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  • Writer's picturePaul Cottington

He Always Lives


 

So, Easter has come and gone. I want us to go a little bit further. Let’s travel ‘to the vicinity of Bethany’ (Luke 24:50), where the risen Jesus had his final conversation with his disciples before being taken up into heaven. To be technically correct, we should wait forty days to cover this theme of the ascension of our Saviour. But, I’m going to take my cue from these ‘two men dressed in white’ that appear in our text. Their message to the disciples is, in effect, ‘Don’t hang around here, there is work to be done’. So, let’s crack on and consider a few things about this wonderful subject.


Two of the gospel writers, Matthew and John, don’t actually record the ascension of Jesus. Rather, they finish their accounts with our Lord’s final conversations on earth, and I want to touch on those today, as well. Mark’s gospel is very concise. It is the shortest of the four gospel narratives and has a style that is ‘to the point’. It is as though Mark’s biro had only five millimetres of ink remaining when he started writing. If a word wasn’t absolutely necessary, Mark didn’t use it.


Mark’s record of the ascension is awesome. ‘After the Lord Jesus had spoken to them, he was taken up into heaven and he sat at the right hand of God’ (Mark 16:19). Luke gives us the most information. He is the other one of the four gospel writers. Luke wrote two books that appear in our bibles. He wrote the books of ‘Luke’ and ‘Acts’, or ‘The Acts of the Apostles’. Luke was a ‘doctor’ and ‘a dear friend’ of the apostle Paul (Colossians 4:14). In his work as a medical man, he was used to careful investigation and accustomed to recording facts. He wrote both books as an account for his friend, Theophilus, to have. At the start of the book of Luke, he informs us that he had ‘carefully investigated’ the accounts from ‘eye witnesses’ to the life of Jesus.


In ‘Acts’, he records the beginnings of the New Testament church. Luke finishes his first book with the ascension and starts his second with the same event. In Luke 24:50-53, he records the final blessing that Jesus gave to his disciples, and then finishes with these words, ‘While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven. Then they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God.’ This sounds absurd.


When my brother in law visited from Australia, and I went to Manchester Airport to wave goodbye, I didn’t leave that place with great joy. I felt sad. I had enjoyed his company for a time and, now, I wasn’t going to see again him for a long, long time. We all feel this way when we say goodbye in such circumstances. Except the disciples didn’t, and this tells us a lot. These men, with their minds opened during the departing words of Jesus, finally seem to grasp the reality of the new beginning at hand. Jesus actually predicted this response in his earlier conversations with these men, recorded in John’s Gospel. He told them that it was vital that he left them. At the time, they were very upset to hear this news from their master. Jesus acknowledged this. He said, ‘you are filled with grief’ (John 16:6). But he also instructed them in this way, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled’ (John 14:1).


He used an illustration to help them to understand. He likened it to childbirth. In John 16:20, Jesus said, ‘Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices’. People did rejoice when Jesus was crucified. He was seen as a troublemaker by many, many people. He disrupted their lives. He pointed out their hypocrisy. He challenged their authority. How? He told them the truth. They were glad to see the back of him. They rejoiced. But for the disciples it was so different. They saw this man for who he was. He was the most extra-ordinary person that they had ever met. He had things in his possession, that no-one else did. As one of their number observed, he had ‘the words of eternal life’ (John 6:68). And now he was dead and they were grieving. But Jesus had told them this, ‘You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world’ (John 16:20-21). In the preceding days, and during the trial and subsequent execution of Jesus, was a period of anguish and grief for the disciples. But the words of Jesus are always true. Their grief did turn to joy.


I’ve seen childbirth first hand and I’ve watched it on the telly. It is amazing how many times during those programmes about midwifery that you hear a young lady utter these words, ‘I just can’t do this’. It makes me want to cry because there is no way out. I know that and she knows that. It is nine months too late to be having second thoughts! It is an agonising process. And then the baby is finally delivered and all that pain and heartache seems instantly erased from the mother’s memory for ‘joy that a child is born’.


