Ascension and atonement in the New Testament
By Grant Macaskill
In the Christian calendar, today is Ascension, the day that marks the translation of Jesus from earth to heaven. While Christmas and Easter are widely celebrated, not just by those actively involved with the church, Ascension will pass unnoticed for most.
This is paralleled both in popular and academic theology or biblical studies: while the significance of the incarnation, and of the death and resurrection of Jesus are discussed at length in relation to salvation, less tends to be said about the Ascension. It is not entirely neglected, but it does not receive the attention that it deserves and its meaning is often limited to the Ascension of Jesus to a position of rule, to the throne of God. This, though, is to neglect some important further threads in the New Testament.
My own recent thinking on the Ascension has been influenced by the work of my colleague, David Moffitt, and by numerous conversations with him as we have taught together. He has highlighted the necessity of a bodily resurrection and Ascension within the logic of the book of Hebrews, precisely because of what Jesus is described as doing in heaven to effect salvation.
This epistle represents Jesus as fulfilling the role of a high priest in the heavenly temple on which the earthly one is patterned, enacting a decisive Yom Kippur for his people and performing acts of ritual cleansing for the heavenly sanctuary, using his own blood (see Hebrews 9). Only once he has completed this work does Jesus seat himself (Heb 10:12), prior to which he stands, as all priests do in the work of the temple (Heb 10:11).
For the author of Hebrews, then, the atonement is not completed with the death or even the resurrection of Jesus; it is completed by his work in heaven. Hence, it is important that “we have a great high priest who has gone through the heavens” (Heb 4:14). That underlies his basic and remarkable hope: that we can now draw near to the presence of God, without fear as sinners (Heb 10:19-22).
Hebrews is often seen as an oddity in the New Testament, with its high priestly representation of the atonement, but there are other texts that suggest the same conceptuality is operative, if tacit, more broadly in the New Testament. The description of Jesus as ‘exalted to the right hand of God’ in Acts 2:33, for example, is echoed in Stephen’s vision of heaven in Acts 7:55-56, but there Jesus is twice specified to be ‘standing’ in that position.
Interestingly, a similar emphasis is found in the description of Jesus in Revelation: he is the Lamb “standing” between the throne and heavenly entourage (Rev 5:5). This carries a different set of connotations than does “sitting”; it suggests active service. Once this is taken into account, the priestly imagery of Hebrews begins to appear less eccentric and must instead be taken seriously as an outworking of a common early Christian presentation of atonement, one rooted in Jewish conceptuality.
Alongside this emphasis on the priestly activity of Jesus made possible by the Ascension, another theme emerges in the New Testament: the connection between the Ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit. The book of Acts, for example, effectively begins with the Ascension of Jesus into heaven (Acts 1:9). This event is linked within the narrative to the subsequent event of Pentecost, the Jewish Feast of Weeks on which the Spirit will be poured out.
Before he ascends, Jesus tells his disciples to wait in Jerusalem for this “promise of the Father” (1:4-5), later understood to be the fulfillment of Joel 2:28ff. This same link between the Ascension of Jesus and the giving of the Spirit is reflected also in Ephesians 4:8, where Psalm 68:18 is quoted and adapted: where, in the original form of the Psalm, God ascends on high in a royal procession and receives gifts from men, here Jesus ascends and gives gifts to men.
Contextually, in Ephesians, this gift (or “grace,” Eph 4:7) comprehensively governs the communal life and mission of the church, associated with the sacramental reality of baptism: “one Lord, one baptism, one Spirit.”
A similar emphasis, though one developed in different terms, is found in John 16:7, where the departure of Jesus is the necessary condition for the coming of the Spirit. In fact, while the Ascension is seldom mentioned in the Fourth Gospel, the bodily absence of Jesus from the community is presented as key to salvation, so that even the joy of the resurrection gives way to an awareness of Jesus’s impending departure.
Thus, in John 19:17, following the resurrection, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene not to cling to him and then directs her specifically to tell the other disciples that he is to ascend. John thereby emphasizes the Ascension and, importantly, he associates it with the coming of the Spirit, by whom God’s presence will be mediated.
This last point is, perhaps, the key to the place that the Ascension has within the theology of the New Testament: access to the presence of God. The priestly work of Jesus is represented in Hebrews as allowing free access to the presence of God in the heavenly temple and is accompanied by the exhortation: “Let us draw near [to God]” (Heb 10:19-22). The gift of the Spirit, meanwhile, is presented as “God’s empowering presence,” to borrow the title of Gordon Fee’s definitive study of the Spirit in Paul’s theology.
Both reflect a powerful theological conviction that the gift of salvation is nothing less than God himself. For those theologians, academic or not, who consider the New Testament to have a normative role in Christian theology, marking Ascension ought to demand reflection on the place that such a doctrine of presence has in their own work.