Ascension of Jesus Christ
Event, recorded most fully in ac 1:1-11, by which Christ concluded his postresurrection appearances, left the earth, and was taken up into heaven, not to return physically until his second advent. The New Testament authors theologically distinguish the event by connecting it to the atoning work of Jesus on the cross, the high priestly ministry of the exalted Christ, the regaining of Christ's glory with the Father, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the present power of Christ as ruler over all authorities and dominions in heaven and earth, and the fact that Jesus ascends for the benefit of his people.
The Old Testament The Old Testament contains several stories of, and references to, "ascension" that may prefigure the ascension of Jesus. While the Old Testament contains stories of ascension that take place in dreams or visions ( Gen 28:12 ), straightforward narratives like that of the angel of the Lord ascending in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife look on ( Jud 13:20 ), and particularly of Elijah ascending to heaven in a whirlwind ( 2 Ki 2:11-12 ), although not related directly in the New Testament to the ascension of Jesus, are rightly seen as fundamental to the New Testament understanding that Jesus physically came down from heaven and returned there. Most of the Old Testament references to ascension into heaven emphasize that it is a divine act done only by God's power and not to be thought of as possible by mere humanity ( Deut 30:11-12 ; Prov 30:4 ; Isa 14:12-15 ).
The New Testament There is very little reference to the ascension in the New Testament, although reference abounds to the exaltation of Christ. In virtually all these passages, a literal ascension from earth to heaven seems assumed, although some scholars have challenged whether Paul believed in such an ascension because of his movement from resurrection directly to exaltation in such passages as Romans 1:4; 8:34; and 1 Corinthians 15:12-28. Ephesians 4:10 and 1 Timothy 3:16 contradict this opinion, and it can be safely said that, given the clear references to Christ's ascension in other New Testament documents and the plain and relatively uniform witness of the New Testament to a bodily resurrection of Christ, that Paul and indeed all the New Testament authors would agree with Luke that after forty days of appearances to his disciples, Jesus experienced a literal, physical ascension into heaven, albeit in his "spiritual body" as the firstfruits of the final resurrection that is envisioned for us all at the end of time (cf. 1 Col 15:20-28 ; 1 Thess 4:13-18 ).
Clear references to the ascension are found scattered throughout the New Testament so that it cannot be claimed that only Luke believed it happened. The most important passages are of course in Luke's writings: lu 24:51 (textually in some dispute, but generally accepted) and ac 1:1-11 recount the event in historical narrative, and ac 2:31-35 assumes it. The Johannine references ( John 3:13 ; 6:62 ; 14:3-4 ; 16:5-7 ; 20:17 ), when taken as a whole, clearly teach it, as do Hebrews 4:14; 6:20; and 1pe 3:21-22. Whatever theological conclusions are made by the New Testament authors about the ascension, they are made in the context of a belief in a historical event.
Ascension and Atonement Particularly for the author of Hebrews, the ascension bridges the gap between the earthly work of Jesus Christ on the cross and his heavenly ministry as high priest, offering his sacrifice on the altar before the throne of God. This high priest is now seated "at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven" (8:1), signifying that there is no more act of sacrifice necessary; he neither sacrifices perpetually in heaven, nor is there any sacrifice on earth that can add to his death on the cross (10:11-14). The ascension is, however, viewed in some respects as the completion of that atoning work: it was necessary for Christ to "enter heaven to appear once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself" (9:24-26). The author of Hebrews does not deny the significance of the historical crucifixion but argues that it is not complete until the blood is brought into the Most Holy Place and sprinkled in the appropriate way before the altar of God. Thus the ascension becomes an essential part of the atonement, allowing the historical Jesus who is now the reigning Priest/King to finish in heaven, the "true tabernacle, " the sacrificial work necessary to accomplish our redemption.
Other New Testament authors explore this connection. The use of anapherein [ajnafevrw] in lu 24:51 may be theologically motivated to connect the ascension with the atonement. ac 1:22 ties the whole earthly work of Jesus into a period between Jesus' baptism and the ascension. John, while not emphasizing the connection, nevertheless refers to it in John 3:13-14 and strongly teaches it through the idea of Jesus' being glorified both on the cross and in his return to the Father ( John 7:39 ; 12:20-33 ; 17:5 ). The mention of extremes in Paul's use of the descent/ascent motif in Ephesians 4:10-11 calls to mind Paul's view that the nadir of Christ's descent was certainly the cross ( Php 2:8 ); this "descent" is then connected in the passage with its opposite, his ascending "higher than all the heavens" to emphasize that Christ has the right to give gifts to men because he paid the price for them (cf. 1 Col 6:20 ). Romans 8:34 connects the present intercessory work of Christ with his work on the cross, viewing the death, resurrection, and exaltation (implying the ascension) of Jesus as one continuous event.
