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The neglected doctrine of the ascended Christ

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The neglected doctrine of the ascended Christ |

The doctrine of the ascended, reigning Christ is almost ignored in many circles today, yet it carries profound implications for Christian worldview and dominion. In this first of a two-part study, I will to lay some exegetical groundwork. In the next part, we can move into biblical-theological themes.

From his first introduction to Christ on the road to Damascus, the Apostle Paul must have forever carried with him a strong impression of Christ as the exalted, ascended Christ. The fact that every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord surfaces explicitly in Paul’s letters (Rom. 14:11; Phil.2:10) and forms an underlying thread that weaves throughout much of what the apostle had to say. Many scholars have tried to locate the central theme in Paul’s theology—some finding it in justification by faith, others in this or that doctrine—without producing anything that could earn consensus. While it is probably best to steer clear of any claim to finding Paul’s single theological foundation, it will not be fruitless to trace his recurring ideas, for they indicate the structural pillars of his theological thought.

Paul’s Personal Encounter with the Ascended Christ

Acts 9:1–9, 22:1–10, and 26:1–28 each relate Paul’s well-known encounter with Christ on the road to Damascus. The issue of alleged contradictions between these individual accounts does not affect the focus at hand and will be left to those experts more strenuously trained at spotting conflict in the midst of silence. For our purpose, each account informs our topic in conveying a coherent message: Saul the murderous Pharisee journeyed to Damascus, was intercepted by a light, the brightness and power of which sent him to the ground blind. He who was previously “breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord” (Acts 9:1) was thrown to the earth trembling in fear (Acts 9:4, 22:7, 26:14). From within the light, a voice brought suit against Saul (Acts 9:4, 22:7, 26:15), and upon Saul’s inquiry, the prosecutor identified Himself as the very Jesus whom Saul was persecuting (Acts 9:5, 22:8, 26:15).

Two important things stand out in this record: First, the exalted Jesus displays His overwhelming power and glory. The Lord accosts the most famous persecutor of the church while in the very march of his murderous rage. Saul, personifying persecution and religious tyranny, was no doubt backed by some great power and authority in his mission; but nothing of his zeal, his band of fellow travelers, nor the official letters he carried from the high priest (Acts 9:1–2) could avail him at all before the Lord (No wonder Paul would later count his pedigree as garbage!—Phil 3:3–8). By the simple revelation of His glory (and we do not know to what extent Christ revealed His glory), the ascended Lord bowed the pompous Pharisee to his face, blinded him, and re-commissioned his soul.

The second point resides in Christ’s introduction: “I am Jesus, whom thou persecutest” (Acts 9:5, 22:8, 26:15). In this title, Jesus reveals a profound unity between believers and Himself; in persecuting the Lord’s disciples, Saul was attacking Jesus himself. This could be taken as merely saying that since the disciples belonged to Christ through their devotion and surrender, Christ reacted to their harassment as he would to an affliction to himself. This is possible, but from what we know of Paul’s later theology concerning the Body of Christ (which we shall see), the Lord here refers to that supernatural unity Christ the Head has to His body. In this sense, Saul was persecuting the Lord Himself directly as he hunted and imprisoned those of this way (Acts 9:2).

Since Paul most likely did not write Acts, the narratives provide only a secondary source to the Pauline understanding of the ascended Christ. Nevertheless, the two points just gleaned from the accounts in Acts—the glorious power of Christ in His exalted reign, and the spiritual union Christ enjoins with His believers on earth—both also surface in Paul’s letters. A study of Paul’s doctrine of Christ therefore begins where the revelation of Christ to Paul began. Whatever level of understanding Paul later attained concerning Christ, it was no doubt seen in the light he first received on the road to Damascus. That light was blindingly clear: Jesus Christ is the ascended lord, and that lord is both exalted in heaven and at work in earth.

Ephesians: The Heavenly Realm

In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul teaches the vital connection between believers and their exalted Christ from the outset. In 1:6, he writes, “Blessed be God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hath blessed us with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ.” That believers can in any way lay claim to anything found “in heavenly places” must be a work of divine origin. How is this claim secured? Paul later says,

But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ ( by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus (2:4–6).

Note the phrase “in Christ,” as opposed to “with Christ.” The believer’s claim is not that of parallel privileges with Christ, as if the Father has lined up chairs in heaven beside Christ’s throne. Rather, Christ’s achievements are currently imputed to believers who therefore sit in Him as He sits at the Father’s tight hand. This may look like a semantic gnat to strain, but it will grow clearer and stronger as this study progresses. The believer’s claim is secured in that God has quickened believers together with Christ and they have ascended by God’s power together in Christ. There exists a vital relationship between the believer (yet on earth), and the work of exaltation that God wrought in Christ (now seated in power in heaven).

Paul’s readers would have had no problem understanding what he meant, as he had just explained that very work which God had wrought. In Ephesians 1:18–23, Paul prays that his readers may understand,

what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe. These are in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age, but also in the one to come. And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him who fills all in all.

This tells of the Christ who is seated in heavenly places, and by whose presence believers are also counted as seated in heavenly places. Notice how Paul describes Christ’s exaltation here: “which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places” (1:20). He parallels this for believers: “made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places, in Christ Jesus” (2:5–6). In Paul’s language, Christ’s seating at God’s right hand is the consummation of the Father’s work which began with the Son’s resurrection. The same holds true for believers now as far as they are found “in Christ Jesus” (2:6).

The Christ revealed in 1:20–22 resembles the Jesus of Acts 9 markedly enough to erase any question of irony: he is almighty, seated at God’s right hand, and yet at the same time vitally, organically connected to the church on earth as a head to a body.

