"Then Jesus led them to Bethany, and lifting his hands to heaven, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up to heaven. They worshiped him and then returned to Jerusalem filled with great joy." Luke 24:50-52
"The apostles were at the Mount of Olives when this happened, so they walked the half mile back to Jerusalem." Acts 1:12
In the preceding chapter, we ascended the heights of Olivet, and from one of its eastern ridges, within sight of honored Bethany, we listened in thought to the parting benediction. We beheld the cloud receiving the Person of the glorified Redeemer, and the Eleven straining their eyes until its glory vanished from their sight. We may linger with profit, yet a little longer, around the same hallowed scene, and glean a few of the comforting truths with which the theme of the Ascension is replete. We shall cease to wonder at the climax to which the apostle rises in his summation of gospel doctrine, "God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory," (1 Tim. 3:16.)
When the disciples, all solitary, had to wend their way back to Jerusalem, what, we are ready to think, must have been the agony of their bereft feelings? Surely no sons ever returned from laying the head of an honored parent in the grave with a sadder sense of utter desolation and abandonment. What! to tread the world alone! To enter these temple-courts uttering, through their crushed hearts and irrepressible tears, "Ichabod! for the glory has departed!" Shall they abandon themselves to despair?
Does Matthew say, 'I shall return again to my tax-house and my illicit gains'? Does Peter say, 'I shall return again to my fishing-craft on the lake of Galilee'? Does Nathaniel say, 'I shall go again under my fig-tree, and, spreading sackcloth under me, bewail my absent Lord'? Does Thomas say, 'I can no longer reach there my hand and thrust it into His side; I must lapse into former incredulity, and be faithless and unbelieving as before'? Does Andrew go smiting his breast, asking in vain his old question, "Where are you staying?" while the reply is no more returned, "Come, and see"?
When a brother comes from a far distance, we hail him--his advent is subject of great joy. How do loving hands at home deck his apartment, and make hearth and walls smile a greeting on the long absent one. But when the time of furlough is over, and when he has to go back again to the far country, the last farewell is muttered through tears and swelling emotion, and the house is hung with a drapery of sorrow. We can understand Christ's first coming to be joyful. We can understand His second coming to be a "blessed hope." But to leave His Church in widowhood and loneliness--to gladden it no more with His personal presence--oh do we not expect to hear these disciples of Olivet (at that moment of mysterious parting, when the cloudy chariot is bearing Him from their sight,) crying out in an agony of importunate supplication, "Tarry, Lord, stay with us!" And when they find that to be in vain, we expect to see them, with tear-dimmed eyes and faltering step, descending the mount, and uttering the one note of overwhelming sorrow, "They have taken away our Lord, and we know not where they have laid Him!"
No--with hearts unusually brave in such an hour, we read that "they returned to Jerusalem with great joy." We look for tears, and we hear songs; we look for sackcloth, and, lo! they are girded with gladness. We look for them daily in the Temple, mourning over the wreck and ruin of their dearest earthly hopes, and crying with the plaintive prophet, "How does the city sit solitary!" but they are "continually in the temple, praising and blessing God." This ascension of their Master, which, to all human appearance, would have overpowered them with inconsolable grief, seems to have put a new song into their lips. When Christ first said these things unto them, "sorrow filled their hearts;" but He had forewarned them also that their "sorrow would be turned into joy." Some mighty equivalent would be given, which would more than compensate them for the loss caused by the deprivation of His personal presence--by His leaving the world and going to the Father. Let us follow, for a little, the footsteps of the disciples across the well known path so often trodden in the companionship of their beloved Lord, and offer some reasons why His ascension, to them and to the Church in every age, is subject-matter of joy.
As we have just observed, and more particularly referred to in the preceding chapter, Jesus Himself had prepared the disciples for His departure. He had taught them to associate that departure with a positive blessing. "It is expedient for you," said He, "that I go away." "If you loved me, you would rejoice, because I said I go unto the Father." Again, when on His Resurrection morning, He met one of the Marys, and saluted her with the "greetings" of joy, and when He wished, moreover, through her, on that joyful occasion, to send a gladdening message to His apostles--what was that message? Was it, 'I am now risen, the Lord of immortal life. I shall now remain permanently with you, never more to leave you; death itself shall not separate between you and Me'? No, it was this--'I am speedily to leave you--to be withdrawn from visible fellowship--Go, tell my disciples, I ascend unto my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God.'
And the Church, in her own inspired songs, has been taught to make the ascension of Christ material for thanksgiving and joy--"Lift up your heads, O you gates, and be lifted up, you everlasting doors, and the King of Glory shall come in." "You have ascended on high, you have led captivity captive--you have received gifts for men; yes, for the rebellious also, that the Lord God might dwell among them," (Ps. 68:18.)
