“The Ascension & Session of Christ,
Our Prophet, Priest, and King”
Acts 1:1-11 & Ephesians 1:15-23
May 16, 2021
Faith Presbyterian Church – Morning Service
It is Ascension Sunday this morning – the Sunday on which we remember Christ’s ascension to heaven, which occurred forty days after his resurrection.
Now, the ascension of Christ is often an overlooked aspect of Christ’s work, even though it is repeatedly confessed in the New Testament, contained in the early creeds, discussed in our catechisms and more. And if the ascension of Christ is often overlooked, then the session of Christ tends to be even more neglected. The session of Christ refers to the fact that after Christ ascended, he sat down at the right hand of God the Father.
And so this morning we will consider the ascension and the session of Christ, and why they are important for our lives and our faith today.
With that said, we will hear from two texts this morning. First, from Acts 1:1-11, where we read the account of Christ’s ascension, and then from Ephesians 1:15-23, where we read of the session of Christ.
Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this morning.
From Acts 1. Luke writes:
1:1 In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2 until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3 He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.
4 And while staying with them he ordered them not to depart from Jerusalem, but to wait for the promise of the Father, which, he said, “you heard from me; 5 for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
6 So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7 He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or seasons that the Father has fixed by his own authority. 8 But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” 9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10 And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, 11 and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
And from Ephesians 1. The Apostle Paul writes:
1:15 For this reason, because I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, 16 I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, 17 that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, 18 having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, 19 and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might 20 that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come. 22 And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
This is the word of the Lord. (Thanks be to God.)
“All people are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field; the grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of the Lord endures forever.” [1 Peter 1:24-25]
Let’s pray …
The early twentieth-century Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck, who I’ll be drawing from a good deal this morning, states that Christ’s “ascension is a triumph in an even stronger sense than [His] resurrection.” [WWG, 354]
That is a strong statement. And whether we fully agree with Bavinck on that point or not, it should at least cause us to recognize that the ascension of Christ is something we far too often overlook in the works of Christ.
But as we confessed just a little while ago, using the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Jesus Christ is the Redeemer – the Savior – of all who trust in him. And he is our Redeemer both in his humiliation – in his time on earth, in which he suffered and died for his people – and also in his exaltation. And his exaltation includes his ascending up into heaven, and his sitting at the right had of God the Father. [WSC #21, 23, 28]
So how does Christ act as our Redeemer in his ascension, and in his session – his sitting at the right hand of God the Father?
Well, to answer that question, we need to ask a few more questions. We’ll ask three preliminary questions, and then one main question.
Those questions are: Who? How? Where? And then What?
So our preliminary questions are:
- Who ascended?
- How did he ascend?
- And where did he ascend to?
And our main question will be: What is he doing now?
Who, how, where, and what.
Preliminary Question #1: Who?
Our first question, then is: Who? Who ascended?
And the answer is obvious: Jesus Christ.
And while Jesus is, of course, one united person, it is here that we need to remember that he is one person with two distinct natures. He is both fully God and fully man.
And that is important, because when it comes to the ascension, we can sometimes see it as an increased emphasis on the divinity of Christ, and a fading away of the humanity of Christ. But that would miss almost the entire point of Christ’s ascension.
Because Jesus continues to be fully human. His humanity did not end or diminish – not in his resurrection, not in his ascension, and not in his session – his enthronement in the presence of God the Father. Jesus remained (and remains) fully man, just as much as he remains fully God.
