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, 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).
But 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.
If the Ascension is so important in the NT, what does it mean?
- 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)
- 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)
- 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.
- 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 before on previous Ascension Days…)
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75 thoughts on “Why is the Ascension the most important part of Jesus’ ministry?”
Working in South Asia, and interviewing people who had come to faith in Jesus, I would ask them to tell the story of their spiritual life’s journey. Analysing the results it became obvious that almost all of them mention Jesus death, resurrection and ascencion (and current reign and position), in their personal stories. They lived in the “Easter event” rather than focusing on one of the issues.
So I started asking “Jesus died, rose again and is now in heaven … and we’re saved. How does that fit together? How does that work”. Over 95% of the respondents answered with something like “Jesus died, rose again and is now in heaven. Joined with him, I am dieing and have been raised, and live with him as King”. This was the answer coming from people, some of whom were young Christians, and many who have only heard the Gospel stories and not read Paul yet. But, for them, the climax of the salvation story is the ultimate position of honour that Jesus has. The title of their story and primary message can be summarised as “The Messiah Most Honourable”
Wonderful. Arguably Paul had been operating with an in-Christ (Cross and Resurrection) model for a while before he underwent something of a revolution in his year 60- Roman captivity letters by emphasising the further stage of in-Christ, our heavenly reign with him.
Of course the 3 are a unit, and victory/glory probably the best umbrella atonement-model.
Regarding victory and glory I believe that John’s Gospel puts the climax (not at Cross, Resurrection or Ascension but) at a 4th point: the battle (walkover) vs Satan’s seed in the garden ch18. The references to Jesus’s ‘hour’ (and the overall Creation-narrative orientation of this gospel) point substantially to that.
This connects to John’s beef with Mark’s Gethsemane account. Jesus is effortlessly victorious in John at Gethsemane and connectedly also on the Cross. A big contrast with Mark.
Excellent stuff. One little addition I would make to it is that I think the four beasts are not mere ‘personifications’ of the nations which they represent but are actually representative angels, heavenly rulers. Elsewhere in Daniel they are referred to as princes eg. “the prince of Persia” and “the prince of Greece” (Daniel 10:20). The upshot of this is that I take the “one like a son of man” to be a fifth angelic figure, corresponding to the Messiah, who rules over and represents the people of God. Here’s where I lay it all out:
‘John records a cry of triumph….’ Here’s another take on tetelestai, from William Varner:
Jesus’ work of atoning for our sins is not what John 19:30, “it is finished,” is all about. I suggest another approach to the famous last word of Jesus in John 19:30—tetelestai—usually translated as “it is finished.” In the context of John 19, it refers to the finishing of the suffering prophecies (especially Ps 22) rather than the finishing of redemption.
The exact word used in 19:30 (tetelestai) appears two verses earlier referring to prophecies being fulfilled in Jesus’ passion. “After this, Jesus, knowing that all things (plural) were now finished (tetelestai), said, that the scripture be fulfilled, ‘I thirst.’ …” (19:28–29) – the same verb in the same form as used by Jesus in 19:30. Because the neuter plural “all things” was used as the subject of tetelestai in 19:28, I suggest that the same verb form in 19:30 could also be translated as “they are finished,” referring in this context to the prophecies of his suffering.
On the night before, Jesus used this very same verb (teleo, from which comes the form tetelestai) about the prophecies that would be “finished” in his death. “For I tell you, what is written must be fulfilled (teleo) in me: ‘And he was counted among the lawless.’ “Yes, what is written about me is coming to its fulfillment (telos)” (Luke 22:37). What Jesus said would be fulfilled/finished during the Supper was fulfilled/finished on the cross. Finally, that same verb (teleo) will also be used by Paul in Acts 13:29, where it again refers to the Scriptures being finished at Jesus’ death. “And when they finished (etelesan) all the things written about him, they took him down from the tree and buried him in a tomb.” The meaning in Acts 13:29 is the same as here in John 19:30, namely that every essential point in the prophetic portraiture of Messiah had been “finished.”
Or Gen. 2.2 ‘finished’ as the key verse, which works sequentially within a broader scheme.
In English perfect used to mean complete. That is why a completed action is called the perfect tense. Unfortunately perfect has come to mean in modern English without defect.
So when a contemporary English speaker reads 1 Corinthians 13:10 (employing teleo) it is they think the perfect Jesus Christ.
Bible translators know this, but I think, with some intellectual deceit (?) pander to traditional understandings and are cautious in changing it from perfect to “the complete thing” – a more accurate translation, which I take to be a completed revelation – that is the Bible.
That hardly refers to the Bible. Rather Paul is referring to when the kingdom is finally and fully inaugurated.
But that is the precise point I am questioning. This is a theological blog? We consider things people post – with particular respect if they evidence some knowledge and thought – and look at the original text in context and not just rehearse reception history? I have changed my mind in recent years on many things I used to hold with conviction. That is part of the wonder of biblical theology? Most biblical theologians in my experience have an intellectual curiosity and are prepared to change their minds based on the evidence – or at least consider that evidence.
