Luke and the Open Heaven

The "apocalyptic" strand of St Luke's writings is fascinating yet frequently forgotten. Fr Michael Hall dazzles us with heavenly visions and dramatic encounters. He explains how Luke’s Gospel and Acts were rooted in Temple hopes as well as future dreams.

I have suggested that my articles, drawing on material written in the two hundred years before the New Testament, might act like the trees growing by the side of that river – trees good for nourishment and for healing.

We have seen that, in the New Testament, it is the works which bear the name of John that are most obviously influenced by this material from between the testaments.  The Letter to the Hebrews could also be included.  But in this article, I argue that understanding this material and its concerns gives us insights into the other gospels – particularly that of St Luke.

I have talked about the longing held by many “Children of Israel” for the restoration of the original temple and its worship, not least the presence of God in the person of the priest-king.  My December article showed how the “Temple” theme was deeply present in St Luke’s account of Our Lord’s birth.

However, it is the “apocalyptic” strand of St Luke’s thought that I’d like to discuss here.  A sizeable proportion of the material from between the testaments can be classed as apocalypses – heavenly visions held together by a narrative structure.  They are usually attributed to a famous figure from the past, and usually take the form of a heavenly journey or a review of history, mediated by an angelic figure.   

There are certain tell-tale signs that one is reading an apocalypse: 
There will be mention of the heavens being opened. 
There will be one or more figures in human form (perhaps angels), robed in white, often shining splendidly. 
The reaction of the visionary is to fall prostrate – often “as if dead”. 

So let’s see where these lead us in the work of St Luke – remembering that this includes the Acts of the Apostles as well as the Gospel.

The splendour and the terror of heavenly revelation can be seen in the shepherds’ vision in Luke 2:9 “Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.”

The first mention of the “open heaven” comes in Luke’s account of Jesus’ baptism in 3:21-22 “Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  I’ll return to this passage, because some of its features – if we consider it to be apocalyptic – are noteworthy.  But we should be aware that an alternative ancient version of this passage has the voice from heaven saying, “You are my Son, today I have begotten you” – a quotation from Psalm 2 directly related to the anointing of the Priest-king in the First Temple.

The next clearly apocalyptic passage in Luke (echoed also, with slight differences, in Matthew and Mark) is the Transfiguration (Luke 9). Here is the whole passage:

28 Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. 29 And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. 30 Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. 31 They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. 32 Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. 33 Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, ‘Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah’—not knowing what he said. 34 While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. 35 Then from the cloud came a voice that said, ‘This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!’ 36 When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen.

The visionaries in this passage are Peter, James and John, but the man-like figure who shines in glory is not an angel, but Jesus himself.  As with the baptism event, they do not ascend to heaven – rather, heaven descends to earth.  This is a profound development of the apocalyptic tradition that underlines the significance of Our Lord’s incarnation.  The disciples are not terrified by Jesus’ transfiguration, but by the cloud that symbolises the presence of God.  St Matthew tells us, “they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear”. (Matthew 17:6). We note too that the revelation from heaven extends the message that was given at the baptism – there it was a message for Jesus himself – “You are my Son…”. Here it is a message for the Church – “This is my Son…”.

The phrase “Little Apocalypse” is often used of those passages in Matthew, Mark and Luke where Jesus speaks about the “end times”.  This is because these passages are very reminiscent of the contents of the Book of the Apocalypse – the last book of the New Testament (also known as Revelation).  For example, in Luke 21:25-28, we read, ‘There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then they will see “the Son of Man coming in a cloud” with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.

While Jesus is undoubtedly speaking about the “end times”, we must realise that the phrase about the “Son of Man coming in a cloud” is a direct quotation from an Old Testament apocalypse in Daniel 7, where “one like a Son of Man” comes on a cloud into the heavenly presence of God.  This also should remind us of the Ascension of Jesus.

Apocalyptic language is used by St Luke in his account of the resurrection; when the women go to the tomb and find the stone rolled away, “Suddenly two men in dazzling clothes stood beside them.  The women were terrified and bowed their faces to the ground” (24:4-5)

St Luke’s gospel has a very brief account of the Ascension of Jesus, but he expands on this at the start of “Volume 2”.  “As they were watching, Jesus was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. While he was going and they were gazing up towards heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up towards heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” (Acts 1:9-11)  Heaven is opened for the Lord to ascend, and our two white-robed manlike figures join us again, but note that the terror usually associated with apocalyptic revelation is not mentioned.  Are the apostles becoming used to encounters like this?

It could possibly be argued that the descent of the Holy Spirit from heaven on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) could be seen as an apocalyptic event, though it displays none of my “typical features”.  Much more strongly can we see two other encounters in Acts as bearing the apocalyptic stamp.

In chapter 7, Stephen is on trial on trumped-up charges.  Like Jesus he is accused of wanting to destroy the temple.  But what finally provokes his stoning is this:  55 “But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. 56 ‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’” Not only does his vision of Jesus at God’s right hand enrage the council, but the fact that insight into heaven now seems to be open to someone who was not a priest or a prophet or a mystic, but a simple servant of the Church.

The final apocalyptic event in Acts is the encounter between Saul and the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus.  The account is given in Acts 9 and, by St Paul himself, in Acts 22:
Now as he was going along and approaching Damascus, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to him, ‘Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?’ He asked, ‘Who are you, Lord?’ The reply came, ‘I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. But get up and enter the city, and you will be told what you are to do.’ The men who were travelling with him stood speechless because they heard the voice but saw no one.”

Some of you might be thinking, why call these events “apocalyptic” when they are describing just what happened?  But here’s the thing.  St Luke is so clearly aware of the tradition in the Holy Land of the desire for a renewed Temple, and the desire to gain the secrets of heaven.  In his gospel, he shows that visions of heaven are indeed possible, but that they are now focussed around the person of Jesus of Nazareth.  Once Jesus has ascended – taking with him our own human form – into the heavenly realm, it seems that heaven is truly and permanently opened to us.  While not many of us may actually have the sort of visions that Stephen, Paul, and St John the Divine had, Christian spiritual tradition tells us that in returning to heaven, Jesus has wedged the door open. In our prayerful study of Scripture, and particularly in our participation in the Mass, we stand on the threshold of the open heaven.

Fr Michael Hall is a parish priest in the Leeds Diocese.  For over 20 years he was also a teacher and school leader in secondary education.  He is Lead Associate of Barnabas Education Services.