The story of Jesus living, dying, and rising from death gets a lot of well-deserved attention, but we sometimes overlook another crucial, mysterious scene in the narrative. As the book of Acts begins, we’re told that after resurrection, Jesus is “taken up” or “lifted up” (Greek, epērthē) into the sky, where he disappears behind the clouds (Acts 1:9). Here is the context.
So when they had come together, they were asking him, saying, “Lord, is it at this time you are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” He said to them, “It is not for you to know times or epochs which the Father has fixed by his own authority; but you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you shall be my witnesses both in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and even to the remotest part of the earth.”
And after he had said these things, he was lifted up while they were looking on, and a cloud received him out of their sight. And as they were gazing intently into the sky while he was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched him go into heaven.”
Commonly called the ascension, the belief that Jesus “ascended” into Heaven, has been essential to followers of Jesus for almost 2,000 years (e.g. The Nicene Creed, 325 C.E.).
But what does it mean that Jesus “ascended into Heaven”? Did Jesus take off into outer space? Is the point of the ascension that Jesus floated away into the clouds, or is it something else? More importantly, why does any of this matter? To answer these questions, and to better understand Jesus’ powerful ascension, we need to step back and start with the big biblical concepts of Heaven and Earth—God’s space and human’s space.
Let’s take a look!
God’s Space and Humanity’s Space
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.
The biblical story opens with God speaking order into chaos, creating the heavens and the earth. But what is meant by “heavens” and “earth”?
In Hebrew, the word “heavens” (Hebrew, shamayim) literally means “the skies.” In modern English, we usually use the word “earth” to refer to the whole planet or globe, but the Hebrew root word, ehrets, simply means “land.” So the heavens and the earth are most basically the skies and the land, but there’s more.
Throughout the Bible, the biblical authors use “the skies” or “the heavens” to refer to the place where God lives—God’s space. And they use “land” or “the earth” to refer to the place where people live—humanity’s space. The key here is that both spaces were included in the natural, created world. So why do we say that God is “up there” when he is also right here?
When ancient Hebrew writers talk about geographic locations and spatial relationships in the physical world, they often use these physical descriptions to represent a higher, transcendent reality. For example, death and emptiness are down or under in Sheol. And because God is transcendent, or above all, his space is described metaphorically as being above, or up, or in the heavens.
The most important thing to see here is that God is not ultimately creating a supernatural place where he lives separated from humans. God’s vision for Heaven and Earth—God’s space and humanity’s space—is that both would be fully integrated as one. God’s space and our space are to overlap, “on Earth as it is in Heaven” (Matthew 6:10), which is what the world looks like in the Garden of Eden as the creation story begins. Recognizing this helps us better understand not only the Garden and temple, but also what it means to say that Jesus “ascended.”
The Garden Temple and Ascension
All of creation is God’s temple. And in the middle of this cosmic dwelling, God creates another temple—the garden mentioned above, called Eden. (For more on this, see our first blog from The Royal Priest series, “Were Adam and Eve Priests in Eden?”)
We learn in Genesis that the garden of Eden’s entrance faced east (Gen. 3:24), and we learn from Ezekiel that it was located on a mountain (Ezek. 28:14,16). Think back to the biblical authors’ use of geography as a way to depict a transcendent reality.
Where is the garden located? It’s up on a mountain. Eden is presented as the cosmic mountain garden temple!
As God’s royal priests, Adam and Eve were, metaphorically, going up or ascending this cosmic mountain temple in order to be in God’s presence. They were not floating up into the sky or necessarily even mountain climbing, but this is how the author literarily emphasized God’s transcendence.
At the top of the mountain, united fully with God and integrated with his will, Adam and Eve receive God’s creative word and his good life. And as God’s representatives, they were tasked to go down from Eden and extend God’s word and life to the whole creation.
Notice that their ascension does not remove them from physical creation, nor does their “going down” to the rest of the world remove them from God’s divine realm. Could we say they are ascending and descending at the same time, living in the way and will of God here on Earth as it is in Heaven? And if so, how would this shape our understanding of Jesus’ ascension?
The Priests and Ascension
In the Exodus narrative, we see God commanding Moses and his fellow leaders to “come up” to a mountain, have a meal in God’s presence, and receive the instructions God has for the Israelites (Exod. 24). Moses ascends with the elders of Israel into the cloud of divine glory to meet with God. In this place⏤where the author describes God as sitting on a shimmering, “blue as the sky,” clear, stone floor (Exod. 24:10)⏤we see human and divine in a mysterious togetherness with God’s space and humanity's space integrated as one. Remember: these human beings entered God’s space without transporting out of the physical world, which most basically describes the priestly role. The priest becomes present with God in order to guide others in the same direction, up to God.
Then God invites Moses to proceed further, to go up even more to the place where he will give him life-giving words for the people below. Moses’ priestly ascension is a recreation of the Eden ideal: humanity resting within God’s presence on a cosmic mountain temple.
The Day of Atonement
We find another priestly example in the book of Leviticus, which explores the way God enables Israel, through the priests, to come up to fully live in his presence. At the center of Leviticus (Lev. 16-17), we read about the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). On this day, the high priest would make a special, annual sacrifice to cover the sins of Israel’s entire community, which, most importantly, also made a way for people to live in God’s presence. Notice the progression: first, a significant sacrifice; second, an ascension.
