Why is Ascension Day the most important moment 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.

(Published previously.)


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29 thoughts on “Why is Ascension Day the most important moment in the New Testament?”

  1. Sir

    It is wonderful that God was not following a script written and imposed by Third Wave feminists.

    The women arrived at the tomb as it was the birthing chamber for the new life (resurrected).

    They announced, like midwives, the new birth to the disciples – they fulfilled their role as expressed all the way back to Genesis.

    Now there is no need at the pulpit, to suggest how anti-sexist God was when he selected women to be the first witnesses of an empty tomb (womb)!

    Praise the Lord!

    Reply
    • You have suddenly appeared and are making lots of comments. That is welcome.

      But comments like these seem to be pushing an agenda rather than discussing the post. Could you do more of the latter please? Note the Comments Policy above.

      Reply
    • D. Singh,
      That is an interesting observation, thanks.
      It seems that it is the reference to feminism, that has rankled. Or not commenting on the Ascension.

      Reply
  2. But the High Priest and his associates did *not* see Jesus “… coming on the clouds of heaven.” As far as we know the Ascension was hidden from them.

    Reply
    • They ‘saw’ it in terms of the evidence of the apostles, in their preaching, proclamation, and the empty tomb.

      Given that they died before Jesus’ return, they certainly have not seen that.

      Reply
      • I would say, in particular, that the destruction of the second temple *is* the sign of Jesus’s ascension and enthronement. This is relevant to both Matt 24:30 and 24:64. When the religious leaders “see” (with their eyes) the destruction of the temple and the signs preceding it, they are also “seeing” (perceiving) that Jesus has ascended and is enthroned over all.

        Also, although not mentioned in Romans 6 or Colossians 2, Ephesians 2 does associate the believer’s union with Christ and ascension, since it talks about the believer as seated with Christ in the heavenly realms.

        Reply
        • Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. 30 Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. 31 And he will send out his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.

          Doesn’t it seem that the events associated with the coming of the Son of Man are regularly associated with his Second Comig.

          Reply
      • Hi Ian

        I welcome the accent on the ascension and the present reign of the Lord Jesus. I’m not convinced that the success of the gospel is what Jesus is pointing to when speaking to the leaders. If it is then perhaps its in a first instalment sense. The same I would take it is true of the destruction of Jerusalem.

        The thing is, when the NT speaks of Jesus ‘coming with clouds’ it seems to be referring to the second coming, Matt 24:30 Cf 16:27. Rev 1:7-9. 1 Thess 4:17. Particularly the latter two seem to point clearly to the second coming. Is it not that the one who went in clouds (as divine persons do) to receive a kingdom returns in clouds to establish that kingdom. When Jesus ascended and a cloud received him out of their sight he is to return in the same way he has gone… a return with clouds. Is he not now the rich nobleman who has gone to receive a kingdom…

        I know you are not denying the Second Coming but I remain at the moment unconvinced of – what name does this view hold? Is it partial preterist?

        Reply
        • This ‘view’ is called ‘reading what the text actually says’!

          Four things worth noting here. First, Matt 24.30 cannot be about the parousia, since the word is not mentioned here, and Jesus *immediately* goes on to say ‘All this will happen before this generation will pass away’ in other words in the next 30 or 40 years. See my fill discussion here: https://www.psephizo.com/biblical-studies/what-is-matthew-24-all-about/

          Secondly, the language of Matt 16.27 is different from Matt 24.30. ‘Coming in the clouds’ is omitted, and the language of ‘angels and glory’ is parousia language that we find in Matt 25.31, but not in the earlier verse.

          Thirdly, Rev 1.7f is not about Jesus’ parousia. https://www.psephizo.com/revelation/when-is-god-coming-on-the-clouds/

          Lastly, yes indeed, Jesus will return in the way he went—on the clouds, signifying the very presence of God. But instead of coming to God’s presence in heaven, he brings God’s presence with him down to earth. ‘Then we shall reign with him on earth forever.’

          Reply
          • Ian

            I appreciate you answering. I have been sitting reading Matt 24 over and over. Your view is not new to me of course. I know you and a number of others (including N T Wright , R T France) hold to what I will call a partial preterist viewpoint (label not intended pejoratively).

            I’d make a few counter points. They will not be new.

            1. As I wrote in reply to Chris, many of the events surrounding the Matt 24:30 text seem to belong to the second coming; cosmic disturbances; heavens shaken; universal mourning; universal seeing of Son of Man; clouds; power and glory; trumpet call; ingathering harvest.

            2. Since it is *after* the destruction of Jerusalem that the sign of the Son of Man appears in ‘heaven and Son of man appears etc it is hard to see how the destruction of Jerusalem is either the sign or the coming.

            3. Jesus before the Sanhedrin. The destruction of Jerusalem would appear to be an obscure sign. Would the Sanhedrin be aware of Jesus’ prophecy?

            4. This generation shall not pass away…. I take this to mean that all the events (barring the Second Coming) have in principle been fulfilled by AD 70. I don’t think this means that the same things may happen over many years nor that the destruction of Jerusalem prophecy may have a further fulfilment lying behind it.

