Yesterday was Ascension Day, and some bloggers have been using this as an opportunity to poke fun at the literalists. Some people are very quick to claim that they 'believe every word of the Bible literally', but I wonder what that means in practice?
Of course Jesus didn't take off like a space shuttle on his way to Planet Heaven. I hope not too many people think he did. Luke's the guy who talks about it it. In his Gospel, Jesus appears to have ascended within a few days of his resurrection. The two disciples meet him on their way to Emmaus; then the scene moves to Jerusalem. He's off shortly afterwards:
Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them. While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven. And they worshiped him, and returned to Jerusalem with great joy; and they were continually in the temple blessing God. Luke (24:50-53).
I have trouble seeing Spaceship Jesus there.
In Acts, of course, Luke gives us a more elaborate, and not entirely consistent, version of the story. Jesus famoulsy spends forty days with the disciples, so Luke now wants us to know that he was around for a long time; it seems that he had rather more to tell them than the author lets us know in his Gospel. The two things that Luke is keen to pass on to his audience is that the Holy Spirit will be given to 'you' - ostensibly the disciples, put perhaps extending to Luke's audience a couple of generations later. Then, probably in answer to questions as to why there's such a delay, Luke's eager to assure his hearers that it's not for them to know when the kingdom will be restored to Israel (1:7). They will, however, be Jesus' witnesses 'to the ends of the Earth'. Acts is, of course, the story of how the message went as far as Rome.
Once that's out of the way, we get to the Ascension itself:
When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, "Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven." (Acts 1:9-11)
No doubt the two 'men' are intended as angels; which turn up in human disguise in the apocalyptic writings. I suppose a blind literalist could see this in terms of Jesus flying off to some heaven beyond the bright blue sky, and no doubt that type of interpretation was once widepread. The intention, however, is to put a full stop (more or less; let's not forget Paul) to Jesus' appearances. He's finished his work on earth, and God is now sending the Spirit to get the church moving; while the Gospel is the story of Jesus' mission, Acts is concerned with the church. The Spirit is never personified; rather; it's a sort of 'divine wind' (RWAH means wind, breath or spirit in Hebrew; Pneuma much the same in Greek) driving the church onwards.
I suspect Luke - or whoever originated the story, as he may have got it from someone else - gained his inspiration at least partly from Paul. Unlike Luke, he's not interested in the incarnate Jesus. To him, Jesus is 'declared to be Son of God with power' by his Resurrection (Romans 1:4). To Paul, Jesus is special from that moment, and he's not too bothered about what went on earlier. He elaborates in Philippians 2; he may be quoting or adapting from elsewhere, but if so, he quotes with approval. He's not clear as to whether Jesus is pre-existent or not. Philippians 2:5-7a: '
Philippians 2:5-7 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.' could mean that Jesus was some heavenly or angelic being which submitted to being born as a human being, but could equally well mean that he was a human being who was satisfied with his humble status, unlike the first Adam, who sinned in his pride, and tried to be equal with God. Either way, his humility and obedience led God to reward him in a sort of heavenly enthronement; he's given a new name which sets him up above all other beings - except, presumably, God himself - and every knee shall bend, every tongue confess, as per Isaiah 45:23, that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God. In romans 14:11, the same is applied directly to God. It's an enthronement which leaves God and Jesus so closely associated that the distinction almost - but never quite - disappears. This exalted heavenly Christ is, of course, the one who really interests Paul!
Luke, however, is very interested indeed in the incarnate Jesus. He disagrees with Paul; rather than becoming special at the Resurrection, he thinks Jesus is Son of God, and special, from birth. His sonship is derived, not by his having been engendered by the Holy Spirit, as per Matthew, but by inheritance from Adam, who is also called Son of God (Luke 3:38). A series of prophecies and angelic visions around the birth make it clear that this is a very special baby indeed; the Gabriel declares to Mary that: 'He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."' (Luke 1:32-33). There's no sign of pre-existence anywhere in the Gospel, we have to turn to John to find that.
So Luke gets to the end of his tale. He's writing theology in the form of story, presenting the movement Jesus started as something which is, despite its founder's embarassing death, quite compatible with Roman rule. Alone among the New Testament authors, he deals with Jesus' transition to heaven by telling a story about it. That's all it is; a transition,and the church is probably wise not to make too much of a fuss about marking the occasion.