And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. And while they were gazing into heaven as he went, behold, two men stood by them in white robes, and said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
— Acts 1:9–11 —
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
— The Apostles Creed —
In Acts 1:9–11 Luke reports the ascension of Jesus from earth to heaven. This event has been a staple in orthodox confessions, as listed in the Apostle’s Creed, but it has also been spiritualized by some (like Origen and Rudolph Bultmann) and overlooked by others (too many to count!). But what about you, how do you think about the ascension?
Do you think about it all? Does it form your theology (especially your eschatology), or do you skip from Christ’s resurrection to his return? What about your daily life, how does ascension bring the good news of heaven to your earthly struggles? If the ascension is absent in your thoughts, you are missing a chief way that we know and experience the presence of Christ. For that reason, we need to go back and see what Scripture says about this vital doctrine.
Looking up the Ascension
In his book Ascension and Ecclesia, Douglas Farrow argues that the ascension is the culminating event to which all the Old Testament pointed. He calls it “the very climax of salvation history.” Going further, he writes, “without the ascension not only would Luke’s story begin to disintegrate, but the biblical story as a whole would lack the outcome it demands” (p. 23).
Farrow points to Luke, because his Gospel ends with the ascension (Luke 24:51–53) and his second volume Acts begins with the same (Acts 1:9–11). After explaining why we can take Luke’s account as history, instead of myth or mysticism, Farrow demonstrates how the ascension plays a key role in the New Testament. Consider a few of his points.
- In Acts 2 Peter’s first sermon “is not a sermon on the Holy Spirit we hear; nor is the focus on the resurrection. What we are offered is a sermon on the ascension of the risen Jesus to the throne, that is, to Israel’s throne and the throne of the Presence from which the Spirit goes forth” (p. 25).
- Paul’s experience with the ascended Christ is reported three times by Luke in Acts 9, 22, and 26, and importantly, the report of Jesus is not like that of the apostles after his resurrection. Farrow notes, “The differences we have in view have nothing do with any alleged spiritualizing tendency in Paul, but everything to do with the face that the situation of Jesus had changed” (21). In short, resurrected Christ seen in the Gospels is not the same—in status or glory—as the exalted Christ in Acts.
- Hebrews too is informed by the ascension. So much so that Farrow states, “the ascension is that which determines both the shape and the content of his great epistle” (p. 33). Proving his point, Farrow shows in an appendix how the book of Hebrews is structured as a chiasm around the enthronement of Christ as high priest (pp. 279–80).
- Last, “John’s Gospel . . . contains an abundance of references and allusions to the ascension in spite of the fact that an account of it is lacking” (p. 36). Among five evidences for this statement, he shows how John writes his gospel with “retroactive effects of the ascension” (p. 37). Or to say it differently, John “narrates the life of Jesus in terms of the glorified [read: exalted] state” (37n93).
From these observations, Farrow shows how the ascension permeates the New Testament and its authors. He goes further, though, when he provides a list of passages that depend upon and demonstrate the centrality of Christ’s ascension. I share his list (reformatted) here and encourage you to keep your eyes out for the ways Scripture anticipates the ascension of Christ (e.g., Daniel 7; Psalm 110) and demonstrates its impact throughout the New Testament, starting with this comprehensive, but not exhaustive list of passages. After citing his thirty-five passages, I’ll summary his observations in five reflections and one comforting word of exhortation.
Matthew and Mark
64 Jesus said to him, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.”
62 And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.”
19 So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.
31 who appeared in glory and spoke of his departure (exodon), which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.
51 When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem.
51 While he blessed them, he parted from them and was carried up into heaven.
9 And when he had said these things, as they were looking on, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.
34 For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “ ‘The Lord said to my Lord, “Sit at my right hand, . . . [implying ascension]
21 whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago.
31 God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. 32 And we are witnesses to these things, and so is the Holy Spirit, whom God has given to those who obey him.”
56 And he said, “Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God.”
34 Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us.
6 But the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven?’ ” (that is, to bring Christ down)
2 Corinthians 12:2
2 I know a man** in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows.
** Paul experienced Christ in heaven.
20 that [the Father] worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 21 far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the one to come.
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. 8 Therefore it says, “When he ascended on high he led a host of captives, and he gave gifts to men.” 9 (In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? 10 He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.) 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,**
** Verse 13 has in view a reunion or completion of Christ’s body joining him in heaven. Soon, the bride will share her husband’s heavenly status.
9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name,
14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.
** The vertical dimension here suggests Paul’s longing to be exalted with Christ, not exalted over Christ or exalted apart from Christ. But in Christ, the glorification of the saints is an upward exaltation to join Christ.
1 If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God.
1 Timothy 3:16
16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.
**Notice the order here puts “proclaimed . . . believed” prior to his ascension. This suggests the testimony of the saints who saw the resurrected Christ and also saw Christ exalted into heaven. Cf. Acts 5:32; 1 Cor. 15:3–8.
Hebrews and Peter
3 He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high,
14 Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession.
19 We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf, having become a high priest forever after the order of Melchizedek.
26 For it was indeed fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, innocent, unstained, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens.
4 Now if he were on earth, he would not be a priest at all, since there are priests who offer gifts according to the law.
** This does not deny Jesus’s priestly actions while on earth (as argued here). But it does distinguish that Jesus is the great high priest of heaven. All previous high priests were but shadows of his glory.
11 But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation)
** “Appeared as a high priest” entails his exaltation, as previous verses indicate (7:26; 8:4) and the rest of the verse confirms, his ministry location is in heaven.
