Have you ever felt like the people at church don’t measure up to what the Bible says they should be? Sadly, this is a common experience. The Bible says the church should be a generous and loving community, but many in it are selfish and hypocritical. This is not something new. We all have an ideal—but this is real.
Come hear what the apostle Paul wrote to a messed up church in the ancient city of Corinth, challenging them to live out who they really are in Christ.
Who doesn’t love a happy ending? We like to see the hero save the world, settle into a peaceful life or become king. This storyline is repeated throughout countless fairytales and movies, but it is the story of the Bible too. The world is a broken place with sin, death and despair reigning in the lives of every person, but Jesus stepped into this pain to ultimately deliver us from it.
We long for a world where we don’t have to deal with cancer, broken relationships, fears about the future or the death of loved ones. All of these things seem to haunt our lives even if we spend all of our energy avoiding them. Medicine can cure some sicknesses, but death will always win in the end. Money might solve some problems, but there are a million more that come because of it. Politics might change some things, but our leaders never actually deliver on their promises, and imperfect people can only do so much.
But what if our leader were perfect? What if we didn’t need medicine because we didn’t get sick? What if death were a distant memory, and it would never happen to us?
This is what Jesus promises at His return. When He comes, He will make all things new. New government, new world, new bodies, new life. Everything that is broken will be fixed and all pain will be cured. Most importantly, we will be united with Jesus, the one for whom we were made.
When He comes back, the first thing that Jesus will do is gather the church to be with Him (1Thessalonians 4:17). There will be a generation of Christians who will not die. People from all across the globe will be “caught up” with the Lord and gathered together with those who have already died in Christ. This moment is the very beginning of His renewal of the whole world—a first step toward reigning as King.
The first time that Jesus came, it was as a small baby in a dirty manger. The second time he comes, it will be as a victorious king. At His first coming, only shepherds and a few scholars in the east knew of His birth. At His second coming, the entire earth will see, hear and recognize Jesus in all of His majesty. He will take his place as the rightful ruler over the earth, establishing a perfect kingdom that will never end. Those who call Jesus King will live forever with Him and experience his perfect love, joy and peace, which is the ultimate happy ending.
The King is coming. The Old Testament promised the coming of Jesus, and it also prophesied that He would return to establish His kingdom on earth. Jesus Himself promised his return when he said to his disciples, “ If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3 ESV).
One day this world will no longer be subject to corrupt politicians, disease, death, and every other thing that is a result of sin. One day, those who are in Christ will be caught up in the air to spend eternity with Him. Let us live with that in mind!
“And when [Jesus] had said these things, as [the disciples] were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” —Acts 1:9 ESV
“The LORD says to my Lord: ‘Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’” —Psalm 110:1 ESV
“[God] 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.” —Ephesians 1:20–23 ESV
We all know that familiar scene in sports. Tears streaming down a player’s face after enduring all opponents and coming out victorious in the end. Words don’t do justice to the emotions of joy and happiness that flow from complete success. The trophy is handed to the victor and in that very moment, everything that they had worked for was completed.
From a spectator perspective, we can see the joy and satisfaction on their face, but we can’t experience or know fully what they feel. This is because we weren’t there for all the hard work, sacrifice, time, energy, and single-minded devotion it took to get that victory. We don’t know the journey that person endured.
At this point in the Hero’s journey, Jesus’ work is finally completed. He descended from heaven to earth and the Son of God took on flesh. He has endured all the testing, hardship, and persecution prophesied in the Old Testament at the hands of sinners in order to save fallen humanity. Jesus has been raised from the dead and the time has now come for Him to ascend back to His Father in heaven. That is what we are looking at this week: the Ascension and Session of Christ.
These two topics in the redemptive work of Christ are often neglected in many Christian churches. This means that many individual Christians are not aware of the practical implications of Jesus’ return to heaven and His sitting down at the right hand of the Father in heaven (Session). But as we will see, these two topics are significant to the work of Christ and our current interaction with Him as Christians.
For Christ, the Hero of humanity, His ascension back to heaven is proof of His glorification. Paul wrote, “For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name…” (Philippians 2:9–11 NASB). When Jesus came to earth and became a man, His eternal glory, the glory He had with the Father for all eternity, was veiled under human flesh. He momentarily revealed it on the Mount of Transfiguration. But in His ascension, Jesus was returning to the glorious state that He was in before—only now as the victorious Savior King and Hero of humanity. His ascension proves that He is superior to any other Old Testament hero, that He is superior to angels, authorities, and powers. The Ascension further proves that Jesus is humanity’s Hero.
