Ascension: The Locus of Atonement in Hebrews

David Moffitt made his mark on the world of biblical studies with his impressive dissertation Atonement and the Logic of Resurrection in the Epistle to the Hebrews.” In it, he argues against the long-standing viewpoint that Jesus’ resurrection plays little role in the soteriology of the book of Hebrews. Most modern scholars have seen the crucifixion, through the lens of a sacrificial typology, as the primary place and moment of Jesus’ atoning work. Moffitt largely builds on the work of Old Testament scholars who have proven that 1) the atonement accomplished by blood offerings like Yom Kippur were not focused on the actual slaughter of the animal but on the presentation/sprinkling of the blood and that 2) the blood represents the life of the sacrifice and not its death. Thus, using a typology of Yom Kippur, Jesus’ sacrifice triggers a series of events that leads to atonement, but is itself not sufficient or primary in the accomplishment of atonement. Moffitt uses these conclusions to argue for the primacy and importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews (see a good summary and review here).

While I think Moffitt is largely on the right track and much of his exegetical work on Hebrews is incredibly important, I can’t help but wonder if there is a glaring flaw in his conclusion. That is, Jesus’ bodily resurrection does not guarantee or accomplish atonement (in Hebrews itself or in Moffitt’s reading of Hebrews). It is the ascension of the bodily resurrected Christ into Heaven which does this – as he presents his blood in the actual Holy of Holies. A post-crucifixion embodied life is certainly necessary for this, but is itself just an event in the process which leads to the atonement. A resurrected Jesus, still walking around on earth, has not truly accomplished atonement according to the typology utilized in the book of Hebrews. At many points, Moffitt seems to recognize and appreciate this, yet it never seems to make a big enough impression to truly shape his conclusion.

I preached a sermon series last year on the doctrine of the Ascension, a doctrine that is mind-bogglingly  overlooked by many churches and theologians. Western churches and theologians usually tack the Ascension on as an afterthought to the Resurrection (at best), without giving thought to the specific theological work that it accomplishes and continues to accomplish in the theo-drama of God’s redemptive plan through Christ and the Spirit.  As I studied and prepared for the series, I realized how little I knew about the biblical and theological significance of the Ascension and, even more sadly, how little significant scholarship has been written about it.

However, Hebrews stands out among all of our canonical literature as exalting the Ascension as the praiseworthy and effectual moment of atonement. In fact, the data made me go back and listen to a sermon series I preached through the book of Hebrews years before and, to my embarrassment, I practically overlooked (or downplayed) the endless references to the Ascension. Like the scholars Moffitt critiques, my attention was so focused on the crucifixion (largely because of a poor understanding of the levitical sacrificial system) that I could hardly muster the cognitive or theological energy to look anywhere else.

Now, however, not only do I see the importance of the resurrection in the book of Hebrews – I also see the locus of atonement as happening in heaven at the time of the ascension. Why do we give so little attention to the  ascension as opposed to the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus? Maybe because it is more theological and metaphysical? Maybe because we’ve overlooked its importance in the Scriptures? Regardless, I can no longer deny this truth: THE ASCENSION MATTERS. While the incarnation, life and ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus are all vitally important to God’s work of salvation and to our faith – the ascension must be understood as equally important and praiseworthy.

What do you think?

Have you noticed a tendency in churches or theology to overlook or downplay the importance of Jesus’ ascension?
If so, why do you think that is?

Do you agree that perhaps there is more biblical and theological weight put on the work of Jesus’ ascension than is often recognized?

Where else, other than Hebrews, might we be downplaying the importance of the ascension in the canonical literature?

Wise Words from Amma Theodora

One of my goals in life is to do my part in making the Desert Mothers well-known among the church.  I love studying early Christianity, but it is incredibly frustrating that there is so little written or said about women in the early church.  I didn’t know about these women, also known as ammas (spiritual mothers who lived the life of an ascetic), until a few semesters ago when my Greek class was working through Whitacre’s A Patristic Greek Reader.  There are seven lines of Greek attributed to Theodora… only seven… the rest of the reader contains texts written by (or attributed to) men. I have found it difficult to find more than a handful of articles or books on the Desert Mothers–maybe I’m just not looking in the right places?  Whitacre’s Greek reader is a great text and serves as a good introduction to some of the writings of the early church, I only wish he had included more writings/sayings ascribed to (or about) women.  My hope is that we will find more texts authored by women, but for now at least we do have the Desert Mothers and the sayings ascribed to them.

There are three ammas with contributions in the Apophthegemata Patrum (Sayings of the Fathers): Sarah, Syncletia, and (my personal favorite) Theodora.  Though you can count all her recorded sayings on two hands, Amma Theodora had a knack for saying a lot in only a few words and there are two sayings that are particular favorites of mine.  The first is on the Resurrection (from Laura Swan’s The Forgotten Desert Mothers, page 70):

Another of the old ascetics questioned Amma Theodora saying, “At the resurrection of the dead, how shall we rise?”  She said, “As pledge, example, and as prototype we have him who died for us and is risen, Christ our God.”

