Ascended into heaven

Why are class reunions fun? Certainly part of it is seeing people whom you haven’t seen for a while, and seeing how they’ve changed! Without fail there’s a person or two whom you don’t recognize, because they just don’t look the way they used to look. It’s true—we tend to remember people the way they looked the last time we saw them.

So what’s the last “sight” that the disciples saw of Jesus? It happened like this.

After Jesus rose from his grave, he spent some time with his disciples, but not a lot. He would appear, teach, and talk for a while. And then he’d allow them to “be on their own” for several days. This happened for 40 days.

When those 40 days were over, Jesus took the disciples to the Mount of Olives just outside of Jerusalem. There “he lifted up his hands and blessed them.” What would the disciples see on those hands? Why, of course—the nail marks from the crucifixion.

Then while he was blessing them “he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.” Can you imagine? All of a sudden he just goes up into the sky! What power!

And notice, the account doesn’t say that he eventually got so far away that they couldn’t see him. Rather, the cloud covered him, so that—even though they could no longer see him with their eyes—he was still there.

Now remember, this was the last time the disciples would see Jesus, so this was the sight which would stick with them. Do you think it would help them?

Well, think of all the truths of which Jesus reminded them. By ascending up into the sky, Jesus reminded them that he is all-powerful, that he rules all things. The hands up, in blessing, reminded them that he is watching out for their good! He will always have their best interests in mind. The fact that the cloud covered him reminded them that he really was with them, always. And don’t forget the nail marks, the proof that the disciples’ sins were forgiven! Because of that, they would spend an eternity with Jesus in heaven. Do you think that all this would have helped the disciples as they faced the days ahead? Without doubt! And certainly that “sight” of Jesus lifts our spirits too.

But there’s one more point about Jesus’ ascension, a point which we’d hate to miss … that he is coming again!

The Great Exchange

He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed (Isaiah 53:5).

Life is filled with exchanges. Employees choose to exchange forty hours for a paycheck. Fans choose to exchange forty dollars for a seat at the game and then exchange another ten dollars for a hot dog and drink! Every day we choose to exchange time, money, effort, and emotion for what we hope brings us joy, peace, and satisfaction.

The Bible speaks about exchanges, too. A very important truth that God makes clear for us in his word is that he does not want us to have any sin. In fact, he says that if we sin, we cannot live with him because he is a sinless, holy God. Sin is so serious to God that he pronounces the death penalty for anyone who sins. He says, “The wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23), and “The soul who sins is the one who will die” (Ezekiel 18:20). So who can ever hope to stand in God’s presence and enjoy his favor? For try as we do, we are not perfect. Sinful thoughts, words, and acts clutter our lives.

There is good news, however. In love for us, God made an exchange. Instead of holding us under his judgment for all our wrongdoing, he placed his Son under judgment instead of us. The Bible is speaking about Jesus when it says, “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed.”

That is a great exchange! Jesus came and exchanged his life for ours. Our transgressions—times when we fail to live according to God’s holy will—were taken away when Jesus was pierced on the cross. Our iniquities—all the things we think or do that don’t measure up to God’s perfect will—were taken away when Jesus was crushed in death. Our punishment was paid for by Jesus.

Through Jesus you have peace with God. Through his wounds you are given life with God. Through Jesus you are forgiven and loved by God. Yes, you! God chose to make that exchange for you.

Suffered for all

One time Jesus took three of his disciples to the top of a mountain. We read, “There he was transfigured before them. His face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light. . . . A bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell facedown to the ground, terrified. But Jesus came and touched them. ‘Get up,’ he said. ‘Don’t be afraid.’ As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus instructed them, ‘Don’t tell anyone what you have seen, until the Son of Man has been raised from the dead'” (Matthew 17:2-9 NIV selections).

Wait a minute! Did you get that last part, the part about “rising from the dead?” Can you imagine how the disciples must have scratched their heads at that? They’d just seen Jesus’ glory, his power! How could one who was SOOO powerful…die? Who could cause it to happen?!

