Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Ascension of Christ

The ascension is perhaps the most overlooked and underappreciated event in the life and ministry of our Lord Jesus Christ. His death and resurrection figure prominently in evangelical preaching, as well they should. But why is so little attention given to the Ascension, especially since the subject is mentioned so frequently in Scripture? Jesus foretold it (e.g., Jn. 6:62; 14:12; 16:5ff; 20:17); Mark and Luke record it as a historical event (Mk. 16:19; Lk. 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11); and both Paul and the writer of Hebrews explain its implications (e.g., Eph. 1:20-23; 4:8-10; Phil. 2:9-11; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 1:3; 4:14; 9:24). Why then is such scant attention given to it today? I can only assume it’s because its significance is not well understood. What a pity! There are few things that demonstrate the glory of Christ quite like the ascension. It’s one of the greatest honors the Father has been pleased to confer upon the Son. Luke recounts it briefly:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (Acts 1:9)

It should be noted that the verb is in the passive voice (“he was lifted up). This suggests that Jesus’ ascension was not his own act. It wasn’t like a man ascending a flight of stairs by his own power. He was not the one acting, but was acted upon. He was taken up into heaven as a man might be carried up a flight of stairs. In fact, this is how Luke describes it in his Gospel, that Jesus was “carried up into heaven” (Lk. 24:51). And this is how the event is consistently described. In each case the verb is in the passive voice.[1]
 So then the Lord Jesus…was taken up into heaven (Mk. 16:19)
While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven (Lk. 24:51) 
…he was taken up (Acts 1:2)
And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (Acts 1:9)
This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11)
…beginning from the baptism of John until the day when he was taken up from us… (Acts 1:22)
He…was taken up in glory (1 Tim. 3:16)

It was God who was the active agent. It was he who lifted him up. The act was an expression of the Father’s pleasure in Christ. Just as the resurrection was a powerful declaration that Jesus was indeed the Son of God (contra the claims of those who crucified him, comp. Matt. 27:43 with Rom. 1:4), so too was his being taken up into heaven. Together with the resurrection, the ascension reversed the verdict of those who condemned him—he whom they condemned, God exalted!

What has Jesus been doing since he was taken up in glory? First, he has been directing and superintending the affairs of the church.[2] Second, he has been interceding for his own (Rom. 8:34; Heb. 7:25). Third, he has been ruling the nations and bringing them to “the obedience of faith” through the faithful witness of his people (cf. Rom. 1:5).

Let’s expand on this last point. The careful reader of Scripture will notice that the scene described by Luke corresponds to a prophecy of Daniel. Luke describes the ascension from the perspective of the apostles on earth:

And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight (Acts 1:9)

Daniel describes the event as viewed from heaven:

I saw in the night visions,
and behold, with the clouds of heaven
there came one like a son of man,
and he came to the Ancient of Days
and was presented before him.
And to him was given dominion
and glory and a kingdom,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him;
his dominion is an everlasting dominion,
which shall not pass away,
and his kingdom one
that shall not be destroyed (Dan. 7:13-14)

The triumphant, royal overtones of the passage shouldn’t be missed. These are the main points of the prophecy and should be celebrated! The ascension of Christ was his accession to the throne of his Father. This is what Paul means when he says that God “raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand” (Eph. 1:20; cf. Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2; 1 Pet. 2:22; etc.). This is not a posture of inactivity, but of exercising royal authority. Jesus reigns from heaven. He is the “King of kings and Lord of lords,” “the ruler of the kings of the earth” (Rev. 19:16; 1:5). This should be a great encouragement to us. It is because “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to [him]” that we can be assured of ultimate success in “making disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:18-20).

[1] There is one passage where the verb appears in the active voice when describing the ascension (Eph. 4:8-10), but it should be understood against the background of these other passages. The same is true of Acts 2:34, where the ascension of Christ is implied, rather than stated.
[2] There is a beautiful depiction of this in the first two chapters of the book of Revelation where Jesus is presented as holding the seven stars in his right hand and walking among the seven golden lampstands. The seven stars are the “messengers [ministers of the Word] of the seven churches” and the seven golden lampstands are “the seven churches” (Rev. 1:20).