The second saying is on a teacher’s character (Swan, page 67):

The same Amma said that a teacher ought to be a stranger to the desire for domination, vainglory, and pride.  A teacher should not be fooled by flattery, nor be blinded by gifts, conquered by the stomach, nor dominated by anger.  A teacher should be patient, gentle and humble as far as possible; successfully tested and without partisanship, full of concern, and a lover of souls.

In the age of celebrity preachers–and celebrity scholars!–Theodora offers a wise warning to those of us seeking to be teachers in a world which so often tempts us to seek flattery and power.

I’d like to introduce you to some of the other Desert Mothers in the future so stay tuned.  Also, I would be most happy if anyone would pass along any books and articles about the Desert Mothers or other early Christian women of which you are aware.

The Right Hand of God…Bringing Glory

The blog has been slow the past week, but I have a good excuse…no really, I do.

Last week my right hand had an unfortunate encounter with the car door. I’ll spare you the details and pictures (if you are one of those disappointed right now, you need help!), but today is the first day that typing anything longer than a simple email is even on the radar.

Though the blog was inactive last week, our study of Hebrews was not. We discussed how as the  ‘one-for-all’ sacrifice Jesus Christ brings salvation – what we called the ‘it is finished’ portion of Hebrews. Christ’s death, his sacrifice, his blood put away sin completely, perfecting those who are children (10:14,18). Our guilt has been put away for forever and we can live in full assurance that was is finished cannot be unfinished.

This weeks study moves from the ‘one-for-all’ sacrifice to Jesus being present at the right of God. Hebrews is sometimes accused of lacking a clear view of the resurrection. While it does heavily focus on the sacrifice (the cross), one of the ways Hebrews employs resurrection language is the phrase – the right hand of God (Hebrews 1:3; 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2  – just a note it is said different ways but all pointing to same reality).

The phrase is popular in the OT, especially Psalms, and draws to mind many different images. Hebrews will use these images, but its ultimate point is  to leave us in awe of Christ. The question is:

Is the presence of this Jesus,

the living king who reigns in power,

intercedes in tenderness,

and is enthroned in majesty,

a reality in your life?

Not theoretically, as in yes I believe that, but reality, as in I walk in that, this reality shapes my existence.

 1. Expected – We all have those things we see coming (retirement, graduation, marriage, children, empty nest, etc.), they are out there and in many cases we even know when they will get here. And even though we can anticipate and plan for them we are still scared, unsure, “Can I do this?”

2. Unexpected – When life hands us a surprise , the things we can’t see coming and most often should be thankful we don’t. It can be negative loss of a job, loss of a loved one, severe illness or injury…but it can also be an unexpected blessing – financial, miracle (in our case our third child is our unexpected blessing!).

3. Ultimate – We will all die, do you trust God will be there at death? Do you trust God to be there as you grow old, to prepare the way for you to meet him face-to-face? Or do you cling to every new promise of the fountain of youth?

To believe Christ is at the right hand of God ruling, interceding, and enthroned reminds us he is in charge. Reminds us that wherever we are going, whether it is expected, unexpected, or ultimate, he is already there…preparing our way to glory. One of the greatest quests of our spiritual life is to see God this way and to stand in awe of him. To believe that our God is bringing his children home, bringing us to glory (2:10).

It all reminds me of the words of the familiar hymn – whatever my lot, thou hast taught me to say – It is well with my soul!



A God who Raises the Dead!

I am writing my thesis on Galatians. There are various reasons why this book captivated me enough to decide to spend 3+ years researching and writing on it…and one of the main reasons is the opening verse:

Galatians 1:1 – Paul, an apostle – not from men nor through men, but through Jesus Christ and God our Father who raised him from the dead…

This is the only explicit mention of the resurrection in Galatians and many assume that the resurrection has no real part in the trajectory of Galatians. But its importance does not come from the number of times it is mentioned, rather from its placement. Paul’s first point, as he tries to convince the Galatians that there is only one gospel, is that God raises Jesus from the dead.

For those of us who grew up in church and have heard this in sermons, seen it in passion plays, spoke it through songs this is not all that surprising…but it does not mean it is any less amazing. Just take a moment wherever you are reading and say these words out loud, “God raised Jesus from the dead.” He was not asleep, he was not just buried in a tomb, he was dead…and God RAISED HIM FROM THE DEAD!

For Paul, however, it does not stop there:

Ephesians 2:4-6 – But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved – and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus.

All those saved by the grace of God have been made alive! This is not something we have to wait for, it is something we have right now in Christ Jesus. The God who raised Jesus from the dead has made us alive together with Christ! Do it one more time, wherever you are say this out loud, “I am alive with Christ!”

In Galatians, Paul is facing disappointment and even anger over their decision to turn to another gospel. His first response is to lean on God’s ability to raise the dead. The gospel he believes and preaches requires this – to be brought from dead to life, from dead to alive requires a God who can raise the dead.

I do not know the problems facing you, nor do I know the way God will choose to comfort you in them and deliver you from them…but like Paul I do believe that we worship a God who raises the dead. No matter your situation this is the truth of the gospel. The God who empowers the gospel is a God who raises the dead.

Let us trust in that promise!