Ascension Day and the Coming of the Son of Man

I’m afraid I missed it, but yesterday was Ascension Day. Dang. Ian Paul, however, reposted a good piece making the important point that whereas John’s Gospel makes the crucifixion the climax of Jesus’ ministry, the New Testament as a whole pursues the narrative through the resurrection to the ascension and exaltation of Jesus. We often miss this emphasis because our tradition downplays it and because we don’t read carefully. Quite!

Ian attributes the failure of reading to our misunderstanding of Daniel 7 and its relevance for the New Testament. Daniel’s human figure is:

a personification of God’s own people, currently oppressed and persecuted by the powers that be, but trusting God who will rescue them, bring them into his presence, vindicate them and give them power and authority over those who currently have power over them.

So by identifying himself with this symbolic figure “Jesus is claiming to fulfil the destiny of Israel—to take on their oppression, but also to experience the vindication from God”.

That seems to me exactly right. The exaltation of Jesus to the right hand of God is the central apostolic proclamation—the good news for oppressed Israel and for the nations ruled by Caesar. Everything else flows from that.

I’m not sure about a couple of further details, however.

First, Ian thinks that Jesus’ use of Daniel 7 involves a “crucial re-interpretation as well: it is not the empires of this world that are the true oppressors of Israel, but the powers of darkness and their own sin and disobedience”.

That seems to me too sharp a distinction—an accommodation of the historical perspective of the New Testament to our more “rational” and generalised way of thinking.

On the one hand, the argument of Daniel 7-12 is precisely that Israel is oppressed because of sin and disobedience. Daniel confesses that “we have sinned and done wrong and acted wickedly and rebelled”, etc., therefore dreadful things have been done against Jerusalem (Dan. 9:5, 12). On the other, it is clearly understood that spiritual forces are at work behind the empires (Dan. 10:13, 20-21).

So I think we can affirm the relevance of Daniel 7 for understanding the ascension and exaltation without ditching the focus on the real political situation and Rome as the particular oppressor of Israel. In Revelation, of course, historical Rome—not “empire” in the abstract—is portrayed as a beast like Daniel’s fourth beast, which oppressed the saints of the Most High.

Secondly, Ian argues that the coming of the Son of Man with the clouds of heaven in the Synoptic Gospels must be differentiated from the coming of Jesus on the clouds at the parousia in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, for example.

He thinks that Jesus is speaking about the ascension when he says to the Council, “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven” (Mk. 14:62). This cannot refer to a second coming to earth 1) because it would mean Jesus was deluded (the Council didn’t live to see it), and 2) Daniel 7:13 describes a coming from earth to heaven.

I don’t think this argument works:

  • In Daniel 7:9-10 thrones are expressly put in place for judgment. The thrones have wheels. This makes no sense if this is a heavenly scene—God’s throne is already in heaven, and you only need wheels on earth (cf. Ezek. 1:15-21). The point is that God has come to earth with the countless functionaries of the heavenly court for the purpose of judging the beastly empires. The “one like a son of man” is oppressed righteous Israel (as distinct from apostate Israel) and is transported by heavenly means, admittedly, to the place where judgment is taking place—presumably somewhere in the pagan world since the beasts are present and the son of man figure is not.
  • Jesus’ statement to Caiaphas has Jesus coming with the clouds of heaven after he has been seated at the right hand of Power—not coming with the clouds to be seated at the right hand of Power (Mk. 14:62).
  • The coming of the Son of Man at the climax of the apocalyptic discourse comes after the tribulation of the Jewish War: “in those days, after that tribulation…” (Mk. 13:24). It is much more natural to associate it with the destruction of Jerusalem, which is God’s judgment on his rebellious people—and which takes us back to Daniel 7-12.
  • When the Son of Man comes, he will send out his angels to gather the elect—that is, to bring to an end the mission of his disciples to proclaim the coming kingdom of God to Israel and the nations (Mk. 14:27). The ascension marks the beginning of that mission, not the end.
  • At the coming of the Son of man “in the glory of his Father with the holy angels” those who are ashamed of him in this “adulterous and sinful generation” of Israel will be repaid. This will take place within the lifetime of some in Jesus’ audience (Matt. 16:27-28; Mk. 8:38-9:1). But it certainly does not happen at the ascension.

So Jesus expects that he will be raised in anticipation of the resurrection of righteous Israel (cf. Dan. 12:1-3) and seated at the right hand of God as Israel’s king (cf. Ps. 110:1) until the day when God judges unrighteous Israel, when Jesus will come to deliver his emissaries from their enemies and when those who have died will be raised to reign with him over restored Israel (Matt. 19:28; Lk. 22:30).

Paul has roughly the same apocalyptic narrative in mind except that he associates the parousia not with the coming judgment on Israel (wrath against the Jew) but with the victory of Jesus over the nations (wrath against the Greek).

Viewed this way, the coming of the Son of Man event is not strictly to be associated with the ascension at all. It is “fulfilled” when either Jerusalem or Rome is “judged” and the suffering righteous (Jesus’ disciples, the churches in the pagan world) are vindicated. That keeps us much closer to Daniel’s vision.

Jesus becomes an actor in this drama 1) by anticipating the suffering and vindication of his followers, and 2) by actively initiating (sending out his angels) the deliverance and vindication of his followers.

Isn’t it a little late in history to still be saying that the Jews got what they deserved with the harrowing events of the destruction of Jerusalem?

Two things.

1) This is an exercise in historical interpretation, not an expression of personal opinion. The question is whether Jesus and the writers of the New Testament thought that AD 70 was an expression of God’s wrath against his people.

2) Jesus and the writers of the New Testament were mostly if not all Jews. It was an intra-Jewish controversy, as it was in the Old Testament—AD 70 is in effect a re-run of the Babylonian invasion, which was unequivocally seen by the prophets as divine punishment for breaking the covenant. Other Jews in the post AD 70 period who were not Christian (see 4 Ezra and 2 Baruch) regarded the catastrophe in the same way.