"He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that He might fill all things."--Eph. 4:10
We have listened in our last, to the glorious tidings, another echo from the Rock of Ages--"The Lord has risen!" We have stood in thought by the entrance to the vacant sepulcher; seen the stone rolled away, and angel-warders telling of Him "Whom God has raised up; having loosed the pains of death; because it was not possible that He should be captive by it."
When the now reassured disciples were fully certified of the amazing fact, may we not well imagine that the thought which would suggest itself to their minds, dominating all others, would be this--"Is He now to remain with us?" Is the adorable presence of this Conqueror of death to be given as a permanent inheritance and boon to His Church? No, further, "Is the time now arrived for the often-predicted Messianic reign, when we, as His privileged assessors, are to be seated on twelve thrones--the tribal heads in a new and more blessed theocracy?"
No! Strange and startling, surely, the first message must have been which the Risen One sends them. He bids the weeping disconsolate Mary dry her own tears and theirs, but not with the gladdening assurance that He is now to continue forever in their midst, as a Friend and Guide, to cheer them with His fellowship, and animate them with the tones of His living voice. He sends rather the unexpected announcement--that He must speedily leave them--"Go to My brethren, and say unto them, I ascend unto My Father, and your Father, and to My God, and your God." Accordingly, as is minutely described in the sacred narrative, after remaining with His infant Church for forty days subsequent to His resurrection--thus affording His followers ample time and opportunity to have their convictions established, on irrefuteable evidence, regarding the reality of that great event--and after giving all requisite instructions relative to the proclamation of His Gospel and the extension of His Church and kingdom, the Divine Master led His more privileged disciples out "as far as to Bethany, and lifted up His hands and blessed them--and it came to pass that while He blessed them, He was parted from them, and carried up into Heaven."
Let us enter this new "Cleft of the rock;" and under its shelter, meditate on the grounds of confidence and joy which the believer has in the contemplation of his Lord's Ascension. In doing so, let us state and endeavor to illustrate, two leading and prominent reasons among others, why it was thus necessary and expedient that He should "go away"--why it behooved, not only that Christ should have "suffered these things," but also to have "entered into His glory."
I. The Ascension of Christ formed the divine attestation to the full completion of His mediatorial work. We have already seen, among other great truths which cluster around the Resurrection, that it may be regarded as a public declaration on the part of the Father, that the wages of sin were all paid--that the penalty of the law had been borne in the person of the Surety-Substitute, who was "delivered for our offences, and raised again for our justification."
But legal release from the condemning sentence of the law, was not the whole which the Redeemer undertook in the salvation of His Church. It was indeed a vast part of it--to have the chains struck off, the prison-doors opened, and the glorious words pronounced, "There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus." The work undertaken by the Great Surety from all eternity had, however, far more stupendous issues. It contemplated nothing short of recovering to man ALL that he had lost and forfeited by the fall. Not only was the flaming sword of the cherubim to be turned away, or quenched in the blood of His cross, but the closed gates of a better than earthly Paradise were to be re-opened. Not only was the divine law to be vindicated and magnified; but the divine love--that love which bathed in sunlight-beams the groves of the first Eden--was to be restored, and the happiness of that endearing communion revived, when "the voice of the Lord God was heard walking in the garden in the cool of the day." In one word, Paradise lost was to be Paradise regained. Having overcome the sharpness of death, the great Forerunner was to open the Kingdom of Heaven to all believers.
How was this glorious achievement--this wondrous consummation to be certified? As the Resurrection of Christ from the dead constituted the public evidence and testimony of the remission of their sins--so His entrance into heaven was to form the pledge and guarantee of His people's final glorification. We have already seen, that in all the more prominent and important events of His previous ministry on earth, the adorable Redeemer stood as the Representative of His people; that they were identified with Him--reckoned as participants in His mediatorial work. When He DIED, it was legally counted as if they had died along with Him--when He ROSE, as if they had risen along with Him. So now when He ASCENDED, it was also in His federal or representative character as the Vicar of His Church.
Believers--the members of His mystical body, though still left in earth's "Valley of Vision" amid scenes of corruption and death, to grapple with sin and temptation--are yet, again and again, spoken of in Scripture, as if they had already received (by anticipation in the Person of their Head) the great covenanted reward--already been "made partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light." Let the following passages in proof suffice--"Who HAS raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ." "For our citizenship IS in Heaven." "You have come unto Mount Zion, and unto the city of the living God--to the heavenly Jerusalem, and to an innumerable company of angels." "Who HAS made us kings and priests unto God and His Father."
