Ascension

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This page is part of the Lectionary series within the Living with Jesus Now project.


Lectionary

Years A, B and C:

  • Acts 1:1-11 & Psalm 47 or Psalm 93
  • Ephesians 1:15-23
  • Luke 24:44-53



Introduction

The ascension is observed on the fortieth day after Easter, in keeping with the timetable found in the opening scene of the Acts of the Apostles.

No other early Chrstian text even hints at such an observable event and several NT texts seem to contradict it—most notably the Gospel of John, which has Jesus speak of his imminent ascension when he meets Mary Magdalene in the garden on Easter morning (Jesus said to her, “Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father. But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’) and which also has Jesus bestow the Spirit on the gathered community on Easter Sunday night.

While a distinct event is not mentioned outside of Luke-Acts, the idea that Jesus is now (exalted) "with God" is widely attested in the New Testament.

With the collapse of the " Ptolemaic view of the universe, the account in Acts has become incredible to modern minds. While some conservative Christians find it difficult to relinquish a literal interpretation of the story in Acts, most Christians have opted for a metaphorical reading of the story.



Ascension in Luke-Acts

The account in Acts 1 reads as follows:

In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. After his suffering he presented himself alive to them by many convincing proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God. While staying with them, he ordered them not to leave Jerusalem, but to wait there for the promise of the Father. “This,” he said, “is what you have heard from me; for John baptized with water, but you will be baptized with the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:1-11 NRSV)

It has a brief and partial parallel in the closing chapter of Luke:

Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. (Luke 24:50-53 NRSV)

It is clear that the author of Luke-Acts wants his readers to believe that there was a specific time, some 40 days after Easter, when Jesus physically ascended into heaven. The event is given a specific location (on the Mount of Olives opposite the Jerusalem temple) and there is a group of witnesses to validate the amazing claim. As with the empty tomb stories, there are is also a pair of angelic figures to verify the event and explain its significance. They promise that Jesus will return, at some unspecified time in the future, in the same way as he had just departed.

This general message is reinforced by various references to Jesus found within various speeches in the following chapters:

  • This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you both see and hear. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.” ’ Therefore let the entire house of Israel know with certainty that God has made him both Lord and Messiah, this Jesus whom you crucified.” (Acts 2:32-36 NRSV)
  • Repent therefore, and turn to God so that your sins may be wiped out, so that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Messiah appointed for you, that is, Jesus, who must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets. (Acts 3:19-21 NRSV)
  • The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.” (Acts 5:30-32 NRSV)
  • When they heard these things, they became enraged and ground their teeth at Stephen. But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died. (Acts 7:54-60 NRSV)


A new Elijah

The story of the ascension of Elijah in the OT has almost certainly influenced the way that Luke-Acts describes Jesus' ascent to heaven. In that ancient legends, Isaiah is taken tp heaven (without first dying) in a fiery chariot:

When they had crossed, Elijah said to Elisha, “Tell me what I may do for you, before I am taken from you.” Elisha said, “Please let me inherit a double share of your spirit.” He responded, “You have asked a hard thing; yet, if you see me as I am being taken from you, it will be granted you; if not, it will not.” As they continued walking and talking, a chariot of fire and horses of fire separated the two of them, and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven. Elisha kept watching and crying out, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” But when he could no longer see him, he grasped his own clothes and tore them in two pieces.

He picked up the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and went back and stood on the bank of the Jordan. He took the mantle of Elijah that had fallen from him, and struck the water, saying, “Where is the LORD, the God of Elijah?” When he had struck the water, the water was parted to the one side and to the other, and Elisha went over.

When the company of prophets who were at Jericho saw him at a distance, they declared, “The spirit of Elijah rests on Elisha.” They came to meet him and bowed to the ground before him.” (2Kings 2:9-15 NRSV)

In subsequent Jewish tradition, Elijah was expected to return at the end of time and we see this idea working out in different ways in the NT gospels.

Luke's version of this tradition differs significantly from Matthew's (Matt 11:1-15). Matthew dates the breaking in of God's Kingdom "from the time of John the Baptist until now." He also explicitly identifies John with the Elijah figure expected to appear at the end of time. Luke does not allow John to be the Elijah figure since he will keep that function for Jesus himself. Luke 16:16 treats John as the final prophet, and the one whose ministry marks the transition from the time of Law and the Prophets. In contrast to John the Baptist, Jesus is represented in Luke-Acts as the one ushering in the Kingdom era.

