The Exaltation of Jesus and Others - Jesus Christ


3.   The Exaltation of Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ by Heinrich Hofmann 1880s. Wikimedia Commons

Jesus was said by different NT authors to be exalted at each the following eight occasions in his life.  These times should not be seen as ‘the first time he was exalted’, because an exaltation at a later date may be seen as a confirmation of an earlier exaltation, and not as a contradiction in the date of his first exaltation.  Many of these events, or their details, seem to be described with religious exaggeration that should not be taken literally.

3.1       From the beginning of time
3.2       At his conception
3.3       At his birth
3.4       At his adult baptism
3.5       At his transfiguration
3.6       During the examination by the high priest
3.7       At the resurrection
3.8       At the ascension

Finally, in Hebrews 4.14 to 5.10, Jesus is described as the Great High Priest.

3.1       From the beginning of Time – Pre-existence     

The exaltation of Jesus from the beginning of time is not found in the synoptic gospels, but it is found in John, Jude, some of Paul’s writings, and Hebrews.

John saw Jesus as the Logos, or ‘word’ of God, present with God and in God at the dawn of creation (Jn 1.1-14); Jesus was the incarnation of the Word.  John 8:58 shows Jesus angering the crowds by saying, “Before Abraham was, I am,” which implies his own existence from the beginning of time.  This is one of John’s theological interpretations of the story of Jesus.  In Jn 17.5, Jesus claims to have been given magnificent glory with God Almighty in eternity past.

The Letter of Jude ends with “to the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen. ”

Paul is contradictory on this.  His Romans 1.3-4 reads “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord,”  This passage puts the exaltation of Christ at the resurrection.

Colossians was written by Paul’s followers, and may have made statements beyond what Paul would have said.  Section 1.15-20 of Colossians, also called a ‘hymn,’ is entitled The Supremacy of Christ.  Verses 15-17 read “He [Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,  . . . He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”  The underlined words clearly show the existence of Christ before anything else.

Finally, the Bible footnote to Hebrews 1.1-4  says that that passage “celebrates the Christian confession that the exalted Jesus is God’s eternal Son.” [Bible, Hebrews, 2036]

3.2       At his Conception

Matthew and Luke put the exaltation of Jesus at the moment of his conception by the Holy Spirit in the virgin Mary.  So Jesus is a semi-divine person, the son of the human Mary and the divine God the Father.

In Matt 1:20-21, an angel of the Lord says to Joseph, “For the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

In Luke 1.31-33, the angel Gabriel said to Mary “And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.  He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”  And in Luke 1.35 Gabriel continues “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.”

The virgin birth is not even mentioned in the other two gospels, nor in any of the other NT books, including all the letters of Paul.

3.3       At his Birth

Matthew’s birth story (Mt 1.18-2.23) includes the story of the ‘wise men’ from the east – actually astrologers following a star – who came to find and pay homage to the new king of the Jews, and offered their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  Out of fear, Herod massacred all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.

Luke’s birth story (Lk 2.1-40) includes the shepherds told by the angel of the Lord,  “to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”  A host of angels exalted Jesus by saying “Glory to God in the highest heaven.”  The shepherds found the child and told Mary and Joseph what they had heard.

Our reasons for not believing these stories of the conception by a virgin and the subsequent birth in Bethlehem are given in Section 6.1 of our Historical Jesus page.

Only Luke tells the story of Jesus’ presentation in the Temple.  Since the baby Jesus was the firstborn male child of Mary, he was presented in the Temple (as required in Lev 12 and Ex 13.2).   During the presentation, a devout man named Simeon took Jesus in his arms and praised him, identifying him as the source of salvation for both the Jews and the gentiles (Lk 2.28-32).   “And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him” (Lk 2.33).   At the same time, an eighty-four year old woman named Anna (Greek Hanna), “began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.” (Lk 2.38).

3.4       At his Adult Baptism

Baptism of Jesus. Church of Our Savior MCC, Boynton Beach, FL. Photo by Deisenbe. Wikimedia Commons.

Psalm 2 is entitled “God’s Promise to his Annointed.”  Verse 7 says  “I will tell of the decree of the Lord: He said to me, ‘You are my son; today I have begotten you.”  The footnote says You are … begotten you is a formula of adoption of the king, who from that point on is viewed as God’s son.  In the NT, the literal translation of ‘begotten’ is ‘become father’  [ZIBD, 177].

The story of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist is told in the three synoptic gospels.

Mark 1:9-11 reads: “In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.  And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit [of God] descending like a dove [and alighting] on him.  And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”  Flusser says that ‘beloved’ is the Greek translation of ‘only’ [Sage, 103 n25]. The bracketed words [of God] and [and alighting] are only found in Mathews version, Matt.3:16-17.  Luke 3:21-22 tells essentially the same story as Mark, but more briefly.

John’s Gospel doesn’t mention the baptism of Jesus, but in John 3.5-6 Jesus speaks of the need to be born again in both water and Spirit.

Acts 13:33 reinforces this idea: “as also it is written in the second psalm, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you.’ ”

3.5       At his Transfiguration

The Transfiguration by Giovanni Bellini, ca 1480. Wikimedia Commons.

The story of the transfiguration of Jesus is told in the three synoptic gospels (Mt 17.1-13; Mk 9.2-10; Lk 9.28-36).  It was only witnessed by his three favoured disciples: Peter, John and James.   Jesus’ face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazling white.  Moses and Elijah appeared and spoke with him.  From a bright cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ ” This last statement is recalled in 2 Pet 1.17-18.

