Jesus said to her, “Stop clinging to Me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to My brethren and say to them, ‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'”
– John 20:17, NAU
Our purpose in this study is to comment on what the gospel of John says about the Holy Spirit. Although the Holy Spirit is not named in John 20:17, it is a key verse with regard to when Jesus had the authority to bestow the Spirit. We willl discuss the ascension in connection with this issue. Our discussion of John 20:19-23 will be informed by our comments here.
Stop Clinging to Me
After Jesus arose, He was talking with Mary Magdalene outside the tomb. He said to Mary, “‘Stop clinging to Me [haptou], for I have not yet ascended to the Father.'” According to Robertson (p. 312), the verb haptou means “stop clinging to me” rather than “do not touch me.” Elsewhere (Matthew 28:9), Jesus allows devoted women to take hold of His feet and worship Him. He was not objecting to Mary touching Him but rather to the fact that she was clinging to Him.Many commentators discuss why Jesus told Mary not to cling to Him. If we assume that Jesus ascended right away, then the reason why seems obvious. Jesus says, “‘for I have not yet ascended to the Father.'” Jesus wanted to do what had not yet been done which was to ascend to the Father. It was important for Him to ascend to the Father, and He did not want to be delayed.
Other reasons have been given. Some of these reasons, but not all, seem to be based on the assumption that Jesus did not ascend until forty days later. Various viewpoints are cited by Keener who writes (p. 1193):
I Am Ascending
Next, Jesus tells Mary Magdalene to go to the disciples. She will share the good news. Jesus is alive! Specifically, Jesus tells her to say, “‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Here, the main question is when Jesus ascended.
Jesus uses the present tense of the verb anabaino which means “I ascend” or “I am ascending.” Nevertheless, many commentators hold that Jesus uses the present tense in the sense of a rhetorical future. This would yield the sense of “I am about to ascend.” Under any of these explanations, the certainty of the event is assured. Several views are held.
First, the traditional view is that Jesus ascended only once, and this ascension took place forty days after the resurrection. According to this view, Acts 1:9-11 describes the ascension, Luke 24:50-53 is parallel to Acts 1:9-11, and the present tense of John 20:17 is interpreted as a rhetorical future. Under this approach, the passages in Luke and John refer to the event described in Acts 1:9-11.
The main argument against this view is that it does not account very well for John 20:17. Nor does it explain what Jesus was doing in His glorified body in between appearances to the disciples.
Second, some exegetes hold that the ascension was a process that took place over forty days. Underlying this view is the assumption that ascension does not require a visible upward movement. As examples, we will cite Wescott and Keener.
Wescott writes (p. 293) concerning the verb ascend:
A similar view is stated by Keener who regards Christ’s bestowal of the Spirit as the completion of the ascension process. He writes (p. 1195):
The process of ascension, as described in these views, is under way long before the ascension of Acts 1:9-11. As Keener sees it, the ascension in John’s gospel is completed when Jesus gives the Spirit in John 20:22.
A couple of points may be cited in favor of the view that ascension is a process. One, it certainly is in harmony with the present tense that Jesus uses. When we think of a process, the translation “I am ascending” is appropriate. Two, the ascension is a part of the glorification of Jesus. His glorification includes His death, resurrection, ascension, and exaltation.
Third, another view is that Jesus ascended more than once. Both John 20:17 and Acts 1:9-11, are regarded as ascension events. In addition the ascension in Luke 24:50-53 and Mark 16:19 may be distinct from the other ascensions. This approach and the view of ascension as a process are not mutually exclusive.
Both Lenski (p. 1362) and Morris (p. 40) argue against the view that Jesus ascended on the day of His resurrection. Lenski objects to the “post-ascension” appearances that this view requires. He seems to overlook the “post-ascension” appearance of Christ to Paul (Acts 9:1-9) on the road to Damascus. Even though different, this appearance did take place after the ascension. Similarly, Morris holds that such an ascension ignores the post-resurrection activity of Christ on earth. However, the ascension of Christ does not preclude subsequent activity on earth. He simply appears in His glorified body.
The viewpoint of Bruce is supportive of multiple ascensions. He puts the emphasis on Christ making multiple visitations from heaven. In my view, we may regard His returns to glory, even though not visible to men, as ascensions. According to Bruce (p. 40):
The resurrection appearances, in which He condescended to the disciples’ temporal conditions of life, even going so far as to eat with them, were visitations from that exalted and eternal world to which His ‘body of glory’ now belonged. What happened on the fortieth day was that this series of visitations came to an end, with a scene which impressed on the disciples their Master’s heavenly glory.
The resurrected body of Jesus was not limited to time and space. To hold that He did not ascend to the Father until the fortieth day leaves us wondering where He was. It is far better to assume that He was with the Father and made His visitations from glory to earth. Thus, Jesus ascended more than once. These ascensions include going to the Father on the day of His resurrection.
Authority to Bestow the Spirit
Some scholars hold the view that Jesus did not have the authority to bestoes the Spirit on resurrection evening because Jesus was not yet glorified. Central to this position is the view that the ascension had not taken place.
Like Keener, Burge (p. 137) holds that the ascension in John is a process. He declares that (p. 137) “The final step withing that process within that process when the Spirit comes follows directly on this section (vv. 19-23).” Under this view, Jesus has the authoarity on resurrection night to bestow the Spirit.
My conviction is that Jesus ascended to the Father on resurrection morning. The appeal to the ascension as a process is not a necessary step. Assuming Jesus ascended on resurrection morning, the ascension is no longer an issue with regard to Christ’s authority to bestow the Spirit.
In John 20:17 Jesus makes two statements about the ascension. One, He says, “‘I have not yet ascended to the Father.'” Two, He states, “‘I ascend to My Father and your Father, and My God and your God.'” Given the context and the present tense, the best translation is “I am ascending.” He is ascending to My God and Your God.
For me this is a glorious truth. Jesus had just endured His passion, death, and burial. He had been gloriously raised from the dead. Jesus had cried out on the cross (Matthew 27:46), “‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken me.'” Now was the time to be reunited. Now was the time to celebrate. Now was the time to exalt the Son. This moment simply would not wait another forty days. It had to be celebrated now! Yes, Christ ascended on resurrection morning!
For Further Study
Barrett, C. K. The Gospel According to St. John. Philadelphia: The Westminister Press, 1978.
Boer, Harry R. Pentecost and Missions. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1961.
Bruce, F. F. The Book of Acts. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1975.
Burge, Gary M. The Anointed Community: The Holy Spirit in the Johannine Tradition. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1987.
Horton, Stanley M. What the Bible Says About the Holy Spirit. Springfield: Gospel Publishing House, 1976.
Hull, William E. The Broadman Bible Commentary: Commentary on John. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1970.
Keener, Craig. S. The Gospel of John, Vol. 2. Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Lenski, R. C. H. St. John’s Gospel. Columbus: The Wartburg Press, 1942.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Grand Rapids: Wm B. Eerdmans, 1971.
Robertson, A. T. Word Pictures in the New Testament, Vols. 1-6. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1930.
Swete, Henry Barclay. The Holy Spirit in the New Testament. London: Macmillan and Company, 1910.
Wescott, B. F. The Gospel According to St. John. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1971.
Copyright © 2004 By George M. Flattery