Rather shocked you as a serious NT scholar think this Colin???
I’ve only come across this view in sharp cessationist critiques of things charismatic – where it seemed an apriori rejection of charismatic gifts underlies the interpretation
To my mind a later canonising of Scripture in no way gives us the perfect knowledge anticipated in v10 nor the seeing of Jesus face-to-face of v12 which I have always seen as a corollary to the ‘telos’ (Jesus) coming
But where does it say about seeing Jesus face to face? You have read that into the text – perhaps not even realising it is not there. Look at Numbers 12:6-8. There the exact same expression “face to face” is used to express God speaking to Moses clearly. Not in visions and dreams etc. And whose face do we see in a mirror? Is it not our own? Is not this the same analogy that is used in James 1:23-25? When James seems to be speaking about Scripture and seeing in there our true position before God.
Incidentally Simon, I was for several years in the leadership team of a charismatic church – I think I understand at least some of the issues. I have a book on it that has been published in the UK and USA. And a respected evangelical para-church organisation in Africa (where many new believers see the charismatic movement a threat to the gospel) thought it was significant enough to have it translated into French and published there – where it has sold well (in Francophone Africa).
Thanks for the reply Colin – stopped me in my tracks a bit – gonna have to do some careful thinking here – unfortunately all my books are in my study/office at work – but i’m intrigued.
I’d be interested to know how you understand Ex 33:20 in the light of, say, Deut 34:10.
On the subject of translations, I Cor 13:12 says ‘we see through a mirror dimly’ rather than ‘in’. I’m not convinced it’s about seeing our own face, though I do find the phrase puzzling. Maybe the preposition is idiomatic and the thought is that we have the sensation of looking at something on the other side of the reflection surface. The contrasting ‘then we shall see face to face’ suggests that the sense is as in I John 3:2. At present we see him, and all truth, through the mirror of Scripture partially, even if the reflection is true.
Interesting comments. Quite persuasive.
Thanks Ian, I will have to think about that.
Against it is the use of the ‘teleio-‘ words in the farewell discourse which I note in the other post:
‘He loved them to the telos’ (John 13.1)
‘I have brought you glory by teleio the work you gave me to do’ (John 17.4)
‘That they might become teleio [participle] one’ (John 17.23)
But also, he already knows that it is ‘all accomplished’ in John 19.28 *before* he says ‘I thirst’.
And earlier on in John:
‘My food is to…accomplish (teleio) his work’ John 4.34)
‘…the works the Father has given me to accomplish’ (John 5.36)
So I think the more obvious use of teleio is to accomplish the work God has given him to do.
I’ve always been interested by Jesus comment to Mary at the tomb and yet a week later telling Thomas to touch him. Are we to take Ascension as a process rather than a single event? Where was Jesus, what was he doing when he was not visible to his disciples. Is the period between Easter and Ascension a time when Jesus had a Ascended yet was at times visible which makes what we call Ascension Day a marking of the end of his bodily appearances in preparation for Pentecost?
I think when Jesus said ‘don’t touch me’ it could just have been that he still hurt despite being raised from the dead. Perhaps he was still in the process of healing. Like David’s ambassadors who had their beards shaved off and needed to wait before returning; he needed time to be fully restored. Like a wreak raised from the sea, it floats but needs time before being recommissioned. He wasn’t averse to a woman’s touch but he had only just been restored to life. Just like the blind man who saw trees walking even Jesus needed the time between resurrection and ascension to grow a beard and heal completely. I don’t want to diminish the wonder of the resurrection but point out the humanity. This is my own idea. I’m not theological.
I doubt it. He was raised with an incorruptible body.
Hiya Richard, like he wasn’t quite ‘set’ yet? Somehow I’d sort of heard it as ‘don’t hang on to me’ – as any woman with any sense who’d just received a precious person back from the dead would do.
See comments under Psephizo 18.03.19 (John 20 and Yom Kippur).
No, she was clinging onto Him but both He and Mary had things to do before His ascension. That’s why He tells her – you have to go…
As for where Jesus was when he wasnt physically visible, you forget the spiritual realm is all around us but we rarely if ever see it (hence rarely see angels but theyre still there). So He was in either realm as he chose.
It never says anything at all about clinging. It says ‘Don’t touch me’ (even in the slightest), and secondly it is not said whether in fact she had done so or ever did so. This is one reason why I hold to the Yom Kippur key which simultaneously explains the more puzzling features (robe and turban, two angels at each end – unlike Mark who has one man, veto on touch just as for the High Priest, peace, emphasis on power to forgive, etc etc). New Year/Yom Kippur is otherwise the only feast missing from John’s scheme of feasts, and the final section was the only one missing a feast. So we have a round peg in a round hole (New Year/Yom Kippur would be predicted for chs 20-21 for that reason alone even without any of the evidence). The whole thing enables him to end this work like his previous one with the message ‘The tabernacle of God is with men’ only this time in the context of a more realised eschatology.
“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.”
