By William S. Plumer, 1867
"Come, let us shout joyfully to the Lord, shout
CHRIST'S ASCENSION, AND SESSION AT GOD'S RIGHT HAND
The first step in Christ's exaltation was his resurrection; the second, his ascension to heaven; the third, his sitting at the right hand of God. Having considered the first, let us now meditate on the other two.
I. CHRIST'S ASCENSION.
1. Our Lord, having risen, did not at once ascend to heaven, but remained on earth forty days. Acts 1:3. By this delay:
(1.) He would give his followers all reasonable proof of his humanity: "Behold my hands and my feet, that it is I myself: handle me, and see; for a spirit has not flesh and bones, as you see me have. And when he had thus spoken, he showed them his hands and his feet." Luke 24:39, 40. Long after his ascension to heaven, the last surviving apostle testifies: "That which was from the beginning; which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life . . . declare we unto you." 1 John 1:1, 3.
(2.) Christ would give all reasonable satisfaction concerning the reality of his resurrection. This he did many ways, calling one poor doubter to reach forth his finger and behold his hands, and to reach forth his hand, and thrust it into his side. John 20:27. Indeed he showed himself alive after his passion, by many infallible signs. Acts 1:3.
(3.) Christ remained on earth a season that he might aid his disciples in recovering from the terrible shock which their faith had received at the crucifixion, and that he might further confirm and instruct them in the nature and things of his kingdom. "These are the words which I spoke unto you, while I was yet with you, that all things must be fulfilled which were written in the law of Moses, and in the prophets, and in the psalms, concerning me. Then opened he their understanding, that they might understand the Scriptures." Luke 24:44, 45.
2. Prophecy required the ascension of our Lord, and the Scripture cannot be broken. So we read, "God is gone up with a shout, the Lord with the sound of a trumpet." Psalm 47:5. "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." Psalm 68:18. Of this prediction we have an inspired and so an infallible interpretation given by Paul in Ephesians 4:8-13. Daniel foretold the same thing: "I saw in the night visions, and, behold, one like the Son of man came with the clouds of heaven, and came to the Ancient of days, and they brought him near before him; and there was given him dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and languages should serve him;" etc. Dan. 7:13, 14.
Our Lord himself often foretold his own ascension: "I go unto the Father." John 14:28. "I go my way to him who sent me." John 16:5. See also John 1:51. Much more did he say to the same effect. So that beyond all doubt several predictions, running over the space of at least a thousand years, required that Christ should ascend to God.
3. With the prophecy, the historic record well and fully agrees. Neither Matthew nor John record Christ's ascension. Yet it is declared in four books of the New Testament. The testimony of Mark on the subject is, "So then, after the Lord had spoken unto them, he was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God." In his gospel Luke says, "When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God." Luke 24:50-53. In Acts 1:9-11, we read: "After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. "Men of Galilee," they said, "why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven." In 1 Timothy 3:16, Paul says he was "received up into glory." Thus the record agrees with the prediction and explains it.
4. On the southeast side of Jerusalem, and separated from it by the valley of the brook Kidron, is a mountain-ridge running north and south. Its summit is about half a mile from the wall of the holy city. For many thousand years it has been famous for its olive-trees, and from the days of Samuel to the present time it has been called Olivet, or the Mount of Olives. 2 Sam. 15:30. Over this David fled weeping, as he retired from his palace in the rebellion of Absalom. The road to Jericho and the Jordan crosses this ridge. At its base on the west lay the ever-famous garden of Gethsemane. On its eastern slope was the retired village of Bethany, so often favored with the presence of the Savior. Often did he cross Olivet. This mount, which rises about two hundred feet above Jerusalem, is chosen by Zechariah either as the place or the emblem of great and terrible judgments. It witnessed many of the wonders and mercies and sufferings of our Lord. From it he ascended. Tradition attempts to mark the spot whence he arose; but all this is uncertain. On this mount he had beheld the holy city and wept over it. At its base he had been sorrowful and very heavy; yes, "his sweat was as it were great drops of blood falling down to the ground." It had witnessed his human weakness and his dreadful sufferings. At his ascension, it witnessed his triumph and amazing glory. Here he had fought with the powers of darkness. Here he now "made a show of them openly."
