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By Stephen Green (First Published in Christian Voice April 2005)
Acts 1:1 The former treatise have I made, O Theophilus, of all that Jesus began both to do and teach,
2 Until the day in which he was taken up, after that he through the Holy Ghost had given commandments unto the apostles whom he had chosen: ...
6 When they therefore were come together, they asked of him, saying, Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?
7 And he said unto them, It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.
8 But ye shall receive power, after that the Holy Ghost is come upon you: and ye shall be witnesses unto me both in Jerusalem, and in all Judaea, and in Samaria, and unto the uttermost part of the earth.
9 And when he had spoken these things, while they beheld, he was taken up; and a cloud received him out of their sight.
10 And while they looked stedfastly toward heaven as he went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel;
11 Which also said, Ye men of Galilee, why stand ye gazing up into heaven? this same Jesus, which is taken up from you into heaven, shall so come in like manner as ye have seen him go into heaven.
God is not expected to intervene these days in the affairs of men and need not be overmuch bothered by prayerful petitions. The mere mention of God Almighty - in the person of Jesus Christ truly risen, ascended, glorified, enthroned in heavenly splendour - appears to be something of an embarrassment in political quarters. Much of the church today also seems to hold that religion has little to do with politics, and that God is neither the sovereign law-maker nor even much interested in the ordinary things of life.
THEOLOGY OF INCARNATION
But is that in accordance with a true Biblical faith? I don't think so, and an important tool for seeing why is found in what I describe as 'the feast the Church forgot'. We Christians often tend to overemphasise one aspect of our faith. For some, and at the risk of caricature, it is the Incarnation, which a large part of the church celebrates at Christmas. The focus of attention is the profound mystery that God Himself became part of His creation, born as a baby at a certain place and time to a human mother. He became Immanuel - God with us. But what would be the result of an over-emphasis of this event? We would concentrate on what Jesus did on earth, on His healings, on His compassion for the poor and the outcast, and on His command to "Love thy neighbour as thyself" (Matt 22:37; cf Lev 19:18) rather than the preceding "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and with all they should and with all thy mind" (Matt 22:39; cf Deut 6:5). Loving thy neighbour is the outworking of loving God, but we could forget the next life while concentrating on this one. It was said by his critics that Archbishop William Temple (1881-1944) owed his socialist point of view to having a 'theology of incarnation' rather than a 'theology of redemption.'
What was meant appears to be that Temple and other exponents of the 'social gospel' tended to see Jesus uniquely in the face of the poor. We do truly exercise our duty to Christ when we feed and clothe the poor, because faith without works is dead. The Church should be much more involved in the local community. But it was alleged that in this 'theology', good works and social action abounded, whilst preaching the Gospel of the forgiveness of sins was neglected. The law of God was inconvenient in the demands it made on everyone. Going further, were not the poor more sinned against than sinning? The church would do more good righting the wrongs suffered by the poor than preaching at them. This 'theology of incarnation is very much alive in the Church today.
THEOLOGY OF REDEMPTION
But conversely, a theology of redemption in isolation - held in many evangelical churches - brings its own dangers. It is vital for us to remember the completed work the Lord did upon the Cross. Without it we should have no standing before God at all. We are wretched sinners justified in faith by His grace and His saving work alone. We are gloriously redeemed, as Job foretold. However, those who over-emphasise this aspect of His work are grateful for their redemption, but commonly find themselves stuck in a mode of perpetual thanksgiving without ever going forward into obedience or service. I once heard a worship leader in an evangelical church introduce the Christmas carol service by saying: "Christmas is a very special time, but we must never forget what Jesus did for us on the cross." A bemused congregation, expecting "Once in Royal David's City", then sang Matt Redman's "Jesus Christ, I think upon your sacrifice." "He led me to the cross."
The adherents of 'Redemption Theology' preach God not interested in the world. The Gospel becomes merely pie-in-the-sky when you die. The rich man is in his castle, the poor man at the gate. And there they will stay, made happy with their lot by the knowledge that their sin is each forgiven. Politics is for politicians, the church has higher, spiritual things on its mind, and God can just keep out of what pertains to Caesar.
So I would argue that the Theology of Incarnation is not spiritual enough, whilst the Theology of Redemption is insufficiently practical. Neither has the complete picture of God's involvement with the world, and neither fully satisfies the hunger of man for something big to believe in. Both theologies also stray in their separate ways into teaching that the Law of God was an Old Testament thing which has now gone in a new Dispensation. Since the Law of God is where God says how He wants human life organised, there is a vast vacuum in consequence, and it is the nature of vacuums to be quickly filled. In the west the vacuum has been filled by humanism and messianic politicians promising the earth. In the east the vacuum has been filled by militant Islam, which declares that 'Allah' has a lot to say about the affairs of the world, indeed that Islam embodies a rule for the whole of life. Sadly, the Reformers held that to be true of Christianity, and my point is that the modern church has lost an ancient truth. There is another interesting example of the filling of the vacuum in the West Indies.
