May 16, 2021
Without the ascension, Christ’s nativity, passion, and resurrection would have been pointless. The ascension is the defining moment that marked the end of Jesus’ personal ministry on earth and the beginning of the Great Commission. Alistair Begg walks us through the Gospel plan, the Holy Spirit’s enabling power, and the personnel God uses to accomplish His purposes. As every believer joins in His mission, Jesus continues to reign from heaven, seeking the lost through weak, fearful servants like us.
Well, I invite you to turn with me to the Gospel of Luke and to chapter 24, and I invite you to follow along as I read from the forty-fourth verse. Luke 24:44. Jesus has appeared to his disciples, and he is speaking with them. And Luke records:
“Then he said to them, ‘These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, ‘Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.’
“And he led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God.”
Thanks be to God for his Word.
Father, we join with a vast company around the world today, from languages and places that are so vastly different from ours, and yet to declare that “you have exalted above all things your name and your word.” So may that be apparent now as we turn to your Word. For Christ’s sake. Amen.
Well, those of you who have been regularly with us will detect from the tenor of our praise and from the reading of Scripture that we have taken a pause from 2 Samuel, and that not because of any concerns about 2 Samuel but because this past Thursday was Ascension Day, forty days on from Easter Day—largely, I think, ignored. I’m not sure I saw any mention of it in anything that I read in the secular press. And frankly, it is at the same time the most neglected festival within the framework of the liturgy of the church.
And that is borne out when you recognize, when I recognize, that we haven’t routinely made the Ascension Sunday part and parcel of our lives as a church. And on the few occasions that we have—and it is a few occasions; in thirty-eight years, this might be the fourth time that I have actually addressed it—on those previous occasions, we have tended to focus very much on the nature of the event itself: “What was happening? How was it happening? Where was he going?” and so on.
And with other familiar festivals in the church, familiarity is a real danger, both to the preacher and to each of us as we’re listening to the Bible. And so, when I come, as I came this past week, to the familiar material here at the end of Luke 24—and you should have a finger in Acts chapter 1, both of these books written by Doctor Luke himself—I said to myself, you know, “What is surprising about this story? What is there, as I read the record here of what took place, that, if you like, catches me off guard or causes me to say, ‘But wait a minute, that is surprising’?” And I got my answer in Luke 24:52, where it says of the disciples that after Jesus had parted from them and returned and was carried up into heaven, that “they worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” “With great joy.” “Oh,” I said to myself, “but wait a minute! How is it that they would now return with such great joy?”
It was Juliet, wasn’t it—of Shakespeare’s Juliet, that is—that informed us, or informed Romeo, that “parting is such sweet sorrow”? Well, I’m not so sure about the “sweet” part. Because saying goodbye to someone that you love so easily turns the colors of the morning into a dull gray. When you stand on the railway platform, fingers intertwined with your lover, you dread the arrival of the train that is going to take you away. Simultaneously, you look forward to the train, wishing that it would come even faster, because in this strange manner it would quickly relieve the agony of parting.
What lover ever sang when parted from her beloved? Where and what heart was ever blithe in the moment of farewell? Depending on your vintage, you will have grown up with whoever was the focus of your affections singing songs that made this perfectly clear. So, for example, you know:
The dawn is breaking, it’s early morn;
The taxi’s waiting, [it]’s blowing [its] horn;
[And] already I’m so lonesome I could die.
So kiss me and smile for me,
[And] tell me that you’ll wait for me,
[And] hold me like you’ll never let me go.
Of course, that’s Johnny Denver. The hit was with Peter, Paul, and Mary. Interviewed by the BBC, this is Denver: “That song was very personal and special to me. It doesn’t conjure up 747s as much as the simple scenes of leaving. Bags packed and standing by the front door, taxi pulling up in the early morning hour, the sound of a door closing behind you, and the thought of leaving someone you care for very much. It still strikes a lonely and anguished chord in me, because the separation still continues.” And what an irony, that he died piloting that little plane.
What of the last farewell, when separated by death? You say, “Oh dear me, what brought on this dreadful sentimentalism in you, Pastor? What is happening to you?” No, this is not just sentimentalism. Because where hearts are bound together—where hearts are bound together—when souls have been entwined, then the breaking of those links inevitably brings pain and sadness.
Now, with that in mind, go back and look at what it says in verse 52: “And they … returned to Jerusalem with great joy.” How different from the reaction of Mary in the garden, remember? Jesus had to say to her, “[Mary,] do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers.” “Go and tell them.” Because remember, Jesus had been preparing his disciples for this very day. You read of this in the middle of John’s Gospel, around chapter 16. Jesus says to them, he says, “Because I have said these things to you, sorrow has filled your heart. … [But] it is to your advantage that I go away.”
