8.4. THE ASCENSION OF JESUS (24:50–53)
50 Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. 51 While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. 52 And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; 53 and they were continually in the temple blessing God. 1
Whereas Luke’s account of Jesus’ ascension is integrally related to its co-text, the temporal relationship between it and the preceding scenes is equivocal. Linguistically, Jesus’ appearance among the disciples in v 36 is paired with his departure in v 51. 2 Jerusalem continues to be the primary point of reference, 3 as it has been throughout ch. 24. Only here do we learn that the disciples have responded appropriately to Jesus, whose true identity and status they at last recognize. And, of course, the Evangelist has been preparing his audience for Jesus’ departure from as far back in the narrative as the transfiguration scene (9:31: “they were speaking of his exodus”; see also 9:51: “When the days drew near for him to be taken up”). In spite of these points of integration, however, this concluding scene does not share with previous encounters in ch. 24 Luke’s concern to mark carefully the chronology of his account. Discovery of the empty tomb, the Emmaus episode, and the appearance of Jesus to his apostles—each of these is explicitly located temporally on the same day, “the first day of the week” (v 1), the “third day” following the crucifixion (vv 7, 21; cf. 33, 36). The connective at v 50 lacks this degree of clarity: “And he led …” (NRSV: “Then he led …”). 4 One may have the impression that the ascension, too, took place late on Sunday evening, but Luke’s account leaves open other possibilities—which he will exploit more fully at the beginning of his second volume (Acts 1:1–11).
Jesus’ role as leader of the community is immediately affirmed by the use of the verb “to lead out.” His companions would include the three women named in v 10, along with “the other women,” the eleven apostles, and “all the rest” (vv 9–10); in Acts 1:12–15, this company is said to encompass some 120 persons, including Mary the mother of Jesus and Jesus’ brothers. Located on the Mount of Olives, about three kilometers from Jerusalem, Bethany was the site from which Jesus’ triumphal entry had originated (19:29–40). That it would also serve as the locale of Jesus’ final exaltation is therefore fitting (cf. Acts 1:9–12).
Jesus’ final act closely parallels the behavior of priests in Lev 9:22 and especially Sir 50:20–22, 5 suggesting to some interpreters that Luke closes his Gospel with reference to a priestly Jesus. 6 If this view were supported by the narrative, it is certainly of interest that Jesus would thus function as a priest outside of the temple, and, indeed, outside of Jerusalem. It cannot be overlooked, however, that Luke otherwise demonstrates no interest in portraying Jesus in priestly garb, so that an alternative explanation for these parallels seems advisable. 7 Jesus’ blessing his disciples is important enough to be mentioned twice in rapid succession (vv 50, 51), and it occurs just prior to his final departure. This suggests that the pronouncement of blessing is modeled on the leave-taking of such personages as Moses (Deuteronomy 33) and Abraham (Genesis 49), with the echoes of Sirach emphasizing the stature of Jesus. 8 The disciples are thus assured of divine favor.
In addition, insofar as Jesus’ blessing marks the finale of his earthly sojourn with his followers, the import of Jesus’ instruction in vv 44–49 is immediately heightened. They are now seen more clearly to constitute his “last words,” which have preeminence precisely because they are “last.” 9 As a consequence, the directive to engage in a mission as witnesses “to all nations” receives the strongest possible legitimation—as do those who receive this commission, provided they respond to Jesus in obedience.
Jesus’ departure is accomplished via a dual movement, away and up. Although for some this raises immediate questions regarding the cosmology of Luke’s account, 10 it is important to appreciate fully the socio-theological significance of the image envisioned here. “Into heaven” signifies both the finality of Jesus’ departure (until the parousia) and Jesus’ glorified status. The abode of God, heaven, was “up,” so, in the “universe” of his day, one went “up” to meet God. 11 In this account, movement “upward” signifies in a visible and concrete way the elevated status of Jesus. 12 The glory and regal power anticipated of Jesus (9:26, 32, 51; 19:12) is now made visible to his followers; 13 they are thus provided with incontrovertible evidence that Jesus’ humility and humiliation on the cross, far from disqualifying divine sanction of his mission, are actually embraced by God. God’s verdict reverses and supersedes the verdict of those who rejected, condemned, and executed Jesus. 14
At this juncture in the narrative, the ascension of Jesus functions in at least two additional ways. First, Luke draws a connection between the going of Jesus and the coming of the Spirit. It is as a consequence of his royal, exalted status that Jesus is able to commit to his followers the Holy Spirit (v 49; cf. Acts 2:32–33). Theologically for Luke, then, the ascension is the prelude to the outpouring of the Spirit and consequent mission of the church. 15 Second, with the ascension Luke addresses the problem of continuity in God’s salvation-historical design. 16 This coherence can be articulated along two lines: (1) between Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus, Lord and Christ: The Jesus who suffered and died is the same who is carried up into heaven to exercise royal power; and (2) between the ministry of Jesus and the mission of the early church (cf. Acts 1:1–11).
