Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Apostles’ Creed declares, “. . . he ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.”
Today’s sermon topic is “Jesus Christ Ascended, Exalted, Returning, and Judging.” It could be four sermons. Or, in the hands of the right theologian, it could be four books of very carefully written biblical theology.
Let’s do our best to see the big picture, addressing each of these important and, in some cases, often neglected themes.
I. Jesus Christ ascended into heaven.
Imagine if all the Bible did was tell of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and then left it there. We would see Jesus appearing to the various people as recorded in the gospels and by the Apostle Paul. We would be aware that His atoning work was accomplished on the cross, with all the implications involved in His life, death, and resurrection. We would see Him appearing in His resurrected presence to various people, as recorded in the gospels, and to Paul. His atoning work is accomplished and then He would just sort of shuffle off into oblivion.
The Bible doesn’t let that happen. God tells us historically what happened and also lets us know the implication of all of this for us today.
We are told that Jesus ascended into heaven.
And we see that, just before He ascended into heaven, He gave a commission to His disciples that remains relevant to you and me to this day.
Biblical scholars question whether the Gospel according to Mark should end with what is called the “shorter ending,” which reads: “And afterward Jesus himself sent out through them, from east to west, the sacred and imperishable proclamation of eternal salvation” (Mark 16:8b). Or there is the alternative conclusion to Mark, which is referred to as the “long ending” that, like the shorter ending, does not appear in all ancient manuscripts. It is in this ending that we read that Jesus said to them, “‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation. The one who believes and is baptized will be saved; but the one who does not believe will be condemned'” (Mark 16:15-16).
Mark 16:19-20 reads, “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. And they went out and proclaimed the good news everywhere, while the Lord worked with them and confirmed the message by the signs that accompanied it.”
Luke records the ascension of Jesus in both the Gospel that bears his name and in the Book of Acts. Luke concludes, describing how Jesus led His disciples, “. . . lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:50-53).
In Acts, Luke records this account of both the commission and the ascension. The disciples had just asked Jesus if this was now the time that He would restore the Kingdom of Israel. He told them it was not for them to know the time. Jesus then declares this great commission: “‘But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth'” (Acts 1:8). Luke adds, “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven'” (Acts 1:9-11).
There you have it in as straightforward a way as possible. The earthly ministry of Jesus Christ has come to a completion. He has given His commission to His followers to go into all the world, bearing witness to who He is and what He has done. He has given His promise of the Holy Spirit who would empower them and us in carrying out this commission. And then, the final act of closure, He ascended into heaven.
What is the message to us today?
The message is that the incarnate, crucified, buried, risen, ascended Lord has called you to a life-transforming personal faith in Him and commissioned you to go forth, empowered by His Holy Spirit, bearing witness for Him everywhere you go.
II. Jesus Christ is now exalted at the right hand of the Father.
Just what does that mean? Do we live in some kind of a three-dimensional universe with heaven up there, hell down below and us somewhere in-between? Not for a moment! The Bible describes Jesus descending from heaven to earth, going from earth into hell, ascending back to earth and then to heaven, and finally returning in His second coming to earth. It is simply graphic language to describe where Jesus is geographically and spiritually at that time in relationship to the Father. I took a globe this week and measured off, if we drilled straight down, where we would come out. It appears to me it would be somewhere in the middle of the Indian Ocean. We know that we live not in a three-tiered universe, with heaven up there, hell down below and us somewhere in between. This graphic language helps us distinguish where we are, both in terms of our present lives and potential future destinies.
What the Bible is really saying is that Jesus, who humbled himself, descended into our human condition, paid the atoning price for our sins on the cross, was lowered into the grave, buried, on the third day was resurrected from the dead and, after some six weeks of presence here on earth, ascended into heaven and now is exalted at the right hand of God the Father Almighty.
Does that mean there is a big throne chair and a smaller chair to the right side of God the Father? Let’s not play those games. This is anthropomorphic language to somehow get across that the One who came in humility, emptying himself, is now the very Sovereign of the universe. Paul puts it in these words in Philippians 2:8-11:
And, being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death–
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
There are many biblical texts that graphically describe this. In John 16:5, Jesus declares, “‘But now I am going to him who sent me. . . .'” John 16:10 declares, “‘. . . I am going to the Father and you will see me no longer. . . .'” John 16:28 states, “‘I came from the Father and have come into the world; again, I am leaving the world and am going to the Father.'”
