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Sounds a bit cliché I know, but life is a journey. As with all journeys, it’s always nice to know where you’re going. Knowing the destination makes all the difference in how you travel.
The life of Christ is a journey. If the dating is correct, which it probably isn't, Christ came down from heaven on March 25th when He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Nine months later He was born of the Virgin Mary. 33 years later He ascended into heaven. His journey was full circle.
Jesus describes the course of His life to His disciples like this, “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father.” (John 16:28). He knows the path that His Father has sent Him to follow. And He knows what He will encounter along the way – trials, troubles, suffering and the cross. He knows that the journey will not end in a tomb, which is what everyone else thought. The tomb was only a three day rest before the journey resumed.
He came into this world to overcome death, which would be the end of the road for all of us if He hadn't come into this world and conquered it. He could have taken a path that bypassed death. We can't but He could have because He is God. But He took the path that led directly to death so that He might pull the stinger out of it and render it harmless. Now, when the path of our own life comes to death, we no longer think for a second that its the end of the journey. Because of Jesus we know that death is just a final, brief stop before we come to the final destination which is heaven.
I. Great Joy / His Hands
Last Sunday we touched on Jesus' words to His disciples in the Upper Room where He said, “These things I have spoken to you that my joy may be in you and your joy may be full.” (John 15:11) This coming Sunday, we will hear Jesus once pray to the Father saying, “Now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” (John 17:13).
Luke reports that after the disciples witnessed Jesus’ ascension, “they worshiped Him and returned to Jerusalem with GREAT JOY.”
Interestingly, this is the only time in all the gospels that there is mention of the disciples actually having that “great joy” that Jesus had desired for them. Certainly, His crucifixion and death produced in them “great fear.” Even His resurrection does not produce the great joy that we might have expected. We’re told that they were “startled,” and “amazed” and even “troubled.”
But here, as He parted from them, they returned to Jerusalem with “great joy.” What is the connection?
Luke carefully notes the details, and the gospel is in the details. “He led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up His hands, He blessed them.” There’s something about those hands that assure them that His blessing is real and cause for genuine joy.
With those hands, He had touched the eyes of a blind man and the tongue of a deaf mute and gave them their sight and speech and hearing. With those hands, He reached up to the dead boy being carried to his grave in Nain and the boy sat up and hugged his mother.
There was that day that Luke reports, “when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them. And demons also came out of many.” (Luke 4:40). And there was great joy.
These are the hands that reached out to grab hold of Peter as he was drowning in the stormy sea and lifted him safely into the boat. With these hands, He took bread, gave thanks and broke it and fed 5000 and 4000. What blessing comes from those hands of Christ.
All of this and we haven’t yet mentioned the fact that there were holes in those hands where the nails had pierced Him. By those hands uplifted on the cross, He took the punishment that was ours upon Himself. By those hands, He received the wrath of God for our sin in our place. He reconciled the Father to us by those hands.
And so, when Luke says, “He lifted His hands and blessed them,” he means all of this that comes from those hands of Jesus.
But this has not yet touched on the meaning of His ascension as it applies to those hands and the disciples great joy. The great blessing He bestows on us all by those hands is that He returns to the Father in heaven with them. The humanity He took upon Himself in coming into the world, He takes with Him into heaven. When Jesus lifts His nail scared hands to His Father in heaven, all humanity stands before the Father, and for the sake of Jesus and all that He suffered as evidenced by those hands, the Father has pity and mercy upon all who are in Christ.
“While He blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.”
1 II. The Cloud
Luke overlaps his Gospel with his Acts of the Apostles with the Ascension of Christ. In Acts, Luke writes, “as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” More little details that turn out to be pretty big.
When Old Testament Israel made journey to the Promised Land, they followed a cloud the whole way. As long as Israel saw the cloud they knew that God was present with them. God was truly present in the cloud. Not symbolically or spiritually present but His real presence was in the cloud. Sounds sacramental, and it is.
Sadly however, all those Israelites who followed the cloud on their journey though the desert except for just a few, never entered the Promised Land. They died in the desert because of the sin and rebellion and death was the end of their journey. How sad. How disappointing. Certainly no 'great joy' in that.
But here we see Jesus follow the cloud all the way into the Promised Land where He is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Jesus is the new Israel, and He enters into the promised land because in Him there is no sin. In Him is perfect and willing obedience to the Father. And in Him, the true Israel has entered the promised land.
The true Israel is all of those, whether on the Old Testament or New Testament side of history, are all those who believe in the promise of God – given in days of old, made flesh and fulfilled, now in these last days.
III. He Leads The Way
“As they were looking on, he was lifted up…” It took two angels to explain things to them, just as it had required angels to explain things at His conception and birth and at His resurrection. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”
First, the angels tell us WHERE Christ has ascended to. He ascended INTO HEAVEN. The Head of the Body has gone into heaven. There, the Father has put all things under the feet of the Son, fulfilling what the Psalmist had written, “The Lord said to my Lord: "Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool." (Psalm 110:1)
In the beginning, God gave the 1st Adam dominion over His whole creation, a dominion that he exercised poorly. But now, all dominion is given to the 2nd Adam who exercises it perfectly in perfect obedience to the Word.
Second, the angels tell us HOW Christ ascended into heaven. This Jesus… will come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.” He did not ‘disappear’ from their sight or vanish into thin air. The “SAW” Him go upwards. He did not leave His body behind. He ascended bodily, with the same glorified body with which He rose from the dead. And He keeps this glorified body in heaven. As we said, with His body that still bears the marks of the cross, He intercedes for us with the Father. And when He comes again, it will be just as they SAW Him go, in the flesh.
When Christ descended from heaven He took on our human flesh. He became bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh. If this is starting to sound a bit like marriage, it should, because it is. God became one flesh with us, and what God has joined together He will not be rend asunder – not even by His parting. Just as the Head was joined to the Body where the Body now is, here on earth, so the Body will be joined to the Head where the Head now is, in heaven.
The writer of the letter to the Hebrews explains the angel’s words like this. “For Christ has entered into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf… And just as it was appointed for men to die once and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” (Heb.9:24,26).
We could summarize the journey of Jesus like this; God left God to come to sinful mankind. And God returned to God bringing forgiven mankind with Him. And for all who know that they are sinners, and for all who cling to Christ, trusting in Him to save us, we share in the disciples “great joy.”
It gives us “great joy” to hear Jesus say, “I go to prepare a place for you in My Father’s house. And if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again to take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:3).
He has not abandoned us nor forsaken us. “I am with you always, even to the end of the earth.” And then, He will come again IN THE FLESH, and take us to be with Him in heaven.
Knowing the destination of the journey you’re on sure does effect the way you travel. And you know the destination of your journey. In your baptism, you were united to Christ who sits at the right hand of the Father. That’s your destination. That's your destiny. You’re there right now, already, but not yet. Therefore we “set our minds on things above, where Christ is seated at the right hand of the Father, and not on earthly things.” (Col.3:1).
Happy trails, enjoy the journey, travel in peace.