Sunday, June 5, 2011

Christ's Resurrection and You: Where Is He Now?

Texts:    Hebrews 4:14 - 5:10; 7:23 - 8:2; Acts 1:1-11

    SHORTLY AFTER EASTER, I GOT a message on Facebook from my oldest niece.  She said she and some of her friends were discussing Jesus' resurrection, and they found that there was a question that stumped them all.  That is, where had Jesus gone after that? When did He die the second time?  Where was He really buried?  And where could she look in the Bible for answers about this?  She wanted to know for herself, and she wanted to tell her girlfriends, too.

    Immediately I shared with her the good news of our Lord's ascension that we are celebrating today, and pointed her to some verses that would assure her that Jesus had never died again.   I felt bad that I couldn't do more at the moment, since I was in the middle of something, but I hoped I'd given her even to start on.

    But I felt worse-- shocked and saddened, actually-- that my 40-year-old niece and her friends would have the need to questions like that at all.  She attends church regularly.  From what I know of him, her pastor seems to have his head screwed on straight when it comes to doctrine.  How could she even imagine that Jesus could have died a second time and not understand that He's in heaven even now in His glorified human body? How terrible for her to be thinking that Christ's victory over death wasn't final and absolute!

    But then I had to think: How much do any of us, even us Christians, think and know about the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ?  This past Thursday was Ascension Day.  How many of us commemorated it then?  We have the big celebration of Easter, then next thing we know, it's Pentecost Sunday and the Holy Spirit's coming.  And sometime in between, Jesus just seems to have slipped away.  Where did He go?  Where is He now?  I had to be glad my niece was asking the question in any form at all.

    Our reading from Acts shows us that Jesus did not merely slip away: He departed, and He did it openly.  Remember how in the Upper Room before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples that it was needful that He go away, so He could send the Holy Spirit to them. But for forty days after He rose they'd been seeing Him in that very physical resurrection body of His-- physical, except that in it He could transcend physical limitations like distance and solid walls and locked doors.  And it seems that the disciples were getting used to that.  It was just like old times, almost, having Jesus around eating with them and teaching them.  The disciples had to be shown that that time was coming to an end, that now a new order was to begin when Jesus would send the gift His Father promised, even the Holy Spirit.

    Moreover, the disciples had to understand where Jesus had gone.  He couldn't just fail to show up one day, and never return.  St. Luke leaves no room for any theories about Jesus quietly retiring to the countryside like I heard somebody or other theorize recently, or going off to India to become a guru, like the New Agers believe.  Jesus made sure the disciples saw Him physically taken up before their very eyes.  A cloud enveloped Him until both He and it were no longer visible.  This was no ordinary cloud of water vapor.  The disciples were Jews and knew their history. They would certainly realize that this was the cloud of God's presence that led the children of Israel in the wilderness, the cloud of glory surrounded Jesus, Moses, and Elijah on the Mount of Transfiguration. This cloud was a visible manifestation of the presence of God Himself, and in it Jesus stepped directly from the realm of this world into the heaven of God His Father.

    But you can't blame the disciples for standing there looking "intently into the sky as he was going."  Or for keeping on looking after He had disappeared.  We'd do the same.  It took two men in white--angels-- who suddenly stood there with them to tell them that Jesus had been taken from them into heaven.  The angels promised, too, that He would come back in the same way they'd seen Him go-- riding on the clouds of heaven.

    And between the time of His ascension, and the time of His return in glory, where is our Lord Jesus?  He indeed is in heaven, at the right hand of the Father in glory.

    So what is He doing now?  Has He finished with us, now that He is high and exalted?  Is He simply back to enjoying the rights and privileges of being the Son of God, with never a thought for His people here on earth?  Never think it!  There's a 19th century Welsh hymn whose chorus is a dialogue between the men and the women of the congregation.  It begins with the question, "Who saved us from eternal loss?" ("Who but God's Son upon the cross?") and it ends with the women asking, "Where is He now?" and both men and women sing together, "In heaven interceding."

    That's exactly where He is, and exactly what He's doing there.  This is the meaning of Christ's ascension, and the wonderful truth our verses from the Letter to the Hebrews reveal to us.  Jesus is indeed the One who intercedes for us before the Father.  He is our great High Priest who even now represents us to God, Who even now can point to His one, perfect, and everlasting sacrifice that forever will atone for our sins.

    In Hebrews 4:14 Jesus is described as our great high priest who has gone through the heavens.  The ancient Jews understood that there were ranks of angels and other heavenly beings, and ranks of the heavens in which they dwelt.  Paul speaks of this in 2 Corinthians 12, when he tells about a man in Christ-- himself, actually-- who was somehow caught up into the third heaven, the paradise of God.  By saying that Jesus had gone "through the heavens," the writer makes it clear that our Lord has gone all the way into the divine Holy of Holies, all the way into the presence chamber of almighty God.  Nothing stopped Him, nothing disqualified Him; Jesus is right there sharing His Father's throne.

    Therefore we have every reason to hold firmly to the faith we possess.  So we trust and believe that Jesus Christ died for our sins, and that His blood atones for all our unrighteousness, redeems us from death, and makes us holy before God.  We have faith in Jesus, our great High Priest.

