The resurrection and ascension are two intimately connected events in the New Testament. Unfortunately these two are events that are commonly misunderstood. We mistake the meaning of resurrection, do not know the purpose of the ascension and then it follows that we fail to see the connection between them. As far as the New Testament is concerned it is one event broken into two parts separated by a brief interlude. Such a view requires them being a part of the narrative sequence of the gospel. Without recognising the story it is very hard to see the connection between the two or any other events in Jesus’ life story. There is a larger metanarrative at play of which Jesus is the climactic fulfilment. Without going into how that works, the language the New Testament uses to comment about these events is an indication of their relatedness. A principal example of this is in Ephesians.
…the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly place… – Ephesians 1:19-20 ESV
Here it is one continuous motion where God raises Jesus from the grave to straight to heaven. There is a bit of wordplay involved with the Greek verb egeiro which means to rise. It is used simultaneously for his resurrection i.e. being raised from the dead and his ascension i.e. being raised to heaven. He uses spatial metaphors to describe them because they are related spatially not temporally. The interval between them in Paul’s view does not make them unrelated. He is thinking within the framework of ancient cosmology where they are the furthest points apart. Heaven is above, earth is below. The dead dwell in the grave which is in the lowest parts of the earth and God dwells in the highest heaven. The ascension is not him travelling through space but rather entering God’s dimension of reality. He makes the ancient cosmological framework he is operating with more apparent in chapter 4.
In saying, “He ascended,” what does it mean but that he had also descended into the lower regions, the earth? He who descended is the one who also ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things. – Ephesians 4:9-10 ESV
Here the ascension does not begin after his resurrection but starts with it. In this cosmic journey the underworld is his departure point and the right hand of God in heaven is his destination. This way of thinking about the ascension which incorporates resurrection is seen in Acts 2-24-32 and other passages. In the New Testament ascension language implies the resurrection because the latter event necessarily includes the former. It is established that Jesus died so for him to ascend bodily to heaven he had to be raised bodily. We must take note that the physicality of these events is very important in New Testament thought.
Now the metaphors of spatial translation also play into the idea of status change. The ancient Roman world had an honour-shame culture. It still exists in a different form today. We talk about upper and lower classes using the language of vertical position to denote the quality of status and influence. Those with more authority are “higher up” than those with less power. Vertical power scale metaphors are clearly present in the ancient language of scripture as well as in modern language. With that in mind Jesus is literally “raised” to a new honourable status and position. The word “exaltation” intrinsically captures the ideas of change in spatial and authoritative position. It is common in New Testament scholarship to find the coupling of “resurrection/exaltation.” This follows from the theological language of the New Testament which includes the resurrection in his exaltation. For instance,
And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. – Philippians 2:8-11 ESV
Paul not only skips the interval between the moments of resurrection and ascension, he glosses over that entire period and has Jesus moved straight from the cross to heaven. His resurrection is assumed under him being exalted to the right hand of God. Again the idea that the ascension implies and requires a resurrection is present.
Nowadays when we use the word resurrection we must sometimes add the qualifiers “bodily” or “physical.” As N.T. Wright brilliantly demonstrated in The Resurrection of the Son of God, the Greek word translated resurrection anastases did not need such qualifiers because that is what it universally meant. Resurrection did not mean an incorporeal event. I must reiterate the significance of the physicality of these events which is expressed in the vocabulary they used to discuss them. The resurrection is always present in post-crucifixion thought and language. For one it distinguishes his ascension from the deification of mythological figures or the contemporaneous imperial cult. For them their “exaltation” happened after their demise out of body. The Messiah’s happened post post-mortem that is after he had been raised from the dead.
As in the examples from Ephesians, Paul’s gloss over some important historical details for the sake of literary effect. In Philippians he hangs up on the cross in infamy and then he is taken up to heaven in honour. The parallels in vertical language is employed to depict role reversal, the re-evaluation of power as well as a character study. New Testament theological language is often very dense, laden with meaning that we need to carefully unpack. The famous creed of Philippians introduces another word that also captures the resurrection and the ascension together: glory.
There is a complex of words used to describe the post-crucifixion experiences of the Messiah. First of all we examined the language of spatial relocation. Then we observed that this spatial change is often used as a metaphor for status change. In the case of exaltation it naturally evokes spatial imagery. The language of glorification moves away completely from spatial imagery and focuses entirely on the new circumstances. Philippians contrasts the utter ignominy of his death to the unprecedented honour he now receives: he shares in God’s own glory.
Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory. – 1 Timothy 3:16 ESV
In this passage the resurrection is not directly mentioned but it is implied in the phrasing of the creed. “Taken up in glory” is an obvious reference to the ascension. It carries the idea that the purpose of his spatial relocation is to acquire a new status. Heaven as God’s dwelling place, his throne, is naturally expected to be magnificent, resplendent with his own glory. Being “taken up in glory” is therefore a metaphor for entering God’s space. Again the physicality of the event is again in view beginning with “he was manifest in the flesh.” The resurrection and the ascension are the historical events that grant him this new privileged status with God so glorification both events in view.
Whenever you see in the New Testament the Messiah being described as exalted or glorified, it is a theological short hand for summarising what happened after Good Friday. Jesus was raised from the dead, appeared to many witnesses and ascended to the right hand of God. With his resurrection a new creation had begun in the present, vindicating him as the anointed potentate over all God’s creation. The Lord then received him into heaven, his sphere of dominion, to preside over the new creation project. His ascension was therefore a coronation. Being seated at his right hand means he has been honoured by God with equal status with him. In this new order, creation serves God by honouring Jesus. God receives worship exclusively in the name of Jesus. Therefore failure to reverence the Lord Jesus is disobedience to God himself. The New Testament is that the messiah Jesus is the risen and ascended Lord, gloriously exalted over all creation.
And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven,” – Mark 14:62 ESV