One of the reasons Luke may have insisted on John not being an Elijah redivivus is that he needed to reserve the glorious ascent into heaven for Jesus, and that is an Elijah motif.

Apotheosis in the Roman empire

In the cultural world of the NT, it was widely understood that an especially outstanding (i.e., heroic) individual might become a divine being, and especially so after death. This phenomenon of Apotheosis seems likely to have influenced the way that Luke-Acts describes Jesus being elevated from the implied status of "prophet" to the more exalted status of "son of God" and universal saviour. Having announced his birth in terms reminscient of the celebration of Augustus' birthday in the opening scenes of his first volume, he now matches that with an account of Jesus' ascent to divinity in the opening scenes of his second volume.

The deification of Julius Caesar is described by Ovid:

This descendant of yours you suffer over, Cytherean, has fulfilled his time, and the years he owes to earth are done. You, and Augustus, his ‘son’, will ensure that he ascends to heaven as a god, and is worshipped in the temples. Augustus, as heir to his name, will carry the burden placed upon him alone, and will have us with him, in battle, as the most courageous avenger of his father’s murder. Under his command, the conquered walls of besieged Mutina will sue for peace; Pharsalia will know him; Macedonian Philippi twice flow with blood; and the one who holds Pompey’s great name, will be defeated in Sicilian waters; and a Roman general’s Egyptian consort, trusting, to her cost, in their marriage, will fall, her threat that our Capitol would bow to her city of Canopus, proved vain.

Why enumerate foreign countries, for you, or the nations living on either ocean shore? Wherever earth contains habitable land, it will be his: and even the sea will serve him! When the world is at peace, he will turn his mind to the civil code, and, as the most just of legislators, make law. He will direct morality by his own example, and, looking to the future ages and coming generations, he will order a son, Tiberius, born of his virtuous wife, to take his name, and his responsibilities. He will not attain his heavenly home, and the stars, his kindred, until he is old, and his years equal his merits. Meanwhile take up Caesar’s spirit from his murdered corpse, and change it into a star, so that the deified Julius may always look down from his high temple on our Capitol and forum.’

He had barely finished, when gentle Venus stood in the midst of the Senate, seen by no one, and took up the newly freed spirit of her Caesar from his body, and preventing it from vanishing into the air, carried it towards the glorious stars. As she carried it, she felt it glow and take fire, and loosed it from her breast: it climbed higher than the moon, and drawing behind it a fiery tail, shone as a star. " Ovid, Metamorphoses Book 15

The idea of apotheosis was so entrenched in Roman culture that Seneca even wrote a parody of the deceased Emperor Claudius being harshly dealt with by the gods when he sought to join them following his death.

The motif of apotheosis is also the mirror image of the motif of Christ's 029 Descent into Hell - a theme that rarely plays any part in contemporary Christian thought, but which was a key element in the hero's progress in classical mythbology.




Ephesians 1:15-23

The second half of the Epistle for the Feast of the Ascension provides a more typical NT reference to Jesus' exaltation:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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 age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Eph 1:20-23 NRSV)

Other examples of this theme in NT texts include:

  • Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:9-11 NRSV)
  • Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs. (Heb 1:1-4 NRSV)
  • Furthermore, the former priests were many in number, because they were prevented by death from continuing in office; but he holds his priesthood permanently, because he continues forever. Consequently he is able for all time to save those who approach God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them. For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself. For the law appoints as high priests those who are subject to weakness, but the word of the oath, which came later than the law, appoints a Son who has been made perfect forever. (Heb 7:23-28 NRSV)
  • Then I turned to see whose voice it was that spoke to me, and on turning I saw seven golden lampstands, and in the midst of the lampstands I saw one like the Son of Man, clothed with a long robe and with a golden sash across his chest. His head and his hair were white as white wool, white as snow; his eyes were like a flame of fire, his feet were like burnished bronze, refined as in a furnace, and his voice was like the sound of many waters. In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force. When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he placed his right hand on me, saying, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living one. I was dead, and see, I am alive forever and ever; and I have the keys of Death and of Hades. (Rev 1:12-18 NRSV)



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