Part 8 of our series on the Apostle's Creed
Speaker: Helen Jenkinson
Welcome to our continuation of looking at the Apostle’s creed. The beliefs that should unite all believers. So this is what we’re going to look at today.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father; and he will come again to judge the living and the dead.
As I’ve studied these two topics of ascension and judgement I’ve increasingly felt like a child trying to understand astro-physics by reading a ladybird book (if you’re of my generation!) or reading Wikipedia (if you’re a lot younger!)
There’s so much contained in these 2 statements. So much to ponder. And so much that we cannot know. So much we cannot put in a box labelled ‘ascension’ or ‘judgement’ and think we have that theology all sewn up! How can we understand in half an hour what the greatest spiritual minds have grappled with throughout the ages?
I’ve come to realise that that’s the point. How can we put the God of the universe in a box and think that we’ve got him sussed?
Our human minds are incapable of grasping all that God is. And that’s the point. If we could understand everything about Him, then he would cease to be God!
So today we’re going to look at these 2 aspects of Ascension and judgement in order to just ‘tickle the top’ of the greatness of God.
He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
READ: Ephesians 1: 15-23
Paul is writing to the Christians at Ephesus wanting them to have a correct understanding of all that God had given them in Christ and the type of life they should live as a result of those truths. The first part of chapter 1 is reminding the Christians of all the wonderful blessings that are theirs in Christ. And ours too if we are in Christ.
Read Verse 19-21 again.
Why does the creed emphasise that Christ physically ascended? Why does Paul emphasise that Christ is seated? Is the position of being at God’s right hand important? And so what? Why are these two things relevant to us?
In the second century, certain sects tried to do away with bits of the gospel that they didn’t approve of. One version of Luke’s gospel completely omitted the birth and ascension of Jesus. Why? Because at that time some teaching viewed the body as evil so because Jesus wasn’t evil, their logic said that Jesus’ ascension must have been ‘spiritual’, leaving his earthly ‘evil’ body behind. Salvation was a means of escaping the horribleness of the world.
So the early Christians were really at pains to proclaim that Jesus was a REAL person, with a REAL body. Who suffered IN HIS BODY. Whose BODY died and whose BODY was resurrected and who had a BODILY ascension. And to proclaim that salvation was not about spiritual escape but about transformation of human life in all its fullness- including the body. That’s why Jesus says in John 10:10 I have come that they might have life- life in all its fullness. Real life! Not just some spiritual existence, floating on a cloud.
In Ephesians, Paul is re-emphasising the fact that Christ is raised from the dead and is still alive.
I’m reminded of an old hymn we used to sing: There’s a Man in the glory, Whose Life is for me. He’s pure and He’s holy, triumphant and free. He’s wise and He’s loving, how tender is He! There’s a Man in the glory, Whose Life is for me.
Through the incarnation, Jesus became flesh. He acquired a body. And stayed flesh even though his resurrected body changed after his resurrection. Think about his ability to just appear in a room! But the disciples could still recognise Jesus. He was, in essence the same person they loved. Even though Jesus is now in heaven, He is still ALIVE!
If you read the account of the ascension in Acts 1: 6-11 we can see how it happened. But sometimes we can become so familiar with the story we can pass over lots of the details can’t we?
Why did Jesus go upwards? Is heaven just past the second star on the left? No.
As Jesus ascends, the disciples’ gaze was drawn upwards. We say we ‘look up to’ the people we respect and admire don’t we? Jesus’ ascension was a sign of his exaltation. To show how high in rank he was. You can’t get any higher in rank than God can you? But to the disciples, who had lived with Jesus for 3 years, who had seen him die and then were trying to process the truth of his resurrection, this rubber stamped the truth that Jesus was who he said he was. He was God. He was the Messiah.
As the disciples’ gaze was drawn upwards but as Jesus ascends into God’s presence, a cloud descends and Jesus is taken up into the cloud. Something similar has happened before hasn’t it?
Remember in Exodus when Moses went to meet with God on Mt. Sinai he entered the cloud of God’s presence. The word for this is the ‘shekinah glory’ of God. It literally means ‘he caused to dwell’. This wasn’t any old cloud. This was a divine visitation of the presence or dwelling of the Lord God on earth.
This is significant because when the new testament writers speak of ascension they are not describing Jesus’ absence but his sovereign presence. The ascension demonstrated the glory that the son had before the incarnation (a few of the disciples got a sneaky peak at that when Jesus was transfigured) but also heralded the start of a reign that had never been previously exercised in this way. He has gone away but is even more present.
Why is the fact that Jesus is now in the heavenly realms so important? We’re going to look at position and posture.
Ephesians says that Jesus is now in the place of honour at God’s right hand in the heavenly realms.
In the ancient world, to sit on the right hand of someone indicated that you were the executive ruler on the monarch’s behalf. You had power and authority.