This is what seems to happen with the disciples. This is what Jesus predicted. The period of grief is over. At this moment, they grasp the reality that something new has been born and their previous pain is forgotten. It is the birth of a new age. It is the birth of the age of the Church of Jesus Christ. These men were going to ‘the ends of the earth’ (Acts 1:8) on a mission of vital importance. As Jesus had told them, in those final words that Matthew records, they were going to ‘go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit’ (Matthew 28:19).


When Jesus left them for heaven’s glory, it wasn’t the end of the story. No, in the Grand Theatre of Christ’s Kingdom, a new scene was about to start, and these apostles were about to act. The men in white appear, and tell them to stop ‘looking into the sky’. A truly momentous event has taken place and they are being told not to stand around and contemplate it, but to get moving. If that was the message to those first believers then, then how much more must it apply to us some two thousand years later? So, what must we do?


Well, in the final words in John’s Gospel (John 21:15-25), we have something that should be helpful to us. There is a section at the end titled ‘Jesus reinstates Peter’ in the NIV. Jesus lovingly restores this disciple who, out of fear, had denied his Lord and Master. He asks Peter, ‘Do you love me?’ ‘Peter was hurt.’ Despite his imperfections, Peter’s heart was towards his Lord. Peter says ‘Lord, you know all things; you know that I love you.’ Peter had failed, but this previous shortcoming didn’t put off Jesus. He had a job for Peter to do in his new church. He wanted Peter to look after the interests of fellow believers, and minister to them. Jesus commanded Peter, ‘Take care of my sheep.’ Peter was like us, he was constantly failing. His response was to look at another disciple, called John, and wonder what he would be doing in the new church. Jesus replied, ‘what is that to you?


We need to remember this in our labours. We don’t need to worry about what others are doing, or what they are not doing. We need to do whatever our Lord gives us the opportunity and capacity to do. We might say, ‘but I’m so ungifted. What can I do? Everything that I do will be weak’. But, surely, that’s why we have Peter’s example at the forefront of the Bible record. He was quite pathetic at times. But he went on to do so much for the spread of the gospel. We would do well to ask the question, ‘How on earth did that happen?’ But we would do even better to ask this question, ‘How in heaven did that happen?’ Because, when Jesus ascended, the Church wasn’t given a King in exile; one who only looked on from afar as events unfolded, but with no power or remaining influence. No, it was exactly the opposite!


The final verse in Mark’s gospel reads like this, ‘Then the disciples went out and preached everywhere, and the Lord worked with them and confirmed his word by the signs that accompanied it’ (Mark 16:20). What about the final words in Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:18-20) where Jesus commands his disciples to take his truth to the world? Immediately before that command, Jesus told them this amazing truth. ‘All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.’ And Matthew finishes his account with these words of Jesus, ‘surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.’ ‘The Lord worked with them’. ‘I am with you always.’


Imagine, if I could prepare this message and have Jesus say, ‘Paul, I’ll help you compose and deliver that’. Imagine, if we could serve on a Christian book table in town, and speak to people about Jesus, and Jesus turned up to help. Imagine we could share our weak words with friends, or colleagues, or neighbours, about the love of our Saviour, and he came along to help us speak. Stop imagining. This is no fantasy. This is the Bible’s reality. We are possibly well aware of the words of Jesus, recorded in Mark 10:45, where he said that he ‘did not come to be served, but to serve’. But are we as conscious as we should be, that Jesus is still serving? There are two ways that I want to consider this. The first is something that Jesus, once again, promised his followers in that conversation recorded by John. The section from John 14:15, is titled in the NIV, ‘Jesus promises the Holy Spirit’. Jesus said this, ‘I will ask the Father, and he will give you another advocate to help you and be with you for ever – the Spirit of truth.’ Jesus also reveals the necessity of his own ascension into heaven. ‘It is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you’ (John 16:7).