Well, that’s a hard thing to fathom, isn’t it? Surely not! How could that possibly be the case? Because after all, the companionship of Jesus for these disciples meant everything to them. And they looked at one another and they said, “What does he mean?” “A little while, and you will see me no longer; and again a little while, and you will see me [again].”
Now, set within the context of the ascension, if Jesus had simply risen from the dead and gone directly to heaven, without the forty days in between his resurrection and his parting from them, then the disciples would have been filled with all kinds of unanswered questions. And if you have your finger in Acts 1, you will see what Luke tells us there in verse 3: Jesus “presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.”
And what he did was he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures. And he corrected their faulty notions. Remember, there in Acts 1, again, if you have it in front of you, he says to them, “[This] is not for you to know.” “[This] is not for you to know.” People always want to know the answers to things, and it’s understandable; but there are certain things that the Bible says it’s not for you to know. “This is not for you to know,” he says. “But this is for you to know.”
You see, the ascension of Jesus is the defining moment—is the defining moment—before ending his personal ministry (personal to them, immediate to them). Before that, on the day he is taken up from them, he purposefully made provision for the continuance of his ministry. Because you’ll note the way Acts begins: “All that Jesus…” “In [my] first book,” he says—namely, the Gospel of Luke—“all that Jesus began to do and teach, [before] he was taken up.” The inference, clearly: that he was going to continue. How was he going to continue? Well, still on earth, through his apostles, but from heaven and by the Holy Spirit.
It struck me this week that Jesus was actually going to be working remotely! “I’m not actually going to be here with you routinely. I’m gonna work remotely. I’m going to be working from home.” But just like all of us who’ve been working from home, if we try to assure the people to whom we submit: “And I will be working, I guarantee you. I will be working.” Some people have got the idea that Jesus left and everything came to a grinding halt, or that then the disciples were left to try and come up with a plan on their own. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Augustine masterfully writes, “Unless the Saviour had ascended into heaven, his Nativity would have come to nothing … and his Passion would have borne no fruit [in] us, and his most holy Resurrection would have been useless.” That states it very clearly. And that is why when the apostles begin to proclaim the gospel… You will notice this if you read the early chapters of Acts. For example, in chapter 2, where Peter is speaking, he says, 2:32, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we [are all] witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing.” And then he goes on to say, “[Because] David did[n’t] ascend into the heavens,” and so on. Now, what’s the point? The point is simply that the resurrection and the ascension as preached by the apostles are just one continuous movement. One continuous movement.
Now, as I say, previously, we have, as it were, tried to go behind the curtains. Not this morning. I want to make three observations. First of all, the plan, then the power, then the personnel. And I’m working back and forth between Luke 24 and Acts chapter 1.
Now, what we discover in the section that we read from verse 44 is that Jesus is making it clear that he has fulfilled the will of the Father completely. He is able to say—and it’s no surprise that Luke writes in this way, because he has begun in the same manner—that he has accomplished the work of atonement, he has risen in triumph over sin and death and hell, and “all his work,” as the hymn writer puts it, “all his work is ended, joyfully we sing: Jesus ha[s] ascended! Glory to the King!”
Okay. Well then, now what? Well, you have it there in verse 47: “Repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem.” In other words, here is the plan. He has fulfilled the purposes of God. He has triumphed. He is about to ascend. And his followers need to understand that this message of repentance and of faith, beginning from their epicenter in Jerusalem, is now to be proclaimed to all the nations of the world. As Goldsworthy puts it, “The ascension is the signal that the kingdom of God demands the missionary role of the church.”
And the fulfillment of that missionary role, which we often refer to in Revelation chapter 7—a company that no one can number from various tribes and nations and languages and so on—that fulfillment is not brought about in a vacuum, but that fulfillment takes place as a result of the gospel going out to the entire world. How will it be that on that day, that company will be assembled? “Oh,” you say, “because God has planned for that to be the case.” Yes, indeed he has. He will bring to completion that which he has determined. But he has also determined how he’s going to do it. He’s going to do it not simply through the apostles, who started off, but through those who in listening to the story become the followers of Jesus too.
Now, that’s why I say to you, it was important, here in Acts chapter 1, for these fellows to get their faulty ideas fixed. And Jesus does that. As I say, “It[’s] not for you to know the times or [the] seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority.” So that needs to be taken care of, and it was. And then the angelic visitors, they fulfill an important role as well as they confront these folks with spiritual stargazing. They say, “Why are you just standing looking up into the heavens? Don’t you realize that he will return in the same manner that you saw him go? There’s work to be done! There’s no time to be standing looking up. You don’t need charts and diagrams about the kingdom of God. He’s already told you that.”
