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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.
With 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?