The return of Jesus Christ to heaven 40 days after his resurrection.
The scene of Jesus’ ascension was the Mount of Olives (Ac 1:9, 12), near the town of Bethany (Lu 24:50), which town lies on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives. Those witnessing the ascension were a limited group, his faithful apostles. (Ac 1:2, 11-13) The record states that “while they were looking on, he was lifted up and a cloud caught him up from their vision.” They continued looking into the sky until advised otherwise by the angels, who informed them: “This Jesus who was received up from you into the sky will come thus in the same manner as you have beheld him going into the sky.”—Ac 1:9-11.
It is to be noted that the angels referred to the “manner” (Gr., troʹpos) not the form (Gr., mor·pheʹ) in which Jesus departed. As the cloud caught him up, he became invisible to human eyes. The Acts account shows that his ascension was without ostentation or fanfare, discerned by only a few faithful followers and that for only the initial part of the ascension. The manner of his ascension was such that it would qualify the apostles to serve as witnesses of that fact, even as they were of Jesus’ resurrection. (Ac 1:3) Thus, he did not simply ‘disappear’ from them, as he did earlier from the two disciples at Emmaus, or as the angel who had appeared to Gideon “vanished from his sight.” (Lu 24:31; Jg 6:21, 22) To an extent, his ascension was more like that of the angel who appeared to Manoah and his wife. He had them prepare a sacrifice, and “as the flame ascended from off the altar heavenward, then Jehovah’s angel ascended in the flame of the altar while Manoah and his wife were looking on.”—Jg 13:20.
Since Acts 1:3-9 shows that Jesus’ ascension took place 40 days from the time of his resurrection, there is a time lapse between the events recorded at Luke 24:1-49 as occurring on Jesus’ resurrection day and the ascension of Jesus as described in verse 51 of that chapter. It may also be noted that the words “and began to be borne up to heaven,” appearing in that verse, are lacking in some ancient manuscripts and are therefore omitted in some modern translations (NE, AT). They do appear, however, in the Bodmer Papyrus (P75), the Alexandrine Manuscript, the Vatican Manuscript No. 1209, and other ancient manuscripts.
Effect on Disciples. Up until the day of Jesus’ ascension it appears that the disciples still thought in terms of an earthly kingdom ruled by him, as is seen by their statement at Acts 1:6. By beginning his ascension in a visible way and allowing his disciples to witness the initial portion of it, Jesus thus made obvious to them that his Kingdom was heavenly and that, different from David who “did not ascend to the heavens,” Jesus’ position from then onward would be at ‘God’s right hand,’ as Peter boldly testified on the day of Pentecost.—Ac 2:32-36.
Such action likewise should call to their mind Jesus’ many previous statements pointing to such a heavenly position and help his disciples to understand these. He had shocked some by saying: “What, therefore, if you should behold the Son of man ascending to where he was before?” (Joh 6:62); and he told the Jews: “You are from the realms below; I am from the realms above.” (Joh 8:23) On the night of his final meeting with his apostles, he told them he was ‘going his way to the Father to prepare a place for them’ (Joh 14:2, 28); while among them on his last night of life as a human, he reported to his Father that he had ‘finished the work on earth’ assigned to him and prayed, saying: “Glorify me alongside yourself with the glory that I had alongside you before the world was,” saying also, “I am coming to you.” (Joh 17:4, 5, 11) When arrested, he gave similar indication before the Sanhedrin. (Mt 26:64) After his resurrection he told Mary Magdalene: “Stop clinging to me. For I have not yet ascended to the Father. But be on your way to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father and to my God and your God.’” (Joh 20:17) Yet, despite all of this, it is evident that the significance of these statements was brought home to the disciples only at the occasion of the ascension. Later, Stephen was given a vision of Jesus at God’s right hand (Ac 7:55, 56), and Paul experienced the effect of Jesus’ heavenly glory.—Ac 9:3-5.
