Previously, we presented Paul’s view of the ascended, reigning Christ as seen in his private encounters and revealed in his letter to the Ephesians. This article adds to and builds on that teaching to show some of the theological themes in those passages as well as the importance of those themes for the Christian life.
Paul’s other epistles
While this study could be lengthened considerably by giving equal attention to the same concepts in Paul’s other epistles, we have said enough to establish the general thesis of the importance of the ascended Christ in Paul’s thought. But lest we leave the impression that the emphasis only appears in Ephesians, a brief overview of Paul’s other epistles will show how the ascended Christ runs as a continual thread throughout Pauline teaching.
The concept of Christ ascended appears throughout Paul’s writings, often subtly. To the Romans he refers to the ascended Christ to give assurance: “Who is he that condemneth? It is Christ that dies, yea rather, that is risen again, who is even at the right hand of God, who also maketh intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ” (Rom. 8:34–5). He also references it to urge brotherly love: “Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us to the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). Paul’s teaching on the law at war in his own members also appeals to it as well: “O wretched man that I am! who shall deliver me from the body of this death? I thank God through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 7:24–5). While this instance may refer to deliverance after Paul’s death, the assurance of resurrection and eternal life is rooted in Christ’s living intercession in heaven. That is a de facto reference to his ascension, and it gives Paul a very present motivation to thanksgiving.
The same awareness appears in 1 Corinthians when Paul refers to inheriting the kingdom of God (1 Cor. 6:9–10) and proceeds to teach concerning the body (1 Cor. 6:11–20). The language of Christ being raised up and of unity with Christ—“he that is joined unto the Lord is one Spirit” (1 Cor. 6:17)—recalls the more explicit teachings above. Later to the Corinthians Paul gives a clear reference to Christ in his current session of Almighty power: “Then cometh the end, when he shall have delivered up the kingdom of God, even the Father; when he shall have put down all rule and all authority and power. For he must reign until he hath put all enemies under his feet” (1 Cor. 15:24–5). This passage, along with Ephesians 1:22, recalls the prophecy of Psalm 110:1. Whereas in the Ephesians passage, Paul teaches the prophecy of victory as definitively fulfilled in Christ’s Ascension to the Father’s right hand, in 1 Corinthians 15 he emphasizes a historical perspective: Christ’s rule is continuous and progressive in history until his enemies, already defeated de facto in the heavenly reality, are defeated in history over time.
The language of both Ephesians and 1 Corinthians comes very close to that of a well-known section of Paul’s letter to the Philippians:
Wherefore God also hath highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every other name: that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Phil. 2:9–11).
Notice the exaltation of Christ, the authority given Him over all the cosmos, including power in the earth. This is certainly the same doctrine Paul covered above. The idea of a “name which is above every other name” parallels Ephesians 1:21, and that of every tongue confessing infers victory for Christ’s rule, if not historical progress.
The apostle carries the same consciousness of the ascended Christ throughout Philippians, explaining the believer’s connection to the risen Christ:
For our conversation is in heaven; from whence also we look for the saviour, the Lord Jesus Christ: Who shall change our vile body, that it may be fashioned like unto his glorious body, according to the working whereby he is able even to subdue all things unto himself (Phil. 3:20–21).
A final example for the purpose at hand appears in Colossians: “For in [Christ] dwelleth all the fullness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power” (Col. 2:9–10). Here he explains both the exalted status of Christ and the exalted status of the believer in Christ, even repeating the idea of fullness or completeness found in Ephesians 4:13. It grows more obvious later in the epistle that Paul refers to the mystical connection between believers and Christ. In Colossians 3:1–10 he directs the brethren to model their present behavior with the ascended Christ in mind:
If ye then be risen with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ sitteth on the right hand of God. Set your affections on things above, not on things on earth . . . seeing that ye have put off the old man with his deeds; and have put on the new man which is renewed in knowledge after the image of him that created him (Col. 3:1–2, 9–10).
The Colossians are hereby directed, as were the Ephesians, to grow more like the ascended Christ in whom they are already complete in heaven.
These several examples make it clear that the exalted Christ in his session at the Father’s right hand fills a highly important role in Pauline theology. Along with this, Paul consistently expresses the relationship Christ exercises with believers, both in giving them access to the heavenly realm and in distributing gifts and power among them in earth. With this brief exegetical study as a backdrop, we may ascertain a few theological generalizations.
The ascended Christ applied
By now this study can agree with and even go beyond, for example, Reformed scholar Herman Ridderbos’ comment that, “The spiritual aspect of the body of Christ emerges very clearly in Ephesians and Colossians . . . thereby Christ’s position of authority as the exalted Lord receives particular emphasis.”1 What receives emphasis there also runs as a current through much of Pauline theology in general, as has been demonstrated. Paul’s understanding of the ascended Christ informs his cosmology, his ecclesiology, his pastoral counsel, and direction for Christian living. In fact, Paul’s exhortations to mature in Christ and to overcome sin cannot be understood apart from his teaching about the ascended Christ and the Savior’s union with His body (as Eph. 2:5–7, 4:11–16, and Col. 3:1–10 exhibit). Paul expresses this fact from the very title he employs for Christ: “Lord” (kyrios). Joseph Fitzmyer’s comment is appropriate: “When Paul uses Kyrios of Jesus, he expresses the latter’s actual dominion over men precisely in his glorious, risen condition as an influence vitally affecting the lives of Christians.”2 In order to realize the fullness of their faith, believers must remain ever mindful of their union with the exalted Christ and of what that union entails: they sit in heaven with Christ, and Christ constantly attends to their needs on earth and historically vanquishes every enemy of the church as He has already triumphed over them definitively in His ascension. It is to this very reality of Christ’s heavenly rule that Paul appeals when addressing all of the aforementioned areas of his theology.
