The centrality of the Ascension in the New Testament

What would you identify as the climax and completion of Jesus’ life and ministry? Surprisingly, this is not a trivial question. One of the key differences between John and the synoptic gospels is that, where the synoptics portray the crucifixion as a necessary but incomplete act on the way to the resurrection, John portrays it as the climax and completion of Jesus’ ministry in itself. In place of Jesus’ cry of despair (Matthew 27.46, Mark 15.34), John records a cry of triumph ‘It is finished!’ (John 19.30). The promise of ‘living water’ springing from the belly or side of the one who believed (John 7.38), best understood in reference to the Temple prophecy in Ezekiel 47, is fulfilled in the blood and water from Jesus’ side at his death (John 19.34). No wonder the true testimony of this leads to faith (John 19.35).

But most of the NT would point to the resurrection as the completion. Paul’s theological linking of Jesus’ death and resurrection to our movement into and out of the water of baptism (Romans 6.3–4) suggests that crucifixion and resurrection belong together, and this is evident all through the proclamation of what God has done. This Jesus, whom you crucified, God raised from the dead, Peter tells the Pentecost crowd in Acts 2, and we are witnesses of this. Paul, in Luke’s parallel depiction of his ministry, also talks of ‘Jesus and the resurrection (anastasis)’ (Acts 17.18), so much so that his hearers think that Anastasis is the female consort goddess to the male god Jesus. Paul’s summary of the gospel for the Corinthians is that ‘Christ died for our sins…was buried…and was raised on the third day’ (1 Cor 15.3–4).

Yet most of the New Testament actually sees a third movement as an essential part and completion of Jesus’ work: the Ascension. We might miss this because of our theological tradition, but we often miss it because of our failure to read carefully. In Peter’s Pentecost speech, the climax of what God has done in Jesus is not the resurrection, but Jesus being ‘exalted to the right hand of God’ (Acts 2.33). In support of this, he cites Ps 110, the most cited psalm in the NT (just pause to take that in…), with its imagery of ‘the Lord’ (messiah) taking his seat at the right hand of ‘the Lord’ (Yahweh, the God of Israel).

We can see how important this is, even in Paul’s theology. In his great hymn in Philippians 2 (I am not convinced Paul is citing a pre-existing composition), he actually skips over the resurrection and moves straight from Jesus’ ‘death on the cross’ to his being ‘exalted to the highest place’ (Phil 2.8–9). It is as if the movement from death to life to glory, in resurrection and ascension, are one movement—incidentally, a move that is mirrored in the language of the male child ‘who is to rule the nations with a rod of iron’ being snatched up to God and his throne in Rev 12.5. In John, Jesus makes reference to this by the garden tomb, telling Mary not to hold on to him because he has not yet ascended, and, most intriguingly, the gospel message she is given for the disciples is ‘I am ascending to the Father’ (John 20.17). Luke divides his work into two not on the basis of the resurrection but at the point of the Ascension:

In my former book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus began to do and to teach until the day he was taken up to heaven… (Acts 1.1–2)

So why do we miss the importance of this? It largely comes down to misunderstanding Daniel 7 and its appropriation in the New Testament.

In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all nations and peoples of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed. (Daniel 7.13–14).

Although Jesus appropriates the language of ‘one like a son of man’ to refer to himself, in Daniel this is a corporate figure; just as the four beasts earlier in the chapter have been personifications of the four great empires (Babylonian, Persian, Greek and Roman), this human figure is a personification of God’s own people, currently oppressed and persecuted by the powers that be, but trusting God who will rescue them, bring them into his presence, vindicate them and give them power and authority over those who currently have power over them. A parallel to the visions in the first part of Daniel (the four beasts correspond to the four parts of the statue in Daniel 2), it represents the inversion of power that Mary describes in the Magnificat—’you have scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts’ (Luke 1.51).

