And what is the spot which he selects as the place of Ascension? -- What the favoured height or valley that is to listen to His farewell words? Still it is BETHANY -- the loved home of cherished friendship, where, so lately, hours of anticipated anguish had been mitigated and soothed. The spot which, above all others, had been witness to His tears and His Omnipotence, is selected as that from which, or near to which, He is to bid adieu to his sorrowing Church on earth. Although there seem to be no special reasons for this selection, we cannot think it was altogether undesigned or insignificant. Our Lord was still MAN -- participating in every tender feeling of our common nature; and just as many are known in life to express a partiality for the place of their departure, where they would desire their last hours to be spent, or for the sepulchre or churchyard where they would prefer their ashes to be laid; -- so may we not imagine the Saviour, reverting in these, His last hours, to the hallowed memories of that hallowed village, wishful that He might ascend to heaven within view, at least, of the spot He loved so well?
Whether this be the true explanation or no, we are called now to follow Him, in thought, from His concluding visit in Jerusalem to the scene of Ascension. We may imagine it, in all likelihood, the early dawn of day. The grey mists of morning were still hovering over the Jehoshaphat valley, as for the last time he descended the well-known path. He must have crossed the brook KEDRON -- that brook which had so oft before murmured in His ear during night-seasons of deep sorrow -- He must have passed by GETHSEMANE -- the thick Olives pendant with dew, the shadows of early day still brooding over them. Their gloomy vistas must have recalled terrible hours, when the sod underneath was moistened with "great drops of blood." Can we dare to imagine His sensations and feelings when passing now? Would they not be the same as that of every Christian still, while passing through memories of trial, "It was good for me to be here?" Had He dashed untasted to the ground, the cup which in the depths of that awful solitude He had grasped six weeks before, His work would have been undone -- a world yet unsaved! But He shrunk not from that baptism of blood and suffering. Gethsemane can now be gazed upon as a place of triumph. His Omniscient eye, as He now skirts its precincts, connects its awful struggles with the Redemption and joy of ransomed myriads through all eternity. He has the first realising earnest of the prophet's words, -- Seeing of the fruit of "the travail of His soul," He is "satisfied."
But vain is it to conjecture feelings and emotions unrecorded. It would, doubtless, not be on Himself the Great Redeemer would, in these waning hours of earthly communion, chiefly dwell. They would rather be occupied in preparing the hearts of the sorrowful band around Him for His approaching departure. He would unfold to them the glorious conquests which, in His name, they were on earth to achieve, as His standard-bearers and apostles, and the ineffable bliss awaiting them in that Heaven whither He was about to ascend as their Forerunner and Precursor. It must indeed have been to them a season of severe and bitter trial! They had in their hearts a full and tender impression -- a gushing recollection of three years' unvarying kindness and affection -- sorrows soothed -- burdens eased -- ingratitude overlooked -- treachery forgiven. Many others they could only think of in connexion with altered tones and changed affection. He was ever the same! But the sad day has really come when they are to be parted for time! No more tender counsels in difficulty, -- no more gentle rebukes in waywardness, -- no more joyous surprises, as on the shores of Tiberias, or the road to Emmaus, when, with joyful lips, they would exclaim, -- "It is the Lord!" This dream of blissful intercourse, like a meteor-flash, was about to be quenched in darkness. Their Lord was to depart, and long, long centuries were to elapse ere His gracious face was to be seen again!
Whether, in this ever-memorable walk to the place of Ascension, the Adorable Redeemer visited the village of Bethany, we cannot tell. It is possible -- it is more than possible -- He may have honoured the home of Lazarus with a farewell benediction; but this we can only conjecture. All the notice we have regarding it is: that "He led them out as far as to Bethany;" that He there lifted up His hands and blessed them; and was from thence taken up to Heaven. Honoured hamlet! thus to be alone mentioned in connexion with the closing scene in this mighty drama! He selected not Bethlehem, where angel hosts had chanted His praise; nor Tabor, where celestial beings had hovered around Him in homage; nor Calvary, where riven rocks and bursting grave-stones had proclaimed His deity; nor the Temple-court, in all its sumptuous glory, where for ages His own Shekinah had blazed in mystic splendour; but He hallows afresh the name of a lowly Village; He consecrates a Home of love. BETHANY is the last spot which lingers on His view, as the cloud comes down and receives Him out of sight.
