June 5, 2011
Luke taught that the earthly work of Jesus had an end: the Ascension.
This Sunday is Ascension Sunday, the Sunday following the 40th day after Easter. The texts for this Sunday are lofty and other-worldly. They express the early Christian conviction that Jesus’ human mission on earth extended past the resurrection of his dead body, that he spent forty days as a risen presence to the disciples—after which the physical presence definitely ceased. After the ascension, there was no further direct contact or instruction from Jesus to the disciples.
The Acts reading emphasizes three points for the disciples who must carry on after Jesus is gone. First, concerning the time of the final judgment they should not worry themselves. God will bring that judgment in God’s own time (verses 6-7).
Secondly, the disciples will receive the power of the Holy Spirit to enable them to carry out a vast mission program. That program (verse 8) will begin in Judea (that is, with the most observant Jews), it will continue to the Samaritans (those sort-of Jews who have their own way of living by the Law of Moses), and it will extend “to the ends of the earth” (where people have not lived by Moses at all). In Acts this final goal seems to mean all the way to Rome, where this story will conclude. (Luke’s program seems to deliberately avoid reference to Galilee, where Mark and Matthew think the risen Jesus met and commissioned the disciples, Mark 16:7 and Matthew 28:16-17.)
The third point is that the disciples gaze upward as Jesus departs from them, riding on the clouds to the heavenly realm. Those who knew the visions of Daniel well could recognize the ascension of the “one like a son of man,” who came up to heaven on the clouds to receive from God “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him” (Daniel 7:13-14). The ascension of Jesus was the earthly beginning of the exaltation of the Anointed One to his heavenly rule “at the right hand of God,” as in Psalm 110:1. The two angelic interpreters make clear to the disciples that this ascension is the opening bracket of the time until that heavenly Lord comes back to earth in the same manner, then to carry out a vast judgment on all the peoples. The return visit by the Son of Man is anticipated in Luke 21:25-28 (following Mark 13:24-27).
[See a fuller discussion of the Ascension in the Special Note at the end of these readings.]
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35
The Psalm reading is a couple of selections from a long and complicated composition. The whole psalm has many parts, and they go together only with difficulty and much scholarly straining and struggling. It is clear, however, that all the parts are hymnic or celebrative. They all exult in the triumphant and victorious character of the God here praised.
The first piece hopes for God’s victory, virtually resorting to sympathetic magic to bring it about.
Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered…
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire,
let the wicked perish before God” (verses 1-2, NRSV).
One can see the symbolic fire blazing away in the holy place and the smoke being dispersed by a strong breeze. A priestly figure brings wax images of the feared enemies near the fire and they melt away to a harmless blob. This is good news for the righteous, and the prayer concludes with a summons to them to rejoice in the Lord’s triumph.
Let the righteous be joyful;
let them exult before God;
let them be jubilant with joy” (verse 3).
Thus a primitive cry for God to show power against threatening attackers comes eventually (for post-Easter Jesus followers) to celebrate the rise to power of a suffering servant.
Another piece of the psalm emphasizes how God’s power is exercised, for protection of the weak.
Father of orphans and protector of widows
is God in [God’s] holy habitation.
God gives the desolate a home to live in;
[God] leads out the prisoners to prosperity,
but the rebellious live in a parched land (verses 5-6).
A final piece uses ancient formulas to praise the power of God that is in the heavens, loaded with overtones for those thinking of the Ascension:
O rider in the heavens, the ancient heavens;
listen, he sends out his voice.
Ascribe power to God,
whose majesty is over Israel;
and whose power is in the skies (verses 33-34).
The expression “rider in the heavens” is a variation on he “who rides upon the clouds” in verse 4. The latter formula is a direct quote of a title frequently used for Baal, the victorious storm god at Ugarit in northern Canaan, fourteenth century BCE. This formula “rider on the clouds” underlies the crucial Daniel description of the one like a son of man “coming with the clouds of heaven” (Daniel 7:13). For early Christians, all such language had found its ultimate meaning in the resurrection and ascension of Jesus.
Various images flash before the faithful in visions of the cosmic and heavenly outbursts produced when the Lord truly assumes (re-assumes) righteous power and glory on high!
These are the tones and inspirations of Ascension.
I Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11
The Epistle reading is the conclusion of the apostle’s exhortations to those who suffer because of their faith. Suffering for the faith is a sign of blessing. “If you are reviled for the name of Christ, you are blessed, because the spirit of glory, which is the spirit of God, is resting on you” (verse 14, NRSV).
The intensity of the trials leads the sufferers to believe that they struggle against the great power of evil itself. “Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour. Resist him…”! (verses 8-9).
The greatest comfort the apostle has to offer is that the great triumph—the equivalent to the ascension—will come after the suffering. “And after you have suffered for a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, support, strengthen, and establish you” (verse 10).
