What is the meaning of the Ascension?

d0311e77564b78a4e94183b54dc42a16What 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, 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. 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.

39799_ascension-von-kulmbachIf 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 jury will be an authority de facto.

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23 thoughts on “What is the meaning of the Ascension?”

  1. Ian, I don’t see that Daniel 7:13-14 links to the Ascension. Because Daniel witnessed a public event – “authority, glory and sovereign power: all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him” – while the Ascension – Luke 24:51-52 and Acts 1:6-9 – was a semi-private event. Also, re Mark 14:62, it is plain that the High Priest didn’t witness the Ascension; it makes more sense to say that, at Jesus’ second coming, the High Priest (along with the rest of us who die before His return) will be raised, will see Jesus then, will be judged.

    I have read your linked piece (“Making sense of Matthew 24”) and I can see the problem with “This generation shall certainly not pass away until all these things have happened” (Matt 24:34.) But “all these things” haven’t happened yet! In particular, Matt 24:30, all the nations haven’t yet seen the Son of Man coming on the clouds … with power and great glory.

    • It’s only recently that ‘public’ events have been seen by millions at the same time that they happen …

    • Thanks Jamie. I think most of us struggle with this when we are sticking with our English Translations, which translate two quite different Greek phrases by the same English phrase (confusingly).

      In 1 Thess 4, Paul talks of Jesus’ parousia, meaning ‘royal presence’ as coming. But in Matt 24, Mark 14 and Dan 7 LXX the word is erchomenos, the present tense of erchomai, to come.

      So I hope you can see that, whatever Matt and Mark are talking about, it is Dan 7; the language is almost exact. But it is very clear that Dan 7 is *not* talking about the ‘Son of Man’ coming from heaven to earth; he is going from the earth and ‘coming’ to the Ancient of Days on his heavenly throne. So the entire direction of travel is wrong for it to refer to Jesus return.

      But we then have two further problems. First, as you point out, Jesus says emphatically ‘This generation shall certainly not pass away until all these things have happened’. Not only must Jesus have understood this to be the case; so must Matthew, and after the event, assuming he is writing some years later. Given that ‘this generation’ has passed away (the exegetical gymnastics to avoid this are entirely unconvincing) then it must, contrary to your view, have already happened.

      Secondly, Stephen in Acts 7 has a vision of Jesus ascended—and he uses the Dan 7 language.

      If you want to pursue your position, you are going to have to contradict all this evidence…

      • I find inconsistencies in both positions. And I’m not sure if I like it that way or not. But many people who think in a less linear manner prefer relationships that aren’t cut-and-dried, and prefer a worldview that contains paradoxes and even anomalies. This is turn has implications for how we do our evangelism….

        • Not quite sure what is inconsistent here. You comment about ‘every nation’ is addressed by Paul, whose aim is to preach to all, and Revelation’s use of the phrase ‘every tribe, language, people and nation’ which takes up and adapts the verse in Daniel you cite.

          The consistent position of NT writers is that the gentile mission is the fulfilment of the ‘every nation’ aspect of both Dan 7 and Matt 24. And it has happened within their lifetime.

          If you take the view you have stated, I cannot see any way to get around the ‘before this generation passes away’. The only logical view then is that of many liberal scholars—that Jesus was a failed apocalyptic prophet and, like Paul, was deluded that the end was near.

      • There is another possibility. The earliest Christians wanted OT Scriptures that said what they wanted to express (and to be true) about Jesus, and if none was precisely literally suitable for this purpose they would choose those that came closest. So if the word for ‘coming’ also means ‘going’ (one of NT Wright’s audience compained ‘now I don’t know whether I’m coming or going’), then the Son of Man Scripture in Dan 7 comes very close indeed to being suitable for predicting Jesus’s return from the sky (and there is no more suitable candidate: consequently it gets the job).

        • But ‘coming’ and ‘going’ are not the same word in Greek…?? In Daniel it is erchomenos; in 1 Thess 4 it is parousia.

          And the striking thing about the use of the OT in the NT is that it *doesn’t* fit very well. So if they were making stuff up as they went along, they didn’t do a very good job….!

          • I think my coming/going point was irrelevant. There is a ‘coming’ in Dan 7 which Rev 1 and Mark 13 use (still as ‘coming’). Both Rev and Mark omit approaching the Ancient of Days (which is in the Dan); both add that the Jews will see Him (which isn’t). So they are making their own use of the text. Your other para I can’t interpret – my fault.

          • Christopher, I think you are going to need to specify verses to enable discussion on this.

            And Revelation does not ignore ‘Ancient of Days.’ The depiction of Jesus in Rev 1 combines elements of the Dan 7 vision of the Ancient of Days with elements of the vision of the angel in Dan 10.

            And God is ‘the one seated on the throne’ which also alludes to Dan 7.

            I don’t disagree that Rev says Jesus is ‘coming’…but the phrase ‘I am coming quickly’ probably comes from the magical cult of Hekate and not the OT (where I don’t think the phrase occurs).

          • Re your 13 May point – it is not being said that the entire book of Revalation omits the Ancient of Days, but that John’s use of ‘coming with the clouds’ omits approaching the Ancient of Days. The phrase ‘coming with the clouds’ in Mark 13-14, Rev. 1 when stripped of (parts of) its original context becomes useful for predicting a second coming.

  2. Thanks Ian… I wonder, speculate even, that the importance of the Ascension is getting more and more lost because mid-week services are lost to the view of most Anglican Christians. Sure, it’s remembered a few days later but it doesn’t feel the same. ‘The party was on Thursday… It was fantastic. Let’s remember Thursday now.” Perhaps move it?

  3. Because it is a Thursday, we miss this out.
    Before I got to your blog I read Paula’s excellent piece in “this risen existence” just to get my head into the space on a working day.

  4. Interesting. What is concerning me at the moment, though, after attending an Ascension service (I’m not actually an Anglican, so I do do midweek!) with a sermon which was mainly about bashing Bishop John Robinson for not believing in the Ascension, is this: what do we do with all this ‘up’ language, and Jesus returning to a God who is somewhere else, in a heaven which is somewhere else, beyond the reach of spaceships? It occurs to me that if God is everywhere, the Ascension actually means that Jesus is not ‘somewhere else’, but everywhere. In the flesh he could not be everywhere, as God is, but once ‘ascended’, he can. Dallas Willard speaks of the Jews believing in seven heavens of which the first is the air around us. This means that now Jesus is in the very air we breathe (incidentally my son, at about 3, asked the intriguing question ‘Where does the sky start?’, to which I replied ‘At the ground, I think’. I now think that is where heaven starts too.).

    • OK – as in Ephesians 4 ‘he ascended so that he might fill all things’.

      John Robinson was eminently bash-worthy, since he took the irrational position depth good, height bad. (So it is fine for God to be the ground of our being, but not for God to be ‘up there’.) Yet there is no reason why height should be any worse than depth (Ephesians – again – puts the two in parallel.)

      Up and down are only gravity-relative anyway. Relative to earth, ascension does indeed mean rising skyward.

  5. Good piece Ian. You might enjoy my article ‘Ascension of Jesus’ in the second edition of the Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels and/or my fuller and more scholarly discussion ‘‘The Heavens Opened’: Cosmological and Theological Transformation in Luke and Acts’, in Pennington, Jonathan T. and Sean M. McDonough (eds), Cosmology and New Testament Theology (LNTS 355; London: T. & T. Clark, 2008), pp. 60-73.


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