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THE CIRCUMSTANCES AND BENEFITS OF OUR SAVIOUR S ASCENSION.
And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven, as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel; which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.—Acts i. 9-11.
THERE are two occasions of this day33 Preached May 29, being Ascension-day. accidentally meeting together, which bear some resemblance to one another; the ascension of our blessed Saviour into heaven, and his exaltation in his kingdom, being “crowned with glory and honour, and set on the right hand of the Majesty on high:” and the restoration of our sovereign to his just rights, and royal state and dignity here upon earth, by a miraculous providence of God, and, as it were, by a kind of resurrection from the dead.
The first of these being of a more spiritual and excellent nature, shall be the subject of my present discourse, not forgetting the other in the application of it.
The great foundation of our religion is the history of our Saviour, of his incarnation, and miracles, and 360life, of his resurrection from the dead, and ascension into heaven, and intercession for us at the right hand of God; and the doctrines and articles concerning these, make up the main body of the Christian faith: and, therefore, nothing can be more useful than the explication of these, and a serious consideration and meditation upon them.
In these words you have an account of our Saviour’s ascension into heaven; concerning which, we will consider these three things:
First, The circumstances foregoing his ascension.
Secondly, The circumstances of his ascension.
Thirdly, The consequent benefits and advantages of it.
First, The circumstances foregoing his ascension: “And when he had spoken these things, he was taken up.” This refers to the discourse which our Saviour had with his apostles, immediately before he was taken up from them into heaven, of which we have an account in the verses before the text, (ver. 4.) Being assembled with them, and just ready to take his leave of them, he commands them “that they should not depart from Jerusalem, but wait for the promise of the Father, which they had heard of him:” that is, they should not disperse themselves, till the Holy Ghost, which he had promised to send from his Father, was come upon them, in those miraculous gifts and powers, where by they should be qualified for the preaching of the gospel to the world.
And when our Saviour had given them this charge, they put a question to him, concerning a thing which, notwithstanding he had so plainly declared to them that “his kingdom was not of this world,” did still run in their minds, about the temporal 361reign of the Messias, and a glorious kingdom by him to be set up among the Jews; (ver. 6.) “They asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” To this our Saviour gives them no direct answer, neither that he would nor that he would not do what they expected, but gently reprehends their curiosity; (ver. 7.) “It is not for you to know the times and seasons, which the Father hath put into his own power.” And instead of satisfying them in things that did not concern them, he discourseth to them about those things which did concern them; namely, how they should be qualified and sent forth to preach the gospel to the world: (ver. 8.) “But ye shall receive power after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you; and ye shall be witnesses unto me, both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea, and Samaria, and unto the utmost parts of the earth. And when he had spoken these things, he was taken up.” These are the circumstances preceding his ascension.
Secondly, We will consider the circumstances of his ascension; and they are these four:
I. That our Saviour was taken up, while he was blessing his disciples; (Luke xxiv. 51.) “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.”
II. That he was taken up in the view of his disciples, and while their eyes were attentively fixed upon him: “while they beheld, he was taken up,” (ver. 9.) And (ver. 10.) it is said, “they looked steadfastly towards heaven, as he went up.”
III. That he was taken up in a cloud: “and a cloud received him out of their sight.”
IV. The place whither he went: (ver. 11.) “The same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven;” 362which is elsewhere more particularly expressed, by declaring the dignity to which he was exalted in heaven, “being set down on the right hand of God,” and “having all power in heaven and in earth committed to him.” These are the chief circumstances of his ascension, which I shall speak briefly to.
I. That our blessed Saviour was taken up while he was blessing his disciples. This St. Luke does not mention here in the history of the Acts, having mentioned it before in his gospel, to which he refers us; (Luke xxiv. 50, 51.) speaking of our Saviour and his apostles; “And he led them out as far as Bethany, and he lifted up his hands, and blessed them.” Lifting up of the hands was a ceremony used among the Jews, in blessing the people. Lev. ix. 22. it is said there, that “Aaron lifted up his hands towards the people, and blessed them.” So our Saviour here, in imitation of the usual ceremonies among the Jews: “And it came to pass, while he blessed them, he was parted from them, and carried up into heaven.” The first tidings of our Saviour’s birth were attended with praises to God, and blessings to men; “Glory to God on high, peace on earth, and good-will towards men.” And when he died, he breathed out his soul in blessings to his enemies; in the height of his sufferings he was full of hearty prayers, and good wishes, for those who were the cause of them: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” And after his resurrection from the dead, just as he left the world, he was taken out of it, and translated into heaven, with a blessing in his mouth: “while he blessed them he was parted from them and carried up into heaven.” And, indeed, his whole life, 363all that he did, and all that he suffered, his coming into the world, and his going out of it, was all a blessing to mankind; “God sent him to bless us, in turning us away every one from his iniquity.” He was always wishing well to us, and doing well for us; “he went about doing good.”
