Taken up in Glory

‘Beyond all question, the mystery of godliness is great: He appeared in a body, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory’ (1 Timothy 3:16)

Forty days after Jesus suffered and died as the prophets foretold, and was raised again bodily, he gave parting instructions to his disciples and was taken up before their eyes into heaven: “After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight” (Acts 1:9).

At this time two messengers appeared in white and brought them the well-known consolation: ‘”Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven”‘ (Acts 1:11).

This text is often presented as proof that Jesus will return in human likeness, to dwell once more among mortal men and to commence at that time a millennial reign from an earthly throne.

In contrast with this idea, we learn from Scripture that the same Jesus who once ‘appeared in a body’ was ‘taken up in glory’ (1 Tim 3:16) and is now ‘exalted to the highest place’ so that every knee, whether in heaven, on earth or under the earth, should bow, and every tongue confess Him as Lord (Phil. 2: 9-11).

The ‘highest place’ is the right hand of God (Acts 2:33; Eph 1:20), where ‘in the heavenlies,’ God has put everything under His feet and has made Him to be head over all, ‘far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come’ (Eph 1:21).

The prophet Daniel foresaw the heavenly enthronement at the time of the Babylonian exile:

‘I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into His presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.’ (Dan. 7:13-14)

Son of Man refers to the status that Jesus assumed – the fleshly guise for which He gave up His divine splendour – having ‘no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him’ (Isaiah 53:2). He did this to reveal God’s nature – which we may perceive more freely when His brilliance and majesty are concealed. He who was ‘with God from the beginning’ (John 1:1-2) entered the fallen world through human birth and eschewing all social advantage and political authority, became the purest expression of God’s essential qualities that man can know.

The startling paradox in Daniel’s vision is that the One ‘like a son of man’ comes ‘in the clouds’. Elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, this association was made only in respect of the Most High, who ‘alone stretched out the heavens,’ who made ‘His pavilion around Him … thick clouds of the skies,’ who called to Moses from the cloud and later descended to him within it (Ps. 18:11; Ps 68:4; Ex. 24:15, 34:5, etc.)

When Jesus told the Sanhedrin, ‘in the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven,’ it was regarded as blasphemy and immediately led to his conviction on that charge.

The same event that Daniel sees in his vision, namely Jesus received into heaven at the end of His incarnate mission (‘coming with the clouds’ into the Divine Presence), the apostles saw from below, namely Jesus ascending to heaven in the cloud.

This is why the apostle Paul asks, with reference to Psalm 68:

“What does ‘he ascended’ mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.” (Ephesians 4:8-10)

At His ascension the humble guise that Jesus maintained even after His resurrection was set aside and He resumed His rightful place, not only as Son of God, but now also as Redeemer and Saviour of mankind, and its eternal, anointed Priest and King.

From His heavenly throne, He reigns on earth through the Holy Spirit, through whom He works among the faithful to will and to act according to His good purpose (Phil. 2:13). At the same time He is judging the world – by His gospel revealing the very thoughts and attitudes of the heart – so that nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight (Heb. 4:12).

Messiah’s delay in executing judgment is deliberate and an act of sovereign mercy, and does not mean, as some would have it that He is still waiting to receive power, dominion and authority at a future time, or that He does not reign supreme and victorious right now.

His delay serves to extend the opportunity for repentance, but also to lull the unfaithful into complacency and entice the rebellious into an ever more brazen defiance – so that the full extent of man’s evil may be exposed before His judgments are revealed from heaven. As Peter explains in his letter,

“the present heavens and earth are reserved for fire, being kept for the day of judgment and destruction of ungodly men. But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything in it will be laid bare.” (2 Peter 3:8-10)

Peter equates the Day of Salvation, the ‘age of mercy’ and the ‘the thousand years’ with this present age.

The saints must also reserve judgment until this time:

“Judge nothing before the appointed time; wait till the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts. At that time each will receive his praise from God.” (1 Corinthians 4:5)

Scriptures teach an immediate and decisive end to human defiance at the revelation of our LORD from heaven, and not the start of a prolonged engagement with conventional armies that culminates in an apocalyptic crisis after a thousand years.

At His first appearance, the Son of Man reveals God’s nature, submits himself to death at the hands of ungodly men, and makes atonement for sin. But, ‘when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels,’ He comes in the full manifestation of God’s glory, to ‘punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus’ (2 Thess. 1:7-8).

