Today’s post is by Nate Palmer. Nate is the author of Servanthood as Worship: The Privilege of Life in a Local Church (Cruciform Press, 2010). You can follow him on Twitter at @palmernate.
The 2008 US Presidential Election was the most reported-on election in history. According to the Pew Research Center, the election was the subject of one-third of all media stories (across all mediums) in 2008. Given the amount of fervor and energy for political news in a 24hr news cycle, imagine if the media stopped covering politics entirely once the election was over—not one single copyedit, blog post, commentary, or headline.
Of course, this scenario would never happen – it is absurd. The campaign is not more important than the actual execution of the office. Yet, Christians often treat Jesus Christ in a similar fashion. Christ’s Humiliation is often the focus of our Christian study at the expense of his exaltation. But as we learned last time, the exaltation of Jesus is a vital piece of the Gospel.
Christ himself provides the most compelling justification for the importance of his exaltation and its inclusion in his Gospel message. In response to some of his follower’s expressed dismay of his pending ascent into heaven, Jesus tells them, “it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. And when he comes, he will convict the world concerning sin and righteousness and judgment: concerning sin, because they do not believe in me; concerning righteousness, because I go to the Father, and you will see me no longer; concerning judgment, because the ruler of this world is judged.” (John 16:7-11)
The exaltation secures work of the Holy Spirit, who produces both the spiritual awakening of the unbeliever as well as the process of spiritual growth in the believer. From his Throne, Christ directs the Holy Spirit in building his church and sustaining his people (Hebrews 9:14). Without the Holy Spirit’s work, our hearts remain hardened and our eyes closed to the truth of Christ. For Jesus, his Gospel message was deficient with His exaltation.
Omitting both the ascension and session from the Gospel is to think of Jesus like an actor, who having performed heroically in the first act, now rests comfortably backstage awaiting his dramatic return at the end. Yet, Christ is not backstage nor is he resting. Instead, he is actively involved in building and sustaining God’s kingdom from the very throne of Heaven. John Calvin states, “Christ by rising again began to show forth his glory and power more fully. Yet he truly inaugurated his Kingdom only at his ascension into Heaven.”1 Christ now sits triumphantly on the heavenly throne, having defeated once and for all the power of sin and death, still working as the old hymn goes “to ever life and plead for me”.
Christ’s exaltation it not merely an epilogue to the Gospel. Both his Ascension and Session have tremendous life changing implications for every aspect of the Christian life. Through understanding and cherishing these truths, Christ offers tremendous comfort, power, and assurance in them. Calvin explains that from Christ’s exaltation, “ arises not only trust in prayer, but also peace for godly consciences, while they safely lean upon God’s fatherly mercy and surely persuaded that whatever has been consecrated through the Mediator is pleasing to God.”2 In an Exalted Christ, we have a powerful and loving Lord who through His immense love and wisdom not only hears our prayers but directs His sovereign providences to care for our needs.
Christ has been installed in power and wisdom as our great Prophet, Priest, and King. Through both Christ ascent into heaven and his sitting on the heavenly throne, the believer finds the assurance of salvation, the changing power of sanctification, and the providences of God. Pastor Gerrit Dawson writes, “So the ascension changes the way we understand our place in this world.”3 In short, Christ’s Ascension and Session brings assurance, perseverance, hope, faith, and the power to change to those who have place their faith in him.
For some of us, Christ is still on the cross condemning our sin, for others he is relaxing in heaven waiting for a spectacular return, and still others He is an aloof detached king unconcerned with the affairs of the world. None of these misconceptions are true. Instead the Bible teaches that an exalted Christ means an active Christ – one that not only has the will and means but the power to change and sustain us.
We Protestants dislike the Catholic use of the Crucifix which depicts Christ still hanging on the cross. Why do we not extend that dislike to our theology as well? Christ is no longer on the Cross, so often do we act as if he is, still under condemnation without his ultimate victory in view? Jesus Christ is at this very moment ruling and reigning in Heaven over everything, everyone, and situation. Now we just have to live like we believe that.
While we should be grieved and disturbed by our sin, it is often easier to beat ourselves up over it using our condemnation like monks used a cilice (that nasty bloodletting device seen in the Da Vinci Code). We feel the need to self-inflict pain because we feel we have added extra punishment onto Christ. We expect chastisement because we don’t grasp that Christ already took our penalty for us – once and for all. There is no way we can possibly add more horror to the cross. Christ said “It is finished”. He didn’t mean finished for now until someone sins again. There will never be a need for Christ to go back to the Cross.
We could never add more sin to be atoned because Christ paid for all the sins of his people past, present, and future. It’s far harder to admit to ourselves that we are not somehow due retribution for sin instead of receiving intercession and forgiveness from an exalted Christ. That is why the exaltation of Christ is so vital to the Gospel message. Yet we use that erroneous notion of added punishment as a weapon of guilt against ourselves or to induce guilt in others. That whole idea is prideful and diminishes the work of Christ on the Cross and robs the power of the Gospel.
To restore a complete picture of the Gospel, Christ’s current role – the one he is executing right now even as you read this – must also be equally emphasized. He is no longer on the cross, his atonement was complete and everlasting. There is no need for him to reenact the cross. There will be no Crucifixion Part 2. With atonement complete and redemption secured, Christ continues to work on our behalf. He is busy at making us more like him as well as using us to spread his Gospel message to whole world.
We need a sense of balance back in our Gospel. This includes comprehending the impact of Christ’s exaltation in every part of our life. In order to do this, we need to take a complete look at the extraordinary Christ, who rose from the dead, who ascended into heaven, and who now sits at the right hand of God actively ruling and reigning over His entire creation.