The ascension of Jesus was a joyful event, because it attested the full completion of His mediatorial work. Redemption was the great remedial method of restoring all that man had forfeited by sin. By the great consummating deed of the Savior's resurrection, emphatic demonstration had been given that the penalty of sin was removed, the demands of the broken law fully satisfied. If there had been one flaw in His person or work, or had one single transgression of His people been unatoned for, He still would have been detained the victim of death--Death's iron fetters would still have bound Him; the overlying stone would still have been fast over the mouth of His grave. By rising triumphant from the tomb, and leaving behind Him His vacant sepulcher, He proved incontestably that the wages of sin were all paid--the discharge granted.
But this was only the partial, or, if we might call it, the negative result of the atonement. It gave the glorious assurance that the awakened sword of Justice had been returned to its sheath, and that there was now "no condemnation." But we needed a loftier attestation; we needed to be certified, not only that He had made "peace through the blood of the Cross," but that the gates of the true Eden--the kingdom of heaven--were again opened to all believers. And how shall we obtain this desired certification? His own entrance within these gates as our Representative, and the Representative of His people, will form the alone satisfactory pledge and guarantee of our final admission into the realms of glory--that Paradise lost will be, in every respect, Paradise regained and restored.
But He has ascended; and in doing so, He has given His people the pledge--the first installment, so to speak, of their everlasting bliss. In the words of an otherwise enigmatical passage, "He has raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places." He, the first sheaf, has been waived in the heavenly sanctuary--the "offering of the first-fruits"--the pledge of the myriad sheaves which are yet to follow. When we see, therefore, a chariot of cloud, in the sight of the infant Church, bearing her adorable Lord to the celestial portals, what more powerful assurance could be given to those He has redeemed with His blood, that the lost heritage of everlasting bliss was theirs, alike in possession and reversion; and that with a life, deathless as His own, where He is, there they should be also?
If, as their federal Head, His resurrection gave them the public guarantee that the wages of sin being paid, they were in the eye of a righteous God and a righteous law 'justified' fully, freely, and forever; His ascension was the pledge and evidence that "whom He justified," them He would also "GLORIFY," (Rom. 8:30.) If the eleven disciples of old "looked steadfastly" (unmoved) up into heaven, as they saw the cloud ascending; so may we, by the eye of faith, look steadfastly on this great and peerless truth. Yes, I may love to linger around the Cross of Calvary, and to hear the expiring cry of anguish, (which was truly the shout of victory,) "It is finished!" I may love to traverse in thought the way to the tomb, and stooping over the rifled cave, to bear the angel's gladdening announcement, "He is not here, He is risen!" but if I wish to have the crowning assurance of a salvation completed--"the gift of God which is eternal life"--I love better to go to Mount Olivet and witness "the receiving up into glory;" and as I join the returning disciples, to listen to words sung through their tears, "God has gone up with a shout--the Lord with the sound of a trumpet. Sing praises to our God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises."
The ascension of Jesus was a cause of joy, because it secured for the Church the gift of the Holy Spirit. The reason He assigned for it being "expedient for Him to go away" was the sending of the "Paraclete" or "Comforter." "If I do not go away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send Him unto you." Again, it is said, "The Holy Spirit was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified." As the old dispensation was one of type and figure, and ceremonial observance, so, the new dispensation was to be emphatically a "dispensation of the Spirit."
At that interesting hour we have been contemplating on Mount Olivet, may we not think of this new dispensation being, so to speak, inaugurated. It was a solemn crisis in the world's history. As God the Father had been revealed in the early dispensation--as God the Son had been revealed during His incarnation--so the Holy Spirit was now, in "the last days," (the closing era of the Church,) to complete the full manifestation of a Triune deity. As the gate of heaven opened to receive the glorified Son, the Dove of peace, and joy, and consolation was ready to take his flight down to earth, and to hover with outstretched wings over the Church of God. The sacrifice made by a nobler than Elijah being completed, the answer was to be "by Fire"--"He shall baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire."
At the very first meeting of the bereaved Church, this baptism by fire, of the Holy Spirit, took place. The apostles became mighty in word and in deed. Out of weakness they were made strong, waxed valiant in fight, and turned to flight the armies of the aliens. While they mourned an absent Lord, they felt the greatness of the compensating boon. He "brought all things to their remembrance"--He enabled them to write with accuracy their Gospels--the narrative of the never-to-be-forgotten scenes in their Lord's personal ministry. He showed them things to come--He gifted them with prophetic pens to sketch the destinies of the Church in the future; and to that Church, in all ages, He was to be known (and is known) by the blessed name of 'Comforter'--enlightening it with His presence, and sanctifying it with His grace.