– Ah, not so easy, I fear. All the peoples of the earth did *not* mourn at the Ascension (as they are mourning now) and the worldwide cataclysmic events of 24.4-29 did NOT occur prior to the Ascension. Hasn’t Tom Wright made some similar claim about this passage (which W L Craig disputes), and (IIRC) from a different field again, R. C. Sproul?
Well, the verse can mean ‘all the peoples of the earth’ or ‘all the tribes of the land’ that is, Israel—and in fact that is the sense in the OT context.
And the writers of the NT certainly appear to think that they have proclaimed Jesus in ‘all the earth’; Paul wanted to complete this by going to Tarshish = Spain.
But if I (and Tom Wright, and Dick France, and G B Caird) are all mistaken, what exactly *has* happened ‘before that generation passed away’? What else do you think it could refer to? certainly not the return of Jesus—unless you think that Jesus was wrong (as did Albert Schweitzer), and Matthew also knows he was wrong, but includes his palpable error anyway!
Hey, don’t shoot me, I can’t even play the piano! No, I don’t think our Lord was wrong, nor do I have a neat solution to all the problems this passage raises. I hadn’t read before your previous take (2017) on Matthew 24, but I see now that a couple of commentators there raised the same problem as I did. A tentative suggestion is to see first an account of the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70 and the horrors of that war, then in verse 23 (‘at that time’) a switch to consider the Second Coming – contrary to the way that paragraph is printed in our Bibles. What is clear is that 25.36 through ch. 26 does concern the return to judge the earth and how disciples should spend the intervening time. If 24.34 ‘he genea haute’ means the people alive in AD 30, we have a problem – however we look at it. What prevents it meaning some future (‘endtime’) generation? (Genuine question.)
‘What prevents it meaning some future (‘endtime’) generation? (Genuine question.)’
The word ‘this’!!
But how can ‘at that time’ refer to the return of Jesus, without attaching that to the destruction of Jerusalem—and thus making Jesus completely wrong in his main claim?
And I don’t think I have a problem with the ‘he genea haute’; it did all happen within that generation, which is why Matthew is more than happy not only to record Jesus’ words, but to include his absolutely emphatic emphasis about it all!!
But did it all? Where did “all” the things described in verses 4-31 occur BEFORE the Ascension in AD 30? What was ‘the sign of the Son of Man in the sky’? Where and when did “all the nations of the earth mourn”? Just asking – I can’t see it anywhere in the historical record.
In trying to understand the ‘Olivet discourses’ in Matthew, Mark and Luke, I would be interested to know views on one particular question: by my count the Greek word parousia occurs 4 times in Matthew 24: verses 3, 27, 37, 39. Do all these refer to the same thing (event) and what is that event?
That presumes a date of after AD 70 for Matthew’s Gospel, does it not? Which may or may not be correct. Some scholars believe it, along with Mark and Luke, were written earlier than that (even more so if some of Matthew was initially written in Hebrew as Papias seems to imply).
Paul seems to have believed Jesus’ return was imminent, probably reflecting his own understanding of Jesus’ words. Indeed if you are right to say the ‘world/earth’ really means the world as they knew it then (middle east/parts of Africa/europe) then Paul believed the end was imminent as the gospel had been preached throughout the ‘world’?
Hi Philip, yes, I think the word Parousia occurring in those verses refers to the same thing.
In v 3, the disciples ask about two things:
. when will these things happen (ie hte destruction of the temple)
. and when will be ‘your parousia and the end of the age?’
In v 27, Jesus has, as part of the narrative from v 9 to v 35 concerning the immediate events (in answer to the first question), been warning them of ‘secret Christs’ who have come: ‘Look he is out in the desert’! He constrasts this by saying that his Parousia will be unmistakable, like lightning across the sky, and it has not happened so do not be fooled.
By the time we get to verse 37, we are into the answer to the second question, ‘when will be sign of your Parousia and the end of the age?’ So the rest of chapter 24 and chapter 25 addresses that question.
Hi James. France points out that the phrase ‘all the tribes of the earth’ is from Zech 12.10–14, and there specifically refers to Jerusalem and the tribe of David (‘earth’ and ‘land’ are the same word ‘ge’ in Greek; note that it does not use the word ‘kosmos’ which we might expect if it meant ‘the whole world’).
In Zech, and ‘mourning’ could be either remorse or repentance—so could refer either to those who are ‘cut to the heart’ in Acts 2.37 when they realised what they have done to Jesus and repent of it, or those who, knowing Jesus’ words, see the destruction of Jerusalem.
The ‘sign of the son of man in heaven’ can mean:
a. the sign that is ‘the son of man in heaven’ (just as the phrase ‘sign of the fig tree’ means the fig tree as a sign, not something separate)
b. ‘the sign in heaven of the son of man’ is something visible
c. ‘the sign of the son-of-man-in-heaven’, that is, it is the son of man who is in heaven, because is is ‘coming on the clouds to the Ancient of Days.’ So this means the evidence that Jesus is indeed Lord, as shown by the proclamation of the gospel and the forecast destruction of the temple.