Sunday, April 16, 2017

The Resurrection of Christ and the New Creation

The apostle John begins his account of our Lord’s resurrection by telling us that it occurred on “the first day of the week” (20:1). In fact, all four Evangelists introduce their respective narratives of the resurrection by telling us this. I find this to be very interesting. Rather than emphasizing the fact that it was the third day after the crucifixion, they emphasize that it was the first day of the week. Of course both are true, but it’s the latter they emphasize.

I find this interesting because Jesus had said on several occasions that he would be crucified “and after three days rise again” (Mk. 8:31).[1] We might have expected that at least one of the Gospels would have begun the narrative of the resurrection by saying, “Now on the third day after he was crucified…” This would have tied in very nicely with all that Jesus had said beforehand and would have emphasized the fulfillment of his word. But none of them mentions the fact directly, only that it was the first day of the week. Why is this? I believe it’s because the first day of the week corresponds to the first day of creation.

The resurrection of Christ is portrayed in Scripture as the beginning of a new creation, in which old things are in the process of passing away, and new things are coming in to take their place.

The Resurrection and Personal Redemption
This language of a “new creation” is one that the apostle Paul uses to describe our individual redemption and transformation that comes as a result of knowing Christ.

If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17)

He uses the same language in Galatians 6:15 when he says, “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation.” And we find the same idea stated in similar terms elsewhere. In Ephesians, we are admonished to “put off” our “old self” and to “put on the new self, created after the likeness of God” (Eph. 4:23-24). Note the echoes of Genesis, where we are first informed that God created man in his own image and likeness (Gen. 1:26-27). We hear similar echoes in Colossians, where we are said to have already “put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator” (Col. 3:10).

Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of Culture
It is important to note, however, that what Christ did through his death and resurrection has a bearing not just on us as individual human beings in terms of our personal redemption, but on the whole history of the human race. It introduces an entirely new epoch of human history. In the same way that the gospel transforms individual human beings, so it also transforms cultures. The world looks entirely different today than it would have looked if Christ had never come. Even with all of the imperfections and inconsistencies, which are all too evident even within historically Christian cultures, the world is an immeasurably better place—a more humane and civilized place—because of the impact of the gospel.

It’s true that there has been a general decline of Christian influence throughout the West in recent decades—as witnessed by the acceptance of child-murder via abortion, the norming of sexually deviant behavior, and other social ills—but we expect a revival of Christian thought and ethics in our culture as a consequence of an even greater impact of the gospel still to come.

The Resurrection of Christ and the Redemption of the Cosmos
Even beyond the personal and cultural impact of Christ’s redemptive work, we understand that what he did through his death and resurrection has a bearing upon the entire creation.

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now (Rom. 8:19-22)

Paul speaks here of the redemption of nature, the lifting of the curse that presently burdens all creation (Gen. 3:14-19). The prophet Isaiah speaks of the time when the curse will be lifted, when he says,

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
            and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
And the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
            and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
            their young shall lie down together;
            and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
            and a weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
The shall not hurt or destroy
            in all my holy  mountain;
For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
            as the waters cover the sea (Isa. 11:6-9)

All of this lies behind what Paul says in Colossians, where he writes that God has been pleased through Christ to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven (Col 1:20).

Yes, our Lord was raised on the third day after his crucifixion, but it was also the first day of a new creation.

[1]     Cf. Mk. 9:31; 10:34; Matt. 12:40; 16:21; 17:23; 20:19; 26:61; 27:40, 63; Lk. 9:22; 18:33; 24:7; John 2:19; see also Acts 10:40; 1 Cor. 15:4

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord

I noticed something interesting today in the book of Numbers that I hadn’t seen before (even though I’ve read the book, who knows how many times?), namely, the Lord swears by the fact that the earth will be filled with his glory:  “Truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord…” (14:21).

In Psalm 72, we find the idea stated as a petition:  “May the whole earth be filled with his glory!” (v. 19) This is something I find myself praying for on a regular basis. As a petition, it might seem as if there is an element of contingency implied. In Habakkuk, however, we find it stated as a fact:  “The earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (2:14; cf. Isa. 11:9).