The Gospel reading is from Jesus’ last words just before he leaves the disciples. After all the private instructions he has just given the disciples, Jesus prays. That is, he speaks to God instead of to others.
As do all these final discourses (in chapters 13-17), the farewell prayer (sometimes called the high-priestly prayer because it is an intercession for the believers) speaks from the perspective of the ultimate heavenly meaning of the work of Jesus.
I glorified you [Father] on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do. So now… glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had in your presence before the world existed (verses 4-5, NRSV).
Jesus’ earthly work is finished—except that the crucifixion and the resurrection have yet to be carried out in mundane reality—and he is now ready to resume his heavenly status with the divine Parent.
That is the Johannine equivalent to the ascension.
Though Jesus is departing from the world, he is leaving the disciples behind, and here he prays for their protection and unity. This prayer does not mention the later coming of the Advocate (or Comforter), discussed in chapters 14 and 16. Here the disciples have received Jesus’ “words,” which are God’s words. That is their assurance and their power in the world, “…for the words that you gave to me I have given to them, and they have received them and know in truth that I came from you; and they have believed that you sent me” (verse 8). Jesus will ascend to the presence of the Parent, but he leaves behind the hearing, the experience, and the testimony of those whom Jesus has saved for the Parent.
The testimony that the disciples will make to the heavenly glory was anticipated at the beginning of the Gospel. “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
Special Note on the Ascension of Jesus
The Ascension is a specific event only in the writings of Luke. Here are the two descriptions of it in the Gospel and in Acts.
In the Gospel, the risen Jesus meets with the eleven disciples “and their companions” (24:33) during the evening of Easter day and shows them his post-crucifixion body. “Look at my hands and my feet; see that it is I myself. Touch me and see; for a ghost does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39, NRSV). After he also ate some food in their presence, he gave them instructions about how to read the scriptures and that they should stay in Jerusalem until God sends them the Holy Spirit (24:44-49). Only when the proof of his risen body and their apostolic instructions are complete is he ready to depart. “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” (24:50-51).
The narrator gives no time references after the evening meal in Emmaus (24:29). The meeting in Jerusalem, to which the Emmaus disciples returned, and the subsequent appearance and instructions of Jesus occurred (in the narrator’s mind) either during the night or on a later but unspecified day—when one could see by daylight out on the mountain near Bethany. (Perhaps more likely, the narrator did not give much thought to whether the Ascension was a night-time or daytime event. It just came sometime after Jesus’ meeting with the eleven and their friends.)
When the same narrator next took up the Ascension, at the beginning of Acts, the conception of the event is more developed. Only here does the narrator introduce the forty days. “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” (1:3). Having told them to stay around Jerusalem until the Holy Spirit comes, and warning them not to waste time waiting for the world to end (1:4-7), the time had come for the heavenly elevator.
…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” (1:9-11).
(The Ascension is also mentioned in the “long ending” of Mark’s Gospel, at 16:19, but scholars have recognized since the beginning of text criticism that this ending, 16:9-20, was added to that Gospel sometime around the middle of the second century, 60 to 100 years after the main Gospel was written. The long ending of Mark is itself based on the Luke narratives.)
The Luke narratives have three clear emphases. (1) Jesus’ resurrection body was real flesh and blood. He was touched, ate food, and hung out with the boys for forty days. (2) The next main event in God’s reign is going to happen in Jerusalem. The disciples, “men of Galilee,” are not to go home but to stay in the holy city. As God promised, the Holy Spirit will take charge of future developments, which will move out from there. (3) The Ascension was a real, visual event with a specific time and place. It happened forty-three days after the crucifixion, on the hill east of Jerusalem (some shoulder of the Mount of Olives) near the village of Bethany. In Luke’s view, it could have been photographed for local news in the Jerusalem Post.
Also in Luke’s view, the Ascension happened as the reverse of the coming of the “Son of Man” prophesied in the Gospel: “Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27, NRSV). In the Ascension scene Jesus does not yet have the “power and great glory,” but both Luke and his hearers knew where that power would be given. The Ascension took Jesus to the heavenly court, and the scene there is clearly portrayed in the vision of Daniel.
As I watched,
Thrones were set in place,
and an Ancient One took his throne…
The court sat in judgment,
and the books were opened…
I saw one like a human being [lit. “son of man”]
Coming [up] with the clouds of heaven.
And he came to the Ancient One
and was presented before him.
To him was given dominion
and glory and kingship,
that all peoples, nations, and languages
should serve him. (Daniel 7:9, 13-14, NRSV.)
The Ascension was the beginning of that transit from earth into God’s presence to receive the Messiah’s reign (the Christ’s reign) over the principalities and powers.
