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The Ascension of Jesus: What It Is, Why It’s Often Overlooked & More

ascension of Jesus

Many Christians reflect often on how the resurrection impacts the everyday life of believers. Because Jesus lives, we will live too. But what about the ascension of Jesus? Is it a doctrine we return to?

Keep reading to learn more about the ascension of Jesus, or skip to the topics that interest you most.

5 reasons we overlook the ascension
What is the ascension?
Why is it called the ascension?
Who witnessed the ascension of Jesus?
What were Jesus’ last words before he ascended?
Why is the ascension important?
What does the Bible say about the ascension?

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5 reasons we overlook the ascension

book cover of The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine In this excerpt from The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine, Patrick Schreiner explores five reasons we sometimes overlook the ascension—and why Jesus’ resurrection isn’t complete without it.

1. The Bible speaks little of it

Christ’s ascent can be overlooked for many reasons, but one of the most obvious reasons is that it seems that the Bible speaks little of it. Nowhere does the New Testament use the customary Greek word for “ascent” (anabasis). Only two places in the Scriptures narrate the event—the end of Luke and the beginning of Acts (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9–11). The ascension narrative account covers a mere seven verses in the Bible, which, if you are counting, is 0.03 percent of all the verses in the Scriptures.

Some readers might be surprised to hear the end of Matthew does not portray Jesus ascending. The original conclusion to Mark does not include anything about it, and at the end of John, Jesus is still on the earth. Even Paul’s list of what is of first importance does not include the Messiah’s ascent (1 Cor 15:1–2). If this is a key part of the narrative, then why do the other Gospel writers not include it? Why is it given so little space in the narrative? Why is the word never used? And why does Paul not give it first importance?

2. The ascension seems like a bad plan

The second reason the ascension can be neglected is that it can appear to be a bad plan. Jesus remaining on the earth seems intuitively like a better idea. This can be seen by the following premises and conclusions:

  • Premise 1: Being with Jesus bodily in the new heavens and earth is the best end state.
  • Premise 2: Jesus is no longer with us in his body.
  • Conclusion: It would have been better if he had not left.

In some ways, the ascension appears like the worst plan ever. Jesus’ life is good. Jesus’ death is good. Jesus’ resurrection is good. Jesus’ ascension . . . we have questions. 

If Jesus were here on earth, a number of things would be easier. 

Take evangelism, for example. Talking to people about this figure who is long gone is not the easiest sell. But if Jesus were still on earth, it might be easier to convince people of his importance. We live in a world that prizes and prioritizes physical proof. People want tangible evidence for claims—not assertions impossible to prove.

People may also think it would be better if he were on earth because he could be more of a comfort to us. If Christ were physically beside us, his comforting hand would be with us as we go through sorrows. Currently, we must pray to a Savior we cannot see and many times cannot hear. 

My children consistently ask me why God cannot come and show himself to us so that they can obtain more confidence. If we are honest with ourselves, we feel the same way. The Messiah’s ascent can seem like a bad plan.

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3. The implications are unclear

The third and related reason people disregard Christ’s ascent is that it is hard to know why the event was necessary. The meaning of the ascension is a little blurry, or maybe it is our eyes. Why did he need to ascend? Was the resurrection not enough?

The disciples fell into this mode of thinking after Jesus’ resurrection. Before Jesus ascended they asked, “Are you going to restore the kingdom to Israel at this time?” (Acts 1:6). They were not expecting the ascension. Was now the time when Jesus would set up his kingdom and conquer the forces against them? Maybe that is why they were caught staring into heaven and the angel told them to get to work. What they thought and hoped for was not as they imagined. Jesus was not supposed to leave, according to their plan. Complicating it even more, the only two scriptural passages recounting the ascension contain little theological explanation for the purpose of the ascent (Luke 24:50–53; Acts 1:9–11).

Modern readers find themselves staring into the heavens alongside the disciples with confused looks on their faces. This lack of explanation has sent interpreters on a search for the purpose and goal of Christ’s ascent. . . . the rest of the Scriptures do fill this out for us, but the reasons are not all located on the same page, nor in the same Testament.

Learn more about the ascension in these resources.

Click each image to learn more, or add to cart.