5. From Olivet Christ ascended to heaven. His going to heaven is expressly said to have been necessary: "Whom the heaven must receive until the times of restitution of all things." Acts 3:21. God's purpose, the truth of prophecy, and the fitness of things required Christ's ascension into heaven. Mark says: "He was received up into heaven." Luke says: "He . . . was carried up into heaven." Christ himself says: "No man has ascended up to heaven, but he who came down from heaven, even the Son of man, which is in heaven." John 3:13. In Acts 1:11 we have the words of the angels: "This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven." Stephen saw "the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." Paul warns masters to be kind and gentle, and gives this as a reason, "knowing that your Master also is in heaven." Eph. 6:9. Again: "Our conversation is in heaven, from whence also we look for the Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ." Phil. 3:20. Again: "Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us." Heb. 9:24. Peter also says, He "is gone into heaven." But Paul says he is "made higher than the heavens." Heb. 7:26. This mode of speech may have reference to the Jewish idea of three heavens—first the aerial heavens, and then the starry heavens. Christ is made higher than these heavens, and has entered the third heaven, often called the heaven of heavens.
6. When we speak of Christ ascending, we speak of his human body and human soul. His divine nature fills, and has always filled, heaven and earth. Essentially it fills all space, is confined to no place, but pervades immensity. When Christ was walking here on earth, he spoke of the Son of man as being then in heaven. John 3:13. At all times this was true of his divine nature, and of it only. The effect of this exaltation on the human nature of Christ was not to annihilate it, not to sublimate it so that it ceased to be human nature, but to glorify it, to crown it with glory and honor. When Saul of Tarsus saw him, soon after his ascension, he shone with a luster above the brightness of the sun. The vision produced blindness, which was miraculously healed. About sixty years later John saw him, and he fell at his feet as dead. The ordinary mode of explaining this wonderful change in the appearance of Christ is, that while he was here on earth his glory was veiled. At his transfiguration the veil was taken away, and his raiment became white and glistering. In heaven there is no veil, no covering. The glory shines out brightly, and nothing obscures it.
7. The manner of Christ's ascension is worthy of our attention. Christ ascended not figuratively, but literally; not spiritually, but corporeally; not insensibly, but visibly. His disciples saw him ascend to heaven as clearly as they saw him on the cross, or on the ship, or at the sea-side. He ascended in a cloud. No one has told us how bright that cloud was, or what was its appearance; but it was like the cloud in which he will come to judgment. Acts 1:11. Nor was he taken away suddenly. He was seen to leave the earth, and seen for some time after he left it. They gazed upon him as he went up.
His ascension was triumphant. Forty-three days before he had ridden into Jerusalem on an donkey' colt. He now ascends triumphantly into the heavenly Jerusalem. He left the world speaking words of encouragement and benediction to the humble. The first nine sentences of his sermon on the mount began with the word blessed. The last thing he ever did on earth was, to pronounce a blessing on his people. His ascension to heaven was every way glorious. His appearance was doubtless such. And his retinue was first the heavenly host of angels. In Acts mention is made of but two angels having been seen. But the prophecy which expressly foretells his ascension begins by saying, "The chariots of God are twenty thousand, even thousands of angels the Lord is among them as in Sinai, in the holy place." Psalm 68:17. Compare verse 18 and Ephesians 4:8-12. The law on Sinai was given by angels. The Savior shall come to judgment with his angels in like manner as he left the world. Our Lord's ascension was every way a joyous event, and was so regarded by his disciples, as Luke expressly informs us. It was the blessed fruit of his sufferings and obedience. And it was witnessed by a sufficient number of competent and credible witnesses, not less than five hundred. 1 Cor. 15:6. No man has ever suggested a plausible pretext for any one saying that he had seen him ascend, unless it was true.
