Christ died and was exalted

Christ died and was raised

Scholars characterize certain New Testament texts as discrete confessions or hymns. The most well-known among these is Paul’s good news “of first importance” in 1 Corinthians 15—that Christ died in accordance with the scriptures, was buried, was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures, and then appeared to his followers. Such material represents earliest Christian belief.

Paul’s summary of the gospel here meets our expectations about early Christian belief. It emphasizes what modern Christians would emphasize: Christ’s death for sin and his bodily resurrection. We readily and eagerly systematize such data into our theological frameworks.

Christ died and was exalted

Some confessional material, however, does not meet our expectations.

Despite the theological weight we place on the physical resurrection of Jesus, many creedal summations of the Christian proclamation fail to mention it. This is not to say that New Testament authors disregarded the resurrection in general, only that it held a subservient place in the earliest confession and preaching.

Philippians 2:6-11 is one example. The composer of the piece moves directly from Christ’s death to his exaltation.

And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Another example is found in Hebrews 1:1-4 (cf. 10:12-13, 12:2). The writer passes over the resurrection: “After [Christ] made purification for sin, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

1 Timothy 3:16 and Acts 5:30-31 make the same omission.

Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great: He was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.

The God of our ancestors raised up Jesus, whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior that he might give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins.

We can lastly note the song of praise to Christ in Revelation 5:9-10 which again commemorates the death and exaltation while overlooking the resurrection.

Contrary to expectation then, the early Christian message was sometimes related without explicit reference to the bodily resurrection of Christ. In such cases the physical resurrection of Christ was assumed rather than stated. The death and exaltation of Christ, however, were rarely left unstated.

Christ was lifted up

This observation might seem pedantic. After all, as long as the New Testament writers believed in the bodily resurrection of Christ, why does it matter whether or not they mentioned it in any given confessional passage?

It matters, I think, because it gives us a clue as to how the first Christians understood the resurrection in reference to the ascension and exaltation. It suggests that, rather than an end in and of itself, the bodily resurrection was merely the means by which the heavenly enthronement of Christ was made possible. While the exaltation could not be bypassed because it was the telos and purpose of Christ’s journey, the resurrection could be dropped since it was the assumed prerequisite of Christ’s ascension to the right hand of God. In short, the resurrection mattered inasmuch as it gave way to the exaltation. And whereas we burden the resurrection with supreme theological significance, the earliest Christians placed that burden upon the exaltation.

The significance of the exaltation

Why then did the early Christians invest so much significance into the exaltation? The answer is that our priorities reflect our concerns—or as Jesus said “where your treasure is, there also is your heart.” For the early Christians the exaltation addressed their most pressing concerns—concerns which were primarily historical rather than theological.

Whereas we look to the resurrection for assurance of life at the close of time, the first churches looked to the exaltation for assurance of life at the close of the present evil age. Churches on the edge of dissolution, threatened by a seemingly-indelible pagan empire, looked to the enthroned Christ for concrete protection and vindication. For these churches the heavenly exaltation of Christ over the nations prefigured the impending earthly exaltation of the faithful community over the hostile nations. The exaltation meant that all earthly powers would soon be subjugated to the imperial rule of Christ and his church. A brutal political paganism would collapse, the centuries-old persecution of God’s people would come to an end, and the faithful ransomed from every nation would “reign on the earth.” In these historical processes the churches comprised of former-pagans would be publicly saved, forgiven, and justified.

Psalm 110—a psalm of resurrection?

Time and time again the early Christians turned to Psalm 110 in order to explain what happened to Jesus after he died. And as we might expect by now, what we find in the Psalm is not resurrection. We find rather the tail-end of a story about one man’s vindication by God. The early Christians identified that man as the crucified Jesus of Nazareth who after his death was invited to “sit at the right hand of God until he makes your enemies your footstool.” He was assured that “God is at your right hand;” that “you will shatter kings on the day of your wrath” and “[you will] execute judgement among the nations.” In short, the resurrection, and thus the exaltation, meant that Christ was about to save his church from raging nations. So before Christ’s resurrection was made to answer cosmic theological questions about the defeat of sin, life after death, and the recreation of the earth at the end of history, the resurrection answered an immediate historical-political question: how long will the nations despise God’s people?

