Christ’s Exaltation: The Ground of Our Hope
“The twentieth century, it is safe to say, has made us all into deep historical pessimists.” So observed Francis Fukuyama in his seminal 1992 book, The End of History and the Last Man. What happened? The nineteenth century’s humanistic faith in inevitable moral progress was destroyed on the battlefields of two cataclysmic world wars and in the unprecedented murderous cruelty of Hitler’s gas chambers, Stalin’s gulags, and Pol Pot’s Cambodian killing fields. History seemed to point, not to a golden age of moral progress and enlightenment, but toward an age of unspeakable cruelty backed by technological developments that would stagger the moral imagination.
Fukuyama demonstrated the failure of historical “faiths” such as Marxism, with its confidence in the ultimate victory of the proletariat through class struggle and revolution. His analysis of modern historical pessimism was correct, at least in this respect, for secular myths did not fare well in the twentieth century, and most contemporary Americans look to the future with a mixed sense of unease and uncertainty.
The Christian worldview stands in stark contrast both to the humanistic idea of progress and to modern secular pessimism. At the center of the Christian worldview stands a hope centered in the rule and reign of Christ—a reign that will one day be revealed to the entire cosmos.
The historic Protestant understanding of the two states of Christ’s work provides a framework for a Christian understanding of history and the future. Christ’s state of humiliation grounds history in Christ’s redemptive work even as His exalted state establishes our confidence in the future.
For the Christian, the future is secured by the sure and certain fulfillment of God’s promises and the comprehensive realization of Christ’s reign over all powers in heaven and on the earth. According to the historic evangelical faith, the exaltation of Christ includes His resurrection, His ascension, His session with the Father, and His glorious return. Each of these realities represents an essential aspect of Christ’s reign as King of kings and Lord of lords.
Having fulfilled His redemptive work, Christ was raised from the dead by the will of the Father. The cross and resurrection stand together as the central events of human history, and Christ’s resurrection demonstrated both the Father’s power and His good pleasure in the perfect obedience of the Son—an obedience even unto death.
In a similar manner, the ascension announced that Christ’s work was finished—fully accomplished—and thus the Son was returned to the Father. Even as Christ remains spiritually present among His people, He is not bodily among us, having ascended to the Father. As Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost: “This Jesus God raised up, and of that we are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, He has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing” (Acts 2:32-33).
The third aspect, Christ’s session with the Father, points to the present reality of His reign and His intercession for the saints. This is a truly revolutionary doctrine, for even as the world appears to secular eyes to be an arena of chaos and uncertainty, Christians know that Christ is ruling over creation even now—but through a hidden reign.
Our confidence is established by the fact that Jesus Christ is even now reigning over the created order and, most importantly, over all humanity. Of course, this is a kingly rule that is hidden from the view of sinners, even as it is celebrated among believers by faith. Christians can endure hardship, face suffering, and bear the reproach of the world, all the while knowing that we are serving the King whose eternal reign will one day be revealed to every single person on the planet.
Even now, Christ is preparing a place for His people (John 14:2-3) and preparing the creation for His appearing—a return in glory, power, and might. This return will be very different from His humble birth in Bethlehem. Though His arrival in Bethlehem was known only to a few, His return will be known to all—and announced to all creation. This fourth aspect of Christ’s exaltation, His return, reminds us that history is indeed headed toward a defined goal. Thus, Christ’s coming assures us that history will have a definite end with a comprehensive display of God’s righteousness, justice, and redeeming love.
Francis Fukuyama looked to the tumultuous and tortuous years of the twentieth century and saw the end of history. The Christian is driven by a very different understanding. Past, present, and future find their meaning in the Christian worldview in light of Christ’s victory over sin, death, and the grave—and in His exalted state that will be fully realized in his victorious return in kingly glory.
The doctrine of Christ’s exaltation is not merely a matter of interest to academic theologians—it is the ground of our hope. In a very real sense, the exaltation of Christ explains why Christians can face both life and death with full confidence. This alone is the kind of faith that would lead the apostle Paul to declare: “For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.” Dare we believe less?
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.