The Luke writings are from the second generation of Jesus followers—around 90 CE give or take ten years. The first generation had simply proclaimed the risen Jesus as already exalted to heaven where he entered into power seated on the right hand of God (Philippians 2:9-11; Romans 1:4; Mark 14:62; Acts 7:56). By Luke’s time, the Jesus story was being filled in and details about events between the crucifixion and the heavenly reign were discovered. This second generation, no longer expecting the imminent Return of the Lord, provides the strong emphasis on the physicality of Jesus’ risen body and on the Ascension as an event. This second generation “rationalism,” if you will, eventually carried the day, and the Apostle’s Creed of approximately 200 CE in Rome declared as the belief of faithful Christians that Jesus “ascended into heaven, [and was] seated at the right hand of the Father.” The Western church has so affirmed ever since. (The creeds of the Eastern churches have also all contained the Ascension clause.)
If a modern believer is ever to be embarrassed by the “three-story-universe” of Biblical cosmology, the Ascension must surly be the occasion. Jesus passed up into the clouds over the Mount of Olives and went—where? Through the ages Christian theologians have either ignored the issue or been embarrassed by it. (See the survey of views on the Ascension by Norman R. Gulley in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. I, p. 473.) If one takes the Ascension literally, one’s view of the universe is seriously affected. If one takes it symbolically, it becomes a way of referring to some higher reality, usually understood as an amplification of the basic doctrine of the Resurrection.
A Literal Approach.
The ascension may be described as the visible ascent of the person of the Mediator from earth to heaven, according to His human nature. It was a local transition, a going from place to place. This implies, of course, that heaven is a place as well as earth. But the ascension of Jesus was not merely a transition from one place to another; it also included a further change in the human nature of Christ. That nature now passed into the fullness of heavenly glory and was perfectly adapted to the life of heaven. Some Christian scholars of recent date consider heaven to be a condition rather than a place, and therefore do not conceive of the ascension locally. [He cites works by W. Milligan, A.B. Swete, and a certain Gore.] They will admit that there was a momentary lifting up of Christ in the sight of the Eleven, but regard this only as a symbol of the lifting up of our humanity to a spiritual order far above our present life. The local conception, however, is favored by [several] considerations…
Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, New Combined Edition (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans, 1996, original publications 1932 and 1938), p. 350 (in second pagination).
As the empty tomb looks downward, the ascension looks upwards. But again the ascension—Jesus’ disappearance into heaven—is the sign of the Resurrected, not the Resurrected Himself. “Heaven” in biblical language is the sum of the inaccessible and incomprehensible side of the created world, so that, although it is not God Himself, it is the throne of God, the creaturely correspondence to his glory, which is veiled from man, and cannot be disclosed except on His initiative. There is no sense in trying to visualize the ascension as a literal event, like going up in a balloon. The achievements of Christian art in this field are amongst its worst perpetrations. But of course this is no reason why they should be used to make the whole thing ridiculous. The point of the story is not that when Jesus left His disciples He visibly embarked upon a wonderful journey into space, but that when He left them He entered the side of the created world which was provisionally inaccessible and incomprehensible, that before their eyes He ceased to be before their eyes. This does not mean, however, that He ceased to be a creature, man. What it does mean is that He showed Himself quite unequivocally to be the creature, the man, who in provisional distinction from all other men lives on the God-ward side of the universe, sharing His throne, existing and acting in the mode of God, and therefore to be remembered as such, to be known once for all as this exalted creature, this exalted man, and henceforth to be accepted as the One who exists in this form to all eternity.
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics. Vol. III, The Doctrine of Creation, Part 2, ed. G.W. Bromiley and T.F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T&T Clark), pp. 453-454.
A Symbolic Approach: Paul Tillich.
[Tillich discusses the Ascension under the heading, “Symbols Corroborating the Symbol ‘Resurrection of the Christ’.” (Systematic Theology, Vol. II, pp. 159-164.) These symbols together refer to “postexistence,” that is, the Christ’s existence after the historical Jesus. Such symbols, besides Ascension, are: Sitting at the right hand of God, Ruling over the church, the Millennium (thousand-year reign over the righteous), the Second Coming, and the Judgment of the world. All of these symbols “corroborate the Resurrection from the point of view of its consequences for the Christ, his church, and his world.”]
These start with the symbol of the Ascension of the Christ. In some ways this is a reduplication of the Resurrection but is distinguished from it because it has a finality which contrasts markedly with the repeated experiences of the Resurrected. The finality of his separation from historical existence, indicated in the Ascension, is identical with his spiritual presence as the power of the New Being but with the concreteness of his personal countenance. [The Ascension puts a face on Jesus’ reality within a spiritual dimension?] It is therefore another symbolic expression of the same event which the Resurrection expresses. If taken literally, its spatial symbolism would become absurd. (Systematic Theology, II, pp. 161-62.)