I was recently at a hilltop Ascension Day picnic with some friends from church in advance of the 7 p.m. Mass, and one of the older children (middle school–aged) was having trouble recalling where the Ascension story was told. We had read it aloud from the book of Acts. “But,” he said, “I think it’s also at the end of Luke.”
“That’s right,” I piped up. “Hey J., why do you think Luke tells the Ascension story twice?”
He responded that it probably had something to do with the centrality of the Resurrection for our lives — which was an impressive response. He then asked me why I thought Luke told it twice, and I said something about Luke wanting to begin his second volume where he left off (“last time on Luke-Acts”). The real answer, which I should have given, is that it has everything to do with 40 days, which has everything to do with Pentecost.
So, here’s the answer that I should have given on the hilltop.
Pentecost was originally a Jewish festival. It takes its name from occurring 50 days after a feast called the “raising of the sheaf (Heb. ‘omer)” (Lev. 23:9–22) — not necessarily 50 days after Passover. In Hebrew, it is called the feast of weeks (Heb. Shavu‘ot), because you count seven weeks (plus one day) from the raising of the sheaf. Passover and Pentecost remained closely connected, nonetheless.
Although Pentecost probably began as an agricultural festival, for many Jews at the time of Jesus, Pentecost had become identified as the day on which Moses received the Law at Sinai — hence, it was understood as a covenant renewal festival. Passover underwent a similar transformation, being mapped onto the timing of the Exodus. Together, Passover-Pentecost were a retelling of the Exodus-Sinai narrative.
I think Luke knew this tradition. When Jesus ascends after 40 days of resurrection appearances, this links him with Moses, who ascended Mount Sinai and spent 40 days there before receiving the entirety of the law written by the hand of God (Ex. 24:18).
I know what you’re thinking: the parallel isn’t quite right. Moses ascends and spends 40 days on the mountain before receiving the heavenly tablets; Jesus spends 40 days on earth and then ascends to heaven. I agree that this is a good objection. One thing to consider is that Jesus’ death, according to Luke, constitutes the beginning of the New Covenant in his blood (Luke 22:20). Like Moses, Jesus initiates a covenant with blood (cf. Ex. 24:6) and then spends 40 days completing/explicating what this means (cf. Ex. 24:18). So, I grant you that the parallel isn’t perfect. That’s in part because we’re dealing with (at root) historical events. If the parallel were exactly perfect, some people might think the early Church just made it up. As it is, Luke seems to be doing the best he can with the historical details that he has heard.
But there’s still another objection: Moses ascends the mountain, receives the law, and then comes back down; Jesus ascends but does not come back down from heaven. Luke clearly anticipates this objection. He knows that Jewish Christians would expect a covenant renewal on Pentecost. They may even expect a figure like Jesus to appear. And, he does — the surprise is, it’s not Jesus: it’s the Holy Spirit.
Jesus takes the road up the mountain, the Spirit takes the road down. Both enact one leg of Moses’ journey. With the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, Luke might say: “the road up and the road down are one and the same.” But how is this possible? One answer is that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were originally very closely identified by many early Christian authors, including Paul and Luke. John says something similar by calling both Jesus and the Spirit the “Advocate” (1 John 2:1; John 14:16), the Father’s coordinated mediators on earth. You’ll notice there’s a subtle Trinitarian pressure here as well: the second person of the Trinity ascends, the third person of the Trinity descends. They are both the same entity (Gr. ousia) — as Moses remains the same — but different in role (Gr. prosōpon), just as Moses differed in glory and mission when he descended from the mountain. (Admittedly, Luke is not talking in fourth-century Trinitarian terms yet, but the “pressures” are there.)
There’s one remaining difference: Moses makes his covenant through the law, the Spirit descends to renew the covenant, as Luke’s Peter says, through baptism, the “promise,” and the free “gift” (Acts 2:38–39). According to Luke’s Paul, the law of Moses is not able to justify — this only happens through faith (Acts 13:38–39). John the Evangelist echoes this sentiment, noting: “the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came to be through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17). What might it mean for Luke to liken the giving of the Spirit to the giving of the Law?
This is not the time to rehearse E.P. Sanders’s famous discussion of the various ways of “getting in” and “staying in” in Jewish and Christian covenant theology; suffice it to say that there are real differences between Rabbinic Judaism and Christianity on this point. The New Covenant doesn’t involve keeping the old law in its entirety, but this doesn’t mean that its renewal lacks “new commandments” (John 13:34) nor that certain aspects of the old law are in continuity with the gospel of the Spirit (Paul can speak of the “law of Christ”; see Gal. 6:2; cf. Rom 13:8). According to Luke’s vision, requiring Gentile converts to Christianity to keep certain parts of the law — parts which had been binding before Sinai — did not contradict the message of salvation through Jesus’ name (see Acts 15:20).
Are you still with me, J.? If so, let’s not stop at seven points (the traditional number of spiritual gifts), but move on to one final question (the number eight, after all, was venerated by many Christians for its baptismal symbolism and connection with the eighth eschatological day — Sunday). How do we know Luke was thinking about any of this? Why should we think his account of Pentecost had Sinai or covenant renewal in mind?
Although we can’t be certain, I’d say there’s pretty strong evidence that Luke was thinking along these lines in his description of the coming of the Holy Spirit. First, Luke says that at the coming of the Spirit, there was a great “sound” (Gr. ēchos) from heaven (Acts 2:2); similarly, when God descended on Sinai, he came with the “sound” (Gr. ēchei) of a trumpet (Ex. 19:16). Second, the Spirit appears in Luke in tongues “as of fire” (Gr. pyros; Acts 2:3); the theophany on Sinai is likewise described as God’s descent “in fire” (Gr. pyri; Ex. 19:18). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, at Pentecost the Spirit revealed himself to people in different tongues (Gr. glōssais; Acts 2:4); similarly, the coming of God on Sinai was accompanied by thunder peals, or in Hebrew and Greek, “voices” (Gr. phōnai; Ex. 19:16, 19). Although the Greek words aren’t identical here, we know that ancient Jews understood the “voices” of Sinai as “languages,” thus sealing the connection between Pentecost as a second Sinai for Luke. In one later tradition, a Rabbi even suggests that God gave Torah at Sinai in 70 languages, offering it to every nation on the earth (only Israel took him up on the deal). Clearly, the preaching of the Gospel to Jews of every tongue — and the missionary horizon of Acts to the ends of the earth — relates to this tradition of Torah spoken in every language (and “for the entire world”) at Sinai.
So, why does Luke tell the Ascension story twice? Because of Pentecost. Luke needs the Ascension in Acts, and the 40 days highlights there the Mosaic typology. Passover/Ascension and Pentecost represent two movements — the upward and the downward — of Luke’s “new Sinai,” the initiation and ratification of Christ’s new covenant. Without the Ascension, Pentecost makes no sense. According to Luke, the sound of the Spirit in the upper room echoes the descent of God on Sinai and draws all believers into the fullness of their baptisms “with the Holy Spirit and with Fire.”
Who knew that the little hill we were sitting on two Thursdays ago — and the cloud that overshadowed it — were a reminder that we too are a covenant people?