If we were to ask the early Christians what the resurrection of Christ meant they would point to the the heavenly enthronement. If we were to ask them why this enthronement mattered, they would point to their persecutors.

31 thoughts on “Christ died and was exalted

  1. Hmmmmm… I’m not sure I buy your argument.

    If I understand you correctly, you are saying that since some of the credal confessional material in the NT corpus doesn’t focus on the resurrection to a huge extent, it wasn’t theologically/sociologically/historically as important (though it would become to be) as the ascension.

    Firstly, whilst I think that you could be right in reference to the Philippians and Hebrews passages, that references to the resurrection are omitted, I’m tempted to ask whether or not the exaltation/purification from sin being referred to is separate from the resurrection, or constitutes it in itself perhaps even alongside with the ascension/death, that is, it is not just an instrument to the ascension but Christ’s resurrection is the exaltation or purification also. I also think that it’s perhaps more accurate to conceptualise each of those are particular appropriations of credal formulas into certain contexts. The ascension in the Philippians passage is so focused upon because it comes so tightly entwined with the condescension earlier in that very same creed. Hebrews itself is also very interested in proving Christ’s ascension and divine nature.

    Secondly, I’m not convinced your reference to 1 Timothy is an accurate reading. I don’t believe Paul is omitting the reference to the resurrection there at all. Particularly speaking, his claim that Christ was “vindicated in spirit” seems to echo Romans 1:4: “and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead”. Considering the contrast between flesh and spirit throughout the Pauline corpus, and how spirit is intimately linked with the resurrection, I don’t think you’re correct on that account.

    Thirdly, if I grant that your interpretation of both Hebrews and Philippians is correct, I think it’s perhaps a little difficult to make the general point that the resurrection wasn’t as theologically as important as the ascension in the earliest Christian communities, particularly when we do have other confessional material earlier than those such as in 1 Corinthians and in Romans (in the passage I pointed to) which does theologically prioritise those. Sure, perhaps we could say that those points were belaboured to the communities Paul/Anonymous was addressing, but to then say that from those particular communications that the resurrection wasn’t as important seems to me to go too far. It seems to me that you have to prioritise certain credal formulae over others to make this claim, which I suppose could possible (maybe), but how do we do this? I’m not sure its possible to abstract it from the larger Pauline corpus (which is where most of these come from).

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    1. I’m not sure I buy it either. It’s a purposefully contarian position.

      But these are really good points and I think you do understand my argument. I think the earliest Christians considered the exaltation as more significant than the resurrection and that this is evident 1) in the omission of the resurrection from some of the confessional material and 2) in the centrality of Psalm 110 for explaining what happened after Jesus died.

      Perhaps a better way to put what I mean is that the early Christians were more interested in the political-historical implications most easily associated with the exaltation than they were with the cosmic-theological implications most naturally associated with the resurrection today. While I don’t think early Christians denied that Christ’s death and resurrection mattered on the cosmic level—salvation from sin and its consequences in the afterlife, ultimate defeat of the Devil and death, assurance of eventual new creation, proof of Christ’s divine identity, etc.—what mattered most was the here-and-now life of God’s people among the nations—that pagan Rome would be defeated and replaced, that God’s people would be publicly vindicated, that God’s salvation and forgiveness of the community would be manifested in history by a dramatic turn of events. For the first Christians this is what the resurrection/exaltation primarily meant.

      In regards to Hebrews 1, looking at it again I think the purification for sin is something that begins on the cross and ends at the altar of the heavenly Temple. While this text and every NT writing surely assumes a bodily resurrection, what’s important about Christ’s existence after death in the confessional material in Hebrews 1 (and in Hebrews in general) is that Christ now has access to God’s authority—he can protect his people in their current troubles and he can ultimately save them from their oppressors when he shakes heaven and earth once more.

      I agree that “vindicated in the spirit” is likely a reference to the resurrection. But I’d say that once again the verse serves the political-historical story rather than the cosmic-theological one. Christ’s vindication by God’s spirit after death is not so much that he came back to life, but that he has been given a higher status than all who murdered him. Christians hoped to be publicly vindicated in kind.

