, the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven, “taken up into heaven” as the passage says. But yet he is still with us and the fact that he ascended into heaven with an endless, continual blessing is a reminder of that. When a priest in the Old Testament would send away the people with a blessing, it was a declaration that even though they were going on their way, God would continue to be present with them. And in Luke’s gospel, there are a number of instances where blessings are given (think of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon), where the blessings are connected with the saving presence of God.
When the Lord Jesus ascended, he didn’t disappear into non-existence. He didn’t abandon his people. No, in the parallel passage of Matthew 28:18-20, he promised his church that he would be with her to the end of the age. How would he do this? We can’t separate the blessing that he gives here from the sending of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. When Christ ascends, he does not disappear, he does not remove his presence. Rather, he is present in a different way. He is present, as we confess in the Catechism, in his majesty, divinity and Spirit.
But sometimes this is so hard for us to believe. We get busy in the day to day hustle of life. Sometimes it doesn’t feel like Jesus is near. It’s just me and my busy schedule, running from one thing to the next. Or we experience depression, which many of us do from time to time, or even most or all of the time. It usually doesn’t feel like Jesus is near when you’re depressed. There’s just a deep, dark pit, an overwhelming sadness and God is not in the picture. He’s distant and removed. He exists for other people, but not for you. We might not even dare to say it to anyone, but this is what we feel. Then we might begin searching for some kind of experience that makes us feel better, that makes us feel like Jesus is near. Perhaps we find that experience when we hear a song that tugs at our heart, arouses certain emotions, and lifts our spirits. Loved ones, you have heard it before and because it’s necessary, I’m going to say it again: even though it can be the hardest thing, simply go to the Bible and trust what the Word says. The Word tells you that, despite whatever you might be feeling, the Lord Jesus is near. The Word promises you, promises you that he will never leave you or forsake you. Brothers and sisters, don’t trust your feelings or emotions to tell you the truth, don’t depend on “experiences.” When we do that, we’re turning in on ourselves and actually turning away from God as he has been pleased to reveal himself. He reveals himself in his Word, not in huge spectacles of sound and light, not in a storm of emotions, but simply in his Word. He promises you that because of Christ and what he has done for you, he is there beside you, with you, for you.
The Word of God also teaches us that Christ is present in the Lord’s Supper. It’s often amazing how little credence we give to that truth. There are many churches in our community which do not share our view of baptism and we easily recognize that. They only baptize believers, whereas we baptize believers and their children. We often fail to recognize that most of these other churches also do not share our view of Christ’s presence in the Lord’s Supper. Most would say that the Lord’s Supper is simply a remembrance of Christ. We agree that it is that, but so much more! We believe that Christ is present in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. In John 6, Jesus said that we must eat his flesh and blood if we wish to have eternal life. In 1 Corinthians 10, the cup and the bread are said to be a participation in the body and blood of Christ. We believe that Christ is present spiritually in the Lord’s Supper. It’s not the Roman Catholic idea that the bread and the wine become the body and blood of Christ, but yet he is present spiritually and we partake of him accordingly.
In a couple of weeks, we’ll again have the opportunity to celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As we do this, remind yourself that Christ is truly present in this sacrament. We are not simply remembering his suffering and death, but we’re also being fed spiritually by him. He is not absent, distant, or removed. If an experience of Christ’s presence and nearness is what you’re looking for, then the legitimate place to look for it is in the Lord’s Supper. There he promises to bless us with his presence, just as he blesses us in his Word when it is read and proclaimed.
And when we recognize this blessing of Christ’s atonement and presence, what should the response be? Well, what was the response of the apostles? Look with me at what it says in verses 52 and 53 of our passage. You might think that they would be sad at the departure of their Master and friend. Instead, we find something surprising, we find that they worshipped him. He was no longer physically with them but still they worshipped. This implies Jesus’ divinity, for Jews would never worship any one other than God himself and these men were all Jewish.