In taking up the title ‘Son of Man’, Jesus is claiming to fulfil the destiny of Israel—to take on their oppression, but also to experience the vindication from God. This also involves a crucial re-interpretation as well: it is not the empires of this world that are the true oppressors of Israel, but the powers of darkness and their own sin and disobedience. Thus when John the Baptist ‘goes before the Lord to prepare his way’ it is through ‘the forgiveness of all their sins’ (Luke 1.77).

ascension_walsinghamBut the key thing to notice in Daniel 7 is the phrase ‘coming with the clouds of heaven’. This is associated not with anyone’s coming from heaven to earth, but rather the opposite—the exultation of the Son of Man as he comes from the earth to the one seated on the heavenly throne. This is language both distinct from, and opposite to, Paul’s use of ‘coming on the clouds’ in 1 Thess 4.17. This would have been very obvious to Paul’s readers, since he uses quite different language for ‘coming’, the word parousia meaning ‘royal presence’.

Noticing this difference helps us unravel several key texts in the gospels. In Mark’s account of Jesus’ trial, Jesus says to the High Priest:

You will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14.62)

This cannot refer to Jesus’ return to earth (‘second coming’) unless Jesus was deluded about how soon that would happen. But more importantly, it cannot mean this because it is an almost exact quotation from Daniel 7, and refers to Jesus’ (the Son of Man’s) ascending to the throne of God and fulfilling the destiny of Israel. That is why the High Priest considered it blasphemy: in effect, Jesus was crucified because he anticipated his Ascension!

Similarly, Matt 24 makes no sense unless we read it in the light of Daniel 7. Jesus predicts that:

At that time the sign of the Son of Man will appear in the sky, and all the peoples of the earth will mourn. They will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory… (Matt 24.30)

but then goes on to say, quite solemnly, ‘Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’ (Matt 24.34). Unless both Jesus and Matthew (and those collecting the canon) were mistaken, this must have already happened—and it did, in the Ascension. Jesus was caught up in the clouds of heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand in glory.

The lectionary reading for Ascension Day is Acts 1.1–11, the fullest account in the New Testament of the moment of Jesus’ ascension. There are a few important things to note about it.

We have already noticed that it is the Ascension which provides Luke with the point of division between ‘all that Jesus began to do and to teach’ and the continuing ministry of the apostles, through which Jesus continues to act and to teach by means of the Holy Spirit. What is striking in this account, though, is that Jesus’ teaching of the apostles ‘whom he had chosen’ can only happen ‘through the Holy Spirit’. Just as Jesus ministered by the Spirit (and after his testing in the desert ‘in the power of the Holy Spirit’, Luke 4.14), so after his resurrection he continues to do so, setting the pattern for the apostles themselves. They cannot continue his ministry until they, too, are ‘clothed with power from on high’ (Acts 1.8).

This is a time ‘after his suffering’ which appears already to be a semi-technical term for his being handed over, beaten, and crucified, his ‘passion’. You might think that his simply being alive was enough to answer any questions the disciples had—yet Luke agrees here with Matthew’s description that ‘some doubted’ (Matt 28.17) in that they need ‘many convincing proofs’.

The language of ‘forty days’ is significant throughout scripture. ‘Forty’ signifies an interim period of waiting, testing, and preparation, including the time the rain fell during the flood (Gen 7.4), the Exodus wanderings (Num 32.13), the periods of Moses’ life (according to Stephen in Acts 7, 23, 30, 36), Elijah at Mount Horeb (1 Kings 19.8), Jonah’s preaching to Nineveh (Jonah 3.4)—and so on. It is often the time period between major epochs in the biblical narrative of God’s acts of salvation.

Jesus continues to teach about the ‘kingdom of God’, which continues the central theme of his preaching in the gospels. This would make sense within a Jewish context, where God was thought of as ‘king’ and the eschatological hope was for the manifestation of his reign as king over Israel—and the whole world. But it is striking that as Acts unfolds, and within the writings of Paul that we have, the language of the kingdom takes second place to other language of resurrection and salvation.

The ‘gift which my Father promised’ echoes Johannine language from Jesus’ Farewell Discourse, which has been explored in recent lectionary readings. The contrast between the water baptism of John and the Spirit baptism of Jesus picks up the language of John himself from the beginning of Luke’s gospel (Luke 3.16), but this pairing also forms a theme in Acts, where those who believe are both baptised with water and with the Spirit.