For the Christian, for you and me, this biblical reality has massive implications for us. I will only mention two of them. First, the Ascension proves that Christ’s redemptive work on earth is finished and accepted by God. The author of Hebrews argues this in great detail in his letter. He teaches that Jesus has brought a single, once-for-all sacrifice to God (Hebrews 9:12) when He died on the cross. Therefore, Christ has now sat down (Hebrews 1:3; 10:12; 12:2) in heaven, showing that no repetition of His sacrifice is necessary. No further salvific work is required. It is finished!
Secondly, the Ascension means that we have a Mediator in heaven who sympathizes with us and intercedes on our behalf (1 John 2:1). Jesus has experienced everything humans experience—birth, growth, temptation, suffering, and death—and therefore He can serve effectively as a Mediator before God in heaven (Hebrews 2:17; 5:7–10). Christ’s ascension assures the church that God understands the human situation and that Christians can therefore approach Him boldly in their prayers (Hebrews 4:14–16).
All of this and more proves that Christ’s ascension is an indispensable aspect of Christian teaching. It is the basis for recognition of Christ’s exalted status and for the Christian’s confidence and hope.
John Stott wrote these words in Christ the Controversialist: “Authentic Christianity – the Christianity of Christ and the apostles – is supernatural Christianity. It is not a tame and harmless ethic, consisting of a few moral platitudes, spiced with a dash of religion. It is a resurrection religion, a life lived by the power of God.”
It sounds arrogant to say, but the one major difference between Christianity and other religions is that it is based upon truth. Sure there are some positive moral teachings in other religions; however, none are able to lead a person to saving faith leading to eternal life in heaven. That is only possible through the Christian gospel – which is summed up in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians in chapter 15:3-4, “that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures…”
As Christians, we believe that Christ fulfilled Old Testament prophecy when he died on the cross for our sins and when he rose again from the dead. We don’t just believe this because it is a happy ending to an almost tragic story – We believe it because it is historical fact.
In our postmodern culture, people tend to doubt the authenticity and reliability of the facts that surround the resurrection. Scholars and skeptics have tried to explain away the historicity of the resurrection in all kinds of ways and for all kinds of reasons (they reject the miraculous; doubt the existence of God; question the gospel writer’s intent, etc…).
In many ways this is the experience many Christians have in American and Westernized society, when we share Christ with non-believers. At first, they are amazed that we actually believe in the Christian gospel. They think we are naïve, gullible, or at the very worst, senseless to reality. But we know the reality is exactly what we have found – we have found the truth in the resurrection of Christ.
Christianity is a religion based upon faith. But despite what some skeptics think, faith is based upon truth. When John saw that the tomb was empty, and that the burial cloths were all that remained, it says “he saw and believed.” In a court of law, there is not any more credible source for the truth than an eyewitness account – especially when there are multiple witnesses. And in fact there were more than just one, two, or even three witnesses to the resurrection.
Paul would go on to write in 1 Corinthians 15:5-8, “And that he appeared to Cephas [Peter], then to the twelve. 6 Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. 7 Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.”
When John wrote his gospel, and when Paul wrote his letter, there were still people living who saw the risen Jesus. All this eyewitness evidence is simply to show that this resurrection was not some power-plot by the disciples. It was not that someone had stolen the body under the Roman soldiers’ noses who stood guard. It was not the wrong tomb, either. This was in fact the risen Lord – once dead, but now, alive.
The Cross is the central event in the history of the church. But the Resurrection is what started the church. It wasn’t until after the resurrection that the disciples finally began to understand what Jesus had been telling them. The resurrection became the launching pad for global mission. During the infancy of the church, believers suffered greatly for the cause of the gospel. But they didn’t suffer through a vain and empty hope. Instead, they endured through a living hope and in the truth of a resurrected Lord.
