Scripture: Acts 1:6-11
If you remember, our focus for Advent is the Exaltation of Christ Jesus. We are celebrating Jesus – lifting Him up.
This morning, we will begin by reading the story of the Ascension – Acts 1, beginning verse 6.
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.
8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 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.
10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
According to Luke, Jesus visibly rose into the air like a superhero and disappeared behind a cloud while his disciples watched. Think about what it must have been like to see this!
The physical body of Jesus somehow left the earth and went to heaven. This was a visible picture of everything we discussed last Sunday. Jesus was literally high and lifted up!
This is significant for at least three reasons.
First, this is a dramatic end to the earthly ministry of Jesus. If there was any doubt that Jesus was the promised Messiah, the Ascension erased those doubts.
Some may have questioned the miracle of the Resurrection, but there’s absolutely no way to explain a man rising into the air and disappearing. This was two thousand years before CGI was invented. No one on earth had ever seen anything like this.
Second, it settled the issue of what Jesus came to do. He did not come to establish an earthly kingdom. That’s what everyone expected the Messiah to do. The disciples were crushed when Jesus was arrested and crucified. They assumed He was a failure. But then, He rose from the dead and appeared to them alive.
All of that happened in the days leading up to this moment. And naturally, they now assumed Jesus was finally going to restore the Kingdom of Israel. But Jesus says in verse 7 that it still isn’t time for that.
And then Jesus physically left the earth. It was clearly not His mission to restore Israel in the way they expected. Instead, He came to make disciples – to seek and to save the lost. And those were His parting instructions to the disciples. Go be my witnesses in all the world, empowered not by my physical presence – but by Holy Spirit.
Finally, it’s important to know that Jesus was not leaving His disciples on their own. He wasn’t actually leaving them at all, in fact Jesus is present with us right now. Not His physical body, but His spiritual presence. Jesus had been telling his disciples for a long time that He was going to go to the Father, and that it was a good thing not a bad thing.
Why was it a good thing for us that Jesus returned to heaven? To answer that question, we need to look elsewhere.
One place we can look is Ephesians 4, beginning in verse 4:
4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
The Apostle is encouraging the churches to stay united, because they share the same Spirit and the same faith in God.
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
Paul here links Psalm 68 explicitly to Jesus. He’s the King leading captives and giving gifts. But if you look carefully at that Psalm – Paul took a small liberty with his quote, inspired by the Holy Spirit, of course.
Here is the actual verse side-by-side with Paul’s quote:
You ascended on high, leading a host of captives in your train and receiving gifts among men.
“When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.”
Do you see the difference? Instead of receiving, Paul changes it to giving. What’s he saying?
It helps to understand the historical context. When an ancient king won a battle, he usually came home with two things: captives and spoils.
Captives were enemy soldiers that surrendered. Sometimes they were enslaved. You can keep your life, but now you work for me. Sometimes they were traded back for something else.
Spoils were the valuables gained by conquering your enemy (gold, food, livestock…)
The king had the right to choose what to do with his captives and his spoils. Sometimes, the king would choose to come home and share the wealth with his people. And this is what Paul says that Jesus is doing. He’s giving away the gifts He received.
Jesus ascended to heaven after winning a great battle. He carries with him a host of captives (in a good sense, people he won back from the enemy) and he is giving gifts to men (sharing the spoils of war).
Paul borrows this idea to explain that the Church is the evidence of Christ’s victory, and He is actively sharing both His inheritance and the gifts of the Spirit with God’s church.
This is part of the reason our Christmas tradition involves the giving of gifts. It’s not just because of the wise men bringing gifts to Jesus. Jesus brings good gifts to us. He’s a good king, sharing His best with us.
This is a way for us to redeem the practice of giving gifts at Christmas. The world sees it as an opportunity to consume and self-gratify. But for the Christian, it is an opportunity to delight in our King, to give freely and joyfully as Christ has freely and joyfully given to us.