Finally, only one person could really control it—Jesus himself. And that’s exactly what Jesus did. When the time was right, Jesus went to Jerusalem. He entered Jerusalem on Sunday, in a very public way. On Thursday of that week, Jesus celebrated the Passover (check out Exodus 12–13) with his disciples and told them that one of them would betray him, another would deny him. Then he took them out to a garden called Gethsemane.

While Jesus was there with his disciples, Judas—who had been one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, led a large band of soldiers to the Garden. Jesus asked them for whom they were looking, and when they responded that they were looking for him, Jesus said, “I am he.” As he said this the whole band of soldiers were knocked flat on their backs! (John 18:1).

They scrambled to their feet. Then Peter, another of Jesus’ twelve disciples, grabbed a sword and cut off the ear of one of the high priest’s servant. Jesus rebuked Peter, then touched the man’s ear and healed it (Luke 22:50).

What would all these things have said to the people? They would have said, or at least SHOULD have said, “Hey—this Jesus—he’s not just an ordinary human being; he’s much more than that!”

But what is even more amazing is what we read at the end: “Then the detachment of soldiers with its commander and the Jewish officials arrested Jesus. They bound him …” (John 18:12). Why could they do that? Why could they bind him?

Only because he allowed it. It could happen—it DID happen—only because Jesus allowed it to happen.

Do we begin to see the depth of Jesus’ love for us? Just think—he, the all-powerful one—he was willing to allow himself to be taken captive, to be bound. That’s how much he loves us…loves you!

 

Jesus is our Refuge

God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble (Psalm 46:1).

“Christianity is a crutch for the weak.”

This is the atheist’s argument against putting one’s faith in the God of the Bible. They argue that anyone who depends on anything other than themselves is feeble.

Medically speaking, a crutch is a tool the injured use for support. Only the wounded need crutches. But here’s the thing: somehow, some way, we are all wounded. We all need help. Some just prefer the bottle over the Bible.

When we don’t feel good about ourselves, where do we turn for assurance? We have enough options to choose from: earthly goods, food, alcohol, drugs, money, work. The problem with many such crutches is that they offer only temporary reprieve and often only mask much deeper issues of the heart.

The heart of the issue is that we are all weak. We are all broken. We are sinners in desperate need of saving. And the only one who has the power to help us is Jesus Christ. He took up our infirmities. He carried our sorrows. And by his wounds we are healed.

God graciously allows us to go through hardship so that we seek the only one who can help. When we seek Jesus in our struggles, he finds us in his Word.
You say, “I can’t.” Jesus says, “I AM.”
You say, “I’m too tired.” Jesus says, “I will give you rest.”
You say, “I’m all alone.” Jesus says, “I am with you always.”
You say, “I don’t know where to turn.” Jesus says, “I am the way.”
You say, “I’ve had enough.” Jesus says, “My grace is sufficient for you.”
You say, “I’m afraid.” Jesus says, “My peace I give you.”
You say, “I can’t forgive myself.” Jesus says, “It is finished.”
You say, “I have my doubts.” Jesus says, “Whoever believes in me will never be put to shame.”

One Christian, reacting to the sufficiency of Jesus, observed, “Lord, you created us for yourself. And our hearts are restless until they find rest in you” (Augustine).

What was his point? Nothing satisfies like Jesus Christ.

Died for all

Jesus had allowed himself to be taken captive; he was led to a middle-of-the-night trial before the Jewish religious leaders. The charge? That Jesus claimed to be the Son of God. Jesus’ answer? “Yes, it is as you saw” (Matthew 26:64). The “charge” was true! And certainly all the miracles Jesus had done gave plenty of proof of it.

Unfortunately, the religious leaders—in general—had rejected Jesus. So instead of eagerly welcoming Jesus as the promised Savior, they saw him as a threat and wanted to get rid of him. So the religious leaders condemned Jesus; they said he was worthy of death. Why? Because he claimed to be the Son of God! How ironic!

Since Judea was then under the domination of the Romans, the Jews didn’t have the right to execute people. Instead, they had to take Jesus to Pontius Pilate, the Roman official in charge of Judea. The religious leaders accused Jesus of insurrection, of claiming to be a king. The Roman government official wasn’t going to care if Jesus claimed to be the Son of God so they came up with a charge he would care about! Pilate recognized the charge was bogus, but bent to the pressure; he ordered that Jesus be crucified.