It’s very interesting, actually, the way the angels have this responsibility. You think about the angels there at the tomb: “Why are you looking for the living among the dead?” the angels say. “Oh, sorry!” “Why are you standing looking up into heaven?” “Whoops! Got it wrong again.” Yes! Yes!
“Oh,” you say, “this is a big picture. This is a huge responsibility!” You remember when they asked Billy Graham, “How do you evangelize the world?” he replied, “One person at a time.” “One person at a time.” Each of us this morning, in Christ, is part of that equation. Part of the equation.
And I recently, in my responsibilities, have been challenged by reviewing the prepublication copy of a book on evangelism. And the writer challenged me very greatly by saying to me… Not to me. He didn’t write the book to me, but I’m the reader, and one day you’ll read it too. He says, “Now, Alistair, you daren’t hide behind excuses like ‘Well, I’m only called to witness silently by my life’ or ‘I only have to tell my own story.’ No, no,” he says. “You don’t. That may be a good start. But if we’re going to invite people to trust in Christ, if we’re going to say to men and women, ‘You need to turn to Jesus,’ that ‘you need to repent and believe,’ that ‘everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved,’ then we need to urge them to do that”—even though we risk rejection when we open our mouths at a family gathering and our friend says, “You know, I can’t stand the way you continue to come up with this stuff. After all, we raised you as a very good religious person. Why did you become such a fanatic? What is wrong with you? Why can’t you settle down like other people? What burr got under your saddle?” Well, they will never understand. But here’s the point: if our friends and our family need to trust in God’s power to save them through the gospel, we need to trust in God’s power so that we might be used to tell them the gospel. That’s the plan.
Secondly, how are you going to do this? How were they to do this? Well, first of all, they had to wait. Wait. You see that there in the text, again: “I want you to stay. You’re going to be clothed with power from on high. I’m sending the promise of my Father upon you. Stay in the city until you’re clothed with power from on high.”
That’s a real problem for activist people, isn’t it? Waiting. After all, the plan was clear, the opportunity was great, and people would inevitably say, “And speed is of the essence! Let’s just get at it immediately. We’ve got a whole new adventure, or a whole continued adventure, here before us.”
Well, no, what we’re told is very clear, and very important too: Jesus will go, and the Spirit will come. The Spirit will come to fill, to enable, and to use those to whom the Spirit is given. All right? So, “I am going to go,” and when the disciples began to process this… This is, again, the juxtaposition, isn’t it? They were saying to one another, in John, in that context there, “What does he mean, he’s going away, and we’ll see him, or we won’t see him? Well, how could it possibly be to our advantage that he’s going away?” Well, because he goes, and the Spirit comes. He could only be in one place at one time. If he was in Galilee, it wasn’t possible for him to be somewhere else. But in his fulfilled ministry as the ascended King, then, by the Holy Spirit, he is present with all and he is present everywhere.
Now, it is by this means and only by this means that the kingdom grows. Very quickly the apostles would be out on the streets of Jerusalem, and they would be speaking with a previously unknown boldness that had nothing to do, actually, with their personalities. In fact, when people looked at them and said things about them, they said, “You know, they’re not the brightest group. I don’t think they’ve gone to any of our important universities. But I’ll tell you something: apparently, being with Jesus has really impacted them.” People can tell if you’ve been with Jesus. There’s a fragrance about Christ by the Holy Spirit. It’s not about “Mr. So-and-So’s a religious person. Brenda is a lovely lady who does nice things for people.” No, no. No, they’ll be saying, “There is just something…”
Listen to Calvin: “Christ left us in such a way that his presence might be more useful to us …. By his ascension he fulfilled what he had promised: that he would be with us … to the end of the world. As his body was raised up above all the heavens, so his power and energy were diffused and spread beyond all the bounds of heaven and earth.”
We’ll leave that there. I think we’ll come back to it maybe one more Sunday, as we think about the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, so that we might not be in any doubt at all about how impoverished we actually are and about how immense is the provision of God for his people.
So, the plan: that repentance and forgiveness of sin should be preached, beginning in Jerusalem and to all the nations. “Don’t just immediately charge off!” There would be a ten-day waiting period before there was finally closure. And who would then be the ones to launch into this great mission? Well, the folks that are identified for us there: the core group, the original group—not exactly having distinguished themselves, would you say? I mean, we’re only talking six weeks. You go back six weeks and what do you find?
