Saturday, May 19, 2007

“Know for certain that God has made him both Lord and messiah”: Jesus' Ascension

Jesus and his disciples invoked Jesus’ ascension and exaltation to God’s right hand at their most critical moments.

Before the Sanhedrin, Jesus sole defense (forced by the high priest's adjuration) was to point the council to Ps 110.1 and Daniel 7.13:

“Jesus said to [the high priest], ‘You have said it yourself; nevertheless I tell you, hereafter you shall see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of power, and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Mt 26.64).

That’s the turning point in the trial. In response, the Council bays for Jesus’ death (v. 66).

Critically, Jesus reference to the “coming on the clouds of heaven” of Daniel 7.13 is not a reference to his coming back to earth for final judgment, it’s a reference rather to his presentation to God in victory, vindication, and exaltation (vv.13-14).

This is, of course, not a fleshly exaltation; it’s not a “lording it over.” Jesus’ exaltation is intimately tied to the Gospel. For Jesus “is the one whom God exalted to his right hand as a Prince and a Savior, to grant repentance to Israel, and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5.31). That Jesus ascends and receives his seat at God’s right hand means that Satan, sin, and death no longer rule over us. That Jesus is Lord means that Satan is not (Col 1.13).

So, too, Jesus’ ascension and exaltation is the crescendo of Peter’s sermon on Pentecost:

“This Jesus God raised up again, to which we are all witnesses. Therefore having been exalted to the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured forth this which you both see and hear. For it was not David who ascended into heaven, but he himself says, ‘The Lord said to my Lord, sit at my right hand until I make thine enemies a footstool for thy feet.’ Therefore let all the house of Israel know for certain that God has made him both Lord and messiah – this Jesus whom you crucified” (Acts 2.32-36).

Similarly, the apostles invoked Jesus’ ascension and exaltation when they appeared on trial before the Sanhedrin (Acts 5.31-32).

Stephen’s sighting of Jesus at God’s right hand at the conclusion of his defense before the Sanhedrin precipitates his death, as it did Jesus before him (Acts 7.55-57).

(Note that the ascension always provoked a response, whether good or ill, from those who had it preached to them: The Sanhedrin kills Jesus and Stephen immediately after they describe it. So, too, the Council's members "were cut to the quick and were intending to slay" Peter and the other apostles precisely at the point that Peter refers to Jesus' ascension (Acts 5.33). On Pentecost, listeners were "pierced to the heart" in response to Peter's description of Jesus' ascension and exaltation. In response to what must have a horrifying recognition on the part of the crowd of what they had done in supporting Jesus' crucifixion, I imagine more than a little panic in the voices of the crowd as they asked the apostles, "What shall be do?" Acts 2.37.)

Some of the most important lines of argument that Paul and Peter develop in their epistles pivot around Jesus’ ascension and exaltation (Ro 8.34, Eph 1.20, 2.6, Col 3.1, 1 Peter 3.22). The book of Hebrews teaches that the Old Testament itself taught its contingency and anticipated its obsolescence. The author repeatedly argues from and to Jesus’ ascension and enthronement (Heb 1.3, 8.1, 10.12, 12.2).

Jesus’ ascension and exaltation is a critical moment in redemptive history. I don’t think it’s a stretch to insist that it’s as important to Christians as the incarnation, the passion and resurrection, and Pentecost. (Pentecost is the evidence of Jesus’ ascension. The ascension is a conceptually distinct moment in redemptive history, however, and should not be wrapped up or conflated with Pentecost.)

I can scarcely imagine the grandeur and the joy of the celebration in heaven when the wounded yet victorious Son of Man approached God's throne, was presented to the Ancient of Days, and was given dominion, glory, and a kingdom (Dn 7.13-14). Mirroring the celebration in heaven, the day is a day of true joy and celebration as well for the church.


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