WE have reached the close of the great Gospel of the energies of Jesus, His toils, His manner, His searching gaze, His noble indignation, His love of children, the consuming zeal by virtue of which He was not more truly the Lamb of God than the Lion of the tribe of Judah. St. Mark has just recorded how He bade His followers carry on His work, defying the serpents of the world, and renewing the plague-stricken race of Adam. In what strength did they fulfill this commission? How did they fare without the Master? And what is St. Mark's view of the Ascension?
Here, as all through the Gospel, minor points are neglected. Details are only valued when they carry some aid for the special design of the Evangelist, who presses to the core of his subject at once and boldly. As he omitted the bribes with which Satan tempted Jesus, and cared not for the testimony of the Baptist when the voice of God was about to peal from heaven over the Jordan, as on the holy mount he told not the subject of which Moses and Elijah spoke, but how Jesus Himself predicted His death to His disciples, so now he is silent about the mountain slope, the final benediction, the cloud which withdrew Him from their sight and the angels who sent back the dazed apostles to their homes and their duties. It is not caprice nor haste that omits so much interesting information. His mind is fixed on a few central thoughts; what concerns him is to link the mighty story of the life and death of Jesus with these great facts, that He was received up into Heaven, that He there sat down upon the right hand of God, and that His disciples were never forsaken of Him at all, but proved, by the miraculous spread of the early Church, that His power was among them still. St. Mark does not record the promise, but he asserts the fact that Christ was with them all the days. There is indeed a connection between his two closing verses, subtle and hard to render into English, and yet real, which suggests the notion of balance, of relation between the two movements, the ascent of Jesus, and the evangelization of the world, such as exists, for example, between detachments of an army cooperating for a common end, so that our Lord, for His part, ascended, while the disciples, for their part, went forth and found Him with them still.
But the link is plainer which binds the Ascension to His previous story of suffering and conflict. It was "then," and "after He had spoken unto them," that "the Lord Jesus was received up." In truth His ascension was but the carrying forward to completion of His resurrection, which was not a return to the poor conditions of our mortal life, but an entrance into glory, only arrested in its progress until He should have quite convinced His followers that "it is I indeed," and made them understand that "thus it is written that the Christ should suffer, and rise again from the dead the third day," and filled them with holy shame for their unbelief, and with courage for their future course, so strange, so weary, so sublime.
There is something remarkable in the words, "He was received up into heaven." We habitually speak of Him as ascending, but Scripture more frequently declares that He was the subject of the action of another, and was taken up. St. Luke tells us that, "while they worshipped, He was carried up into heaven," and again "He was received up . . . He was taken up" (Luke 24:51; Acts 1:2, 9). Physical interference is not implied: no angels bore Him aloft; and the narratives make it clear that His glorious Body, obedient to its new mysterious nature, arose unaided. But the decision to depart, and the choice of a time, came not from Him: He did not go, but was taken. Never hitherto had He glorified Himself. He had taught His disciples to be contented in the lowest room until the Master of the house should bid them come up higher. And so, when His own supreme victory is won, and heaven held its breath expectant and astonished, the conquering Lord was content to walk with peasants by the Lake of Galilee and on the slopes of Olivet until the appointed time. What a rebuke to us who chafe and fret if the recognition of our petty merits be postponed.
"He was received up into heaven!" What sublime mysteries are covered by that simple phrase. It was He who taught us to make, even of the mammon of unrighteousness, friends who shall welcome us, when mammon fails and all things mortal have deserted us, into everlasting habitations. With what different greetings, then, do men enter the City of God. Some converts of the death bed perhaps there are, who scarcely make their way to heaven, alone, unhailed by one whom they saved or comforted, and like a vessel which struggles into port, with rent cordage and tattered sails, only not a wreck. Others, who aided some few, sparing a little of their means and energies, are greeted and blessed by a scanty group. But even our chieftains and leaders, the martyrs, sages and philanthropists whose names brighten the annals of the Church, what is their influence, and how few have they reached, compared with that great multitude whom none can number, or all nations and tribes and peoples and tongues, who cry with a loud voice, Salvation unto our God who sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. Through Him it pleased the Father to reconcile all things unto Himself, through Him, whether things upon the earth or things in the heavens. And surely the supreme hour in the history of the universe was when, in flesh, the sore stricken but now the all-conquering Christ re-entered His native heaven.
And He "sat down at the right hand of God." The expression is, beyond all controversy, borrowed from that great Psalm which begins by saying, "The Lord said unto my Lord, Sit thou at My right hand," and which presently makes the announcement never revealed until then, "Thou art a Priest forever after the order of Melchizedek" (Psalm 110:1, 4). It is there for an anticipation of the argument for the royal Priesthood of Jesus which is developed in the Epistle to the Hebrews. Now priesthood is a human function: every high priest is chosen from among men. And the Ascension proclaims to us, not the Divinity of the Eternal Word but the glorification of "the Lord Jesus;" not the omnipotence of God the Son, but that all power is committed unto Him Who is not ashamed to call us brethren, that His human hands wield the scepter as once they held the reed, and the brows then insulted and torn with thorns are now crowned with many crowns. In the overthrow of Satan He won all, and infinitely more than all, of that vast bribe which Satan once offered for His homage, and the angels forever worship Him who would not for a moment bend His knee to evil.
Now since He conquered not for Himself but as Captain of our Salvation, the Ascension also proclaims the issue of all the holy suffering, all the baffled efforts, all the cross-bearing of all who follow Christ.
His High Priesthood is with authority. "Every high priest standeth," but He has forever sat down on the right hand of the throne of the majesty in the heavens, a Priest sitting upon His throne (Hebrews 8:1; Zechariah 6:13). And therefore it is His office, Who pleads for us and represents us, Himself to govern our destinies. No wonder that His early followers, with minds which He had opened to understand the Scriptures, were mighty to cast down strongholds. Against tribulation and anguish and persecution and famine and nakedness and peril and sword they were more than conquerors through Him. For He worked with them and confirmed His word with signs. And we have seen that He works with His people still, and still confirms His gospel, only withdrawing signs of one order as those of another kind are multiplied. Wherever they wage a faithful battle, He gives them victory. Whenever they cry to Him in anguish, the form of the Son of God is with them in the furnace, and the smell of fire does not pass upon them. Where they come, the desert blossoms as a rose; and where they are received, the serpents of life no longer sting, its fevers grow cool, and the demons which rend it are cast out.