Paul writes in Ephesians 1:20-23, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Paul writes to Timothy, “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16).
The writer of Hebrews describes Jesus in these terms: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. . .” (Hebrews 1:3). In Hebrews 4:14, he writes, “Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession.”
Just what is Jesus doing in His exalted place at the right hand of the Father?
He is our advance agent. John 14:3 declares that He has gone to prepare a place for us and will someday return to take us to join Him in that place.
He is our advocate with the Father. 1 John 2:1 informs us that when we sin, He intercedes in our behalf with the Father, on the basis of His atoning work.
He is our intercessor. Romans 8:34 describes Him as at the right hand of God where He “intercedes” for us.
He is the giver of spiritual gifts. Ephesians 4 describes the ascended Christ equipping you and me with specific gifts to do the work of His church on earth.
He is the ruler over all. Our Philippians 2 text makes it very clear that God has exalted Him above every name, and that for Him every knee should bend in heaven, on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess Jesus Christ as Lord. All of this is to the glory of God the Father. And we have direct access to this ruler!
I love that AARP ad in which the woman calls the White House and asks to speak to the president. The president immediately comes on the phone and asks what he can do for her. She tells him how she wants him to clear up the mess in health insurance. He tells her he will get right to work on it and solve the problems. The punch line is that if things worked that way, we wouldn’t need the American Association of Retired Persons.
In this world, things don’t work that way, do they? We are told that in heaven they do. We have a direct access to the Lord of Lords and King of Kings.
Let me read to you one of the most powerful statements I have ever read. It is by Luke Timothy Johnson, Professor, Candler School of Theology, Emory University, in his recent book, The Creed.
The creed’s statements about the resurrection and exaltation of Jesus express the truth about Jesus now. They are the premise for the church’s worship and practice. If these statements are false, everything that the church does “in the name of Jesus” is an empty shell, for “Jesus” can refer only to a dead man of the distant past, and not a powerful Lord of the present whose presence defines our present. When the church gathers “in the name of Jesus,” it gathers in the name of nothing if Jesus is not Lord.
When the church prays and heals and prophecies “in the name of Jesus,” it engages in self-deception and delusion if Jesus does not now act in the world with the very power of the creator.
But if the creed speaks the truth, then the question we put to Jesus is not nearly so important as the question Jesus puts to us. If the creed speaks the truth, that Jesus now lives at the right hand of the Father, then “learning Jesus” is not a matter of scholarly enterprise and casual reading about a teacher of the past, but a matter of obedience to the one who presses upon us at every moment, encounters us in the sacraments and saints and strangers, and calls us to account.
What is the message to us today? We are here to worship the exalted Lord Jesus Christ. That’s what joyful, Christ-centered worship is all about.
III. This same Jesus Christ will someday return in triumph.
Let me say it again. This same Jesus Christ, who the first time came in humility, has told us that He is going to, at some future date, return in His exalted, triumphant form.
There are many Bible verses that bear this out.
One is John 14:1-3. Jesus said, “‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.'”
Hebrews 9:27-28 states, “And just as it is appointed for mortals to die once, and after that the 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.”
We have already quoted Acts 1:9-11 in the context of His ascension. Now let’s read it in the context of His second coming. “When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.'”
And among the many other passages that speak of His second coming, let me quote just one more, Thessalonians 4:15-18: “For this we declare to you by the word of the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will by no means precede those who have died. For the Lord himself, with a cry of command, with the archangel’s call and with the sound of God’s trumpet, will descend from heaven, and the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up in the clouds together with them to meet the Lord in the air; and so we will be with the Lord forever. Therefore encourage one another with these words.”
There are some that would like to explain away the possibility of the second coming of Jesus Christ.
There are those who say that the second coming is at the death of the believer. Because we go to meet Him at that point, that for us is the second coming.
There are those who say that the second coming is at the moment of our conversion. That is the moment when we meet Jesus Christ.
