For a long time, I never really understood the Ascension.
To me, the disciples’ question in Acts 1:6 seemed eminently reasonable. Why did Jesus have to go? Why not just usher in the fullness of the kingdom then and there, and start wrapping the whole thing up? Wouldn’t it be a great asset to our labors in missions and apologetics to have Jesus still around?
As it stands, the Ascension plays right into the skeptic’s darkest doubts about the gospel narrative. How convenient that the supposedly risen Messiah should vanish without showing himself to anyone other than his friends and family!
The Bible, however, stubbornly refuses to agree with my sensibilities. Far from treating the Ascension as a weird stage exit whose main function is to explain why Jesus isn’t around anymore, Scripture speaks of it as a necessary part of God’s plan. Not only is it necessary, but the disciples even refer to it as a primary proof of Jesus’ messianic identity.
Rather than trying to explain away his absence, they tout it with vigor. The Ascension stands on equal footing with the Crucifixion and Resurrection in the earliest declarations of the gospel (Acts 2:33–36; 3:18–21; 5:30–31).
Even Jesus connects the Ascension with his work of dying and rising again. When Mary Magdalene sees him in the garden after his resurrection, he’s not simply strolling about, enjoying the fact that everything has been accomplished. No, he’s a man on a mission, and there is still another: “Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father” (Jn. 20:17).
Yet in my experience within evangelical churches, I have seldom heard the Ascension preached with emphasis anywhere close to equal with that placed on the Cross or the empty tomb.
In trying to explain the Ascension, theologians are quick to point out the things Jesus does afterward: it is the gateway to his priestly work of intercession, a prerequisite for his sending of the Holy Spirit, and the commencement of his heavenly reign. That’s all true.
Still, I never quite understood why Jesus had to leave to do those things. Intercession, bestowing the Spirit, and even reigning—all these things could be realized in the earthly ministry of a vindicated, glorious Messiah. So why did he have to go?
Biblical theology offers us startlingly clear answers to that question, answers that enable us to see the Ascension in its proper context. The Ascension is not some strange vanishing act Jesus does at the end—like a magician finishing his show in a puff of smoke—but the capstone of everything he has done in his passion.
The Ascension is the triumphal act that crowns both the royal and priestly ministries of the Messiah: in which David’s heir ascends to reign, and the great high priest completes the presentation of the atoning sacrifice.
First, consider the royal angle. The Ascension appears to be an exact fulfillment of the prophetic vision of Daniel 7:13–14. In that vision, the Son of Man, surrounded with clouds, approaches the throne of the Ancient of Days and is given the dominion of an everlasting kingdom. Notice that the prophecy does not show the Messiah’s rule beginning with an earthly reign, but quite specifically with a heavenly one.
If Jesus had remained on earth and tried to claim his kingship, then he could not have been the Messiah—for the true Son of Man had been prophesied as ascending into the presence of God, there to be given his reign.
The Ascension is the triumphal coronation of the messianic king. Jesus has done what good kings in the ancient world were expected to do: he has saved his people from their enemies. He has defeated the powers of sin, Satan, and death, and now he makes his ascent to the throne—just as the Davidic kings of old made their ascent back to Jerusalem after a successful military campaign.
Having accomplished these kingly acts, Jesus approaches the Ancient of Days and is crowned with splendor and honor. And although we still await his return, along with the full and final manifestation of his reign, that reign has already begun.
Now that he is on the throne, seated at the right hand of the Father, the signs expected of the messianic age are being fulfilled before our eyes: the Spirit has been poured out and the nations have begun to turn their hearts to the worship of Israel’s God.
An even more compelling array of biblical images connects Jesus’ Ascension with the priestly work of the Messiah. Early Christians considered Jesus’ death on the cross to be a sacrifice of atonement (Rom. 3:25), an act whereby our sins are fully and finally forgiven.
