Why Preaching on the Ascension Matters

ascensionAs I was browsing some theologically oriented blogs a few weeks ago I came across this post by Matthew Turner, which recounts a recent interview he had with Shane Hipps, former Mars Hill Bible Church pastor and one-time successor to Rob Bell. The interview is well worth a read in its entirety, but there is one particular question and answer that disturbed me on a number of levels.

 

Shane, this past August, I met a 26-year-old Islamic iman in Sri Lanka. He was a kind man, a leader in his city, a father and husband, and one known throughout his community as a spiritual leader willing to work with other faith leaders to help people… is Jesus relevant to his life? If yes, how so? From your perspective, is “salvation” possible for him?

I make a distinction between the historical person of Jesus and Christ, the power that animated him.  These two became one for a period of time.  But Christ existed before the person of Jesus walked the earth and Christ exists now that Jesus no longer walks the earth.  That power is bigger than any religion.  That power didn’t need a name to operate in the world.  Jesus gave his gifts to people without requiring conversion or membership in a religion (woman at the well) or without people knowing his name (blind man with mud on his eyes).  So yes I believe Jesus is relevant and salvation is possible for your friend even if he doesn’t know the name of Jesus.  That is how big Christ is!

 
While I am not particularly surprised to see a form of Universalist doctrine from someone who served as Bell’s teaching pastor for years, I am utterly stunned at his complete disregard for an orthodox view of the person of Christ. Hipps’ view that Jesus Christ was a human animated by a “power” is nothing new. He hasn’t stumbled on some amazing, never-before-seen knowledge of God. When he stated this view, he was precisely articulating the ancient heresy (and I don’t use the word lightly) of Nestorianism.

 

Nestorianism is a Christological doctrine advanced by Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople from 428–431. The doctrine, which was informed by Nestorius’s studies under Theodore of Mopsuestia at the School of Antioch, emphasizes the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nestorianism (emphasis mine)

 
There is are many reasons this view of Christ was labeled as a heresy, for if Jesus Christ was not fully human and fully divine his sacrifice would mean nothing and we would still be lost in sin. I would love to get into the nuts and bolts of this doctrine, and no matter what else Hibb’s says in his interview this is doctrine, but at the moment I am more interested in how we have gotten here. What is missing from the teaching of the church that has allowed heresy like this to rear its ugly head in church leadership? More to the point, what is a starting point for the Church to answer such poor theological positions?

 
The best antidote to Nestorianism is to preach on the Ascension of Jesus Christ.

 
Why the Ascension? Let’s take a look…

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

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.”

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.” (http://bible.us/111/act.1.6-11.niv)

 
A lot of things are going in in this passage, but there is one thing in particular that speaks to our situation. Notice the last paragraph: Jesus was “taken up” into the sky. Jesus the God-man, not some disembodied power of Christ. The Gospel accounts of the ascension tell us that he was taken up to sit at the right hand of God the Father. This is the seat of authority, representing God’s power, and Jesus is seated there even now interceding for us.

 
Just as Jesus died, was buried, and resurrected as the incarnate third person of the Trinity, so he also ascended in his glorified body to be with the Father. And as if there was any doubt about his remaining in this state, the “men in white” made it clear when they said “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.” He is coming back, this we all know and anticipate, but he is coming back, not as some power of God somehow separated from the incarnate Christ, but specifically as Jesus Christ, the magnified Son of God.

 
Where the church misses this truth, we rob the Gospel of its power to transform lives in the here and now. If God did not redeem the body through Jesus Christ, as well as the soul, then where is our hope of the resurrection of the dead and where is our concern for our physical bodies now?

 
Philippians 2:6-10 tells us that Jesus did not consider his equality with God something to be exploited or grasped onto, but rather he emptied himself in humility, taking on the form of a human for our sake. An interesting little tidbit about this passage is that the original language of the text indicates that this humbling action was taken by Christ prior to his becoming man. The “Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world” has maintained a posture of humility since before the the world began and which encompasses his incarnation as Jesus the Messiah, his death, his resurrection, and his ascension to the right hand of the Father. It is precisely because of this posture of humility and obedience that the Father has exalted the name of Jesus above every other name and has given him authority in heaven and on Earth.

 
Nestorianism strips Christ of his humanity and consequently strips the Son of God of the very thing that the Father has magnified.

 

…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.
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