The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine

The Ascension of Christ: Recovering a Neglected Doctrine

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The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord

The Ascension and Heavenly Priesthood of Our Lord

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Ascension Theology

Ascension Theology

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Ascension and Ecclesia

Ascension and Ecclesia

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The Ascension

The Ascension

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The Ascended Christ: A Study in the Earliest Christian Teaching

The Ascended Christ: A Study in the Earliest Christian Teaching

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4. The event is abnormal

The fourth reason the ascension can be deserted is that the event is objectively strange and outlandish from a modern perspective. In the days following Galileo and astrophysics, Newton and neural exploration, Copernicus and cloning, the ascent seems ridiculous. The ascension involves a middle-aged man going up into the air (maybe fast, maybe slow, but I like to think at medium speed) and disappearing into the clouds. Where did he actually go? With our modern scientific worldview, we know he must have traveled through the atmosphere, and then what? And how did he survive without a NASA space suit?

Even if you accept supernatural healings and the resurrection from the dead, those miracles make more sense because people can then live restored lives. 

The disciples were left gaping into the heavens not knowing what to do. He did not die this time—he left. 

Though we like to think we are different from the disciples, we can find ourselves also staring into the sky wondering what has happened and why this event was necessary.

5. The resurrection subsumes the ascension

The final—and maybe most influential—reason the ascension gets neglected is that the Scriptures sometimes conceptually combine the resurrection and ascension. 

They at times slide seamlessly from Jesus’ death to his glory, with the resurrection and ascension both included in the latter category. Luke 24:26 recounts how Jesus said the Christ would suffer and then enter into his glory. Luke moves quickly from Jesus’ death to his glorious state. Paul in Philippians 2:8–9 pivots from the cross straight to Christ’s exaltation. Peter spent a significant amount of time in his first sermon on the fact that “God raised [Jesus] up” (Acts 2:24, 32). But all of Acts 2:24–36 is about the resurrection-ascension, sometimes making it hard to distinguish between the two.

In the apostles’ minds, the upward movement of Jesus rising from the dead continued in the ascension. As John Webster states, “Resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session together constitute the declaration or manifestation of the lordship of Jesus Christ.”1

This could help explain why some people speak of the resurrection and then stop. 

However, a harmful underside lurks beneath this. 

When most readers see these texts, they think only of the resurrection. This is not wrong; it is simply incomplete. 

When the New Testament writers refer to the exaltation, they think of the completed act of resurrection-ascension as a whole. But when we say “exaltation,” we are more prone to think only of the resurrection. Dawson rightly affirms in response, “The resurrection requires an ascension to be completed.”2

To put this another way, we cannot equate the resurrection with Christ’s full glorification. If the resurrection fully confirms Jesus’ lordship, then the ascension becomes an anticlimax. We can have the tendency to cut off what is implicit in the apostles’ presentation and only speak of the resurrection.3

The biblical authors viewed Christ’s act of rising as incomplete until Christ sat on his glorious throne. As Michael Horton says: we typically “treat the ascension as little more than a dazzling exclamation point for the resurrection rather than a new event in its own right.”4

 Though the ascension might seem like another affirmation of God’s victory, the ascension represents progress—a new stage—in Christ’s exaltation, where he exercises his threefold office (prophet, priest, king) in a climactic way.

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Frequently asked questions about the Ascension

What is the ascension? What happened on Ascension Day? 

Jesus’ transition from earth to heaven after his ministry, death, and resurrection

Lexham Bible Dictionary, included in the free Logos Bible app

Why is it called the ascension?

 The Bible refers to Jesus’ transition as a passive action—like a “taking-up” or an “assumption”—instead of using the actual word “ascension” (Argyle, “The Ascension,” 241). However, “ascension of Christ” has become the traditional way of referring to this event.

Lexham Bible Dictionary, included in the free Logos Bible app

Who witnessed the ascension of Jesus? 

The 11 disciples witnessed the ascension of Jesus. 

Mark 16:1–19, ESV

Afterward he appeared to the eleven themselves as they were reclining at table, and he rebuked them for their unbelief and hardness of heart, because they had not believed those who saw him after he had risen. And he said to them, “Go into all the world and proclaim the gospel to the whole creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. And these signs will accompany those who believe: in my name they will cast out demons; they will speak in new tongues; they will pick up serpents with their hands; and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover.” So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.

