Lectionary Commentaries for May 14, 2015
Ascension of Our Lord
Commentary on Luke 24:44-53
Commentary on Psalm 47
Psalm 47 is a hymn celebrating Yahweh’s dominion over the entire world.
It was probably a part of a yearly ritual of divine enthronement in which the community affirmed the kingship of Yahweh.
Historical and ritual background
Psalm 47 is one of several so-called enthronement psalms (Psalms 93, 94-99). Establishing the details of the ritual lying behind these psalms has been a source of intense debate and speculation. While we cannot be certain, the activities may have included a procession of the Ark of the Covenant up the temple mount and into the temple.
The ascent would have represented the re-affirmation of God’s powerful presence in the midst of the community. Such rituals provide encouragement to people struggling to understand their place within complex and rapidly changing geo-political events.
Psalm 47 is anchored by three statements in the imperative mood (vv. 1, 6, 7). The first of these is a command to “all you peoples” (v. 1). The “peoples” in this context include the foreign nations surrounding Israel, who in all likelihood would not have been present at such a festival. With this audacious summons to all people, present and absent, the psalm reveals the vast scope of Yahweh’s dominion at the very outset.
Most calls to praise in the Psalter are followed by a “motivation clause,” a statement describing why one should praise. In this case, the motivation in v. 2 is God’s awesome power and kingship over everything and everyone. The logic is simple. Since God is king of the earth, the entire earth should praise God.
The initial imperative statement in v. 1 is echoed in v. 6, with the quadruple imperative “sing praises” (Hebrew: zameru). It is remarkable to find the same Hebrew verb repeated four times in a single verse. One rarely sees such redundancy, so the message of this verse is utterly unmistakable. The psalm is calling the people to make some noise! These praises add volume to the sounds of clapping (v. 1), shouting (vv. 1, 5), and blasting of a trumpet (v. 5). And once again, the motivation for these peals of praise is God’s worldwide kingship (v. 7).
Verse 7 ends with yet another imperative: “sing praises (Heb: zameru) with a psalm.” The “psalm” is probably this very psalm. So Psalm 47 uniquely refers to itself as the proper musical accompaniment for God’s ascent.
The Logic of Exaltation
The hymn relies on the logic of exaltation whereby the highest things are the most important and powerful, while the lowest things have the least power. This sort of hierarchy was pervasive in the ancient Near East and was even reflected in the art of that period. Important people (especially kings) and gods often occupied the highest place within any given artistic scene. This artistic convention often meant that the god or king was pictured much larger than the other figures in the scene. As such, the figures of gods and kings were simultaneously “awesome” and “most high,” much like Yahweh is described in this psalm (v. 2). For pictorial examples of this logic of exaltation, see the images of the sun god Shamash on the famous Tablet of Shamash in the British Museum and Rameses II receiving suppliants from the Temple at Abu Simbel.
Consistent with these ancient modes of representation, in Psalm 47 Yahweh’s position shows Yahweh’s dominance and superiority. The psalmist uses the divine epithet, ‘elyon in v. 2, a word derived from the verbal root ‘alah, meaning “to go up.” The -on ending is a superlative, suggesting that Yahweh is the one who has gone up the highest. So ‘elyon is rightly translated, “Most High” (v. 2).
The psalmist uses the preposition ‘al “above/over,” which is also related to ‘alah, to describe Yahweh’s relative position to “the earth” (v. 2) and “the nations” (v. 8). Yahweh is above everything and everyone. Again and again, Yahweh’s dominance manifests itself in explicitly positional terms. The psalm, in fact, ends with this idea by way of climax: “God is highly exalted.” And here again the psalmist is using a form of the verb ‘alah, “to go up.”
Yahweh’s exaltation and Jesus’s ascension
Psalm 47 presents a picture of Yahweh as the exalted king who is most worthy of praise. His high position and supreme authority outstrip all others, especially any earthly leader who might contest God’s power. Any challenges to God’s power are in vain. The psalm ends with a description of the princes of the earth gathering around God’s holy throne in an expression of fealty and submission (v. 8-9).