France notes that all three are possible, and there is no particular reason to prefer the second, which is the one you are opting for.
But the question remains: if you don’t accept these, what do you think they refer to? And if you associate them with Jesus’ Parousia (*which is not mentioned anywhere here!!*) how do you explain Jesus doubly solemn declaration that ‘all these things will happen before this generation passes away’?
OK, I’m reading, and reading around, and getting my head around this way of reading verse 29-31 and can see better the flow of your argument.
Are you saying v. 30 could be interpreted as a periphrastic way of saying:
“At the culmination of the Jewish War, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple and the massacre of the population, the Jews will perceive – to their great sorrow – that Jesus (whom they rejected) is in fact the Messiah (and cosmic King) who is now exalted in heaven”?
Is this how Tom Wright understands this passage?
And then does verse 31 mean not a gathering of all believers for judgment/reward but rather the worldwide mission of the gospel?
As regards the Weiss/Schweitzer view (that Jesus was wrong about the eschaton), I understand this gave rise to C. H. Dodd’s ‘realized eschatology’ re-gearing of the gospel message; and that Dale Allison follows Schweitzer as well. I wonder if Douglas Campbell, who explicitly follows Schweitzer in some points, thinks this as well.
Well, if you republish this piece in succeeding years (DV and Parousia permitting), may I suggest one small change:
“the exAltation of the Son of Man” rather than “exultation” (though no doubt He was rejoicing: ‘God goes up with a shout’.
My thought on parousia is that this is not (necessarily) connecting to the ‘coming on the cloud(s)’ – the language seems unrelated to me. The latter is a verb of action and movement. The former is a noun representing more of an event than an action. According to LSJ it can mean ‘presence’, ‘arrival’, ‘visit of an important personage’ (and others). The translation of it as ‘His coming’ could confuse this with the Daniel imagary, which seems different.
Just to clarify Ian, and after rereading Matt 24 & 25, are you saying the ‘the coming of the Son of Man’ refers to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in AD 70 and not His return in glory and with His angels at the final judgment as Matt 24 seems to imply, and confirmed in Matt 25?
No. The ‘coming of the son of man’ is a quotation from Daniel 7.13, and is a reference to Jesus ascending to join the Ancient of Days on the throne.
Matt 24.36 onwards is about the return of Jesus; the ‘coming of the son of man on the clouds’ before that is not.
I’m yet to find an interpretation of MT 24 that fully makes sense to me. As James said it’s pretty tempting to contrive v34’s ‘this generation’ to actually mean ‘that generation’, which would fit it all the necessaries neatly into the future with maximum literalness. (Please??)
A persuasive point of your reading Ian is that the ‘but concerning’ in v36 would signal a shift from one half of the disciples’ question to the other. But what I fail to understand is how can the sign of the son of man, interpreted as the ascension, be said to come (v29) ‘immediately after the tribulation’ described in the chapter up to that point? And even if the sign of the son of man is stretched to include/culminate in the destruction of the Temple (giving more time and context for the signs described), how can v31 be said to have happened in Jesus’ generation?
I have no problem with more symbolic interpretations where there is justification for it – the sign of the son of man and the background in Daniel 7 being a good example. I’m interested to hear if you think there is something similar for v31. But sometimes when the more symbolic interpretations start to stack up, and give an overall picture that seems at odds with the plainer sense, it’s hard to shake the feeling that I’m resisting the text.
I don’t want to resist the text – whether that means I need to embrace more symbolism or reject it. Trying to figure out which!
Thanks for giving your view on parousia in Matthew 24.
I think a thorough debate on the Olivet discourses in Matthew, Mark and Luke, and the Daniel passage and Revelation 1:7 needs a thread on its own. Just for now, do you consider Luke 21:27 to also be about the Ascension? Because as I see it, Luke 21:15, in context, must be post- Ascension. I assume, correct me if I am wrong, that you reject preterist views on these matters.
Ian, I have found this enormously helpful. Thank you. On this specific point, is there a translation problem with “coming”? Ordinarily, “coming” would mean moving towards us, but here you are suggesting that it refers to Christ moving from us back to Heaven, to be seated on the throne, and so on. I see the sense in the way you have unpacked Daniel 7 but on this point it seems to understand “coming” contrary to its normal meaning (“going” in fact). Apologies if this is a daft question.
Alternative view is that (as with Ps 110.1) the original meaning of the Scripture in context and the meaning that speaks to the present need (cf. Rev 14 where Son of Man rides on clouds and exercises judgment on the world) are 2 distinct things. Intervention from heaven was needed (for Christians this would naturally be in the form of Jesus) and this was the Scripture that best seemed to promise it.
Mark, it’s a good question. The Greek verb has the distinctive sense of coming, as you can see for yourself here. The Daniel passage is in Aramaic, but in the Greek (Septuagint) translation the verb is the same. Although Ian differs from the commonly accepted understanding of Dan 7:13a (Greek here) and the NT passages alluding to it, the implied sense of direction is from heaven to earth, just as when Jesus ‘came’ the first time.
