Matthew’s Gospel, unlike Luke, the book of Acts, and a brief mention tagged onto the end of Mark’s Gospel, does not give us an account of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of the Father. Why Matthew and John chose not to include the kind of detailed account that Luke did is unknown, but that does not mean that the communities that embraced Matthew and John were unaware of the ascension of Jesus into Heaven. The ascension, specifically the return of Jesus to the right hand of the Father, is an expectation woven into the fabric of the Gospels, even if it is not stated explicitly.
In Matthew, it is inferred that Jesus is going to be leaving in some fashion. Oddly enough, it is the disciples of Jesus who bring this up in Matthew 24:3, when Jesus mentions the destruction of the temple. “Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” Already, they seem to understand, vaguely, that the Jesus they are familiar with will leave, and that at some point he will return in a strange, apocalyptic manner. While Jesus has tried to make the unfolding plan of his death and resurrection clear to them (Matt. 16:21), they hardly understand what he has told them. Yet, they know, somehow, that the mission of Jesus will have two definite phases. Between the ministry of Jesus the itinerant preacher from Galilee and the reign of Jesus the Lord of Heaven and earth there would be a necessary physical absence.
In response to their question, Jesus tells them that many terrible, frightening things will occur, and that false prophets will come in his name, proclaiming that they are the Messiah. He warns the disciples not to be fooled by these people. The historian Josephus recorded how Antonius Felix, the procurator of Judea, dealt with such false prophets in the late 50s of the first century, during the time of St. Paul. This is worth quoting at length:
“And now these impostors and deceivers persuaded the multitude to follow them into the wilderness, and pretended that they would exhibit manifest wonders and signs, that should be performed by the providence of God. And many that were prevailed on by them suffered the punishments of their folly; for Felix brought them back, and then punished them. Moreover, there came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs. He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more. And again the robbers stirred up the people to make war with the Romans, and said they ought not to obey them at all; and when any persons would not comply with them, they set fire to their villages, and plundered them.” – Josephus, Antiquities, XX.8.6
It was at this time, some ten to fifteen years before the destruction of the temple, that the prophetic words of Jesus began to overlap with the historical events which led up to that terrible moment. The author of the Gospel, seeing these things, no doubt remembered the words of his Master, and saw them graphically unfold as time passed. This is important to understand. The Gospels were written in the rearview mirror, so to speak. None of these prophecies were written down by Jesus at the time, and when the Gospel tradition finally did reach the written page, it was some 30 – 50 years later. What we have before us is a memory of Jesus that becomes more meaningful as time passes. There were things that Jesus said that made little sense when the disciples first heard them. After the resurrection, many, many things the Master had said began to pull together in their understanding. As John 2:22 states, “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this …” In the same way, Jesus’ apocalyptic discourses would have made little sense until they actually began to come to pass. They could be described more accurately because they were finally understood with more clarity. Understanding the passage in this way gives the Gospel writer the benefit of the doubt. This is a reasonable way a disciple would look back on his time with the Master. While the description of the destruction of the temple is sketchy in a visionary sort of way that reaches back to Daniel, the description of the tumult and anarchy at the end of the age fits the 50s of the first century perfectly.
After describing times of great sorrow, Jesus gives his people hope. “And this good news of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the world, as a testimony to all the nations; and then the end will come.” (Matt. 24:14). This verse is echoed at the end of the Gospel of Matthew in the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:19-20). Even in his physical absence, which is assumed here at the close of the book, he promises to always be with his people.
In the hymn that St. Paul gives us in Philippians 2, we find something that that may find its origins in the earliest days of the Jesus movement – long before the Gospels and possibly even Paul’s own epistles. Here, the ascension is described as an exaltation (Phil. 2:9), as Jesus the servant returns to his proper place in Heaven as Lord, to the glory of God the Father. “Ascension as exaltation” is a concept that Matthew would have found entirely appropriate.
In the Old Testament, people were assumed into Heaven only a few times (Genesis 5:24, 2 Kings 2:11). Almost as rare, they were brought back to life after death, and only then through the agency of a prophet or even a prophet’s body (1 Kings 1:17-34, 2 Kings 4:32-37, 2 Kings 13:21). The kind of resurrection, total transformation, and ascension that is spoken of in the Gospels is nowhere to be found in the Old Testament. The message is clear: the Gospels speak of something wholly Other.
Titus Livius, an early historian who died when Jesus was a teen, told the legend of Romulus, the first king of Rome, and how he had been assumed into heaven, accompanied by lightning and great peals of thunder. He also described how the king descended from heaven in glory to visit a friend, before making a speech about Rome’s might and vanishing into the clouds (Livy, Rome, I.17). Plutarch, the Roman biographer in the first century, told various stories regarding those whose bodies had vanished after their deaths or who, as in the case of Romulus, had been taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (Plutarch, Romulus, 27, 28). When comparing these legends to the Gospel accounts, we realize, first of all, that the stories Livius and Plutarch told took place in what, to them, was the mythic past – some eight centuries earlier. By contrast, the Gospel accounts are drawing off of a recent Event. The Roman legends contain no trace of a resurrection account – in the case of Romulus, he is simply glorified and taken to the realm of the gods. The Roman legends are a full special effects light and sound extravaganza. The resurrection was witnessed by no one – there is not one soul who saw Jesus walk out of the tomb. Far from being extravagant, the post-resurrection appearances of Jesus are quiet and almost anonymous. When he returns to the Father, there is no whirlwind. There is only the promise of his abiding presence.
Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, Whiston, William, tr., London, 1737.<https://www.gutenberg.org/files/2848/2848-h/2848-h.htm>
Plutarch, “The Life of Romulus,” The Parallel Lives, Perrin, Bernadotte, tr., Loeb Classical Library, 1914. <https://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Roman/Texts/Plutarch/Lives/Romulus*.html>
Titus Livius, The History of Rome, Spillan, D., tr., Henry G. Bohn, 1853.<https://www.gutenberg.org/files/19725/19725-h/19725-h.htm>
06 June 2022