II. HIS SITTING AT THE RIGHT HAND OF GOD.
This is the third measure of our Lord's reward—the third step in his exaltation.
This was required by prophecy. David had said: "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool." Psalm 110:1. Compare Luke 20:42 Heb. 1:13. Both Peter and Paul prove that this applies to Christ. Christ himself foretold the same thing when he was in the hands of his murderers: "Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God." Luke 22:69.
This session at the right hand of God is much spoken of in Scripture. Mark says, he "sat on the right hand of God." Paul says, God "set him at his own right hand in the heavenly places." Eph. 1:20. Peter says, he "is on the right hand of God." 1 Pet. 3:22.
1. The question then arises, What is the import of the phrase, "sitting at the right hand?" The word sitting does not teach that our Lord's body is always in a sitting posture. Indeed, mere posture is not referred to at all. Peter and Paul, each once, simply say, he "is at the right hand of God." And Stephen, dying, saw "the Son of man standing on the right hand of God." Acts 7:56. Standing is a posture in which one is ready to receive another, or give him assistance. This was just what Stephen needed.
(1.) The first thing taught by Christ's "sitting at the right hand of God" is, that he now has quiet, repose. He is entered into his rest. He has ceased from his own works. Thus says Micah: "They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig-tree; and none shall make them afraid." Micah 4:4. So in Revelation: "To him who overcomes will I grant to sit with me in my throne, even as I also overcame, and am set down with my Father in his throne." Rev. 3:21. It is right that after toil should come rest; after war, peace. After the conflict, both Christ and his people rest from their labors and sorrows.
(2.) The term sitting also denotes permanency of abode and possession. Thus it is said, "Asher continued [literally, sat] on the sea-shore," Judges 5:17; that is, he had permanent possession of that country. Christ has rest and a permanent abode and a rightful possession in heaven.
(3.) Sitting also expresses authority and dominion. "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool," Psalm 110:1, is parallel to "He must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet." 1 Cor. 15:25. It is not fit that the king should stand in the presence of his subjects, even of those admitted nearest to his throne.
(4.) Sitting is also a fit posture for a judge. Solomon speaks of "a king that sits in the throne of judgment." Proverbs 20:8. Speaking of Christ, Isaiah, 16:5, says: "In mercy shall the throne be established: and he shall sit upon it in truth in the tabernacle of David, judging, and seeking judgment, and hastening righteousness." And he shall not fail nor be discouraged until he have set judgment in the earth; yes, "he shall judge the poor of the people, he shall save the children of the needy, and shall break in pieces the oppressor." Psalm 72:4.
2. Sitting, being, or standing at the right hand is figurative. God has no bodily parts. He uses such language in condescension to human weakness. The figure is one of frequent use in the Scriptures. Jacob put his right hand on the head of Joseph's younger son wittingly, to give him the greater blessing. In Psalm 80:17 are these words: "Let your hand be upon the man of your right hand, upon the son of man whom you made strong for yourself." What is the import of the figure?
(1.) The hands are the chief instruments of human bodily power, and by reason of use, the right hand is commonly the stronger of the two. It is a fit emblem of strength, and is often used to denote the almighty power of God. Thus in Moses' song: "Your right hand, O Lord, is become glorious in power: your right hand, O Lord, has dashed in pieces the enemy." Ex. 15:5. So Jesus Christ at the right hand of God has all power. He is able to do all his will.
(2.) With the right hand gifts were commonly bestowed and received. So when Christ ascended up on high he received gifts for men, and for himself glory and dominion. Eph. 4:8.
(3.) The right hand of regal power is by men esteemed a place of enjoyment. As such it is much sought after. So in Psalm 16:11, which much relates to Christ, we read: "In your presence is fullness of joy; at your right hand there are pleasures for evermore." Our Savior is no longer "a man of sorrows." Grief reaches him no more.