What were Jesus’ last words before he ascended?

Acts 1:8, ESV

But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.

Why is the ascension important?

Many aspects of New Testament theology, such as Christ’s heavenly intercession and return to Earth, are unsustainable apart from the ascension account. Moreover, the Jesus that is worshiped by the church is precisely the ascended Christ.

Lexham Bible Dictionary, included in the free Logos Bible app

These paragraphs from the article above explain more:

“The resurrection requires an ascension to be completed.”5To put this another way, we cannot equate the resurrection with Christ’s full glorification. If the resurrection fully confirms Jesus’ lordship, then the ascension becomes an anticlimax. We can have the tendency to cut off what is implicit in the apostles’ presentation and only speak of the resurrection. 

“Andrew Murray understands the ascension to be one of four pillars on which the church is built. “Faith has in its foundation four great cornerstones on which the building rests—the Divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement on the Cross, the Ascension to the Throne. The last is the most wonderful, the crown of all the rest, the perfect revelation of what God has made Christ for us. And so in the Christian life, it is the most important, the glorious fruit of all that goes before.”6

The biblical authors viewed Christ’s act of rising as incomplete until Christ sat on his glorious throne. 

What does the Bible say about the ascension?

Click each verse or passage to learn more.

Mark 16:19

The ascension of Christ is narrated in only a few verses of the New Testament—in the Gospel of Mark, the Gospel of Luke, and the Acts of the Apostles. In each account, Jesus had been crucified, buried, and had arisen to make appearances to his disciples. 

Luke 24:50–53

In the Gospel of Mark, the ascension of Christ is narrated in one verse. Mark 16:19 reads, “after he had spoken to them, he was taken up (ἀναλαμβάνω, analambanō) into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.” However, the verses following Mark 16:8 may have been added by scribes (Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 102–07). These additions are often included in modern editions (usually in brackets). Mark 16:19 is part of an addition believed to date from the first half of the second century (Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 105). 

Issues surrounding the ascension narratives are not confined to Mark. Several important manuscripts of the Gospel of Luke do not include “and he was carried up into heaven,” so it is possible that Luke originally did not include an ascension of Jesus—only a departure from the disciples, described in Luke 24:51 (Parsons, “The Text of Acts 1:2,” 61). However, these words appear to be original to Luke’s composition (Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 162–63; “The Meaning,” 119; Fitzmyer, Luke, 1590; Marshall, Luke, 909; O’Toole, “Luke’s Understanding,” 110). Eldon Jay Epp argues that scribes may have removed signs of a physical ascension in some manuscripts due to a negative view of physicality (Epp, “The Ascension,” 142). 

Jesus’ ascension is recorded in the final scene of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus appears to his disciples after leaving the tomb and leads them to Bethany. Then he lifted his hands, blessed them, withdrew from them, and “was carried up (ἀναφέρω, anapherō) into heaven” (Luke 24:50–51). The usage of the verb ἀναφέρω (anapherō) echoes the concluding priestly blessing, where the priests raised their hands towards the congregation of Israel (Luke 24:44–45; see Lev 9:22; Sir 50:20; van Stempvoort, “The Interpretation,” 35; Zwiep, The Ascension, 87–88). The blessing in the Sirach tradition is followed by worship, which is the disciples’ first response to Christ’s ascension. They follow his final instruction to remain in the city (Luke 24:49) by going to Jerusalem with great joy and continually blessing God in the temple (Luke 24:52–53) (Some manuscripts do not include “and they worshiped him”; see Metzger, A Textual Commentary, 163). 

Luke’s Gospel begins with the account of Jesus’ birth and ends with his ascension. Jesus enters the world in humble circumstances by a miraculous birth and departs in exaltation by miraculous assumption. The witnesses of his ascension are the disciples whom Jesus taught throughout his ministry and who witnessed his deeds (Luke 23:46–48). The ascension becomes the springboard for his disciples to carry out the work they were prepared for throughout the Gospel narrative (Metzger, “The Meaning,” 118–28). 