A blessed pattern to us, “leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps:” a lovely and desirable example; in imitation whereof, we should endeavour that our whole life may be a blessing and benefit to mankind; and that when we leave the world, we may be found so doing as our Lord did, doing the work of heaven while we are going thither.
II. He was taken up in the view of his disciples, and while their eyes were attentively fixed upon him: “while they beheld, he was taken up,” (ver. 9.) And (ver. 10.) it is said, “they looked steadfastly toward heaven, as he went up.” After the apostles were fully convinced, by several appearances of our Saviour to them, and familiar conversation with them, that he was indeed risen from the dead; that they might be fully satisfied that he came from God, and went to him, he was in their sight, while he was speaking to them, taken up into heaven. And this is no small confirmation of the truth of our religion, that our Saviour did not only work the greatest miracles while he was alive, and after death rose again, and conversed among men; but was visibly taken up into heaven. So that if all things be duly considered, never did any man give so many evidences of his being sent from God, as our blessed Saviour did. He delivered the truth of God with a Divine authority; and did the works of God with all imaginable evidence of a Divine 364power; and with a Divine patience submitted to the will of God, enduring the greatest sufferings; and by the mighty power of God was raised from the dead; and in a visible manner, by the same Divine power, taken up into heaven.
III. He was taken up in a cloud: “He was taken up, and a cloud received him out of their sight.” Which circumstance, though it do not seem very material; yet does it fitly represent to us the difference between the two dispensations, of the law, and of the gospel. Elias was carried up by a whirl wind into heaven, in a fiery chariot, with horses of fire: but our Saviour in a cloud; to signify to us, the coolness and calmness of the gospel-dispensation, in comparison of that of the law; which difference our Saviour had before observed to his disciples, upon a remarkable occasion, (Luke ix. 54, 55.) When they would have called for fire from heaven, to have consumed the Samaritans for refusing to entertain our Saviour, as Elias had done in a like case, our Saviour severely reproves that fierce spirit of theirs, as by no means suitable to the gospel: “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of: for the Son of man came not to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” And just answer able to the difference between the spirit of Elias and our Saviour, was the different manner of their translation into heaven; the one gently received up in a cloud; the other violently taken up by a whirlwind, carried in a chariot of fire drawn by horses of fire.
And there is likewise another difference not altogether unworthy of our observation. The blessing which Elijah left to Elisha at his parting from him, and the promise of his spirit to be imparted to him, 365is conceived in very doubtful words: (2 Kings ii. 9.) “Elijah said to Elisha, Ask what I shall do for thee, before I be taken away from thee. And Elisha said, Let a double portion of thy spirit be upon me. And he said, Thou hast asked a hard thing; nevertheless, if thou see me when I am taken from thee, it shall be so unto thee; but if thou see me not, it shall not be so.” This was very doubtful, suitable to the obscurity of the law: but our Saviour, when he parted from his disciples, makes a plain and absolute promise of the Holy Ghost to them, answerable to the clearness and grace of the gospel: “Ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence.” So wisely did God order all circumstances concerning our Saviour, that every thing belonging to him, every action that he did, and every circumstance of it, might have some important signification.
