Our sense of distance in the late-modern, ultra-high-tech world has changed dramatically. It was not that long ago that a long-distance telephone call was a major event. The pastor with whom I served, Norman Hoeflinger, served a congregation in a town where there was one telephone. Occasionally he would get a telephone call from the East Coast. Someone would rush to get “the Dominie” (their affectionate word for pastor) and exclaim, “Dominie, you have a telephone call and it’s from Philadelphia!” For most of the folks in that town, Philadelphia was a place that appeared in news reels, about which they read in history books, or heard about on the radio. They knew it was a real place but they sensed a great distance between themselves, their experience, and Philadelphia. It might as well have been Paris or London calling. Obviously things have changed dramatically. If one has a mobile phone from another area code, every call is now a long-distance call. To call my office, within the same city, I must now dial 10 digits. Anyone with a modern computer or mobile device can talk by video chat to anyone, anywhere in the world.
Our sense of distance has diminished. In some ways that’s a good thing but it does make it perhaps more difficult for us to understand why it was so problematic for the disciples that Jesus should leave them and go to the Father, but that he did and it was a good thing too. When Norman was serving that congregation there were planes, trains, and automobiles. When Jesus ascended in the sight of his disciples there were horses, chariots, and ships. Messages took days, weeks, and months to arrive, if they arrived. If a messenger was robbed, killed, or died then, of course, the message would never get through and the sending and receiving parties might never know—and we complain about dropped calls. A trip from one town to another might take days, weeks, or months. Travel was expensive and dangerous. Read about Paul’s journeys in Acts and one gets a clear sense of how hazardous it was.
Thus, the confusion and sense of separation experienced by the disciples was understandable. Jesus was visibly, physically going to a place they could not really even imagine. Why did he not stay? What good was it for him to leave? Believers still struggle with this. Believers have said to me that if only they could see Jesus with their eyes, the Christian faith would be that much easier. To ease the sense of separation well intended but probably misguided Christians have written hymns about walking with Jesus and talking with him now. Frequently Christians talk about Jesus “living in my heart” in the same way people now say that a departed family member has not really left us since he’s in our hearts. The danger of speaking this way, speaking figuratively about Jesus walking with us or living in our hearts, is that it turns the reality of Jesus’ ascension into a figure of speech. It threatens to turn Jesus into a metaphor. It’s really not true and ultimately not helpful.
Heidelberg Catechism 49 gives us three reasons why it is good for us that Jesus ascended to be with the Father:
49. What benefit do we receive from Christ’s ascension into heaven?
First, that He is our Advocate in the presence of His Father in Heaven. Secondly, that we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge, that He as the Head, will also take us, His members, up to Himself. Thirdly, that He sends us His Spirit as an earnest, by whose power we seek those things which are above, where Christ sits at the right hand of God, and not things on earth.
Having someone else act in one’s place can be truly wonderful. Imagine driving through Louisiana and earning a speeding ticket. Imagine that the local authorities impound your car but you must to be somewhere else. You can’t stay. You must leave your car behind. Imagine that you must also appear in court for the speeding charge and that, should you fail to appear, you lose not only the car but the court will issue a bench warrant for your arrest. Would it not be wonderful to have a lawyer, recognized by the court, who could appear in your place? That is a mundane version of a much greater reality. Jesus is not just any lawyer. He’s the lawyer. That is what we mean by “advocate,” which we derive from the Latin advocates for lawyer or legal counsellor. He’s much more, however, than a mere lawyer:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:1–2; ESV).
Our representative before the court is the one who satisfied the law for us (pro nobis). The effect of his satisfaction is twofold, to expiate (put away) our sins and to propitiate (turn away) God’s wrath against us. In other words, it is much better that he appear for us than that we should appear on our own behalf (pro se). He has turned away God’s wrath for all of his people, in all times and places. God approves of us who believe only because of Jesus’ righteousness for us. Thus, Paul says:
Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us (Rom 8:33–34; ESV).
Paul adds a twist to the narrative. The advocate is also the coming judge! This is the answer to Romans 2:16. Part of Paul’s gospel is that Jesus is the coming judge but the rest of the story is that, for those who are united to Christ by the Spirit, through faith alone, are already judged righteous. We do not fear condemnation and those who have been declared righteousness shall never be declared to be anything else. God shall not change his Word.
Separation is difficult but it has its benefits.
Next time: Take us with you.