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Today we are commemorating the Lord’s Ascension into Heaven, the time when He received universal dominion, absolute and unfettered, from the hand of His Father. But we must never forget that His Ascension is built on the bedrock of His Descent. We are told that He led captivity captive and gave gifts to men. One of those gifts is the privilege of imitating Him in this pattern—true glorification is always set on the granite foundation of sacrificial suffering.
“But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ. Wherefore he saith, When he ascended up on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts unto men. (Now that he ascended, what is it but that he also descended first into the lower parts of the earth? He that descended is the same also that ascended up far above all heavens, that he might fill all things.) And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers…” (Eph. 4:7–11).
Summary of the Text
Notice what the bottom line in this passage is. We are talking about the Ascension of Christ, but this is the basis for the gift of Christ. Having ascended, He has given to each one of us grace according to the measure of His gift (v. 7). The Old Testament testifies to this (Ps. 68:18), saying that the Lord ascended on high, leading captivity captive, and gave gifts to men (v. 8). Paul reasons that if He ascended, He must first have descended (v. 9). But where? He says to the “lower parts of the earth,” which some take to mean His descent in the Incarnation. But Paul actually says “lower parts of the earth,” not “earth, the lower part of the cosmos.” Paul is arguing that the extent of the Lord’s glorification is commensurate with the depth of His humiliation, and refers to His descent into Hades, where He liberated all the Old Testament saints in His resurrection (leading captivity captive). So the one who descended is the one who ascended, in order that He might fill all things (v. 10). And when He gave gifts, what gifts did He give? He gave us men—apostles, prophets, evangelists, and pastor/teachers (v. 11). He gave us men who would follow the pattern set by Jesus.
Prerogatives of Power
The Lord who made Heaven and earth alone has the power to make the pathway between them. When Jacob dreamed of a great ladder to Heaven, he saw angels ascending and descending on it (Gen. 28:12). But when Jesus spoke to Nathanael, a man with less guile than Jacob apparently, He said that the angels would be ascending and descending upon the Son of man. He was the ladder, in other words (Jn. 1:51). He is the means of ascending and descending.
“Who hath ascended up into heaven, or descended? Who hath gathered the wind in his fists? Who hath bound the waters in a garment? Who hath established all the ends of the earth? What is his name, and what is his son’s name, if thou canst tell?” (Prov. 30:4).
We worship a God who reveals Himself. When He comes down, when He descends, He then speaks. The Lord descends and the smoke ascends.
“And mount Sinai was altogether on a smoke, because the Lord descended upon it in fire: and the smoke thereof ascended as the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mount quaked greatly” (Ex. 19:18).
This is what happened at Sinai, when God brought the law. But this was not raw condemnation. We need to hear everything God says about His descending and ascending.
Christ is Always the Point
God came down on Mt. Sinai and delivered His law. But in that delivery, although we sometimes miss the point, God never misses the point. What is the point of the whole law? Christ is the point, purpose, or end of the law for everyone who believes.
“For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth. For Moses describeth the righteousness which is of the law, That the man which doeth those things shall live by them. But the righteousness which is of faith speaketh on this wise, Say not in thine heart, Who shall ascend into heaven? (that is, to bring Christ down from above:) Or, Who shall descend into the deep? (that is, to bring up Christ again from the dead.) But what saith it? The word is nigh thee, even in thy mouth, and in thy heart: that is, the word of faith, which we preach; That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Rom. 10:4–10).
Christ can descend all by Himself. No one needs to go fetch Him, and no one could fetch Him. Christ was raised from the dead by the power of His Father and His Spirit, but He was not passive. He took His life up again (John 10:17). No one needed to go help.
Gut or Grace
Gut it out and fail, or grace it out and walk right in. The righteousness that is of the law talks this way. The man who does these things, this man is a doer of righteousness. Unfortunately, this man does not exist.
The righteousness that is of faith says that you shouldn’t and can’t go up to Heaven to get Christ. The righteousness that is of faith says that you shouldn’t and can’t go down into Hades to make Him rise from the dead. The reason is for this is that all of this has already happened. Why go do what has been done? Why go off to do what you couldn’t do anyway? The word of faith which we preach is the declaration that all of this has been done. What Christ said from the cross can also be said over every step of this glorious ladder between Heaven and earth. It is finished. That’s done. And now that. And now that. The last that is you in glory.
Christ has descended, first to earth, where He ascended the cross. Having ascended the cross, He descended to Hades. Having descended to Hades, He rose from the dead, and ascended into Heaven, where He now sits on the right hand of God the Father. This is your hope, this is your joy, this is your crown, this is your salvation. Walk in it.