He Ascended into Heaven

Acts 1:1-11 – Ascension Sunday

He ascended into heaven, and sitteth on the right hand of God the Father Almighty; from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. (The Apostles’ Creed)

After He had said this, He was taken up as they were watching, and a cloud received Him out of their sight. While He was going, they were gazing into heaven, and suddenly two men in white clothes stood by them. They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.”  (Acts 1:9-11)

In a 1966 episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, cousin Jethro Bodine dreams of becoming an astronaut. To fulfill his dream, he straps large fireworks to his back and walks off to launch himself into space. The camera never shows Jethro again, but instead focuses on Jed and Granny as they stand in front of their Beverly Hills mansion watching Jethro ascend into the heavens. The humor in the scene comes from imagining what we don’t see. In unison, two heads bend skyward as if following Jethro’s rocket-propelled flight into the air. Then, as they stare into the sky, the Clampetts together exclaim “Oooo, aaah” just like I have so many times when I watched the sky light up on the fourth of July. I think I literally rolled on the floor laughing once when I watched this. (Yes, I have quite a sophisticated sense of humor.)

I think about this episode every time I read Luke’s words in Acts 1:11, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?” As Luke tells us the story of Jesus’ ascension, apparently he intends for us to have a somewhat deeper reaction than “Oooo, aaah.” Jesus’ ascension is more than a cool rocket ride into space or a really awesome invisible elevator ride into heaven.

On 12 April 1961, Russian astronaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human to orbit the Earth in outer space.  Gagarin had very limited conversations with the ground during his flight; most of his signals consisted of electronic status codes, and even many of these were not received. Reports that he said, “I don’t see any God up here” are wrong. Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev did, however, later tell the Central Committee of Communist Party that “Gagarin flew into space, but didn’t see any God there.” (Well, at least that’s how Pravda reports it.) Krushchev was poking fun at Christians who believe in a God whose abode is described in biblical and theological language as “heaven,” a  place that is “up there.”

Heaven

The word “heaven” itself is one of the sources of confusion. In Greek, the word is ouranos (which is also the source of the name of the planet Uranus); in Hebrew, the word is shamayim (and it’s plural). The ancients pictured the universe something like an onion, with at least three layers of heavens.

  • the air or the sky that immediately surrounds us (Genesis 1:26 literally says, “birds of the heavens”).
  • an astronomical “firmament” (a kind of invisible inverted bowl) of the heavens on which the sun, moon and stars are hung (e.g. Genesis 1:16-17) and which separated the waters above from the waters below (Genesis 1:6-8).
  • the abode of the divine, what we normally think of as heaven (e.g. Deuteronomy 10:14, heaven of heavens)

When Paul speaks of being transported to the “third heaven” in 2 Corinthians 12:2, it is the eternal, heavenly abode of God that he has in mind.

Some ancient cosmologies contained an even larger number of heavenly layers to house a host of intermediate-level deities. In them, one generally went “up” to get to the place where the great deity above all deities lived.

Our understanding of the physical universe is quite different today. We live in an incomprehensibly immense, 14 billion year-old expanding universe with planets, solar systems, and galaxies in constant motion. On a rotating globe flying through space, “up” is a relative term. I agree with Krushchev. God is not to be seen “up there.” At least that’s not the best way to describe God’s location.

Where Did Jesus Go?

So where did Jesus go when he ascended? The simple answer is this: he “went” to the same place to which he went when he “disappeared” in Luke 24:31. He went to the same place from which he suddenly appeared in Luke 24:36 (and from which he appeared in a locked room in John 20:19). Acts 1:3 says that Jesus appeared to his disciples over a 40 day period after his resurrection. Jesus’ passing into and out of visibility was a characteristic of his transformed, resurrected existence.

For 40 days Jesus revealed himself somewhat regularly to some living in the present universe. By the power of the resurrection, however, Jesus already entered into the renewed and redeemed universe to come. This coming universe is not presently visible to human eyes.

In one way, Luke’s ascension narrative in Acts 1:1-11 is yet another disappearance story. I’m not even absolutely certain that Luke intends for us to understand the events of Acts 1:4-11 as occurring on the 40th day after the resurrection. I think that it’s quite possible that Luke is simply saying Jesus regularly appeared (and disappeared) for a period of 40 days and the events of Acts 1:4-11 happened during that time frame.

Luke ends his gospel with a similar ascension story (Luke 24:50-51) that seems to take place closer to the time of Jesus’ resurrection. It is certain that Luke repeats the events in both volumes as a literary bridge between the two books. Does Luke also intend for us to understand that Jesus ascended on multiple occasions? Or does he intend for us to see both events as the same?

In either case, Luke is NOT telling us that Jesus was just hanging around Earth for 40 days and then headed off to heaven. Jesus’ resurrection and exaltation are intimately connected; the risen Jesus did not wait 40 days to enter the glory of the Father’s presence. The 40th day simply marked the end of Jesus’ visible presence with his disciples.

