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The Ascension of Jesus strikes me as an undervalued event in the teaching of the Protestant church. We do a great job on the death and resurrection of Jesus, especially around Easter, but rarely do we reflect much on the Ascension. There is an “Ascension Sunday” in liturgical calendars (May 12, 2013), but most Protestant churches do not make too much of the Ascension in our post-Easter worship.

It is a bit of a surprise to find out that the Ascension is not found in Matthew or John, and is only in the longer ending of Mark. The last few verses of Luke mention the Ascension in anticipation of the longer telling of the story in Acts 1. The Ascension functions in the story of Luke-Acts the climax of everything Jesus taught about himself and his role as messiah, but also as an anticipation of the direction of the narrative plot of Acts, but also the theology of Acts.

ascensionWith respect to the narrative development of the book, the message that Jesus is the Messiah will be preached in the next chapter, starting in Jerusalem, but ultimately the message will go to “the ends of the world.” Acts 28 concludes the book with Paul in a synagogue in Rome, still giving witness to the fact that Jesus was the Messiah.

With respect to theology, the Ascension is critically important for Luke’s Christology. As Keener points out, this event is anticipated as early as Luke 9:51 (an allusion to his being “taken up.” This is a rare word (ἀνάλημψις), only used here in the New Testament or the LXX, but it is used for a similar even in the Assumption of Moses and in Testament of Levi 18.3 to describe the rising of a “new priest” who will judge the Earth. This person is “like a star” and he will shall take away all darkness from under heaven, and there shall be peace in all the earth.”

The Ascension is also important for Luke’s view of the future. The departure of Jesus anticipates the way he will return, as the angelic messages state in Acts 1:11. I think that the pattern Luke has in mind here is drawn from Ezekiel 10 and 11. There the prophet sees the Glory of God depart from the temple to the east, stopping on a mountain to the east of the Temple before ascending to heaven (11:22-23). After the Glory of God has departed, Ezekiel is told that there will be no more delay, the city will fall and the long exile will begin.

By describing the Ascension as he does in Acts 1, Luke is calling attention to the fact that Jesus is the Glory of God and that his departure signals the continuation of the long exile of Israel. But like Ezekiel, there is a promise that the Glory of God will return to Israel again and he will “restore the kingdom.”

What are some other ways the Ascension functions as a part of  Luke’s theology of Jesus? Looking ahead in Acts, what else does this important event anticipate?

In Acts 1:6, some disciples wonder if Jesus was now going to “restore the kingdom to Israel.” This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37, where the disciples ask about the coming judgment on the Temple. When they asked “when will this happen” in Luke 21, Jesus’ answer implied that it would happen very soon, within a generation (Luke 21:32).

What prompts the question is Jesus’ command to remain in Jerusalem until they are baptized with the Holy Spirit “not many days from now.” As Keener observes, talk of the Spirit’s outpouring was de facto eschatological in character” (Acts, 1:682). Many texts from the Hebrew Bible indicate that the eschatological age would be characterized by the Spirit of God on all his people (Joel 2:28-31, which Peter quotes in the next chapter, but also Isa 42:1, 44:3, 59:21). If the Spirit is coming, then the time of the restoration of the Kingdom to Israel must be soon.

Return of the KingAfter the resurrection of Jesus, it was only natural for the disciples to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of his resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations. This was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity. Beginning with the people of God, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them. On a historical level, the question the disciples ask resonates with many other Jews living in the mid 30’s A.D.

The verb translated “restore” here (ἀποκαθίστημι) is a key eschatological term. It appears in Mal 4:6 (LXX 3:23) and LXX Daniel 4:26, and it anticipates Acts 3:21 where the word appears in an eschatological context. The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted (Isa 2:2, 49:6; Jer 16:15; 31:27-34). In fact, Luke began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (Luke 1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (Luke 2:24-32).

The disciples expect Jesus to tell them that he is in fact about to restore the Kingdom and take his father David’s throne in Jerusalem. Much like the crowds in Luke 19:11, the disciples expect the Kingdom of God, as described by the prophets, to arrive at that moment.