“Then they brought Him to the place Golgotha, which is translated, Place of a Skull . . . And they crucified Him, and divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots for them to decide what each man should take. It was the third hour when they crucified Him.” —Mark 15:22, 24–25 NASB
We see it everywhere we go. Most don’t even notice it anymore because it has become so familiar. We see it on bumper stickers, t-shirts, jewelry, and even tattoos on people’s skin. Unfortunately, much of its true meaning has been lost in history, and its cultural significance has been radically reduced to these insignificant uses. Still, the cross remains the central image for the Christian faith—and for good reason.
This week in the Hero’s Journey, we come to the climax of Jesus’ mission to earth. And the chief symbol and sign of this climax is the cross. It is strange and mysterious that the Hero’s Journey on earth would end in such an excruciating way. Even Paul would conclude in 1 Corinthians 1, “For the word of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing . . .”
The Jews could not comprehend the notion of their Messiah-King being condemned, to suffer the agony of shame and punishment at the hands of their enemies, and ultimately to die a death on a wooden cross—which for them meant to be cursed by God. Certainly, to a Jew, for these reasons and more, this Jesus could not have been their Messiah.
To the Greeks and Gentiles, the cross also did not make sense, but for different reasons. They valued power, wisdom, and knowledge. Certainly this Jesus could not have been from God or any type of kingly figure since He died such a seemingly weak and horrifying death.
And for many other people groups and individuals throughout the last two thousand years, the cross simply defies human logic. It goes against everything that human nature wants to do to survive and win in this life. Jesus said it Himself, “If you choose to save your life, you will lose it. But if you lose your life for my sake, then you will find it” (see Matthew 10:39). This type of surrender and submission does not blend with our fallen human logic—and people often fear or reject that which they do not understand.
However, Paul goes on, “But to us who are being saved [the cross] is the power of God.”
Christians, in all times and places, through the hearing and believing in the message of the gospel, have embraced the cross as the central symbol of their faith. The gospel is the message of the cross, of a condemned and crucified Savior. Everyone who calls upon the Lord knows this because we have come to understand, as the hymn writer Cecil Frances Alexander did, that Christ died not for Himself but for us:
There is a hill far away,
Without a city wall,
Where the dear Lord was crucified,
Who died to save us all.
We may not know, we cannot tell
What pains He had to bear;
But we believe it was for us
He hung and suffered there.
Let me offer five quick realities that will help to inform us on the significance and importance of the cross in our Christian salvation and experience as observed by J.R.W. Stott in The Cross of Christ:
1. The cross was voluntary and determined. Jesus offered Himself freely and willingly by giving Himself for our sins. However, He did this also out of obedience to the will of His Father as was prophesied in the Old Testament.
2. The cross was for our sins. We all know the law of cause and effect. Death is the effect and sin is the cause. However, instead of us receiving the effect, Jesus died for our sins in our place.
3. The cross was to rescue us. His journey was a recuse mission. He came to save those who couldn’t save themselves. He came to rescue and redeem those who were helpless and hopeless.
4. The cross provides grace and peace. In paradoxical fashion, a tool of death and destruction has become the means of our grace and peace. He took what we rightly deserved and instead granted us peace with God and grace upon grace.
5. The cross ensures the eternal glory of God. There is no boast in human salvation, for we were lost and desperate souls. And in that fallen condition God glorified Himself by loving the unlovable and granting pardon to the undeserving.
Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, “Sit here, while I go over there and pray.” 37 And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me.” 39 And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” 40 And he came to the disciples and found them sleeping.
In every Hero’s Journey, there is a major point of testing. The hero struggles with the next step, almost gives up or hits a new low. It’s the moment when the hero starts to feel that the burden is unbearable and they see the incredible difficulty they are about to experience in saving the world. This is that moment for Jesus.
Many people have faced death without fear and stood strong even though they experienced incredible agony. Countless martyrs have died the death of crucifixion or have been burned at the stake without this same kind of distress that Jesus is expressing. However, nobody ever died a death like Jesus died. Instead of seeing this as a time of weakness for Jesus, we should look at it as a moment of strength and love.
It was not physical death that Jesus dreaded; it was the task of taking the sins of the world upon Himself. Jesus speaks over and over about this “cup” that he must drink. He was not afraid of dying, but he was afraid of the “cup.” But what is it? When the Bible talks about God’s punishment, it often refers to it as something that fills a cup. Jesus trembles at this cup because it is full of the wrath of God. To drink of it is to be sent out of God’s presence, to be pushed from the source of happiness and light into darkness and despair. It is to experience the penalty for sin.