Through it all, Jesus never argued, never “pleaded his case”. He didn’t want to be set free. Instead, he was willing to die. Why? Because “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). The only way our sins could be paid for was if Jesus were to die. So instead of fighting the false charge, Jesus bowed to God’s will to bear the punishment of the world’s sin.

So he was nailed to the cross, crucified between two thieves. During his time on the cross—9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.—Jesus made seven statements, each giving us a look into God’s heart. From noon until 3:00 p.m. darkness covered the world; Jesus was suffering the punishment which we deserved. When the time was exactly right, when the bill for our sins had been paid in full, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46). Then he died.

When Jesus died, there was an earthquake, a number of believers rose from the dead, and most importantly, the curtain in the temple was torn into two. That curtain had symbolically separated us sinful humans from the holy God. Because the full payment for sin had been made, the curtain was no longer necessary, so God tore that curtain down. We now stand at one with God, our sins paid for in full.

But can you imagine? The best was yet to come!

Rose from the dead

Picture this. A friend of yours says, “I’m going to die. Then, on the 3rd day, I’m going to rise from the dead.” How would you react? I think I’d have a really hard time not bursting out laughing!

But how would you react if your friend DID it?! Would you be surprised? Of course! Would you understand it completely? Probably not right away. And … the next time your friend made a promise to you, do you think you’d listen? Absolutely!

The above scenario? That’s what Jesus did. He told his disciples on several occasions that he would die, and that he’d then rise. That’s exactly what happened.

Here’s how. After Jesus died—at 3:00 p.m. on Friday—several of his followers hastily buried him in a tomb cut out of the rock, like a cave. A stone was rolled in front of the entrance. The burial was hasty because the Sabbath Day began Friday at sundown—the Jews would not allow themselves to work on the Sabbath. The religious leaders remembered Jesus’ promise that he’d rise. Of course, they didn’t believe it, but they thought that the disciples might steal his body and claim he had risen. So, they asked Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, for permission to seal the tomb and post a guard. Pilate agreed.

Early Sunday morning an earthquake shook the whole area. An angel rolled the stone away from the front of the tomb, revealing that the tomb was empty. The grave clothes were still there, folded nicely. During that day, Jesus appeared several times to different groups of his followers, assuring them that he had risen, just as he’d promised.

During the next 40 days, Jesus appeared more than a dozen times after his resurrection, sometimes to individuals, sometimes to small groups, sometimes to his group of disciples, and one time he appeared before 500 people! He wanted people to know that he really had risen.

But so what? What does it mean? For the answer, listen to what the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:17, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.” If Jesus didn’t rise, then his work was useless. If Jesus didn’t come out of the grave, you and I are stuck—stuck in our sins, with no way out. You and I would stand before God as guilty, to be condemned eternally.

But what if Christ HAS risen from the dead? What would that mean? That would mean that we’re no longer “in our sins.” That would mean we’re forgiven! That would mean that we stand before God as innocent!Christ HAS been raised! He did come out of the grave! That is God’s ULTIMATE proof to you that you’re forgiven, and by faith in the risen Christ you have a new life now and the sure hope of heaven forever!

Coming again

If you want to find a Biblical subject about which there is widespread misinformation and uncertainty, the topic of the Last Day would fit that description. But it doesn’t need to be. In reality, it’s quite simple, and, for those who believe in Jesus, it’s chock-full of good news.

Think about Jesus’ ascension. Jesus had led the disciples up onto the Mt. of Olives, he’d lifted up his nail-marked hands and blessed them. As he was blessing them, he powerfully ascended up into the sky, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

Then we read, “Suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven'” (Acts 1:10-11 NIV).

What’s going to happen on the Last Day? Very simply, Jesus will come back! Come back how? The same way he left—with his hands upraised in blessing, with the nail marks clearly visible. Does that sound like something to fear, or something to eagerly expect? Obviously, the latter! At least, for those who believe in Jesus it’s something to look forward to.