In the thirties, economic conditions there were bad, and black people were especially poor, as a legacy of slavery. But all the black churches had had to offer for generations was a theology of redemption. We see this in the Negro spirituals. 'Nobody knows the trouble I see', 'Deep River', 'Little David play on your harp,' 'When I get to heaven gonna put on my wings,' and so on. It is all saying 'Things are bad here and we can't suggest any way to change them. All we can do is look forward to heaven.' Consequently, when Ras Tafari was crowned emperor in Ethiopia, fulfilling what Marcus Garvey predicted three years before, an earthly salvation could suddenly be seen. Rastafarianism grew in Jamaica by reason of the church opting out of the material realm. 'Back to Africa' is a sad unrealisable dream, but to the oppressed it offered hope in the here and now. Bringing faith down to earth has a good consequence in personal life: To this day Rastafarian practitioners try to live a holy life in their own terms and hunger and thirst after righteousness in a way which ought to put a large majority of Christians to shame.
FINDING A BALANCE
I wonder if there is a sense in which a Theology of Incarnation emphasises Jesus as man, and inclines towards the Arian heresy, whilst a Theology of Redemption sees Him more as God, and tends towards Gnosticism? What is certain is that the two 'theologies' are not coherent on their own, nor can they remain mutually exclusive. Incarnation and redemption are inextricably linked. Jesus was truly man, and we should do as He taught in the parable of the sheep and goats recorded in Matthew 25. Faith without works, we know from the Epistle of James, is dead. But all works without that sweet knowledge of salvation found in the finished work of Jesus on the cross is dry. Feeding the hungry on its own does not get us to heaven. Charitable work is not a redeemer.
We must have a balance between incarnation and redemption. Yet even if we succeed in balancing these two, the two taken together still do not teach the whole of the Christian message. Jesus is still not big enough. There is still no prophetic message for a world hungry for truth. The church is still less than relevant until it preaches Jesus not just as God Incarnate, not just as Teacher, not even just as Priest and Sacrifice, but as King of kings. And that means looking at Him in His place in heaven enthroned in glory. Some in the church do sing songs about Jesus as King of kings, but they rarely think through the implications of that title, because they have forgotten Christ's glorious Ascension.
Hardly anybody marks the Lord's Ascension today, except for a few high-churchmen on a Thursday evening in May. But even they, and those who do not celebrate days as such, rarely recognise the Ascension of our Lord Jesus Christ for the enormity of what it means. It seems to me, from the Lord's words on earth, that His Ascension accomplished two main objectives: Firstly, He returned as High Priest into the Holy of Holies, and was able to send the Holy Spirit, without whom the birth of the church as the body of Christ would never have possible. Secondly, He went to receive all the power, riches, wisdom, strength, honour, glory and blessing due to His Name, and thereby to defeat Satan and lead captivity captive. In the words of His parable in Luke 19, He went to receive a kingdom, so that in due time He could return in judgment. Perhaps that is what is wrong with study of the Lord's Ascension in some eyes; it speaks of His demand to rule over the nations and His coming return in righteousness to judge and make war. Folk don't like either of those today, but without due respect to the Ascension, and likewise to the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and the Resurrection of the Lord, our faith lacks balance.
RESTORING THE KINGDOM
The two functions of Ascension are brought out by Luke in the opening of the book of Acts. Firstly he says that his Gospel was an account of 'all that Jesus began both to do and teach, until the day in which he was taken up.' Luke implies that by the Holy Spirit He will continue to do and teach through the church, which will be His body until His return. Secondly, Luke records the answer of Jesus to the question central in the apostles' mind: 'Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom to Israel?' They have an idea that what is about to happen is to do with heavenly rule on earth. The Lord does not object to their underlying assumption, He merely says, 'It is not for you to know the times or the seasons, which the Father hath put in his own power.' In other words, 'I shall do that in the Father's good time. Do not waste your time looking out for it.'
Luke himself records the parable of the Kingdom immediately before the Lord's triumphal entry into Jerusalem; we are intended to see the link and marvel at the mystery of the King declaring His right to the throne of David before having gone into the far country to receive both that throne and those of all the kingdoms of the world. It is plain from the parable both that we are to be busy about the King's business, may He forgive us when we occupy ourselves with our own pleasures, and that non-believers will object to His right to the kingdom.
GOD IS GONE UP
Psalm 47, that great prophetic psalm of Ascension, makes the strongest possible connection between that event, and God's righteous rule, and what should be our reaction:
Ps. 47:1 O clap your hands, all ye people; shout unto God with the voice of triumph.
2 For the LORD most high is terrible; he is a great King over all the earth.
Ps. 47:5 God is gone up with a shout, the LORD with the sound of a trumpet.
6 Sing praises to God, sing praises: sing praises unto our King, sing praises.
7 For God is the King of all the earth: sing ye praises with understanding.
8 God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of his holiness.
9 The princes of the people are gathered together, even the people of the God of Abraham: for the shields of the earth belong unto God: he is greatly exalted.
