Thursday, May 21, 2015

Ascension and Redemption

The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:3)
The Ascension of King Jesus the Messiah to his throne at the right hand of the Father shows that the problem of sin has been fully dealt with. He has done everything that needs to be done about it. The author of Hebrews speaks about it in several ways in his letter — as atonement, as forgiveness, as ransom or redemption — but here at the beginning, he gathers it all up in the word “purification.” In Jesus the Messiah, we are made pure before God.

This is very much a manifestation of the kingdom of God and therefore very much a part of King Jesus being “taken up in glory.” Paul makes the connection for us in his letter to the church at Colosse, telling how God has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins” (Colossians 1:13-14).

The Ascension of the Messiah demonstrates that the power of sin has been broken, for he is now King over all of heaven and earth. The cross and resurrection is the victory over sin, death, the devil and the “principalities and powers” — the demonic influences that lurk behind every evil empire and culture — they have all received the “death blow.”

We have not yet seen the end of it, though, because we are still living in the time when the victory of Christ is being worked throughout, and the enemies of Christ are being put under his feet, so that, in the end, God will be all in all (1 Corinthians 15:25-28). How is he accomplishing this? Through his body, the Church, by the power the Holy Spirit. That is the point of Pentecost, which followed ten days after the Ascension and is why Jesus told the disciples to wait in Jerusalem. It is the power of the Holy Spirit that changes us, and through us, changes the world.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Taken Up in Glory

Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory. (1 Timothy 3:16)
Luke records that Jesus was “taken up to heaven” (Acts 1:2) and he depicts the event for us in Acts 1:9-11, where Jesus is “taken up” before the eyes of the apostles. In his letter to Timothy, Paul uses the same Greek verb for “taken up,” lambano, that Luke used in Acts 1:2.

“Taken up to heaven” and “taken up in glory” both refer to the same thing: The Ascension of King Jesus the Messiah to the right hand of the Father. This event, though often neglected by many Christians, is a very important part of the “mystery” about which Paul now writes in his letter to Timothy. And it is from this mystery that we discover the source of “true godliness,” which is the restoration of our God-likeness or God-centeredness; that is, our reconciliation with God.

Though we often think of a mystery as something hidden, every mystery is eventually revealed. In the New Testament, mystery is about what has now been revealed to us in the Lord Jesus. It begins with the Incarnation, when God became a human being and dwelt among us — Jesus “appeared in the flesh.” It finds its completion in the Ascension, when Jesus was “taken up in glory.” Paul describes both aspects in his letter to the followers of Jesus at Philippi.
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross!

Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11)
It is important to understand that when Jesus was “taken up in glory,” it was by no means a departure from his “appearing in the flesh.” That is, he did not give up any of his humanity but remained fully human as well as fully divine. It is as the God-Man that he ascended to his throne at the right hand of the Father, from which he rules over heaven and earth. This is truly a mystery for us to dwell on: The King of the Universe is both God and man. And in this, God is reconciling all things in heaven and on earth to himself.

Just as in the Incarnation, when the Son of God humbled himself to become human, so also in the Ascension, humanity is glorified with the Lord Jesus. In other words, when he was taken up in glory, we were taken up in glory with him. Paul speaks further of this in his letter to the followers of Jesus at Ephesus:
But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions — it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4-7)
Being made “alive with Christ” is about the new resurrection life we have now in him (and which will one day be followed by the resurrection of our physical bodies from the dead). But being “raised up with Christ” is about our participation with the Lord Jesus in his ascension, for we are “seated with him in the heavenly realms.” His ascension is our ascension, his glorification is our glorification and his place at the right hand of the Father has become our place, too.

The great mystery that begins with the Incarnation and ends with the Ascension is the source and substance of the reconciliation of heaven and earth and the new life centered on God.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Taken Up Before Their Eyes

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight. They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when 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 1:9-11)
It had been forty days since the resurrection of Jesus from the dead. He had been with them during that time, teaching them about the kingdom of God, about the “promise of the Father,” and about the relationship between the Holy Spirit and the kingdom of God.

