Stand in Awe :: John Singleton Copley, “Jesus Ascending to Heaven”

John Singleton Copley, Jesus Ascending to Heaven; oil on canvas; 1775.

What would it have been like to gather with Jesus after His resurrection and watch Him ascend to glory? We’re told by Luke that forty days after His resurrection, during which He appeared many times to the disciples, Jesus ascended into the Father’s presence. “When he had led them out to the vicinity of Bethany, he lifted up his hands and blessed them. While he was blessing them, he left them and was taken up into heaven” (Luke 24:50-51). As the awestruck disciples watched this, suddenly two angelic figures appear with a message: “Men of Galilee…why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:10-11). What wondrous mystery and awesome power is revealed as Jesus ascends. It is no wonder, then, that the next thing the disciples did was gather with other believers in Jerusalem for an extended period of time to pray and worship.

John Singleton Copley, a painter in the American colonies, was inspired to paint this biblical event after spending six months in Rome, where he was astonished by the skill and artistry of the Renaissance painter Raphael. Specifically, Copley studied Raphael’s rendering of Christ’s transfiguration, which served as an inspiration for Copley’s painting of Christ’s ascension. Copley saw the important connection between the transfiguration, where Christ’s heavenly glory is briefly revealed, and the ascension, where Christ returns to the full glory of the Father’s presence. The disciples are overwhelmed with awe at Jesus’ glorious, post-resurrection presence now withdrawing corporeally in this ascension into eternal glory at the Father’s right hand. Here, the glory of Jesus’ earthly and heavenly identity is revealed and it leaves both the disciples and us amazed. We, too, can stand in awe, alone or with others, lifting our prayer and worship to Jesus “who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us” (Romans 8:34).

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