We rejoice, indeed, to contemplate in the ascension of the Redeemer, the fit reward of His own sufferings and humiliation--the fulfillment of His own last prayer, "Now, O Father, glorify You Me with Yourself with the glory which I had with You before the world was." "When He had by Himself purged our sins, He sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high." "Sat down"--a significant figure--the emblem of rest. The mighty work is done--the Victor is reposing at the close of the campaign--"His rest shall be glorious." But it is more than this. We see in Him the Precursor of a mighty multitude which no man can number, who, in His ascension and glorification, have the pledge and prelude of their own.
To take a feeble earthly simile. A brave leader, in capturing a city, takes possession of it, not for himself, but in the name of the Sovereign and of his or her people. So does the Divine ascending Conqueror, in entering the Heavenly Jerusalem, take possession of it in the name of His Church on earth--"the Queen" who is yet to "stand at His right hand in gold of Ophir." The words of the Prophet, in which he speaks of the members, we may apply for a moment, in part, to their great Head--"He shall enter," says Isaiah, "into peace; they shall rest in their beds, each one walking in His uprightness." He, their Representative, enters into His own purchased peace--the enjoyment of His stipulated reward. And "they" (they His people) "shall rest!" Their work too is done; for He has done it for them--and if they have not yet entered, like their Precursor, into the realms of heavenly peace--if the night of earth must intervene before the morning break--they may "rest in their beds" and dream of a glorious day-dawn--even of "walking in the uprightness" of their crowned and exalted Redeemer--waiting for the joyous hour when His voice will be heard--"Awake and sing, you that dwell in dust." One in mystical union now, they can anticipate the hour, when they shall be one in full vision and fruition, and so be "ever with the Lord."
And, moreover, as it is God the Father who is represented as the efficient Agent in all the previous parts and stages of the Redeemer's mediatorial work--"God so loved the world"--"Whom God has set forth to be a propitiation"--"It pleased the Lord to bruise Him"--"Whereof He has given assurance unto all men in that He has raised Him from the dead"--so this same adorable First person in the Ever-Blessed Trinity, is described as setting His seal to the great public act of ascension and enthronement--welcoming, in the Person of the Representative Head, all the believing members. "HE has set Him at His own right hand in heavenly places" "Wherefore God also has highly exalted Him, and given Him a name that is above every name." When we hearken, therefore, to the Father saying to His Divine Son--"Sit on My right hand"--we listen, in that coronation welcome, to more than a personal address. We hear in it the authority addressed to His Church for the glorification of all its members; that they are served heirs in Him to their regal honors--that will they be in possession of the stipulated reward. "With gladness and rejoicing they shall be brought--they shall enter into the King's palace." It is the Father welcoming the Elder and the Prodigal Son in one, within the patrimonial halls. As He looks to the once ragged and tattered outcast, now wearing the best robe and jeweled ring and glittering sandals, and then from Him to a truer "Elder Brother" than that depicted in the parable, even the Divine Being who had brought back the wanderer from spiritual poverty and death to blessedness and life--He exclaims, "Son, You are ever with Me, and all that I have is Your. It was fit that we should make merry and be glad--for this Your brother was dead and is alive again, and was lost and is found."
II. Another special reason for Christ's Ascension, was in order that the gift of the Holy Spirit might be conferred upon the Church. When that first intimation to His disciples of His approaching departure fell from the Savior's lips, we may picture to ourselves the agonizing feelings of the attached and loving band. 'What!' would doubtless have been their exclamation, had their individual and united thoughts found utterance in words. 'What! Go away! Can it be that these brief years of sacred and devout communion are to vanish like a dream? Can it be that we are to be severed from Him who has been to us better than the best of masters and the fondest of parents?--that we are to be left as sheep without a shepherd, orphaned, forlorn, in a desolate world? This is death indeed.'
Stranger still, perhaps, would be the first impression made by the words in which the sudden announcement was conveyed. "It is necessary." How can it possibly be so? How can it possibly be better, for us, timid and inexperienced mariners, to be left without our Pilot to buffet these stormy seas? How can it be better for us, a helpless and trembling flock, to be deprived of the Great Pastor's presence; abandoned to grapple, as best we can, with the briars and thorns of the wilderness? How often has He sought that among us which was lost, and brought again that which was driven away, and bound up that which was broken, and strengthened that which was sick! When the storm was gathering overhead, and the wolf was prowling on our path, we had this sure cleft--the shadow of this "Great Rock" ever to repair to, for safety and repose. But now, we shall be left unsheltered and unsuccoured in the dark and cloudy day! Oh, need we wonder that as the Divine Redeemer, on the occasion referred to, looked around on the sad faces and, perhaps, tear-dimmed eyes which at that moment met His own, He added, "And because I have said these things unto you, sorrow has filled your hearts."
