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Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible


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ASCENSION . The fact of our Lord’s Ascension is treated very scantily in the Synoptic Gospels. From Mt. it is entirely omitted. In the appendix to Mk. the words in which it is stated are rather the formula of a creed than the narrative of an event ( Mark 16:19 ). Lk. is somewhat more circumstantial, and, though the chronology is uncertain, mentions the journey to the neighbourhood of Bethany and the disappearance of Christ in the act of blessing, together with the return of the disciples to Jerusalem ( Luke 24:50-52 ). The narrative, meagre as it is, is not inconsistent with, and may even presuppose, the events recorded at greater length in Acts ( Acts 1:6-12 ). Here we learn that the scene was more precisely the Mount, of Olives ( Acts 1:12 ); that the final conversation, to which allusion is possibly made in Mark 16:19 , concerned the promise of the Holy Spirit ( Mark 16:6-8 ); and that the Ascension, so far as it was an event and therefore a subject of testimony, took the form of the uplifting of the bodily form of Jesus from the earth till it disappeared in a cloud ( Mark 16:9-10 ). Whether this experience involved more than the separation of Christ from immediate contact with the earth, and included His gradual recession into the upper air, there is nothing directly to show. The general form of the narrative recalls the Transfiguration ( Luke 9:28-36 ||). The words of the ‘two men in white apparei’ ( Luke 9:10 ) suggest that the final impression was that of disappearance above the heads of the onlookers ( Luke 9:11 ). It will be noticed that, while the Markan appendix and Luke, unless the latter narrative is interpolated, blend fact and figure ( Mark 16:19 ‘received up [fact] into heaven [partly fact, partly figure], and sat down at the right hand of God [figure]’; Luke 24:51 ‘he parted from them [fact], and was carried up into heaven [partly fact, partly figure; but see RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ],’ as must necessarily be the case where the doctrine of the Ascension is concerned; Acts, on the other hand, which purports to describe an event, rigidly keeps within the limits of testimony.

There are certain anticipations of the Ascension in the Gospels which must be regarded as part of their witness to it. Thus Lk. introduces the account of our Lord’s last journey to Jerusalem with the words ‘when the days were being fulfilled that he should be received up’ (Luke 9:51 RVm [Note: Revised Version margin.] ). It is probable that the Ascension is here delicately blended with the Crucifixion, as apparently by Christ Himself in John 12:32 . Again, the word exodos in Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, rendered in the text of RV [Note: Revised Version.] ‘decease,’ but marg. ‘departure,’ seems to have the same double reference ( Luke 9:31 ). Our Lord’s predictions of the Second Coming ‘on the clouds’ ( Matthew 24:30 ; Matthew 26:64 ; cf. 1 Thessalonians 4:16 , Revelation 1:7 ) almost necessarily imply the Ascension. The Fourth Gospel, while in its accustomed manner omitting the story of the Ascension, probably regarded as known, introduces definite references to it on the part of Christ both before and after the Resurrection ( John 6:62 ; John 7:33 ; John 14:19 ; John 14:28 ; John 16:28 ; John 20:17 etc.). And if we compare statements in the Epistles ( Ephesians 4:8 , Hebrews 1:3 ; Hebrews 4:14 ) with the Ascension narrative, it is scarcely possible to doubt that the writers accepted the historic fact as the basis of their teaching. To this must be added all those passages which speak of Jesus as exalted to the right hand or throne of God ( Romans 8:34 , Ephesians 1:20 , Hebrews 10:12 etc.), and as returning to earth in the glory of the Father ( Matthew 25:31 , Mark 8:38 , Philippians 3:20 etc.). In connexion with the Session, St. Peter, after mentioning the Resurrection, uses the expression ‘having gone his way into heaven’ ( 1 Peter 3:22 , cf. John 14:3 ). Nor can we omit such considerations as arise out of the fact of the Resurrection itself, which are satisfied only by an event that puts a definite period to the earthly manifestation of the incarnate Christ.

From what has been said it will appear that the Ascension stands on a somewhat different level from the Resurrection as an attested fact. Like the Virgin-birth, it did not form a part of the primitive preaching, nor does it belong to the evidences of Christianity. The fragment of what is thought to be a primitive hymn quoted in 1 Timothy 3:16 somewhat curiously places ‘preached among the nations’ before ‘received up in glory.’ But it is nevertheless a fact which came within the experience of the Apostles, and can therefore claim a measure of historical testimony. The Resurrection is itself the strongest witness to the reality of the Ascension, as of the Virgin-birth, nor would either in the nature of the case have been capable of winning its way to acceptance apart from the central faith that Jesus actually rose from the dead. But neither the fact itself nor its importance to the Christian believer depends upon the production of evidence for its occurrence. It will not be seriously disputed by those who accept the Apostolic gospel. On the other hand, the fact that the Ascension was accepted in the primitive Church as the event which put a term to the earthly manifestation of Christ brings out the Resurrection in striking relief as in the full sense of the word a fact of history. It is the Ascension, represented as it is in Scripture not only historically but mystically, and not the Resurrection, which might be viewed as an apotheosis or idealization of Jesus. That ‘Jesus is now living at the right hand of God’ (Harnack) is not a sufficient account of the Christian belief in the Resurrection in view of the Ascension narrative, which, even if Keim and others are right in regarding it as a materialization of the doctrine of the eternal Session as set forth in the Epistles, becomes necessary only when the Resurrection is accepted in the most literal sense.

The Ascension is the point of contact between the man Jesus Christ of the Gospeis and the mystical Christ of the Epistles, preserving the historical character of the former and the universality of the latter in true continuity. It enabled the disciples to identify the gift of Pentecost with the promise of the Holy Spirit, which had been specially connected with the withdrawal of Jesus from bodily sight and His return to the Father (John 16:7 ; cf. John 7:39 ). An eternal character is thus given to the sacrifice of the death of Christ, which becomes efficacious through the exaltation of His crucified and risen manhood ( Hebrews 10:11-14 ; Hebrews 10:19-22 ).

J. G. Simpson.

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These files are public domain.
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Bibliography Information
Hastings, James. Entry for 'Ascension'. Hastings' Dictionary of the Bible. 1909.

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