The question in Acts 1.6 ‘Will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel’ demonstrates the disciples’ continuing, nationalistic, misunderstanding of the meaning of the kingdom—so they really did need those 40 days of teaching! Rather than directly rebuke them, Jesus leads them in a different direction; the Spirit will equip them to be his witnesses ‘to the ends of the earth’. It transpires that this is the meaning of OT eschatological expectation that all nations will be drawn to Jerusalem, not in the physical sense of migration, but in the spiritual sense of being drawn to the Jewish messiah who was crucified and raise there. This becomes crucial at the Council in Acts 15 called to make sense of the ‘gentile mission’, and is reflected in Revelation’s vision of people drawn from every tribe, language, people and nation as the new multi-ethnic Israel of God in Rev 7.9.

Finally, the angel makes an explicit connection between the Ascension and the anticipation of Jesus’ return (never in the NT described as his ‘second coming’, paired with the incarnation, but as his ‘return’, pairing it with the Ascension). We might, on first reading, think that the correlation is being one of the means of travel, so to speak—he will ‘come back in the same way you have seen him go’. But the theological connection is much more significant. Jesus ascends to the throne of God, to sit ‘at his right hand’, exercising the power and authority of God by means of the Spirit. If Jesus is now Lord de jure then one day he must become Lord de facto. He final revelation as Lord of all is the inevitable consequence of his exaltation to the Father now.

d0311e77564b78a4e94183b54dc42a16If the Ascension is so important in the NT, what does it mean?

  1. Authority. Jesus is enthroned with the Father. It is because of the Ascension that the lamb who was slain is seated with the one on the throne and shares his worship (Revelation 4). It is in the Ascension that ‘all authority has been given to me’ (Matt 28.18). And this authority means that Stephen is confident that he is held by a higher power, even to the point of death—his final vision is of Jesus ascended in Daniel 7 terms (Acts 7.55–56)
  2. Humanity. In the incarnation, God entered into human existence. In the Ascension, that humanity is taken up into the presence of God. We have a High Priest interceding for us who is not unable to sympathise with our challenges, dilemmas, suffering and weakness (Heb 4.15–16)
  3. Responsibility. The Ascension marked the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry; he has now given us responsibility to continue this work, empowered by the Holy Spirit. Jesus is not distant or indifferent, but he has delegated.
  4. Fidelity. Jesus ascending in the clouds to heaven promised that he will return ‘in the same way’ (Acts 1.11). His return is never called the ‘second coming’ in the NT, because it is not paired with his ‘first coming’ (the Incarnation) but with the Ascension. As God has put all things under his feet, one day his authority de jure will be an authority de facto.

(A shorter versions of this has been published before on previous Ascension Days…)

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20 thoughts on “The centrality of the Ascension in the New Testament”

  1. My PhD was talking to people who had been Muslim but now followed Jesus. I asked them to “tell me your spiritual life history – from when you were little to now, what’s been the story of your spiritual journey”. In their stories they almost all mentioned Jesus life, his death, his resurrection AND his ascension. The latter, for them was a mark of the honour, position and place of authority he now holds. He is at God’s right hand. Therefore, for them, if that was the position he holds, he is owed allegiance, loyalty and faith; and he will be the best of patrons.

    So, for them, the story of his ascension was a key part in their coming to faith. It was seen through the lens of honour (and shame), authority and position. And it called forth faith and loyalty.

  2. There is a flurry of Roman exaltation texts 57-65 AD behind which lies Ps 110.1 (Romans 8, 10; Hebrews; Php 2; Eph passim+Col 3.1; 1 Peter 3.21-2).

    John 3, John 20 (John is very influenced by Ephesians).

    ‘Taken up’: Also probably from a Rome-centred milieu, 1 Tim 3.16 is very close to Luke-Acts (common author?).

    Multiple attestation therefore for the Ascension in the NT, though the chain of influence is also clear to see.

  3. Thanks, Ian, for this helpful exposition. I especially appreciate the connection to Stephen–his vision of the risen Jesus exalted in heaven as his confidence to face martyrdom on earth. Stephen imitates the crucified Jesus while being stoned (Acts 7:59-60) because of his faith that the risen-ascended Jesus rules with God’s authority: it’s not only Jesus’ victory over death but also Jesus’ ruling over creation that enables/motivates Stephen’s imitation of Jesus in his own death.