Here in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus sees the weight of what He is about to do. On the cross, he will bear the sins of the world and be temporarily cast out of the Father’s presence. Because Jesus was fully God and fully man, this thought caused Him great agony. He knew the pain and suffering that He was about to experience, and He asked the Father if there was another way.
Just like Adam, Jesus is asked to submit to the will of God in a garden. However, where Adam failed, Jesus succeeded. Despite the suffering that he would endure, Jesus obeyed and submitted to the will of the Father. Here in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is able to see the pain he was going to experience, and he shows his incredible strength and love by stepping into it. He looked into the cup of the wrath of God, and He picked it up to drink it.
On the cross, the Savior drained God’s cup of punishment for us. God poured out his wrath onto Jesus so that we could be free. Paul wrote, “For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21 NKJV).
Because the Son of God was treated like a sinner, we can now be treated like sons and daughters of God. Jesus showed us his great love and incredible strength in the garden by pressing on toward the cross to drink the cup of wrath so that we could drink in eternal fellowship with God.
“Now about eight days after these sayings (Jesus) took with him Peter and John and James and went up on the mountain to pray. And as he was praying, the appearance of his face was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white.… And a voice came out of the cloud, saying, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’” (Luke 9:28-29, 35 ESV).
Jesus is not like the heroes often depicted in Hollywood movies or comic books. Think of your typical superhero and you will probably notice some common physical traits among them: a chiseled jaw-line, superhuman strength, dashing good looks, and don’t forget the stretchy pants. It’s reassuring to know that Jesus didn’t come to make fashion statements or in the likeness of Hollywood fantasy. In fact, Isaiah gives us insight on how people would one day see him: “There was nothing beautiful or majestic about his appearance, nothing to attract us to him” (Isa. 53:2 NLT).
The Jewish leaders certainly didn’t grasp this description by Isaiah. They expected their Messiah to come riding from the clouds with power, glory and beauty—one who would deliver them from the captivity of their oppressors, the Romans. Christ did come to deliver them, but this Enemy was far more powerful than a nation of people. Jesus, the True Hero above all heroes, far surmounted the ideas of the religious elitists of his day. They didn’t come close to comprehending that the almighty and holy God would reach down to the dust of men and redeem them, serve them and wash their feet. Jesus radically altered what everyone else thought him to be.
Yet for a moment in the gospel story, Luke seemingly interrupts Jesus’ ministry of serving and sacrifice to reflect on one of the most marvelous experiences that Peter, James, and John ever saw. This passage is commonly referred to as ‘the Transfiguration’—the Son of God suddenly changed in appearance. His face ‘was altered, and his clothing became dazzling white’ (Luke 9:29 ESV). Even Moses and Elijah ‘appeared and began talking with Jesus’ (9:30 NLT). These were two men who symbolized the Old Testament genres of the Law and the Prophets.
Imagine what a sight this must have been for the three disciples! Peter certainly thought it was something remarkable: “Master, it’s wonderful for us to be here! Let’s make three shelters as memorials—one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” (9:33 NLT). His response wasn’t out of the ordinary when we consider our own heroes today. People like Martin Luther King, Jr., Amelia Earhart, Abraham Lincoln, even Michael Jordan—all have monuments, schools, or landmarks in honor and recognition of their accomplishments.
But there is no greater recognition that can be given to anyone but by God himself. Before Peter could finish his flattery, ‘a cloud came and overshadowed (the disciples), and they were afraid as they entered the cloud. And for a second and final time, a voice came booming out of heaven (the first was his baptism), saying: ‘This is my Son, my Chosen One; listen to him!’” (9:34 ESV). Peter missed who it was that truly deserved all the praise: the God-Man, Jesus Christ. The glory of God shone down on his Son—he declared him to be the supreme authority above all men (even Moses and Elijah). At the end of the day, Jesus was and still is greater than any hero in human history. The disciples saw a glimpse of the true glory of their Messiah—for a moment they encountered his immense beauty. They were silenced by his awesome presence, speechless by his immeasurable splendor.
The Transfiguration points to Jesus Christ alone as our True Hero. He was meek in his appearance but powerful in reality. If we see Jesus as he really is—the Son of Almighty God who humbled himself to defeat death for us—then a lasting mark will be left on our lives. Like Peter, James, and John, we will never be the same in his glorious presence.