And if anything, the ascension emphasizes that, because it is a change of location in a way that can only fully apply to Christ’s human nature, and can never completely apply to his omnipresent divine nature. [Bavinck, WWG, 353]
And that change of location is a significant part of what makes the ascension so remarkable. After all, in his divine nature, as God the Son, Jesus was always entitled to a place in the highest heaven. But as man Jesus had to receive that honor. And he received it as a result of his faithfulness. As Bavinck puts it, “Christ, on the basis of His perfect obedience has been exalted to the highest sovereignty, majesty, dignity, honor, and glory.” The focus is not that God the Son received back the status that he was due by nature, but that Christ, according to his human nature, was crowned with this great honor and glory. [Bavinck, WWG 355]
In the ascension, Christ is highly exalted, and given a name above all other names [Phil. 2:9]. What is striking is that it is not just as God, but particularly as man that this great honor is bestowed upon him. Christ has ascended into the throne room of God, and as man, he has received “the highest sovereignty, majesty, dignity, honor, and glory.”
That is the answer to our first question: Who ascended? Jesus Christ ascended. And, of course, he ascended as God, but much more notably, he ascended as man – as fully human.
That’s the first thing we need to see about the ascension.
Preliminary Question #2: How?
The second thing we need to ask is how: How did Christ ascend?
And as we look throughout the New Testament, we see that the ascension is spoken of both as an act of the Father, lifting Jesus up, and also as an act of Jesus himself, actively going away from his disciples. [Bavinck, RD3, 445]
This means first that Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God, was lifted up from the earth by God the Father, as a sign of the Father’s acceptance of him, and exaltation of him.
But it also means that Jesus Christ, fully human and fully God, rose up to heaven in his own power, for that is the kind of power that he himself possessed and still possesses.
Bavinck puts it like this – he writes: “The ascension was also [Christ’s] own deed. He had the right to it and the power to do it. He went up in His own strength. His ascension is a triumph in an even stronger sense than the resurrection. In it He triumphs over the whole earth, over all the laws of nature, over the gravity of matter. What is more, His ascension is a triumph over all the hostile diabolical and human forces which were robbed by God of their armor in the cross of Christ, were exhibited in their helplessness, and bound to Christ’s chariot of victory. They were led away now as captives by Christ Himself.” [Bavinck, WWG, 354]
So the first thing for us to see is that Jesus Christ ascended as both God and as man. The second thing for us to acknowledge is that Jesus ascended by the power of God the Father, and by his own power.
Preliminary Question #3: Where?
The third thing for us to ask is: Where? Where did Jesus ascend to?
And we often say that he ascended to heaven, and that is, of course, true. But we should be more specific than that. Because he not only ascended to heaven, but he ascended through the heavens and to the highest heaven, where he sat down at the right hand of God the Father.
The author of Hebrews says that in his ascension Christ passed through the heavens [4:14], the Apostle Paul wrote that Jesus ascended “far above all heavens” [Ephesians 4:10]. The point is that Jesus ascended not only above earth, but also above the heavens, so that the place he took was the chief place of authority and glory, beside God himself. [Bavinck, WWG, 354]
And so the ascension of Christ, as much as it was an act in and of itself, was also a means to an even greater end. Christ did not ascend just to ascend. He ascended in order to take his place – to sit at the right hand of God. The ascension of Christ was for the purpose of the session of Christ. [Bavinck, WWG, 354]
This was the goal – the destiny – all along for the great king who was to descend from David – the man whom David himself prophesied about in Psalm 110 when he wrote: “The Lord says to my Lord” – Yahweh says to my Lord – “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” [Psalm 110:1]
And the claim that Jesus – fully God and fully man – was seated at the right hand of God comes up again and again in the New Testament. It is put different ways in different passages, but the point is always the same – that “After his resurrection and ascension Christ has the highest place beside God in the whole universe.” [Bavinck, WWG, 355]
And that is a shocking thing. Not just God the Son, but Jesus, the man, is seated on the right hand of God. That is the meaning of the ascension and the session of Christ. Our own flesh and blood reigns in heaven.
Main Question: What Is He Now Doing?
All of that then leads us to our main question. If that is where he is, then what is he now doing?
What is Jesus Christ, the God-man, doing now that he has entered the highest heavens – now that he is seated at the right hand of God the Father? We know what Christ did when he was on earth, but what is he doing now that he has been exalted in heaven?
