Open Up the Heavens (2): The Center of Luke's Writings

“But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God...And he told them, ‘Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!’” - Acts 7:55-56 (NLT)

In the second post of this blog series entitled "Open Up the Heavens," we're continuing to look at the doctrine of the ascension as it is found in Scripture. In the previous post we looked at the ascension as "The Prophetic Vision of the Psalms" and focused on Psalm 24. In this post we're looking at how the writer Luke seems to have placed the ascension at the center of his two-volume work, Luke-Acts.

At some point in my journey of discoveries about the ascension, I came across an obscure little footnote for a journal article written in 1980 by Kenneth Wolfe. The title of the article was “The Chiastic Structure of Luke-Acts and Some Implications for Worship.” Immediately I was intrigued and went to the theological library at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology. There I found and printed off the article. It was another piece of evidence I would collect and chew on in my discoveries of the riches of the ascension.

According to Wolfe, the ascension is at the center of Luke’s two-volume work. The movement of the Gospel of Luke is toward Jerusalem and the ascension, and the movement of the book of Acts is outward from Jerusalem and the ascension to Judea and Samaria, and eventually to Rome. Here is the outline of Luke-Acts as Wolfe describes it:

A Birth of Jesus in the Context of World History and Roman rule (Luke 1-2)
B Jesus in Galilee (Luke 3-8)
C Jesus in Samaria and Judea (Luke 9-18)
D Jesus in Jerusalem (Luke 18-23)
E Jesus’ Ascension from the Mount of Olives (Luke 24 & Acts 1)
D’ Church in Jerusalem (Acts 2-7)
C’ Church in Judea and Samaria (Acts 8-9)
B’ Church throughout the Gentile World (Acts 10-20)
A’ Preaching of the Gospel by Paul extends as far as Rome (Acts 21-28)

This outline and perspective on Luke-Acts seemed so utterly clear. I remembered from seminary that whatever is at the center of a chiasm is very important to the author. Thus, if Luke had this chiastic structure in mind when he wrote his two-volume work, and if he placed the ascension at the center of this chiasm, then the ascension, for Luke, was of great importance

Think about it this way. As an author, Luke has placed the ascension at the center of his body of work that represents roughly one-quarter of the New Testament writings. That is significant! In light of that, why is it that the ascension has become such a neglected biblical subject? In what is commonly known as the “travel narrative," Luke begins with the following statement:

As the time drew near for him to ascend to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:10).

Interestingly, even though Luke makes it clear that Jesus’ reason for traveling to Jerusalem is so that he can ascend to heaven, commentators will go right to the cross and the resurrection and gloss over the ascension.

Another key passage in discerning the flow and movement of Luke's writings is found in the book of Acts just before Stephen is martyred:

But Stephen, full of the Holy Spirit, gazed steadily into heaven and saw the glory of God, and he saw Jesus standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand. And he told them, “Look, I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing in the place of honor at God’s right hand!” (Acts 8:55, 56)

Thus, the last thing Stephen saw was the ascended Jesus standing at the right hand of the Father. After this event, the church scattered. These two passages (Luke 9:51 and Acts 8:55, 56) are important mile-markers in the overall flow and movement of Luke-Acts. For Luke, the ascension was what Jesus had on his mind as he set out for Jerusalem, and the ascended Jesus was who Stephen saw before the church spread out from Jerusalem. Clearly, Jerusalem and the ascension were important for Luke, theologically and geographically.

I believe the Mount of Olives was also an important geographic location. It is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus descends into Jerusalem at what is known as his “triumphal entry.” And it is from the Mount of Olives that Jesus ascends to heaven. When all of this is coupled with a statement by the prophet Zechariah, an interesting detail about the future emerges:

Then the Lord will go out to fight against those nations, as he has fought in times past. On that day his feet will stand on the Mount of Olives, east of Jerusalem (Zechariah 14:3, 4).

This is part of an eschatological chapter in the book of Zechariah speaking of the day when the Lord will rule the earth. This is most likely a chapter describing the new heavens and the new earth. And it seems to reveal that when the Lord returns, he will descend upon the Mount of Olives. This is not too far fetched when one remembers what the two white-robed men said to the disciples as they watched Jesus ascend:

“Men of Galilee,” they said, “why are you standing here staring into heaven? Jesus has been taken from you into heaven, but someday he will return from heaven in the same way you saw him go!” (Acts 2:11)

I am not one to take eschatological language too literally, but this seems pretty clear. Thus, it is quite possible that when our Lord returns to make all things new, he is going to come back to this specific geographic location, the Mount of Olives.

In the next post we will look at the ascension as "The Hopeful Orientation of the Apostles."


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