Interestingly, the Day of Atonement is the only day of the year when the high priest would symbolically ascend to meet with God. Moses made a sacrifice before he ascended (Exod. 24:5-8), and the high priest likewise made a sacrifice before his ascension (Lev. 16:15). And also like Moses, the high priest exclusively ascends into the presence of God so that he might talk and pray to God on behalf of the people. The high priest symbolically ascends into the cosmos by going past the veil in the tabernacle that divides human’s space from God’s space—up into the transcendent presence of God.
So we see the first humans, Adam and Eve, and Moses, and the priests all engaging in this kind of ascending up into the presence of God. What about the average person of Israel?
The People and Ascension
Not long after becoming king, David goes up into the high hills at the center of Israel’s tribes and establishes a capital city, Jerusalem, otherwise known as Zion or the City of David (2 Sam. 6). Here the temple will be constructed and modeled after the Garden of Eden, filled with imagery of gold and flowers, with every image pointing back to the mountain garden temple of Eden (1 Kgs. 8:29-32).
So the temple is a symbolic model, pointing to the new Heaven and Earth, a place permeated with God’s presence where humanity would once again live in communion with his way of life and his will for all creation. The temple acts as a symbol of Israel’s (and all of humanity’s) purpose—or high calling—to spread God’s presence throughout the world and bring blessing to all the families of the Earth (Gen. 12:1-3).
When you read the Scriptures, notice how every time the Israelites travel to Jerusalem for the festivals, or when they are going to sacrifice in the temple or worship, the biblical authors always write that the people are going "up" (or ascending) to Jerusalem (e.g. 1 Kgs. 12:27; Ps. 122:1; Mic. 4:2; Isa. 2:3). Regardless of whether or not the people were actually climbing in elevation or heading north, the biblical authors use the geographic description of going up.
As the people go up toward Jerusalem, they sing the psalms of ascent (e.g. Ps. 122), joining together in worship as they ascend to be in the presence of God.
The Great High Priest
When we get to the New Testament, we read that Jesus travels up to Jerusalem where he is put on trial (Mark 10:33). After being condemned to death, Jesus goes up to Golgotha where he is lifted up onto a cross (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32, 19:17; Matt. 27:33; Mark 15:22). And three days later, Jesus is raised up from the dead (Luke 24:7). The biblical authors are saying something with all of this up language.
When we get to the book of Acts, Luke describes a scene where Jesus is “lifted up” and “a cloud receive[s] him.” (Acts 1:9). Luke is not giving his readers video camera footage of what happened that day. Instead, he is purposefully using geographic and spatial-relationship language of going up to convey transcendent meaning. Luke evokes the same imagery as the enthronement of the Son of Man from Daniel 7:13-14 and the exaltation of the suffering servant in Isaiah 52:13-15 so that his readers link the underlying ideas: Jesus’ crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension are all part of his enthronement up in the heavenly temple.
Remember that, before their ascents up into the presence of God, both Moses and the high priests offered significant sacrifices. Then Jesus, the royal priest, offered his own life as the final, ultimate sacrifice ( i.e., "it is finished," John 19:30; Heb. 7:27, 10:12), before ascending into the heavenly realm. Just as Adam and Eve, Moses, the priests, and even the Israelites went up to the temple, Jesus too ascended, joining the divine and human realm together in a beautiful, eternal integration.
Jesus the Royal Priest
The resurrected Jesus is truly a physical human being (with scars from his crucifixion, see John 20:27), and he is the firstborn of a new creation, living after resurrection (1 Cor. 15:20-57). We are invited to live in his way, and he promises that we too will remain physical human beings like him while fully participating in the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:4).
Having ascended up as he did, and as we will, Jesus now exists permanently in both God’s space and humanity’s space at once. Adam and Eve experienced this kind of overlapping togetherness with God only in part. But Jesus experiences it fully because he chose to follow God’s will from beginning to end. And his uniting of Heaven and Earth in himself is now complete, or as he said, “It is finished” (John 19:30). Jesus is the new humanity that we are invited and called to become.
On Earth as in Heaven
Followers of Jesus are now "in Christ" (2 Cor. 5:17) and are given the choice of whether or not they will ascend with him.
But as we have seen, this almost certainly does not mean floating off into space one day when we die. Instead it means joining our human lives into God’s divine work of spreading his word and life here on Earth. It is about declaring that “your will, not my will” be done on Earth (humanity’s space) as it is in Heaven (God’s space) (Matt. 6:9-13).
All authority in Heaven and Earth belongs to Jesus, and he has sent out his followers to announce that his indestructible, good life is available now, in the present (Matt. 28:18-20). This strong, ongoing life means getting to know the God of love in the deepest way—so that our imaginations and affections can be transformed as we’re liberated to love God and love our neighbor (Mark 12:30-31).
We are invited to ascend into this way of living.
In our very being, as the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:9), as temples filled with the Holy Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16), followers of Jesus become the place in the world where Heaven and Earth overlap, and this brings true blessing to every neighbor around us.
And as we grow and share our lives with others, continuing to love in ways that unite more and more of Heaven and Earth (e.g. Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:4-5), we can trust that God will be raising us up into the new creation, the new Heaven and Earth. He is beginning to heal us and make us whole right now, and he promises to fully complete that work as we join him, choosing to ascend with Christ into fully integrated Heaven and Earth for all time (Rev. 21-22).
This post is the sixth in "The Royal Priest" blog series, related to "The Royal Priest" video series.