feature articles

The Ascension Revisited


   The belief that Christ Ascended into heaven is one the cornerstones of Christian faith and theology. Its seminal place in Christian thought is cemented in many of the great creeds, most notably the Nicene Creed and the Apostles’ Creed. The Ascension is placed right alongside, the Incarnation, the passion, and the resurrection of Christ in the aforementioned creeds with no indication that it is by any means of lesser importance or magnitude. Some may find it strange, however, that such a seminal event would be recorded in just one of the four Gospels, Luke, and even stranger that Luke is the only author in general that records the event, recording it also in Acts 1: 9-11. 

    Our major source of information on this crucial subject is given to us by Luke at the beginning of the book of Acts, which has proven to be a somewhat perplexing title. The title “Acts” was added in the second century.1 “So far as the extant evidence goes, it first received its title in the so called anti-Marcionite prologue to the third Gospel.”2 Some of the early fathers (Irenaeus, Clement of Alexandria) called it “The Acts of the Apostles”3 despite the fact that the book focuses only on the ministry of Peter and Paul. In some Christian circles it is assumed that the book is primarily about the Acts of the Holy Spirit. One can see how this could be an easy conclusion to draw given the major outpouring of the spirit in Jerusalem (2:1-4), Samaria (8:17), Caesarea (10:44-46) and Ephesus (19:6). Luke however starts off Acts by connecting it to his Gospel account and telling Theophilus that it is a book about all that Jesus began both to do and teach.4 It seems painfully clear that this book, Acts, is a recording of the Acts of the ascended Jesus. “Christ is ascended, but his abiding presence and energy fill the whole book of Acts and the whole succeeding story of his people on earth.”5 

    The Ascension of the risen Lord is the backdrop against which the drama of the entire book of Acts in particular, and all of human history in general, is set. Christ has been enthroned as King. “Early Christian preaching usually pictures the exaltation of Christ through the language of enthronement—especially through such coronation hymns as Psalm 2 and 100 —where the king is pictured as seated at the right hand of God.”6 The Psalms are rich with enthronement language that relate to Christ. They have for centuries been placed as readings in worship services on and around Ascension Sunday. “Liturgically, Psalm 47:6 has long been applied to the ascension of Jeus. Psalm 57 and 93 are enthronement Psalms. They celebrate God’s kingship now and at the end of time.”7  

    The Ascension and the enthronement of Christ precipitates a shift of both historical and cosmological consequence. This paper seeks to explore three components of the Ascension: 1.) The general neglect of the Ascension by the Christian community at large. 2.) The historical event itself. 3.) The satanic war that is precipitated by the Ascension. 

The General Neglect of the Ascension

    There have been countless books and articles that discuss the paralyzing effect the enlightenment ethos and narrative has had on the Christian thought process and worldview. Even now, some 400 years after Descartes, the remnants of enlightenment objectivity and its attempted demystification of the cosmos still poses a mental stumbling block for so many who have been saturated in the waters of its closed conceptual framework. Many mental thought processes are still subconsciously stymied by something that resembles logical positivism. The enlightenment altered our conception of how we are to interpret texts and history itself. “No part of the Christian faith poses so sharply the whole question of history and myth that is vexing theological debate today, and no part has suffered such neglect and oblivion, as has the doctrine of the ascension.”8 

    The Ascension is often buried in the back of the theological closet for the Christian community at large. This is largely a post-enlightenment phenomenon. The historical Church had always treated the Ascension with due honor and attention. “In her art, her hymnody, her prayer and festivals, the Church has sought to express her faith that Jesus is not only risen from the dead but is the reigning Lord of life.”9 After all, the faith would be something quite different indeed, had Jesus been raised from the dead and was still wandering around Jerusalem today. So why is it that even though the Ascension has been given great historical prestige its treatment now is “scanty in the extreme—and so is the preaching on it.”10 

    Rudolph Bultmann was not the first to point to the Ascension as “exhibit A of a worldview that no longer speaks to modern man, a myth that now obscures the lordship of Christ because it dresses this lordship in ancient cosmology.”11 That is to say, as Nietzsche did, that modern man has now progressed scientifically past the point of being able to believe in something as anti-scientific as the Ascension. This is a slippery slope indeed. For what makes the Ascension any more extra- scientific than God creating ex nihilo, or Christ being raised from the dead? The answer is of course nothing. The question then becomes, then why is it “that while the lordship of Christ is the undoubted ground of Christian faith and witness, the Ascension story is often dismissed as an outdated husk in which that good news was once wrapped?”12 

    It most likely has something to due with the immediacy and visceral nature of the Ascension account. We do not have an eyewitness account of the creation story, telling us what it looked like as God separated the dry land from the sea. We do not have an eyewitness account of Christ rising from the dead, telling us the details of what that would look like. Yet in Acts 1:9-11 we have empirical witness and testimony to this miraculous event. Viewing this event through the lens of modernity, through the lens of the enlightenment, causes one to blush and recoil.13 The first hand empirical data of the the Ascension forces one to abandon the closed system of the enlightenment in a much more dramatic way than other miraculous events that we can more easily accept because we don't actually see them. In a sense, as counterintuitive as it may initially seem, one can say that we can more readily believe in the things that we aren't forced to believe in. We can more readily believe in miracles we don't see, because in truth we don’t have to believe them at all. 