IV. The last circumstance of our Saviour’s ascension, is the place whither he went; (ver. 11.) “This same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven.” And this is elsewhere more particularly expressed, by declaring the dignity to which he was exalted in heaven; “being set down on the right hand of God,” and “having all power in heaven and earth committed to him.” (Mark xvi. 19.) “He was received up into heaven, and sat on the right hand of God:” which phrase signifies our Saviour’s being advanced in his human nature, to an honour and dignity next to that of the Divine Majesty; the right hand being esteemed the place of greatest honour. This exaltation of Christ, the apostle tells us, was conferred upon him as a reward of his great humiliation and sufferings; (Heb. xii. 2.) “Who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, 366and despised the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God.” And by virtue of this exaltation, the apostle proves him to be exalted in his human nature above the angels. (Heb. i. 3, 4.) “When he had by himself purged our sins, he sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high, being made so much better than the angels, as he hath by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they;” that is, being advanced to a higher dignity; for name among the Hebrews signifies dignity and honour. So the apostle useth the word name: (Phil. ii. 9-11.) “Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” So, likewise, (Eph. i. 20, 21.) “Whom he raised from the dead, and set at his own right hand in heavenly places, far above all principalities, and powers, and might, and do minion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but in that which is to come.” And now, wherein this dignity doth consist, the same apostle tells us in the next words; that he “hath put all things tinder his feet, and given him to be head over all things to the church;” which is the same with what our Saviour told his apostles before his ascension—“all power is given me in heaven and in earth;” that is, God hath committed the government of the world into his hands, for the benefit and advantage of his church here in this world, and for the dispensing of rewards and punishments to good and bad men in the next life.
And though the apostles did only see him taken 367up, and received in a cloud out of their sight, and were not witnesses of his advancement and exaltation at the right hand of God; yet they had, and we have, sufficient assurance of it, both by what our Saviour declared before his ascension, and by the effects which followed after. Before he ascended, he told them whither he was going, and what power and dignity would be conferred upon him, that all power in heaven and earth was committed to him; and that, as an evidence of this exaltation at the right hand of God, and the power there conferred upon him, he would in a few days send down the Holy Ghost upon them in a sensible manner, and in great and sensible effects, enabling them to speak with tongues and to work all sorts of miracles. After this he was in their sight taken up from them, and carried towards heaven; and ten days after, the Holy Ghost, according to his promise, came down upon them in miraculous powers and gifts. So that here was abundant evidence to them of his exaltation in heaven, they having seen him taken up, and carried thitherwards, and after this finding the wonderful effects of his being there, and of the power which was conferred upon him.
The third and last thing to be spoken to, is the consequent benefits of our Saviour’s ascension and exaltation; and they are chiefly these three:—The sending of the Holy Ghost; his powerful intercession for us at the right hand of God; and the confirmation of our faith, as to the truth of his doctrine in general, and particularly as to his coming to judgment.
I, The sending of the Holy Ghost in miraculous powers and gifts upon the apostles, to qualify them for the speedy and effectual propagation of the gospel, 368and to give credit to them in the preaching of it. By the gift of tongues they were enabled to preach the gospel to all nations; and by the other miraculous powers, God bare witness to the testimony which they gave of our Saviour’s doctrine and resurrection. And this was a great benefit; for to this we owe the great blessing of the gospel, and the spreading of the Christian religion through the world; and this was properly the fruit of our Saviour’s ascension into heaven, and his exaltation at the right hand of God, and of that royal power and majesty which he was invested withal. God, in his wise dispensation of things, having so ordered, that this dignity and power should be the reward of our Saviour’s obedience and sufferings; which may serve to explain to us that passage: (John vii. 39.) “This spake he of the Spirit, which they that believe on him should receive: for the Holy Ghost was not yet given, because Jesus was not yet glorified.” The giving of these gifts of the Holy Ghost, was purposely reserved by God, to be an instance of that power and glory wherewith our Saviour was to be invested upon his ascension into heaven, and exaltation at the right hand of God; and therefore our Saviour tells his disciples, that they ought not to be troubled at his departure, because, until he had left them, the Holy Ghost would not come; (John xvi. 7.) “I tell you the truth, it is expedient for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you.”
II. Another mighty benefit of our Saviour’s ascension and exaltation is, his powerful intercession for us at the right hand of God. And this is a mighty advantage and comfort, to have a perpetual patron and advocate at the right hand of God, to plead our 369cause, to solicit our concernments, and. represent our wants, and to offer up our prayers and requests to God, in the virtue of his meritorious sacrifice; to have so good a friend in the court of heaven, in such power and favour with the great King of the world. This under the law was shadowed by the high-priest’s going into the holy of holies, once every year alone, carrying blood with him, to offer for the sins of the people; answerably to which, our Saviour is once for all entered into the heavens, to intercede with God for us, by the representation of that sacrifice which he offered for our sins, and of that blood which was shed for us. So the apostle tells us, (Heb. ix. 24.) that “Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, to appear in the presence of God for us.” And this is a mighty comfort to us under the guilt of our sins, that “we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, who is a propitiation for our sins, and for the sins of the whole world.” This is a great comfort under all trials and temptations, that “we have not a high-priest that cannot be touched with a sense of our infirmities; but was, in all points, tempted like as we are.” He that is our mediator and intercessor, knows by experience the infirmities of our nature, and hath learned by his own sufferings to compassionate ours.
