Tag Archives: Ascension gospel

A curious detail about Matthew’s Ascension gospel

May 22, 2020

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The Ascension is entirely absent in Matthew’s gospel. All of the details of the other accounts (Mk 16:19; Lk 24:51; Acts 1:9) receive no mention. There is no cloud, no lifting up, no vanishing from their sight, and no enthronement of Jesus at God’s right hand. This oddity is no oversight. It is not an error or a mistake.

Matthew did not leave out the Ascension because he did not know about it. He was there with the other apostles when it took place. Matthew used the gospel of Mark as a resource when he wrote his own gospel, and Mark specifically mentioned the Ascension in his conclusion (Mk 16:19). This glaring omission is intentional, something Matthew did with a purpose in mind.

Matthew’s gospel ends with the Great Commissioning. Jesus sent the Eleven to do three specific things: to make disciples of all nations, to baptize new believers, and to teach people to observe all that he had commanded.

From the time that Jesus delivered his commissioning until the time that Matthew composed his gospel, over fifty years had elapsed. Matthew could look back and see the enormous hardship associated with these three orders. The disciples were supposed to reach out to all nations, except this would involve traveling, and traveling was dangerous. By land, there were long walks over difficult terrain. They were exposed to sun, wind, and rain. Sometimes there was searing heat, other times chilling cold. They were vulnerable to thieves and bandits. They had to deal with hunger, thirst, and fatigue. Nighttime accommodations were unfamiliar and often inadequate. By sea, there were storms, pirates, and shipwrecks.

Once the disciples arrived at their destination, they were supposed to make disciples, except this, too, was an extremely formidable task. The disciples needed to learn the local language and customs. They were foreigners and faced fierce resistance from the townsfolk who were tightly knit and usually excluded outsiders. The local residents had their own religious beliefs which they held strongly, and many were unwilling to consider a change.

The disciples were supposed to baptize new believers. These baptisms posed a serious problem. Some converted and were baptized, others did not. When one person in a family accepted baptism, the other family members who refused to convert often became enraged, not only at the family member who was baptized and had abandoned their family’s religious tradition, but also at the person who performed the baptism. The disciples were persecuted for performing baptisms, and in a number of cases it led to torture and martyrdom.

Finally, the disciples were supposed to teach the people to observe all that Jesus commanded. The gospel was an entirely new concept that was welcomed by some but bitterly opposed by others. Often the disciples were ridiculed for their teaching. Many days their audiences were small and their results meager. Their mission to preach the gospel could be very discouraging.

For Matthew, the last thing he wanted was for Jesus to ascend and be far removed from his disciples. As they were about to undertake their commission, they needed Jesus to be their daily companion, their guide and helper, and a constant source of strength and courage. So instead of the absence of Jesus associated with the Ascension, Matthew chose to highlight Jesus’ promise to remain with his disciples always. The last word of his gospel is “Behold, I am with you always, until the end of the age” (Mt 28:20): now, wherever we are, wherever we go, whatever we do, Jesus is always present, never to leave, at our side for all our days.

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