Many ancient texts refer to the king as the “shield” of his people (see e.g., Psalm 84:9). That “the shields of the earth belong to God” thus suggests that either that Yahweh has conquered all the kingdoms of the earth or that kings of the earth reign at Yahweh’s pleasure alone, that they are Yahweh’s instruments. Both ideas are attested elsewhere in the Old Testament. In either case, Yahweh’s supreme position is without question.
On the Sunday of the Ascension of the Lord, the lectionary readings focus on what it means for Jesus to ascend into heaven (Luke 24:51) and be exalted and enthroned at the right hand of God the Father. There, Jesus is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come” (Ephesians 1:21). Moreover, following the logic of exaltation, God “has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church” (Ephesians 1:22, NRSV).
Jesus’s ascension to the highest heaven is essentially an affirmation of his authority over everything. As the ancient community celebrated Yahweh’s kingship and authority over all earthy powers, so the Christian community celebrates Jesus’s authority.
Jesus’s ascent is all the more powerful because it follows on the heels of a remarkable descent. Jesus descended to earth in human form and died the lowly death of a criminal at the hand of the state. And, as the Apostolic creed affirms, he went all the way down, descending into hell itself.
After this descent, the ascension of our Lord confirms God’s ultimate power over the greatest powers of the earth: suffering, sin, and death. Because God is the king over all the earth, we must respond to the psalmist’s unrelenting command: “sing praises to God, sing praises; sing praises to our King, sing praises … Sing praises with a psalm!” (Psalm 47:6-7).
Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23
Ephesians proclaims the exalted position of the resurrected Jesus as evidence of God’s power, the same power that is at work in the church.
Like Ephesians 1:3-14, verses 15-23 are one long sentence in Greek. The subject of the sentence shifts seamlessly from thanksgiving for the faith of the Ephesian church to a prayer for their continued enlightenment (v. 16) to a confession of the authority and power God has given to Christ (vv. 19-23).
The recipient church’s reputation for faith (v. 15) does not stop the author from petitioning God that they might increase in knowledge. He prays that God may grant them “a spirit of wisdom and revelation” (v. 17, NRSV). This prayer does not negate the faith the community already has, but reflects a tension that runs throughout the letter, in which the church occupies an exalted state as the body of Christ even as it remains in need of instruction and growth.
Throughout the letter, the author affirms that the church already occupies a high position, at the same time he calls them to attend to their spiritual advancement. On the one hand, the author later describes the church as being seated with Christ in the heavenly places (Ephesians 2:6). (This exalted description of the church is unique in the Pauline corpus and is one-reason scholars think the letter may be written by another author in Paul’s name.) On the other hand, even though it is Christ’s body, the church is instructed about its need to “grow up in every way into him who is the head” (4:15). Thus the image of the church as Christ’s body, which begins in 1:23, should not be taken as a simple equation of Christ and the church. Instead the author suggests that, as Christ’s body, the church needs to continually strive to “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (4:1).
Because of this, the prayer for wisdom and knowledge of verse 17 is not simply a convention of prayer but is a real request that the church may grow in knowledge. The author prays specifically that the church might know three things (vv. 18-19): the hope of their calling; their rich inheritance from God; and the power of God who raised Jesus from the dead and seated him in the heavens. Because the passage falls on Ascension of the Lord Sunday, these comments focus primarily on the third of these petitions.
Although the letter has already raised the topics of the believer’s hope in Christ (Ephesians 1:12) and the inheritance given by God through their adoption as children (1:14), these verses bring a new focus on the church’s knowledge of the power of God. The power of God is seen not only in the resurrection of Jesus (v. 20) but also in what happened after Christ rose from the dead. God seated him in the heavenly places and gave him power over other rulers and authorities (vv. 20-22).