God’s Holy Spirit is called an advocate. The Latin word, that ‘advocate’ derives from, literally means to ‘add (a) voice’ – to ‘add voice...cate’ or advocate. We often use this word in the context of a courtroom. If we were on trial, we might use a barrister, to defend us. They would be our ‘advocate’. An advocate is someone who represents someone else’s interests by speaking on their behalf. This is what the Spirit does. The Spirit is sent to represent the interests of Jesus Christ, and to establish his Kingdom in the hearts of men and women and children. In the courtroom of our hearts, where many opposing views may be heard about the claims of Jesus Christ; about the effect of his death, about whether his sacrifice was enough to deal with all of my sin, about whether he was willing to die for someone like me, the Spirit speaks up for Jesus. This is why the Bible sometimes refers to this advocate as ‘the Spirit of Christ’. We find this in Romans 8:9, where we are told that having the Spirit of Christ goes hand in hand with belonging to Christ.


Jesus serves us on earth through the Spirit. And Jesus, himself, serves us in heaven. When Jesus ‘sat at the right hand of God’ he did not retire. Yes, the last recorded words of Christ before he died are, indeed, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). And Christians refer to this when they talk about the ‘finished work’ of Christ on the cross. But his work was finished at Calvary in a defined way. Jesus had lived the perfect life that his people needed for themselves. Jesus had suffered the punishment that their sinful lives deserved. He had taken their hell, and given them his heaven. It was now a done deal. It was finished. But Jesus is not now inactive as far as believers are concerned. Romans 8:34 tells us that, ‘Christ Jesus who died – more than that, who was raised to life – is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us.’ He still serves his people. What does it mean to intercede? It is to stand in the middle of two parties with a view to reconciling differences.


What is the difference between me and God? He is holy. Evidently, I am not. How can that difference be put right, or reconciled? By the man in the middle. He points to himself and what he has done, finished outside the city walls of Jerusalem, where he died a criminal’s death and paid the ransom price. That is why we read, in 1 Timothy 2:5, ‘there is one God and one mediator between God and mankind, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom...’ The Spirit speaks up on earth, as an advocate, for the interests of Jesus Christ. And Jesus speaks up in heaven, as an advocate, in the interests of his people. 1 John 2:1, says this about believers, ‘if anybody does sin, we have an advocate with the Father – Jesus Christ, the Righteous One.’ When does Jesus speak up for us? Always. Hebrews 7:24-25, tells us this, ‘because Jesus lives for ever, he has a permanent priesthood. Therefore he is able to save completelythose who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.


How absolute is our salvation? The writer to the Hebrews calls it ‘complete’. It is watertight – none of my sin can ever seep through and threaten its integrity. The ascension of Jesus into heaven was also a foretelling. His leaving predicts the manner of his return. Our text says, ‘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.’ Yes, Jesus is coming back. In Luke 12:35-40, in a section about ‘watchfulness’, we have the record of Jesus speaking a parable to his disciples. It is a motivational speech about how we should behave while we await his return. He says, ‘Be dressed ready for service and keep your lamps burning’. Jesus then says this, ‘It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. Truly I tell you, he will dress himself to serve, will make them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.’


There is a glimpse of some future thing in these words. Because he who came not ‘to be served, but to serve’, is still serving, and will always serve his people. When I carry out job interviews at work, I’m looking for a particular type of person to join the business. I want someone who is reliable, trustworthy and self-sufficient; someone that can do a job without relying on me. I reckon that I am like most people when they interview others. But the Jesus Business (if you like) is entirely different. Jesus isn’t interested in recruiting people into his Church that are self-sufficient, that don’t really believe that they need him. He recruits people that cannot function without him.


When Jesus employs people, his focus isn’t on how they will serve him, it’s on how he can serve them. And he does. He works alongside them, he works for them, and he provides for their every need. He is the Shepherd King, which Old Testament Israel never really got. Yes, he rules - he does have ‘all authority in heaven and on earth’. But he uses his authority to shepherd the sheep of his flock. Are we willing to be counted as the sheep of Christ? Then we will be like the writer of Psalm 23. We will say, ‘The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.’

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