In English translations, in the second half of the verse the Messiah ‘comes’ also to the Ancient of Days , but this is a different verb in the Aramaic/Greek and the destination is there explicit.
You might also like to note that the verb in Dan 7:22, where the Ancient of Days ‘comes’, is the same as in Dan 7:13a. How do you understand this? I take it to be an indication that the Messiah and the Ancient of Days are to be identified: the Messiah comes to rescue the saints (on earth) as the Ancient of Days.
The OT context is Zech 12, i.e. the house of David, Jerusalem, the house of Levi and perhaps the tribe of Simeon (following the LXX). The ‘tribes of the earth’ is not a phrase there. The NT context is Rev itself, e.g. ‘kings of the earth’ 2 verses earlier and Rev 6:15 describing possibly the same moment, and in Rev 5:9 (passim) ‘every tribe and language and people and nation’. Paul (Revelation p 63) interprets: ‘John refigures the context of Zech 12 from being Jerusalem to the whole of the known world’ – so clearly not referring to the Ascension in Jerusalem, witnessed only by the Galilean disciples.
The specific phrase in Greek (phulai tes ges) recalls Gen 12:3 LXX, the time of blessing having now passed (though it will come back).
Yours is a good question. The Greek verb has the distinctive sense of coming, as you can see for yourself here. The Daniel passage is in Aramaic, but in the Greek (Septuagint) translation the verb is the same. Although Ian differs from the commonly accepted understanding of Dan 7:13a (Greek here) and the NT passages alluding to it, the implied sense of direction is from heaven to earth, just as when Jesus ‘came’ the first time. The same word is used at the Ascension to refer to his coming back at the end of the age (Acts 1:11). There is another word for ‘go’.
In English translations, in the second half of the verse the Messiah ‘comes’ also to the Ancient of Days , but this is a different verb in the Aramaic/Greek and the destination is there explicit.
You might also like to note that the verb in Dan 7:22, where the Ancient of Days ‘comes’, is the same as in Dan 7:13a. How do you understand this? I take it to be an indication that the Messiah and the Ancient of Days, God, are to be identified: the Messiah comes to rescue the saints (on earth) as the Ancient of Days.
Thank you Ian. Particularly like your comment, ‘ Jesus was crucified because he anticipated his Ascension!’ Also…can you tell us the source of the pictures…please.
Thanks Edward. I will try and track them down—though it is possible to do a ‘reverse image search’ on Google which will tell you.
For someone not soaked in the liturgical year, I thank you for the article. Too little attention is paid to the Ascension.
It took me back to the Heidelberg Catechism enfolded in Kevin DeYong’s book, “The Good News we Almost Forgot.” The Trinity is one of the emphases he draws out, along with others mentioned in the Q&A’s 46 – 49 , which chime with Ian’s points of meaning.
And to search out this wonderful sermon by Leo the Great;
Thanks to Peter Leithart.
I found this helpful, from Paula Gooder: ‘the great divine absence is a vital ingredient in our call to mission… If Jesus were still on earth in his risen existence, we would probably leave him to it. We might stand at the edge making admiring noises but it would be hard to join in… A [good] sermon illustration for Ascension Day would be for the preacher to walk out and leave the congregation alone.’
That is really interesting…but I think it needs at least some qualification.
Jesus promises explicitly in John 14 ‘I will not leave you as orphans’ in the sense of being alone. And the immediate response to the Ascension in Luke is the sending of the Spirit, who makes the presence and power of Jesus real amongst the people of God.
I do worry that, in some traditions, the Ascension really is interpreted as meaning that we just have to get on with it ourselves!
(I don’t think that Paula would disagree with that larger picture…)
Seriously, are you being serious with that illustration?
As for divine absence it might be worth running through these Q &A’s from the Heidleberg Catechism:
Q. What do you mean by saying, “He ascended to heaven”?
A. That Christ while his disciples watched, was taken up from the earth into heaven1 and remains there on our behalf2 until he comes again to judge the living and the dead.3
1 Luke 24:50-51; Acts 1:9-11
2 Rom. 8:34; Eph. 4:8-10; Heb. 7:23-25; 9:24
3 Acts 1:11
Q. But isn’t Christ with us until the end of the world as he promised us?1
A. Christ is true human and true God. In his human nature Christ is not now on earth;2 but in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is never absent from us.3
1 Matt. 28:20
2 Acts 1:9-11; 3:19-21
3 Matt. 28:18-20; John 14:16-19
Q. If his humanity is not present wherever his divinity is, then aren’t the two natures of Christ separated from each other?
