Only John Witnessed the Ascension Twice
As far as I can tell, there’s only one apostle that had the privilege of seeing the ascension twice, at two different times in his life, and from two different points of view: John, the “disciple that Jesus loved” (John 21:7).
By “the ascension” I mean that moment in history when Jesus ascended to heaven and was enthroned at the right hand of the Father. Jesus prophecies about this event multiple times in his ministry (for example, in John 2:19), and he gives his disciples a good bit of detail about the matter in his farewell speech to them in John 14-17. The epistles will spend a good bit of time talking about the theological significance of this key event in redemptive history (prime of place goes to Phil. 2:5-11 and Hebrews 2:5ff). But none of the Gospels show us the event. It’s not until Acts 1 that we get to watch the eyes of the Eleven follow their master Jesus rising into the heavens (Acts 1:9).
John was there. He watched from his terrestrial perch, and eventually Jesus disappeared behind a cloud, and John’s eyes were not strong enough to see more than that.
And then, sometime later, Jesus gave John a different perch.
A Heavenly View
The next spot we need to go is Revelation 5. Take a look. It may not be immediately obvious that this chapter is about the ascension, that it describes the same events that Luke describes in Acts 1. After all, John is many decades older than he was in Acts 1 when he sees the things he sees in Revelation 5. And Revelation, we know, is about things that will happen in the future, not things that have happened in the past, right?
Sort of. Certainly the vision that John experiences–the vision that constitutes the book of Revelation (Rev 1:9)–is something that takes place long after the events of Acts 1. But it is not necessarily the case that the vision is of an event that takes place after Acts 1. That is, John may be seeing the past, not the future. In fact, there are several instances in Revelation that must be about the past (from John’s perspective). For example, the woman of Revelation 12 gives birth to a male child who is taken up into heaven and becomes the King of the universe. Can this be a description of anything other than the birth of Jesus? And surely this child being “caught up” to God is yet another description of the ascension (12:5)? Revelation is not primarily about the future; Revelation is about how the past affects the future. Or, more particularly, Revelation is about the future implications of the ascension of Jesus.
And the first time that the ascension is presented is Revelation 5. Actually, Revelations 5 is about the entirety of human history up to and including the ascension. Take another look. The problem or tension that this narrative addresses is the search for one worthy to open the scroll. What is this scroll? Why is this scroll so important? You need to know a bit about Ezekiel and Isaiah and Daniel for it all to fit together, but if you’ve read those prophets it’s not particularly mysterious. This scroll represents the plan of God; it’s Father’s blueprint for making all things work together for His glory and the world’s good. The problem: no one is found worthy to read and execute that plan. There’s no king who will follow God. A worldwide search has been conducted; all of Adam’s children have been scrutinized. None are found worthy. The plan of God for the good of the world cannot be executed, for it was always designed to be implemented by a Son of Adam, and neither Adam nor his sons are able to do this thing.
But lo! A new King comes forward! This one is a lion, but also a lamb slaughtered for atonement. This one is worthy. Worthy to do what? To reign. To reign as King, to execute the plan of God, to bring about the glorification of the world and the judgement of all the children of Adam.
Two Points of View
Revelation 5 is the “other side” of the ascension. It’s what happens after Jesus passes through that cloud that obscures the disciples vision. It is that moment when Jesus sits at the seat promised to Adam, but which Adam abrogated. It is the seat promised to David, but David was, in the end, not worthy to occupy. “The Lord said to my Lord” (Matt. 22:44); David himself looked for the one who would be worthy to sit on the throne that God promised to David.
John saw the ascension twice. The first time he saw it looking up from the earth, and Jesus rose into the clouds, and his vision of the coronation was thus obscured. The second time he was taken up into the heavens, and he saw Jesus come up from the earth, and enthroned at the right hand of the Father.
And then Jesus opened the scroll.