One of the earliest posts I ever wrote was about how the cross should be understood through the lens of the resurrection. When it comes to the events surrounding the climactic moments of Jesus’ life, it is best appreciated in retrospect. The ascension of Jesus is the same. So like an amazing film told through flash back, we have to go back 47 days to know why in the present, a ragtag group of awestruck men are standing on a hill overlooking Jerusalem witnessing a man literally disappear from the earth. As we shall see by the end of this article, this extraordinary occurrence was actually the conclusion of a prophetic/apocalyptic ceremony that began on Palm Sunday.
For some reason people describe Jesus’ riding into Jerusalem as a “triumphal entry.” As I explained in another post, it was not a march of triumph because Jesus had yet to conquer anything. The animal he used was a donkey, which was not a symbol of conquest, that was the horse. The donkey, being a beast of burden, is thought of as meek, non-contentious animal therefore Jesus procession on it rather signified peace. It would also signify the grave burden he would later humbly bare. The title of that post was A Royal Entrance because it was rather a coronation procession. It was an ancient Near Eastern custom, previously referenced in scripture, that ancient monarchs that were to be enthroned as part of the ceremony came riding on a donkey. In that post I go much deeper into the symbolism of the whole affair. The crowds immediately recognise the powerful imagery and erupted into raucous praise. They sung Psalm 118 which the New Testament often references so it is very relevant theologically.
It is well known that Jerusalem is built on Mount Zion so for the king to go there is a literal ascent to power. The royal palace was in Jerusalem. Though it isn’t a coronation, Psalm 118 also describes a royal procession where the king enters Jerusalem to offer sacrifices thanking God for his covenant faithfulness to him and for all the people, expressing confidence in YHWH that he will continue to rescue them. In the psalm the king is not going to his seat of power he was going to the temple, God’s holy palace, which was also found in the City of Peace. Zion was the place where God dwelt as king, not like any tribal deity but as king over the entire cosmos. The psalms depict YHWH enthroned between the cherubim, the divine throne-chariot that conveys him from heaven to his earthly chambers. The Most Holy Place is literally designed as a throne room. The Zion temple was where heaven and earth intersected. In Zion God reigned.
In biblical theocracy the King of Israel was actually God who then chose an Israelite to sit on “the Lord’s Throne” as his vice-regent. This concept was more fully developed in messianic eschatology where the King of Israel was also ruler of the world (Psalm 72.) After all, if the Messiah was the “Son of God” that meant he was heir to his father’s kingdom which is the entire world that he made. Again Jesus acted very intentionally. He did not all of a sudden decide to do what he did. His entire ministry over the preceding couple of years as an itinerant prophet was proclaiming, “the kingdom of God is at hand!” God’s rule was finally going to be established on earth as in heaven. Jesus was enacting uniquely in himself, the climactic fulfilment of the entire scriptural narrative, the very story of God. Remember, right from Genesis 1 in ancient Near Eastern thought, God is portrayed as a holy cosmic monarch. The point of the Exodus was to make Israel a royal priesthood to God. When God overthrew pharaoh and his armies in the Red Sea they sung that the YHWH is king. When they begged Samuel, the judge and seminal prophet, for a king he told them they were rejecting the Lord their true king. The Psalms sing of God’s royal rule. If you pay attention there is a royal theme that runs through scripture.
The jubilant crowd shouted from Psalm 118 the line “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!” The Messiah, which means God’s anointed ruler over his people, is basically the king who reigns under divine auspices. The great miracles that God had done through Jesus were a clear indication that God was present among his people to redeem them (Luke 7:16.) The crowd recognised the kingdom had finally come because God had chosen his king, the representative of his divine rule and the one through whom he will deliver his people. Little did they know Jesus meant even more than that, that God was specially inaugurating his rule exclusively in and through Jesus. As Paul later explicitly puts it, the Messiah is literally the Sovereign Lord in the flesh. The royal plot was finally going to be resolved in the City of the King. However, the joyous ascent to power took an unforeseen and even more shocking turn.
And when he drew near and saw the city, he wept over it, saying, “Would that you, even you, had known on this day the things that make for peace! But now they are hidden from your eyes. For the days will come upon you, when your enemies will set up a barricade around you and surround you and hem you in on every side and tear you down to the ground, you and your children within you. And they will not leave one stone upon another in you, because you did not know the time of your visitation.” And he entered the temple and began to drive out those who sold, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer,’ but you have made it a den of robbers.” And he was teaching daily in the temple. The chief priests and the scribes and the principal men of the people were seeking to destroy him, but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were hanging on his words. – Luke 19:41-48 ESV
It should be a moment of celebration when you are being hailed as king, ushering in a new age. You are effectively being recognised as the king of the world, being the Lord’s chosen instrument to establish his dominion throughout creation. When a king establishes his rule, conflicts for power are brought to an end. The future messianic age in Jewish thought is one of Shalom, peace, but more than that it is an age where all human struggle has come to an end because God has fully taken charge. Strangely though, Jesus foresaw unparalleled crisis about to hit the city and people he loved because they did not know the things would “make for peace.” Knowing this, as the royal city came into view he could not hold it in any longer. Jesus begins to weep uncontrollably. Youthful praise is juxtaposed with deep, disturbing, prophetic lament. He knew they were going to choose a military route to overthrow Rome on the assumption God was with them like old times. Ironically, like many times before in their history, they had seriously misjudged God’s will. This future campaign was going to be the epitome of Israel’s disobedience. Jesus was God’s Messiah ushering in this eschatological peace but he knew they had not truly embraced him and his way of shalom. As we know, the Jewish leaders colluded with the Roman authorities to have him executed. He was crucified as a traitor under the criminal charge of sedition. He claimed to be king and he was killed for it.