Yet it is no surprise when Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored. The idea of an interim period between the present and the coming kingdom is well known in Second Temple Period Judaism. For example in 4 Ezra 4:33-37 the prophet asks “How long and when will these things be? Why are our years few and evil?” The answer in this late first century text is that “the time of threshing is delayed for the righteous—on account of the sins of those who dwell on earth.” The interim is to be used wisely. The new age will certainly dawn, but in the meantime the righteous will continue to labor. Many of Jesus’ parables have a similar theme (the Ten Virgins in Matt 25:1-14, for example).

As for the disciples, they are called to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected. That the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all. These men are quite literally the most unlikely group of people to be commissioned with the task of announcing the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

To download the audio of the whole sermon, visit Rush Creek on Sermon.net. A PDF file of the handout for this sermon as well on Sermon.net

There are a number of important things in this chapter, so I will highlight just one of them from our Sunday evening Bible Study.  Towards the end of the session I was asked about the nature of the Kingdom predicted by Jesus in this text, is this a spiritual kingdom (i.e., the Church) or is this a literal kingdom?  I believe that the disciples who asked the question were thinking of a literal kingdom and Jesus’ response does not correct that understanding.  Perhaps that kingdom is not exactly what the disciples expected, but whatever it is, it is the restoration of the kingdom to Israel as predicted in the prophets.

While in Jerusalem, it appears that Jesus and the disciples gathered in their usual location on the Mount of Olives (Acts 1:6-8).  Some disciples asked if Jesus was going to “restore the kingdom to Israel” at this time.  This question is reminiscent of the Olivet Discourse in Luke 21:5-37 (cf., Mt 24-25).

In Luke 21 Jesus has offered a stinging critique of the Temple and its leadership and walked out of the Temple through the east gate to the Mount of Olives.  While walking through the beautiful buildings and gate, Jesus predicts they will be destroyed.  At least some of the disciples ask at that time about the timing of this event – is Jesus about to restore the kingdom, perhaps judge the current corrupt priesthood and replace it with a pure priesthood?  This is the same sort of question someone at Qumran might have asked, since they too thought the priesthood in Jerusalem was corrupt and would be replaced by a more pure priesthood (i.e., their sect!)

After the resurrection, it was only natural to think that Jesus would now enter the Temple in the power and glory of the resurrection and begin to reform the religion of Israel and begin the process of evangelizing the nations.  Again, this was a clear expectation of the Messiah’s activity.  Beginning with the people of God themselves, Messiah would either convert the enemies of Israel or destroy them (depending on their response or the attitude of the writer describing Messiah’s activities!)  Very often these enemies were within the nation itself.  Individual groups identified the primary enemy of a pure Jewish faith as corrupt priests, people who did not fully keep the law, etc.   The hope of Israel was that the kingdom would be restored to them as the prophets had predicted: Jeremiah 16:15, 23:8, 31:27-34, Isaiah 2:2-4, 49:6, Amos 9:11-15, as well as Tobit 13-14, 1 Enoch 24-25, PsSol 17-18, The Eighteen Benedictions 14.   Luke even began his first book with the hope of the coming Messiah in the Song of Zechariah (1:69-74) as well as the words of Simeon in the Temple (2:24-32).

Jesus reminds them it is not for them to known when the kingdom will be restored, but they are to be witnesses to the good news of Jesus in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and all the earth. To some extent, the kingdom is about to begin in the Temple in a manner which is not unlike what many expected.  The Holy Spirit will fall upon people and they will speak the Word of God in power in the Temple itself. On the other hand, that the kingdom would be given to a group of Galileans rather than a faction within Judaism (Pharisees, Essenes, etc.) was not expected at all.  These men are quite literally the most unlikely group of people to be commissioned with the task of announcing the Messiah to Israel and then the rest of the world!

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Phillip J. Long

Phillip J. Long

I am a college professor who enjoys reading, listening to music and drinking fine coffee. Often at the same time.

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