(4.) The right hand, according to Hebrew ideas, is the post of honor. When Solomon would confer peculiar honor on his mother he caused her to sit on the right hand of his throne. 1 Kings 2:19. To say that Christ is on the right hand of God is to declare that he is exalted by his Father to great dignity and glory. This corresponds with the declaration of Paul in Philippians 2:9. Our translation is, "God has highly exalted him." The Syriac is, "God has multiplied his sublimity." The Arabic is, "God has heightened him with a height." Justin renders it, "God has famously exalted him." God has heard his prayer and glorified him with himself, with the glory which he had with the Father before the world was. Yes, "we see Jesus crowned with glory and honor." John 17:5; Heb. 2:9. To a higher degree of rest, and rule, and bliss, and favor, and power, and majesty-Christ not be raised.
In this glorious state Jesus Christ executes all the mediatorial offices. He is the great PROPHET of the church. With him is the fullness of the Spirit. By his Spirit he convinces the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment. We may not say, as some do, that the Spirit was purchased by Christ, much less that he is the minister of Christ. The Holy Spirit is "free." Psalm 51:12. He has no guide or Counselor. He is equal with the Father and the Son. He is sovereign in all his acts. 1 Cor. 12:11. He cannot be purchased either with money, or tears, or blood. But there is a glorious harmony in the counsels of the Trinity. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. There is no diversity of counsel or of will in the Godhead. On the day of Pentecost Peter said, "Jesus, 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." Acts 2:33. So the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Christ. He enlightens our minds, works faith in us, and saves us. Christ also raises up, qualifies, and sends forth every real, genuine gospel minister. He is head over all things to the church.
In his exalted state Christ continues to be our PRIEST. He makes, indeed, no more offerings; but he gloriously intercedes for us. The glory of his intercession may be learned from these facts: 1. The person of the intercessor is ineffably gracious; 2. He is the delight of his Father; 3. His intercession is full of authority; 4. It always prevails; 5. It is alone; 6. It continues forever.
In his exaltation Christ is also a KING. In this his great glory is: 1. His kingdom is spiritual, and so has its seat in the hearts of his people. 2. It is wholly ordered in truth, and equity, and righteousness. 3. It is as stable as the throne of God. 4. It is forever and ever.
1. We have a right to expect the conversion of all God's chosen. Native depravity and long-continued habits of sinning may seem to render a change of heart hopeless; but because Christ is sitting at God's right hand, his people shall be willing in the day of his power. Psalm 110:1, 3.
2. There will be no failure in the completion of all God's plans and schemes: "The Lord at your right hand shall strike through kings in the day of his wrath. He shall judge among the heathen. . . . He shall drink of the brook in the way: therefore shall he lift up the head." Psalm 110:5-7.
3. The church is safe. Her Head is exalted, and he loves her, and bought her with his blood. He has engraved her on the palms of his hands. Her success depends on an arm full of power, on grace that is infinite, on intercession which always prevails. Humble and exclusive confidence in the Captain of our salvation, can never be disappointed.
4. To what a glorious state believers in Christ are rapidly tending. Heaven, the heaven of heavens, the third heaven, paradise, the new Jerusalem, the city of God, are some of the names by which the glory of the spirits of just men made perfect is shadowed forth. The glory of that blessed world is, that the Lamb is the light thereof. We shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. Our vile bodies shall be fashioned like unto his glorious body. We shall be forever with the Lord.
5. Hearty and universal submission and obedience to Christ are both reasonable and obligatory. Submit we must, either joyfully unto salvation, or reluctantly unto destruction. Now men may affect, and even feel contempt for religion and its Author; but those are shallow thinkers who do not know that inconsiderate courage soon gives way to appalling dismay, while sober apprehension prepares the mind for the worst. No cries for mercy will be more loud, no shrieks of anguish will be more piercing, no moanings of despair will be more heart-rending, than those uttered at the last by men who all their lives made light of eternal things. If you are yet in your sins, one of two things is true—either your conscience is at perpetual and fearful war with your practice—or you have embraced some error which strips life of dignity and death of hope.