But having stated the startling fact, He proceeds to assign one very special reason for this departure and its expediency– that is, that there was a divine Agent, a heavenly Comforter, to come in His stead--whose presence in the Church would compensate, and more than compensate, for His own absence. "It is necessary for you that I go away, for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send Him unto you." In His valedictory discourse, again and again does He revert to the same cheering truth. As there is often some one prominent thought which fills the mind of a dying parent when he gathers his children around his couch, some one special charge which he endeavors by reiteration vividly to impress on their memories--so does this coming of "the Comforter" seem to be the leading thought or theme of consolation on which the Redeemer fondly dwells, as His own dying hour approaches.
The advent of the glorious Third person in the adorable Trinity is elsewhere, in more passages than one, said to be contingent or dependent on the Savior's departure. "The Holy Spirit was not yet given because that Jesus was not yet glorified." No sooner did the ascension take place, than the bereft men of Galilee returned from Mount Olivet to Jerusalem, to wait, according to the last injunction of their ascending Lord, "for the promise of the Father." Day after day they continued in profound expectancy of its fulfillment. In the little room--the upper chamber--where the infant Church was gathered--ofttimes, we may well believe, would the cry ascend, 'Lord, fulfill Your gracious assurance! Did You not say, "If you, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven, give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him." Remember this word unto Your servants, upon which You have caused them to hope!'
And there were more reasons than one for their anxiety. The advent of the Paraclete would confer new spiritual powers on themselves--communicating superhuman strength for their gigantic labors, out of weakness making them strong, giving efficacy to their teaching, opening hard hearts and prejudiced intellects and seared consciences to the mighty truths of the Gospel--in one word, inspiring them with the certainty of success in an otherwise hopeless enterprise. But more than this--It was of the last importance to have some outward and even miraculous attestation to the fact of the Savior's ascension. These disciples had been the witnesses of His humiliation, some of them had been present at His baptism in the Jordan, others at His agony in the Garden, and His death on Calvary; they had climbed (some by slow incredulous steps) to a firm assurance of His Resurrection. All these momentous facts had, moreover, been authenticated and accredited by heavenly signs and witnesses--the descent of the dove and the voice at His baptism--the angels strengthening Him in His agony--the rocks rending, the graves opening, and the heavens darkening at His crucifixion--the angels in white sitting within His vacant grave. But now He had vanished from their view!--a cloud had received Him out of their sight. He had told them He was about to ascend to His Father and their Father. They had accompanied Him to Bethany; they had seen His glorified shape borne upwards on the wings of a cloud--higher and yet higher that Divine form rose, until, reducing into a speck, it was lost in the hazy distance. Was all this an airy dream--a strange delusion? It could not be; their senses could not be mistaken, their eyes could not have been deceived in the loved and well-known Person--their ears could not have been deceived in the tones of the loving voice and its last tender benediction.
But how is their belief to be verified? It is not, in the case of the Ascension, as it was in the case of the Resurrection! They could visit personally and scrutinize the Tomb. They had it in their power orally to sift and compare the testimony of witnesses. But they have no longer access to the ascended and glorified body, to ascertain by touch its personal identity with that of their own beloved Master who was crucified. They cannot follow that chariot-cloud in its mysterious flight; they can send no messenger; they can delegate no Mary up to these untraveled heavenly heights with the question--They have taken away my Lord, tell me where they have laid Him!
It was all important therefore, that, as in the case of the other momentous incidents in the Incarnation, some visible miraculous sign should be given to the Church, to attest and certify the reality of the Savior's reign at the Father's right hand. Such a distinct proof He Himself promised before He departed, in the descent of the Holy Spirit. With what intense and longing eagerness, then, must His disciples have looked for this crowning evidence of their Lord's mission and divinity. It would be with them the testing, or rather the confirmatory, article in their creed. Let there be failure in this last promise, and they would be driven back again on their own faithless exclamation, "We TRUSTED it had been He who would have redeemed Israel." As day after day elapsed, how trying would be the postponement! Often would the question pass from lip to lip, 'Is there no sign yet of His appearing? Why tarry the wheels of His chariot?' No weary watcher on a stormy sea, no lonely castaway on a night of tempest, would more wistfully long for the dawn, than these anxious twelve!