    I think we Christians, especially we Protestants, have gotten so used to the idea of Jesus as our Intercessor that we forget it means He is our High Priest and that we need one just as much as ancient Israel did.   They needed a high because they were in themselves unholy in God's sight, under His wrath, and they needed sacrifice offered for them so they could be accepted by God.  So do we.  Not just anyone could make this offering. The high priest represented all the people, especially on the Day of Atonement when he took the blood of the sacrifices into the Holy of Holies.  He was one of them, a Jew like they were, but he had a special appointment from God.  The priest was to be God's chosen man, who could identify with the people and he with them.  That's what we need as well.

    The Jewish system found its fulfillment in Jesus Christ, incarnate by the Holy Spirit through the Virgin Mary.  He is definitely is a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses.  In Hebrews chapter 1 we read that Jesus the Son of God took on true flesh and blood and shared in our humanity. He wasn't an angel or a mere divine appearance, He was a man like us.  Like us, on this earth Jesus was tempted in every way we are.  But unlike Aaron and his descendants, Jesus did not fall into sin. Unlike them, He did not have to first sacrifice a bull for His own sin-offering before He could make atonement for the people.  Jesus our sympathetic High Priest  was holy and without sin.  Therefore, He can represent us in heaven as an Intercessor who is totally acceptable to our holy God.

    With Jesus as our high priest, we can approach the heavenly throne of grace with confidence, knowing we'll receive mercy there for His sake.  Verse 2 of chapter 5 says that the high priest "is able to deal gently with those who are ignorant and going astray, since he himself is subject to weakness."  Jesus knows what it's like to be in this mortal flesh.  Again, He does not have to offer sacrifices for His own sins, but in verses 7 and 8 we can see how in His heart and in His flesh He suffered for us, how as a Man He truly had to go through the ache and agony of sorrow over our sins, how finally He had to submit to the torture and death of the cross.  Jesus the Son of God earned His high priesthood as the Son of Man, and so, even now, He is in heaven sympathizing with our weaknesses, dealing gently with us when we go astray, and representing us in matters relating to God.

     But we see in 4:4 that it wouldn't have been enough for Jesus to be our fellow-human, if God had not personally chosen Him.  God called Him to the honor of the high priesthood, just like He called Aaron in the early days of Israel, so long ago.  In the words of Psalm 22, the Lord God has said,

    "You are my Son;
        today I have become your Father."

And in Psalm 110 God says to Him,

    "You are a priest forever,
        in the order of Melchizedek." 

    Jesus Christ has been appointed by the Father to be our representative forever.  He's not like the priests of the line of Aaron of the house of Levi. The Aaronic priests could not continue in office forever; they were mortal and one after another, they all died. In contrast, God says that Christ is a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.  Melchizedek, king of Salem and priest of God Most High, is referred to in Hebrews 7:3 as being "without father or mother, without genealogy, without beginning of days or end of life."  Figuratively-speaking, he is deathless, and so he is a walking prophecy of the Son of God who lives forever and exercises the same kind of priesthood that never ends and never can be destroyed.

    We don't have to worry about Jesus our High Priest dying a second time and leaving us with some inadequate or unsympathetic successor.  No, because He lives forever He is able to save completely everyone who comes to God through Him, because He ever lives to make intercession for us.

    Let us take comfort in these words.  I know my sin, and I know I need a lot of interceding for.  And I think you realize the same thing about yourself.  There will never come a time when Jesus our ascended Lord stops pleading for us before the Father.  He always lives, and because of that, Jesus can keep on interceding for us.  At the same time, interceding for us is what Jesus always lives for!

    Jesus meets our every need.  He has ascended to the Father: as verse 7:26 puts it, He is exalted above the heavens.  So while He has experienced human weakness and can sympathize with us, at the same time He is holy, blameless, pure, and set apart from sinners.  That's the kind of high priest we need.  Jesus is acceptable in God's presence and so His prayers on our behalf are acceptable to God.

    Jesus is qualified to be our eternal high priest by His merciful humanity, by His divine appointment, by His suffering and intercession for us here on this earth, by His deathlessness, by His purity and holiness, and by His ascension to the throne of God.  All these qualities were required in the One who was to be our Intercessor and Advocate before God the Father.  As Hebrews 8:1 states, "We do have such a high priest, who sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven." This is a sanctuary much holier than the Most Holy Place of the tabernacle or the Temple could ever be.  Jesus serves in our behalf in the very presence of God; this is what He ascended into heaven to do, and what He now lives and enjoys living to do.

    So now, whenever you are in trouble, whenever you are tempted, whenever you think the world, the universe, and God Himself are all turned against you, think.  Remember.  You have a great High Priest, Jesus the great High Priest, Who for you has gone through the heavens to the holy heart of God, and even now He sympathizes with your weakness and deals gently with you.  No sin that you can repent of  is beyond His power to forgive, for He sacrificed Himself for sins once for all when He offered Himself.   When you're convinced that you can never be good enough for God, think.  Remember.  Jesus is your holy and blameless High Priest, and He credits His perfect obedience to you.  When you don't know how or what to pray, think. Remember.  Jesus is there, even now, representing you to His Father and yours.  He is able to save you completely, for He always lives to intercede for you.

    So let us hold firmly to the faith we profess.  Christ our crucified and risen Lord has gone through the heavens and has sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.  "Where is He now?"

    "In heaven interceding!"

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