Difficult as it may be for those who live within “the Beltway” (as if there is only one city in the world with a beltway) to imagine, many Americans have never visited the American capitol. For many Americans the capitol is distant both geographically and ideologically. This is difficult for Beltway insiders to grasp, in part, because, in the 20th century, the American republic became a global empire and its influence became so widespread that there was hardly a spot in the world that was not somehow touched by the American economy, military, or pop culture. American influence became so pervasive that historians sometimes call the 20th century “The American Century.” As bureaucrats, lobbyists, and senators are checking their ties and suits on the way out the door to the next power lunch, ranchers on the Nebraska panhandle are checking fences and counting cattle. To them, the American capitol might just as well be 15 million miles away as 15,000.
As we have already seen in previous posts, our Lord Jesus is physically distant from us. The disciples saw him go. He told them (and us) that he was leaving and that he would return. To leave such that one must return indicates a spatial separation. That is a fact, a reality.
We have also seen, however, that he is also completely present with us by the power of his deity. He is omnipresent. Jesus is true God and true man. He is both with us and away from us.
Most recently we have seen that he is our presently reigning, sovereign our glorious King. In view of these complementary truths we confess in our catechism:
51. What does this glory of Christ, our Head, profit us?
First, that by His Holy Spirit He bestows the heavenly gifts upon us, His members; then, that by His power He defends and preserves us against all enemies.
In a purely human kingdom a distant king, with distant armies, is not of much use. One thinks of the story of Robin Hood, in which as a loyal subject of Richard I (1157–99) (The Lionheart), who was away on the Third Crusade, he and others in Nottinghamshire suffered under the cruel tyranny of his evil brother. It was fine to have a good king but so so long as Richard I was away, he was both unaware of the plight of his people and unable to help.
It is not so in Jesus’ kingdom. Even though we are temporarily separated from him he it is not as if he is not with us. After he left, as the catechism reminds us, he gave us good gifts.
He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ….
The same Jesus who was buried also ascended to heavenly reign and glory. He ascended because he defeated death and, as a conquering king, distributes gifts to his followers. In Ephesians 4:8 Paul paraphrases Psalm 68:18:
You ascended on high,
leading a host of captives in your train
and receiving gifts among men,
even among the rebellious, that the LORD God may dwell there.
Paul, however, adds an interesting twist. Where Psalm 68 says that the king receives gifts, Paul (an apostle writing under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit) says that King Jesus gives gifts. This is just what happened. When Jesus ascended to the right hand as king he gave the most wonderful gift: the Holy Spirit and with the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost he gave remarkable gifts: healing, the ability, without study, to speak foreign languages, the ability to interpret foreign languages, the ability to receive and speak direct revelation from God (see Acts 2; 1 Corinthians 121–12, 27–31; ch. 14).
To address a widespread concern: Those gifts that were specific to the apostolic age have ceased. Now, in God’s grace and providence, we have the completed apostolic rule (canon) of God’s Word written. The apostles are gone but the Holy Spirit remains. He still operates mysteriously and powerfully but not in the way that the Montanists, the Anabaptists, and the neb-pentecostalists have imagined. The Spirit may still perform wonders through men but not on command. Most of what is claimed as “Pentecostal” today is common to world religions. What is claimed as “tongues” is a universal religious practice shared by Hindus and Muslims and has nothing to do with what happened at Pentecost or in Corinth. The apostles did not hold Wednesday evening “healing services” and never did the benefits of the Spirit (e.g., being raised from the dead) depend on the faith of the recipient. What is today passed off as “apostolic” ministry in too many places is sad mockery of the reality experienced by the apostolic church. I understand these may be hard words for some to hear. I understand that people genuinely believe that the Spirit operates today exactly as he did in the apostolic age but this belief rests on a series of misunderstandings that equate what happens today with what happened then. To make that equation contemporary believers must level what happened in the apostolic age. Our intuitions and impressions, however helpful, are not divine revelation. So desperate are some to equate our experience with that of the apostles that some have invented “fallible prophecy.” Now the neb-pentecostal argument is hermetically sealed. It is impervious to evidence, since, in Scripture, a failed prophecy is prima facie evidence of its falsehood.
The answer to the claims of the Montanists in the 3rd century, to the 16th-century Anabaptists (who tended to devalue Scripture in favor of claims of direct revelation), and to the modern neo-Pentecostalists is that this is less a matter of what the Spirit is doing and more a question of how to describe what we experience.
Psalm 2 pictures the ascended King Jesus as the sovereign conquering hero:
The LORD said to me, “You are my Son;
today I have begotten you.
Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage,
and the ends of the earth your possession.
You shall break them with a rod of iron
and dash them in pieces like fa potter’s
Jesus, the eternally and uniquely begotten Son of God, is that reigning king, who has been installed in royal power in recognition of his righteousness in fulfilling the covenant of works. He is in the process of conquering the nations by his royal Word and through the sovereign power of the Holy Spirit. What is pictured here as one event we know to have been inaugurated and shall be consummated at his glorious return. Paul says, “For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Cor 15:25–26). The logic of inauguration and consummation is clear. Jesus is putting his enemies under his feet by making them into his people but death continues to take his victims but that too shall end when Jesus returns.
So we are safely under the reign and power of Christ our King.
I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me,is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one” (John 10:28 –30).
What he has given to us no one, not Satan, not death, nothing can take from us because that gift, salvation, is promised by the Gospel, the royal Word of promise and sealed with the royal signet: baptism and the holy supper and even more, by the promised Holy Spirit (Eph 1:13; 4:30).
Dear Christian, King Jesus has not left you. Things are not now as they shall be but he has not left us alone and destitute. This is not the Battle of the Bulge. We are not freezing to death in a forest dodging enemy shells waiting for reinforcements that may never come. We are fully armed with the divine presence and presents. Just as surely as we saw our King ascend, so shall we see him come in glory. Now is not that time of glory but it shall come.
Great word of exhortation! I don’t have the reference, but what began to shake my confidence in N.T.Wright was his assertion that the ascension of Christ was metaphorical! Evidently trying to impress the academic (non Christian) community. Praise God Jesus will return as he ascended.