However, coming from the context of Israel’s temple culture, it would have struck most Jewish believers as oddly incomplete to say that the Cross was all there was to Jesus’ ritual of sacrifice. As anyone in the ancient world knew, the penitent sinner needed a further step in the ritual of atonement: a sacrifice to be slain and a high priest to bear the sacrificial blood into the presence of God.
The clearest parallel is the annual ritual of the Day of Atonement, when the sacrifice for the people’s sin was killed on the great altar outside the temple doors. But that was only the first part of the ritual. To Jewish ears, the claim that the Crucifixion alone was the sacrifice of atonement would have sounded like saying that the sacrifice had been slain on the altar and no more.
What about the next step of the ritual? The high priest was to take the blood of the sacrifice and ascend the steps of the temple—to enter into the sanctuary of the Lord surrounded by billowing clouds of incense (Lev. 16:11–13).
The high priest would step up into that cloud, vanishing from the sight of the watching throngs in the temple courts, and then proceed into the Holy of Holies. There, in the presence of God, the high priest would present the blood of the sacrifice, completing the ritual of atonement and interceding for the people. Then he would emerge, coming back down through the cloud of incense in the same way the crowds had seen him leave, bearing the assurance of salvation back to the people of God.
This is precisely what the book of Hebrews says happened in Jesus’ heavenly ascent. Hebrews 6–10 paints a picture of the scene enacted when Jesus made his entrance into the presence of God, drawing on Day of Atonement imagery to portray Jesus as both the offering and the offerer. While the Holy of Holies was merely an earthly representation of the heavenly reality, Jesus enters the heart of that reality—into the very presence of the Father.
The theological implication here is that the Ascension was the next necessary step in the ritual after the Cross. This does not imply any insufficiency in what Jesus did in his saving work on the Cross—only that this completed sacrifice was always intended to be followed by another step in the process, which was bearing his sacrifice into the true Holy of Holies.
It’s not just Hebrews that paints this picture. If you know what you’re looking for, you can see priestly symmetries in most of the portrayals of the Ascension. The Ascension is preceded by a period of 40 days (Acts 1:3), just like the Day of Atonement in rabbinical Jewish tradition.
Before his ascent, Jesus lifts his hands to bless his disciples, and then goes up into the presence of God (Luke 24:50–51)—which is the same set of actions Aaron performed before entering the tabernacle to complete the first great ritual of sacrifice (Lev. 9:22–23).
Special mention is made of the cloud into which Jesus vanishes (Acts 1:9), which echoes both Daniel’s prophecy of the Son of Man and the visual imagery in the Day of Atonement. If Jesus was the Great High Priest presenting a sacrifice in the heavenly tabernacle, he would have to ascend to perform that very function.
This perspective adds a new layer of meaning to our current period of history. The Day of Atonement ritual wasn’t a matter of just going up into the temple and God’s presence, but also coming back again. The present age of Jesus’ absence, then, is the period of his active priestly service, as he continues to intercede for us in the presence of God the Father.
Likewise, the promised second coming of Jesus is not some future event that stands on its own, but the long-awaited culmination of everything he has already been doing, just as was foreshadowed in the ancient priestly ritual (Heb. 9:24–28). The disappearance-and-return narrative of the Ascension and Second Coming thus ceases to be something odd or surprising. Rather, in the light of Scripture, it is precisely what one would expect the Messiah to do.
For Jesus to be the true messianic king—the prophesied one who comes to defeat humanity’s enemies and returns to claim his throne in the manner described in Daniel 7—then he must ascend. For Jesus to be the Great High Priest, foreshadowed in the rituals of Israel’s temple, he must complete the ritual by bearing his sacrifice into God’s presence.
The Ascension is no mere footnote to the gospel narratives; it is not an awkward absence to be explained away. It is nothing less than the climax of the Messiah’s passion—and the setup for the finale of his great drama of redemption.
Matthew Burden is a PhD candidate in theology and the author of Who We Were Meant to Be and Wings over the Wall. He pastors a church in eastern Maine, where he lives with his wife and three children.