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Jesus’ Three Ascensions

Our familiarity with the Bible is a two-edged sword. Knowing it well enables us to wield it, but it often shields us from being truly exposed to it. By this I do not mean the moral and spiritual challenges from which we benefit in our reading and our study. What I mean is that we forget how terribly eccentric this book of God actually is. Its strangest parts are like the weird uncle at family gatherings. We have become so accustomed to his idiosyncrasies that we no longer question them. Instead of asking “Why is it so?” we settle for the fact that it is simply so, and must be accepted without question. “What’s done is done.”

Like a weird uncle, much of the Old Testament tends to be ignored because of its obvious strangeness. Even if we do read it, most of us rarely move beyond puzzlement. But there is also much in the New Testament which really ought to be questioned. Jesus said and did many odd things, and He said and did them very deliberately. Not only this, He seems to have said and done them in a very deliberate order. Instead of resigning ourselves to accepting that this is just what happened, and how it was recorded, and since this cannot be changed there is no point wondering about it, our familiarity with the Gospels should have us asking if there was some hidden logic behind His every word and deed. And indeed there is.

I would like to take a brief look at the link between Jesus’ baptism, His transfiguration, His resurrection, His ascension to heaven and His return. All these events are not only remarkable in themselves, the accounts also include arcane details which hint at a larger picture without actually giving it away. Attempts at deciphering their meanings rarely look to the Old Testament, let alone sacred architecture for answers, which is a pity because that big picture is always architectural.

The Hidden God

Trivia is not my strong point, but I once walked away with all the grog, including an excellent bottle of champagne, from a trivia quiz which included a question about the Mercedes-Benz logo. Since I was listening to James Jordan’s lectures on the Revelation at the time, the idea that the three pointed star represented dominion over the sky, the land and the sea flashed into my mind. It was the right answer! Travel through each domain requires a different kind of vehicle, and Mercedes-Benz has all three covered.

These three domains should remind us of Exodus 20:4, which presents us with a triune architecture of the world.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the [land] beneath, or that is in the water under the [land].”

Man’s desire for a god he can keep an eye on, a god with boundaries, a god contained in a mountain, a stream or indeed within his own household, keeps him seeking the divine within the Creation rather than outside of it (Genesis 3:1; Romans 1:22-23). But the face of God will only be seen by those who love Him and persevere in faith, that is, not until they image Him (Genesis 32:30; Exodus 33:20; Job 42:5; 1 John 3:2). Only then does the Creation itself make sense.

This threefold architecture is of course found in Israel’s Tabernacles and Temples. At one level, the house itself represented heaven, Israel, her circumcision and her sacrificial substitutes represented the land mediating between the waters above and below, and the nations represented the raging sea. In microcosm, the Most Holy represented heaven, the Holy Place the faithful rulers (Priest, King and Prophet), and the bronze Laver was the crystal sea.

This architectural model of heaven and land and sea was not only a sacrificial substitute for all Creation, a means of avoiding another flood, it was also the antidote to idolatry. Since Yahweh was not in the Tabernacle, but happy to sojourn there (Exodus 25:8), and was too great for David’s Temple but happy to make it a house for his name (2 Samuel 7:13-14), He was clearly also outside of the Creation which these architectures represented. When Israel worshiped false gods, they carried them in their own tents and set them by their own households. Then they idolised the Ark of the Testimony (1 Samuel 4:3), placed idols in the Temple (Ezekiel 8:5-10), and eventually worshiped the Temple itself as an Aaronic idol, a golden calf, “the image of the beast” (Revelation 13:15). That which only represented the Creation became a means of controlling it, a talisman possessed by man rather than an image of a world possessed by God. In every case, man became a god, idolizing himself by refashioning himself as the image-maker (Psalm 115:8; 135:18; Isaiah 44:9-20; Jeremiah 2:5).

It was the tearing apart of the Tabernacle and Temple and their restorations which signified new covenants. The Tabernacle of David and the Temple of Ezra were microcosms of the world cleansed and restored after the flood. But the coming of God in the flesh changed everything.

The Visible God

Bowing down to idols and angels is forbidden, yet bowing down to men is not.1See People Are Good. Men are images of God, images of the uncreated. Angels, birds, animals and fish are not. Human beings point directly to the Creator as His representatives, so the incarnation as a mediatory union between heaven and earth, the divine tabernacling in human flesh, was an inevitability, just as is the union between husband and wife in the flesh. Both are a mystery, and both are indivisible except through some kind of death. But both are also architectural. They are indwellings where it becomes impossible to divide between one and the other, inside and outside, since they are in each other (1 Corinthians 11:2-16). Centuries of debate between Calvinists and Arminians seem to have overlooked this fact. In Christ there is no conflict between the sovereignty of God and the will of Man. They are distinct and yet they are one, a flesh “walking around in the fire,” unharmed yet unfettered in the furnace of holy desire (Daniel 3:24-27; Luke 12:49; Acts 2:3-4).