Let us gather for a little in imagination on this sacred ground. Let us note a few of the interesting thoughts which cluster around it, and listen to the Saviour's farewell themes of converse there with His beloved disciples.
(1.) He cheers their hearts with the promised baptism of the Holy Ghost. -- "John," He had said, a few hours before, at His last meeting with them in Jerusalem, "truly baptized with water; but ye shall be baptized with the Holy Ghost not many days hence." He, moreover, enjoined them to linger in the Holy City, and wait this "promise of the Father" which "they had heard of Him;" and now, once more, when on the eve of Ascension, He speaks of the coming of the same Holy Ghost to qualify them for their future work.
This, we know, was the great topic of consolation with which He had often before soothed their hearts at the thought of parting. He was to leave them; -- but an Almighty Paraclete or Comforter was to take His place, whose gracious presence would more than compensate for the withdrawal of His own. For when, on the intimation of His coming departure, He observed that sorrow was filling their hearts -- "It is expedient," said He, "for you that I go away: for if I go not away, the Comforter will not come unto you; but if I depart, I will send him unto you."
Now that the anticipated hour is come, He reverts to the same omnipotent ground of comfort; -- that this Divine Enlightener, Cheerer, Sanctifier, would fill up the gap His own withdrawal would make. They were about to enter on a new dispensation -- the dispensation of the SPIRIT -- and the approaching Pentecost was to give them a pledge and earnest of His mighty agency in the conversion of souls.
Jesus, our adorable Lord, has ascended to "His Father and our Father -- to His God and our God!" We, like the disciples, have to mourn the denial of His personal presence. His Church is left widowed and lonely by reason of His departure. But have we known, in our experience, the value of the great compensating boon here spoken of? Have we known, in the midst of our weakness and wants, our griefs and sorrows, the power and grace of the promised Paraclete? It is to be feared we do not realise or value His blessed agency as we ought. To what is much of the deadness, and dullness, and languor of our frames to be traced -- the poverty of our faith, the lukewarmness of our love, the coldness of our Sabbath services, the little hold and influence of divine things upon us? Is it not to the feeble realisation of the quickening, life-giving power of this Divine Agent? "It is the Spirit that quickeneth." Church of the living God! if you would awake from your slumber and apathy; if you would exhibit among your members more faithfulness, more zeal, more love, more unselfishness, more union -- if you would buckle on your armour for fresh conquests in the outlying wastes of heathenism, it will be by a fresh baptism of the Holy Ghost! Another Pentecost will usher in the Millennial morning. The showers of His benign influences will form the prelude to the world's great Spiritual Harvest. "Pray ye, then, the Lord of the Harvest," that His Spirit may "come down like rain upon the mown grass, and as showers that water the earth," and that the promise regarding the latter-day glory may be fulfilled -- "I will pour down My Spirit upon all flesh." Or would you have Jesus made more precious to your own soul? Would you see more of His matchless excellences, -- the glories of His person and work, -- His suitableness and adaptation to all the wants and weaknesses, the sorrows and temptations, of your tried and tempted natures. Pray for this gracious Unfolder of the Saviour's character. This is one of His most precious offices -- as the Revealer of Jesus. "He shall glorify Me; for He shall receive of Mine, and shall shew it unto you!"
(2.) Another theme of Christ's converse, when within sight of Bethany, was the nature of His Kingdom -- "Lord, wilt thou at this time restore again the kingdom of Israel?" was the inquiry of the disciples. "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."