Remember, God is spirit and so doesn’t have physical hands, but Paul wants to reiterate that Jesus has ultimate authority because it has been bestowed on him by the Father.
When Jesus was here on earth, his ability to be there for people was limited by time and space. Now Jesus has the ability to speak to, help, protect, heal and to be with every person, through the power of the Holy Spirit. With ultimate authority comes the power to help all those who ask him, anywhere in the world. It also means that Jesus intervenes on our behalf in our interests because he has the ultimate authority to do so.
Let’s make this practical. In new testament times, people in the Roman world would have been told that Caesar had ultimate power. Not so. It’s Jesus that has ultimate power and authority. In our times we might think that its politicians or world leaders who hold all the power. Not so. Jesus has ultimate power and authority. Think of the situations the world finds itself in at the moment.
How amazing and humbling that the one who has all power and authority is living to intervene on our behalf. There is nothing that we can bring to him that is too small or too big for him to handle. There is nothing that we can bring to him that is so inconsequential for him that he will brush it under the carpet or tell us to get a grip! We are the apple of his eye. What matters to us, matters to him.
It’s so easy isn’t it to focus on either Jesus’ authority over the world OR to focus on his care for us. But the truth of it is that in His greatness, Jesus can be bothered about events in Ukraine AND ALSO care about your bad day at work or the fall out you’ve had with your friend at school, or the homework you’re struggling with. So we need to keep those 2 aspects of Jesus’ status like a balance scale. He is now at the right hand of the Father. Jesus has ultimate control of the universe, yet intervenes on our behalf. Next, let’s look at posture. What is Jesus doing whilst he’s at the right hand of the Father?
Let’s look again at verse 20 of Ephesians 1. It says Jesus is seated. What does that mean? Why is that significant? Is Jesus lounging on his throne putting his feet up? Chillaxing?
To understand the significance of this, we need to go back to the system of sacrifices in the Old Testament. This is what Hebrews 10: 11 says:
Under the old covenant, the priest STANDS and ministers before the altar day after day, offering the same sacrifices again and again, which can never take away sins. But our High Priest offered himself to God as a single sacrifice for sins, good for all time. Then he SAT DOWN in the place of honour at God’s right hand.
The Old Testament priests never sat down because their job never finished. They were constantly, day after day, having to make sacrifices for the people. In contrast to this, the sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross will never have to be repeated. Because of the perfection of His sacrifice, the Son has the right to sit down forever at the right hand of God. His work is finished.
What does this mean for us? Our sin is paid for. There is nothing else to be done because the cross has said it all. Jesus’ work for the atonement of our sins is completely complete.
Do you ever think you’ve committed a sin far too many times to be forgiven? Not so. Jesus is sat down. It’s as though Jesus says. ‘NO. ITS SORTED!’ Do you think you’ve done something so bad that God could never forgive you? Not so. Jesus is sat down. IT’S SORTED! Do you worry that you’ve failed in your Christian life yet again? Or do you compare yourself to someone else and assume they are a 5 star Christian whereas you score a miserly 2 stars on a good day? No need. Jesus is sat down. IT’S SORTED!
The cross is the final word. What an utter blessing that is! But how often do we forget it?
So the first part of our statement today: He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father
Jesus has ultimate power and authority. Not just over world events but there is nothing he can’t and won’t handle on our behalf. The price is paid for our sins. All sin. For all time. SORTED!
But now we come to the second statement in our portion of the creed for today.
He will come again to judge the living and the dead.
Our understanding of God’s judgement is definitely an ‘astro-physics through the wisdom of wikipedia’ type of topic! And we find the subject of judgement unsettling don’t we?
It should stir us out of our complacency or apathy and concentrate our minds on eternity. There are some things that God has revealed to us in scripture- Jesus WILL return. There WILL be a time when all wrongs will be put right. That’s reassuring isn’t it? How could we worship a God who makes light of suffering or injustice? Or who is too high and mighty to care?
But often we have a set idea of how God should execute his judgement. According to our own ideas. According to our timetable. There are the vivid pictures painted in revelation, but even with that there is so much that we cannot know. How much of Revelation is imagery or picture language and how much is literal? Discussions about that have kept theologians busy for centuries!
If you are a Christian this morning you can be assured that because you are IN CHRIST, (a phrase Paul continually uses in his letters) your eternal salvation is secure. Our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life. (Imagery or literal??!).
But that is nothing of our doing. It is all Christ’s in his finished work on the cross. I don’t know about you, but I’m mightily relieved about that!
However, the bible does teach that as Christians our service for God will be judged; not as to how successful we have been in worldly terms of attendance at our events, or how ‘hip, trendy or cool’ they have been, or even as to how many people have made ‘decisions for Christ’ as a result of our ministry but as to what our hearts have been like. What our motivations have been. How faithful we have been.
