final meeting with his apostles he told them he was ‘going his way to the Father to prepare a place for them’ (John 14:2, 28); while in prayer 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 to be glorified “alongside yourself with the glory that I had alongside you before the world was,” saying also, “I am coming to you.” (John 17:4, 5, 11) When arrested, he gave similar indication before the Sanhedrin. (Matt. 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.’” (John 20:17) Yet, despite all 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 (Acts 7:55, 56), and Paul experienced the effect of Jesus’ heavenly glory.—Acts 9:3-5.
NONPHYSICAL INAUGURATION OF A ‘NEW AND LIVING WAY’
While Jesus began his ascent in a physical form, thus making possible his being seeable by 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.” (1 Pet. 3:18) Paul declares the rule that “flesh and blood cannot inherit God’s kingdom” (1 Cor. 15:50; compare also Jesus’ statement at John 12:23, 24 with 1 Corinthians 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 John 6:51; Hebrews 6:19, 20.
That Jesus’ ascension to heaven with the ransoming value of his lifeblood did inaugurate “a new and living way” 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.” (John 3:13) Thus, neither Enoch nor Elijah inaugurated this way, any more than David had. (Gen. 5:24; 2 Ki. 2:11; Acts 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 orbiting the earth as having “ascended to 739 nautical miles” above the earth (New York Times, September 16, 1966), 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.” (Luke 2:15; compare Acts 12:10.) Thus Jesus’ ascension, while beginning with an upward movement, as related to the earthly locality where his disciples were, may have thereafter taken any direction required to bring him into his Father’s heavenly presence. It was an ascension, not only in a directional sense, but, more importantly, 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 Hebrews 2:7, 9.
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. (John 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 having presented his ransom sacrifice to Him. (Acts 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.”—1 John 2:1; Rom. 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.” (1 Pet. 3:22; Phil. 2:6-11; 1 Cor. 15:25; Heb. 10:12, 13; compare Daniel 7:14.) Having “conquered the world” (John 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.
The Hebrew expression Shir ham·maʽalohthʹ, forming the superscription for fifteen psalms (120-134), is variously translated as “A Song of degrees” (AV), “A gradual canticle” (Dy), “A Song of Ascent by Steps” (LXX, translation of Charles Thomson), “A Song of [or, “for the”] Ascents” (AT, RS). Four of these psalms are attributed to David and one to Solomon. The exact meaning of the title “A Song of the Ascents” is a subject of discussion.
At one time Jewish tradition held that these fifteen songs were sung by the Levites in ascending the fifteen steps from the Court of Women to the Court of Israel at the temple in Jerusalem, but this view is generally discounted today. Some suggest that the phrase refers to the exalted contents of these psalms, though there seems to be little reason thus to elevate them above the other inspired psalms. Most commentators believe the title derives from the use of these psalms by the Israelite worshipers when traveling or “ascending” to the lofty city of Jerusalem situated high in the mountains of Judah as they joyfully attended the three great annual festivals there. (Deut. 12:5-7; 16:16; Ps. 42:4; Isa. 30:29) The word ma·ʽalahʹ is used in a similar way at Ezra 7:9 when referring to the “going up” of the Israelites from Babylon to Jerusalem after the exile. The expressions in Psalm 122:1-4 lend themselves well to this view, while the content of the other