And we should begin by noting that he is doing something. As Bavinck puts it: Jesus “did not at His ascension enter upon unproductive rest – the Son works always as does the Father.” [WWG, 356]
What kind of work is he doing in heaven? Well, in many ways the same work he did on earth. Or, rather, the continuation of that work. [Bavinck, WWG, 355] On earth Christ accomplished salvation for His Church. And now, from heaven he works to apply that salvation to his Church. [WWG, 356]
And he performs that work of redemption as our Prophet, our Priest, and our King, just as we confessed a few moments ago.
And in each of those offices, Christ our Redeemer, gives his people peace.
He gives us peace in our understanding, peace in our acceptance, and peace in our earthly circumstances.
And those are the three things we will consider for the rest of our time this morning.
Peace in Our Understanding: The Exalted Christ as Prophet
So first, as our exalted prophet in the highest heaven, Christ offers us peace in our understanding.
And to appreciate that, we need to begin by recognizing how much we desire and long for peace in our understanding.
We are born into this world, and as soon as we can think, questions well up within us: questions about who we are, where we are, what ultimate reality is, who or what put us here and why. And as we grow, and as we can grasp those questions more deeply, we can find ourselves struggling with them more and more … or we can find ourselves seeking all sorts of distractions to drown those questions out. When it comes to ultimate questions of understanding, we long for peace … but we often lack it.
If you’re not a Christian, then you probably know what I mean. You deal with the nagging questions. Maybe sometimes they consume you. Maybe other times you know they are there, but you also know how to drown them out. But if you’re a Christian, you probably know what I’m talking about too. Because so often, even for believers, our faith is mixed with doubt. Even at our best, we often remain like the father in Mark 9 who blurts out to Jesus “I believe; help my unbelief!” We do believe, our faith is real, and yet we still often lack peace. We wonder “What if I’m wrong?” “What if those I’m listening to are wrong?” “How can we really know such things?” “What is the real basis for my confidence?”
And so we go searching for peace in our understanding. Sometimes we try to find peace through confidence in our own thinking. Other times we try to latch ourselves on to a great teacher as our guide. We convince ourselves that they know the truth, and that we will have peace if we just trust them. But every earthly teacher disappoints. Even the best ultimately let us down.
How then, can we have peace in understanding who we are and what our place is in the world? How can we find confident rest in the truth?
And the answer is that we can have peace in our understanding through Christ because he is our exalted Prophet, in the highest heaven.
Jesus is our Prophet – he is our teacher. He truly knows God, because he is with God, and he himself is God. But he also truly knows us, because he is human, like us. And so he can teach us what we need to know. He is accessible to us because he is man. But he can be relied on, and we can be confident in what he says, because he instructs us from the highest heaven itself, with God the Father at his side.
And so he can offer us the peace of understanding that no one else can.
We no longer need to strive to discover the truth by ourselves. We no longer need to place our hope for peace in understanding in fallible earthly humans. We no longer need to drown out the questions of ultimate importance. Christ offers us peace. He is our Teacher – he is our Prophet.
And how does he teach us? From heaven he works, and he has worked, through is people. He began by delivering his truth to the prophets and apostles. And he continues by bringing that truth, once deposited to them, to us, and helping us understand.