What is noteworthy in Numbers is the strengthened certainty of the fact by the unique oath formula. It is so certain that the Lord himself swears by it. We frequently find the formula, “As I live, declares the Lord,” meaning, “As certainly as I live,” I will do what I have promised. In Numbers, however, we find the Lord swearing by two things which are to be regarded as equally and unquestionably true:  “Truly, as I live, and as all the earth shall be filled with the glory of the Lord…” (14:21) The second element of the oath formula is as certain as the first. The matter is not in doubt. It is inconceivable that the almighty and eternal God, the Maker of heaven and earth, should fail of his purpose in making his glory known, which largely consists in people acknowledging his sovereignty and goodness, and rendering him a free and joyful obedience. 

Monday, February 6, 2017

Who do you say he is?

At one point during his ministry Jesus asked the twelve, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” They reported that some claimed he was John the Baptist or Elijah or one of the other prophets risen from the dead. Then he posed the question directly to them, “Who do you say that I am?”

This is THE question in the New Testament—the question of Jesus’ identity. Is he the Christ, the Son of the Living God? Or is he a fraud, an impostor? Or maybe it was as some in his own only family had thought, that he was delusional.

There are still many differences of opinion today. Some people say he was an ordinary rabbi who was misunderstood by the twelve; that they made claims for him that he never made for himself; that they put words in his mouth he never spoke; that he never claimed to be the Messiah or the Son of God, but in their zeal for him they made grand and exaggerated claims on his behalf.

Some people say that he did in fact make the claims the Bible says he made, but that he was something of a megalomaniac. He had delusions of grandeur, and his disciples were gullible enough to have believed him.

Others have claimed that there was no historical Jesus; that was is a creation of the early church. The idea is that somehow among the many variants of the Jewish faith in the first century, a group was formed that we now refer to as Christianity; that this group’s actual origins have been lost to us, but the group itself invented a mythic figure who it claimed was the group’s originator.

Muslims claim that Jesus was only a prophet, and nothing more. They are willing to concede that he was the greatest prophet until Muhammad came along, but still only a prophet. They claim further that much of his teaching was distorted by his followers so that the Bible cannot be trusted with regard to what it says about him.

Hindus are very happy to admit that Jesus was more than a prophet. They’re happy to add him to their pantheon of gods; but he is just one of many, and in no way unique.

There are as many, if not more, differences of opinion about him today as there were in the first century. And the question each one of us has to answer is the question he put to his disciples: “Who do you say that I am?” This question is the very point at issue in the most basic confession of the Christian faith:  Jesus is Lord (Rom. 10:9). And it’s important to add that the correct answer can be given in words and at the same time denied in practice. Jesus isn’t interested in a merely theoretical answer. He’s interested in the answer that comes from the core of our being. This answer is reflected not only in what we say, but also in our heart’s affection and in our behavior.

Who do you—by your words, affections, and behavior—say that he is?

Thursday, January 19, 2017

A Prayer for the President

Our Father in heaven, we confess that you alone are God and that all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to you.[1] Your dominion is an everlasting dominion, and your kingdom endures from generation to generation.[2] You change times and seasons; you remove kings and set up kings.[3] You execute judgment, putting down one and lifting up another,[4] and no one on earth wields power without having received it from you.
Therefore, we acknowledge that it is by your will that Donald Trump has come to be the president of the United States. We pray that he may recognize this as well and that the thought of it would humble him and cause him to tremble under the weight of so great a responsibility, remembering that he shall one day have to give an account for the sacred trust you have given him. May he see himself as your servant, called to do your will. May he seek you with all his heart, and find you. Hear him, when he prays to you.[5] And please hear us, too, as we pray on his behalf.
Grant him wisdom, that he may know what is true and good and right in every circumstance.
Grant him the will—and the courage—to do what is pleasing in your sight, even if it is not politically expedient, or even if it works to his own personal disadvantage.
Grant him the grace to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with you.[6]
May he administer the laws of the nation impartially, favoring neither the rich nor the poor, but seeking only to protect the innocent and punish the guilty.[7]
May he trust in you with all his heart, and lean not to his own understanding; may he acknowledge you in all his ways, so that he might walk in paths of truth and righteousness.[8]
Bless him and his family with good health and long life.
Protect him from those who would seek his harm.
May his presidency be a blessing to the nation; may it be a period of safety and peace, of prosperity and good will.
We ask these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, the King of kings and the Lord of lords, the ruler of the kings of the earth.[9] Amen.

