Toward a Theology of the Exaltation of Christ

Christ Exalted (Public Domain)

Christ Exalted (Public Domain)

A Proposal for Further Study

Previously published in Christ in Us:  The Exalted Christ and the Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (2007), ISBN 978-0-615-13840-4.

In a review of Dr. Delmer Guynes’ book, The Gospel of the Ascension, I asserted that the doctrines of the Ascension and Exaltation of Christ were central to Pentecostal theology, and “should rank alongside the Incarnation and the Atonement.”1 Put briefly, God performed these works in and through Jesus, they are essential to the very nature and existence of the Church, and they provide for the dispensation of spiritual gifts throughout the Church Age.

Jesus’ Ascension and his Exaltation to the right hand of the throne of God were divine works of meaning and power beyond human comprehension. Yet we can and should derive great meaning, truth, and application from these acts, as we do from the Incarnation, Atonement, Transfiguration, etc. Not only are the works of Christ in his Exaltation important in themselves, but they have direct bearing upon such Pentecostal distinctives as the Baptism in the Holy Spirit, spiritual gifts, and divine healing. With a view toward the refinement and expansion of Pentecostal theology, I would like to delineate the subject while proposing areas for further study.

Where Ascension Ends and Exaltation Begins

How are the Ascension and the Exaltation to be delineated? In common usage, the terms seem synonymous. But “ascension” is obviously the act of ascending, and “exaltation” the act of exalting oneself or being exalted. While the meanings might overlap, they are not synonymous.

Practically and, I think, Biblically speaking, the Ascension is the act or process of Jesus acquiring his glorified body, receiving all the power and authority given him by the Father, and realizing in every other way the state of continuing exaltation which was always his birthright. In other words, the Ascension is to be thought of as the act of Jesus acceding to his Exaltation.

I posit the Ascension not as an act distinct from or preliminary to the Exaltation but as an initiatory or activating phase. Moreover, the Exaltation can be considered an ongoing process even today, in that not yet have all things been put under Christ’s feet,2 and He is to be still more glorified in end-time events.3

Many details remain a mystery. When does the Ascension begin and end? Does it begin with his atoning death on the cross, or even earlier; or with his resurrection from the tomb? Some count the purported visit of Jesus to hell as an Ascension event.4 But Jesus seems to announce a forthcoming Ascension to Mary in the garden,

    Do not keep clinging to me; I have not yet ascended to my Father; but go to my brethren and say to them, “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, and to my God and your God” (John 20:17).

Jesus appears the same evening to the disciples. He is touched by them and they eat together as he meets with them for forty days. He is in his glorified body: He is not bound by space, time, or locked doors. But He has yet to take his place at the right hand of God in the awesome glorified state in which he later appeared to Stephen (Acts 6-7), Paul (Acts 9:1-6), and John (Rev. 1:10-18). It would seem that He remained in some phase of the Ascension process and had not yet fully apprehended Exaltation.5

The Changing Position of Christ

Scripture makes it clear that Christ was present with God before Creation, that the world was made by or through him, and that it was made for his possession and his purpose. Within this context, however, a hierarchy clearly exists. The Son is always voluntarily in submission to God the Father, as is the Holy Spirit. Since the Holy Spirit is the instrument of Creation and the mode by which God’s will is enacted, He must be subject both to the Father and the Son.6 Therefore, that original hierarchy within the Godhead must have been Father / Son / Holy Spirit.

When Christ became incarnate, He did not lay down his divinity; but taking on the weakness of humanity, He apparently laid down for the time being his functional position in the hierarchy. Jesus voluntarily subjected himself not only to the Father but to the Holy Spirit, being “made a little lower than the angels” (Heb. 2:7, 9) and emptying himself of all reputation (Phil. 2:6-8). While in the flesh, Jesus spoke only the words of the Father and did only the works of the Father, empowered by the Holy Spirit through voluntarily subjecting himself to him.7 In a functional sense, the hierarchy had become Father / Holy Spirit / Son.

With the Ascension and Exaltation the hierarchy is restored; but even more, Christ has done a marvelous work in exalting his Church within himself or under his authority. He now spiritually empowers his Church by the Holy Spirit in much the same way as He himself was empowered in his earthly ministry. One might conceive of a new, enhanced hierarchy, Father / Son / Holy Spirit / Church.