As almighty, Christ is “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and every name that is named,” and has “all things in subjection under His feet” (1:21–2). For Paul this all-powerful figure is “Lord” (kurios) (1:2–3, for example). The idea that Christ is “far above . . . every name that is named” echoes Paul’s doctrine elsewhere (Phil. 2:9), as does the language of Christ having “all things under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:25). The latter phrase applies Psalm 110:1 and is employed by the apostle in differing tenses: as a finished act here in Ephesians, and as a progressive reality in 1 Corinthians.

The Lord properly understood in his heavenly rule takes a central role in Paul’s message. Herman Ridderbos points out in his well-known study of Paul: “Undoubtedly, Christ’s exaltation in heaven and the communion maintained from there between the exalted Kyrios [Lord] and the church by his Holy Spirit occupy a very important place in Paul’s preaching.” ((Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, trans. by John Richard De Witt (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1975), 86.)) That message could not help but reach from heaven to earth.

Ephesians: The Earthly Realm

Paul explains not only the believer’s position in heaven in Christ, but he gives a fuller picture that includes the earthly side as well. This includes those joined to Him by faith—his body, the church on earth.

The believer’s union with Christ works in at least two directions: the believer sits in heaven in Christ, having a definitive claim to all to which Christ is heir, and likewise Christ graces His members on earth (through His subjugation of all things under His feet) progressively in history. The apostle lays out this doctrine in part in Ephesians 4:7–16:

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore it says, “When He ascended on high, He led captive a host of captives, And He gave gifts to men.” (Now this expression, “He ascended,” what does it mean except that He also had descended into the lower parts of the earth? He who descended is Himself also He who ascended far above all the heavens, that He might fill all things.) And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ. As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there by waves, and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, by craftiness in deceitful scheming; but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him, who is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

No clearer explanation could be given of the organic link between Christ ascended and his church on earth. The teaching follows naturally from what Paul previously discussed—that Christ is highly exalted in heaven as Lord over all, and that believers are connected and raised with Him. The doctrine of the heavenly realm, however was not enough by itself. It left enough unexplained to allow for competing interpretations—something from which the Ephesian church may have been suffering already (thus Paul’s emphasis on unity, 4:1–6). The question, “What does this look like on earth?” needed answering as well. Paul answered it with clarity and authority.

The passage begins with the ascended Christ—“he ascended on high”—and leads right into Christ’s continuing grace to His earthly church—“He gave gifts to men.” Comparing Paul’s other discussions of gifts (Rom. 12:5–8; 1 Cor. 12:7–10, 28–31), this Ephesians list is certainly not exhaustive, but appears to list those special offices of ecclesiastical ministry. Gifts in general are given to every believer (Eph. 4:7, Rom. 12:3, 6). Some gifts do take the form of ministerial offices (apostles, prophets, etc.); but all gifts take the form of ministry in general. The thrust here is that the ascended Christ does not function in the heavenly realm only, but reaches down to his members on earth. There is no Kantian or Platonic heaven/earth dualism in Christ: He rules heaven and he rules earth with equal authority and equal intimacy. He is Christ exalted; He is Christ involved. As an involved Messiah He distributes power and direction to each and every member of his body here and now.

The gifts believers have from their Lord are not for mere personal status, but to be used. Paul gives the purpose: “for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ” (4:12). The gifts are given for the benefit of others—that in their employment, the body of Christ on earth may be trained and equipped (the KJV translates this as “perfecting”). The “work of the service” should aim at edifying the Body. Every single member has a part: “by that which every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part” (4:16). As each member contributes and the whole begins to work in concert, “the whole body, being fitted and held together . . . causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love” (4:16). Christ’s gifts to His people should, therefore, stimulate them to ministry and service of the Body in harmony with their fellow members, and with an eye to the growth and improvement of Christ’s work on earth.

The apostle’s teaching has other dimensions yet. The edification of the body of Christ must be thought of, Paul says, in terms of “the measure of the stature which belongs to the fulness of Christ.” Nothing less than full conformity to Christ will fulfill this requirement. In light of Paul’s opening discussion, we must understand this fullness to include the glorified ascended Christ who sits at the Father’s right hand. Becoming perfect or complete (4:13) involves the maturation of the body of Christ in history. The language is that of growing up, of children becoming adults: “to a mature man . . . we are no longer to be children . . . we are to grow up” (4:13, 14, 15). The idea conveys strength and fixity in this life: “As a result, we are no longer to be children, tossed here and there” (v. 14). The closer believers, and therefore the body, grow into the fullness of the heavenly Christ, the less they fall captive to the flux of this-worldly thought and behavior. The perfection that derives from “the knowledge of the Son of God” (4:13) provides the body with a strong frame to weather “every wind of doctrine” (4:14).

The apostle continues through the rest of the epistle providing practical exhortations about Christian living (4:17–6:20). In these instructions, he delineates the outworking of Christ’s graces within the Church at an even more specific and personal level. In light of what he has taught about the heavenly and earthly aspects of Christ’s reign, this section of Paul’s letter can be understood as explicating even further how the day-to-day historical growth of the body must proceed.

Summary of Ephesians

A skeleton of Paul’s doctrine of the ascended Christ emerges from this brief study of the apostle’s letter to the Ephesians. Christ is exalted and reigns almighty from the Father’s right hand in heaven. Those who believe in Him are made members of his body and therefore also sit in the heavenly realm in Christ. His rule is their rule as well. Not only do believers look upwards to their representative in heaven, but that representative looks down and bestows heavenly gifts upon his members on earth. Thus endowed and empowered by Him, they grow into maturity themselves and perform his work on earth. Christ’s gifts edify the members of the body to the end that the body on earth will grow to the maturity, strength, confidence, and dominion of the Christ who reigns in heaven.

Thus we can see a basic outline for the doctrine of the ascended Christ, including his body. In the next part, we will outline some of the more specific applications of this reality.


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