So let’s look very briefly at what the apostle Paul says to his trusted son in the faith, Timothy to encourage him. Timothy was a young man, in leadership of the church Paul had planted in Ephesus and often unsure of his role. In view of the certainty of Jesus’ return, what advice does Paul, the elder statesman give him?
READ 2 TIMOTHY 4: 1-8
1. Be Prepared to Preach the Word and Respond to the Word:
The first piece of advice we can get from Paul is to be prepared to preach the word.
Here the word preach doesn’t necessarily mean standing at the front and speaking to a congregation. It means to act as a herald like a town crier. But instead of ringing a bell shouting ‘Oyez Oyez’ we are to proclaim the good news about Jesus. The gospel. So that is something every one of us can do- not just the people who stand at the front.
We can proclaim the good news to people who have not yet experienced the truths about God but we can also proclaim the good news to each other. Remind each other of who we are in Christ. The blessings that are ours. (Ephesians 1).
Paul also wants Timothy to be someone who patiently corrects, rebukes and encourages- not in ‘lording it over’ the people in his care but continually presenting God’s truth to them. But on the flip side, Paul’s desire is that the people in the church have teachable spirits.
It’s very easy isn’t it to have favourite ‘go to’ passages of scripture and never consider topics that might challenge our preconceived ideas. Look at verse 3 which talks about ‘itching ears’. There is so much teaching available now – which is a good thing- that we can pick and choose who we want to listen to. And often we opt for someone who has the most followers. Who has had the most ‘likes’. Who doesn’t challenge us in any way because we have our theology all sewn up.
Paul wants Timothy’s congregations to be people who are dedicated to learning more about God through his word through ministries who are faithful to God’s word- not just the ideas of men, or ideas based on worldly concepts. When was the last time you were challenged in your thinking? It’s good to research the passages that we study on Sunday mornings for yourself. Ponder them during the week. Let the word of God shape your thinking, your actions, your attitudes.
2. Fulfil your Ministry:
This letter to Timothy was written at the end of Paul’s life. He is in prison and knows his time on earth is coming to an end. In human terms, Paul could be classed as a bit of a failure- in prison, deserted by some of his followers. But Paul doesn’t view his life using those parameters.
Look at verse 7: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have remained faithful.
Paul had kept faith in finishing the course of ministry that he had been given to accomplish. Paul’s retirement plan wasn’t based on a pension plan that would enable him to enjoy his escape to the country. His retirement plan was the athlete’s victory symbol of a crown.
Just like getting a gold medal nowadays. If you get a medal at the Olympics, you know that in 4 years there is a chance that you might not win it again. And it definitely won’t last forever. You will retire. Someone else will take your place. But the crown of righteousness Paul is looking forward to is for eternity.
It’s also a certainty. It is to be awarded by the ‘righteous judge’. Paul has spent his life proclaiming that our salvation is based on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness, as the hymn says. But Paul wanted to make his king proud as an act of love. To know that he had done what Jesus had commissioned him to do.
But look at verse 8. The prize is not just for me but for all who eagerly look forward to his appearing. This is not just for 5 star Christians like Paul. The prize is for normal people like us too!
It’s a beautiful thing isn’t it when your child has made something and they take great delight in showing you what they’ve done. Or they’ve attempted to make you a drink or snack. They want to see the love and pride you have for them reflected in your eyes. And as parents we love to give that word of encouragement. That well done. Is what they have done perfect? Probably not. But does that matter? No. Because you have seen what is in your child’s heart. You have seen the fact that they have made that drink with love.
When Christ returns, what a wonderful thing for us to know that we have made him proud. See the love reflected in his eyes. To have no regrets because we know that what he had asked us to do, we had been faithful in doing. I don’t think we’ll be that bothered about the reward. We’ll be more excited about the prospect of enjoying being in his presence forever. We have fought the good fight. We have finished the race. We have remained faithful.
Have we packed stadiums with our worship services? Maybe, but probably not. Have thousands of people come to know Christ as a result of our ministry? Maybe, but probably not. Have we stuck at our ministry when we have been criticised? Have we kept going when attendance has dwindled? Have we supported each other in prayer and practical ways? Have we shared our faith with our friends and family even when they pull our leg about being a Christian? Have we come to church even when there’s other things that grab our attention? What can seem so inconsequential to us, rates massively with Jesus because he sees our heart and he is waiting to look into our eyes on that day and say ‘Well Done. Good and faithful servant’
So in conclusion:
Christ is sat at the right hand of the Father. Jesus has ultimate power and authority. Not just over world events, but there is nothing he can’t and won’t handle on our behalf. The price is paid for our sins. All sin. For all time. SORTED!
Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Proclaim his good news. Have teachable hearts. Faithfully fulfil what he has asked you to do.