Ascension of Our Lord

We cannot apprehend God

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May 13, 2021

Second Reading
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Commentary on Ephesians 1:15-23

The knowledge of the risen and ascended Jesus involves more than adopting a baseless belief in an assortment of factoids about a mythical Messiah who makes his grand exit from earth by floating away into the clouds forever to play his harp next to weird winged baby angels, wielding inexplicable bows and arrows. 

The ascension refers to the real event of the assumption of the physically risen Lord from the dead into his place of power, rule, and reign in heaven, seated at the right hand of God. It is the fulfillment of the God who has “gone up with a shout” (Psalm 47:5; Acts 1:9) to reign over all nations as king from the holy throne (Psalms 47:7-8; 93:3). But, if we’re honest, to the contemporary reader in a post-Christian culture—a culture which, even in the Church, is prone to skepticism and the demythologization of the miraculous in search of a timeless kernel of generic religious truth—the real version of the ascension is almost as difficult to grasp onto as the cloud-riding, flying-child cherub version of pop culture Christian art. And, today’s reading in Ephesians actually affirms this tension, even as it provides us with the inspired apostolic instruction through which we can affirm the—humanly speaking— unbelievable events of the ascension by means of the revelatory and relational apocalypse of Jesus Christ. 

Let me explain what I mean by the phrase “revelatory and relational apocalypse of Jesus Christ.” In Ephesians 1:17, Paul, encouraged by the faith and love of the Christians at Ephesus, prays that “the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, might give to you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him.” Paul’s prayer is that the hope of the gospel, and the glory and power of the ascended Lord might come to light in the experience of the church as the body of Christ (Ephesians 1:18-23). This prayer is revelatory and relational; it is rooted in the apocalyptic work of the Spirit in believers as the eyes of their hearts are enlightened by the wisdom and relational knowledge that is provided for human beings by God alone. 

There is, as the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard has argued, an “infinite qualitative distinction” between God and every other object of knowing. This is why we cannot simply provide “evidence” from Scripture and expect a post-Christian society that is (in many ways, justifiably) skeptical of institutional Christianity to simply believe on the basis of reason’s response to the testimony of the word of God. According to human reason, the incarnation, the bodily resurrection, and the ascension are nonsense. They are, as Paul has said in 1 Corinthians 1-2, “foolishness” to those who are perishing because “[t]he person without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:14). 

What is required, then, to tap into the formative potential of the truth of the real event of the ascension is not a higher human IQ or a more comprehensive and creative form of demythologization. Both the ivory tower academic and the best student of Bultmann cannot bridge the chasm caused by the infinite qualitative distinction between the spiritual knowledge of God and the epistemological apprehension of every other knowable object. We cannot apprehend God; we must be apprehended by God. The glory, power, and hope of the gospel comes to us not by natural reasoning but by supernatural revelation, not by acquisition but by apocalypse. 

This is what Paul means when he prays that God might give us a spirit of “revelation in the knowledge of him.” The word rendered “revelation” is apokalypsis in the original Greek, from which we get the well-known word ‘apocalypse’ in English. But, while this word is often associated with the end of the world (for example, “the apocalypse is coming”), it more literally refers to a secret which is being unveiled and a truth which shines into us from the outside. The knowledge of God’s truth cannot be reached by human effort; it must break in from above through a divine revelation. Elsewhere, in Galatians, Paul reveals that this is the way the gospel came to him. Paul the pre-Christian Pharisee did not desire to worship Christ. He was not genuinely seeking to exercise faith in Christ; rather, he was persecuting the church and zealously seeking to execute Christians. Paul recounts his conversion, noting that he did not receive the gospel “from any man” nor was he “taught it” but that he received it “through a revelation [or “apocalypse”] of Jesus Christ” (Galatians 1:12). 

Paul continues in verse 17, noting that this apocalyptic revelation invades the recalcitrant and so-called reasonable human heart “in the knowledge of him.” While the translation “in” is a fine rendering of the Greek preposition en, it is rather generic, and doesn’t yield much illuminating information. It makes it seem like Paul is praying that we’d gain an assortment of facts about Jesus by means of which our hope will be deepened. Yet, while theological education is essential, Paul views factual knowledge as penultimate in the quest for spiritual growth. The ultimate purpose of that kind of knowing is, by the Spirit, to bridge the chasm of the infinite qualitative distinction, and to grow in the relational knowledge of Christ himself. Thus, a better gloss (albeit a paraphrase) for the phrase en epignōsei autou is “by means of relationally coming to know him personally.” Our faith is confirmed and strengthened, not merely by knowing about him, but by using that knowledge as a trampoline to leap over the chasm of unknowing and unbelief into the authenticating embrace and personal, familial knowledge and presence of God. And, as we leap, we recognise that on the other side, the fullness of our faith, confidence, hope, desires, and future is founded upon our inclusion in Christ’s body, the Church, which is the fullness of him who fills all in all (Ephesians 1:23).