The Bible footnotes to Mt.17.1-9 are extensive:

  • Transfigured means transformed to reveal his future glory.
  • The transfiguration echoes the appearance of God to Moses on Mount Sinai.
  • His face shone like the sun, is similar to Moses’ story and Rev 1.16.
  • The dazzling white clothes are also in Dan 7.9 and Rev 1.12-16.
  • Moses and Elijah could represent the law and the prophets.
  • The bright cloud represents the presence of God.

Luke’s version (Lk 9.28-36) reads  my chosen  instead of  the Beloved  and does not have the phrase  with him I am well pleased.

3.6       During the Examination by the High Priest

The examination of Jesus by the High Priest is reported in the three synoptic gospels, but not in John.  Matt 26.63-64 and Luke 22.67-70 are both very similar to Mark 14:61-62, which reads  “Again the high priest asked him, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’  Jesus said, ‘I am; and ‘you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of the Power,’ and ‘coming with the clouds of heaven.’ ”

3.7       At his Resurrection

Rom 1:3-4 reads:  “the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The Bible footnote says that in these two verses, “Paul probably quotes a confession, perhaps known in Rome, that viewed Jesus as the Son of David who was installed into the office of Son of God by his resurrection; others think Paul simply uses traditional ideas.

Phil 2.7b-10 reads:  “And being found in human form, he [Jesus] 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.”

Although the above are the only two resurrection stories consistent with an exaltation Christology, there are other references consistent with an incarnation Christology in all four gospels, Paul’s letters, and other NT books.  We agree with Ehrman and Fredricksen that these were all understandings that developed later on, as described in Section 1.5.

3.8       At his Ascension 

These biblical ascension stories sometimes use words like ‘ascend, ascension’ etc. but they often use other phrases such as ‘was taken up,’  ‘was carried up,’ ‘was lifted up,’ etc.

The NT ascension passages are of two types: the descriptions of the ascension found only in Mark, Luke and Luke’s Acts; and the pre- and post-event references to the ascension.

These pre-event passages are all found in John, while the post-event passages are found in Acts and some of the letters of Paul and Peter.

Old Testament Ascension Stories

The OT Jews thought that Enoch, Elijah, and perhaps Moses, all went directly to heaven.

The Bible references are:

  • Gen 5.24: “Enoch walked with God; then he was no more, because God took him.” Heb 11.5: “By faith Enoch was taken so that he did not experience death; and ‘he was not found, because God had taken him.’ ”  Sir 44.16: “Enoch pleased the Lord and was taken up, an example of repentance to all generations.”
  • 2 Kg 2.11: “and Elijah ascended in a whirlwind into heaven.”
  • 2 Esd 6.26: “And they shall see those who were taken up, who from their birth have not tasted death;”  The footnote to this says “Who …have not tasted death, perhaps includes Enoch Gen (5.24) and Elijah (2 Kg 2.9-12).  But, a footnote to Mark 9.4, discussing the transfiguration, says that “Josephus (Antiq 4.326; cf 2 Esd 6.26) provides evidence that at least some Jews of Mark’s time believed that Moses like Elijah, was directly translated into heavenly life.”

John’s Passages Referring to the Coming Ascension

In Jn 1.51 Jesus said to Nathanael, “you will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” The footnote says that “in John, the Son of Man often represents Jesus’ role as a link between heaven and earth.”
In Jn 3.13-15,  Jesus says to the Pharisee leader, Nicodemus, “No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man.  And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
Jn 6.62, Jesus asks his disciples:  “Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before?”
Jn 20.17 says:  “Jesus said to her [Mary Magdalene]: ‘Do not hold on to me, because I have not yet ascended to the Father.  But go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’ ”

NT Descriptions of the Ascension

The ‘actual’ ascension of Jesus is only described in Mark, Luke and Acts.

Matthew has no description of the ascension.
Mark 16:19 says: “So then the Lord Jesus, after he had spoken to them, was taken up into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God.”  [from the long ending to Mark].
Luke 24:50-51 reports: “Then he led them out as far as Bethany, and, lifting up his hands, he blessed them.  While he was blessing them, he withdrew from them [and was carried up into heaven].”  The text in [  ]  is lacking in other ancient authorities [Bible, fn to Lk 24.51].
John has no description of the ascension.
Acts 1:9 reads: “When he [Christ] had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.  While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them.  They said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven?  This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.’”

NT References Post-ascension

Acts 1.1-2 says: “In the first book, Theophilus, I wrote about all that Jesus did and taught from the beginning until the day when he was taken up to heaven, after giving instructions through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.”
Acts 1.22 recalls: “until the day when he [Jesus] was taken up from us.”
In his letters, Paul assumes that Jesus is at the right hand of God in heaven, but does not describe how he got there (see Rom 8.34 and Eph 1.20).  References to waiting for the second coming also imply that Jesus will come from heaven, where he now is.
1 Tim 3.16 reports: “He [Jesus] was revealed in flesh, vindicated in spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among Gentiles, believed in throughout the world, taken up in glory.”
1 Pet 3.21-22 says: “through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers made subject to him.”

Interpreting the Ascension Stories

The story in Acts seems to locate heaven up in the sky, above the earth.  But modern science and modern theology both show that this cannot be true.   Even the old Bible Encyclopedia [ISBE] claims the ascension is not to be taken as a literal movement ‘up to heaven’.  It says “The details of the Ascension are really unimportant.  Christ disappeared from view, and no question need be raised either of distance or direction. . . . It was a change of conditions and mode of existence; the essential fact is that He departed and disappeared.”  [ISBE, ascension, 263-6]  Even when these passages were written, they were meant to be allegorical, not literal.

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