But God in the flesh is God within the Creation, God under the eye of man, God contained, and for this God to be the object of worship, He must demonstrate His dominion over His world in each domain, and purify it. He must be in all Creation, that all Creation might be in Him. This brings us to Jesus’ baptism, transfiguration, resurrection, and ascension. All are acts of dominion, all are architectural, and all involve Christ being put into something and coming out of it, that is, a veiling… and a revelation!

Firstfruits

The only account we have of Jesus’ childhood is that which records Him going missing (Luke 2:41-52). It is recorded because it is architecturally significant. The boy at age twelve is now conscious of His true Father, the one whom Joseph only represented, a spiritual coming of age celebrated in bar mitzvahs and biblical baptisms. This event is a kind of Firstfruits, all Israel contained in Isaac on Moriah, presented as twelve loaves, bread as flesh waiting to be broken. Indeed, the Temple was constructed on the actual site where Isaac was offered. 2Paedobaptism is thus a conflation between the circumcision of Isaac and his submission the God of his father on Moriah. Moreover, this transition to a heavenly authority does not result in rebellion against parental authority but in voluntary submission to it (v. 51). The point I want to make here is that Jesus was hidden in the Temple and then revealed, just as He was hidden in Egypt and then revealed, a sign not understood by His parents but nevertheless hidden in His mother’s heart for the time when its meaning would become plain (Psalm 119:11).3The Hebrew word “I have treasured” (tsaphan), in its 30-some uses in the Old Testament, almost always means “hide” or “store.” It only secondarily comes to mean “to treasure” since hiding was what you did with your treasures in the days before there were banks (see Job 23:12; Proverbs 2:1). See John Piper, Thy Word I Have Treasured In My Heart.

It is not until Jesus’ baptism that the Father speaks audibly of His pleasure. The shift from circumcision and the earthly patriarchs to the Fatherhood of heaven is complete, and Jesus, fully grown like Adam, but with a perfect (circumcised) heart, is now ready to take dominion.

In The Water Under the Land

Jesus is not baptised until He is ready for a ministry which will fulfill the Law and the Aaronic priesthood, so this takes place at age 30.4A priest served from the age of 25, was officially a priest with all duties at age 30 and served until the age of 50, after which his ministry was over (Numbers 8:24-25).

Jesus’ baptism represents the waters under the land, an image of the uncultivated (wild) nations of the world which continually threatened to overrun the Land of Israel. The nations were always the domain of the Prophets, who were not bound to the Land as were Israel’s priests and kings. This baptism is not a priestly sprinkling or washing in the Laver but a submersion in the abyss. Sprinkling and washing signified a preservation of life on the Land, but submersion is the end of life on the Land and a new Creation. This is the sign of Jonah, a prophet sent to the nations to provoke Israel to jealousy before her total destruction, and his name means “dove.” Jesus had to be entirely hidden in the water to claim dominion over it, and thus over the nations. The later miracle of walking on the waters was a sign of such dominion. No submersion means no dominion, because no death means no resurrection.5See Waters of Death.

The perfect image of God was put into the water, yet He came up out of the water, as the Land came from the Sea. Invested as a Prophet, Christ began His ministry of preaching.

Just as Jesus’ disappearance and His revelation to John at His baptism serve as bookends, so also do the words of His Father. He expresses His pleasure over the silent Christ at His baptism, since He has perfectly obeyed the Law and the Prophets. At His transfiguration He is no longer submerged in the abyss but standing at the top of a mountain, veiled in a cloud (Exodus 24:16). According to the Father, the authority of the two witnesses — Moses, the one hidden in the earth (Deuteronomy 34:6), and Elijah, the one hidden in heaven (2 Kings 2:16-18) — is now united in Him as the legal testimony of Jesus (Revelation 11:6). His Prophetic ministry is complete, and He is invested with authority once again. The next major event is His triumphal entry into Jerusalem as the son of David, the fulfilment of Israel’s dynasty of Kingdom.

In The Land Beneath

Up till now, Jesus’ ministry was mostly outside of Jerusalem, with Galilee as the sand of the seashore, symbolising Israel’s interaction with and mediation for the nations. Jesus now moves into the Land, a corrupted image of the Holy Place, with its false Priests, false Kings and false Prophets. He is arrested and condemned by the priesthood (Garden), handed over to the kings (Land), and finally to the nations (World). Like the worthless servant in Matthew 25:18, the Jewish rulers hide this precious talent in the earth. As Jesus predicted, it would be taken from them and given to the faithful.

