One of the main tenets of Jesus’ life is that after his death and resurrection, he left the disciples and went ascended to heaven where God the Father was. The ascension is amazing considering nobody else did it (though Elijah did go up in a whirlwind to heaven [2Kings 2.11]).
But why did Jesus go up in a cloud? Was it just so he could return in the same way (Acts 1.11)? Did it prove his divinity in any sort of way? Was it a neat trick, or did it actually do something for believers? (For a connection with YHWH’s divinity, read here).
L. Michael Morales has an answer. In newest volume of the NSBT series, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord? (my review here), Morales presents a biblical theology of… Leviticus, a word that strikes fear into the heart just as a drill brings pain to a tooth. Yet this book is far from boring (really!).
Israel had a deep hope and pleasure to “dwell in the house of YHWH forever” (Ps 23.6) because it is in God’s house where he gives them “drink from the river of [his] pleasures” (Ps 36.8-9). Morales understands the “rivers of pleasure” to be an allusion to Eden’s river of life (Gen 2.10; Rev 22.1-2).
Israel longs to dwell in the house of God and, ultimately, to behold YHWH himself (Ps 16.9-11; 26.8; cf. 2 Cor 3.18). Dwelling with YHWH is the one thing the psalmist asks for in Ps 27.4:
One thing have I asked of the Lord,
that will I seek after:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord
and to inquire in his temple.
But how is this possible? How can Israel wish to ascend the mountain of God when only Israel’s High Priest could enter into God’s Presence in the Holy of Holies?
Considering that only the high priest had been allowed entrance in to the holy of holies within the tabernacle and later temple, how is it songs could be sung [by all of Israel] about dwelling in YHWH’s house ‘for ever’ and ‘all the days of my life’? (19).
Psalm 24.3 asks, Who shall ascend the hill of YHWH? And who shall stand in his holy place?
And similarly, Psalm 25.1, O Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?
Morales says that the dominating concern of Leviticus and of the entire Bible is how humanity will dwell in the house of God. In Gen 28.12, Jacob sees a vision of the “angels of God” who “were ascending and descending” on a ladder that stretched from earth to heaven. It represented “earthly access to God’s heavenly abode,” the place the builders of the Tower of Babel wanted to reach. Now God is reaching down to Jacob and promising him offspring, land, and that he, YHWH, would be with him (Lev 26.12; 2 Cor 6.16b; Rev 21.3).
“What Jacob saw was the spiritual archetype of the temple [in Leviticus] — its inner reality and function as the connection between heaven and earth” (162). John 1.14 says, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt [tabernacled] among us.” In John 2.21, Jesus was “speaking about the temple of his body” when he spoke of his resurrection.
We can see both of these themes in John 1.49-51,
Nathanael answered him, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God! You are the King of Israel!” Jesus answered him, “Because I said to you, ‘I saw you under the fig tree,’ do you believe? You will see greater things than these.” And he said to him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”
It is through Jesus that the Levitical tabernacle, the place where God’s people met God, would transfigured into a person (Jn 4.20-24).
And the Ascension?
After showing the broad themes and structure of Leviticus, Morales shows how its theology of meeting God points to Christ.
“The advent of Christ would open a new and living way into the house of God; indeed, that was the goal of his taking our humanity upon himself, of his suffering, of his resurrection and ascension” (20).
And wouldn’t you know it, but Jesus’ ascension brought him up to God. For Morales, the theology of Leviticus is about “dwelling with God in the house of God, and how that reality is finally made possible” (20). The reality of the Levitical cultus, the tabernacle (and later Temple), the sacrifices, the rituals, etc, were all divinely given so that Israel could meet God, become holy, and be a light to the nations. We now have this in Christ. We are holy. We have God’s Holy Spirit in us, and we belong to God.
So who can ascend the mountain of the Lord?
By the loving-kindness of the Father, the redemption of the Son and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, a sure answer has been found: even the church of Jesus Christ (306).
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