      I think my overall point is that what happened after Jesus died was, in a word, exaltation. He was authorized to judge all things and forgive all things. That Jesus was brought back to bodily life means little on its own.

      Probably my true complaint, which I have thoroughly confused here, is that we tend to only think of the exaltation in terms of Christ’s defeat of death in the end. We skip over the subjugation of the rulers and authorities of the world because we don’t know what to do with it other than to push it back to the end of history—at which point is doesn’t make much sense for Christians to rule upon the earth in their place.

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      1. Alex, about “rulers and authorities”- have you considered that these were spiritual entities and not human?
        What unregenerated humans do is governed by the spirits who work in them (Eph. 2.2).
        Satan, I am convinced, didn’t know Jesus was divine since he tried to discover it during the temptation. The rulers and authorities would have never crucified the Lord of Glory if they knew who He was since This Author of Life would (as promised in Gen. 3.15) somehow transfer life to fallen humanity in His suffering and mastery of death.
        Jesus spiritualized the material creation when the Word became flesh. In Himself, He divinitized creation since “all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form” (Col.2.9).

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        1. I think the “spiritual” rulers and authorities and the actual political ones are two sides of the same coin, and this is commensurate with the sort of two layers of reality we find in the NT. Is Israel oppressed by demons? Yes. Are they oppressed by the Roman Empire and a corrupt Temple power structure? Yes. Are those different things? No, and I think this comes to a focal point when Jesus casts the Legion out of the demoniac(s).

          I think our dichotomy between matter and spirit or physical and spiritual or what have you probably has more to do with interpreting “rulers and authorities” as an either/or. The spiritual forces of darkness are the animus manifested in the physical ones, and the physical ones can still very much be transhuman.

          In our day, for example, we might talk about the economic power of a corporation. A corporation is transhuman. It isn’t flesh and blood. But it isn’t a spiritual construct, either.

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  2. Alex, this is really, really good.

    Abondarenko01’s counter-points are quite good as well, but whether or not we can demonstrate that the exaltation was “more important” to the early Christians than the resurrection, I think you established the point that their immediate concerns were for their concrete political survival and destiny and not the metaphysical concerns we look for in the NT.

    Your article also helps in explaining why the exaltation was important at all, which is something a lot of Christians struggle to articulate. Why is it important that Jesus is at God’s right hand? And putting the resurrection as something that has to happen to accomplish the exaltation puts it in the right context, I think.

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    1. Thanks a lot. I’m glad to hear it.

      The significance of the exaltation seems criminally neglected when compared to how often it is appealed to in the New Testament. That’s where this post came from. And at the same time I think the resurrection is invested with certain theological meanings that it is not regularly invested with in scripture, if at all. The post I released today tries to identify the reasons the resurrection was important at the beginning.

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  3. The significance of His exaltation, of which the resurrection is a subset, I think, is that now the Son is returning to the Father with a full humanity along with being The Eternal Son. Jesus prayed in Jn. 17 that His glory would be restored as previous (v. 5). Therefore, its the humanity part of Christ which is new to the enthronement. He is now waiting until His enemies are made a footstool-Ps. 110 (trampling motif from Gen. 3.15).
    Also, Jesus earned the resurrection since He fulfilled the Mosaic Law perfectly: “Do this and you will live.”

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    1. I think you are right to think of the resurrection as a subset of the exaltation, as a means by which exaltation takes place. They can’t be separated.

      What function do you think the entrance of full humanity into the presence of God accomplishes? Why is that necessary?

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      1. Maybe a restoration instead of just a function to a previous state when God created both Adam and Eve in His likeness. The necessity may be related to our redemption, I haven’t thought about that aspect.

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    2. In response to your other comment, I have considered whether these rulers and authorities are spiritual and not physical/human. In my view the enemies of the early Christians were both earthly and spiritual because, as you say, human beings and institutions are influenced/ruled by spiritual entities. I would argue that the defeat of spiritual enemies brought about by Christ necessarily manifested in the collapse of political/earthly enemies—and more controversially, I would argue this victory led ultimately to the destruction of Jerusalem and the fall and replacement of Babylon, the pagan Roman empire. Through the obedience of Christ and his followers, God exerted his authority over the nations and delegitimized idolatry throughout the known world.

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