Not only did they worship him, reverently adoring him with hearts and voices, but they were also obedient to him. Their faith and worship led to the fruit of obedience. He had told them to stay in Jerusalem, so they returned there and did so with great joy. What would have given them this great joy? Can we share in this great joy of theirs?
Consider four reasons for that great joy. First of all, Christ would be with them forever in his Holy Spirit. He had not abandoned them by going to heaven, but went there for them, for their benefit – and for ours!
Second, the apostles had been given a great and glorious task – preaching repentance and the forgiveness of sins in Christ’s name to all nations. They were about to receive what they needed, or rather who they need to carry out this work. They were about to receive the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and from there they would be Christ’s front line to bring the gospel to the world. Who wouldn’t be joyful at being able to be a part of that? And as Christ’s church, we share that task and we have also been gifted with the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. We have every reason for great joy as well – what an awesome joyful privilege to be able to share the good news with those who are lost in darkness and dead in sin!
Third, the apostles had received the promise of his glorious return. He assured them that he would come back. In fact, in the parallel account in Acts we find out that the angels told them he would return in the very same way they saw him depart. His physical absence was not permanent. They could be joyful, knowing that his return was imminent. And so it is for us as well. We can also live our lives with joy, knowing that Christ will return. Believing in him, we have nothing to fear from his return, rather we long for it and we look forward to it. It gives us joy to contemplate the day when the trumpet of the archangel will sound and our Lord will appear again.
Finally, when the Lord Jesus ascended into heaven this was another step in his glorification, his exaltation. It was a joyful moment for him. His followers, united to him in faith, would share in his joy. When he, the head of the body rejoices, the rest of the body rejoices with him! We too, as we read these words so many years later, we may also find our joy in Christ’s joy at this moment. He was lifted up and exalted and that should delight us as it delighted him.
The worship and joy of the apostles showed itself in the fact that they were constantly in the temple, praising God. That’s what we read in verse 53. This tells us that the temple continued to have a place in the life of the early church, despite all that had happened, including the tearing of the temple veil on Good Friday. They were still worshipping at the temple, praising and blessing God in the place where they had grown to expect his special presence to dwell. But notice that something has changed. They were there doing this continually. In other words, they were no longer bound to the schedule of the priests in temple, to the Old Testament regulations. They were constantly and habitually praising God and so the antithesis was emerging between the followers of Christ and those who clung to the Old Testament ceremonial laws.
We don’t read anything about the apostles or the early church continuing to offer sacrifices for sin, there are no sacrifices of animals, no blood being spilled by the Christians. Yet, there was one sacrifice that they continued to make in the temple and it is the sacrifice that remains for all Christians, including us. Hebrews 13:15, “Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise – the fruit of lips that confess his name.” Brothers and sisters, the church continually blessed by the ascended High Priest must be a church which continually offers the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving. We offer that sacrifice with our lips and with our lives. Recognizing Christ’s blessing – his completed atonement and his abiding presence – we are to bless his holy name with everything in us, every day of our lives.
Loved ones, though we cannot see him with our eyes, through his Word we know that all of this is real. Now we see with the eyes of faith, some day we will see both with faith and with physical sight. The ascended Lord Jesus sits at God’s right hand. This is not an abstract theological truth, but a real physical reality. How I wish that every one of us could be impressed or more impressed with that truth! Think about it: Jesus has a human body right now – a glorified body, but a human body nonetheless. As part of that he literally and really has eyes like yours. With his eyelids, he blinks. He has a cornea, a retina, an iris, and a pupil. He has vitreous fluid and an optic nerve that sends all the images to his brain. With those physical eyes, somehow he beholds God’s presence perfectly. Because of what he has done for you, because of his perfect suffering and obedience, some day your eyes, your physical eyes, will behold exactly the same sight. Job said it in Job 19:27, “I myself will see him with my own eyes – I and not another. How my heart yearns within me!” The time is coming. At the resurrection on the last day, seeing and believing will be eternally united in holy wedlock. AMEN.