Bavinck puts it like this – he writes: “By the extraordinary offices of the apostles, prophets, and evangelists, [Christ] communicated […] the truth that had been revealed in his person and work. By extraordinary gifts of wisdom and knowledge, he made that truth known and understood; and by extraordinary signs he confirmed that truth, leading both Jews and Gentiles to the obedience of faith. […] [Now,] after this foundational period of the church passed, Christ continues to be prophetically active in his church, for by the word of the apostles recorded in Scripture, he continually brings people to faith in his name and into fellowship with him and with the Father. By the ordinary office of pastors and teachers, he builds up his church in the grace and knowledge of its Lord and Savior, and by the working of the Holy Spirit, he shines on it the light of the gospel and his glory.” [Bavinck, RG3, 475]
“It is Christ Himself who gave [the Scriptures] to His church and who by means of it progressively carries out His office. He preserves and distributes it, explains and interprets it. […] By His Word and His Spirit, Christ is always with us still, unto the end of the world.” [Bavinck, WWG, 358-359]
God uses ordinary human beings to transfer his teaching – his prophetic word – to his people. But his truth and the understanding that comes from it is never dependent on earthly people like us. Because his word comes from him – it has its source in him, and its truth is rooted in him. Which is why we can have peace: not because we are the smartest, not because we’ve found the smartest teachers or preachers to follow, but because Christ, the exalted Prophet in the highest heaven, offers us the truth through his Word, the Scriptures. And with it, he gives us peace in our understanding.
That is the first thing that Jesus Christ does from his place in heaven.
Peace in Our Acceptance: The Exalted Christ as Priest
Second, as our exalted priest in the highest heaven, Christ offers us peace in our acceptance.
Acceptance is another of those things that we crave in this life. The desire for acceptance can consume us. It can lead us to do all kinds of things. It can lead us to risk things we love and sacrifice things we value. It can stir up anxiety in us or drive us to despair. The desire for acceptance is a powerful thing. And few of us have peace when it comes to our longing for acceptance.
What does that look like for you? Do you have peace? Do you feel acceptance? Or does the longing for acceptance drive you?
And how does it drive you? Where do you look for acceptance? In what areas of life? In what relationships? What foolish … or dangerous … or tragic things have you done in the pursuit of acceptance?
We were made to seek acceptance. But the Bible tells us that we were made to seek it in a very specific place. We were made to seek it, and to enjoy it, with God our Father.
Human beings were made to find the peace of acceptance as they rested in the love, and approval, and acceptance of God our Maker. But then we lost that love, and acceptance, and approval. When our first parents rebelled against God, and when we rebelled against God with them, we lost his acceptance, and we spiraled into shame and despair, and then we began frantically looking for that acceptance elsewhere – grasping at it from other people in all kinds of ways. But human approval is always fleeting. It never lasts, and it never fully satisfies. For our hearts were shaped for more. And so, we have no lasting peace.
Christ came to reestablish our acceptance with God. He lived the life we should have lived, and then, on the cross, he died the death that we deserved to die, on our behalf. And he declared that in him, we could again have acceptance with God. If we would trust in him then our sins would be forgiven, and we would again have the smile and the acceptance of God – not because we deserved it, but because Christ had earned it for us.
Many of us already know that. But what we often forget, is that Christ’s work of reconciling us to God did not end there.
The Bible tells us that Christ’s priestly work – his work of granting us the peace of acceptance with God – did not end with his death on the cross, but his role as our high priest continued after his resurrection and his ascension.
As the book of Hebrews puts it, in Jesus “we have […] a high priest, […] who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” [8:1-2]
Christ did not just take up the task of being our reconciling priest for a few years while he was here on earth. He took up the office of priest as a role that he still carries out today, and will carry out for all of eternity. [Bavinck, WWG, 359]
In other words, while Christ did complete his atoning sacrifice for us during his earthly ministry, he did not complete his priestly role in his earthly ministry. It would be more accurate to say that, especially in his humanity, that Christ’s earthly ministry was only the beginning of his priestly work. It was his priestly work on earth that led to his priestly work in heaven. [Bavinck, WWG, 359; see also RG3, 476-478]
Which means that our confidence in our peace with God not only does not rest in us, but it also does not rest in a merely abstract idea. It rests in a person– a person who is actually trustworthy for such a weighty task. It rests in Christ himself. Jesus Christ, even now, works for, and intercedes for, and secures, our acceptance with God the Father. And so, we can have peace.