Well, let me give you a few illustrations. Jesus is now in the proximity of Calvary, and he says to the fellows, he says, “Sit here while I pray. Remain here and watch.” That’s not particularly difficult, is it? “And he came and he found them sleeping. And he came a second time and he found them sleeping. And a third time, he said to them, ‘Are you still sleeping?’” So, we gather for prayer at six o’clock this evening—unless, of course, we’re sleeping.
And “then all the disciples left him and fled.” This is the group. This is his group! All the disciples, every man jack of them, ran for it! And “on the evening of … the first day of the week, the doors being locked … for fear of the Jews…” “Hey, lock this place! We may go down as well.” And Mary and Joanna and Mary, mother of James, and the other woman brought the report, “but these words seemed to them an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” “We have been at the tomb. It is empty. He’s gone! We don’t know just exactly what has happened.” They said, “You’re crazy! Crazy.”
So, here’s where we end. This is surprising, too, isn’t it? It’s surprising that they would return with great joy. After all, parting is such sweet sorrow. And Jesus is going to continue his work from heaven, by the Holy Spirit, through this less than stellar team. These are not the crack troops! This is his group. “Not by might, [not] by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord.” “Not many of you were mighty. Not many of you were noble. Not many of you registered on the Who’s Who list,” he says in Corinth. “And frankly,” he says, “if you want to think about me, when I showed up, I came in weakness and in fear and with much trembling. And I know that many of you are tempted to think that myself and Apollos are the key to the whole operation. Let me ask you, using the neuter: What then are Paul? What then is Apollos? What? Not who! What!” Well, the answer: “only servants, through whom you came to believe.”
One of the great challenges that faces the church in our culture at this time is the challenge that comes as a result of having been fed a story that is just not true over a period of a quarter of a century, and that is that if we will only buckle down, we can handle this, we can do this. In other words, we are listening to the sound of the cheerleaders that I often refer you to from that old football game where the cheerleaders were singing, “You can do it, you can do it! You can, you can!” And they were losing, like, 39–nothing or something. And it was obvious to any bystander that they couldn’t do it. They couldn’t do it. Do you understand, loved ones, that the great impetus, the great launching pad for usefulness is in first of all personally, privately, humbly, truly, getting before God and saying, “I cannot do it,” as opposed to, “You’ll be able to do it”?
Nobody knows how to preach. Nobody knows how to preach. Only Jesus! It is wrong that it should paralyze us; it is right that it should humble us. Because then everybody, from preacher through every seat in the place, will say, “Well, what a strange plan. And what a strange occurrence, that those who long for his companionship learned to rejoice in his absence because they made the discovery that when they are weak, then they are strong, and that his grace is sufficient for us.”
Come, Holy Spirit. Dwell here among us. We need your power, your saving grace.
Well, just let’s pray:
God our Father, we marvel—marvel—at this: for the wonder of your plan of salvation, for the promise of your power and witness, and for the fact that you choose to put your treasure in old clay pots so that this transcendent power might be seen to belong to God and not to us. We bow before you, King Jesus. Use us, please, we pray, as you choose. For we ask it in your name. Amen.
 Psalm 138:2 (ESV).
 William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, 2.2.
 John Denver, “Leaving on a Jet Plane” (1966).
 John Denver, BBC Radio interview, quoted in “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” Songfacts, 2021, https://www.songfacts.com/facts/peter-paul-and-mary/leaving-on-a-jet-plane. Paraphrased.
 John 20:17 (ESV).
 John 16:6–7 (ESV).
 John 16:16 (ESV).
 Acts 1:7 (ESV).
 Acts 1:1 (ESV). Emphasis added.
 Augustine, quoted in J. G. Davies, “Ascension of Christ,” in A Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson (London: SCM, 1969), 16.
 Frances R. Havergal, “Golden Harps Are Sounding” (1871).
 Graeme Goldsworthy, Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics: Foundations and Principles of Evangelical Biblical Interpretation (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2006), 306.
 See Revelation 7:9.
 Acts 1:7 (ESV).
 Acts 1:11 (paraphrased).
 Luke 24:5 (paraphrased).
 John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 522–23.
 Matthew 26:38 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 26:40, 43, 45; Mark 14:37, 40, 41 (paraphrased).
 Matthew 26:56 (ESV).
 John 20:19 (ESV).
 See Luke 24:10.
 Luke 24:11 (ESV).
 Zechariah 4:6 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 1:26 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 2:3 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:4–5 (paraphrased).
 1 Corinthians 3:5 (NIV).
 See 2 Corinthians 12:9–10.
 See 2 Corinthians 4:7.
Copyright © 2021, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.