One of His special offices, moreover, was to be the unfolder of Christ to His Church and people--"He shall glorify me." May not our blessed Lord, as has been suggested, have had reference to this, when He thus addressed Mary, "Touch me not, FOR I have not yet ascended." As if He had said, 'When I have ascended, THEN you may touch me!' How? You may touch me by faith; the Holy Spirit, as my Glorifier, will enable you to "reach here your finger." "He shall receive of mine, and shall show it unto you."
The ascension of Jesus was to the Church subject-matter of joy, because it enabled Him to reap His own heavenly reward. God the Father had promised, that when He had made His soul an offering for sin, He would "see His seed and prolong His days." In His own last intercessory prayer, as a victorious King, He claims the stipulated recompense of His conquests--"I have finished the work which you gave me to do; and now, O Father! glorify me with your own self--with the glory which I had with you before the world was." And in this same wondrous prayer, He tells what the essence of that mighty recompense is, which makes Him forget all the anguish of His blood-stained earthly path--"I am glorified in them." In them! It is His ransomed Church who are to supply through eternity the chief revenue of His glory; through them, "unto principalities and powers," in heavenly places, is to be made known "the manifold wisdom of God."
The ascension of Jesus is thus frequently in Scripture represented as the recompense of His mediatorial sufferings, "He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the Cross; therefore also has God highly exalted Him." If it gives us joy on earth to see the advancement of a beloved friend--a son, a brother, a parent, if we hear that their goodness and worth, their unwearied beneficence and sterling integrity, have been acknowledged and rewarded by some substantial earthly recompense--what ought to be the Church's and the believer's joy at beholding the Friend of all friends--the Brother of brothers--set as King on His holy hill of Zion, seeing of the travail of His soul and being satisfied; enthroned in the midst of His Church-triumphant, and rejoicing with them in their everlasting joy!
The ascension of Jesus is matter of joy to the Church, as He is engaged in heaven to carry on the work of intercession. By His death He wrought out atonement--by His intercession He perpetuates its purchased blessings and renders them forever efficacious; so that in the noblest of senses it may be said, "He being dead yet speaks." What a wondrous subject for contemplation! God in our nature, (He who once trod this earth in our tried and sorrowing and suffering and tempted nature,) now wearing a glorified human form at the right hand of His Father, and, "with His own precious blood," appearing in the presence of God for us!
He is the Great Angel of the everlasting covenant, with the censer "full of much incense," waiting to receive the prayers and pleadings of His people, that He may present these sprinkled with the fragrance of His own adorable merits--our "Counselor"--one whom the Father "hears always"--whose plea is not that of Mercy for the undeserving, but of Justice suing for the blood-bought rights of His Redeemed. His bosom of love is represented as "girded about with a golden belt," emblem of His inviolable affection and attachment to His people--that loving them from "the first of time," He will love them "unto the end."
Myriad prayers are ascending from burdened hearts, (and that, also, every moment,) but none bewilder Him by their diversity, none weary Him by their constancy. The "much incense" of His golden censer knows no diminishing--ever emptying and yet ever feeding, and always full. He can ask for all, and answer all, and attend to all--no boon within the compass of Omnipotence to bestow, which cannot be secured by the Omnipotent--"Father, I will!"
Is it no subject matter of loftiest joy and consolation, to look upwards to the right hand of God, and behold "the Lamb that was slain," pleading, in silent eloquence, for His Church on earth through these memorials of anguish? to behold this "Rainbow round about the throne" (the cloud of His people's sins behind it) claiming for them exemption from the deluge of wrath--God Himself saying, "When I see the blood I will pass over you"--"The rainbow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it, and remember the everlasting covenant!"
Often, doubtless, had these eleven disciples seen, in their own earthly Temple on the great Day of atonement, the High Priest vanish from the sight of the multitude, as he went into the holiest of all with his vessel of blood--now, they would understand the full significancy of the olden type. How, in a moment, would all their thoughts and previous conceptions of heaven be changed! Before, it was a wide, dreamy, ethereal region, tenanted by spiritual essences. Now their eyes (yes, their heart of hearts) were fixed on their own beloved Master. It was now no longer a strange and distant world to them. It had already a Home-look. They saw One there, for whom they had a love greater than for all on earth beside, consecrated as a Priest for evermore. We know not what their prayers had been previously; but as they descended the mountain, we can almost fancy we hear their musings and converse--'Let us hasten,' they would say, 'to that upper chamber in Jerusalem. Let us gather our little band. Let us use our new and mighty argument. HE said before He left, "Whatever you ask in my NAME, I will give it to you. Hitherto have you asked nothing in my name; ask and you shall receive that your joy may be full." Let us go and pray in His name--"Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand; upon the Son of man whom you made strong for yourself." 'For His name's sake, hear us, pity us, strengthen as! We shall glory in our infirmities if your power, O Christ, will rest upon us!' Could even they not join a later apostle, as he climbs from step to step, until thus he reaches the height of his high argument--"It is Christ who died, yes, RATHER that is risen again; who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us!"
