According to Luke, when Jesus is taken up with the clouds into heaven, two men in white robes are watching on. They ask the disciples why they are still gazing into the empty sky. “This Jesus, who was taken up from you into heaven, will come in the way that (or simply ‘as’: hon tropon) you saw him going into heaven” (Acts 1:11). I didn’t discuss this in my post on the doctrine of the Second Coming, but it’s the sort of text that might be cited in defence of the Evangelical Alliance’s affirmation of belief in the “personal and visible return of Jesus Christ”.
So does the account of the ascension of Jesus into heaven offer support for the traditional evangelical view that he will descend literally from heaven, in person, visible to airline pilots and other onlookers, at the end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it? I don’t think so.
To understand what the men in white were talking about we need to consider the larger narrative not only in Acts but also in Luke’s Gospel.
The war against Rome and the coming of the Son of Man
Jesus tells his disciples that the war against Rome will result in the death of massive numbers of Jews, many others will be led into captivity, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles (Lk. 21:20-24). At this time, there will be signs in the heavens and distress on the earth. The powers of the heavens will be shaken. Why? Because to the apocalyptic mind power structures on earth are mirrored in the spiritual realm. Then people “will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Lk. 21:25-27). All these things will happen before the current generation of Jews has passed away (Lk. 21:32). It will mean the salvation or “redemption” of the persecuted disciples, who have been entrusted with the task of proclaiming to Israel the coming intervention of God (Lk. 21:12-19, 28).
Does Jesus mean that he will descend personally and visibly to earth? Perhaps. But it is also possible that he means only that people will see, in a secondary fashion, what Daniel saw—they will see in these dramatic historical events the vindication of the Righteous One who suffered and who has been given kingdom, authority, and glory by God. It belongs to the mirroring in heaven of events on earth. It has roughly the same rhetorical status as the cosmic signs, which are conventions of prophetic discourse.
The restoration of the kingdom to Israel
The eschatological narrative is picked up again in Acts 1. The disciples ask whether Jesus will at this time restore (apokathistaneis) the kingdom to Israel. His response is that it is not for them to know the time which the Father has fixed for this outcome, but until it happens, they will be empowered by the Holy Spirit to bear witness to Jesus’ resurrection and his future “coming” (Acts 1:6-8). This is what mission consisted of in this early setting: the disciples have been sent by Jesus to tell Israel (and perhaps also the nations) that YHWH will judge his people—to put things right in Israel—within a generation. The only viable and saving response is to repent and believe that YHWH has made Jesus Lord and Christ (Acts 2:36-38).
Jesus is then lifted up and taken out of their sight by a cloud. There’s no real reason to doubt that this was conceived as an upward ascension into heaven, given that he directly takes his seat at the right hand of the Father (cf. Acts 2:34-35). In his Gospel Luke says that Jesus “was brought up (anephereto) into heaven” (Lk. 24:52). The angels assure the disciples that Jesus will again be seen coming with the clouds, and we may infer that it is at this moment that the kingdom will be restored to Israel. There is no thought here of the inclusion of Gentiles in the covenant people.
Are we to understand the “coming with the clouds” literally or symbolically? It’s difficult to avoid the impression that the future event was expected to look like the ascension of Jesus into heaven, only in reverse.
Since we no longer believe that the dwelling place of God is above the sky, we could perhaps quite reasonably say that the whole episode is essentially “mythical”. So the future coming of Jesus (understood, of course, within the constraints of the New Testament narrative) would be theologically real but would have the same ontological status as the ascension into heaven.
Perhaps a better option would be to suppose that the involvement of the angels makes the future “coming” the eschatological fulfilment of what is symbolically anticipated in the real event of the lifting up or elevation of Jesus in the clouds. The angels would be an apocalyptic device similar to the voice from heaven at the transfiguration. In both instances, the dramatic visual “transformation” of Jesus is interpreted from heaven with reference to his eschatological signifiance—on the one hand, as the Isaianic servant-son; on the other, as the future judge and ruler of Israel.
It is also significant that two angels “in dazzling apparel” explain to the women at the tomb that the Son of Man had to suffer, be crucified, and rise on the third day. The two men “in white robes” at the ascension tell the second part of this story. In view of this close connection with the Son of Man motif, I think it is less likely that Jesus is likened to YHWH coming on clouds to judge his enemies or deliver his people (eg. Is. 19:1).
The restoration of all things
In his sermon on the day of Pentecost Peter tells the gathered crowd that God has raised Jesus from the dead and seated him at his right hand “until I make your enemies your footstool” (Acts 2:32-35). He then warns them that if they do not repent, they will not escape the devastating punishment that is coming on this “crooked generation” of Israel. In this context, therefore, the thought is that Jesus will sit at the right hand of God in heaven until the enemies who conspired to put him to death—including Herod and the Roman occupying power (cf. Acts 4:27)—have been defeated.
Following the healing of the lame man at the temple Peter urges the people to repent and turn back “that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus, whom heaven must receive until the time for restoring (apokatastaseōs) all the things about which God spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets long ago” (Acts 3:19–21).
The “refreshing… from the presence of the Lord” is presumably a reference to the gift of the Spirit in the meantime. The sending of the Christ “appointed” for the Jews (cf. 2:36) corresponds to the reappearance of Jesus from heaven with the clouds, of which the angels had spoken. The “restoring of all things” is when he would “restore the kingdom to Israel”. Josephus uses apokatastaseōs to speak of the “restoration” of Jerusalem after the exile (Jos. Ant. 11:63, 98).
In Matthew’s Gospel Jesus says to the disciples: “Elijah does come, and he will restore (apokatastēsei) all things. But I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but did to him whatever they pleased” (Matt. 17:11–12). He means, of course, John the Baptist, but the allusion to Malachi makes clear the scope and eschatological implications of the saying for Israel:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction. (Mal. 4:5–6)
Whether the restoration of all things was conditional upon the widespread repentance of Jews is unclear. My view is that Paul hoped that his people would repent en masse, if not before then after the catastrophe of divine judgment, in which case “all Israel” would be saved. Perhaps we have a similar line of thought in Acts. The coming of Jesus with the clouds of heaven, the vindication of the Righteous One, would mean judgment on a crooked generation, but if the Jews repented, it would also mean the restoration of kingdom and glory to national Israel.
The prophetic expectation was that God would raise up a prophet like Moses, and those Jews who did not listen to him would “be destroyed from the people” (Acts 3:23). So although the people killed the Author of life (Acts 3:15), although they rejected the prophet like Moses, the possibility is still there that they might repent and save themselves “from this crooked generation”, which faced destruction (Acts 2:40).
Personal and visible maybe, but context is everything
So in Luke-Acts we have a clearly circumscribed time frame and historical application. Jesus would be seen coming with the clouds of heaven within a generation, immediately following the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, when God would defeat not only the Jewish authorities who had condemned Jesus but also the “lawless men” by whose hands he had been killed (Acts 2:23). If in the course of these events the Jews had repented in large numbers and confessed Jesus as Lord and Christ, the kingdom would have been restored to Israel. It wouldn’t happen, but Peter wasn’t to know that.
However we imagine that the disciples in Jerusalem thought about the future coming of Jesus with the clouds, whether as a literal return from heaven or as prophetic vision, the event cannot be separated from this tightly controlled story of the judgment and possible restoration of first century Israel.