Modern readers puzzle over the story of the Ascension in Acts 1:9–11. We recognize that “heaven” is God’s dimension of reality rather than a far-off place within ours; so why did Luke describe Jesus traveling upwards to get there?
The startling answer challenges conventional readings that see Luke and Acts as politically quiescent. Luke, drawing on Jewish sources about the vindication of God’s people, was challenging the Roman belief in the divinity of the emperor. Luke’s Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who is also the true Lord of the world.
The biblical background for the Ascension story is Daniel 7. The beasts wage war on the people of God; then “one like a son of man” is exalted on the clouds of heaven to sit beside “the Ancient of Days.” Luke has already told us (Luke 21:27) that this will happen to Jesus after his suffering; now it does. Luke knows that Daniel 7 contains apocalyptic metaphors investing Israel’s last great battle with cosmic significance. Here he uses that language to give Jesus’ departure its full meaning.
Daniel 7, as read by persecuted and beleaguered first-century Jews, indicated that Israel’s God would win the victory over the pagans. He would install his King, his Messiah, as the true Lord of the world, replacing the pagan rulers who blasphemed against God. Did Luke apply this, too, to Jesus?
The answer is a resounding yes. Writers on Acts often note pagan “ascension” stories but make little of them. There is one particular type that belongs exactly here.
In Rome itself, during the first century, emperors were not officially regarded as divine during their lifetime. The two who tried it, Caligula and Nero, came to a bad end. In the eastern reaches of the empire, people were long accustomed to divine rulers, but in Rome the process of divinization took place after death, enabling the new emperor to proclaim himself the “son of a god.” The procedure was sufficiently well known for Seneca, Nero’s tutor, to satirize it after the death of Claudius, in 54 C.E., in which, instead of turning into a god, Claudius turns into a pumpkin (apokolokyntosis, “pumpkinification,” instead of apotheosis, “divinization”). Seneca describes the “divinization” process: Witnesses are found to testify that they have seen the late emperor ascending into heaven, and he is thereby proved to have become a god.
Luke has not, however, departed from Jewish theology and written a pagan story. He has narrated Jesus’ Ascension in such a way as to remain rooted, on the one hand, in the monotheistic tradition of Daniel 7 and, on the other hand, to confront pagan empire, as Jewish monotheism always does. Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, is the true, divine world ruler, the reality of which Caesar is the blaspheming parody.
Supporting evidence for this reading is close at hand. The Ascension is preceded by a conversation between Jesus and the disciples (Acts 1:6–8). “Lord,” they ask, “will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Is this, they wonder, the moment for Daniel 7 to be fulfilled? Jesus refuses to give them a chronology or to underwrite their dreams of the kingdom. Instead, he gives them an agenda: They will be his witnesses in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria and in the farthest corners of the earth. They will act as his royal heralds, proclaiming that he, the Jewish Messiah, is the world’s rightful ruler.
The broader outline of Acts strikingly confirms this proposal. In Acts 1–12 Jesus is announced as the true king of the Jews. In chapter 12, the present, earthly king of the Jews, Herod, falls sick and dies after being hailed as a god rather than a mortal king. Jesus, in other words, is exalted as the true King; Herod is punished as a blaspheming false king.
The same pattern obtains in Acts 13–28. Jesus is announced as the true Lord of the world, of whom Caesar is the parody (a theme also in the Lukan birth narratives). Acts 28 sees Paul, surmounting all dangers, arriving in Rome and “announcing the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord, Jesus the Messiah, with all boldness, unhindered.” Paul, in Caesar’s capital, is speaking of Jesus as the true Lord and King, proclaiming the Jewish message of the kingdom of God.
The parallel between the two halves of the book makes Luke’s point. If Caesar gives himself blasphemous divine honors, he will suffer the same fate as Herod. Most scholars think Luke was writing some time after the death of Nero, in which case he and his readers knew what had happened (and if he was writing before Nero’s death, he was pointing into the future and hinting at what ought to happen).
This reading of Acts in general, and the Ascension in particular, raises several questions. Luke seems to accept, perhaps on the basis of Daniel 7 itself, that Jewish monotheism is not compromised by believing that the Messiah is in some sense divine. Paul and others offer 047conceptual frameworks to explain this; Luke simply tells the story. But one thing we cannot say is that Luke was attempting a comfortable compromise between Christianity and Rome. Whatever else he was doing, he was placing a time bomb alongside the central symbol of imperial power. The divine Lord of the world is not Caesar, bestride his brutal empire. It is Jesus, the Jewish Messiah, whom the Roman Empire crucified but whom Israel’s God has now vindicated.
Modern readers puzzle over the story of the Ascension in Acts 1:9–11. We recognize that “heaven” is God’s dimension of reality rather than a far-off place within ours; so why did Luke describe Jesus traveling upwards to get there? The startling answer challenges conventional readings that see Luke and Acts as politically quiescent. Luke, drawing on Jewish sources about the vindication of God’s people, was challenging the Roman belief in the divinity of the emperor. Luke’s Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, who is also the true Lord of the world. The biblical background for the Ascension story is Daniel […]