Significantly, where YHVH is depicted as coming on the clouds, it is for judgment:

“See, the LORD rides on a swift cloud and is coming to Egypt.
The idols of Egypt tremble before him,
and the hearts of the Egyptians melt within them.
‘I will stir up Egyptian against Egyptian –
brother will fight against brother, neighbour against neighbour,
city against city, kingdom against kingdom.
The Egyptians will lose heart,
and I will bring their plans to nothing … ‘”(Isaiah 19:1-3)

God’s wrath and anger would come upon “the Jew first” (Romans 2:8-9). Jesus alludes to the prophecy against Egypt when he warns the Sanhedrin, ‘in the future you will see the Son of Man … coming on the clouds of heaven,’ suggesting an analogous judgment upon unfaithful Israel in their own time. (Josephus bears witness to the extent of in-fighting and fratricide among the Jews before Jerusalem was destroyed in AD70.)

Not all the New Testament references to the coming of Jesus, or His coming on the clouds, or His glory being revealed from heaven, are thus to the Final Day at the end of the mortal age. The events of AD70 were a unique judgment on the generation of Jews that rejected Jesus, by which also Jesus was confirmed as a true prophet (through the fulfilment of His prophecies against Jerusalem and the Temple), and as King Messiah, enthroned ‘at the Right Hand of the Father in Heaven’ with all power to execute His prophetic judgments.

In Matthew 24, Jesus spoke of the things that would come upon ‘this generation,’ namely the generation that rejected and crucified him. In the parallel account in Luke 21 we read:

“When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, you will know that its desolation is near … At that time you will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory.” (verses 20 & 27)

Earlier, Jesus told the Twelve:

“When you are persecuted in one place, flee to another. I tell you the truth, you will not finish going through the cities of Israel before the Son of Man comes.” (Mat 10:23)

Jesus came in AD70 in the mode of Isaiah’s prophecy against Egypt. The ‘power and great glory’ spoken of in Matthew 24 and Luke 21 are not the consummate glory, when He comes to be ‘glorified in his saints, and to be admired by all those who believe’ (2 Thes 1:10), but rather the vindication glory that affirmed Him as righteous judge, true prophet and reigning King.

That God is glorified in the execution of His judgments is clear from Ezekiel 28 and 39.

“Thus saith the Lord GOD; Behold, I am against thee, O Zidon; and I will be glorified in the midst of thee: and they shall know that I am the LORD, when I shall have executed judgments in her, and shall be sanctified in her. For I will send into her pestilence, and blood into her streets; and the wounded shall be judged in the midst of her by the sword upon her on every side; and they shall know that I am the LORD. (Ezekiel 28:22-23)

As the execution of His judgments bring glory to God, so the converse is also true: God’s appearance in glory is in itself an act of judgment. For ‘who shall stand when He appears?’

The Revelation of John on Patmos is described as ‘the revelation [ἀποκάλυψις = unveiling] of Jesus Christ (Rev. 1:1). The same John who walked, ate and slept next to the Messiah for three years ‘fell as though dead’ at the sight of the Christ revealed in glory (Rev. 1:17). Though we once regarded Christ after the flesh, we must clearly do so no more (2 Cor. 5:16).

No flesh shall bear the intensity of His appearance in glory.

“That day will bring about the destruction of the heavens by fire, and the elements will melt in the heat. But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.” (2 Pet. 3:10-13)

The saints will survive this event by the transformation of their mortal body – in the twinkling of an eye being clothed in their heavenly dwellings (2 Cor. 5:2). The dead will rise first, and those who are alive at that time will be changed to meet Him in the air (1 Thes. 4:16-17; 1 Cor. 15:50-53).

The assurance given to the apostles in Acts 1 is not that Jesus will once again assume the veil of human flesh, but rather the opposite. He was taken up in glory, and so He shall return!

Jesus revealed that He has completed His Father’s work in the mortal realm (John 17:4). This world will see Him no more (John 14:19).

I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began. (John 17:4-5)

Jesus’ next coming brings about the end of the mortal age, when the last enemy, namely death, is destroyed.

For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the first-fruits; then, when He comes, those who belong to Him. Then the end will come, when He hands over the kingdom to God the Father after He has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For He must reign until he has put all his enemies under His feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:22-26).

At His first coming, the Lord came down to share in our humanity. At His second coming we are taken into His glory.

When he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is (1 John 3:2).

This is what he promised his disciples:

“If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” (John 14:2-3)

This is his manifest desire for all who believe:

“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world.” (John 17:24)

The same event will mark the end of the rebellion, which the Lord will snuff out in an instant, ‘by the breath of His mouth’ and ‘the splendour of His coming’ (2 Thes. 2:8).

This is our expectation, based on the Word that was given to us. Having seen Christ glorified we cannot see him humbled again, co-habiting with sinners once more and warring against the flesh and blood enemies of a geo-political Israel, just to face a further rejection by mortal man at the end of another thousand years.

For He must remain in heaven until the restoration of all things, ‘which God hath spoken by the mouth of all his holy prophets, since the world began’ (Acts 3:21).

I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” (Revelation 21:2-5)