The Bible gives us a few more details: there will be the voice of the archangel and the trumpet-call of God will be heard. All those who have died before the Last Day will be raised up, their bodies and souls will be rejoined, and their bodies will be made glorious. Those who are alive when Jesus returns won’t die—their bodies will simply be changed. The believers will be gathered to be with Jesus, and the unbelievers will be sent to suffer eternally in hell, separated from God. And all of it will take place so quickly that we’ll hardly know it’s happened until it’s done.

When will this take place? God tells us that Jesus will return suddenly, like a thief in the night. Could it happen today? Absolutely. Could the world last another 100 years? Yes. Could Jesus wait millions of years before he returns? Sure.

But what you know for sure is that when he returns, it will be great. After all, it’s JESUS who’s returning! The nail marks on his hands will still be there. He loves you, loves you so much that he was willing to die for you, to pay for your sins. If he loved you enough to die for you, will he also love you enough to take you to be with him in heaven? Absolutely!

So we pray the prayer which is found at the end of the Bible: “Jesus says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus” (Revelation 22:20 NIV).

(For more on the Last Day, read Matthew 24-25, 1Corinthians 15, 1Thessalonians 4:13 – 5:11. For some neat pictures of heaven, read Revelation 5, 7, 21-22.)

Palm Sunday

In Christian churches all over the world, the Sunday before Easter is celebrated as Palm Sunday. There are processions and parades; choirs of children and adults singing hosannas and hymns…and there are palms. Churchgoers walk on them, children wave them, and altars wear them. All this is done to commemorate the coming of Jesus to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover festival.

It is a strange yet stirring scene that the Gospels paint of that first Palm Sunday: Jesus is riding on a donkey, accompanied by his disciples and a great crowd of people. As Jesus approaches the city, some in the crowd take off their outer garments and lay them in his path, to roll out the “red carpet” for him. The crowds, even the children, sing psalms and hymns from the Old Testament that spoke of Jesus as the Savior God had promised to send his people.

And there are palms. People cut palm branches and took them to meet Jesus. With some of those palm branches the people paved the way for Jesus to enter the city; others waved the palm branches as they sang their hosannas and hymns of praise to Jesus.

But why palm branches?

Palm branches had a special place in the religious lives of the Israelite people. Once a year, they used palm branches to build shelters during a joyful celebration called the Feast of Tabernacles.

And palm trees enjoyed a certain prominence all year round because they were the evergreen trees of the desert. They kept their leaves even when everything else withered and died. Palm branches were symbols of life and joy and victory over death.

Palm Sunday palms are appropriate for our Palm Sunday worship too. They remind us that Jesus came to Jerusalem on the first Palm Sunday as the Savior whom God promised to deliver his people and bring life and salvation for all.

But even as we wave our palm branches and echo the hosannas of that day in Jerusalem, it’s important to understand the kind of deliverance, the kind of life and salvation that Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to bring. It was not an earthly deliverance from earthly enemies. It was not salvation from social injustice, poverty, and warfare. It was not an earthly life free from every evil. Any who expected—or still do expect—those things from Jesus are sadly disappointed.

The reason Jesus came to Jerusalem in such a strange way—riding a donkey (not a prancing stallion or on clouds of glory), accompanied by common people (not military men or angel hosts)—is that he came to die. God’s gracious plan for the salvation of sinners required Jesus, God’s own eternal Son, to die in shame as the substitute for all people, thus freeing sinners from the punishment they deserved in hell. To do that Jesus needed not an awesome display of the power and might that truly are his, but the kind of lowliness and humility we see on Palm Sunday.

The Palm Sunday crowds proclaimed Jesus to be a king, and he is indeed a King. But he is a King who hid his glory to die in shame in order to deliver all people from their sins and from the punishment of eternal death they deserved.

Someone once noted that it is not a palm branch that hangs above the altar in most Christian churches, but a cross. The cross reminds us that Palm Sunday, with all its jubilation and celebration, is not the end of the story. If it were, we would be left without a Savior from sin, without hope for eternity.

The Palm Sunday story continues on Good Friday at the cross of Calvary. There the King of glory died to take away the sins of the world. But even the cross and Jesus’ cold, dark grave are not the end of the story. Jesus rose in victory over death and the grave on Easter Sunday morning. The resurrection declares Christ’s mission accomplished; the resurrection says sinners are acquitted in God’s courtroom.