Then, after all this, “he was taken up before their very eyes.” What a stunning event this must have been for the disciples to witness, and apparently one that took them by surprise. They stood there looking intently into the sky even after Jesus disappeared into the clouds. When Jesus had told them to wait in Jerusalem for the coming of the Holy Spirit, it likely tipped them off that Jesus was going off somewhere. But they were probably not expecting it to be like this.

So they stood there gazing upward, we don’t know for how long. They had to be brought back “down to earth” by the angels, two figures dressed in white who suddenly appeared beside them. “Why do you stand there staring up into the sky?” the angels said.

That seems like a very odd question. Had the angels arrived too late to witness the amazing thing that had just happened? Did they not know what was going on? But of course they did know, and now they were going to help the disciples understand — whenever God or his angels ask us a question, it is not to gather information but to bring revelation.

The angels continued: “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.” Just as surely as they had seen Jesus taken up into heaven, he would come back — and in the same way. He had suddenly been hidden by the clouds; he would suddenly appear again upon the clouds.

In the Bible, the imagery of God riding upon the clouds is about God coming in judgment, to set things right in the world. Jesus ascended to heaven, all authority having now been given him in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18), and took his place at the right hand of the Father, the place of ruling and reigning. When he came again “with the clouds,” it would be the fulfillment of the kingdom. The prophet Daniel spoke of this:
In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7:13-14).
It was all about the kingdom of God, just as Jesus had taught them all along. And now the coming of the Holy Spirit was at hand, who would empower them to proclaim the good news that Jesus, the Anointed One of God, was now King over all. So they returned to Jerusalem to wait for the Holy Spirit to come upon them, just as Jesus had instructed.

Saturday, May 9, 2015

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. About love, relationship with God and new life in Christ. Some have come to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Many have been tweets and updates. Some have been Instragram posters. Offered as “jump starts” for your faith.
  • When we delight ourselves in the Lord, he is delighted to give us the desires of our heart, because the desires of our heart are then shaped by his.
  • There are some things I need to know today, and a lot of things I don’t. Wisdom is in knowing the difference.
  • God opens wide his hand toward us and calls us to open wide our mouths toward him (Psalm 81:10 and 145:16). How big is your expectation?
  • Prosperity does not come because of what you keep but because of what you give.
  • Jesus is the image of the invisible God? It sounds almost like a koan.
  • Words are creative — and powerful. Handle with care.
  • It is in clothing ourselves with humility and serving one another that we are clothed with greatness in the kingdom of God.
  • The Christ life is infinitely impossible to live on our own — but intimately available to all in Christ, who is our life.
  • The Algebra of Love: God is love; love gives and serves. (1 John 4:8; John 3:16; Mark 10:45)
  • The Algebra of Stillness: Be still and know that the LORD is God and that God is love. (Psalm 46:10; 1 John 4:8)
  • The blessing of God is recession-proof.
  • Being right with God is not about rules and regulations but about relationship. Rules and regs wrap and warp the soul in death. Divine relationship with God in Jesus Christ is a fountain of life and joy.
  • The gospel in terms of Colossians 1:19-21 — God reconciles all things in heaven and on earth to himself, by Jesus the Messiah, making peace through the blood of the cross. What if “all” really means all?
  • Love, mercy and forgiveness are not contrary to justice but are the highest expression of it. We discover that in the cross, where justice was most profoundly served.
  • The justice of God is not about finding someone to wail on but about breaking the power of evil and removing what separates us from God and each other.
  • In the beginning, Love created the heavens and the earth.
  • The announcement of the gospel is not that God is taking us to heaven but that heaven has come to earth. We are living in the days of the outworking of what God has done in Jesus the Messiah.
  • In Jesus the Messiah, God has reconciled everything in heaven and earth to himself. Faith in Jesus is learning to live in that reality.
More random thoughts …

Friday, May 8, 2015

Divine Humble-Mindedness

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28-30)
Abba Anthony, the earliest of the Desert Fathers, said, “I have seen all the snares of the devil spread out on earth and I said with a sigh, ‘Who can pass these by?’ and I heard a voice saying to me, ‘Humble-mindedness.’”