Ascension and Power Clearly the greatest theological emphasis of the New Testament regarding the ascension is that Christ now regains the glory he had with the Father before the world began, is now able to send his powerful Spirit into the world, and reigns from heaven over every authority and power in heaven and earth. Thus, in John, Jesus connects attaining his glory and the sending of the Spirit with ascending to the Father ( 6:61-63 ; 7:39 ; 12:12-16 ; 16:5-11 ). Similarly, Acts 2:33-36 presents the ascended Jesus as the one who has been placed on the throne of David; the appearances of the ascended Christ are exclusively in Acts those of a powerful, enthroned Christ ( Acts 7:56 ; 9:3-9 ; and pars. ). Paul writes that God put his "mighty strength" to work "in Christ when he seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, far above all rule and authority, power and dominion, and every title that can be given, not only in the present age but also in the one to come" ( Eph 1:20-21 ). It is from this exalted position that he "gave gifts to men" ( Eph 4:8-10 ). Peter, too, emphasizes the power that is now Christ's because of the ascension: " [He] has gone into heaven and is at God's right handwith angels, authorities and powers in submission to him" ( 1 Peter 3:21-22 ).
The author of Hebrews shows this in his unique analogy between the exalted Son of God ( 4:14 ) who has "entered the inner sanctuary" and the priest/king Melchizedek ( 6:16-20 ). Melchizedek blessed Abraham, was king of righteousness and peace, and was without father, mother, genealogy, beginning of days or end of life ( 7:1-3 ). Only the ascended Jesus is powerful enough as the one who, like Melchizedek, has the power of an indestructible life ( 7:16 ) to enter before the throne of grace as a high priest who is "exalted above the heavens" to offer himself once for all ( 7:26-27 ).
The theological emphasis of the ascension story itself also lies in the concept of the newly gained power of the risen Son of God ( Ac 1:1-11 ). The story's setting is one in which Jesus has been speaking to his disciples of the kingdom ( 1:3 ). He now appears in Jerusalem, the Old Testament seat of God's power and presence, in order to take final leave of them. They ask him if this is the time that he will restore the kingdom to Israel. His answer is his commission to them to be his witnesses, followed by his ascension. His authority over them is emphasized by the abundance of imperatives and promises in his brief dialogue with them: Six times in four sentences he either commands them to do something or promises something will happen to them ( Acts 1:4-5 Acts 1:7-8 ), and his chief promise to them is one of power ( 1:8 ).
The actual event itself demonstrates his power at every turn. He ascends in a cloud, echoing Daniel 7:13 with its connotations of power ( Ac 1:9 ). The "intense gaze" (atenizein [ajteNIVzw]) of the apostles emphasizes the awe of the moment and contrasts the power of Jesus with their humility ( 1:10 ), as does their rebuke by the two men dressed in white ( 1:11 ). Finally, the link with the second coming of Jesus both in the way Jesus ascends (in a cloud) and in the words of the two men ("This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way") describes the ascension of an exalted, seated King of heaven who will come back "in power and great glory" ( Mark 13:26 ).
Ascension and Love A little noticed aspect of the New Testament's theology of the ascension is the emphasis placed on Jesus' ascending for his people. This love manifests itself in the sending of his Spirit, an act dependent upon Jesus' ascension. Thus, in John, he tells the disciples that he goes to prepare a place "for you" ( 14:3 ) and that "it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you" ( 16:7 ). The references to the ascension in Acts 1 and 2 both come in the context of a giving Christ who bestows the Spirit on his people, as does the reference in Ephesians 4:8-10. Hebrews emphasizes that his going into the "inner shrine" was "on our behalf" ( 6:20 ; 9:24 NRSV), and that since we have "a great high priest who has passed through the heavens let us hold fast to our confession" (4:14 NRSV). These references to Jesus ascending "on our behalf" further connect the ascension with Jesus' atoning work, implying that, far from being a self-oriented, power-seeking act, the ascension is to be viewed as flowing from the same self-sacrificial love Jesus demonstrated for his people in his incarnation ( 2 Cor 8:9 ) and crucifixion ( Rom 5:6-8 ).
Andrew H. Trotter, Jr.
See also Jesus Christ
Bibliography. J. G. Davies, He Ascended into Heaven; W. Milligan, The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord; G. C. Nicholson, Death as Departure; M. C. Parsons, The Departure of Jesus in Luke-Acts; H. B. Swete, The Ascended Christ; K. C. Thompson, Received Up into Glory; P. Toon, The Ascension of Our Lord.
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