Did anything actually change when Jesus ascended to his Father?

If Jesus hadn’t ascended to his Father after he was raised from the dead, nothing in this world of ours would have changed. We would have carried on as before, still stuck in the same old cycle repeating itself over and over again of people just living and dying and disappearing into nothing, with no guarantee of a life after death. We’d also be stuck in the same old grim struggle for survival against odds we have never been able to conquer, like poverty, disease, violence, bullying, greed, insanity, and the suffering we cause each other by our inability to control our emotions. As a race we had no future. We’d have done the planet and each other a huge favour by becoming extinct long ago.

But something changed when Jesus was “exalted to the right hand of God.” because, Acts 2:33, that’s when he “received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit.” And what the Holy Spirit then did was enable people to “save themselves from their corrupt generation” (verse 40), and “turn from their wicked ways” (3:26). The Spirit would provide humans with the ability to not be corrupt and wicked.

All of sudden, then, the chance was being offered to us humans to break free of the unrelenting grip of wrong desires, and we wouldn’t want to bully people or manipulate others to our own advantage. A new type of human, therefore, would begin to appear, that showed remarkable similarities to the human Jesus, where love – not self – would become the driving force.

The one key proof, then, that the ascension happened is the Holy Spirit’s effect on the world. And the one key evidence of the Holy Spirit’s effect on the world is this new human being who emerged – “clothed,” as Colossians 3:12 says, with “compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” And where a group of these new humans mingled together they could be seen “bearing with each other and forgiving whatever grievances they may have had against on other” (verse 13).

The Holy Spirit’s effect can be seen playing out in very practical terms in these new humans’ marriages too, where husbands aren’t harsh with their wives (verse 19), and as Dads they don’t do anything to make their children feel discouraged (verse 21). These new humans would make great employers and employees too, because they’d treat each other with respect and fairness (3:22, 4:1).

Sounds very much like a different world to me, a breaking of the same old, mouldy, worn out cycle of human behaviour that saw no change at all up to the point of Jesus’ ascension. And it’s now open to anyone who believes it.

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We experience death before we die?

It’s an odd thing being a Christian because we experience death before we die. That’s probably why Christians aren’t phased much by dying, because, as Paul said, we die daily, so we’re old hands at death long before our physical bodies die.

We die in the same way we die physically too. When we die physically the vital systems in our bodies that kept us alive start shutting down. It’s like turning off the lights in a large room. As each switch is clicked off, the room slowly darkens, until one final click and the lights go out entirely.

And isn’t that what happens in our Christian lives too? Jesus’ death provided us with the switch to turn the power of sin off, and the Spirit now turns the lights out one by one. The systems that kept us alive before, therefore, like ambition, competition, making a name for ourselves, being popular and liked, self-preservation and security, start shutting down. The room they occupied in our heads slowly darkens until the lights make a last fizz and splutter, and die.

It’s quite something when an old attitude that animated our lives before makes its last splutter and dies, like the attitude of being critical and condemning. For much of our lives, putting others down really got the blood flowing. It made us feel good and alive, and it gave our sagging ego a boost when others made glaring mistakes and we could laugh and scoff at their expense.

But the Spirit’s at the switch gradually shutting that kind of nonsense down, until one day it’s of no interest to us anymore. We don’t need to condemn and judge others to feel better about ourselves. It doesn’t have the same appeal. It becomes a horrible thing we don’t want hanging around in our heads anymore. Get rid of it. Turn it off. And turn it off we do, daily.

And what about those other attitudes that lit up our emotions before, like getting all hoity-toity if someone cuts us off in traffic, or a well-known gossip says things behind our backs that aren’t quite true, or our great knowledge on a subject is exposed as faulty by a snotty know-it-all?

Those things probably squirted all sorts of highly inflammable fuels into our systems before, stirring up fiery anger and heated replies. But the Spirit has been let loose on us now, and he’s at the switch turning that stuff off until it’s dead, and it stays dead, daily. As Christians, then, we experience death many times before we die, as the lights go out on what made us feel alive before.

Can we make our lives perfect?

Christ redeemed us from “trying to attain our goal by human effort,” Galatians 3:3, because we can’t attain our goal by human effort. It’s a huge, humbling, and even rather embarrassing lesson, that every human eventually comes to learn, that God didn’t create us with the ability to make our lives perfect.

The only way a human being, relying on his own strength, can make his life work out perfectly, both now and forever, is to obey every law governing his success absolutely perfectly. But the story of Israel proves we can’t do it. Even if God was with us like he was with them, blessing us at every turn and offering us paradise on earth if we obey him, we still couldn’t do it. That’s why the story of Israel was written: They didn’t have it in them to do what was needed, and nor do we.