Into the Presence of the Father

Jesus was “lifted up” into the air. Whether he was lifted up ten feet or ten thousand feet, Luke does not say. A cloud took him in and he disappeared from their eyes. A close reading of the text doesn’t support the idea that the disciples watched Jesus fly miles into the sky like a rocket lifting off from Cape Canaveral. Luke doesn’t describe the disciples watching a dot disappear into the stratosphere. Rather, a cloud “took him in from their eyes,” presumably at an altitude low enough that the disciples could still see and recognize him.

Interestingly, the cloud is the actor in this passage. The cloud is the subject of the sentence, “a cloud took him in from their eyes.”

How can a cloud take somebody in? The cloud is a divine agent. As in the book of Exodus, the cloud represents the presence of God.

The cloud of God’s presence leads the people on their journey (Exodus 13:21 et passim) . It descends on the mountain and Moses enters it for 40 days (Exodus 24:18 et passim). It descends on the tent of meeting (Exodus 33:9 et passim).

The cloud of God’s presence even makes an appearance (with Moses) in the third gospel’s transfiguration narrative in Luke 9:28-35.

While he was saying this, a cloud appeared and overshadowed them. They became afraid as they entered the cloud. Then a voice came from the cloud, saying: This is My Son, the Chosen One; listen to Him!  (Luke 9:34-35)

And it is in a cloud that the Son of Man will come with power and glory (Luke 21:27, cf. Daniel 7:13-14 ).

The cloud, in effect, is God come “down” to be with his people. In Exodus, the cloud of God’s presence is not a “high in the sky” phenomenon. Visually, these cloudy manifestations of the divine are more like the clouds that hang on Mount Apsan behind my house after the rain than the cumulus clouds that pass thousands of feet overhead.

In telling us that a cloud “took him in” Acts 1:9 is telling us that Jesus entered the presence of God the Father, and not just in the distant heights of the highest heaven. Jesus may have disappeared from the disciples’ sight, but he did not disappear from their lives.

It’s About Time, It’s About Space

We are all products of our own time, and I can’t help but reflect on these matters within the context of the current scientific cosmological model. Those who have no interest in the universe opened up to us by people like by Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking may freely skip this section.

Perhaps we are asking an impossible question when we say, “Where did Jesus go?” “Where” and “when” are words that only apply in the space–time universe. Three-dimensional space and time are not simply aspects of the eternal framework on which the events of history play out. Both time and space have a beginning, between 13.5 and 14 billion years ago. Once, what would become time, space, matter and energy all existed in a single point of being. In the expansion of that single point, both space and matter came into being. Logically, one cannot ask what happened “before” time existed. Similarly, one cannot ask what exists “outside” the spatial framework of the universe.

And yet we Christians believe in a god who created this universe. This god not only exists, he acts. That means we have to use “location” words to speak about God’s existence. Everything we know to exist, exists somewhere. And it means that we have to use “time” words to speak about God’s actions. Every action we of which we can conceive takes place within the sequential framework of time.

The relationship between the space-time universe and eternal abode of God is indeed a mystery for those of us who live in this cosmos. We have no firsthand knowledge of the mode of God’s existence or the “physical” characteristics of his realm. To say that God is “beyond” the universe or “outside” the universe is to fall back on spatial terminology that doesn’t literally apply, but how else can we physical beings conceive of the eternal.

Like the 3-D objects of Carl Sagan’s Flatland, Jesus’ connection with this universe defies the expectations of everyday experience. Sagan is my favorite atheist. In his television series Cosmos, Sagan describes the amazement that two-dimensional creatures would experience in their encounters with 3-D objects who could appear and disappear in locked rooms! That sounded familiar. The two dimensional creatures would only see a 2-D slice of the 3-D object. They wouldn’t know where the appearing and disappearing object came from and went to because they could not conceive of “up” and “down” in their two-dimensional world. Sagan’s point was concerned with the dimensions of the physical universe, but it doesn’t take much for my Christian mind to jump the eternal God’s interactions with the space-time universe.

In one sense,  God is beyond the space-time universe. This is one aspect of what has traditionally been called God’s transcendence. In another, God is invisibly present throughout (or under or over) all space-time. This is one aspect of what has been traditionally identified as God’s immanence. The tension between transcendence and immanence dissipates somewhat when we realize that “where” and “when” only make sense within the limits of the space-time universe, and God is bigger (and more complex) than his creation. In one breath, for example, Paul can speak of God seating Jesus at his right hand in heavenly realms (Ephesians 1:20); in another, he can speak of his “fullness” (pleroma) filling all creation (Ephesians 1:23).

So where did Jesus “go” when he ascended to the right hand of God in majesty? The Father’s abode is a “place” outside of the space-time universe. Jesus went “beyond” the heavens to God’s realm that transcends space and time to be “seated at God’s right hand” and “await the time” for his appearing. Or, equally, he didn’t go anywhere; he simply disappeared. The coming realm of God is invisible but real and “present” throughout God’s creation. All of space-time is equally “present” to the God who created us.