In the gospel, Jesus offers the forgiveness of sins that he secured on Easter Sunday to all. All who believe in Jesus as their Savior have peace with God here—and a place in heaven forever.

In Revelation 7, the apostle John tells about a second celebration that he saw (this time in a vision), a celebration in which a great multitude was standing in front of the Lamb. Those in that crowd were wearing white robes and holding palm branches in their hands, and they were singing this song of praise: “Salvation belongs to our God, who sits on the throne and to the Lamb” (verses 9 &10).

May our Palm Sunday celebrations here be but a prelude to that second celebration John wrote about: a celebration with our Savior and his people, with palm branches and with hymns of joy and victory—the celebration that will take place in heaven and that will never end!

Jesus is my Savior from the World

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” – John 16:33

Do you struggle in life? Are there days when it seems like you’re under siege on all sides? Do you wish someone would save you from your family problems? From your health issues? From mistakes you’ve made and events you regret but can’t change? In this world, everyone needs a savior from something. What, or who, do you need a savior from?

Jesus tells us that he is the Savior: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” Maybe at first glance that seems like a somewhat simplistic thing for Jesus to say. How could he possibly hope to cover all the potential issues that could come up in the lives of his disciples in their world, to say nothing of ours today? How can people today trust a promise that was made 2,000 years ago? The world has really changed since then!

But Jesus wasn’t talking about overcoming the world by healing diseases or mending broken relationships, although there were times in his ministry when he did just that. He was talking about something far more timeless than health issues, relationship problems, or regrets from the past. Jesus was talking about breaking the cause of all the suffering and wickedness we have in our world. Jesus was talking about his victory over sin. And whether it’s a sin you committed, a sin I’ve committed, or the sin of those in Bible times, Jesus defeated it. He accomplished a timeless victory, because sin is the root cause behind all pain and heartache, whether caused directly by human activities or indirectly as a consequence of the broken world we live in.

Jesus overcame all of that sin when he lived the perfect and sinless life that God demands. Jesus overcame all that sin when he laid down his perfect life at the cross and died—even though he didn’t deserve it. Now you and I can overcome the world too by putting ourselves aside and placing our trust and reliance in Jesus. He leads us through the hardest of times and finally will take us home to his world—the kingdom of heaven he has prepared for all who believe in him.

King of kings and Lord of lords

On his robe and on his thigh he has this name written: KING OF KINGS AND LORD OF LORDS (Revelation 19:16).

We live in a world that is often affected by tragedy and disaster. Terrorist attacks, war, crime, disease, natural disasters—these are just some of the evils that affect our world. As sinful people living in a sinful world, these are sad realities that we must sometimes face. Even if we aren’t directly affected by any great tragedy, problems still affect us all.

Evil in the world around us and problems in our own lives can make us afraid. They can make us feel weak and helpless. Sometimes evil seems to have the upper hand. Sometimes it seems like this world is out of control. We might wonder, “Where is God?  Who is in control?”

Our Savior Jesus is in control. The Bible assures us, “The Lamb will overcome them because he is Lord of lords and King of kings—and with him will be his called, chosen and faithful followers” (Revelation 17:14). Jesus, “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” is King and Lord supreme. He is in control of all things. He rules for the good of his people. His ultimate goal is to bring us safely to our eternal home in heaven.

The evidence of his rule is seen in God’s plan for our salvation. On the cross, Jesus conquered sin, death, and the devil. He wasn’t caught off guard and forced to die. He has always been in control, even on the cross. Jesus willingly gave his life for us, only to take it up again. His death on the cross seemed like defeat, but he rose victorious. He has power over life and death. His resurrection is certain proof of our salvation and assures us of his loving rule.

He remains in control today, despite how it may appear to our human eyes. The Savior, whose love moved him to die for us, is the same Savior whose love leads him to rule everything for our eternal good. That truth calms our fears. It gives us strength to face the difficulties of life.

Especially in difficult times, we need to go to the one who is in control. We need to draw near him through his Word—the Bible. There we hear his promises. There we receive his comfort and reassurance.

He is King of kings and Lord of lords. What comfort I find in that truth!