[1] Ps. 135:6
[2] Dan. 4:34
[3] Dan. 2:21
[4] Ps. 75:7
[5] Jer. 29:12-13
[6] Micah 6:8
[7] Lev. 19:15
[8] Prov. 3:5-6; Ps. 23:3
[9] Rev. 19:16; 1:5

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

A man and his oath

“It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”
~ Aeschylus

On Friday Donald Trump will take the oath of office to become the 45th president of the United States, bringing unmitigated joy to some and plunging others into deep despair. Judging by social media, these two reactions exhaust the range of possibilities:  there are only lovers and haters.

In reality, many find themselves somewhere in between. I feel something like a man who has experienced a narrow brush with death, relieved that the republic avoided the almost certainly fatal wound of a Clinton presidency, and cautiously optimistic that the wound that is Trump, though serious, is curable. As I told my family on election night, “The good news is that Clinton is not president; the bad news is that Trump is.” It turns out that the most beatable Democrat lost to the most beatable Republican.

To be fair, I only had two objections to Clinton:  her character and her political vision. I am a bit more sanguine about the general tenor of Trump’s political vision than I could ever be about Clinton’s, especially the commitment he has expressed to appoint an originalist to the Supreme Court in the mold of Antonin Scalia.

My cautious optimism, however, is tempered by concerns about his character. He doesn’t have a very good track record with respect to keeping his promises. He has cheated on and divorced two women to whom he had sworn to be faithful “until death do us part.” His third wife has been spared divorce, but perhaps not being cheated on.[1] He has also shown little regard for the marital vows of others, boasting that he has bedded numerous married women.[2]

When I watch him this Friday taking the oath of office, I won’t be able to avoid remembering the words of Aeschylus, the 5th century BC playwright:  “It is not the oath that makes us believe the man, but the man the oath.”

I hope—and pray—that he will keep his presidential oath and turn out to be a far better man and a far better president than anyone expects. The Scriptures instruct us to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions” (1 Tim. 2:2). Let us do so sincerely and fervently, remembering that the heart of the king is in the hand of the Lord, and he can turn it wherever he wills (Prov. 21:1).

[1] His intentions for Ariane Zucker, as he described them to Billy Bush in the infamous Access Hollywood video were expressed when he had only recently married Melania:  “I've got to use some Tic Tacs, just in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful—I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you’re a star, they let you do it, you can do anything... Grab them by the pussy. You can do anything.”
[2] “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.” (The Art of the Deal)

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Suffering and Glory

“The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”
~ John 12:23 ~

In the fourth Gospel we frequently come across the mention of Jesus’ “hour.” This hour is sometimes referred to by the author (7:30; 8:20; 13:1), but more often by Jesus himself (2:4; 7:6, 8; 12:23; 17:1, 5; cf. 12:27, 28; 13:31).[1]

It is said several times over in the first half of the book that his hour had not yet come. But beginning in chapter twelve, his hour is impending.

His hour is the time that had been appointed by the Father for his suffering and death, to be followed of course by his resurrection and ascension. In several of these passages Jesus’ hour is mentioned in connection with him receiving glory from the Father (12:23, 27-28; 13:31; 17:1).

It is also worth noting that in all these passages Jesus looks past his suffering and death, and looks to receiving glory from the Father. He doesn’t say, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be crucified,” but “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.” In his mind, the reward of his suffering far outweighed its sorrow. The writer of Hebrews says much the same thing, but in a slightly different way when he says, “for the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:2). He looked past the present suffering to see the glory that awaited. He knew that the sorrow of the cross would be swallowed up by joy.

This is also true of our trials and afflictions. No suffering is ever joyful in itself. We would never choose it for its own sake. But he who remains faithful in the midst of suffering can also hold in joyful anticipation what Jesus looked forward to—receiving glory from the Father. Paul tells us in his letter to the Romans that “there will be glory and honor and peace for everybody who does good” (Rom. 2:10). This is the joy that is set before us—obtaining glory and honor and peace from God the Father through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The glory that we are destined to receive will be different from that of Christ’s in kind as well as in degree. But it will nevertheless be true that God will glorify his saints. And when he does, we will be able to testify by our own experience what we now only confess by faith, that “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom. 8:18).

[1] These last three passages do not explicitly mention his “hour” but nevertheless refer to it with the temporal use of the word “now.”