The Exaltation in John’s Gospel

To John, Christ is the Word (logos, the wisdom, Reason, or order behind the universe) who was “with God” and “was divine” (John 1:1).8 “All things were made through him, and nothing that was made was made without him” (1:3; see also Eph. 3:9-12, Col. 1:16-19).

Jesus declared to his disciples that “he who believes in me, the works that I do shall he do also; and greater works than these shall he do, because I go to my Father” (14:12). This idea is directly linked to it being “expedient that I go away; for if I do not go away, the [other] Comforter [like myself] will not come to you. But if I depart, I will send him to you” (16:7; insertions mine, see 14:16).9 For the Church to be empowered, Christ must go to the Father.

Why was it necessary for Christ to depart in order for the Holy Spirit to come in his fulness? Scripturally, it is God’s plan to make Christ the Head of the Church and the giver of the Holy Spirit. In his incarnate body, however, He was the Christ in person but was finite, limited by the flesh. To perform his greater work, He must be exalted to the right hand of the Father’s throne, where all God’s power is committed unto him.10 Christ is empowered by God in order to empower others through the Holy Spirit.

In John, the power is God’s, the authority and message is Christ’s, and the medium for the transmission of God’s power is the Holy Spirit.

The Exaltation Present Throughout Scripture

The Exaltation of Christ is one of the most frequently recurring themes in Scripture. In Daniel, the Messiah is “a stone cut without hands” (2:34) who is “given dominion, glory, and a kingdom, that all people, nations, and tongues might serve him” (7:14).

In Psalm 118:22, He is the stone which was rejected but “has become the head of the corner” (see also Isaiah 8:14-15, 28:16).

Psalm 110:1, “The Lord (YHWH) said unto my Lord (adonai),11 `Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool'” is quoted in Matthew 22:44, Mark 12:36, Luke 20:42-43, Acts 2:34-35, and Hebrews 1:13. Christ is also declared to be positioned at the right hand of God in three Gospels, Acts, Romans, Ephesians, Colossians, Hebrews, and 1 Peter.12

In Romans, Christ was freed from the dominion of death, and now lives unto God (6:4-11), interceding for his own at God’s right hand (8:34).

In 1 Corinthians, Christ is the foundation of his Church (3:11). Christians are to be subject to Christ, as He is to God (3:23, 6:20, 8:6, 11:3). Spiritual gifts flow to the “body” through the Holy Spirit, “dividing to each person individually” (12:11). God is the source of spiritual gifts (12:6, 18, 24, 28) but Christ is the reason (12:12, 27). Christ will one day subject all other powers and “all things” (ta panta)13 to himself and turn them over to God (15:24-28).

In Ephesians, all things (ta panta) are consummated in Christ (1:10). God has seated him at his right hand above all rulers and authority (1:20-23). The Christ who descended also ascended in order to “fill” (plerose) “all things” (ta panta, 4:10).

In Philippians, God has exalted Christ, giving him a name at which every knee must bow (2:9-11). One day, Christ will by his authority transform our mortal bodies (3:21).

In Colossians, all Creation is made by and for Christ. He is the “head” (kephale)14 of the Church and embodies all “fulness” (pleroma) (1:16-19). Christ is the “head” of all rule and authority, and in him all the “fulness” of deity dwells (2:9-10).

While not intended to be exhaustive, this list demonstrates the pervasive and ubiquitous nature of the Exaltation theme.

In the Pattern of Ephesians 4:7-16

The process by which the exalted position of Christ is made manifest through spiritual gifts in the Church seems most explicit in this passage.

Paul begins by using Psalm 68:18 to illustrate the process of exaltation (4:8).15 The same Jesus who descended to earthly existence is the same One who then ascended above the heavens. The reason He ascended is in order to “fill all things” and to dispense gifts to his Church (4:7, 8, 11).