    A subordinate reason for the general neglect of the Ascension may be the fact that it does not receive a great amount of physical space in the Bible itself. “Data about Christ’s Ascension are found only in certain New Testament writings. In fact, in the majority of the books there is not a line referring to it: nothing in Matthew, Mark, most of the Pauline corpus, the Catholic Epistles, or Revelation. Allusions to the ascension are found in Romans, Ephesians, John and Hebrews, Luke and Acts treat it explicitly.”14 This may be overstated as there are many New Testament books that place a great deal of priority on the Ascension without directly talking about the event. Revelation is one such book that we will explore latter. Many passages talk of Christ as exalted but don't reference the Ascension, they rather imply it. Often the New Testament will use the phrase “lifted up”15 which can have a double meaning; referring both to the crucifixion and the Ascension.   Allusions and subtle inferences are however often lost on the reading audience at large. So to the average reader talk of the Ascension may seem nearly non-existent. In fact, Luke 9:51 is the only place in the entire New Testament where the noun “ascension” is used.16 These two major factors, the enlightenment mindset, and the supposed scarcity of textual footprint, have left the Ascension in a neglected and marginalized position. It is to this seminal historical event that we now turn. 

The Historical Event of the Ascension 

     “Now when He had spoken these things, while they watched, He was taken up, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. And while they looked steadfastly toward heaven as He went up, behold, two men stood by them in white apparel, who also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand gazing up into heaven? This same Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will so come in like manner as you saw Him go into heaven.”17

     What exactly can we say is going on here? What does it mean that Christ Ascended into heaven? “How could it possibly be that a human being has gone into heaven? One asks, ‘What should that mean above all: gone into heaven? Where did he go? Where is this heaven? Is he on the moon, on the glowing liquid sun, on one of the gradually cooling planets, on one of the fixed stars or those burning suns with an unchanging glow in the unending distance? Where is this heaven to which Jesus has gone up?”18 

     These are natural questions. Questions that due to the enlightenment mindset are often asked with blushing, flushed cheeks. Some have even tried to answer these questions from within that very enlightenment framework. “A Christian theologian who computed where heaven should be and how long the Lord needed to get there, came to the conclusion that the heaven to which the Lord is gone begins on the boundary of our solar system, namely, directly beyond the orbit of the planet Saturn. And the Lord needed nine minutes to get there.”19 Surely we do not want to draw this conclusion. Nor do we want to “think of Christ as someone who lolls in heaven and has fun with angels.”20 Calvin tells us that Christ ascended to the right hand of God—heaven is simply God’s place. The right hand of God is everywhere.21 “Jesus withdrew his visible presence from them so that he might be more active than ever in the affairs of men.”22 

    The Ascension was a real, historical event—described as it must be, in poetic and religious imagery. “Indeed the Lord himself wished to put it beyond all doubt by ascending so openly to heaven and by other circumstances establishing the certainty of it.”23 Even though the event was done publicly and openly, that does not make it any easier to describe. The great philosopher John Locke often talked of the individual mind’s servitude to past empirical experience. That is to say we can think of nothing that we have not already previously experienced. Locke posed thought projects such as the following: Think of a color you have never seen before. One quickly realizes this to be an impossible task. One can mix multiple colors they have seen before together and come up with a conglomeration, but they are fundamentally unequipped to think of anything that is genuinely original. Locke asked, suppose a man were able to wander to the edge of the universe and then he threw a spear, what would happen? Once again, the human mind is incapable of thinking of things it has not previously experienced. 

    In light of this, how was Luke to describe the event of the Ascension, something for which he had no reservoir of experience to draw a connection to? “The upward movement is almost the only possible method of pictorially representing complete removal.”24 The upward Ascension is the only way Luke can describe something he has never seen before. Were there physical clouds? Maybe, but that is not what is important about the talk of the clouds. The clouds are there to keep the disciples from looking into heaven or for desiring a constant bodily connection to Christ.25 What is important is that spacial distance does not prevent Christ from being always present with His own, as He promised. “Luke teaches us that He (Christ) remembers his own and is the perpetual governor of his Church.”26 

The Effect of the Ascension

    The Ascension and enthronement of king Jesus precipitates the forming of his Church and an intensified cosmological battle. “For even if the Son of God had already gathered some of the Church by his preaching before his departure from the world, yet in fact, the Christian Church began to exist in its proper form (legitima forma) only when the Apostles were endowed with the new power and preached that that unique Shepard had both died and been raised from the dead, so that all who had been previously wandering and scattered, might come into the one sheepfold.”27 