The thoughts of His followers were clinging to the last to the dream of earthly sovereignty. How difficult it is to get even the renewed and regenerated mind to understand and realise Heavenly things, and to wean it from what is of the earth earthy! He checks their presumption -- He tells them these are questions which they may not pry into. There is to be no present fulfilment of these visions of millennial glory. That day and that hour are to be wrapt in unrevealed and impenetrable secrecy. The Church may not attempt rashly and inquisitively to lift the veil. She is not to know the time of the Saviour's appearing, that she may live every day in the frame she would wish to be found in when the cry shall be heard, "Behold the Bridegroom cometh." The apostolic band are, in the first instance, to be cross-bearers, as He their Master was, -- witnesses to His sufferings, earthen vessels, defamed, persecuted, reviled, -- before they become partakers of His purchased happiness and bliss!
Nevertheless, it was a grand and glorious mission He sketched out for them. How worthy of HIMSELF -- of his loving, forgiving, unselfish Spirit -- was the opening clause in that wondrous Missionary Charter He then put into their hands. Even at the moment when all the memory of Jewish ingratitude was fresh on His heart, He inserts a wondrous provision of mercy and grace. They were to proclaim His name through the wide world; but was JERUSALEM (the scene of His ignominy) to form an exception? Nay, rather they were to begin there! The Gospel-Trumpet was to be sounded in its streets. The assassins of Gethsemane, the murderers of Calvary were to listen to the first offers of pardon and reconciliation -- "And He said unto them ... that repentance and remission of sins should be preached in His name among all nations, beginning at Jerusalem!" Precious warrant, surely, are these words to "the chief of sinners" to repair to this gracious Saviour. If even for "the Jerusalem sinner" there is mercy, can there be ground for one human being to despair?
But "beginning" at Jerusalem, the Gospel Commission did not end there? It was to embrace, first, "Judea," then "Samaria," then "the uttermost parts of the earth." The ascending Redeemer's expansive heart took in with a vast sweep the wide circle of humanity. From the elevated ridge of Olivet, on which He now stood with the arrested group around Him, He might tell them to gaze, in thought at least, far north beyond the Cedar Heights of Lebanon and Hermon; -- Southward to the desert and the Isles of the Ocean; -- Westward to the fair lands washed by the Great Sea; -- Eastward across the palm-trees of Bethany and the chain of Moabite mountains on unexplored continents, where heathenism still revelled in its rites and orgies of impurity and blood. With Palestine as their centre and starting-point, the vast World was to be their circumference. The Gospel was to be preached "as a witness to all nations." The Great Mission-Angel was to "fly through the midst of Heaven," having its everlasting truths to "preach to every nation, and kindred, and tongue, and people."
Are we faithfully fulfilling our Lord's farewell Apostolic Commission? As members of the Church of God, component parts of the Royal Priesthood, are we doing what lies in our power, that His name, and doctrine, and salvation, be proclaimed to the uttermost parts of the earth? Or is it so, that we are looking coldly, suspiciously, indifferently on the Church's efforts in the cause of Missions, suffering her funds to fail, and her schemes to languish, and her devoted servants to sink in discouragement? Or rather, are we prepared to incur the responsibility of heathen souls, through our neglect, passing hour by hour into eternity, with a Saviour's name unheard of, and a Saviour's love unknown? Go to the Rocky ridge above BETHANY, and listen to the parting injunction of our Great Master. His last words, ere the cloud received Him to glory, were Missionary words, a Missionary appeal, a pleading for the Gospel being sent to heathen shores. Ah! our own Britain was then among the number! If the Apostolic Company had in these days, like many among ourselves, refused, on the ground of the home-heathen in Judea, to send any of their band abroad, where would we have been at this hour? With our Druids' altars, our bloody sacrifices, our cruel rites! But their best and noblest were commissioned to speed from port to port in the Mediterranean and the Isles of the Gentiles, with the Gospel errand on their lips, and the blessing of God on their labours! All honour to these leal-hearted men, who, in spite of national and hereditary prejudices, implicitly followed the will of their Lord and Master, who had given to them, as He has given to us, a great Missionary motto -- "THE FIELD IS THE WORLD!"