These gifts are expressed here as persons who are spiritually gifted to fulfil the offices of the Church (4:11).16 The purpose of the gifts are “the equipping of the saints” (4:12) and “that we might no longer be children” (4:14). The results of the gifts are to include service, edification, unity, knowledge of Christ, and maturity, achieving ultimately a “mature man” who somehow compares to the “fullness (pleromatos) of Christ” (4:13-15).17 Throughout this process, each member is to be “supplied” by Christ through the working of the Spirit in and through the “body,” the Church (4:16).18

The “Fullness” of Christ

The study of the Exaltation of Christ will necessitate a thorough examination of Paul’s use of the term “fullness” (pleroma).

Fullness and such cognates as “fill,” “full,” “fulfill,” etc., permeate Paul’s writings. These are general terms entirely dependent upon their context, but in Paul they are sometimes theologically loaded. For example, the sense is possible that the “body of Christ” (the Church) is being filled by the One who is himself already full (Ephesians 1:23, 3:19; cf. Col. 2:10).19

Spiritual Gifts (Charismata)

A theology emphasizing the Exaltation will necessitate an examination of spiritual gifts and gifting in that light. For instance, is divine healing, which “is provided for in the Atonement,”20 (1) automatic to every Christian (i.e., “divine health”); (2) a charismatic gift, as Paul teaches; or (3) both?

I propose that the gifts are provided (i.e. won, earned, established, etc.) through the Atonement, administered by Christ in his position of Exaltation, and dispensed through the Holy Spirit in the form of charismata (1 Cor. 12:9, 28, 30).

The Exaltation in the Head/Body Metaphors

Paul uses numerous metaphors to illustrate Christ’s relationship to his Church, in which Christ is the figurative “head” with the Church as his “body.” Paul, of course, often mixes his metaphors and terminology. But one might construct a synthesis of the head/body metaphors as follows:

Christ, as the “head” (“ruler”, arche) of Creation, of all rule and authority, and of the Church, is also the authoritative and functional “head” (kephale): the leader, master, and controller of the “body.” He is able, as the authority over the body, and as the power of the universe, to provide for his Church in all things according to its needs (Eph. 1:22-23, 4:7-10; Col. 1:18, 2:10, 19).

As exalted Lord and ruler of the Church, Christ has joined it unto himself. He maintains perfect beneficence toward the Church, as a husband (“head” of the family) should his wife, wishing to nourish, cherish, and protect it (1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 5:23).

He accomplishes this by providing “gifts” to the Church, spiritually endowed but materially manifested among the individual believers.21 These gifts are diversely distributed and serve to complement one another, as the various parts of a physical body cooperate to serve the whole (Rom. 12:3-18, 1 Cor. 12:12-30, Eph. 4:7-16, Col. 2:19). Thus the “head” serves the “body,” controlling it but also providing for it.

The supreme irony is that Christ is exalted Lord, yet He deigns with profound patience to serve the lowliest of those whom He rules.

Conclusion

A realization of the centrality and universality of Christ’s Exaltation is essential to correct interpretation of Scripture. Much more study and application of this scriptural truth is needed on a broad base. But hopefully, this emphasis might in the future open many doors to the expansion, propagation, refinement, and in some cases correction, of Pentecostal doctrine.