It’s a terrible curse hanging over our heads, then, if we’re depending on our own strength alone. We may have the best of intentions, just like the Israelites, or like the Pharisees in Jesus’ day, but the flesh is weak. So Christ came to remove that curse. How? By becoming that curse for us (verse 13). He took the “depending on our own strength” curse and nailed it to the cross. No longer, then, would we ever have to think our eternity depends on anything we do, like obeying all Ten Commandments perfectly, or acting all pious and religious.

Instead, Galatians 3:11, the righteous would live by faith. Faith in what, though? The answer to that is in verse 14: “He (Christ) redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit.” It’s faith in the promise of the Spirit. It would dawn on us that thousands of years ago God made a promise to Abraham, that one day the help we’d need to enter eternity with God would be given to us. The Spirit would work the miracles in our lives that we couldn’t work in our lives ourselves. And that’s what Christ’s death released to us. He took that old self of ours, totally dependent on human strength, nailed it to the cross, and opened up the promise he made to Abraham of the Spirit doing for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves.

We could then begin a new life of dependence on the Spirit, like the Galatians did – to begin with. Unfortunately they reverted back to “trying to attain their goal by human effort,” which stirred Paul to write Galatians 3, for their sake, and for ours.

What an odd question: “Have you received the Holy Spirit?”

Paul arrives in Ephesus in Acts 19:1 and discovers a little pocket of John the Baptist’s followers. At some point in his conversation with them he asks in verse 2, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when (or after) you believed?”

To our ears that could seem like an odd question, because believers are supposed to automatically receive the Holy Spirit according to Ephesians 1:13. The process is the same for everyone: First of all, “you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation,” and then, “Having believed, you were marked in him (Christ) with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit.”  It’s a three step process: Hear the gospel, believe the gospel, receive the Holy Spirit.

The little pocket of disciples in Ephesus, however, hadn’t “even heard that there is a Holy Spirit,” Acts 19:2. And that raised another question in Paul’s mind in verse 3: “Then what baptism did you receive?”

Again, to our ears that might seem like an odd question as well, because what other baptism could there be? To a Jew, however, there were two baptisms: There was baptism with water, and baptism with the Holy Spirit, John 1:33. John the Baptist was sent by God to baptize the Jews with water, and Jesus was sent by God to baptize them with the Spirit. First the water baptism by John, followed by the Spirit baptism by Jesus.

The only baptism the disciples in Ephesus had received, however, was “John’s baptism” with water, Acts 19:3. That was good, of course, because God had sent John the Baptist to baptize his fellow Jews with water as a necessary first step, but John had also made it clear in Matthew 3:11 that “after me will come one who is more powerful than I. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” For the Jews of that time, therefore, there was another baptism to come.

So, when Paul discovered the disciples in Ephesus had only received “John’s baptism of repentance” in Acts 19:4, he reminded them of what John himself had said about “believing in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” In John’s own words his baptism with water to repentance was only a first step to the baptism that Jesus would do. And when the disciples in Ephesus realized that, “they were baptized into the name of the Lord Jesus,” verse 5, and “the Holy Spirit came on them,” verse 6.

And that was the baptism Paul was interested in, their baptism with the Holy Spirit, because that was what “marked” and “sealed” them “in Christ,” Ephesians 1:13, “guaranteeing their inheritance,” verse 14. When he asked, therefore, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit?” it’s not such an odd question, is it?

How easy it can be to “blaspheme against the Spirit”

To blaspheme against the Holy Spirit is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Spirit at work. Jesus, for instance, was casting out demons “by the Spirit of God,” Matthew 12:28, but the Pharisees claimed he was doing it by the power of the devil. How ridiculous, because why would the devil spite his own nose by decreasing his influence in people’s heads? Well, of course he wouldn’t do that. But if it wasn’t the devil casting out demons, there was only one other power capable of doing it – God.

But the Pharisees ignored the obvious. Like a teenager who seeks to justify contempt for his parents by accusing them of not caring when he knows full well they do care, the Pharisees also came up with outrageous accusations to bring contempt on Jesus. So long as it made Jesus look bad. That’s what counted – NOT the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work, but rather the chance to score points against Jesus to destroy his influence.

It’s like justifying contempt for other Christians today. Yes, other Christians have problems, they’re not perfect. Some denominations are making glaring mistakes. But they’re also doing a lot of good. They feed the poor, provide shelter, clothing, money, medication, encouragement, comfort, emergency help in disasters, education for struggling families, and they’re willing to go to the worst places on earth to help people. Their doctrines may be completely out to lunch, their churches cold and unfriendly, their manner a bit aggressive or over the top, and their emphasis on hell a bit steep, but there’s no denying that wherever imperfect Christians are there is lot of good being done.