Jesus’ ascension seems to take place the same day as his resurrection (Donne, “The Significance,” 556; Fitzmyer, “The Ascension,” 417). The sequence of events from Luke 24:13 to the end of the book is linked together as a narrative. Luke 24:13 tells of Jesus’ appearance to two men on the road to Emmaus “on that very day” (i.e. the day the empty tomb was found). From that event, the narrative leads to Jesus appearing to his disciples and then to his ascension. However, A. W. Argyle argues that Luke’s chronology is too vague to conclude whether or not the ascension and resurrection took place on the same day (Argyle, “The Ascension,” 240–41). 

The missing description of the ascension in some manuscripts may be attributed to early Christian groups disliking the idea of physical ascension. If the ascension is presented as the departure of a physical body (and not a spirit) to heaven, this has important consequences for New Testament theology. Before the ascension narrative, Jesus emphasizes that he is not a spirit (πνεῦμα, pneuma) because he has flesh and bones. Luke also describes Jesus eating a piece of fish in front of his disciples (Luke 24:39–43). 

Though the ascension story ends Luke’s Gospel, it prepares the reader for a sequel: the disciples wait to follow Jesus’ instruction to remain in Jerusalem until “they have been clothed with power from on high” (Luke 24:49). 

Acts 1:6–11 

Early in Acts, Luke refers to his Gospel as the first book that he authored that describes all that Jesus did until he was taken up (ἀναλαμβάνω, analambanō) to heaven (Acts 1:1–2). Instead of picking up where the Gospel of Luke leaves off, Acts overlaps the ascension narrative and retells it in a different way. In Acts 1:3–5, Luke basically repeats Luke 24:49 in retelling Jesus’ command for the disciples to remain in Jerusalem until they receive power from on high. 

Two details found in Acts do not appear in the Gospel of Luke: 

  • Luke writes that Jesus not only presented himself alive to the apostles after his death, but that he did so over a period of forty days. This appears to place the ascension for Acts later than it appears in the Gospel (Acts 1:3). 
  • Jesus explicitly mentions the Holy Spirit and implies that the disciples are to wait for the Holy Spirit in the city (Acts 1:5). 

The Acts’ narrative differs from Luke’s Gospel because there is dialogue between the disciples and Jesus. No reference is made to Jesus blessing them with raised hands. But the promise of the power of the Holy Spirit, “so they will be his witnesses throughout the earth” (Acts 1:8), may be the content of that blessing. After he says this, the disciples watch as Jesus is “lifted up” (ἐπαίρω, epairō) and taken out of their sight by a cloud (Acts 1:9). This event parallels Luke’s narration of the transfiguration—a cloud from which God speaks envelops those that are present (Luke 9:34–35). In the Old Testament, a cloud is often connected with the presence and glory of God (e.g., Exod 13:21–22; 16:10; 19:9; Num 9:15–22), especially on a mountain—the setting for both the transfiguration and the ascension. This passage alludes to Dan 7:13–14, where a figure like the Son of Man comes before God on the clouds of heaven and is given everlasting dominion (Witherington III, The Acts of the Apostles, 112). Jesus connects himself with this figure in Luke 21:27, which may refer to his return to earth (Zwiep, The Ascension, 177). 

In Acts 1:10, as the cloud takes Jesus out of their sight, Luke adds that as Jesus “was going” (πορεύομαι, poreuomai) and the disciples were looking toward heaven, two men in white robes appear next to them. The men ask the disciples why they continue to look toward heaven, for Jesus will come the same way they saw him “going” (πορεύομαι, poreuomai; Acts 1:11).7

Lexham Bible Dictionary, included in the free Logos Bible app

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  1. John Webster, The Domain of the Word: Scripture and Theological Reason (London: T&T Clark, 2014), 34.
  2. Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 4.
  3. Andrew Murray understands the ascension to be one of four pillars on which the church is built. “Faith has in its foundation four great cornerstones on which the building rests—the Divinity of Christ, the Incarnation, the Atonement on the Cross, the Ascension to the Throne. The last is the most wonderful, the crown of all the rest, the perfect revelation of what God has made Christ for us. And so in the Christian life, it is the most important, the glorious fruit of all that goes before.” Andrew Murray (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1996), 46.
  4. Michael Horton, People and Place: A Covenant Ecclesiology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008), 3.
  5. Gerrit Scott Dawson, Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (New York: T&T Clark, 2004), 4.
  6. Andrew Murray, (Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1996), 46.
  7. Nathan Brasfield, John D. Barry et al., The Lexham Bible Dictionary (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016).
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