The disciples’ response is fourfold. First, they worship Jesus, behaving in a way almost without parallel in the Third Gospel. Typically, evidence of divine activity, even when it is manifested in Jesus’ ministry, leads people to worship God. 17 This is exactly what happens in v 53, a second response of the disciples, when they “bless God”—that is, render to God thankful praise for the manifestation of his salvific purpose. 18 The only possible precursor to worship of Jesus in the Gospel of Luke comes in 17:16, where a foreign leper, cleansed by Jesus, demonstrates his reverence and gratitude by falling at Jesus’ feet. 19 This is prefaced by Luke’s note that the leper “saw” that he had been healed—that is, exercised insight into the beneficent presence of God in Jesus’ mission. Of further interest is the fact that, in Luke-Acts, worship is denied images, the devil, and mere mortals, and allowed only in the case of God. 20 Their worship of Jesus signifies that the disciples have, at last, recognized Jesus for who he is.
Third, the company of Jesus’ followers returns to Jerusalem and remains in the temple. 21 Recognition of the importance of such behavior rests on the memory that this is exactly what Jesus instructed them to do: “stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high” (v 49). The disciples respond to the ascension of Jesus by remembering Jesus’ words and heeding them. Their constant presence in the temple compares them favorably with Anna, whose exemplary piety was exhibited in her worshipful presence in the temple “night and day” (2:37).
Finally, their earlier joy, which produced astonishment and disbelief (v 41), has given way to “great joy”—the sort of exhilaration generally associated with disclosures of divine redemption in the Third Gospel. Indeed, the two motifs found here, blessing God and eschatological joy, as well as the aforementioned piety and obedience, are characteristic of the disciples at the close of the Lukan narrative just as they were on display at the beginning. Joy and praise were associated with the birth of Jesus, and those known for their faithfulness to God lived in hope of divine redemption and blessed God at the news of the advent of a Savior. 22 At the close of the Gospel, the faithful continue to wait, now for the Holy Spirit who will empower them for service as agents of this same salvation.
1 This final scene is plagued by numerous text-critical problems, and the NRSV text represents current scholarly consensus. For recent discussion, see Zwiep, “Text.”
6 Cf., e.g., van Stempvoort, “Ascension.” For some, this includes the possible identification of Jesus with reference to speculation regarding a priestly messiah, in spite of Luke’s manifest interest in a specifically Davidic Messiah.
7 Parsons (“Narrative Closure,” 205–6) discounts this criticism because, he says, the priestly motif is employed by the narrator in order to assist with narrative closure. Such reasoning hardly stands up to close scrutiny, since either it depends on circular reasoning (a priestly motif exists because we find it here) or it urges that we sunder Luke’s literary strategy from his christological agenda. See the rejection of the priestly interpretation in R. J. Dillon, Eyewitnesses, 222.
12 That is, contra those who simply dismiss this account of the ascension as reflective of a three-storied universe that (most) ancients thought actually existed (cf., though, the heliocentric universe of Aristarchus; and the argument in Houtman, Hemel, 195–219, that ancient Israel had no unified cosmology with heaven resting on pillars), it must be recognized that every view of the world is socially constructed and embraced because of its having achieved legitimated status within the community for which it has meaning (cf. Berger and Luckmann, Social Construction of Reality).
13 Chance, Jerusalem, 64–65: “How better to describe the witnessing of the enthronement than to allow the apostles to witness objectively Jesus’ coronation through a heavenly ascension?” (65). Cf. Giles, “Ascension,” 50; Korn, Geschichte Jesu, 168; Lohfink, Himmelfahrt, 242–50; Maile, “Ascension.”