Thursday, March 4, 2021

The Giver of Gifts

"This is why it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captives in His train and gave gifts to men.” (Ephesians 4:8)

We don’t pay enough attention to the doctrine of the ascension of Christ. Most of us think of it only as Jesus’ going up into heaven after He was finished with His work. There is a lot more to it than that.

In the Old Testament, the tabernacle was routinely put on a hill, so that people went up to it. The temple was built on a mountain inside Jerusalem, and the Psalms of Ascent record the people’s ascension to the temple at the festivals (Psalms 120–134). This was the “hill of the Lord,” the true “high place.” Also, the sacrifice called the Whole Burnt Offering is literally in Hebrew the Ascension Offering; the animal, representing the sinner, ascended in smoke on the altar into God’s presence.

The ascension of the King was his enthronement as he went up into the city of David. Similarly, after any battle, the spoils were brought up to God’s house, and the captives led up into Jerusalem. Thus, the idea of ascending is associated with victory and enthronement as well as with entering God’s presence.

Ephesians 4:8 draws from the Old Testament to say that when Jesus ascended to His throne He brought captives with Him. Those captives are the ones He has defeated, in the sense of destroying their sin and setting them free. In short, the captives He presents to the Father are His people.

But Jesus’ ascension was unique beyond all the preliminary ascensions of the Old Testament. This is because before He ascended to heaven, He first descended “to the depths of the earth” (v. 9). This does not refer to His death and burial, but to His incarnation. Remember that man is made of earth, and so taking on human flesh is a descent to the earth. Because of sin, man’s earthiness is corrupt, and Jesus, while He did not have a sin nature, still took upon Himself a body liable to corruption and death. This was His descent into the depths of earthiness.

Now, however, He has ascended high above all other things. God has given the universe into His charge, and His first act, at Pentecost, was to send the gift of the Spirit to create and empower the new community of the church.

As Paul discusses the unity of the church, he does not want us to lose our focus on Jesus Christ. All that we are given is due to His work, and all is a gift given by Him. As you bow before Him now, reflect upon His ascension and His gracious rule over your life and over all the universe.