NOTES

  1. Paul A. Hughes, review of Delmer R. Guynes, The Gospel of the Ascension (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia: Calvary Church Press, 1986), in Paraclete 26 (Fall 1992):30.
  2. Hebrews 2:8, cf. 1 Corinthians 15:25.
  3. See Daniel 7:13-14, Revelation 1:10-18, 14:14.
  4. The popular doctrine that Jesus descended into hell while his body lay in the tomb, where He preached the gospel to lost souls, “led captivity captive,” and took from Satan the keys to hell and the grave, does not necessarily stand up to close exegetical scrutiny. In Ephesians 4:9, “the lower parts of the earth” to which Jesus descended before ascending (to heaven) need not refer to hell but to the tomb or, more likely, earthly existence. In 1 Peter 3:19-20, Christ via the Holy Spirit “preached to the spirits in prison” through Noah, the implication being not that Jesus preached during his 3 days in the tomb to those who had died in the Flood and were now in hell, but that He had already preached to them through Noah before the Flood. “The keys of Hades and of Death” (Rev. 1:18) taken into possession by the exalted Christ need not refer to literal keys but to his figurative and/or spiritual victory over death and the powers of hell through the Atonement; nor does the statement necessarily infer an excursion into Hades. Moreover, the presumption that Christ had to be condemned to hell in order to pay the debt for sin to God the Father encounters serious objections on many counts, and is not well founded in Scripture.
  5. This question is further confused by Jesus’ repeated assertions of being already glorified (John 13:3, 31; 16:15; contra. John 7:39, 12:16).
  6. See for example Gen. 1:2, 6:3; Job 26:13; Mt. 1:18, 20; Lk. 12:12; John 16:13-15; Acts 1:2, Rom. 15:13.).
  7. See Mat. 12:18; Luke 4:18; John 3:34-35, 7:16-19, 17:2; Acts 10:38 et al.
  8. Some see in John 1 an echo of Genesis 1 in which God creates by the spoken word, though neither logos (noun, “word”) nor lego (verb, “say”) appears in Genesis 1 in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible. Others see an intent to equate Christ with the Greek concept of divine Reason, similar to the attempt by the Alexandrian Jewish philosopher Philo to relate the Logos to the Hebrew God. Most likely, both ideas are present.
  9. John 14:16 points out that the Comforter is allon parakleton, “another Paraclete.” While heteros is “another of a different kind,” allos is regularly “another of the same kind.”
  10. Just as Joseph was given all the power of Pharaoh, being subject only to Pharaoh himself (Genesis 41:39-44), Christ wields all the power of God, subject only to him.
  11. The first “Lord” is YHWH, the “tetragrammaton” or “four-letter word” of God’s name, generally pronounced “Yahweh.” An earlier misunderstanding produced, via the German, the appellation “Jehovah.” The second “Lord” is adonai, a term of deference applied to God, angels, or men, approximate to but slightly stronger than the English term “sir.”
  12. Mt. 26:64 (parallel Mk. 14:62, Lk. 22:69); Mk. 16:19; Acts 2:33, 7:55; Rom. 8:34; Eph. 1:20; Col. 3:1; Heb. 1:3, 8:1, 10:12, and 12:2; and 1 Peter 3:22.
  13. Paul often places ta panta, “all things,” equivalent to
    Creation (both material and spiritual) and in special
    relationship with “fullness” (pleroma) (see Eph. 1:9-10, 22-23,
    4:10; Col. 1:16-20, 2:9-10; cf. 1 Cor. 10:26, 28).
  14. Paul often uses kephale, “head,” as equivalent to arche, “ruler,” and kurios, “Lord” (see 1 Cor. 11:3, Eph. 1:17-23, 4:15, 5:22-24; Col. 1:15-19, 2:9-10, 19).
  15. That Psalm 68:18 is used as illustration and not as source is evident in his self-conscious alteration of “received gifts from men” to “gave gifts to men” (Eph. 4:8).
  16. Compare Paul’s mixing of charismatic gifts with gifted persons in 1 Corinthians 12:7-11, 28-31 (cf. Romans 12:3-8).
  17. Eph. 4:13 could be rendered “unto the measure of stature (full height) which pertains to Christ, which is characterized by fullness” (richness, completeness), wherein the mature (“perfect”) man, or more likely the Church, is to somehow equal the “measure” (“standard”) of Christ.
  18. Compare the “vine” metaphor, John 15:1-8.
  19. Interestingly, in Ephesians 3:19, Christians are to be filled with the fullness of God. In 4:12-13, they are to be matured to the maturity of Christ.
  20. Constitution of the Assemblies of God (1993), article V, section 12. A 1974 position paper states that while healing is “in” and “flows from” the Atonement and is available to all believers, ultimate realization of immortality waits for our final redemption (Romans 8:23) (“Divine Healing: An Integral Part of the Gospel” in Where We Stand [Springfield MO: Gospel Publishing House, 1990], 49-50). In other words, we are provided through Christ’s Atonement with the possibility of divine healing, but not with a positive decree of divine health (immortality). See also Ansley Orfila, “A Thorn in the Flesh,” Paraclete 18 (Summer 1984):29-32.
  21. On the Baptism and spiritual gifts, see the author’s “Speaking God’s Message: the Holy Spirit and the Human Mind,” Paraclete 26 (Spring 1992):17-22; and Christ Within You! The Indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Liberty TX: Paul A. Hughes, 1993).

© 1996 Paul A. Hughes

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