Jesus said, “Come to me. Take my yoke. Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart.” It is no sign of weakness that Jesus is gentle. True gentleness does not come from weakness but from strength. Jesus, the Messiah King and Son of God, is the Almighty. Yet he is gentle and gracious toward the weak (which includes all of us).

He is gentle because he is “humble in heart.” Or “humble-minded,” as St. Anthony of the Desert might say. People often misunderstand the nature of humility, but C. S. Lewis nails it squarely on the head: “True humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less.” Humble mindedness is not about disparaging ourselves, it is thinking more about others than ourselves. It does not take anything away from our identity or worth but it recognizes the divine identity and worth in others, for we are all created in the image of God and we are all people Christ came to redeem.

Love is humble minded. It does not think about itself but about others. God is humble minded, for God is love. Within the Trinity, the Father does not think about himself but about the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Son does not think about himself but about the Father and the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit does not think about himself but about the Father and the Son. The Three are all about each other, all about love.

This is the humble-mindedness the Lord Jesus demonstrated when he became human and made his dwelling among us. He did not come to be served but, rather, to serve and to give his life for others. He came to lay down his life for us.

This same sort of humble-mindedness is what he would have us learn. It is the antidote for the weary and burdened way of the world. It is an easy yoke because it is one that Jesus bears with us, and he has already done the “heavy lifting.” We are secure in him, so there is no need to control or manipulate others. His strength becomes our strength, so we can learn to be gentle. As we follow him, he shows us the path of the humble heart. And it leads to rest for our souls.

(See also Divine Humility, Divine Greatness)

Thursday, May 7, 2015

How the Kingdom Comes

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” (Acts 1:7-8)
Shortly before he ascended to heaven, the risen Lord Jesus told his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, where they would be baptized with the Holy Spirit. This caused them to ask, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (There is a connection between this baptism and the kingdom — see The Kingdom of God and the Pouring of the Spirit.)

They were asking a question about timing but the answer they received was not what they were expecting. Jesus took it in a very different direction. The times and dates were set by God’s authority. In other words, it was none of the disciples’ business. God works his plans in his own time, and we don’t have to consult a calendar before we can trust him that all will be well.

So, it was not a Yes that Jesus gave them. But then, it was not a No, either. They were asking about the when of the kingdom, but the answer Jesus gave was about the how:
You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.
Yes, when King Jesus comes again, he will judge the nations by the gospel. That is the point of the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25. The nations will be judged according to whether they have received or rejected “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine,” that is, his disciples. But in the meantime, he sends his disciples out into the world to be his witnesses in all the world, to proclaim that Jesus is King and make disciples of all nations (see Matthew 28:18-20). All who believe the gospel of the King will be prepared for the return of the King.

This great commission Jesus gives his people is empowered by the Holy Spirit. Luke, who is the author of Acts, records these words of Jesus in his account of the Gospel:
This is what is written: The Messiah will suffer and rise from the dead on the third day, and repentance for the forgiveness of sins will be preached in his name to all nations, beginning at Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. I am going to send you what my Father has promised; but stay in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high. (Luke 24:46-49)
This “power from on high” is the same as the “Spirit poured out on us from high,” that Isaiah prophesied (Isaiah 32:15). The Holy Spirit “clothes” Jesus’ disciples with power to give witness concerning Messiah to all the nations. As we see throughout the book of Acts, this power is expressed through the boldness of their proclamation, as well as through the healings, miracles and exorcisms which demonstrate the reality of King Jesus the Messiah and the presence of his kingdom.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

The Kingdom of God and the Pouring of the Spirit

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles he had chosen. After his suffering, he presented himself to them and gave many convincing proofs that he was alive. He appeared to them over a period of forty days and spoke about the kingdom of God.

On one occasion, while he was eating with them, he gave them this command: “Do not leave Jerusalem, but wait for the gift my Father promised, which you have heard me speak about. For John baptized with water, but in a few days you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 1:1-5)
For forty days after his resurrection, Jesus appeared to his disciples several times and talked to them about the kingdom of God (see Forty Days of Kingdom Revelation). One day, he told them to stay in Jerusalem and wait for the gift the Father promised. The gift he was speaking of was the Holy Spirit. Jesus had spoken to them before about him and the ministry he would perform (see, for example, John 14 and John 16). Even John the Baptist had taught from the beginning that, although he baptized with water, the one coming after him would baptize with the Holy Spirit. Now that time was at hand, mere days away.