And this is a mighty encouragement to our prayers, and gives us confidence and hopes of good success in our addresses to God, that they are offered by so powerful and prevalent a hand. So the apostle reasons: (Heb. iv. 14, 16.) “Seeing then we have a great high-priest that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God; let us come boldly to 370the throng of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.”
In a word, this may animate us against all the enemies of our salvation, because he that hath all power in heaven and earth is concerned for us, and is continually soliciting our cause with God: (Heb. vii. 25.) “Wherefore he is able to save them to the utmost, who come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for us.”
III. The ascension of our Saviour into heaven, is a mighty confirmation of our faith, both as to the truth of his doctrine in general, and particularly as to his coming again at the end of the world, to judge the quick and the dead, to reward the righteous, and to punish the sinners and ungodly.
1. As to the truth of his doctrine in general. If after all the miracles of his life, and his resurrection from the dead, any man can doubt whether he came from God, and was sent by him to teach the world; yet this, methinks, is evidence beyond all exception, that God took him to himself, that he was visibly taken up into heaven; and though the witnesses of his ascension did not see him in heaven, yet the sending of the Holy Ghost, according to his promise, was an abundant evidence that he was received up into glory. Upon this account it is that our Saviour says, that the coining of the Holy Ghost should convince the world of sin, for not believing in him; because the sending of the Holy Ghost was an evidence that he was in glory; and his being taken up into glory, was a demonstration that he was a true prophet, and sent from God, and consequently that they were guilty of a great sin, who did not believe in him. And,
2. This likewise is a great confirmation of our 371faith, as to our Saviour’s coming again at the end of the world, to judge the quick and the dead. St. Peter tells us, (Acts x. 42.) that our Saviour, after his resurrection, did particularly give in charge to his apostles, “to testify to the people, that it was he that was ordained of God to be the judge of quick and dead.” And what argument more proper to persuade them of this, than to see him visibly taken up into heaven; and, at the very time of his ascension, to be admonished by angels, that this same person, whom they saw carried up into heaven, should, in the same visible manner, come down from heaven again at the end of the world? So the text tells us, that “while the apostles looked steadfastly toward heaven, as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, (that is, two angels in the appearance of men) which said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as you have seen him go into heaven;” that is, in a visible manner, and in a cloud. For as “he was received up in a cloud out of their sight;” so at his return to judge the world, men shall “see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven,” (Matt. xxiv. 30.) And this is a great confirmation of our faith of a future judgment; that our Saviour, immediately after his resurrection, declared himself to be “appointed by God judge of quick and dead;” and when he was ascended, the angels declared that “he should come again in like manner as they had seen him taken up.” So that they who believe his ascension, cannot doubt of his return to judgment; nothing being more credible, than the saying of one whom God raised from the dead, and visibly took to himself.372
And now to make some reflection upon what hath been delivered. The consideration of our Saviour’s ascension into heaven, and exaltation at the right hand of God, is very comfortable to all true Christians, in these two respects:
I. In respect of our condition in this world.
II. In respect of the happiness of the next world.
I. In respect of our condition in this world. The church of Christ, and every particular member of it, every true Christian, is exposed to a great many troubles and dangers in this world: but it is matter of great comfort to us, in the consideration of all the evils we are liable to, that we are under his patron age and protection, who hath “all power given him in heaven and earth.” He who is the head and defender of the church, “is set down on the right hand of the majesty of God, exalted far above principalities, and powers, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, in this world, and that which is to come;” so that the true church of Christ need not fear either the powers of this world, or the malice of devils, because we have a sure friend, who is greater than all these, whom God hath made his vicegerent, and hath “put all things under his feet,” and hath given the government of the world, and of all creatures, into his hands, for the good and benefit of his church; who is able to protect his church, and every true member of it, against all the injuries of earth, and the malice of hell; and if he permit us at any time to fall into sufferings, he is able to support us under them, and reward us for them: and “if he be for us, who can be against us?” He that “died, yea rather that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, and maketh intercession for us.” (Rom. xiv.9.) “For 373this end, Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living;” and now that he is in heaven, and clothed with majesty and glory, he is not less concerned for us, than when he conversed with us upon earth, and suffered and died for us: for he is there in our nature, that nature in which he suffered more than any of us can do; and therefore we may with confidence make our application to him in all our distresses and difficulties, because he is nearly allied to us, “Bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh,” and was once tempted like ourselves, and from the experience of his own trials and sufferings, still retains a quick sense of the frailties and infirmities of mortality. This consideration the apostle to the Hebrews makes use of, to support Christians under all their persecutions for the profession of Christianity. (Heb. iv. 14, 15.) “Seeing then we have a great high-priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God; let us hold fast our profession. For we have not a high-priest that cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin.”
