It is axiomatic among students of the New Testament that the Cross and Resurrection of Christ are the bi-focal points of the Christian faith. The number of well-known theologians and New Testament scholars who advance the bi-focal approach is extraordinary in both quantity and quality, so that anyone who demurs should do so cautiously. I am especially drawn, nevertheless, to Luke’s interest in the ascension-enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth as the divine Davidic King when I think about the bedrock of the Christian faith.
These hyphenated two words describe the journey and transformation (ascension) from earth to heaven and the investiture of Jesus as Lord and Christ (enthronement). Part of my interest stems from the fact that the Gospel of Luke and Acts are rife with references and allusions to this conviction about Jesus of Nazareth and ascension-enthronement. The Lukan account of the nativity of Jesus (Luke 1-2) is replete with allusions to the Davidic heritage of Jesus. The ascension-enthronement theme was presciently announced at the beginning of the major Samaritan travel section (Luke 9:51-19:27) when Luke writes, “When the days were coming to a close for Him to be taken up, He determined to journey to Jerusalem” (9:51, HCSB). The wording “for Him to be taken up” most naturally points to the ascension of Jesus.
I like the fact that Luke did not finish his narrative about Jesus’ earthly life with only post-Resurrection appearances and conversations like we have in the Gospel of Matthew. Unlike the oldest extant version of the Gospel of Mark (which has no such post-Resurrection appearances and conversations between Jesus and his followers), Luke has appearances, conversations, and even more. It is the “more” that excites me, since it is only in Luke that we find the ascension of Jesus as the final redemptive act of the Gospel. For Luke, “Jesus’ earthly ministry ended on the day of his ascension” (Eckhard J. Schnabel, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, Acts, Zondervan, 2012, p. 71). The simplicity of Luke’s statement is hard to miss when he writes, “I wrote the first narrative, Theophilus, about all that Jesus began to do and teach until the day He was taken up” (Acts 1:1-2a, HCSB). Little wonder then that upon investigation of the “first narrative,” we see that Luke did exactly what Luke said he had done, viz, he ends Jesus’ earthly life (“all that Jesus began to do and teach”) with the statement, “And while He was blessing them, He left them and was carried up into heaven” (Luke 24:51).
To be sure, Luke was intentional in putting the ascension-enthronement at both the end of the Gospel and the beginning of Acts. In fact, they are virtually the same number of words from the end of the Gospel of Luke and from the beginning of Acts (respectively in the Greek text). I want to suggest that this literary connection between Luke’s volume 01 and volume 02 should be regarded as more than a mere literary artifact from this profuse New Testament author. In Craig Keener’s words, “exaltation is the pivot on which Luke-Acts turns” (Acts, an Exegetical Commentary. Vol. 1, Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic, 2012, p. 661). Indeed, this event of the ascension-enthronement of Jesus serves as an important theological and spiritual lens in Luke’s theology and through which one experiences “the events that have been fulfilled among us” by God (Luke 1:1).
This depiction of Jesus’ ascension is not some Lukan window dressing to insert Jesus into competition with a dead-but-divine Roman Emperor notion. To be sure, Rome had an ascension, known as apotheosis, to confer divine status upon emperors well behaved at the time of their death. From Luke’s perspective, however, the ascension-enthronement of Jesus of Nazareth is not confocal with Rome’s regal pretensions confirmed by the Roman Senate. Rather, the ascension-enthronement of Jesus is the lynchpin of Luke’s writings and theology and would be there irrespective of the existence of a Roman apotheosis. In a fresh reading of Luke-Acts, one can see and appreciate how Luke employs ascension-enthronement theology to privilege various topics and themes such as redemptive history, christology, eschatology, pneumatology, and missions, to mention some of the important ones.
The next time you discuss, meditate on, or teach about the heart of the gospel, I recommend you follow Luke’s guidance and keep the ascension-enthronement in the core of your New Testament theology, along with the Cross and Empty Tomb. When you reach into Scripture to have a message from God on which faith can rest, I encourage you to avoid a truncated message that puts the ascension-enthronement on the periphery rather than at the center of God’s redemptive work. Luke certainly corroborates Paul’s poetic-hymnic-creedal statement of the gospel in 1 Tim. 3:16 when the apostle penned these words and made the ascension its capstone:
“He was manifested in the flesh,
vindicated in the Spirit,
seen by angels,
preached among the nations,
believed on in the world,
taken up in glory.”