Others would say that the second coming was the Day of Pentecost. The Holy Spirit came, and since the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Jesus Christ, that represents the second coming.
As much as these events have great spiritual significance for us, they do not substitute for the second coming of Jesus Christ.
So we ask, when will Jesus Christ return? Jesus himself made it clear that, although there are certain signs of the times that will point to His return, “‘It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by His own authority.'” God is the only one who knows.
Yet, terrible errors have been made in this regard.
I refuse to take definitive positions on the timing of the second coming. All you need to do is take a look at church history and see the abuses that have happened by overly-zealous persons who thought they understood. But Jesus said none of us humans will fully understand.
If you think things are bad now, pointing to the second coming of Jesus Christ, imagine how they must have felt during the medieval plagues, when the devastation of life was so overwhelming and such large percentages of the population died so quickly.
In my own lifetime, I have observed what I consider to be terribly unfortunate speculations as to the timing of Christ’s return.
I remember as a youngster when Mussolini and Hitler were identified to be the Antichrists. Then it was Stalin and the great Russian bear coming down from the north to precipitate the battle of Armageddon. And then the Antichrist was said by some to be Henry Kissinger, or the Roman Catholic Church, or the Common Market. I remember hearing one prominent Bible teacher declare that Mikhail Gorbachev was the Antichrist and the birthmark on his forehead, at a particular angle, could be read as a sign of the Beast, 666. I remember back in the late 1970s when I first came here, I was handed a tape by a prominent radio preacher, giving a definitive scenario and setting specific dates for the second coming of Jesus Christ. He declared that the year would be 1988. Prior to that Jesus Christ would return in 1981, in a pre-tribulation rapture of the church. He described in graphic detail that he had rearranged all of his personal finances and investments to meet that particular scenario. I spent a considerable amount of time counseling young men and women who had heard his predictions and were dropping out of college, feeling that it was foolish to waste their time studying, when all they should be doing was evangelizing these next few years until the rapture. The time came and went. That godly but misguided preacher was just one more of many who, through the years, tried to meet his and our cravings to know the exact time.
What you and I need is a healthy dose of discernment, coupled with a healthy dose of spiritual humility. You and I need to be able to affirm that Jesus Christ is coming again, but to not do it in a narcissistic way that concludes that somehow He has to do it during our lifetimes. You and I are to live as if He could return at any moment. We dare not get too settled in here. After all, this world is not our home; we are just “passing through” as the old gospel hymn reminds us.
Some of you remember those wonderful occasions on which we had Dr. Lewis B. Smedes of Fuller Theological Seminary teaching and preaching here at St. Andrew’s. Lew died last December at age 82. He had just completed the last chapter of his memoir, My God and I. In the last chapter, “God and an Impatient Old Man,” he wrote these words:
When I was young I hoped with all my heart that Christ would never come, that he would stay up in heaven where he belonged and leave me alone. Every Sunday morning as my family shuffled down to our pew in the Berean church, I was scared half to death by a biblical prayer, taken from the Book of Revelation, painted large on the front wall: Maranatha, Even So Come Quickly, Lord Jesus. I countered it, each Lord’s Day, with a prayer of my own: Oh, Jesus, please, take your time. Now, when I am lying in bed awake at night, I find myself humming an impatient gospel song that chilled me to the bone every time the congregation sang it, always as if we were standing at the station waiting for a tardy train that is carrying our soldier boy back from the wars.
“Oh Lord Jesus, how long?/ How long ere we shout the glad song: / Christ returneth, Hallelujah, Amen.”
This is where I find myself now on the journey that God and I have been on, at the station called hope, the one that comes right after gratitude and somewhere not far from journey’s end. It has been ‘God and I’ the whole way. Not so much because he has always been pleasant company. Not because I could always feel his presence when I got up in the morning or when I was afraid to sleep at night. It was because he did not trust me to travel alone. Personally, I like the last miles of the journey better than the first. But, since I could not have the ending without first having the beginning, I thank God for getting me going and bringing me home. And sticking with me all the way.