Bavinck puts it like this – he writes: “Always and in all things, therefore, Christ is our intercessor with the Father. Just as on earth He prayed for His disciples, and also for His enemies, and in the high priestly prayer He commended the whole church to the Father, so in heaven He continues this intercession for His own. True, we are not to understand this as though Christ were lying prostrated before the Father, beseeching and imploring Him to show mercy. For the Father Himself loves us and gave His Son as evidence of His love. But the intercession of Christ does imply that this love of the Father is never granted us except in the Son who has become obedient unto the death of the cross. The intercession of Christ is not therefore a beseeching for grace, but the expression of a powerful will.” [Bavinck, WWG, 362]
Bavinck reminds us that Jesus not only intercedes for us, but he intercedes for us before a favorable audience. For the Father himself loves us. That is why he sent his Son, and that is why he has exalted Christ as our high priest.
We should therefore look at the place of Christ in the heavens and we should have peace that God himself wants to accept us in Christ, and will accept us in Christ. But even so, it is only in Christ that he will accept us, and so it is only in Christ that we can have true peace. But once we are in him, we truly can have peace against anything that would threaten our acceptance with God.
Bavinck writes: “Over against all the charges which the law, Satan, and our own hearts bring against us, [Christ] takes upon Himself our defense. He comes to our aid in all our temptations. He has pity for all our weaknesses. He purifies our consciences. He perfectly sanctifies and saves all those who pass through Him to God. He prepares a place for them in the Father’s house where there are many mansions and where there is room for many, and He preserves for them the heavenly inheritance. Therefore the believers have nothing to fear.” [Bavinck, WWG, 362]
Because in Christ, our ascended and exalted high priest in heaven, we have acceptance with God, and we need not frantically search for acceptance here on earth. [Bavinck, WWG, 363] Instead, we can have peace.
That is the second thing we see that Christ does for us from heaven.
Peace in Our Earthly Circumstances: The Exalted Christ as King
Third, and finally, as our exalted King in the highest heaven, Christ offers us peace in our earthly circumstances.
And he does this in two ways: he does this in our earthly circumstances in the Church, and he does this in our earthly circumstances in the world. Because Christ reigns as King in two distinct ways: he is King over his Body the Church, and he is King over all the world. [Bavinck, WWG, 363]
First, Christ is King – he is Head – over his Body the Church, which is why we can have peace in our church here on earth, even when we see its many shortcomings.
And that dynamic was true from the very beginning – from the moment when Jesus ascended to heaven.
When he ascended, Jesus bodily left the apostles. But he did not leave them spiritually. Spiritually he remained with them. Spiritually he continued to work in and through them, as their Head and their King. And his work in and through them was so real that in truth, it was not the apostles who would gather, or rule, or protect the people of God, but ultimately it was Christ himself who would do that work, and bring his people safely to his side in heaven. [Bavinck, WWG, 358; RG3, 479]
And understanding that is crucial if we are to have peace in the church. Because the church, in itself, simply is not up to the task that God has given it. No church is competent for the heavenly mission it’s been given. No church is competent to care for the eternal souls of men and women, boys and girls. No pastor, no session, no deaconate, no worship leader, no Sunday school teacher, no small group ministry, is up for such a task – not even close.
And we often respond to that fact in one of two ways: we either indulge in delusions of grandeur for our church, or we despair. We either tell ourselves (and usually others) that while other churches are not up to the task, our church isn’t like other churches. We’re special. We’re able to do it. We can be trusted.
It feels good to tell ourselves those kinds of things. Of course the problem is that it’s nonsense.
It’s an arrogant delusion, and while we might try to perpetuate the myth for a while, the truth will eventually become undeniable. No church is really up for the monumental task of shepherding souls.
The other common response then is despair. We fret over the shortcomings of our particular church. We leave one church convinced that another will be up for the heavenly task. Maybe that sort of thought process is what at some point led you here. And at first it might seem to you like you were right. But the honeymoon always wears off. And we are left once again with a group of fallible humans, who are nowhere near being up for the task of competently handling eternal souls.