            5. More tangentially but I see in Dan 7 that the little horn is destroyed before the Son of Man begins to reign. I wonder who you would identify with the little horn,

          • Sorry

            4. This generation shall not pass away…. I take this to mean that all the events (barring the Second Coming) have in principle been fulfilled by AD 70. I don’t think this means that the same things may not continue to happen over many years nor that the destruction of Jerusalem prophecy may not have a further fulfilment lying behind it.

            6, Matt. 24:39 uses ‘ erchomai’ for the ‘coming’. So too do vv42,43,44; 5:1

            Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. 42 Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. 43 But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. 44 Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.

            1 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goat

            The word is also used in the parables Ch 24/25.

            It seems to me these references are to his Second Coming or events closely related.

            It is used also…

            For the Son of Man is to come in the glory of his Father with his angels, and then he will repay each person according to his conduct. Matt 16:27

            For I say to you, you will see me no more until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’” Matt 23:39

            Jesus replied, “If I should want him to remain alive until I come back, what concern is that to you? You are to follow me!” Jn 21:22

            Semantics doesn’t seem to prove the point. I hope you don’t mind you pressing a little. I am just exploring the topic. I recognise that often a judgement call has to be made.

        • Sorry to but in John,

          I think that just like everybody stands up when the Judge enters the courtroom, Everybody will rise in the presence of The Life. When He tears back the sky it will be impossible for anyone to avert their eyes let alone stay dead. In eternity, that is in Gods presence, we will all be alive. Some within the walls of the New Jerusalem and some outside it. It is conceivable to me that as God’s new Jerusalem expands at the speed of light everything on the outside will be forever driven away on a corona of eternal holiness, unable to hide, avoid or die.

          Reply
    • That was what I came to write, but I suppose this might be the sort of “quote the first, mean the whole” and they certainly saw the start of Jesus being “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.”

      Without the ascension there is no Pentecost.

      Reply
        • I was watching mayflower emerging and pumping up their wings to dry in the sun. What Jesus said about the fall of Jerusalem and the end times was all there in a compressed form like an emergent mayfly nymph. After AD 70 we see the adult form slowly pump up its wings and dry in the sun. When ready it takes off, to return someday.
          You have rightly directed the text to differentiate between the primeval eschatology from the broad , expanded reality .
          We’re still in the pond looking up.:)

          Reply
  3. Hi Ian,
    I am trying to make a work of art depicting Rev.4. I was just about to start on it but diverted over to your blog. Thanks! Glad I did. The similarity between Daniel 7 and Rev.4 is remarkable. John however is invited up to see . This contrasts with Daniel’s vision of the future that he could only experience in a prophetic dream.

    Reply
  4. That’s an interesting take on Acts 17:18, Ian. I had always taken the plural in “foreign gods” to mean that Paul was preaching the Creator/Father and the Son, and that the Greeks hadn’t grasped the idea of the Trinity. Was “Anastasia” (or similar) a recognised female name in first-century Greece – or only after Christianity went mainstream? If you took this view from a commentary, I’d be glad of the reference.

    Reply
    • PS My Lempriere’s Classical Dictionary does not cite any name of a person or place of that name in classical antiquity, and “Paul preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection” is Luke’s own summary – we have Paul’s own words when he did this reported in Acts 17:31 and although anastesas appears, it is as a verb form.

      Reply
  5. Thanks Ian

    Didn’t realise it was Ascension Day.

    1) The ascension is missed out in our confession: “Christ has died, Christ has risen” (unless that is two fold) “Christ will come again.” 2) And because if this we can miss his present position and ministry. Charles Wesley’s wonderful hymn on his intercession “Arise my soul, arise…” 3) In our writings – not many books on Christ’s ascension and heavenly ministry.

    Reply
    • Ian pointed out “It is as if the movement from death to life to glory, in resurrection and ascension, are one movement”. Following various scholars (FF Bruce, D Peterson etc), I am convinced that the ascension scene in Acts 1 reflects not a change of *residence* for Jesus but rather is a revelation to the disciples of the exalted state he had since the resurrection.

      It’s definitely important to appreciate Christ’s present position and ministry, but it seems to me quite biblical to capture it all under the “Christ is risen” sub-heading!

      Reply
  6. Sir

    Wonderful!

    ‘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)’

    Wonderful!

    The Son of Man interceding for us; and we making up for the lack of suffering for the Son of God.

    Delegated work indeed.

    Praise the Lord!

    Reply
  7. Hi Ian,
    Rather than the Ascension, isn’t it Pentecost which marks ‘the most important moment in the New Testament’? The Ascension, whilst it marks the end of Jesus’s earthly ministry, was a means to the greater end of the sending of the Spirit. The threefold work accomplished through the events of Good Friday, Easter Day and Pentecost bring to completion the setting up of Gods kingdom on earth – to be brought into fuller reality at Jesus’s eturn. Thus, Pentecost, in marking the end of Jesus’s threefold work (until his return) effectively marks the climax and completion of his life and ministry.
    Mike

    Reply

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