A. Certainly not. Since divinity is not limited and is present everywhere,1 it is evident that Christ’s divinity is surely beyond the bounds of the humanity that has been taken on, but at the same time his divinity is in and remains personally united to his humanity.2
1 Jer. 23:23-24; Acts 7:48-49 (Isa. 66:1)
2 John 1:14; 3:13; Col. 2:9
Q. How does Christ’s ascension to heaven benefit us?
A. First, he is our advocate in heaven in the presence of his Father.1
Second, we have our own flesh in heaven as a sure pledge that Christ our head will also take us, his members, up to himself.2
Third, he sends his Spirit to us on earth as a corresponding pledge.3 By the Spirit’s power we seek not earthly things but the things above, where Christ is, sitting at God’s right hand.4
1 Rom. 8:34; 1 John 2:1
2 John 14:2; 17:24; Eph. 2:4-6
3 John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:21-22; 5:5
4 Col. 3:1-4
Lord’s Day 19
Q. Why the next words: “and is seated at the right hand of God”?
A. Because Christ ascended to heaven to show there that he is head of his church,1 the one through whom the Father rules all things.2
1 Eph. 1:20-23; Col. 1:18 2 Matt. 28:18; John 5:22-23
Q. How does this glory of Christ our head benefit us?
A. First, through his Holy Spirit he pours out gifts from heaven upon us his members.1
Second, by his power he defends us and keeps us safe from all enemies.2
1 Acts 2:33; Eph. 4:7-12
2 Ps. 110:1-2; John 10:27-30; Rev. 19:11-16
O, I promise that neither Paula Gooder nor I are contradicting the Heidelberg Catechism. Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age.
But he has decided (and he didn’t have to make this decision) that the way he will be present is by physical absence and the sending of the Spirit.
And the extension of this is: if even Jesus thought it was better for us that he be absent in body (but act through the Spirit), how much more should we as leaders sometimes choose to be absent in body and trust the Holy Spirit to do the Spirit’s work without us, and without people becoming dependent on our physical presence.
That may cut both ways. How many in leadership could do without themselves!? When everything revolves around themselves not depending, trusting in Holy Spirit? The article above, on leadership may flesh that out a bit.
Still not persuaded by the illustration as it is open to multiple subjective views of the congregants, of the leadership. Some leadership is noticeable by its absence, lack of teaching. At the opposite end is leadership verging on command and control with their favourites.
I know we are on an Anglican blog – but are we all convinced that Romans 6:3-4 is talking about water baptism? Could this reference, and elsewhere (e.g. 1 Cor 10:1-4; 12:12-13) be referencing a metaphoric ontological baptism?
I don’t think I have ever heard of a metaphoric ontological baptism.
You can use ‘baptism’ simply to mean ‘be immersed in’, as in ‘baptism of fire’.
But Paul here refers to ‘all of us who have been baptised into Christ’. I cannot think of any reason why that wouldn’t refer to water baptism, which they will all have experienced.
Re Baptism in Romans 6. It is fascinating to me that you have not heard of this concept. A predecessor of mine at UST did a PhD on baptism in the New Testament and my supervisor – who was also his supervisor – was persuaded by his argument – that it rarely actually involved water. I think many with a 1689, rather than a Westminster or 39 Articles confessional position would agree with this analysis.
How would Paul know that all he addressed (in each situation he used the expression) had been baptised in water? It does not seem to fit his over-arching argument. The baptism that Paul speaks of in 1 Corinthians 10 and then applies to the church there, was obviously metaphoric (employing source and target domain as modern metaphor theory articulates) – as Israel did not actually get submerged in the sea. As you point out it can mean simply mean ‘immersed in’ in a non-literal way.
To me it would be unusual if Paul took the metaphoric corporate crossing of the sea by Israel into a new relationship with God on Mount Sinai – and then applied it to individual water baptisms in the church at Corinth?
I suggest Paul was referring to the corporate ‘ontological’ (spiritual) baptism (metaphorical immersion) of the elect into Christ based on his death on the cross that the Corinthians shared in.
At least this should be considered among biblical theologians – even if not in conformity with a particular confessional position?
And of course Paul in Romans 6 speaks of being baptised into Christ – not being baptised in water. Or do we really think the two things are synonymous? Even Gerald Bray in his commentary on the 39 articles does not think that.
Tom Wright in his NIB Romans commentary says James Dunn took the view (in Dunn’s Romans commentary) “That Paul is not here primary referring to the actual event of water baptism but only using the language as a metaphor for Christian beginnings, conversion and initiation in general.” I would see it as part of the New Exodus typology. The first exodus immersing Israel into the new covenant relationship with Yahweh and the new covenant initiated on the cross immersing the elect into Christ.
Incidentally I do agree with your comments on Jesus’ comments about this generation.
The new Exodus is of course a central feature of the Bible’s pervasive marital imagery – its dominant conceptual metaphor.
Yes, Jesus will be with us always, even to the end of the age. But he chose (and he didn’t have to do so!) to be present by the Spirit, and absent in body. Neither Paula Goode’s nor I are disagreeing with the Heidelberg catechism (!) but I do think it’s worth thinking about Jesus’ physical absence as a spur to mission (and indeed a spur to reliance on the Spirit). In the same way, if Jesus knew his mission would be better carried out in his physical absence (though of course he is present by the Spirit), how much more as Christian leaders should we be careful not to limit mission by making people dependent on us rather than the Spirit.