In the opening two verses the Psalmist urges the people to clap and shout with triumph, and speaks of God's claim to rule the whole earth, and again in verse 7, whilst he urges the people no less than five times to sing praises, the last time with understanding, knowing that we shall share in His triumph. Five times also the psalmist sings of God's rule: it is over all the earth, of all the earth, over the heathen, upon the throne of his holiness, possessing the shields of the earth. God is terrible, and highly exalted. A cuddly God, and a huggy Jesus, are nowhere to be seen in Psalm 47. Psalm 68, quoted by Paul to the Ephesians, speaks again of God's judgment and righteousness, and the Lord's Ascension:
Ps. 68:5 A father of the fatherless, and a judge of the widows, is God in his holy habitation.
Ps. 68:18 Thou hast ascended on high, thou hast led captivity captive: thou hast received gifts for men; yea, for the rebellious also, that the LORD God might dwell among them.
The voices in heaven in the Revelation to John remember the words of Exodus 15:18 when they say: 'The kingdoms of this world are become the kingdoms of our Lord and of his Christ; and he shall reign for ever and ever.' Truly we have a great hope and serve a great king. The kingdom of heaven may indeed only be truly present in the hearts of believers now, but that does not mean that God will not bless that nation which obeys Him, and curse the one which disobeys. Nor does it mean that Christ Himself has abandoned His claim to establish His rule of law over all the kingdoms of the world. He has received them, they are already His possession.
The Ascension of the Lord puts Satan's claim in the second Temptation into context.
Luke 4:5: And the devil, taking him up into an high mountain, shewed unto him all the kingdoms of the world in a moment of time.
6: And the devil said unto him, All this power will I give thee, and the glory of them: for that is delivered unto me; and to whomsoever I will I give it.
7: If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.
8: And Jesus answered and said unto him, Get thee behind me, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.
Satan's claim may have been true then - if not, it would not be the first time he had lied - but he cannot make the same claim now. Since Jesus’ Ascension, which itself was only possible because of His obedience to the cross and His power to take His life up again, the kingdoms of the world owe allegiance to Jesus Christ. Satan has them, that is true, but his possession of them has now been ruled unlawful. Like a squatter with an eviction notice against him, he knows his time is short.
THE WHOLE MINISTRY OF JESUS
Anyone who confronts the social evils of his day will be accused by pietists of having a 'Theology of Incarnation' and neglecting the church's mission of preaching the gospel. With our declaration that the laws of our land may, theologically and constitutionally, only be based on the Laws of God, which will never be repealed, and, in the words of the British Coronation service, that the whole world is subject to Christ our Redeemer, perhaps Christian Voice will also be accused also of having a 'Theology of Ascension.'
In one sense, perhaps it is time that someone did have such a 'theology'. After all: The Lord shall reign forever and ever (Exod 15:18). The reality, of course, is that whenever we go out to witness against the evils of our day, Christian Voice people are preaching the Gospel, motivated by love of God and love of neighbour. Yet it is still undeniable that His Ascension draws the whole ministry of Jesus together. He is Creator, Law-giver, Saviour, Prophet, Priest and King, after the order of Melchizedek. Jesus Christ omnipotent reigneth, and the kingdoms of the world are His alone. Equally, God's Incarnation demonstrates that He is interested in the affairs of men, and yes, He desires justice for all, even in this fallen world. At the same time, men and women will sin, and the Holy Spirit calls sinners to repentance. Only at the foot of the cross we can find redemption and forgiveness. Theology is the attempt of feeble men to understand God. Any 'theology' will necessarily be partial. But I believe that when we bury our preconceptions and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us through the Scriptures to the mind of God in Christ, everything, Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, Ascension included, falls into place.
A CONCLUDING PRAYER
May Almighty God, Sovereign of the Universe, bless and strengthen us in the days ahead. May He give us a burden to witness against the sins of our land. May He give us a hunger and a thirst for righteousness. May He make us bearers of the Gospel of peace. May He grant a spirit of repentance in our hearts, in the heart of families, in the leaderships of churches, and in the corridors of power, in the hearts of the Queen and her ministers. May Jesus Christ come again in glory soon so all may see Him as rightful King of kings. And may He grant that sweet knowledge of salvation to us and those we love and pray for.
SCRIPTURAL BASE: Gen 14:18-20; Ex 15:18; 1Sam 12:12; Psalm 2;47;68;110;146:10; Is 32:1, 33:5-16; Jer 23:05; Luke 1:33, 19:12-27, 24:51b; John 6:62, 20:17; Acts 1:1-11; Rom 15:12; 1Cor 15:25; Eph 4:8; Phil 2:9-11; 1Thess 4:16; 2Tim 2:12; Heb 1:3;6:20-7:3; Rev 5:10, 11:15, 20:6.