Ephesians 4:7-12, Matthew 28:16-20
Forty days after Easter is Ascension Day across the Global church. The dramatic event is described by Luke in both his Gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. (Luke 24:50-52) Then Jesus led his followers out as far as Bethany, and, 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.
So much can and has been said about this event, but I want us to focus our minds on the passage in Ephesians 4:8. It reads “When he ascended on high, he made captivity itself a captive, and he gave gifts to his people.” This passage has two great declarations.
1. He Made Captivity itself a Captive
The image that Paul uses is taken from the ancient world of warfare. 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 his triumphal entry the general or the Caesar would lead the parade in his 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 his foes had been defeated. It was now a time for great rejoicing.
And Paul is declaring that when Jesus returned to the Father he entered in great pageantry. You can almost hear the angel choirs singing their version of Psalm 24: “Lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lifted up, ye everlasting doors, that the King of Glory may come in.” And when he ascended back to heaven, he did not come back empty handed. He led bound all those who had formerly held humanity in bondage.
For there had been some forces that had held humanity captive all their lives. Over and over again throughout the centuries people had been enslaved and in bondage to a thousand foes. They had ended up being the unwilling victims of someone else’s triumphal parade.
Over and over again you and I had failed in trying to win over 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 God sent His Son Jesus to do battle on our behalf. Look at the way he lived his life. Even at his birth the fight is on, as Herod hunts for the young child. As he begins ministry, we see him on the mount of temptation in combat with the world’s great foe. But Satan is defeated and flees, then Jesus comes down from the mountain top and begins to plunder Satan’s kingdom, and set up his own kingdom. Over the months that follow Jesus casts out evil spirits, heals the diseased, raises the dead and forgives sin.
But then came the cross, and though it looked like defeat, you and I know differently. It was the greatest stroke of military strategy. At the cross, when all the powers of hell think they have won the victory, the tables are turned and out of the jaws of defeat Christ snatches the world’s greatest victory.
For in the resurrection that follows there comes the declaration that Jesus Christ is Lord after all, and has conquered his enemies. Hear the words of Paul in Colossians 2:15, “He disarmed the principalities & powers and made a public example of them, triumphing over them in the cross.”
When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive. The question then arises, who were among those foes chained to his chariot?
All of our lives we had been helpless before our sins. The temptations were greater than we could bear, and once in the grip of our sins, we could not free ourselves. We found ourselves crying, “O wretched man that I am, who shall deliver me…” from the guilt & the power of sin.
But now a new song emerges. It is not a wail of despair but a cry of victory. Hear the words of the hymn “It Is Well With My Soul.”
“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.”
But not only were my sins dealt with, but so was Satan himself. And that is why we do not fear the devil. We say boo and he flees. Resist him and he flies. As Luther says, “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 has feared death. It was a monster that reaped the world of young and old without discrimination. But the resurrection of Jesus from death was the declaration that death had lost its sting. The grave had lost its victory. Death was now only a doorway into life and not a final destination. Sin, Satan and death were defeated and defused in his death & resurrection.
D. All other foes
And there were a myriad other enemies chained to his chariot wheels that day. Our bad habits, our shame-filled past, our fears, our anxieties, our guilt and our failures. In fact, anything that diminishes life was chained in defeat on the day he ascended.
2. He gave gifts unto his people
But Paul continues in the passage with some further good news. “He ascended up on high … and gave gifts to his people.” He freed us from our foes. But that was not enough. Paul says, “Then he gave gifts to his people.”
But wait. When Paul quotes Psalm 68:18 he misquotes it. And misquotes it intentionally.
Hear the original version:
“With mighty chariotry, twice ten thousand,
and thousands upon thousands,
The Lord came from Sinai into the Holy Place.
You Ascended the high mountain,
Leading captives in your train,
AND RECEIVING GIFTS from your people”
In the ticker tape parades of that ancient world, the General would receive gifts from his people. The victor would be lavished with honour and wealth because he had won this great victory. But Paul points us to a marvellous reversal, for when Jesus entered heaven, instead of receiving gifts, he gave out gifts. He scattered upon his church all the resources they would need to continue the victory that he had begun. For we were intended to extend his victory to all nations. But to do that we would need adequate resources. We would need armour for the conflict. Weapons of warfare would be needed by us to continue to pull down the strongholds of evil. So, he gave us gifts. What were these?
A. The Holy Spirit
God’s greatest gift. The gift of Himself. He who said in Ruth’s words “I will never leave you nor forsake you” who said, “I will be with you always to the end of the age and the ends of the world.” He gave the Spirit to be our travelling companion and our co-pilot. Matthew 7:11, says, “How much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask” But when Luke repeats this phrase, (Luke 11:13) he writes, “How much more will your heavenly Father Give the Holy Spirit to those who ask!”
B. The Church
He gave us the Church as well so that we would not be orphans, having to cope with life on our own. He created a new community for those times when the surrounding community wants to disown us. He created a new family when our own family often want nothing to do with us. For many of us it has become a home away from home.
C. The Gifts of His Spirit
He also gave us what are called, “The gifts of the Spirit” – abilities to do his work in the Church and in the world, so that each and every one of us can be a contributor to the cause of Christ. It is not enough for us to belong to a new community and a new family, but we have also called to become skilled employees of the kingdom involved in domestic and foreign affairs, working inside the church and across the world.
D. Gifted Men and Women
And since God is building a team of co-workers, the very next passage in the reading from Ephesians lists the gifted men and women that God calls to coordinate the work of the Church. “He gave… some to be apostles, and prophets, evangelists and pastors and teachers to equip the saints for their work of ministry.” He gave gifted persons to give leadership to the church.
In His ascension he showered upon us all things necessary for life and service; more than I have delineated this morning.
So, what response do we make to this good news?
Thankfulness would certainly not be out of place.
Adoration of our Ascended Lord would certainly be fitting.
Surrender is also a fitting response. Some of us carry burdens and cares, sins and guilt and shame that we should not be carrying. We should surrender these to him, so that he can remove them and set us free.
But acceptance also would be a fitting response. 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!