What a lofty subject is suggested by this hallowed memory of Olivet! What an incentive for having our hearts, our conversation, our citizenship in heaven--that there our Living Head is--the Being of beings--"that same Jesus," with His unchanged humanity! Many can look with sacred interest to the graveyard--"the long home" of earth--and say, 'I have a friend, a brother, a sister, a parent THERE!' Christians, you can look to the everlasting home of the skies, and say, 'I have a Brother on that throne! One who feels so tender an interest in His people, that He is said to keep them as the apple of His own eye. No intermission in His love, no alteration in His tones, no diminishing of His affection.'
Nor can we omit to add one closing thought. In doing so, we have to retrace our steps, for a moment, from following the disciple-band, with their mingled musings of sadness and joy, to stand once more on the ridge of Ascension, and listen to the last words of the heavenly messengers as they still spoke of "that same Jesus." It was this, that He was "so to come again." It was His second coming in glory; the same theme we have found, in the course of these "memories," so often on His lips--the most frequently repeated of all His Olivet sayings--as if He had counseled His delegated angels to wake once more the silent echoes of the Mount with the great truth, on which upon its sacred ridges He had loved to dwell. And it was with reference to this blessed truth and blessed hope that they added the question, (shall we call it the gentle rebuke,) "You men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing?"
They say the same to us. Church of God! drawing ever nearer to this solemn event, "why do you stand gazing?" why do you stand lingering? Christian, why loiter on the mountain top? Tarry not--squander not your precious moments. Who can tell how soon again the Heavenly gates may be opened for the descent of your enthroned Lord? Go, go! trim your lamps! put oil into your vessels, "He comes--He comes to judge the earth!" "That same Jesus shall so come!" The apostles, when they heard this, did not fold their arms in indifference and sloth. They went ahead with stout, bold hearts, to do their work manfully in the Church and the world. They would long, doubtless, for that blessed moment of reunion, when they could exclaim, "Lo! this is our God, we have waited for Him." But they knew that the best waiting for Him was working for Him--waiting by patient suffering, or working by active duty.
"Who," asks the Psalmist in that beautiful ascension-psalm, where the gates are summoned to lift up their heads that the King of Glory may enter in--"who shall ascend into the hill of the Lord, or who shall stand in His holy Place?" He answers, "He that has clean hands and a pure heart, who has not lifted up his soul unto vanity nor sworn deceitfully." "If you, then, be risen with Christ, seek those things that are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God." Be assured there is nothing that will so raise you above the world, as the elevating consciousness that you are partakers of the endless life of your living Redeemer; that your lives are now hidden with Christ in God, and that when Christ who is your life shall appear, then shall you also appear with Him in glory.
Seek often to climb, by faith, these steeps of Olivet, and remember the words of the Lord Jesus how He said, "A little while and you shall not see me, and again in a little while and you shall see me." That first "little while" will soon be over--the little while of the Church's widowhood, mourning her absent Lord. But the great while when "we shall see Him," is every day drawing nearer. Every hour is giving fresh emphasis to the words, "Yet a little while and He that shall come, will come, and will not tarry."
Remember it is "to them also that look for Him, He shall appear the second time, without sin, unto salvation." The assembled Jewish worshipers looked for the re-appearance of their High Priest, when He was ministering in the Holy of Holies. They waited anxiously in the outer porch to see the veiling curtain drawn, and the Intercessor of the nation come forth, to pour upon the multitude, with outstretched hands, the old benediction, "The Lord bless you, and keep you--the Lord make his face shine upon you, and be gracious unto you--the Lord lift up his countenance upon you, and give you peace," (Num. 6:24-26.) Not until then, were the imposing services of that high day of Hebrew festival completed. Do we (of this gospel day) see through the type? Are we on the outlook for our reappearing High Priest, coming forth from the heavenly Presence to stand (who knows but it may be literally again) on that height of Olivet, and, with the same outstretched hands of love, to say to the waiting myriads of His expectant Church, "Come, you who are blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world?"
Are we thus "LOOKING for that blessed hope?" It was a gladdening sound to the Jewish multitudes in their Temple area, when they heard the sound of the silver bells on the hem of their high priest's garment, giving intimation of his approach--"Blessed are they who know the joyful sound." "Blessed are those servants who, when their Lord comes, shall be found watching!"