    I’m hoping you might be able to clarify a point on which I remain unclear. You distinguish between Jesus’ ascension to heaven (per Dan 7) and Jesus’ return to earth (per 1 Thess 4), in part, by the difference of Greek verbs: the “coming” (erchomai) of the Son of Man ascending on the clouds of heaven to the Ancient of Days (Dan 7:13-14) v. the “coming” (parousia) of the Lord descending from heaven to meet the (1 Thess 4:15-17). The “coming/erchomai” of Jesus, foretold by Jesus and witnessed by the apostles, has already happened at his ascension to heaven to receive authority as Lord of all, while the “coming/parousia” of Jesus, foretold by the angel and the apostles (cf. 2 Pet 1:16; 3:12), will happen at Jesus’ future “royal appearing” on earth to reign as Lord over all.

    Yet: In Matthew 24, the disciples ask Jesus about “the sign of your coming (parousia)” (Matt 24:3) and Jesus speaks of “the coming (parousia) of the Son of Man” (Matt 24:27, 37, 39) just before and just after he cites Daniel 7 about the Son of Man “coming” (erchomai) on the clouds (Matt 24:30). And in Acts 1, the angel says that Jesus will “come” (erchomai) from heaven in the same way the apostles saw him go into heaven (Acts 1:11). So it appears that Jesus speaks of his Ascension as parousia, the same verb by which the apostles spoke of his return; and the angel speaks of Jesus’ return as erchomai, the same verb by which Daniel spoke of the exaltation of the Son of Man.

    So: Are biblical references to the “coming” of Jesus from earth into heaven (Ascension) and the “coming” of Jesus from heaven to earth (return) clearly distinguished by the Greek verbs?

    I ask this because I’ve been reading NT Wright’s “Matthew for Everyone.” He, like you, interprets Jesus’ citations of Daniel 7 (“the Son of Man coming/erchomai on the clouds of heaven”–Matt 24:30; 26:64) as referring to Jesus’ Ascension (on account of Matt 24:34). Yet he also takes Jesus’ Ascension to heaven to sit at God’s right to be Jesus’ “royal appearing” (parousia), which reveals Jesus as the true Messiah and thus vindicates Jesus against the judgment of blasphemy and verdict of death (Matt 26:64-66).

    Do you disagree with NT Wright’s interpretation? Or do I misunderstand his interpretation?

    Any help here would be appreciated!

  4. A really intersting blog post.

    One thing that I’ve read about the Ascension is also it’s ‘Earthliness’. That in Heaven there is because of Jesus, so that’s part of the intermingling of Heaven and Earth. Heaven come down to Earth, but also Earth rising to Heaven.

  5. Thank you. Jesus speaks explicitly about his ascension in John 6:61 “what if you see the son of man ascend to where he was before.” This specifically links the ascension to the incarnation in the language of coming from and going to the Father which is also frequent throughout much of John 14-16 and of course in Jn 20:17.

    This last Sunday I preached on the Ascension and one of the key points was the transition of the kingdom ministry from Jesus to the church by the power of the Holy Spirit. I also preached the taking of humanity into the Godhead.

    However my third point was that the Ascension promises the return of Jesus “in the same way you have seen him go”.(Ac 1:11) With regard to Mk 14:62 I agree there is a difficulty about the timing of fulfilment if this is seen as a reference to the return of Jesus in glory but the text is also specific in placing the sitting in authority before the “coming on the clouds”. In Matt 24:30 the “audience” witnessing the “coming on the clouds” is “all the nations of the earth” not the hosts of heaven. Matt 16:27 speaks about Jesus coming in glory and rewarding each person according to what he has done. Verse 28 also has the problem of s”ome of you standing here not tasting death”.

  6. If ‘Son of Man’ is a title anywhere in the Old Testament, it is in Ezekiel, not Daniel (though Daniel himself is addressed as ‘son of Man’ in Dan 8:17). There it occurs 93 times, and crucially, as in the gospels, without the ‘like’. Therefore, if Jesus ‘takes up the title’, he is saying he is another Ezekiel. But that would be a wrong conclusion, because ‘Son of Man’ in the OT is not a title, it simply means a descendant of Adam, a human being. Rather, Jesus was saying he was the archetypal Man. The NT is clear, moreover, that he was not merely ‘like’ a human being but actually a human being.