There is an important moment in Jesus’ trial which foreshadows what was going to happen to him,
Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 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 14:61-62 ESV
He appropriated a scene from Daniel 7 where the Son of Man, a representative of God’s people who are oppressed by various imperial monsters is exalted, gaining full divine authority and vindication, condemning his opponents. Jesus fully knew that this confession would condemn him. Yet he fully embraced it because he paradoxically believed that through his rejection he would be proved right and be installed as king, just like in Daniel’s apocalyptic vision. Not only that his execution would be the sacrifice that would save the entire nation just as his inquisitor Caiaphas the High Priest had unwittingly prophesied. He was going to drink deeply to the very last dredges the cup of divine judgment that was going to be visited on his people. During his royal entry a few days earlier, he marched to the tune of Psalm 118 where the king goes to offer a sacrifice as an act of covenant renewal. Jesus knew he was going to be the sacrifice. In Luke 13:33-35 he talks about the coming judgment which he reiterates in Luke 19:41-48, he expresses his resolve to die for his people in a parable of a hen burned to death in a barn fire protecting her chicks under her wing. In that saying he was taking imagery of God being the protector of his people and applying it to himself. In a very real way God in Jesus the Messiah was going to die for his people. Now the Messiah was envisioned as the shepherd-king of God’s people and like any good shepherd as Jesus himself explained, he would give his life for his sheep.
Jesus’ enemies, the Jewish leaders who had colluded with the Roman authorities, tried desperately to derail his ascent to the throne. Just as he wept overlooking the city he loved on the descent from the Mount of Olives barely a week earlier, they took him outside the city gates to Golgotha, another hill in full view of the city to be crucified. The daughters of Jerusalem wept for him but he told them to mourn for themselves because of what they had done in crucifying their God and king (Luke 23:27-31.) The sky darkened and the ground shook in prophetic anticipation of the coming judgment. Now there was an even more glorious vindication that was coming that none had anticipated given the dehumanizing, hope crushing, horror of crucifixion. It was the resurrection on the third day. As I first said the cross is best understood in retrospect. Jesus explained to the two on the Emmaus road that the scriptures had always pointed to it and there were signs of this open mystery in Jesus’ own ministry. While Jerusalem had shunned and killed him, heaven had gloriously accepted him. Again quoting from Mark, he bookends it with the fulfilment of Jesus trial testimony,
So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God. – Mark 16:19 ESV
In Jewish thinking only righteous martyrs will be raised to life but in Jesus something far greater had happened. As I explained in another post, the ascension of Jesus was the pinnacle of his resurrection, from being dead under the earth to endless life being exalted to the highest heaven, to God’s very own throne. This was a remarkable development because in Jewish Monotheism God was the sole creator and ruler of everything. The Messiah had somehow been included in the divine identity, participating in God’s cosmic rule, similar to how the enigmatic Son of Man of Daniel 7 had unprecedented divine authority with God. As the early church reflected on what had happened, they surmised the resurrection gloriously upheld his claim to his fantastic and novel divine/messianic vision (Romans 1:3-4.) Hosanna! God did indeed save the king, and through his resurrection life, all of God’s people were also saved, just as it was hoped in Psalm 118. God had been faithful to the covenant promises he had made to the family of Abraham and the family of David. He was gloriously enthroned after being the purifying sacrifice for their sins in fulfilment of the scriptures (Hebrews 1:3.) In fact, the Messiah being raised from the dead was the unique mutation in the spectrum of second Temple Jewish beliefs which was responsible for the Church. Without it Christian faith would not have gotten off the ground.
Only the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke and Acts record the ascension as it happened. Luke informs us Jesus is taken away in a cloud, surely alluding to Jesus use of Daniel 7 among other things which Mark more directly references in his ascension account. Matthew and John, like the other gospels were written for a Christian audience already familiar with the Jesus traditions, so they seemingly take for granted that hearers already know he does ascend. Besides, in each gospel account Jesus predicts his ascension in his trial confession. Now Matthew informs us Jesus finally meets his disciples on a mountain but it is Luke who informs that is at Bethany at the Mount of Olives, just outside Jerusalem. Olivet was the scene of his royal procession 47 days prior which in all the gospels begins the conclusion of Jesus’ earthly vocation. Jesus ascends to heaven in full view of the City that had exiled and murdered her King. Clearly, Luke is indicating to us that this was the end of his mission, finishing what was started on Palm Sunday. What had begun then was a royal coronation which had been seemingly thwarted by the enemies of God, the powers that opposed his chosen King, God’s Messianic Son (Psalm 2.) Yet in great divine irony, the joke was literally on them. As Paul said, if they had known they would not have crucified the Lord of Glory. They mistakenly thought they could kill the Prince of Life. Not only did they spectacularly fail, God broke the power of death through the cross and the empty tomb. Jesus has now been crowned both Lord of the living and the dead.
For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all. – 1 Corinthians 15:21-28 ESV