************ Sermon on Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 46-51 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on January 9, 2011
Q & A 46-51
"I Believe Christ Ascended to Heaven"
"I believe ... Jesus ... ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." We know this as the Ascension and Session of Christ. That is what the church confesses in the Apostles' Creed. Which means the Ascension and Session of Jesus are part of the Gospel. Which means the Ascension and Session of Jesus are part of the content of true faith. Therefore, anyone who professes to be a Christian needs to believe Christ has ascended and is seated at the right hand of God.
I Problems with the Ascension (Q & A 46-48)
A The Bible states very emphatically that Christ ascended bodily into heaven. Based upon Luke 24 and Acts 1, the Catechism says "That Christ, while his disciples watched, was lifted up from the earth to heaven" (A46).
Many people today have trouble with this confession of the Christian faith – namely, that Christ ascended bodily into heaven. With our space-age sophistication we know that heaven is not "up there." We have learned too much about the universe to say that. But still that leaves the question lurking in our mind: If heaven is not up there, where is it? Is it in some totally different dimension? Do we have to travel through a time warp or a black hole or into a different universe before we can get to it?
At the same time we do not want to go as far as the Russians. In 1961 the Russians were the first to launch a man, Yuri Gagarin, into space. Nikita Khrushchev, the Soviet premier at the time said, "Gagarin flew into space, but didn't see any god there" – the implication being that there is no god or Gagarin would have seen Him up there.
B It isn't just modern day man who has problems with the physical ascension of Christ Jesus. The Lutherans have their own set of problems. Q & A 46-48 were inserted into the Catechism to answer a Calvinist versus Lutheran controversy that was raging at the time the Catechism was written.
Let me sum up the controversy by asking a question about the ascended Jesus. But before I ask the question let me remind you what the church universal has confessed about Jesus since the Council of Chalcedon in A.D. 451. We confess that Jesus is true God and true man without division and separation, without confusion and change (cf A 47). This means the human and divine are so united in Jesus that they were not even separated by His death. This further means that Christ's human nature has all the properties of a true human nature: beginning of days, finite nature, and so on (cf Belgic Confession Article 19; A 48).
Now, let me state the question. We all know Jesus' promise to be with us (Mt 28:20). How is He with us? Now that He is in heaven, is Jesus with us physically? Or, is He only with us spiritually?
The Lutheran answer to the question: Jesus is physically and spiritually present everywhere. Notice what has happened to the human nature of Christ – it has taken on the properties of divinity. But, as you all know, a human body can be in only one place at one time – unless you are a mother, of course.
Why do the Lutherans teach Jesus is physically present everywhere? Because they want Jesus to be physically present in the Lord's Supper. According to Lutheran theology what we ate and drank this morning were the real human body and the real human blood of Jesus. What is good about this position is that Lutherans take seriously the statement of Jesus, "This is my body" and "This is my blood" (Mt 26:26,28). What is wrong about this position is that Lutherans confuse and change the human nature of Christ so that it takes on some of the properties of His divine nature.
II The Ascension - Christ Jesus is Lord (Q & A 50)
A "I believe ... Jesus ... ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty."
Answer 50 gives us a typically Reformed answer of what it means for the ascended Christ to be sitting at the right hand of God. Notice what the Catechism doesn't do. It does not answer questions concerning where Jesus is or whether He sits in a "place" in our sense of the term. Instead, the Catechism says something about the authority and power and dominion of Jesus.
Let me sidetrack for just a moment. When I preached through the book of Revelation a couple of people were surprised that I never once used words like pre-millennial, post-millennial, and a-millennial. The Ascension and Session of Jesus are the reasons I didn't use those terms. Because anyone who believes Christ has ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of God does not need to use those words. Because an ascended Christ is a glorified Christ with kingdom, power, and authority right now. The whole point of the Ascension and Session is that Christ is King now. The whole point of the Ascension and Session is that Christ is already seated at the right hand of God. He doesn't become King at the start of some future millennium. He doesn't become King after a present day millennium. He is King right now. He rules right now.
B "I believe ... Jesus ... ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." What does this mean right now? Notice the Catechism's answer: "Christ ascended to heaven, there to show that he is head of his church, and that the Father rules all things through him" (A 50).
Wow. That should be our response. Christ is head of the church. Christ rules all things. Wow. This makes me think of the awesome quote of Abraham Kuiper, a Dutch theologian and politician of the late 1800s. I hope some of you recognize this quote: "There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!'" Don't you just love that quote? "Mine. It is all mine." That's what Jesus says because of the Ascension and Session.
The implications of this confession are staggering. It means that Christ is Lord of politics even when politicians do not know Him. It means He is Lord of science, even if scientists believe in evolution. It means He is Lord of atheists, even when they do not believe in Him.
In our own life the implications of the Ascension and Session of Christ are just as radical. For, when we confess the Ascension and Session as the Catechism teaches it, we confess that Christ is Lord of every area of our life. We, for instance, cannot give Christ our church life and hold back our sex life. We cannot promise our prayers but hang on to our pornography. We cannot give Him our families and keep hold of our wallets. We cannot give Him two nights a week for Youth Group and worship but keep Him out of basketball or volleyball or football.