Christ is envisioned as being above all powers. The four words in v. 21 — “rule and authority and power and dominion” — are roughly synonymous. The collection of them here is meant to suggest a power that is all encompassing. Although the power evoked thus supersedes any number of earthly or spiritual powers, the concern of the letter is less about human and political powers and more about spiritual forces. In Ephesians 2:2, the author reminds the audience that they formerly followed “the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient.” This ruler is a force that competes with Christ for human allegiance, which the readers formerly pursued. They know now that Christ triumphs over all forces or authorities that humans might follow.
Although the idols of our modern age differ somewhat from those of antiquity, contemporary readers certainly share in common idols like the pursuit of wealth and status above other considerations, and the arrogance of making one’s group identity superior to any other. Preachers may want to select one of these or some other specific “spiritual power” that the congregation will recognize as competing with their allegiance to God.
The passage thus lends itself to a view of Christ’s ascension as a tenet of the faith from which the church may draw strength. The idols of the world no longer hold sway. Although they certainly may appear powerful from our human perspectives, the reality revealed in Christ is that God has elevated Christ far above all of these other powers, so that allegiance is rightly directed to him.
The call is for the church to “know” God’s power as it is revealed in Christ. This Christ who is above all things is also the head of the church, which is his body (vv. 22-23). The letter goes on to call the church to unity, a unity that is founded on Christ’s reconciling work (Ephesians 2:13-18). Unity is not achieved because the parts of the body are identical. The work of unity is active: the church must build itself up in love (Ephesians 4:16), without eliminating the differences of its members.
The concentrated language about strength and power in verses 19-22 returns in chapter 6 of the letter, where the church is called to “put on the whole armor of God” (Ephesians 6:1; cf. 6:13). In these later verses, the church is portrayed as joining in the struggle against rulers and authorities of the spiritual realm (Ephesians 6:12). Although Christ’s power above all other powers, the church is not to leave the battle to Christ, but participates actively by pursuing truth and peace and faith. In these prefatory remarks of chapter 1, the verses stress the overarching power of God that is visible in Christ, and positions Christ as the head of the body.
Many believers think of Jesus’ ascension like an excuse for Jesus’ absence: because he ascended, Jesus is gone.
Many believers think of Jesus’ ascension like an excuse for Jesus’ absence: because he ascended, Jesus is gone. And although the idea applies simply to Jesus’ physical body, it tends to be associated with broader implications about the divine presence: since Jesus “ascended into heaven,” we on earth remain “left behind.” Bummer.
But this idea does not hold water well in Luke-Acts. First, in Acts 1:1 Luke describes his “first book” as entailing “all the things that Jesus began to do and to teach” (my translation: erxato ho Iesous poiein te kai didaskein). The implication is Jesus has not finished as Luke’s second volume begins. Second, Acts shows a Jesus still engaged with the world by healing (“Aeneas, Jesus Christ heals you,” 9:34), associating with Christ-followers (9:4; 22:7; 26:14), and acting through those who act in his name (3:6, 16; 4:10, 30; 16:18). Certainly, the post-ascension Jesus “acts” in ways much less hands-on, but scattered instances in Acts show a story at odds with a simplified concept of “once Jesus was here, now he’s not.”
What the ascension of Jesus in Luke-Acts signifies has far less to do with geography (Where Jesus is) than with his exaltation (Who Jesus is). Jesus’ ascension firmly establishes him as the Lord and Messiah, exalted at God’s right hand in ways not merely physical (Acts 2:22-36; 3:26; 5:31; 10:40; 13:31-38; cf. 3:21). In short, the ascension of Jesus speaks volumes about who Jesus is, without confining him to house arrest until he returns again.
Today’s Gospel reading takes place the evening of Resurrection Sunday, among an unspecified number of followers (Luke 24:13, 33). At seeing the resurrected Jesus, they shift from terror (v. 38) to “disbelieving and still wondering” (v. 41). And despite various proofs, their “wonderings” do not seem to dissipate drastically (vv. 38-40, 42-43).