But come it does at last. "The Lord is good to those who wait for Him, unto the soul that seeks Him!" On the day of Pentecost--assembled in loving communion ("they are all with one accord in one place")--suddenly, a rustling is heard. It is the "sound of a rushing wind;" and forked radiant flames, like tongues of fire, crown the heads of the praying disciples. The Lord descended of old, first in the tempest, then in the fire, and then revealed Himself in "the still small voice." But on this occasion it is not the soft whisper, it is the voice of power--"the Power of the Holy Spirit." That rushing wind symbolized the bestowment of a new energy in proclaiming the glorious truths of the Gospel. Though numerically feeble, a mere handful of untutored and unlettered men, their Lord has given the word, and great is the company of those that publish it. Hear with what remarkable boldness and confidence Peter (the inspired minister of that hour) speaks, regarding the wondrous attestation of the Savior's ascension, which had just been given. How fully we feel them to be the words of a man whose whole soul had now, by that miraculous confirmatory sign, been finally and forever surrendered to the service of his exalted Master--"This Jesus has God raised up, whereof all are witnesses--therefore being by the right hand of God exalted, and having received of the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has shed forth this, which you now see and hear. Therefore let all the house of Israel know assuredly, that God has made that same Jesus whom you have crucified both Lord and Christ."
Yes! glorious proof and assurance that "that same Jesus" who had vanished from their sight a few days before, from one of the slopes of Olivet, had really entered heaven and taken His seat on His kingly throne! By that baptism of fire, the Ascension is left no longer a matter of faith, or conjecture, or probability. It is proclaimed a great fact in the development of the scheme of Redemption. The feeble infant Church on earth may unite with the ingathered ransomed of the heavenly Jerusalem--"You have ascended on high, You have led captivity captive." "The Lord has gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to God, sing praises. Sing praises to our King, sing praises."
The true Joseph's exaltation being completed, He can send the message of comfort--the grain-sacks of spiritual blessings to His brethren. Our Heavenly Ambassador having entered the celestial courts, and signed as Mediator of the Church the great treaty of peace, can send now back a glorious Divine delegate, loaded with gifts, which He can dispense "even to the rebellious"!
Who, indeed, can read the wondrous story of these days, as it is simply recorded in the Acts of the Apostles, but must be conscious that a new era had dawned on the Church and on the world! It is remarkable, that in the days of the Savior's personal ministry, the number of conversions was small. Even His Divine words and wondrous works seemed to make comparatively little way in breaking down Jewish prejudice and Gentile unbelief. After three years of preaching and miracle--what was His success? See the muster-roll of the Church immediately before Pentecost--"The number of the names together were about an hundred and twenty." He seemed purposely to restrain His own power, in order to magnify the grace and work of the Holy Spirit in the new dispensation which this Divine agent was to inaugurate. No sooner, however, are the windows of heaven opened, no sooner does the Promised Comforter descend, than unprecedented results follow. Hard hearts are broken, blinded eyes are opened, dry eyes are unsealed, and scoffing souls propound the question, "What must we do to be saved?" The Lord is once more in His holy place, as in Mount Sinai--rending the mountains and breaking in pieces the rocks. "You, O God, did send a plentiful rain, whereby You did confirm Your inheritance when it was weary."
Oh when the wondering disciples are witnesses of these moral miracles--thousands on thousands flying as doves to their windows, and nations, through their representatives then gathered at Jerusalem, "born in a day"--whatever may have been the sorrow with which they once heard of their divine Master's severance from them; however deeply, since the hour they parted from Him on Olivet, they might have missed His personal companionship and love--they would cease at all events now to marvel at His saying or to dispute the expediency of His announced purpose--"It is necessary for you that I go away, for if I go not away the Comforter will not come unto you, but if I depart, I will send Him unto you."
Lord, come! hide us in this new cleft of the one Glorious Rock--and as the Beloved Disciple tells us he was "in the Spirit," when his eyes were opened to the transcendent visions and his ears to the wondrous words of his ascended Lord, so may He open our ears to receive the soul-stirring message which gave heart-cheer to the lonely exile of Patmos, "Fear not; I am He who lives and was dead, and behold! I am alive for evermore!"
"Grant, we beseech you, Almighty God, that like as we do believe Your only begotten Son the Lord Jesus Christ, to have ascended into the heavens--so we may also in heart and mind there ascend, and with Him continually dwell, who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end."