Sorry – *Gooder
Jesus does not appropriate the language of ‘one like a son of man’ to himself. ‘Son of man’ occurs frequently in the OT, Daniel 7 being just one instance. There it features as a simile, thus ‘like a human being’. It is never a title in the OT. In the gospels it is counterpoised with ‘Son of God’, meaning he was archetypally descended from man as well as God (Luke 3:38).
Jesus has not scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts: the past tense is prophetic, and refers to what is yet to be. Likewise Matt 24 refers to the future.
Daniel 7:13a refers to Jesus’s second coming. In his ascension he ascended in cloud, or a cloud, not ‘clouds’ far in the heavens. When John alludes to the verse (Rev 1:7), he is referring to an event yet to happen. As the prophets repeatedly say, the Day of the Lord will be a day of clouds and thick darkness. I Thes 4:17 refers to the future coming/parousia of the Lord (the terms are interchangeable) and underlines the point, except that that text does not use the phrase ‘coming on the clouds’ – this is your conflation of words in separate sentences. But note the plural ‘clouds’.
The ‘you’ in Mark 14:62 is plural and refers to the Jews generically (Rev 1:7). The high priest was not present at the Ascension.
Jesus’s discourse in Matt 23:35 et seq divides into two parts: events of the near future (Matt 23:35-36, where ‘this generation’ refers to Jesus’s hearers and the fulfilment took place in AD 70, and events further off.
Just as ‘all these things’ in 23:36 refers the vengeance on Jerusalem foretold in 23:35, so ‘all these things’ in Matt 24:34 refers to the things just described, in vv 15-31. This is the way language works. The parable of the fig tree (Matt 21:19, 24:32-33) tells us what to watch out for before he comes. The fig tree symbolised the nation of Israel, cursed because it did not bear fruit, despite the ‘manure’ cast around it by the early Jewish church. The curse came to pass in AD 70 . The fig tree began to put forth leaves again in 1948. ‘This generation’ is the generation which sees the tree beginning to put forth leaves. We have almost reached the end of that generation but not quite. It is not necessary to infer that Jesus was deluded about when he would return.
The coronavirus arguably foreshadows this, because what is described in Rev 8:7 is a coronal mass ejection. Likewise Rev 16:8.
The coronavirus arguably foreshadows this, because what is described in Rev 8:7 is a coronal mass ejection.
Eh? Leaving aside the identification of Rev 8:7 as a description of the result of a coronal mass ejection*, there is no connection between the two apart from an accident of naming. The outer layer of the sun is called the corona, being visible like a crown at the time of an eclipse. The type of virus called ‘corona virus’ is named because when you image it (using an electron microscope, as it is smaller than the wavelength of light) the projections on its surface vaguely resemble a crown (except that it is a sphere with the projections, unlike any wearable crown!) One should also realise that there are many types of corona viruses. I think that four of them are causes of the common cold. SARS-COV-2, which causes the disease COVID-19 is but one type of corona virus.
Surely, COVID-19 would relate to plague and pestilence, if anything.
*The effect of a coronal mass ejection would not be burning of the Earth. The main effect would be geomagnetic. For our modern world, this would be very disruptive. Satellites would be destroyed, telecommunications disrupted, and power networks brought down. The effect of these events on the Earth was not noted until 1859, when a very significant ejection had a very disruptive effect on the newly developed telegraph network.
Actually, the coronavirus (referring to the whole family, not just the present virus) was so named because those who first imaged it, in 1968, were reminded specifically of the solar corona.
Satellites would be destroyed, telecommunications disrupted, and power networks brought down. The effect of these events on the Earth was not noted until 1859, when a very significant ejection had a very disruptive effect on the newly developed telegraph network.
This is correct. However, a coronal mass ejection significantly stronger than the ejection in 1859 would scorch the Earth, because the matter ejected is extremely hot. The geomagnetic field would be insufficient to shield us.
The virus is a sort of a pestilence, but not a major one. Its main significance is what has been revealed by the world’s reaction to it.
When our eldest daughter first had her nails cut age 2, the offcuts reminded her of a crescent moon, so we called them ‘little moons’.
Although I am skeptical about a literal understanding of Revelation, i have always been intrigued that Chernobyl means ‘wormwood’ and is described as a ‘star’ in Revelation which poisons many. So we had an out of control nuclear reaction like a star (well fission rather than fusion) which produced a massive radiation cloud and subsequent poisoning over large areas of the earth…
I remember the warnings at the time.
Don’t confuse heat and temperature. I remember a Physics class at school on a day when it had snowed. The teacher had a bowl of snow. He heated a needle in a bunsen burner flame until it was red hot and dropped it in. It made a small hole. He then took some warm water and poured it in. Much of the snow melted.
Even if the (first) conorona virus was named by analogy with the solar corona, it still does mean that there is any connection between any type of corona virus and that verse in revelation. What is the connection between the types of corona virus that cause the common cold and Rev. 8:7?