    Christ’s Ascension initiated the inauguration of His Church. We need especially to remember “that between the Ascension and the Paraousia—the disappearance and reappearance of Jesus, there stretches a period of unknown length which is to be filled with the Church’s world- wide, spirit empowered witness to him.”28 This witness will be met with much backlash as the powers of darkness have now been barred from the heavenly courtroom. Christ is the ascended and reigning Lord and because of this “the dust of the earth is on the throne of the majesty on high.”29 This is the power and majesty of the Incarnation. Christ did not become man only to eventually forsake humanity and enter back into glory. “The continuing life of Jesus Christ as the God-man means that the incarnation was no passing concern or diversion of God, no temporary foray into human existence only to withdraw again into remoteness. No, God is forever the God of the incarnation. In Christ our humanity has been brought forever into the presence of God.”30 

     We see in the book of Revelation that our being brought into the throne room of God by the Incarnate one now ascended, sets off a vicious cosmological struggle. In Revelation 12 we see that there is war going on in heaven, and it is the Ascension that precipitates this war. Revelation 12:8 gives us the outcome of this war: the dragon was not strong enough and was defeated. The dragon and his angels lose their place in heaven. We see that the inauguration of king Jesus and his heavenly enthronement corresponds with the eviction of Satan.  Satan no longer has a place in the heavenly throne room. We see in the Old Testament, in Job, that Satan appeared before God to accuse Job, now he has his privileges and access revoked. Satan and his hosts are now homeless, parasitical vagabonds. They are cast out of heaven and thrown down. Jesus said he saw Satan falling from heaven like lightning.31 Jesus’ entire incarnate life on earth and his Ascension and enthronement has dealt the decisive blow to the satanic hosts. Now, they carry out desperate and futile rear-guard actions, like the displaced powers, the stripped usurpers that they are. 

    It seems to be no stretch at all to see the connection between Christ’s Ascension, Satan’s eviction, and the miracles that dot the book of Acts. This is a time of heightened cosmological warfare. These miracles can be seen as a waring against the evicted Satan. “Why does Luke record the healings performed by Peter and Paul? Why does Luke Record the healings performed by Stephen, Philip and Ananias? The answer to both questions is the same.The healings indicate that Jesus is present among the believers. The Ascension of Jesus does not indicate his absence. The healings are reminiscent of the way Jesus healed. It is as if He was performing them himself; in reality he is.”32 Jesus has equipped the Apostles with the spirit to engage in this warfare. “The healing confirm them as bearing the hallmark of Jesus. They are not just healers, they are healers in the mould of Jesus.”33 

    One can see throughout the book of Acts, that the purpose of the miracles is not always to convert those who see them. Although the healings by Peter and Paul did result in belief on the part of many of the onlookers, this was not always the case. On occasion the healings were met with opposition and even misunderstanding.34 These miracles were a Christological sign that the Ascended Lord has dominion over all. 

The Ascension reminds us, as Abraham Kuyper famously said, there is not an inch of the cosmos to which Christ does not say, “It is mine.”

 

 

1 Simon J. Kistemaker, Acts (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1990) pg. 3.
2 F.F. Bruce, The Book of the Acts (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing, 1988) pg. 5.
3 Kistemaker, 4.
4 Acts 1:1
5 Bruce, 39.
6 Jansen, John, “The Ascension, The Church, and Theology.” Theology Today, April 1959 vol. 16 no.               1. 17-29
7 Homily Service, 41 (2): 163-171, 2008, The Liturgical Conference.
8 Jansen, 17
9 Jansen, 17.
10 Jansen, 18.
11 Jansen, 17.
12 Jansen, 17
13 John R.W. Stott, The Message of Acts (Downers Grove:InterVarsity Press, 1990) pg. 47. 
14 Fitzmyer, Joseph, “The Ascension of Christ and Pentecost.” Theological Studies, Vol 45, 1984. pg. 409-440.
15 For example see John 3:13
16 Jansen, 21.
17 Acts 1:9-11 (NKJV
18 Elert, Werner, “Sermon for the Feast of the Ascension.” Logia vol 22, number 2. pg 49-52.
19 Elert, 49.
20 Luther, Martin, “Commentary on Psalm 110, Works, vol. 13, pg. 241.
21 Calvin’s commentary on Ephesians 4:10. 
22 Jansen, 21
23 John Calvin, Calvin’s New Testament Commentaries (Grand Rapids: Oliver and Boyd, 1965) pg 24 Donald Guthrie, New Testament Introduction (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1971) 87
25 Calvin, 35.
26 Calvin,17.
27 Calvin, 18.
28 Scott, 50
29 Ross, Alexander, “Ascension of Christ.” EDT, pg. 87.
30 Jansen, 26
31 Luke 10:18
32 Warrington, Keith, “Acts and the Healing Narratives:Why?” Journal of Pentecostal Theology vol 14.2. 2006. pg 190-214.
33 Strane, W.A. “The Jesus Tradition in Acts.” New Testament Studies vol 46.1 (2000), pg. 59
34 Warrington, 190.