Now, let’s look quickly at the next two verses in Ephesians 4:
9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)
Paul says if Jesus went up, He must also have gone down and the one went down has now gone so far up that he can now FILL ALL THINGS. I know that’s confusing and again some context helps.
In ancient times, most people thought that their gods were limited in power and limited to the regions where people worshipped them. The gods people worshipped were local. If I travelled to an area where no one worshipped my god, I need to be careful because he has no power here.
Paul disputes this idea, saying that Jesus has complete power and authority over the entire universe – so much so that He fills or completes all things. He’s not just another local deity.
This is a really big idea, and I want to try and help us understand how to apply it.
There is a sense in which we all feel as if our lives are incomplete. This is especially true, I think, around the holidays. We are meant to enjoy this time of year, resting, and celebrating with the people we love.
But for many of us, this time of year also highlights the things we feel are missing. Grief hurts more as we miss lost loved ones. Poverty hurts more if we don’t have money to spend on gifts. Depression hurts more when everyone around you seems happy and you’re not.
If there’s something about your life that doesn’t seem complete, the holiday season can make it feel worse – not better. Even if you don’t feel that way right now, at some point, we all feel this nagging reality that something is not right. This world is not the way things are supposed to be.
The retail industry wants us to feel this way, because we are more likely to buy things to try and fill the void of incompleteness.
According to the Bible, we feel incomplete because of a spiritual problem. We were created to have a vital connection with God, but that connection was broken.
Everything we do to try to fix that connection on our own only will frustrate us, because only God can fix the connection and Jesus is His solution.
Our immediate response to that is to doubt it, because we are a lot like the ancient people. We also worship created things instead of Our Creator. And our gods are also limited in power and confined to their local spaces. We don’t really tend to believe that God has the power to heal the places in our lives that hurt the most.
Think about it like this… We divide our lives into categories. Work. School. Relationships. Entertainment. Hobbies. Church. And we think of them as separate.
But that’s a problem because Jesus has no interest in being one of many. He’s not content to be “part” of my life. Jesus has every intention of filling all things. He completes everything, meaning He brings order and purpose and value to everything else in the Universe.
This is why Jesus ascended, according to Paul – so that we can’t possibly think of Jesus as confined to one place on earth – because He is not one place on earth. If Jesus stayed in Galilee, it would be far more difficult for every nation, tribe, people, and tongue to know and follow Him. His disciples would have stayed preoccupied with his local presence.
Instead, Jesus is now working to fill all things. He is now working to complete the incomplete. His reach has now extended far beyond ancient Galilee into the entire world.
Genesis 1 tells us that God created order from chaos. He gave the universe form. He filled the void.
He made the sky and the sea and the land, then he put stuff in them and gave them purpose.
This is how we are meant to think of what Jesus is doing right now by expanding His kingdom. Jesus is currently active in giving form and filling voids through the lives of His people. We are a new creation. The old has passed away. The new has come.
He absolutely has the power to heal the part of your life that hurts the most. He’s in it with you right now. If you are a brother or sister in Christ, then Jesus has never once left you, not even for a moment.
How many of you have heard the phrase, “when two or more are gathered in my name, I am there also”? That comes from Matthew 18, and we use it out of context all the time. In context, Jesus is talking about church discipline – elders gathered to handle conflict.
Jesus is not saying that He only shows up when we gather. That’s bad theology. Christ Jesus is in and with every believer all the time.
Listen to Ephesians again:
14 For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, 15 from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, 16 that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, 17 so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—
that you, being rooted and grounded in love, 18 may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.
In the words of St. Patrick:
“Christ with me,
Christ before me,
Christ behind me,
Christ in me,
Christ beneath me,
Christ above me,
Christ on my right,
Christ on my left,
Christ when I lie down,
Christ when I sit down,
Christ when I arise,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of everyone who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.”
And so, we exalt Jesus as King – not over a small earthly kingdom on the other side of the world, but as King of the entire universe. He will set captives free in every corner of creation. He will share His gifts with us.
And He has shared with us the gift of this table.