When Jesus said, “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,” in Luke 4:18, “because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor, proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, and to release the oppressed,” the evidence was overwhelming that what he said was true, because wherever he went people were relieved of demons and dreadful diseases. All done, Jesus said, by the Holy Spirit.

We have clear evidence, therefore, of how the Spirit works. Wherever good is being done and evil is being suppressed, that’s the Holy Spirit. To ignore that evidence is to ignore the obvious evidence of the Holy Spirit at work. And to seek to score points against other Christians by focusing on their faults is to bring contempt on the Holy Spirit. That’s how easy it can be to blaspheme against the Spirit. As easy as it was for the Pharisees.

How on earth can the Spirit be “blasphemed”?

The story leading up to “blasphemy against the Spirit” in Matthew 12:31 began when Jesus healed a man who’d been made blind and dumb by a demon. Some Scribes and Pharisees from Jerusalem who’d seen the miracle decided among themselves that the only reason Jesus had been able to drive the demon out of the man was because Jesus was possessed by Satan, the ruler of the demons, and he was acting on Satan’s orders.

It sounded like a great argument, that Jesus was able to cast out demons because he was one of Satan’s cronies and he was simply doing what Satan wanted, because Satan had a total hold over him. But Jesus asks them why on earth Satan would drive his own demons out of people when it would destroy Satan’s purpose of controlling people and expanding his kingdom. Why would Satan have a demon successfully take a person over and then drive the demon out freeing the person from the demon’s clutches? Clearly, then, it couldn’t be Satan who drove the demon out.

And Satan wouldn’t allow anyone else to drive his demons out of people either. Satan was far too powerful for any human being to break into his kingdom, steal his demons, and turn them against him. So how could they think Jesus was operating by the power of Satan when the last two things Satan would ever do was, first of all, give up control over someone and, secondly, allow someone else control over people instead?

So who was driving demons out of people instead, then, if it wasn’t Satan himself doing it, nor was it Satan allowing it?

Well, the only person who could break through Satan’s defences was someone stronger than him. But here was Jesus driving a demon out of someone, and Satan couldn’t stop him. Clearly, then, Jesus was operating by a power far greater than Satan’s. To continue accusing Jesus of operating by Satan’s power, therefore, was to accuse the power Jesus was operating by as Satan’s power too. And that to Jesus was a step too far, because he knew the Holy Spirit was the source of his power. People could say what they liked about him, but to directly accuse the Holy Spirit of being Satan was unforgivable from people who were supposed to be priests of God.

So Jesus lets them have it: “You accuse me of being demon-possessed, and the Holy Spirit being Satan. Well, you’ve just revealed yourselves for exactly who you are. You are a pit of snakes, and one day you will answer for every stupid, ridiculous word you’ve said” (verse 36).

The Holy Spirit can be grieved?

I was grieved as a parent when my children didn’t ask me for help, because the result was always negative. If they believed they knew better, for instance, it usually got them into trouble of some sort, which sometimes took a long time to resolve, which in turn put some heavy strains on our relationship. And if they insisted on trying to sort out difficult situations by themselves, it was heart rending watching them digging themselves deeper. Why could they not see that parents exist to help? It’s a simple rule of life played out billions of times every day, that parents all over the planet want the best for their kids, and will do anything to help them.

God’s like that too, Paul writes in Ephesians 3:20-21 – “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations.” God wants to help, he has the power to help, and he’ll never stop helping “throughout all generations.” Billions of times every day he’s helping people. His help is so huge it’s immeasurable. He exists to help.

But we live in a world, just as our kids do, where people “are darkened in their understanding and (are) separated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them due to the hardening of their hearts,” Ephesians 4:18. The rule of the world, also played out billions of times every day, is the endless steeling of minds against asking for help, or even believing help is needed, resulting in massive “ignorance” and a constant flow of dumb decisions “corrupted by deceitful desires” by people at all levels (verse 22), which in turn keeps them “separated from the life of God” and never able to experience life as God intended it when “his power is at work within us.”

Worse still, though, are those who DO have his power at work within them, who know that God is able to do immeasurably more than all they ask or imagine, who realize it’s God’s glory in the church to help them, and it’s all being done beautifully and perfectly by the Holy Spirit, who then get to thinking, just like my kids, that they know better and can sort out their difficult situations by themselves. No wonder Paul says in Ephesians 4:30, “And do not grieve the Holy Spirit, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption,” because not trusting the Spirit to see us safely through, when he wants to and can, is heart rending.