As Jesus spoke of this, the disciples gathered around him and asked, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” (Acts 1:6). It may seem odd that Jesus was speaking about the Spirit but the disciples were asking about the kingdom of God. Were they suffering from Attention Deficit Disorder? Why were they interrupting Jesus and, seemingly, changing the subject?

The reason is that, as Jews, they understood quite well that being baptized with the Holy Spirit had very much to do with the kingdom of God. The coming of the Spirit and the coming of the kingdom were both eschatological (that is, “end time”) events and were linked together. The presence of one indicated the presence of the other.

This was the promise God had made to his people long ago through the prophets. In Isaiah 32, the prophet speaks about the kingdom of God: “See, a king will reign in righteousness and rulers will rule with justice” (v. 1). He describes what things will be like until then: “The fortress will be abandoned, the noisy city deserted; citadel and watchtower will become a wasteland forever, the delight of donkeys, a pasture for flocks …” (v. 14). But then he speaks of the promise of the coming of the Holy Spirit: “... till the Spirit is poured on us from on high, and the desert becomes a fertile field, and the fertile field seems like a forest” (v. 15).

When the kingdom of God came, the Spirit of God would be “poured on us from on high.” So when the Spirit was poured out from on high, this would indicate that the kingdom of God had begun. And now here was Jesus the Messiah, risen from the dead, teaching the disciples about the kingdom of God and telling them that in a few days they were going to be baptized with the Holy Spirit — the Spirit of God was about to poured out on them from on high! So they very naturally thought about the kingdom of God.

This raised a question: “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?” See, in Isaiah’s prophecy about the coming king and the kingdom, and the Spirit being poured out, he also spoke of how God would judge the nations (Isaiah 34). And it was this that the disciples were asking about. Was King Jesus now going to judge the nations?

Israel was still in a sort of exile. Though many Jews had returned to the homeland, they were still under foreign domination, as they had been for centuries. First it was the Persians, then the Greeks, and now it was the Roman Empire that occupied the land. So, the question the disciples were asking, not unreasonably, was whether God was now going to free Israel from the nations.

They were asking a question about timing, but the answer they received was not what they were expecting. Jesus took it in a very different direction … as we will see next time.

Monday, May 4, 2015

The Divine Initiative of the Christian Life

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed — not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence — continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Philippians 2:12-13)
The truth of the Christian life is that it is the work of God in us, by His Spirit, to produce the fruit of the Spirit, which is all about love and manifests the life of Christ in us. It is all by divine grace, through faith, and not by our own effort to become anything. This does not mean, however, that we are simply dead weight, being shuttled about by God. Rather, we must be attentive to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the work God is doing in us.

The Lord Jesus, although he was fully divine as well as fully human — or perhaps we should say because he was fully divine as well as fully human — was always attentive to the Father. He did only those things he saw the Father doing and said only those things he heard the Father saying. Our new life in Christ means that we, too, have the capacity to see what the Father is doing and hear what he is saying, and so we, also, must be responsive.

We must likewise be attentive to the Lord Jesus. He is our example, and God is conforming us to his image, that we may be like him and reveal the Father even as Jesus did. We are disciples, learning Jesus. To be Christian means that we are following him — not being dragged along behind him.

We are also to be attentive to the Holy Spirit, who reveals the Lord Jesus to us and guides us into the life of Christ. He shows us Christ, who shows us the Father, who sends the Spirit. The Spirit empowers us, enabling us to do what pleases God. He also enables our wills to desire what pleases God. But he comes to empower us, not overpower us. So we are still responsible to yield to him and allow him to do his work in us.

The initiative of the Christian life, every step of the way, is always God’s, his work in us — and that is a matter of grace. Our work is simply to respond to his gracious initiative — and that is a matter of faith. So shall we fulfill his good purpose.