    ‘Like a human being’ does not of course have to imply ‘similar but not actually a human being’. Daniel says ‘like’ because the man is standing in heaven before the throne of God. Human beings after death went down to Sheol, not up to heaven, so the context would have suggested an angel. As everywhere else in the book, angels in Daniel have the appearance of men (Dan 8:15f, 9:21, 12:6f).

    Jesus came in the ‘likeness of sinful flesh’ (Rom 8:3, Phil 2:7) – the likeness was real. He was also the image of God, God taking human form because that form was the form in which, from the beginning, God chose to make himself visible. God often appears as a man in the OT.

    In the one place where this part of Daniel 7:13 is alluded to, Rev 1, John describes the glorious being before him as ‘like a son of man’. But this is not by way of explaining the significance of the title ‘Son of Man’. It is to identify Jesus as the figure in Daniel’s prophetic vision. Indeed, he had the attributes both of that figure (human form) and of ‘the Ancient of Days’ (e.g. head and hair ‘white as wool, white as snow’), God himself – who to that extent also had human form. There is therefore no NT warrant for interpreting the title ‘Son of Man’ as referring to Dan 7.

    ‘Coming with the clouds’ in Rev 1 also alludes to Dan 7:13. It refers to the day when every eye will see him, which has yet to happen. It thus refutes the notion that Dan 7:13 refers to the Ascension. Notwithstanding, Jesus was not deluded.

  7. Dear Ian,

    I like this post especially with the emphasis on the Ascension. One aspect of the Death, Burial, Resurrection of Jesus that Paul mentions in I Corinthians 15:3-9 is one that is rarely talked about, “that he was seen!”

    Without being seen by Mary Magdalene, Peter, James the Lord’s Brother, the Twelve, the 500 witnesses, and Paul himself, then all we have is hearsay. Those witnesses, μαρτυροι, are legal witnesses who give testimony to the Resurrection and Ascension of Jesus Christ. Thomas would agree with this as he saw the Risen Jesus and confessed that Jesus is Lord and God (Jn 20:28).

    We have, now, a Risen and Ascended Lord who will return and all will bow the knee to confess that Jesus is Lord.

  8. Please excuse the significantly less academic response compared to the ones above. 😉

    I always liked the example/comparison of how Aragorn becomes King in Lord of the Rings.

    In many respects he was born a king, or at least a future one, so his royal linage through Arathorn is evident from the very start. Elrond and Galariel (two of the wisest beings in middle earth) both recognise him as the true heir of Isildur, and call him into that role as does Gandalf and several others in the council. He is then gifted the reforged Narsil,, and with it takes up his birthright and leads an army to confront and defeat the great evil power of the age.

    So Aragorn is anointed, commissioned and given potent symbols of his office. But even then, at the moment of his greatest victory before the Black Gate, with the forces of evil in retreat and the steward deposed he is still not yet the king.

    Aragorn only becomes the king at his coronation.

    This is how the Ascension operated from a narrative perspective, if not a directly textual one. It does not tell us anything new about Jesus per se, but it cements the things we do know, and clarifies them in a grand public event.


  9. As to ‘coming with the clouds’, I would suggest:

    (1) the origin of the phrase is no necessary clue to its present meaning, which last may sometimes be dictated by present needs.

    (2) Mark 14.62 not only distinguishes the coming from the session but writes as though the session *precedes* the coming (if anything). What the 2 would then have in common would then be the demonstration of Jesus’s supremacy and the shaming of his rivals and enemies.

    (3) Rev 14 makes clear that an approach to earth seated on a cloud was very much a live idea. The description ‘one like a son of man’ is associated with this.

    (4) All this is in a context of the Lord’s coming being eagerly awaited in the NT writings, far from being something already accomplished.