Our Gospel reading may be divided into three movements, each with a distinctive theme.
I. The past: The necessity of these things (vv. 44-47)
In the first movement, Jesus reviews the critical events of Luke’s Gospel and deems them necessary fulfillments of scripture. First, he recalls what he earlier taught, that “everything written about me in the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms must be fulfilled” (v. 44). This tripartite description (‘the law of Moses, the prophets, and the psalms’) largely squares with the nascent sense of what constituted Israel’s scriptures at this time.1 Even more, the language of necessity (“must,” dei) is a trait of Luke’s writings, signifying matters that “must” take place for God’s greater purposes.2 Second, Jesus “opened their minds to understand the scriptures” (v. 45). The next verse further specifies this enlightenment:
“Thus it is written, that the Messiah is to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins is to be proclaimed in his name to all nations” (vv. 46-47).
These verses constitute a Reader’s Digest version of how Luke’s Jesus interprets his death, resurrection, and their significance: as the fulfillment of scripture. In these ways, Luke 24:44-47 recalls the highlights of Luke’s Gospel and deems them necessary acts of God’s purposes.
II. The promise: The call to be witnesses (vv. 48-49)
But Luke’s Jesus does not dwell simply on the past. He turns the focus next to his followers: “you are witnesses of these things” (v. 48). Although the language of “witness” may imply merely their experiences as eyewitness, readers familiar with Acts know that being Jesus’ “witnesses” will not be merely a spectator sport. In Acts “witness” is language for the comprehensive call to testify about Jesus to “the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8; 2:32; 3:15; 5:32; 10:39; 13:31; 22:15, 20; 26:16).
Even more, in Luke 24:49 Jesus pledges “what my Father promised,” which will allow them to be “clothed with power from on high.” Though these words alone are unclear, elsewhere Luke’s writings imply that Jesus here envisions the coming of the Spirit (Luke 11:13; 12:11-12; Acts 1:4-8), who will enable the apostles to bear witness effectively (Luke 4:18-19; 12:11-12; Acts 4:31). The upshot of this promise is the capacity to be Jesus’ witnesses in every way that it is called for
III. “While You Wait”: The call in the meantime (vv. 50-53)
The final movement of our text features the main event of the liturgical day: Jesus’ Ascension. Unique to this version of the event is the prominence of “blessing.” First, while Jesus ascends he blesses his followers, a point doubly emphasized (vv. 50, 51). Second, after worshiping and returning to Jerusalem, his followers are “continually in the temple blessing God” (v. 53), causing Luke’s Gospel to both begin and end with prayer and worship at Israel’s chief sanctuary (1:10; 24:53). In fact, the phrase “blessing God” (eulogountes ton theon) is the Third Gospel’s final word in more ways than one. This colorful “blessing” and worship language (vv. 50-51, 53) gives the narrative ending an atmosphere of worship and mutual blessing, which constitutes the closing word of Luke’s Gospel.
How the Third Gospel ends implies how Jesus’ followers are to live: worshiping God, waiting on Jesus’ promises, and doing so “with great joy” (v. 52). Although today’s New Testament reading (Acts 1:1-11) points out that Jesus’ followers will not long remain in Jerusalem (1:8), it also redirects them from idleness to faithful waiting: “why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus … will come in the same way as you saw him go” (v. 11). Together, Luke 24:50-53 and Acts 1:9-11 offer a model for waiting on God that is rooted in hope, experienced with joy, and lived out by worship.
1 But the third category (“the psalms”) is typically “the writings” (cf. Sirach’s prologue, 4QMMT 95).
2 See, for example, Luke 2:49; 4:43; 9:22; 13:14, 33; 17:25; 21:9; 22:37; 24:7, 26; also Acts 3:21; 4:12; 19:21; 23:11.