And saying these things, with them looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud took him from their eyes. 10 And as they were staring into the heaven, with him going, and behold two men had stood by them in white clothing, 11 and they said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven? This Jesus, who was taken up from you into the heaven, thus will come in the manner you saw him going into the heaven.
After reading a lively discussion about the ascension on James McGrath’s blog, it occurred to me that we are too quick as rationalist moderns to latch on to the question of what actually or literally or scientifically happened and can easily omit to ask what Luke understood the meaning of the ‘event’ to be. Since the ascension is presented as a predictive event – they will see Jesus ‘come’ in the manner in which he went (Acts 1:11) – the theological significance that we attribute to it will also have a substantial bearing on how we conceive of this future ‘coming’.
Luke 24:4-7 has to be taken into account. Two men in dazzling clothing (en esthēti astraptousē) ask the women, ‘Why do you seek the living among the dead?’ They go on to remind them that ‘the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise’. In Acts 1:10-11 two men in white clothing (en esthēsesi leukais) similarly ask the disciples a question regarding the whereabouts of Jesus: ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into heaven?’ They then explain that Jesus, who was taken from their sight into heaven by a cloud ‘will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven’ (ie. with the clouds of heaven), at which point (presumably) the kingdom will be in some sense restored to Israel (cf. Acts 1:6).
It looks to me very much as though the account of the ‘ascension’ is meant to be heard as the continuation of the story of the Son of Man. The story in Daniel 7 is of a symbolic figure who suffers at the hands of Israel’s enemy but is brought before the throne of God, coming upon the clouds of heaven, to be vindicated and to receive a kingdom. It is the story of the displacement of a blasphemous pagan oppressor of the people of the covenant through the suffering of the saints.
Luke 24:4-7 captures something of the first part of that story: the Son of Man suffers at the hands of apostate Israel and the pagan oppressor and is raised in vindication. Acts 1:10-11 predicts through the enacted symbolism of Jesus’ departure to be with the Father the eventual vindication not of Jesus only but also of the suffering community of the saints, who will come to share with him in the kingdom. The symbolism of the going and coming in, on, or with the clouds of heaven is bound up with this apocalyptic narrative regarding the intense and protracted conflict between the early church and pagan imperialism (ie. Rome).
No one was wrong about the parousia: on the contrary, it was crucial for the survival of the early church that the evangelists and Paul and, of course, Jesus himself were right that the massive hostile power of Greek-Roman paganism would be overcome through the faithfulness of those who took the risk of following Jesus down a narrow path leading to life. Jesus ‘came’ to deliver his ‘brethren’ from persecution (in just the same non-literal but historically true way that YHWH would ‘come’ to judge or rescue his people in the Old Testament) and brought them with him on the clouds of heaven to share in the vindication of the Son of Man (cf. 1 Thess. 4:16-17).
This does not mean that there is not final judgment or renewal of all things – it is simply that the particular language of coming on clouds or of parousia has reference to something much more pressing and immediate in the purview of the early church.