    • Christopher
      Following on from your 2nd point re Mark 14:62, I quote the following interpretation by the late CEB Cranfield (The Gospel according to St Mark – The Cambridge Greek New Testament Commentary) : ” But while it is true that Daniel 7:13 refers to a coming to God rather than from him to the earth,the order of the two quotations rules out this interpretation here; for in Mark the coming follows the sitting!”

  10. Showing a disregard to Pope’s dictum, I’ll contribute a few thoughts.

    erchomai means either ‘come’ or ‘go’. It needs to be interpreted in context.

    In Acts 1:11 there are three verbs of motion: Jesus was ‘taken up’ (analambanō), he ‘will come’ (erchomai as a simple future), as he was seen to ‘go’ (poreuō). However, it might be unwise to make too much of the difference. Luke writes good Greek, and so might mix his vocabulary.

    In Rev 1:7 erchomai is in the present tense. In contrast, ‘will see’ is in the future tense. The English ‘is coming’ can have a future aspect. I don’t know if the Greek can bear that. The natural interpretation would be that Jesus ‘motion’ is current at the time of John’s vision.

    The (many) occurrences of ‘son of man’ in Ezekiel and other places are in Hebrew (ben adam) and a quick look shows that many are basically vocatives. The same is the case for Dan 8:17. However Dan 7:13 is in the Aramaic part of the book, thus is bar enash. Jesus probably used the latter phrase when speaking about himself. I wonder if this would have affected his listeners association?

    I await the brickbats.

    • Nver mind whether the Greek can bear it; the writer is steeped in the Hebrew mindset, which certainly can bear it. So understand ‘will be coming’.

  11. Is this Wembly?
    No. It’s Thursday.
    So am I. Let’s have a drink.
    Are you coming to the footie?
    No. I’m going.
    … I’m a bit confused .

  12. May I humbly, gently, but firmly take issue with your assertion, Ian, that Christ’s cry in Matthew 27:46 is a cry of despair. It is a cry of anguish, yes, certainly. But it is surely no more a cry of despair than David’s was in Psalm 22:1. Given the principle that when the NT quotes an OT verse, we understand the entire context of that verse, not just that verse, we cannot ignore the reality that Psalm 22 is chock-a-block crammed full of stonkingly confident hope. So, of course, Christ’s suffering was agony beyond compare. But it was for the joy set before him that he endured. In quoting Psalm 22, whilst in dreadful anguish and unbearable pain, he was alert enough to recall the psalm, and thus, I suggest, alert enough to keep remembering the themes of resurrection and gospel mission in the psalm, not to forget the final verse, ‘he has done it!’ (cf. ‘it is finished). The psalm is a threefold alternation between anguished prayer and confident hope and trust, of equal total length- so I (nicely) beg leave to question your ‘despair’.

  13. I agree, Ian, that the four beasts of Daniel 7 essentially represent the four nations, rather than four individuals. Yet we shouldn’t forget that in these ancient cultures the status and fortunes of the people necessarily inhere in the status and fortunes of their king, their representative. When he falls, the nation falls; when he triumphs, the nation triumphs. So I’m not so sure as you are that we need to distinguish between the ‘one like a son of man’ connoting the people and his being an individual (as-yet-to-be) king figure. In due course, as you rightly observe, the prophecy is fulfilled in Christ, and we still don’t need to choose between the ‘individual’ take on the prophecy, and the ‘people’ take upon it – because once again, the teaching of scripture is that the status and fortunes of God’s people inhere in the King. This is what is meant, surely, by the NT description of the company of Christian believers, that we are “in Christ”.
    To that end, 1 Thessalonians 4:17 is highly pertinent. Yes, it is referring to what happens at the parousia (verse 15), but it essentially declares that it will be for Christian believers then and there exactly as it was for the ascended Christ, because believers are ‘in Christ’. So he was presented, enveloped in the clouds of heaven, before the throne as the glorious and victorious king. We are in Christ, therefore we, too, in the clouds of heaven likewise, will be presented victorious before God. So the clouds in 1 Thessalonians 4:17 are not so much, or not only, the clouds in which Christ will return, but the clouds within which we find our home in heaven. So this NT verse is not in a different ball-park to Daniel 7 at all. What happens to us at the parousia is simply a replay for us of Christ’s ascension into heaven.


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