Such an approach to theology ought to have many practical consequences for the Church, a fact which was obvious in Paul’s usage. His consideration of the ascended Christ was no abstract academic exercise, but was intended to enlighten and inspire the Church to holy living. Ridderbos concludes,
The intention of the argument [that Christ is Head of all things] is therefore not to broach this all encompassing significance of Christ as a “separate subject,” but, as is evident from this whole occasion for this Epistle to the Colossians, to bring home to the church its consequences for its whole life. ((Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 387–388, emphasis mine.))
This same intent ought to undergird the efforts of today’s Christians. Without an ascended Christ and without a vital connection to Him, the laboring church on earth is doomed to the wranglings of ambitious men and the tropospheric disorientation which inevitably diffuses from the chaos of arcane theories. In short, apart from the reality of Christ ascended and enthroned, the church on earth will be “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph. 4:14).
We should also give greater exposure in contemporary Christian thought to the simultaneous expression of both finality in the ascended Christ and yet the progressive reality in his church in earth. This subject has already appeared when dealing with the reference to Psalm 110:1 in both Ephesians 1:22 and 1 Corinthians 15:25. To the Ephesians, Paul emphasizes the definitive aspect of Christ’s victory over His enemies, while to the Corinthians he expounds the progressive historical understanding of the same prophecy. Ridderbos notes such a phenomenon:
This whole position of [Christ’s] authority in Paul’s kerygma has particular reference to the cosmic spiritual powers. . . . [I]t is described at one time in its completion, at the parousia (1 Cor. 15:25ff.), then again as already having commenced with Christ’s exaltation at the right hand of God (Eph. 1:21ff . . . ).3
This dual reality is often called the “already-and-not-yet” aspect of Pauline theology, generally understood as meaning that some things Christ has attained for believers they realize now, but full realization of the inheritance of the Kingdom must await fulfillment in the future. But Paul’s doctrine goes beyond the confines of that slogan, certainly as generally conceived: Christ’s exaltation is fully a reality already, and the Church possesses that reality in Christ already, while our realization of that reality has not yet attained the fullness of Christ. This simply adds the perspective of the Savior to the earthbound perspective of the believer. The Church must not look only to the distant end of time for the coming of what is “not yet,” but, according to the force of Paul’s doctrine, we should immediately focus heavenward to behold ourselves ascended with Christ in heavenly places, now. This should provide the source of our understanding of what is “not yet” for us, and yet it should compel us to live desiring and working toward perfection and completion already here and now. As the church lives in union with her Lord, draws from his dispensation of heavenly gifts, and applies the truth that she sits in heavenly places in Christ, she should grow ever nearer to the mature stature of her Lord here and now.
In many ways this study is limited. It stops with exegesis primarily of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians—and that only in part—and considers his other writings much less so. It does not begin to examine other New Testament authors, some of which shed great light on the doctrine, nor does it consider the relevant Prophets and Psalms to expand into a general theology of the ascended Christ. It has also not even mentioned the role of the Holy Spirit as the gift of Christ by which He indwells and unifies His members on earth. Therefore this study cannot pursue the implications of a complete and systematic doctrine of the exalted Christ, nor can it address various questions that would arise.
For example, as Christ exercises his three-fold office of Prophet, Priest, and King throughout His session at the Father’s right hand, how do these offices relate to the work of the church on earth (Christ’s body) and to the lives of individual Christians? For those who anticipate the historical progress for the Gospel, what shape will society and culture take when Christian “rule” begins to emerge as a visible and viable option? In particular, how is Christ’s kingly office worked out and expanded in history now in the lives of believers? Much has been written about Christ’s continuing priestly and prophetic roles, but very little about His claim to civil authority. Answers to this question are absent from most Christologies, even recent works on the ascension itself.4 Yet Christ names his followers both priests and kings (Rev. 1:5–6). Likewise, Peter called the Church a royal priesthood (1 Peter 3:9). Children of the Reformation have heard much of the priesthood of all believers, but little or nothing to date about the kingship of all believers.
While I have written about the issues elsewhere, I intend this present study only to flag the need for a fresh look at the doctrine of Christ’s exaltation, intercession, and continuing reign from the throne of heaven. That look eventually needs to comprehensive as well. From our view of Ephesians and beyond we have caught enough of a glimpse of Paul’s doctrine of the ascended Christ to learn that it forms a foundational role for much of the rest of his theology. Such a glimpse should inspire the church to know the fullness of Christ’s exaltation more fully. May Christ grant the grace to His Church to undertake the necessary work, and to further discover her union and participation in His reign.
- Herman Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 378.(↩)
- Joseph Fitzmyer, Pauline Theology: A Brief Sketch (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1967), 36.(↩)
- Paul: An Outline of His Theology, 89.(↩)
- For example, Gerrit Scott Dawson’s Jesus Ascended: The Meaning of Christ’s Continuing Incarnation (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2004); and Douglas Farrow, Ascension and Ecclesia: On the Significance of the Doctrine of the Ascension for Ecclesiology and Christian Cosmology (Grand Rapids, MI: W. B. Eerdmans, 1999). Millard J. Erickson’s The Word Became Flesh (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1991)—promisingly definitive in its size and sources—is disappointingly quiet on the role of the ascended Christ on earth.(↩)