II. The consideration of Christ’s ascension and exaltation, is likewise matter of comfort to us, in respect of the happiness which we hope for in the next world. No religion that ever was in the world hath given men so sensible a demonstration of a future life, and a blessed immortality in another world, as the Christian religion hath done, by the resurrection of our blessed Saviour from the dead, and his visible ascension into heaven. This is a sensible argument, and levelled to the capacities of all mankind. The reasonings of the philosophers concerning the immortality of men’s souls, and a future 374state after this life, besides the uncertainty of them, have also this disadvantage—that they are only calculated for the more refined and speculative part of mankind: but every man is capable of the force of this argument, that he who declared to the world another life after this, and the happy condition of good men in another world, was himself raised from the dead, and visibly taken up into heaven. And now it is no difficult matter for us to believe that God will raise us, and advance us to glory and happiness, when we consider what an earnest he hath given us of this, by “the working of that mighty power which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand, in heavenly places.”
If then we believe that “Christ is ascended into heaven, and sits at the right hand of God,” let this raise our minds above the vain delights and perishing enjoyments of this world, to the consideration of those better and more glorious things that are above; Jet us often ascend thither in our thoughts, whither “our Saviour is gone before us, to prepare a place for us;” and from whence he hath promised to come again, at the end of the world, “to receive us to himself, that where he is, there we may be also.”
But then we must endeavour to live as he did, if we hope to go to him when we die. “Every man that hath this hope in him, purifies himself, even as he is pure.” Let us then “have our conversation in heaven, from whence also we look for a Saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ, who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working of that mighty power, whereby he is able to subdue all things to himself.”
To conclude: Let us heartily thank God for the 375whole dispensation of our salvation, by the incarnation and doctrine, by the holy life and meritorious death of our blessed Saviour, and by that demonstration of God’s mighty power and goodness, “which he wrought in Christ, when he raised him from the dead, and set him at his own right hand in heavenly places, far above all principalities, and powers, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come; having put all things under his feet, and given him to be the head over all things to the church, which is his body.”
The consideration whereof is (as you have heard) a mighty consolation unto us under all the troubles and dangers to which the church of Christ is exposed in this world. He who hath “all power committed to him” by God, and is made “head over all things for” the benefit and advantage of “the church,” we may be sure, will have a particular care of it, and tender it as his “own body: v and as he is able, he is ready upon all occasions to protect and defend his own religion, and the true professors of it, against all the fury and malice of men and devils, so that the “gates of hell,” the strongest combinations and deepest conspiracies of all the powers of darkness, “shall not” finally “prevail against it.” Here is the foundation of our hopes and confidence, that our Redeemer is strong, and that God hath given him a kingdom and power that is paramount and superior to all earthly kingdoms and powers; and though they should conspire together, and be of one mind, unite all their force, and “give their power and strength unto the beast, to make war with the Lamb and his company,” that is, the true church and faithful servants of Christ; 376yet “the Lamb shall overcome them,” because “he is Lord of lords, and King of kings.”
And let us likewise bless God for the wonderful restoration of his Majesty to the government of these kingdoms, who, under Christ, is the great defender of our faith and religion; and let us pay that duty and obedience, which becomes us, to a prince whom God hath so miraculously preserved and restored; and pour out our most fervent prayers to God, that he would long preserve him, and protect his person from all dangers, who is the great security of our religion,44 Preached towards the conclusion of the reign of King Charles the Second. and the life of all our hopes, and as truly as any prince ever was to any people, the light of our eyes, and the breath of our nostrils; and that God would make him “wise as an angel of God, to go in and out before this great people;” and grant to him, and all the people of this land, “to know in this our day the things that be long to our peace, before they be hid from our eyes.”377
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