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.