I have to believe that both you and I have some of those ambiguous feelings described by Lewis Smedes. There are times that we like things here on earth so much that the very notion of the life to come is something we don’t want to consider. And there are those moments when things get so tough here that we cannot help resonate from the very core of our being those words, “Maranatha–Even so come Lord Jesus!”
So, frankly, I’m not prepared to spend a lot of time in intricate charts of biblical eschatology, doctrine of the end times. There has been too much speculation. No one has yet been able to convince me that their chart is right.
There is that of the pre-millenarian who sees the thousand year reign of Christ, preceded by a seven year tribulation, with Christ coming to rapture His own prior to that tribulation or halfway through it. I find the rabid pre-millenarians a bit pessimistic about human nature, and often not as faithful to the call to be instruments of the Kingdom of God right here on earth. On the other hand, I am not certain I can buy the optimism of the post-millenarians who historically have assumed that we can work for the Kingdom of God here on earth and that Jesus will return at the end of our efforts. I find myself more inclined to be what I would call “pan-millenarian.” I am simply convinced that I don’t understand, but that God does and that it will all pan out in the long haul.
I love the story Stuart Briscoe tells of conducting a funeral for a helicopter pilot. It was determined that at the conclusion of the burial service there would be a fly-pass of helicopters in the traditional missing pilot formation. He describes how intrigued he was as to how they were going to do this, because they didn’t know how long he was going to take for the service. In fact, he said, he didn’t know, so how could they know how long it was going to take. Then, amazingly at the right moment, just as he concluded the service with the committal words, led the people in a prayer and announced the “Amen,” there was a throb-throb-throb-throb of helicopter engines. Coming low over the trees was the missing comrade formation.
Later, talking with the people who organized the funeral, he asked, “How in the world did you organize that?” And they said, “Well, actually, we knew that you would finish with a prayer, and we had somebody with a walkie-talkie. The helicopters were simply circling behind the trees there, slightly over the horizon, and when you were coming to the end of your prayer, we simply talked into the walkie-talkie, and called them in.”
He went on to describe how there is a real sense in which Christ is right on the horizon, waiting for the Father on the walkie-talkie to say, “Go in and get them.” In that sense, we have absolutely no idea when He will come. Yet we recognize that He is right on the horizon and when He is ready, He will come! We have the promise of His return in His time, on His agenda.
So what is the message for us today? We are called to live expectantly, waiting for the return of our Lord, being faithful to His commission until He comes!
IV. When Jesus Christ returns, He will judge the living (quick) and the dead.
The one word that turns people off so quickly is the word, “judgmentalism.” So often we associate it with religion. It conveys the attitude of people who are self-righteous, think they are better than others, look down their noses and judge others as being less than them.
There is only one who is adequate to be judge, and that is God himself in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Bible tells us that when Jesus Christ returns, He will come to judge the quick, those who are living, and the dead. Everyone must stand before the judgment seat of Christ. We will all be responsible to give Him accountings of our lives. He has a record of everything we have done. Most of us don’t want to think about that possibility, but it is true.
And when we stand before Jesus Christ, our judge, He will judge us on the basis of reality as He knows it, not the distortion of it in which we have to make it sort of come out the way we want it to come out.
This week I was called up for jury duty. I went over the courthouse in Santa Ana, was there at 7:45 on Monday, signed in and sat in that great room filled with hundreds of potential jurors. We were briefed by a judge as to our civic duty. We saw a video, describing our function. They then began to call out names. I made it to about 11:15, and then my name was called. Dozens of us went to the courtroom. The list of potential jurors was read. I was among them, and I moved to my seat in the juror’s box. The list of alternates was read. They joined us on those chairs in front. The judge said, “We are going to take a break for lunch, and I want all of you back here promptly at 1:30. I will then introduce you to the facts of the case, the allegations against the defendant, and we will begin the actual jury selection.”
Last time it was a murder case. This time it was a prostitution case.
I considered the likelihood of being empaneled as a minister, married to a psychoanalyst, quite slim. The defense attorney is fearful of a judgmental, religious fanatic. The prosecuting attorney is fearful of a bleeding-heart, religious liberal. After extensive inquisition of us all, I was the first one to be dismissed. I stayed around to watch the continuing proceedings and observed how the two attorneys, the judge, and the defendant handled themselves. By the end of the afternoon, only five of us who were initially in the box as principals or alternates were left. The rest had been dismissed in the jury selection, much to the consternation of the judge, who would have to continue it to the next day. I don’t know what happened in that case.
