Ascension to Pentecost
Going and Coming
For the seven weeks before Easter, the Church has focused upon the reality that Jesus suffered, was crucified, put to death and was buried. But with Easter Sunday morning that is all changed! What a glorious day!
That great Easter morning is then followed by seven more weeks that lead us all the way to the Day of Pentecost. A glorious day too! But between these two great events of Resurrection and Pentecost there is another day. Often a forgotten day; perhaps because it falls on a Thursday instead of a Sunday. It is Ascension Day.
We know what the visible facts were on that day. Jesus ascended in full view of his followers and was caught up into the clouds and disappeared from view. Some years after the event Paul interprets part of the meaning of this event. He writes to the Ephesians church (4:8) “When Jesus ascended on high, He led captivity captive and He gave gifts unto men.” This passage contains two great truths that may help us prepare for worship in the coming days.
He Led Captivity Captive
The image that Paul uses comes from the world of his day. After a great victory on the field of battle, the Roman general would be treated to a ticker-tape parade through the streets of Rome. In the triumphal entry the general would lead the parade riding in a chariot. And coming behind him there would be lines of subjugated foes, chained to his chariot. This act served to display the irrefutable fact that the victory had been won and the foe had been defeated.
On the day of ascension, Jesus too, says Paul, entered into heaven having subjugated all the things that had held humanity captive for so long.
Throughout the centuries people had been enslaved and in bondage to a thousand foes. They had been the unwilling victims, time and again, of someone else’s triumphal entry. But in His recent death and resurrection Jesus had defeated the very things that had defeated us. All those things that had held us captive, found themselves chained to his chariot wheels.
We had failed repeatedly in our own trying to defeat the things that oppressed us. We needed an older brother. We needed a strong man. We needed a warrior to do battle against our Goliaths. We needed someone to take up our cause.
Then Jesus came to do battle on our behalf. He entered the great struggle to rescue us. From the moments of His birth the fight was on as King Herod hunted for the young child to slay him, and Jesus must begin his young life as a refugee. Years later, as He begins his ministry, we see Him on the mount of temptation in combat with the infernal foe. But Satan stands defeated and flees. Jesus descends from that mountain and begins to plunder Satan’s kingdom, and set up his own. Over the months that follow, Jesus casts out devils, heals the diseased, raises the dead and grants the forgiveness of sins.
Then came the cross, and it looked like defeat. And it was. But not for Jesus! It was the greatest stroke of a brilliant military strategy. At the cross, when all the powers of hell thought they had won the victory, the tables were turned and out of the jaws of defeat Christ snatched the world’s greatest victory.
In the ascension that followed shortly after Easter Sunday, there came the public declaration that in the cosmic battle, Jesus Christ alone is Lord. He has conquered his enemies and ours. Hear the words of Paul in Colossians 2:15, God “disarmed the principalities & powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in Christ.” When Jesus ascended on high, He led captive those that had held us captive. The question arises, who were among those foes chained to his chariot that day? The answer is: sin, Satan, death and hell and more!
All of our lives we had been helpless before our sins. The temptations were greater than we could resist, and once in the grip of our own sins, we could not free ourselves. We found ourselves crying, “O wretched one that I am, who shall deliver me…”
But, now a new song emerges. It is not a wail of despair but a cry of victory.
“My sin, O the bliss of that glorious thought,
my sin, not in part, but the whole,
is nailed to his cross and I bear it no more,
praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul.”
Not only were my sins dealt with but so was Satan himself. There is no longer any reason to live in fear of the evil one. We may now say “boo” and he flees. Simply resist him and he flees.
Luther says it for us,
“The Prince of Darkness grim, we tremble not for him,
his rage we can endure, for Lo His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.”
Throughout history, humanity had also feared the great unknown of death. It was a monster that reaped the world of young and old without discrimination. But when Jesus returned from death, it was the death sentence for death itself. Death had lost its sting. The grave had lost its victory. Death was defused and became now a door way into life and not a final destination.
And besides sin and Satan and death being defeated, in his act of great deliverance, hell itself was wasted. Hell was harrowed, and need never again cause fear in the hearts of God’s people.
He gave gifts to us
But Paul continues in the passage with some further good news. “When He ascended up on high … He gave gifts to us!”
In the ticker tape parades of Paul’s day, the victorious general would receive gifts from the citizens of that city. The victor would be lavished with great honour and great wealth because he had won the victory. But there comes in Paul’s words a wonderful reversal. When Jesus entered heaven, instead of receiving gifts, He gave them! He scattered upon his church all the resources they would need to continue the victory that He had begun.
It was never God’s design that we be merely saved. He wanted us to be co-workers alongside Him. We were to extend his victory to all nations. But who are we to do that? We had, until recently, been in bondage ourselves. We had been enemies of grace. How could we further the work that Jesus had begun? But here is the profound reality. To quote David Livingstone, “If He be with me, I can do anything, anything, anything!” If we are to be more than conquerors we will need adequate resources. We will need armor for the conflict. Weapons of warfare will be needed if we are to help pull down the strongholds of evil. So the conquering Christ, instead of demanding gifts, gave us gifts, gifts that would equip us for our part in the great conflict.
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
Almost 40 years ago, while still a single young man, I had dated a young lady with a great sense of humour. It was a time when the humorous greeting cards were coming into their own. She mailed me one of them. It was a bit naughty. But nice. The front of the card simply said “You deserve the best of everything!” Then I opened the card to read the interior. It read “When do you want me?”
And I suspect that when God was planning our great participation with Him in the healing of the world, He said something very close to that. “You need the best of everything! When do you want me?” For God’s greatest gift was the gift of Himself. Ten days after the ascension of our Lord, the supernal gift was given. On the Day of Pentecost God gave the Holy Spirit, the Counselor, to be the traveling companion of each and every member of his church.
But the generous God was not finished granting gifts in the giving of himself. Besides that gracious gift, He scattering other gifts to his people. He gave the gifts of His Spirit to enable us to be workers with Him and for him. He granted to the church gifted people to work beside in the great enterprise.
Here is the good news for today. The One who defeated our foes and showered us with gifts is with us to this very hour. He still offers his strength to those too easily defeated by life. He offers Himself to us afresh for every day’s demands. He offers his gifts to those who wish to be workers with Him in His Church and in His world. Thanks be to God!
Published in The Free Methodist Herald, May-June, 1999