Hidden beneath the rocks and the hills (Isaiah 2:19; Hosea 10:8, Luke 23:30, Revelation 6:15), condemned under the Law of Moses yet fulfilling the Day of Coverings, Jesus ends the idolatry of the Land by destroying its true Temple and raising it up in three days (John 2:19). But He does not reveal Himself to His followers all at once. The forty days between His resurrection and ascension are a divine game of hide and seek. The veil is torn but the Temple remains. Jesus is clearly no longer limited by earthly constraints, proving His dominion over it, but the image of heaven on earth was still speaking blasphemies on the mountain of God. The book of Hebrews calls the Jewish Christians to make a choice about whom they would serve: the High Priest on earth or the one in heaven. The Pharisees and Herods could only be overcome by a prophetic army, the testimony, sufferings and resurrection of Christ in multiplied talents.

In Heaven Above

With dominion over Land and Sea, Israel and the nations, the kingdom of Christ moves from these social microcosms to the actual Creation. Two unnamed men testify to the disciples after Jesus is taken from their sight, up into a cloud. They might be Moses and Elijah but it is the testimony of Jesus on their lips.

This is not just any old cloud but the glory cloud of Yahweh, the heavenly Tabernacle. All the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Him (Colossians 2:3), and He is hidden from their sight. But it was good for Him to be hidden (John 16:7). That cloud would visit them on the day of Pentecost, and the external laws of God would become internal, hidden in them, by His Spirit.6See “Internal Law” in Sweet Counsel: Essays to Brighten the Eyes.

For they said to me, ‘Make us gods who shall go before us. As for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.’ (Exodus 32:23)

Jesus ascends into heaven, but like Moses unseen on Sinai He would come again soon in like manner. He was hidden in heaven that He might be revealed from heaven as its king (2 Thessalonians 1:7). Once revealed, the idolaters of the earth, like Adam, attempted to hide themselves from His face, calling on the rocks and hills. The revelation of Jesus Christ thus describes the end of the Temple on earth, and the beginning of the reign of Christ and His Church over all nations for “a thousand years.”7Israel’s worship was contained in tents for 1000 years, from the offering of Isaac to the end of the Tabernacle, and then contained in stone temples for 1000 years, from the construction of Solomon’s temple to the end of Jerusalem in AD70.

Then I saw another mighty angel coming down from heaven, wrapped in a cloud, with a rainbow over his head, and his face was like the sun, and his legs like pillars of fire. He had a little scroll open in his hand. And he set his right foot on the sea, and his left foot on the land, and called out with a loud voice, like a lion roaring. When he called out, the seven thunders sounded. (Revelation 10:1-3)

The Lord now rules, no longer enthroned above the crystal sea, but inside a crystal city, a Lamb not hidden but completely visible.

The Father has put all things in subjection to Christ by putting Christ into all things. Likewise, the saints must be subjected to all things that all things might be put in subjection to us (Matthew 28:18-20).

“Nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ for behold, the kingdom of God is in the midst of you.” (Luke 17:21)

…the righteousness based on faith says, “Do not say in your heart, ‘Who will ascend into heaven? ’” (that is, to bring Christ down) “or ‘Who will descend into the abyss? ’” (that is, to bring Christ up from the dead). But what does it say? “The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart…” (Romans 10:6-8)

References   [ + ]

1. See People Are Good.
2. Paedobaptism is thus a conflation between the circumcision of Isaac and his submission the God of his father on Moriah.
3. The Hebrew word “I have treasured” (tsaphan), in its 30-some uses in the Old Testament, almost always means “hide” or “store.” It only secondarily comes to mean “to treasure” since hiding was what you did with your treasures in the days before there were banks (see Job 23:12; Proverbs 2:1). See John Piper, Thy Word I Have Treasured In My Heart.
4. A priest served from the age of 25, was officially a priest with all duties at age 30 and served until the age of 50, after which his ministry was over (Numbers 8:24-25).
5. See Waters of Death.
6. See “Internal Law” in Sweet Counsel: Essays to Brighten the Eyes.
7. Israel’s worship was contained in tents for 1000 years, from the offering of Isaac to the end of the Tabernacle, and then contained in stone temples for 1000 years, from the construction of Solomon’s temple to the end of Jerusalem in AD70.

1 Comments

  1. Thanks! This is much appreciated. ‘They’ said I’d already said ‘
    Thanks’.

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