What then are we to do? How can we find peace in our earthly church?
The answer, the ascension reminds us, is that our peace in the earthly church comes not from the church itself, but from its King. For Christ rules his church, as its King and Head, from the throne room of heaven. And he is able to do what no earthly individual or institution could ever do in its own strength.
Bavinck writes: “In the church there is nothing, no gift, no power, no office, no ministry, no faith, no hope, no love, no salvation except as it comes from Christ.” [Bavinck, WWG, 365]
And Christ rules his Church by his word. It is by his word that he defends his church and by his word that he sanctifies and purifies his Church. In Revelation 2 we read that the word of God is a sword that comes from Jesus’s mouth, and which he will use on his church [2:16], and in the letter to the Hebrews we are reminded that that same word is not a lifeless thing, but it is “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” [Heb. 4:12] It is by that powerful word – by the living and active sword that comes from Jesus’s own mouth – that Jesus rules over his church, and separates it out. [Bavinck, RD3, 473]
Christ rules his Church as its Head and King. And that is why we can have peace in the earthly circumstance of the congregation that we find ourselves in. Because Christ rules his Church, and he has promised not to leave it or forsake it. He is at work. He is actively using his word to grow, and to purify his people. And he is tending his sheep in ways that his earthly under-shepherds never could on their own. And that should bring us peace.
But the peace of Christ in his exalted kingship goes beyond the walls of the Church. It extends to all earthly circumstances. Because Christ also rules over this world as King.
Jesus Christ, not just as God, but particularly as man, reigns as King over the universe. After all, in Matthew 28 Jesus says, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” Jesus can’t be speaking of his divine nature there since his divine nature always possessed all authority in heaven and earth. Instead, he must be speaking of the fact that even as man, Jesus has now been given all authority in heaven and on earth. [Bavinck, WWG, 365]
And he uses that power for the good of his people – for the good of all who trust in him. Bavinck writes: “Christ has His church to gather, to rule, and to protect, and in order to do that He must already be mightier than all His enemies and all the enemies of the church.” [Bavinck, WWG, 365-366] And he is. Christ, our Lord, our flesh, our Elder Brother, is stronger than all of his and our enemies. And therefore, whatever our earthly circumstances, we can have peace.
His reign is not yet visible. His enemies often appear to triumph. But when they do, we need not fear. We need not desperately search for an earthly champion to protect us – we need not place our hope in a worldly ruler. Because even when our enemies seem to prevail, Christ is always stronger than they are, and he is King. If he allows his enemies a temporary victory, he always has a purpose, and he is always working all things for the good of his people. We may not see it, but we can know it is true, because Christ, exalted at the right hand of God, reigns from heaven. He is our King. And so we need not fear. We can have peace.
At the end of Luke’s gospel, we read of Jesus’s ascension like this – Luke writes: “And he [that is, Jesus] led them out as far as Bethany, and lifting up his hands he blessed them. While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.” [Luke 24:50-51]
Jesus departed from his disciples in a posture of blessing. Even as he left them, his hands were stretched out, and he was blessing them. [Bavinck, WWG, 353] And he has not stopped since. Ascended to the highest heaven, seated at the right hand of God, Jesus still blesses his people.
He blesses us as our Prophet, giving us peace in our understanding. He blesses us as our Priest, giving us peace in our acceptance with God. And he blesses us as our King, giving us peace in our earthly circumstances.
Let us receive his blessing.
Let us trust in his blessing.
And in his exalted work for us, let us find true peace.
This sermon draws on material from:
Bavinck, Herman. Reformed Dogmatics. Volume Three: Sin and Salvation in Christ. Edited by John Bolt. Translated by John Vriend. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2006. [Referred to in text as “RD3”]
Bavinck, Herman. The Wonderful Works of God. Translated by Henry Zylstra, 1958. Glenside, PA: Westminster Seminary Press, 2019. [Referred to in text as “WWG”]
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