But I do know this: God does not wink at sin. I do know God took the initiative on our behalf and went to the cross for us in the person of Jesus Christ. I do know that the crucified, buried, risen and ascended Jesus Christ is returning again. I do know that in that day, He will be the judge. I do know that when my name comes up on the docket, I will stand there potentially condemned. For I am not a righteous man. I come under the biblical verdict, “For all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I know that the judge is also the prosecuting attorney. He has all the facts and knows my life backwards and forwards. It is all there, on the record. You see, the judge has potentially left his seat and gone over and reviewed the facts pertaining to me. Then, He changes roles once again. This time He walks over to me, the defendant, puts his arms around me, serving as my advocate, my defense attorney. He argues my case, declaring, “Yes, all this was true. But I have paid the penalty for John’s sin in my body on the cross.” And then He walks back, puts on the robe again, and declares, on the basis of God’s atoning work on the cross, John’s acceptance of that grace. “I declare him innocent. Case dismissed.” And the gates of heaven are thrown wide open.
But, you ask, what about those who have never heard? God wouldn’t hold them accountable, would He? It is at this point we want to get quite sentimental. We want to rewrite the rules. There are those who articulate “universalism.” They declare that in the end times everyone will end up being saved. But the Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible declares that every one of us has enough light to know our guilt. Every one of us is in need of God’s grace. Those who have heard the Good News and refused it, the Bible refers to as lost. In the day of judgment there will be the separation of the sheep from the goats. But you continue to say, “What about those who have never heard?” Scripture talks about the believer’s judgment. Although I, John Huffman, am set free from the condemnation of sin, I bear responsibility for whether or not I took seriously the commission of Jesus to go into the world and share the Good News. And you, also, if you have repented of sin, bear a responsibility to be the witness He commissioned you to be. In some way, that we don’t understand, we, as believers, will be judged on how faithful we have been. Rewards will be given to those who have taken seriously His commission.
What happens to those we have failed to reach with the Gospel? Well, it would be nice to say, “No problem. We failed. They are OK.” But the Bible doesn’t say that. The Bible says that there are people who are lost because we have failed to take seriously our commission to go into all the world and preach the Gospel. And the Bible makes it very clear that the very nature of this God, in His righteousness and justice combined with His love and mercy, will function in such a way that no one will ever be able to say, “Damn you, God, you were unfair!” What Paul in Romans describes is that which is written upon the very heart of every living person will become quite clear in that day, when every knee shall bend and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. The judge will do what He must do. And He would not have commissioned us to preach the Gospel if it didn’t really make any difference in the long haul.
This week I went to the funeral of a dear friend, Walter Smyth. He was one of my dad’s friends back in the 1940s and was one of the founders of an organization called Youth for Christ. Dad had the Boston rally, Walt Smyth had the Philadelphia rally. Billy Graham was the vice president at large for that organization. I told you a little bit about it last week. In the early 1950s, Walt went to work full-time for Billy Graham. He was his advance man, setting up crusades throughout the world. He would move his family to Australia, Amsterdam, London, and other parts of the world, doing the couple of years advance work to set up a crusade. Several years ago, Walt had a stroke. As a result, his health has been precarious, and he also suffered from dementia. At his memorial service it was a glorious occasion to hear his children describe Walt’s love of the Lord, his faithfulness to Jesus Christ, his heart for the lost, and his willingness to go into all the world to preach the Gospel–in his case as the enabler of the world-wide ministry of Billy Graham. His was a job well done.
I wept tears of loss, tears of joy, tears of appreciation and sober tears of reminder that I must be ready for the day of my death and the day of the return of Jesus Christ. I must desire to live a holy life. I must be faithful to the commission given to me. My prayer is that when He comes to judge the quick and the dead, He may say, “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter into your eternal rest.”
What is the message for us today? Thank God for your salvation and share the Good News with others! And if you haven’t repented and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation, do it now!