The Ascension of our Lord
May 8, 2016
“Christ Reigns Above to Serve Us Below”
But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore He says: When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men. (Now this, “He ascended” – what does it mean but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is also the One who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into Him who is the head – Christ. Ephesians 4:7-15
Christ descended into hell before he ascended into heaven. He did not descend into hell to suffer. His suffering ended on the cross. As he said, “It is finished.” Christ descended into hell to proclaim to the devil and his demons that he had defeated them on the cross. By bearing the sin of the world, he set us sinners free. We were held captive by the prince of darkness. Christ invaded his kingdom and bound him in chains so that he could deceive us no more. He led captivity captive. He then ascended into heaven to fill all things.
How can a man who is so humiliated to be nailed to a cross and suffer an ignominious death alongside of two criminals become so exalted that he fills all things? That is the wonder that we celebrate today. God became a man. He didn’t change. He remained true God and took on a human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The man Jesus was true God. He possessed all divine powers. But he chose to humble himself in obedience all the way to the death of the cross. He chose to set aside his divine prerogatives in order to become our Redeemer. He took our place under the law, fulfilled its demands, bore its curse, and died. This Jesus is now exalted above all powers, authorities, and rulers. He has taken his rightful place of honor at the right hand of God the Father. He rules over all things and fills all things. This is what we confess in the Creed when we say that he “sits at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.”
There is a town in Norway called Hell. You can find it on a map. Tourists like to visit it so they can tell their friends they’ve been to Hell and back. The heaven and hell of which the Scriptures speak are not locatable on a map. But they are real places where real people go and when you go there you don’t leave. Christ ascended into heaven to claim, in his human nature, the divine power he has always had. Since he is our brother, our substitute, our Redeemer, our Savior, it is our nature that is exalted in heaven, far above all of the sins, troubles, sorrows, and pains of this life. He is the head. We are his body. Where he is, there we shall be.
To understand Christ’s ascension into heaven we must see it in light of God’s grace. The apostle writes, “But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift.” Christ ascended into heaven so that he could be gracious to us. Our text says, “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.” We were held captive by the unholy alliance of our spiritual enemies: the devil, the world, and our sinful flesh. Now the devil is bound. The world cannot claim our affections. Our sinful flesh is drowned in the waters of Holy Baptism, that is, in the blood of the Lamb. That which held us captive is captive. Christ’s ascension, his victory, is our victory as well.
It is not a political victory. It is not a military victory. It is a spiritual victory. Christ rules this world, not to advance the causes of nations, but to protect and defend his holy people. He shed his blood for them. He went to war for them. He fought their battles, defeated their enemies, and now, claiming the position of power over everything that would threaten us, he rules. He rules spiritually through his word. He ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. “And he shall reign forever and ever. Hallelujah!”
How? What is he doing? Listen to God’s word on the subject. St. Paul writes:
The ascended Lord Jesus reigns here on earth through his ministry of the Word. He gave apostles. He taught them the divine doctrine. They witnessed his miracles, his death, and his resurrection. They preached. They baptized. They taught God’s word authoritatively, and wrote it down in the book that we today call the New Testament. The written apostolic word is God’s word. That’s why we call it the Holy Scriptures. It remains the standard for preaching until the end of time.
He gave prophets. The New Testament prophets were like the Old Testament prophets. They received revelations directly from God. We confess of the Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed, “Who spoke by the prophets.” While there have been many false prophets – Muhammad and Joseph Smith to name a couple – who have arisen since the writing of the New Testament, God stopped sending prophets about the time the Scriptures were completed.
He gave evangelists. He still gives them. An evangelist is a gospel preacher. The evangel is the gospel.
He gave pastors and teachers. Pastors and teachers are not two different groups. They are the same. The pastors are teachers and the teachers are pastors. To feed, which is what a pastor or shepherd does, is to teach, which is what a teacher does. Feeding the flock is teaching the flock and teaching the flock is feeding the flock. It is through his ministry that Christ rules over his church. He exercises his divine authority. He showers us with his grace. He defends us from the wolves. He shares with us his victory over our enemies.
We live in democratic times. We the people decide who will rule. Majority rule may be a good way of making political decisions, but it is a rotten way of deciding what we as Christ’s church should be about. God decides that for us. The purpose of Christ’s ministry is stated here in our text. It is:
The ascended Lord sent apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers to his church to perfect the saints, that is, to bring them to the goal he had set for them. That goal was to build them up in the unity of the faith and the true knowledge of Christ. The church is the body of Christ. She obtains her identity only as she is joined to Christ, her head. St. Paul goes on to describe the purpose of Christ’s ministry further. He writes:
The tragedy of modern church life is that this fundamental truth has been largely forgotten. People are tossed to and fro by every wind of doctrine because they never learned the true doctrine in the first place. Doctrinal indifference is the spirit of our age. To care about, to contend for, or, God forbid, to argue doctrine is considered bad manners among Christians who shy away from standing up for the truth and then watch in dismay as their children walk away from the church without a backward glance.
The purpose of Christ’s ministry is to teach. The unity the church enjoys is unity in doctrine, in the truth. We grow as Christ’s church into what God has called us to be by speaking the truth in love. A church that shies away from teaching the truth, confessing the truth, contending for the truth, and indoctrinating its children in the truth is a church that will surely die.
Jesus’ session at the right hand of the Father does not limit him to a particular geographical spot on the map as if he cannot be there and here at the same time. The opposite is the case. Christ is present with his church wherever she may be. His ascension proves his omnipresence. As St. Paul writes, “He . . . ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.” People may question that he fills all things and rules over all things because they cannot see the results of his reign. The morals of our country are in the sewer. Government is laced with corruption. Demagoguery replaces reasoned debate among our political leaders. Look at foreign countries and it gets worse. Where is the evidence of Christ’s reign? Isn’t this talk of him sitting at the right hand of the Father just a religious escape from reality?
No, it is the very opposite. Looking to him who is seated at the right hand of the Father is to see reality. It is to set our sights on the ultimate reality. For his victory is ours. It is ours right now. The truth that is given us to speak – and to speak in love – is presently hidden from sight. The victory that we celebrate now is likewise hidden from our sight. That does not make it any less real than if we could see it and touch it. God has chosen to reveal this truth, this victory, in very humble means. He puts a man in the pulpit to preach the gospel. That gospel is God’s almighty power to rescue us from destruction and assure us of our place in heaven, where Jesus is. He puts the body and blood by which we are rescued from our sins, from death, and from Satan’s power into common bread and wine and he gives it to us to eat and to drink. He speaks the pure and saving truth to us in the words of the book he wrote through the prophets and apostles he sent. This is how the ascended Lord Jesus rules over his church on earth.
And he governs all things for the sake of his church. Those things that make no sense, that seem to be in a state of chaos or decay, that appear to give evidence that God is either sleeping at the wheel or just doesn’t care are firmly under the control of the God-man Jesus Christ who governs all things in heaven and on earth for the benefit of the church, his body. Christ is the head of the church. He is forever exalted above the sin, deception, and futility of this dying world. Where the head is, there is the body as well. We are where he is. He is where we are.
Christ ascended to the Father’s right hand to intercede for us. He shows the Father his obedience and suffering. He tells him that it was for us. We speak the truth in love. Wherever God’s truth is taught and confessed is where Christ rules and his kingdom will have no end.
Rolf D. Preus