24 For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf.
1 Peter 3:21–22
21 Baptism, which corresponds to this, now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.
18 No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.
13 No one has ascended into heaven except he who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. 14 And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
** This is prime example of how John speaks of Jesus, or in this case, quotes Jesus’s words from the vantage of point of Christ’s exalted state.
62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?
2 In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?
17 Jesus said to her, “Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”
12 Then they heard a loud voice from heaven saying to them, “Come up here!” And they went up to heaven in a cloud, and their enemies watched them.
** John’s vision matches the vertical orientation of Hebrews and Paul.
5 She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne,
A Few Theological Reflections
Reading through these verses identifies many of the places that themes related to ascension show up. But they may not be immediately self-interpreting. So here are five summary reflections that begin to express the significance of the ascension in these verses.
First, in Matthew and Mark, Jesus’s words on the Mount of Olives are best understood in relationship to his ascension. Though we often associate Jesus words regarding his “coming on the clouds of heaven” as expressing his final return, it is better to understand them in relationship to his ascension. The reason for this is fourfold: (1) that is how they are used in Daniel 7:13–14; (2) it is a most peculiar time to speak of his return—thousands of years in the future, when he has not even been crucified yet; (3) the Gospels speak regularly of Christ’s death in terms of his ascension (see Luke 9:31, 51 and John 3:13–15); and (4) most importantly, the fulfillment of Daniel 7 is told in Acts 1:8–11 (and Luke 24:51–53). In the New Testament, we have the historical record of his departing on the clouds of heaven to sit at the Father’s right hand. This should wholly reframe the way we think of Jesus’s statement about the clouds of heaven. (Additionally, the angel’s words about returning in the same way (Acts 1:10–11) may be fulfilled in Acts 2, when the cloud of the Spirit descends from heaven (see v. 2).
Second, in Luke, the language of Jesus’s impending death is conjoined with his ascension (9:31, 51). As the sacrifice of God, he will be presented in the heavens, atoning for sin, and purifying heaven. But as the living sacrifice, the Lamb of God will forever reign on his heavenly throne. John’s Gospel does this too, indicating that the apostle’s write their histories of Jesus from the perspective of ascension of Christ.
Third, the ascension is necessary for the advance of the gospel. As we often hear, the missionary events of Acts cannot happen without the Holy Spirit (Acts 1:8). But the giving of the Holy Spirit cannot happen without Christ’s ascension (Acts 1:9–11). So, the ascension is as vital, and perhaps even more instrumental, for all that takes place in Acts. A re-reading of Acts, therefore, viewed through the lens of ascension (Acts 1:9–11), will stress the role that the exalted Christ plays in the success of the gospel—just consider the four times we see the exalted Christ in Acts (once with Stephen, three times with Paul).
Fourth, the ascension should be seen whenever we see Christ sitting in glory. Daniel 7, the key text for Christ’s ascension, is often combined with Psalm 110 in the New Testament. Whenever the session of Jesus (i.e., his sitting at God’s right hand) is mentioned, it is drawing on Psalm 110:1 (“The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand”). In the New Testament, we must remember that this phrase always implies the ascension of Christ. Thus, ascension and session are inseparable in their meaning, and we should read them together whenever we see just one. Cf. Eph. 1:20; Eph. 4:7-11; Heb. 1:3; etc.
Fifth, the ascension clarifies what Jesus is doing today. As we see in places like Romans 8:34 and Hebrews 4:14–16 and 7:25–26, Christ’s primary activity at the throne of God is to intercede for the saints. In other words, Christ is the great high priest in heaven. On earth, he could not be a Levitical priest (Heb. 8:4), but in heaven he is the true and greater priest. His prayers never go unheard, nor do they ever fail. He is living to intercede for his saints, and he is doing so as the exalted Son of God. This is the practical truth of Christ’s exaltation. He is not absent from his people. Rather, like the priest in the tabernacle (or Moses on Mount Sinai) he is laboring in prayer for his people. What wonderful news this is! It is the foundation of the gospel and something we should recall daily.
A Final Word
In the end, when you see these 35 passages and five truths, it becomes clear why Farrow believes that the Ascension is so important. Certainly, the ascension is an orthodox doctrine, but all too often it is overlooked and under-appreciated. As Peter Orr notes, “Generally speaking, Christians have tended to focus their attention on what Jesus has done (his life, death, and resurrection) and what he will do (return and reign)” (Exalted above the Heavens, 1). There is much less consideration of Christ as he now is.
This is tragic, because it misses the way that Christ is ruling and reigning today, actively interceding for his Church, answering prayer, sending the Spirit, and sustaining the faith of those whom he purchased with his blood. Missing this truth, many Christians can feel as though Christ is absent, even though he has promised that he will be with us to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). It is not good news only that Jesus has won victory and will one day return; it is good news now that he is reigning in heaven and present with his church.
For this reason, we need to recover the doctrine of the ascension. And this list of passages is a good place to begin reimagining a world where Christ is present by his Spirit and his Word. Wonderfully, Christ has not left us his Word and his Spirit in place of him. Rather, his Word and his Spirit are his. They mediate his presence, a presence that is not restricted to one place on the earth. Rather, seated in the heavens, Christ is now reigning in all places where he sends his Spirit and his Word.
With that in mind, let us find strength in Christ’s presence and let us continue to formulate our doctrine and form our lives around the truth of Christ’s ascension.
Soli Deo Gloria, ds