“The Ascension: Past, Present, and Future” (Ephesians 1:15-23)
Today we’re having church on a Thursday. That’s because we’re celebrating the Ascension of Our Lord, a major festival in the church year that always falls on a Thursday. And that’s because the event it celebrates came forty days after Easter. It was that marvelous occasion when our Lord Jesus Christ, after his resurrection, ascended into heaven. And tonight we will see that this great event connects, ties together, the past, the present, and the future work of Christ. Because it does, our Lord’s ascension has great importance for us, for our past, present, and our future. And so our theme tonight: “The Ascension: Past, Present, and Future.”
Our text is the Epistle. It is Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, in which he brings together the past, present, and future, both with respect to Christ and to us. I’ll read that text once again, Ephesians 1:15-23: “For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.”
Let’s start with the past work of Christ. Paul refers to it when he talks about the working of God’s great might “that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead.” This reference to Christ’s death and resurrection–the death of Christ, his past work which he completed on the cross, is the basis for everything that follows from it: Christ’s resurrection, his ascension, his being seated at the right hand of the Father, and his coming again. There can be no present or future work of Christ without his past work of dying on the cross as its foundation.
What Paul says here in this part of Ephesians is in the context of what he says elsewhere in the rest of this epistle. Elsewhere in Ephesians, Paul makes much of the past work of Christ, his suffering and death, and what that means for us. Paul opens this letter by saying that “in him,” that is, in Christ, “we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses.” Later he says that we have been brought near to God “by the blood of Christ,” and that Christ made peace and reconciled us to God “through the cross.” You see, the Christ who ascends into heaven is the same Christ who suffered and died and shed his blood on the cross. This same Jesus is the one whom God raised from the dead and seated at his right hand. So the past, completed work of Christ is the basis for his present and his future work.
And that completed work of Christ takes care of your past. All of your transgressions, all your unsavory past of which you are ashamed, all your failures and unfaithfulness–all of that past is taken care of, cleansed, paid for, and atoned by the blood of Christ. You are freed from the unfavorable record of your sins, the slate has been wiped clean, by the finished work of Christ. Christ’s completed work on the cross covers and cleanses the guilt of your past.
And Christ’s ascension confirms this completed work on the cross. It shows that the Father approves what the Son has done. God puts his stamp of approval on it by raising Christ from the dead, exalting him in this glorious ascension, and seating him with honor at his right hand.
So there is the ascension affirming the past work of Christ. At the same time, the ascension also points to the future work of Christ. Paul refers to this when he speaks of Christ’s authority and dominion “not only in this age but also in the one to come.” The age to come–the age that will commence when Christ comes again, when he returns in glory at the last day. The angels at the ascension were very definite about this second coming. They told the eyewitnesses: “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” And his coming again will initiate the age to come that Paul speaks of.
And Paul speaks expressly about our future in that age to come. He says he wants us to know “what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints.” That glorious inheritance is our future! It’s what’s in store for us! An inheritance is something you do not hold in your hands at the moment, but it is yours nonetheless. You are in line for that glorious inheritance, you have title to it. It is stored up in heaven for you, in safe keeping. No one can touch your inheritance or take it away from you. You and I are the rightful heirs, because we are baptized as sons of God through Christ, co-heirs with Christ, the Son of God. And so what Christ receives, we receive! Jesus was raised from the dead, and so we will be raised from the dead. Jesus was carried up into heaven, and so we who trust in him likewise will be carried up into heaven. And so the ascension shows us our future, what’s in store for us, and it is glorious! “On Christ’s ascension I now build the hope of my ascension.”
That then brings us to the present, and this is where the ascension serves as the bridge between the past and the future. It connects Christ’s past and future work, and it connects our own past and future. For the ascension tells us what Christ is doing now, for us, and that in turn fills us with hope in our now, in our present.
What is Christ doing now, during this time between his ascension and his coming again? Paul tells us. He says that God seated Christ “at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church.” Friends, our risen and ascended Lord right now is seated at the right hand of God. The right hand is the position of high honor and all authority. God has highly exalted Christ and given him great glory, because Christ accomplished his saving mission. And Christ has been set as head over all things. All things have been put under his feet. “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given unto me,” the risen Christ declared. Jesus truly is King of kings and Lord of lords.
So realize this: Christ Jesus right now is ruling all things for the sake of his church! Do you understand what this means? It means that all things are under his control and for our good. The rise and fall of nations, all the tumultuous events that play out in our world, the whole course of human history–all of it is under Christ’s control. And Christ is ruling all things for the sake of the church: For the church to be carrying out her mission, which is the spread of the gospel. For the good of his people, for the sheep of his flock whom he loves and cares for so deeply, for your good–this is how Jesus is exercising his authority right now, in the present.
It doesn’t always look like that, does it? It may look like the world is spinning out of control. It may look like your life is going downhill: Health problems, financial problems, family and relationship problems. Chaos and confusion and careening from one crisis to another. And what about the church? From our perspective, it may look like the church is on its last legs. Numbers are down. People are discouraged. Has Christ forgotten his church?
But rest assured–and what Paul is telling you here is the truth–Christ is still in charge. He is ruling and governing all things for the good of his church, both individually and collectively. When you hurt, he knows it. Your brother Jesus knows your weaknesses, and he will give you the strength to endure, to endure to the end. Though many ears seem deaf to the church’s message, there are still those who rejoice to hear the good news. There are still precious souls being gathered into Christ’s church and nurtured here. So take heart.
Christ Jesus has ascended into heaven, and now he is seated at God’s right hand, head over all things, with all things under his feet. And this present work of Christ will fill you with hope, even in the midst of your present circumstances, whatever they may be. That’s what St. Paul is telling us today in his prayer for us. He prays “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe.”
That you may know Christ–know him in an intimate, relational, experiential way, and grow in your knowledge of him. This is God’s will for you. That you may have the eyes of your heart enlightened, so that you can clearly see what the big picture is, from God’s perspective. And with that, then, “that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” What is hope? Hope is faith projected into the future. Hope is believing firmly what is in store for you, what the future holds for you. It’s knowing that God holds your future. Hope is the present knowledge of your future inheritance. Let me repeat that: Hope is the present knowledge of your future inheritance, the inheritance that awaits you in heaven. And this firm, sure, certain hope–as sure as Christ’s own resurrection and ascension–this hope is what will sustain you in the midst of all the ups and downs of your life. This hope acts as your anchor in the storms of life. It will hold you steady, so that you are not shaken or overwhelmed. God wants you to have this hope, to know this hope, with every fiber of your being. And Christ’s ascension–Christ’s ascension is a sure sign that you have this hope to hold on to.
Dear friends, tonight we have learned that the Ascension of Our Lord connects the past, present, and future. The past, present, and future of Christ’s work. It confirms his completed work on the cross. It points to his future return. And it leads us to realize that right now in the present Christ is ruling all things for the sake of his church. And so his ascension has great meaning for us, for our past, present, and future. The sins of our past have been wiped away by the shed blood of Christ. We have a glorious future inheritance laid up for us in heaven. And we have a firm hope in our present, whatever our circumstances, knowing that Christ is ruling all things for our good and the good of his church. And that, I think, is worth coming out for a Thursday night service!