Yet, I'm afraid that is exactly what all of us try to do – including me. We surrender part of our life to Christ's Lordship, but in another part we have shut the door to the claims of Christ. We give Him Sunday mornings but, as you can clearly see, not everyone gives Him Sunday evening. Everyday in a thousand ways we find ways to deny the Lordship of Jesus. We disobey the Ten Commandments – both their positive as well as negative demands. We fail to give Jesus the love that He wants. We don't spend time with Him in Bible reading and prayer. Anytime we do any of this, we are denying the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
Let me put it this way: either Christ is Lord of all of our life or He is Lord of none of our life. Remember, He says "Mine!" about every square inch of this universe.
Over the years I have heard an expression over and over again from various people: that we Christians need to expand or grow or establish the Kingdom. What nonsense. Think about this. If Christ already says "Mine!" about every square inch of the universe what is there left to grow? Do you know what is our calling when it comes to the Kingdom and Lordship of Jesus Christ? Our calling is submit, submit, submit. Submit every area of your life to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Submit every sphere you are you involved in to the Lordship of Jesus.
III The Benefits of the Ascension (Q & A 49, 51)
A "I believe ... Jesus ... ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty." Do you know why Christ ascended into heaven? Let me give some answers. Answer one: His work on earth was done. Answer two: God's plan, revealed in the Old Testament, speaks about the Ascension and Session. The third answer might surprise you: He went there for our good.
Jesus speaks about this last reason in John 16:7. Jesus says, "It is for your good that I am going away." The Catechism picks up on this in A 46 when it says Christ "will be there for our good." Also, did you notice the language of A 49 and A 51? Both use the word "benefit" in asking about Christ's Ascension and Session. "How does Christ's ascension to heaven benefit us?" "How does this glory of Christ our head benefit us?"
So, let me say this loud and clear: Christ is in heaven for our good. You know, there are way too many Christians who wish Jesus was still here on earth so they could hear Him teach or witness His miracles. And, there are all sorts of Christians who want to walk where Jesus walked and go where Jesus went so they can recreate the experience for themselves. While none of this stuff is wrong, none of this stuff is also necessary because we are better off with Jesus in heaven.
B So, what are the benefits or blessings that are ours because Jesus is in heaven? The Catechism lists five of them.
1 "First, he pleads our cause in heaven in the presence of his Father."
According to the Spirit-inspired apostle, Christ's intercession or prayer for us is the climax of His work on our behalf. Says Paul,
(Rom 8:34) Christ Jesus, who died--more than that, who was raised to life--is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.Four acts of our Mediator and Redeemer are mentioned in this verse: His death, resurrection, ascension, and intercession. Three of these are done, completed, finished. The last of these, His "interceding for us," speaks of His ongoing work on behalf of His own.
2 Jesus states the second blessing or benefit of His Ascension in John 14:
(Jn 14:2-3) In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. (3) And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.The Catechism puts it this way: "we have our own flesh in heaven – a guarantee that Christ our head will take us, his members, to himself in heaven."
Jesus is in heaven and is making a place ready for us. Someday He will send the news, "I am ready for you to come."
3 Third, says the Catechism, the ascended Christ "sends his Spirit to us on earth" (A 49). In His farewell speeches as recorded in John's Gospel, Jesus says His going to heaven is the necessary precondition for the Spirit's coming:
(Jn 16:7) Unless I go away the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you. (cf John 15:26)
Because an ascended Jesus sends us the Spirit we are better off with Jesus in heaven than on earth. Jesus teaches that His comfort, His word, and His power are more richly present in His followers now than before His Ascension. You see, the coming of the Spirit enables the disciples to know the truth (Jn 15:26; 16:13), to know the words of Jesus (Jn 14:26; 15:26), and to do the works of Jesus (Jn 14:12). According to the Catechism, it is only by the Spirit's power that "we make the goal of our lives, not earthly things, but the things above where Christ is, sitting at God's right hand."
4 According to the Catechism, the fourth blessing or benefit of Christ's Ascension is that He "pours out his gifts from heaven upon us his members" (A 51). He does this as the head of the church. He does this through His Spirit. Listen to how Paul says this in Ephesians,
(Eph 4:11) It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers.But those are not the only gifts that Christ gave to the church. He also gave: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miraculous powers, prophecy, the ability to distinguish between spirits, the ability to speak in tongues, the interpretation of tongues, etc (1 Cor 12:8-10; cf 1 Cor 14:1-15; Rom 12:6-8).
Why does the Lord give these gifts? Quoting again from Ephesians,
(Eph 4:12-13) to prepare God's people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up (13) until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.Christ gives us the gifts because He wants us to grow up, to become mature, to be like Him. The ascended Lord, seated at the right hand of God, gives these gifts to the church so that members can serve each other and build each other up in the faith.
5 The last blessing or benefit of the Ascension has to do with the universal kingship of Christ. I am always inspired when I think of what Paul writes in Ephesians 1:
(Eph 1:22) And God placed all things under his feet and appointed him to be head over everything for the church.Did you catch that? Christ's universal kingship is for the benefit of the church; it is subservient to His spiritual kingship. World history, in other words, is subordinate to church history.
Christ rules the destinies of individuals and nations, says the Catechism, in order to "defend us and keep us safe from all enemies" (A 51). And, as you know, the enemies of the church are legion. The devil and his hosts, the world, even our very own flesh, all conspire to attack us, defeat us, and lure us away from the faith. Therefore, God invested Jesus with all authority so that He is able to protect His own against all the powers of darkness.
If nothing else, I hope you realize the Ascension and Session of Christ are very important doctrines. Therefore, with the church of all ages, we say "I believe ... Jesus ... ascended to heaven and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty."
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