The Right Hand of God

Luke himself tells us what the ascension means to him in the next chapter of Acts. Where did Jesus go? Peter says:

Therefore, since [Jesus] has been exalted to the right hand of God and has received from the Father the promised Holy Spirit, He has poured out what you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into the heavens, but he himself says: The Lord said to my Lord, ‘Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool.’ “Therefore let all the house of Israel know with certainty that God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah!” (Acts 2:33-36)

Where did Jesus go? He was exalted at the right hand of God!

Peter was quoting from Psalm 110, a very important biblical text in the early church’s Christology.

The LORD says to my Lord: “Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet.” The LORD will extend your mighty scepter from Zion; you will rule in the midst of your enemies. Your people will be willing on your day of power. Arrayed in holy majesty, from the womb of the dawn you will receive the dew of your youth. The LORD has sworn and will not change his mind: “You are a priest forever, in the order of Melchizedek.” (Psalm 110:1-4)

The “right hand” of God was such a significant concept way to describe Jesus’ post-resurrection status that Matthew, Mark, Luke, Acts, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, 1 Peter and Revelation all use it verbatim to describe Jesus’ exalted status. The gospel of John does not use the phrase, but the entire fourth gospel is built on the model of a descending-ascending redeemer.

Among other things, the New Testament authors connected Jesus’ exaltation with the gift of the Holy Spirit, the building up of the church, the nature of Christian worship, forgiveness and salvation, mighty acts of power in this age, the supreme authority of Christ and the ultimate redemption of the world. The early church believed Jesus had not only been raised from the dead, but that made God had him king and priest forever.

Paul reflects this in his writings:

God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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 age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. (Ephesians 1:20-23)

It is the one who humbled himself and took the form of a servant who is exalted.

Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9-11)

In his resurrection, Jesus became what all who belong to him will become. In his exaltation to the right hand of God as Lord and Messiah, Jesus has become what only he will ever be.

Jesus is exalted to the right hand of God in heaven. Was this important to early Christians?

In Acts 7, Luke tells us about the martyrdom of Stephen. When Stephen answered to the Sanhedrin, he recounts the history of Israel and identifies concludes that history by blaming the hearers for the death of Jesus. This, of course, made the hearers very angry. It was what happened next, however, that drove them to the point of murder.

But filled with the Holy Spirit, [Stephen] gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. (Acts 7:55-58)

Confidence in Jesus’ exaltation to the right hand of God is what gave Stephen the courage to face death himself. Ironically, it was his proclamation of that belief which led to his murder.

The people of the world may laugh at the story of Jesus rising into the air, but what they really don’t want is a savior seated at the right hand of God, no matter how he got there. And as Stephen pointed out, the people of God sometimes have problems with that as well.

Restoration and Refreshing

Acts 1:1-11 contains one more theme that we have not yet explored. Is it time to make everything right?

So when they had come together, they asked Him, “Lord, at this time are You restoring the kingdom to Israel?”  (Acts 1:6)

Acts 3 speaks to this hope for the restoration of Israel – and all things. In Acts 3, Peter healed a man in lame from birth during a visit to the temple. The witnesses to this event were astonished and in an uproar, so Peter preached a sermon to them. He told them that faith in Jesus has accomplished this. Jesus was God’s holy and righteous servant, but the people had rejected him and turned him over to Pilate. They had killed the author of life, Peter said. That’s quite an accusation, yet Peter continued his sermon to those he accused of being ignorant murderers.

Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord, and that he may send the Christ, who has been appointed for you–even Jesus. He must remain in heaven until the time comes for God to restore everything, as he promised long ago through his holy prophets. (Act 3:19-21)

Peter’s speech tells us something about the relationship between Jesus’ ascension and the restoration that the disciples had asked about in Acts 1:6. Jesus, Peter tells the people, “must remain in heaven until the time of universal restoration that God announced long ago through his holy prophets.” (Acts 3:21) Yet, for those who repent, “seasons (kairoi) of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord.” (Acts 3:19)

Repent, so that seasons of refreshing might come from the presence of the Lord. These seasons of refreshing are foretastes of the great restoration to come. I can’t promise that they will always come as miraculous healings, but we have the promise that God will send us Jesus, exalted to the right hand of God, who is the “fount of every blessing.” The exalted Christ pours “showers of blessings” on his people, but we need a biblical understand of what those blessings do and do not entail.

Then, as the angels promised, “this Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come in the same way that you have seen Him going into heaven.” When he comes, he will come on a cloud with great power and glory (Luke 21:27). His appearance will parallel and recapitulate his disappearance.

Listen to the good news of Jesus.

He ascended into heaven,
he is seated at the right hand of the Father,
and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

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