I don’t see the point you’re making in the first paragraph, sorry.
Regarding the second, both you and Ian are mistaking the direction of the logic here. I take Rev 8:7 to be describing a real physical event, and on that basis I ask myself what, in the light of modern scientific knowledge, that could possibly be. Last year I came to the conclusion that it was describing an exceptionally violent CME. It is in that light that I see significance in the name of the virus. I am not inferring a CME from the virus. Unless you see that a CME is what Rev 8:7 is describing, you won’t see any signficance in the name, and since you are sceptical, you’ll just have to wait until it happens and the significance becomes clear retrospectively.
I wasn’t expecting anything other than scepticism, but perhaps the clarification makes the thought just slightly less risible.
The mass ejected from the Sun is ‘hot’. However, the actual amount of matter which would reach the earth is not that great. A (relatively) small amount of very hot matter is not sufficient to set fire to the Earth. What is needed is a lot of energy, not something at a high temperature. A red hot needle has a high temperature, but does not carry enough energy to melt a bowlful of snow. A jug of warm water is much cooler, but as it contains more mass, there is more energy available. This is basic physics.
So, you need to show that a CME carries enough energy in the material which would impact the surface of the Earth that it could raise the temperature of combustible material enough to initiate combustion.
Given that the matter in a CME spreads out as it speeds away from the Sun, and that the Earth presents a cross-section which is a very small fraction of the total area at its distance from the Sun, the proportion of the total energy of a CME which will impact the Earth is tiny.
The Sun’s corona is very hot: 1,000,000 degrees or more. The more violent the ejection, the faster the velocity (up to 3000 km/s, reaching the Earth in 14 hours), so we have to reckon with a huge amount of energy, both thermal and kinetic. As you say, basic physics.
A (relatively) small amount of very hot matter begs the question: who are you to say how much matter will be ejected? There is no theoretical maximum so far as I am aware. Setting fire to the Earth is your phrase. You seem to be imagining the whole planet as melting like a bowlful of snow. The meaning of ge has already been brought up on this page. Rev 8:6 speaks of a third of the surface of the earth (distinct from sea) being burned up, in particular a third of the vegetation. This is a description of wild fires. If you think a CME is insufficient for this, then tell me what other mechanism you have in mind. In Rev 16:8 the sun is expressly said to be the origin of the catastrophe (another even more violent CME).
The image of a hot needle suggests a very focused, concentrated ejection. I’m not clear how this serves your purpose. I imagine something much more diffuse (as you go on to say), but still deadly. If the CME is too violent to be deflected by the magnetic shield, the superhot, superfast plasma will heat up the atmosphere and cause global conditions similar to what we saw in Australia last year. In addition, electricity cables will overload and catch fire. Even during the Carrington Event fires broke out, and there are a lot more electricity cables criss-crossing cities and fields now than there were in 1859. That there is nothing to worry about is not the scientific consensus, even postulating an event no bigger than that one. A good way of checking this out is to start with images of CMEs and then following the links to authoritative discussions.
Back to my point about Jesus not wanting to be held just after his resurrection.
It was his body raised to life incorruptible yes but if you say it was perfect immediately on walking out of the tomb who would believe he was the same person? The scars and hole where Thomas could place his hand were there as proof. I think he was raised to life still hurting, with his beard torn out, with wounds still raw. Slowly he healed over the following weeks. He became what he is today a living man, a body recognisable to those who saw him, but in heaven.
In truth you have no evidence of that. Rather I think its more reasonable to believe the power exhibited during his resurrection healed his body. The scars on his wrists and side have been purposefully left as a permanent reminder to all of his sacrifice.
Thank you for replying. I think sometimes we polish some miracles in an attempt to make them more holy. I am trying to see the resurrection as a process as well as miraculous. Imagining Jesus with a perfectly trimmed beard emerging from the tomb seems to me to be verging on the magical. But, I’ve never spent time thinking this one through. I prefer to contemplate Jesus in heaven, perfectly man and perfectly God.
To what is Acts 1:11 referring?
“this Jesus who has been taken up from you into heaven will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
How can the Ascension story be a fulfilment of ‘Second Coming’ predictions when the story contains such a prediction itself?
I am slowly working through some of your previous posts that interest me. The preterist view on Matt 24 intrigues me though I am a yet not persuaded. I hope to read more on this view. My present problems with it include:
1. It is a minority view which has not gained wide acceptance by conservative evangelicals.
2. Other plausible readings of the chapter make good sense to me. Eg. D A Carson.
3. I hold to a double fulfilment perspective in prophecy where immediate and ultimate are knit together. The destruction of Jerusalem has behind it a yet future destruction. This would allow for ‘immediately’
4. Although I feel the force of ‘the coming in clouds’ it is possible to do what you seem elsewhere to approve, namely, accept a reconfiguration of the original prophecy while keeping it Spirit. If Christ on ascension receives the kingdom it remains true that he receives it at his Second Coming.
However, as already confessed, I’ve not given sufficient credence to this view to examine it properly. It’s probably time I did.