Global pandemic. Crashed economy. Racial pain. City violence. 2020 has been quite a year. And very soon, a polarized nation elects a president. Are you having fun yet? It often feels to me like the world is spinning out of control and back into primordial chaos.
Of course, none of this is new. From a political perspective, consider that the early Christians endured fourteen years of rule by an insane and persecuting Nero. Yet they lived in the confidence of the lordship of Christ — even when they had no clout — as they faced ostracism, discrimination, and even death. They spent their lives ministering the gospel to the world, in both word and acts of love, even as they yearned for Jesus to return. If we could recall why they lived so boldly, perhaps we could recover our confidence as well.
Witnesses of the Risen King
Imagine that you are the captain of a supply ship returning from bringing provisions to the penal colony on the rocky island of Patmos. One of your officers brings you a parchment notebook discovered in the bottom of an empty water barrel. You open the codex and read more ravings of that crazy prisoner John. He claims to bring words “from Jesus Christ . . . the ruler of kings on earth” (Revelation 1:5).
Ruler of kings on earth? You look at your ship’s guards with their spears and shields gleaming in the Mediterranean sun. Alone, they could subdue a small city. They are just a symbol of Rome’s world-spanning might, a handful of the hundreds of thousands of the emperor’s finest. Clearly, Caesar reigns. Not a crucified fanatic from Israel. This manuscript is a joke. Only a fool would hold to such delusions.
Indeed, how could the first Christians have sincerely made such huge political claims while under the domination of the Roman Empire? Only because of what they had seen and heard. The dead Jesus got up, in the same body in which he had been crucified. He appeared to his disciples. He claimed, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18). Then, still in his body, he ascended to heaven before the watching wonder of his followers. Angels appeared and explained, “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11).
The disciples saw the dead Jesus alive again. They saw the resurrected one depart to heaven. Christ’s beloved were witnesses to what happened to Jesus in real time and space. Their ears received the promise that he would return as the embodied Jesus. In the meantime, this interim, they had been empowered and commissioned. Ten days later, the promised Spirit of Jesus filled them. As these witnesses told Christ’s story, new people believed. The Spirit filled them as well. Though they had not seen Jesus, they miraculously felt they knew him intimately. They experienced spiritual union with the risen Christ. So, the new believers also became present witnesses to his continuing lordship! This dead man who got up had made them alive in a new way.
Living Under Christ’s Lordship
With such vivid, continuing experience, the early church declared that “Jesus is Lord” (1 Corinthians 12:3). He was exalted “as Leader and Savior” (Acts 5:31), “the first and the last, and the living one,” who even holds “the keys of Death and Hades” (Revelation 1:17–8). Though they had almost no political or economic power, these first Christians were adamant that Jesus Christ is, right now, the ruler of the kings of earth. Crucially, they believed he would return to fully exercise that rule. This is why they lived so confidently when every appearance of how the world worked seemed against them. So, let’s draw out two pairs of implications from the fact that Jesus is ascended, reigning, and returning.
1. You’re not in control. The world is not out of control.
There is a real human king who reigns over the world from heaven. A man who once walked among us is on the throne, and he is not aloof from the affairs of his realm below. All other powers on earth, therefore, are merely temporary and derived. As Paul asserted, “There is no authority except from God” (Romans 13:1).
This, then, is truly an unnerving message to any who make claims of their own sovereignty, whether individuals exercising their “right” or politicians enacting their policies. You’re not in control. Any power you wield is held in trust for the one who reigns. Your authority is all indirect and exercised on behalf of the true King. It is temporary and provisional, held in trust for and accountable to the ruler of the kings of earth (see also Douglas Farrow, “Confessing Christ Today,” in Nicene Christianity).
This affirmation internally freed the early Christians, many of whom were slaves. “Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people” (1 Peter 2:10) — and no rulers nor powers “nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:38–39). That personal confidence expanded to include the realization that the world is not out of the King’s control. They understood Psalm 2 to be about their Lord Jesus. “The kings of the earth set themselves . . . against the Lord and against his Anointed” (Psalm 2:2). But the Lord laughs at their presumption. He speaks to Christ, “You are my Son. . . . I will make the nations your heritage” (Psalm 2:7–8).
They believed that the Word of God through whom all things were made (John 1:3) had long ago spoken to the waters of chaos, “Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed” (Job 38:11). Sabers can rattle and waves can roar, bodies can be imprisoned or burned, but the ascended Jesus remains in control and will make all things new (Revelation 21:5).
2. You don’t live here. You love here.
The early Christians experienced themselves as “a chosen race” and “a people for his own possession” (1 Peter 2:9), cherished by the Lord Jesus who had made himself known to them. They were no longer from here; where the ascended Jesus dwelt was now their homeland (Philippians 3:20).
This great sense of belonging to Christ also made them strangers on earth. They had to live here while pining for heaven. They had to avoid trying to settle down and be at home in a world ever bent on creating its own fulfillment through its own means. We don’t live here — we live in Christ, from Christ. So, Peter would go on to remind them, “Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul” (1 Peter 2:11). The ascended Christ reminds his people that there is no life for us if we make this world an end in itself.
At the same time, we do love here. Peter also named his readers “a royal priesthood, a holy nation” (1 Peter 2:9). He recalled the ancient vocation of Israel. God’s people were called out to be different from the world in order to show the world who is the true King. So, those who belong to the reigning Jesus can never again identify with this world as home, but we are ever, always sent back to this world to “proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). Our mission is to lovingly live the difference between those who have been united to Christ the King and those still in the darkness of the world. We’re odd to the world precisely to offer a distinctive way to hope, forgiveness, peace, and everlasting life in Jesus.
The early church reminds us that we don’t live here but we do love here. This truth can help us in the crazy of these days to know it’s not crazy to feel that things are not right. They’re not! And they won’t be until Christ returns and home arrives here to set all things back in order. We’re not in control, but the world is not out of Christ’s control. We’re not supposed to feel at home. But we are supposed to love with the heart of our reigning King.
The King Is Coming Soon
The witness to Jesus truly risen and bodily ascended has continued through the centuries. Every generation, the miracle keeps occurring: we have a present experience of the meaning of those events that happened once for all. The King sends his Spirit into our hearts, and we are joined to him in intimate, saving relationship. The windy Spirit keeps blowing us onward in our mission to the world. And when we feel that wind from heaven on our faces, we remember that the King is returning. Things will not go on as they are forever.
Right now, the triune God has given the world quite a bit of room. For this is the season of the church, when the gospel still goes forth and people can choose whether to bow the knee freely to the King or stay in rebellion. But this is only a season. The King will return and choice will be removed. The church will be called to account for how we undertook our mission to love here without making a home here. The world will be called to account, judged, and all things will be set right. This news is a warning and a comfort, a spur and a balm. Jesus is the ruler of the kings of earth. Then, now, and always.