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And now His themes of instruction and comfort are over -- He is about to Ascend! The symbolic cloud -- (invariable emblem of Deity) -- comes down to conduct Him to His throne. What a moment was that! Glory in view -- the hallelujahs of angels floating in His ear -- the air thronged with celestial hosts waiting as His retinue to bear Him upwards; -- all heaven in eager expectancy for her returning Lord. And yet -- how is He employed? Is the world, that had so disowned Him, disowned now in return? Are the disciples, who have so oft deserted Him, now deserted in return? -- their name forgotten in the thought of the loftier spirits who are to gather around Him in the skies? Nay, His every thought is centered on the weeping band of earth. "He lifted up his hands and blessed them!" His last words are those of mercy -- His last act is outstretching His arms to bless! It was an act replete with meaning to the Church of God in every age. Jesus, when He was last seen on earth, wore no terror on His lips -- but He left our world pouring a benediction on His redeemed people.
There is something, moreover, significant in the recorded fact that "WHILE He blessed them, He was parted from them!" The Benediction was unfinished when the cloud bore Him away! As they gazed upwards and upwards till that glorious form was diminishing in the blue sky above, still His hands were extended; -- the last dim vision which lingered on their memories was the True High Priest blessing the representative Israel of God! It would seem as if He wished to indicate that the act begun on earth was to be carried on and perpetuated in heaven -- that though parted from them, His outstretched arms would still plead for them on the Throne. His voice could no longer be heard -- but His blessing still would continue to descend till He came again!
Wondrous close to a wondrous life! We have traversed in thought many other memorials of Bethany. We have stood by the gate where Martha met her Lord -- the silent sepulchre which listened to the voice of Omnipotence -- the holy home where friendship was realised such as earth never before or since beheld. But surely not less sacred or hallowed than any of these is the scene presented on the green ridge rising to the west of the village, overlooking its groves of palm. Before superstition ventured to raise its cumbrous monument on the heights of Olivet, may we not think of the scene of the Ascension, rather in connexion with three living Temples? May we not think of it as oft and again visited by Martha, and Mary, and Lazarus? May we not well imagine it would form a hallowed retirement for solemn meditation! Amid more sorrowful thoughts, connected with their Lord's absence from them, would they not there often muse in holy joy over the now fulfilled prophetic strains of their minstrel King? -- "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."
Do we love also to linger in spirit on that spot, and listen to that benediction? -- "Blessed," we read, "are they that know the joyful sound." In these words there is a beautiful allusion to the sound of the pendant bells on the vestment of the High Priest in the Jewish temple of old. When the assembled multitudes in the outer court heard their music within the holiest of all, it conveyed the assurance that the High Priest was there, actively engaged in his official duties -- sprinkling the Mercy Seat with blood, and pleading for the nation. They felt "blessedness" in hearing and knowing "that joyful sound." Beautiful type of JESUS the Great High Priest within the veil! We seem, as we behold Him standing on the crest of Olivet, to listen to the first note of these gladsome chimes. He leaves His Church proclaiming nothing but blessings. As He rises upwards, and the diminishing cloud recedes from sight, still the music of benediction seems to float on the calm morning air. The Golden Bells are sounding -- and though the celestial notes cease, it is only distance which renders them inaudible. They are still pendant at His Royal Priestly robes, telling us that still He intercedes! Oh, let us now hear His benediction! Let the comforting thought follow us wherever we go -- "Jesus is pleading for me within the Veil." He left this world blessing -- He is engaged in blessing still. "HE EVER LIVETH TO MAKE INTERCESSION FOR US."