The Inauguration of a ‘New and Living Way.’ While Jesus began his ascent in a physical form, thus being visible to his watching disciples, there is no basis for assuming that he continued to retain a material form after the cloud interposed itself. The apostle Peter states that Jesus died in the flesh but was resurrected “in the spirit.” (1Pe 3:18) Paul declares the rule that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom.” (1Co 15:50; compare also Jesus’ statement at Joh 12:23, 24 with 1Co 15:35-45.) Paul likens Jesus’ ascent to God’s presence in the heavens to the entry of the high priest into the Most Holy compartment of the tabernacle on the Day of Atonement and specifies that on such occasion the high priest carried only the blood (not the flesh) of the sacrificial victims. (Heb 9:7, 11, 12, 24-26) Paul then compares the curtain, which separated the first compartment from the Most Holy compartment, to Christ’s flesh. The high priest in passing into the Most Holy, into God’s typical presence, did not carry the curtain with him but passed through that barrier and beyond it, so that it was behind him. Thus, Paul states that “we have boldness for the way of entry into the holy place by the blood of Jesus, which he inaugurated for us as a new and living way through the curtain, that is, his flesh.”—Heb 9:3, 24; 10:10, 19, 20; compare Joh 6:51; Heb 6:19, 20.
Jesus’ ascension to heaven to present the ransoming value of his lifeblood to Jehovah inaugurated “a new and living way” of approach to God in prayer. That it also opened the way to heavenly life harmonizes with Jesus’ own statement to the effect that, prior thereto, “no man has ascended into heaven but he that descended from heaven, the Son of man.” (Joh 3:13) Thus, neither Enoch nor Elijah inaugurated this way, any more than David had. (Ge 5:24; 2Ki 2:11; Ac 2:34) As Paul states: “The holy spirit makes it plain that the way into the holy place had not yet been made manifest while the first tent was standing.”—Heb 9:8; see ELIJAH No. 1; ENOCH No. 2.
Correctness of the Term. Some raise objections to the account of the ascension, saying that it conveys the primitive concept that heaven is “up” from the earth, thus manifesting ignorance of the structure of the universe and of the earth’s rotation. However, to satisfy such critics would, in effect, require the virtual elimination of the words “up,” “above,” and so forth, from human language. Even in this space age, we still read of astronauts making an “ascent” to a “184-mile-high orbit” above the earth (The New York Times, June 19, 1983), whereas we know that technically they moved out or away from the earth’s surface that distance. Interestingly, the account of the angelic delegation that chorused the announcement of Jesus’ birth reports that, when their mission was completed, “the angels . . . departed from them into heaven.” (Lu 2:15; compare Ac 12:10.) Thus Jesus’ ascension, while beginning with an upward movement, from the viewpoint of his disciples, may have thereafter taken any direction required to bring him into his Father’s heavenly presence. It was an ascension not only as to direction but, more important, as to the sphere of activity and level of existence in the spirit realm and in the lofty presence of the Most High God, a realm not governed by human dimensions or directions.—Compare Heb 2:7, 9.
Why Essential. Jesus’ ascension to the heavenly realm was essential for several reasons or purposes. He had stated that it was necessary for him to ‘go his way’ in order that he might send God’s holy spirit as helper to his disciples. (Joh 16:7-14) The outpouring of that spirit by Jesus on the day of Pentecost was to the disciples an evident demonstration of the fact of Jesus’ having reached God’s presence and that he had presented the value of his ransom sacrifice to Him. (Ac 2:33, 38) This presentation of the value of his lifeblood also made such ascension vital, for it was not to be made on earth, in the Most Holy of the temple in Jerusalem, but only in “heaven itself . . . before the person of God.” (Heb 9:24) It was also made necessary by Jesus’ being appointed and glorified as the “great high priest who has passed through the heavens.” (Heb 4:14; 5:1-6) Paul explains that “if, now, he were upon earth, he would not be a priest,” but that, having “sat down at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens,” Jesus has now “obtained a more excellent public service, so that he is also the mediator of a correspondingly better covenant.” (Heb 8:1-6) Because of this, Christians subject to inherited sin are comforted in knowing they “have a helper with the Father, Jesus Christ, a righteous one.”—1Jo 2:1; Ro 8:34; Heb 7:25.
Finally, the ascension was necessary for Jesus’ administration of the Kingdom to which he became heir, with “angels and authorities and powers . . . made subject to him.” (1Pe 3:22; Php 2:6-11; 1Co 15:25; Heb 10:12, 13; compare Da 7:14.) Having “conquered the world” (Joh 16:33), Jesus took part in fulfilling the prophecy at Psalm 68:18, ‘ascending on high and carrying away captives,’ the significance of which Paul explains at Ephesians 4:8-12.